Jon Dyson was a Civil Affairs Operator in the US Army, and founded his own manufacturing and import business before he decided to learn to code at RefactorU. Coding had always been a hobby of Jon’s. He built the website for his business, but wanted to formalize and polish his coding knowledge. As a veteran, Jon chose RefactorU web development bootcamp in Boulder because he could use his GI Bill benefit there, and because he wanted to learn the MEAN Stack. Jon explains the process of using the GI Bill for coding bootcamps, how his military experience gave him an advantage at coding bootcamp, and what his plans are for the future.
Can you tell me about your pre-RefactorU story? What was your educational and career background?
I majored in sociology and minored in economics at the University of Connecticut. After college, I decided to join the US Army as a Civil Affairs Operator, which is essentially a liaison between the military, civilian, and government organizations.
I recently had a deployment to Africa and decided to take my savings from that deployment and try my hand at running my own small business. That was stressful, but a lot of fun. Ultimately, I decided that I really enjoyed coding, and I wanted to get deeper into the industry and more involved with tech in general. Then I found RefactorU in Boulder, which is offering support to the GI Bill, so it seemed like a natural fit.
What was the small business you were running?
It's called Lotus Import Group. It was a small manufacturing and import business where I would bring retail products from overseas into the US. I had a number of online websites set up to actually sell those items on the Internet.
Did you teach yourself a little bit of coding at that point in order to build those websites?
Yeah, it's actually been a hobby of mine since high school. I started with a fairly solid understanding of HTML, CSS, and server-side templating using Adobe ColdFusion. I was able to use what I knew to create a few production-level websites. But I felt there were holes in what I was able to learn on my own. I really needed an opportunity to formalize and polish what I knew, so a bootcamp seemed like a great option to accomplish that.
When you were trying to decide which bootcamp to go to, what factors were you considering?
Were there specific bootcamps that you looked at when you were researching?
I looked at a fair number, including, Galvanize, Hack Reactor, and Dev Bootcamp. I came away from my research with a positive view of RefactorU’s culture. Ultimately for myself, the real deciding factor was the GI Bill. The other courses that I looked at had a similar program, but it would’ve been entirely out of pocket. So I decided to actually use the benefit that I'd earned and go that route.
Did you consider going back to college and studying computer science?
I did actually. I looked at Internet security courses and I'm still considering doing a master's program. Because I have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field, I'm at a slight disadvantage. I think RefactorU gives me the credentials that I need to get that first entry-level position, and then to continue growing, I'm going to look into a master's degree.
What was your experience using the GI Bill? How did you apply for it and how were you able to use it towards your tuition?
The first step is to get a letter from Veteran Affairs (VA) and ensure that you have eligibility. Your letter of eligibility is the starting point. The VA will tell you what your benefit is, your percentage of benefit, and how many months of benefit you have remaining. At that point, you should supply your school with your letter of eligibility so that they can notify the VA of your enrollment. If my memory serves correctly, the VA will then ask you to confirm your enrollment. The school is usually the best place to start if you have any questions. There’s an approval process for programs seeking to accept the GI Bill, so they will have some understanding of the entire process. RefactorU, for example provided me with a simple checklist of the documents that they needed, and then handled much of the paperwork behind the scenes. It was surprisingly painless.
How long did that process take from the time you were applying for the letter of eligibility to the point of being able to enroll in the program?
The letter of eligibility will depend on the region. In the northeast, I was using the VA at Buffalo, New York and they came back to me within a month. For the VA, that's pretty fast. After that, I would recommend students should generally leave themselves two to three months to complete the entire process.
I requested the letter of eligibility in advance and then applied to the school. I actually put off attending the school for a few months so that I had enough time to make sure all the paperwork came through. It turns out I gave myself more time than I needed, but I'd say about three months is the window required.
Can you share how much you were able to get from GI Bill and what percentage of your tuition it covered?
The GI Bill considers these kinds of courses – the non-degree, programs – to be correspondence courses and the VA will give you a maximum dollar value that it's worth. RefactorU has been nice enough to actually offer a discount to veterans allowing for that difference. The total benefit allowed for courses like this, I believe is $10,500. That represents a 20% discount below the normal tuition for a school like RefactorU.
For me personally, my benefit was calculated based on how much time I had spent on active duty and how much time I spent on deployment. I received 50% of the benefit, so the GI Bill covered 50% of tuition and then paid a housing allowance at a rate of 50%. That equated to $900 for the housing allowance, and around $5,000 for the tuition. It was very helpful.
Do you have an opinion in general on coding bootcamps accepting the GI Bill? Do you think it's something that all coding bootcamps should be pushing for?
I think it's a difficult thing to do. The GI Bill has a maximum amount that it will pay, so it can be challenging to balance content and the duration of the course with the cost and the amount that the VA will actually pay. I think RefactorU is really trying to make the course as compact as possible so that they can offer good value for what the VA will actually cover.
In general, I think it's fantastic that bootcamps should try to offer the GI Bill. It's extremely helpful to soldiers coming back, and provides a fantastic and streamlined avenue toward a new career. Bootcamps that do offer it should be applauded.
Once you had got that letter of eligibility, what was the RefactorU interview and application process like?
What was your cohort like? Was it quite diverse in terms of gender, race, life and career backgrounds?
