Putting the GI Bill to use for open source software development

How Operation Code helps veterans learn programming skills

Operation Code helps enable new career paths in software development for military veterans and their families.

How Operation Code mentors veterans learning to code
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After leaving the military, Army Captain David Molina knew he wanted to go into software development. As Molina did research on the field, he found himself overwhelmed by the vast amount of information and choices. For example: What coding language is the right one to learn? What language is the most valuable for being competitive in the job market? To add to the confusion, there are a myriad of for-profit code schools that are proliferating at an exponential rate, and each one advertises career outcomes for a fraction of the cost of a four-year computer science degree. Where could he turn for guidance on how to enter the tech industry?

In 2016, Operation Code grew by more than 1,300 members.

Determined to solve this problem, David started building Operation Code in 2014, to act as a lighthouse for other veterans in the same situation. Today, Operation Code is a full-fledged 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and our mission is to enable new career paths in software development for military veterans and their families. In 2016, Operation Code grew by more than 1,300 members. So far in 2017, Operation Code is on track to grow by more than 3,100, which is a more than 137% increase, year over year.

The core idea behind Operation Code has always been the pairing of experienced IT professionals with veterans at all levels in their IT careers. With Operation Code's member base consisting of everyone from those still on active duty, to military spouses, to veterans who have been retired for years, how does our all-volunteer staff make sure the organization services all of its members' needs? Given the diverse population of our members, at such different stages in their careers, with such a wide variety of goals, the answer is: It's not easy.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 250,000 service members leave active duty every year, with IT as the number one industry that employs veterans. In 2016, the code school market grew to 91 full-time schools and has graduated more than 17,000 students. The intersection of these two large populations is the target of Operation Code's mentorship program. To take on this demanding challenge, we've designed our mentorship program around three different components. Our first two components—Mentor Services and Operation Code Squads—are based on the training aspects of mentorship and are short-term in nature. The last—one-on-one mentorship—is a long-term mentorship program. Let's look at an example member, Sam, to illustrate how Operation Code's mentorship program works.

Sam will leave active duty in a few months and is looking for a career change. She is interested in programming, and after searching for information online, discovers a list of code schools on operationcode.org that are approved to use her GI bill.

Mentor Services

Upon joining Operation Code, Sam is greeted by a friendly bot that gives her basic information on different programs available for transitioning military members, and a list of core programming terms and coding languages. Feeling a bit lost, Sam looks into our mentorship program and comes across our first program: Mentor Services. Mentor Services are single appointments our new members can make with one of our more than 100 mentors. Mentor Services cover five basic areas:

  1. general guidance
  2. pair programming
  3. code review
  4. resume review
  5. mock interviews

Not knowing where to begin, Sam signs up for general guidance. A mentor meets with Sam and chats over Instant Message (IM), phone, or video about her goals, and works to set her in the right direction. Sam determines she's interested in Ruby web development. Our mentor gives her resources to review, and Sam begins the long journey that is learning to program.

The pair programming service provides members one-on-one assistance with a mentor.

As Sam progresses through tutorials, code puzzles and small projects, she begins to feel lost. Things are becoming more complex and she is unsure of the best way to structure her code. At this point she reaches back to our Mentor Services program and submits a request for pair programming. The pair programming service provides members one-on-one assistance with a mentor. She's able to share her screen and get real-time advice, critiques, and support.

A few weeks go by and Sam is now ready to submit her first pull request to an open source project. She's feeling a little nervous and unsure whether her change is correct. Once again Operation Code has her fix. A little more asynchronous than the Operation Code pair programming service, the code review service provides new members with an experienced programmer to look over their commits, giving them the confidence needed to make their first pull request.

Sam is quickly becoming a seasoned programmer. She's able to complete basic tasks but is quickly getting bored with writing simple Fizz Buzz and shopping car programs. She's hungry for more. She notices a few Operation Code squads that seem interesting. An Operation Code squad is a mentor-led group with set goals and time lines for the members to meet. These squads can be anything from running through Exercism, to contributing back to the open source community, and are designed to get our members used to working professionally in groups.

A few weeks later, and with several Operation Code squads under her belt, Sam has demonstrated her ability to complete programming tasks and work in a distributed team, and is now on the hunt for her first programming job. As always, Operation Code is here to help. Sam files a request for a resume review and mock interviews. Our team of mentors springs into action and gets her ready to ace those interviews.

With such a large and diverse member base, providing useful and effective mentorship to existing members and new members like Sam is a daunting task. Operation Code is attempting to tackle this challenge by running multiple layers of mentorship groups aimed at different segments of our members.

In mid-2017, we'll be launching our new one-on-one mentorship program. This will provide our members with a traditional mentor/protégé relationship. Our members will be able to browse profiles of our mentors, using their judgment to find someone with whom they think they'll click. Once the member initiates contact, Operation Code's staff will follow up with both parties to make sure things are progressing satisfactorily.

If you're interested in becoming a mentor, or if you're a veteran, service member, or military family member, please visit us at operationcode.org for more info. All countries and services are welcome.

Operation Code - On a mission to expand the GI Bill from Teresa Mahoney on Vimeo

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About the author

Rick Rein - Rick is the CTO at Operation Code. Operation Code is a non profit with a goal of getting veterans and their families into coding. Rick also works for Akamai as a Senior Software Engineer developing new products primarily with ruby and rails. Find out more information at Rick's website, http://rickre.in.

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