It was. It was great. Because of the GI Bill, RefactorU is getting a lot more service members so my cohort was about half military and half civilian. It's very diverse in the same way that the military often is. So people came from multiple states, different backgrounds, and different ethnicities. We were fortunate enough to have some gender diversity, which is sometimes a problem in the tech industry. I think the school does a nice job of trying to recruit and balance the cohort as best they can. In my cohort, there were 12 people.
What was the learning experience like for you? Can you share a typical day?
A typical day at RefactorU starts at 9am. We meet for a lecture which lasts for a couple of hours. Lectures are very interactive where the instructors will create a coding problem and elicit feedback from the entire class as they go along. It gives an example of how to use the new technology that they’re demonstrating. That lasts for a couple of hours in the morning, then we break for personal coding time so we can practice what we've learned. In the afternoon we have a second lecture starting at 2pm, which is similar to the first lecture in the morning, and it’s sort of a capstone on that day's concept.
I’m interested in whether you and the other veterans in the class had a slightly different experience from the civilians in the class? Because you've been in the military, did you have a different perspective or way of learning?
I would have to say the intensity was not new to any of the veterans. The course is a little bit unrelenting in the amount of information you're expected to acquire in a short period of time, and that's essentially how the military teaches just about everything. It's actually a surprisingly natural fit for veterans joining the program. It's intellectually exhausting, and I think a lot of veterans are used to that.
Do you think that was an advantage for the veterans?
I think so. With this kind of program you essentially get out of it what you put into it. So if you have the intellectual stamina to put in the hours– put in the time that you need to really understand the concepts, it gives you a significant advantage.
Apart from the fast pace of the bootcamp, did you find that your military background experience has been useful while learning the actual coding material?
My prior experience was in civil affairs, which has a lot to do with cultural relations and things like that. So being adaptable, and being flexible, those are all important things that you learn. Effectively, the military teaches controlled chaos, so it makes environments that are high intensity or intellectually demanding less intimidating. I felt that no matter how complex or intellectual the problems became, I would be able to handle it.
How many instructors or mentors did you have for your class?
My class had about five instructors, and they would trade off which days they were leading instruction. Sometimes they would sit off to the side and help students who needed one-on-one assistance. We also had the benefit of teaching assistants who are usually graduates of the program, who are invited back to offer additional assistance to students. When things get busy, and the instructors are off helping someone, there's always a teaching assistant who can step in to answer questions.
While you were at RefactorU, what was your favorite project to work on?
There are two major projects. There's a midterm project and a final project. RefactorU allowed me to take my midterm and continue working on that, adding in new concepts as we went along. When I got to the end of the course, I felt like I had built a real, fully functioning application. I’ve actually started showing it to employers as a viable product.
It is a shopping cart menu system for local pizza restaurants, called TrueMenu. I wanted to give the local mom and pop shop the same technical expertise that Domino's has with their extremely easy to use application. Small pizza restaurants should have the same convenience factor that's been driving Domino’s sales for the last few years.
At RefactorU, what would you say was the biggest challenge while you were learning to code?
I think my biggest challenge was motivation. Maintaining a positive motivation even when you're extremely frustrated is challenging. The instructors try their best to keep everyone in a positive frame of mind because the moment you start to get down on yourself, you'll enter a vicious cycle where it becomes hard to just power through and continue learning. So avoiding that negative "I can't do this" kind of mindset is really one of the hardest parts.
What was your end goal after going to a bootcamp? Are you planning to start your own business or do you want to get a job as a junior developer?
My goal is to get a job as a junior developer. I've always had an entrepreneurial instinct, but I've done it enough to know that there's a lot to learn from others. I want to learn everything about the industry that I possibly can and I can't do that on my own. For me, it makes sense to pursue a junior development position rather than continue working on my own.
What kind of jobs are you applying for?
I am applying all over the world. I'm looking for something that's more than just a salary, that's interesting, exciting, and modern. I’m interested in whatever languages they're using, and in the culture of the office. I'm not particularly interested in life in a cubicle.
I've been looking at a lot of small to mid-size startups. I find they are usually using the latest and greatest technologies. They also seem to have the most open and friendly workplaces, which is one of the number one things that I'm looking for. I've been using AngelList quite a bit. I'm also looking at some consultancy firms that do a lot of travel and a lot of technology for other companies, which is an exciting, interesting way to see the entire industry.
What sort of career advice did you get at RefactorU?
A lot of what I got out of RefactorU in addition to the code, were the intangibles. I learned a lot from the instructors about what the industry is like, what junior development positions are like, and what to expect in those positions. I also got a pretty good insight as to how hiring managers approach new junior developers and what they are looking for. It was nice to have that kind of insight. Several of the instructors were hiring managers at one point or another for tech programs, so it's nice to have someone trying to give me as much information as humanly possible.
Was RefactorU able to help you with networking or any kind of introductions?
Absolutely, yeah. I remember telling the instructors I had an interest in working for Google. The instructors were talking about strategies on how to possibly get myself in front of Google and another one of the instructors came in the room and said, "Oh, you want to talk to Google. I know people there. I'll just send you an introduction." So it's a very friendly atmosphere. Everyone wants you to succeed.
Are you still in touch with RefactorU now that you’ve finished?
I am, yeah. Any question that I have I just send them a request on Slack or shoot them a quick message. RefactorU staff always gets back to me, which is really nice. After spending 10 weeks working closely with my class, we’ve all become good friends. It’s a lot of fun trading notes on tech recruiters or the interview process for companies we’ve each talked to. I expect to keep in touch with the people I met there throughout my career.
What sort of advice do you have for other veterans who are considering doing a coding bootcamp?