Which coding bootcamps are approved for the GI Bill, and what is the process to use it for your tuition? In this podcast we talk to Maggi Molina, who helps veterans get into tech at Operation Code; Erin Frazier, the Director of Operations at The Software Guild coding bootcamp; and Eric Dowty, a Turing School of Software and Design grad, and 8-year Air Force veteran. We look at the history of the GI Bill, what it’s like transitioning from the military to a coding bootcamp, why veterans excel at bootcamp, and the future of the GI Bill.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, eligible veterans may use their GI Bill benefits for remote bootcamps through Dec. 21, 2021, according to the passage of H.R.8337 - Continuing Appropriations Act.
VET TEC is a high-tech training pilot program that doesn’t use GI Bill benefits and pays a monthly housing stipend to students in the program. VET TEC stands for Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses. In other words, veterans can attend a coding bootcamp for free without using any GI Bill benefits! You can see which coding bootcamps are preferred and non-preferred partners with VET TEC here.
Liz: The first time I saw collaboration between coding bootcamps and government was actually in a White House Department of Veterans Affairs roundtable in September of 2014; they invited a few coding bootcamps at the time – Hack Reactor, Flatiron School, Wyncode – to talk about how accelerated learning programs could be leveraged to find jobs for our military veterans.
In that roundtable, it was clear that the use of the GI Bill for coding bootcamp tuition was on the minds of both educators and government. The first coding bootcamp to get approved for the GI Bill was Skill Distillery in Colorado, around July 2015. Skill Distillery is now part of a pilot program called VET TEC. And other schools around the US also went through this pretty long and arduous approval process. But recently in August 2017, Congress signed the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act aka The Forever GI Bill. On today’s podcast, we’re talking about the current status of the GI Bill and Coding Bootcamps.
Maggi Molina works with Operation Code, a national nonprofit that helps veterans get into the technology industry. She helps both veterans and code schools navigate the GI Bill. Bootcamps interested in the GI Bill and veterans with questions can email Maggi.
Erin Frazier is the Director of Operations at The Software Guild, a full stack coding bootcamp that was recently approved by the Kentucky State Approving Agency for Veterans Education (SAA) to offer VA Educational Benefits (GI Bill®) to eligible individuals enrolled in approved programs.
So Maggi, let's dive into the GI Bill for those who are unfamiliar. Could you explain what it is?
Maggi: The GI Bill started in 1944 after World War II and it was originally called the Bill of Rights for GI Joe and GI Jane. That was shortened over time to the GI Bill. There were more than 15 million veterans that demobilized after World War II, and the GI Bill provided three major benefits:
Since the GI Bill started in 1944, it has changed considerably. Normally there are modifications after every conflict, and in 2009, the post 9/11 GI Bill went into effect. The post 9/11 GI Bill actually paid not only for tuition but it provided housing stipends so folks could go to school.
I served in the Air Force from 1994 to 1998 and I use what was called Montgomery GI Bill. The Montgomery GI Bill only paid a flat rate per month but it didn't provide any kind of housing allowance. In the newest bill, the Forever GI Bill, there's something like 31 benefits and 31 changes that take effect over a two-year period. It provides additional funding for STEM, and it provides a pilot program for code schools to get additional funding. The GI Bill is really hard to navigate not only for code schools getting approved, but also for veterans who want to use their benefits.
It sounds like the GI Bill covers so many aspects of a service member's transition back into civilian life. But let’s focus on education – Maggi, traditionally, which education opportunities had been available to veterans when they exited the military? And how has the GI Bill now expanded into bootcamps?
Maggi: The GI Bill has always paid for “traditional” education, whether that's community college or universities. But the GI Bill has also paid for vocational education – for example, in partnership with a trade union – it covers police academies, beauty schools, commercial truck driving schools. So vocational education isn't new to the GI Bill, but coding schools, because they’re a new industry and are unfamiliar with how to navigate the regulations, coding schools are kind of their own unique creature. Coding schools are new not only for veterans but for all the regulatory agencies that have to oversee the GI Bill.
Thanks so much for that overview, Maggi. To be clear, the Forever GI Bill affects veterans based on when they were discharged, right? So if you were discharged after January 1st, 2013, then the changes in the Forever GI Bill will affect you?
Maggi: Mostly, yes. Again, there are 31 different provisions in the Forever GI Bill and getting into the weeds on that can be confusing. But the main reason that it’s called The Forever GI Bill is there used to be a 15-year limit on using your benefits, and now you get it forever. So once you've served the required amount of time, they essentially activate the GI Bill and you’re entitled to it, you get to use it for the rest of your life.
Eric, what led you from the military to a coding bootcamp?
Eric: I was actually an engineer in the Air Force for eight years. I did a mix of software and hardware projects. And towards the end of my time, I got to lead a very agile team, which is uncommon for federal projects because they're usually fairly large. Anyways, it was very rewarding experience and I wanted more, but that wasn't going to happen in the military. The odds of running across those sorts of jobs are very rare.
At the end of 2014, I got out of the military and a friend of mine had just completed Turing in Denver. He introduced me to Jeff Casimir and the crew at Turing School.
Eric, from stalking you on LinkedIn, I noticed that you actually taught computer science in the Air Force. Why did you feel like you needed to go to a coding bootcamp if you already had that background in CS? What did you feel like you're missing?
Eric: A very good question. I was actually just talking with one of my lead developers about this today. I think CS degrees are incredibly valuable – I have one myself. However, it does not necessarily prepare you with the industry best practices or the most current tech stacks that are being used in the industry.
I chose the Turing School because the feedback they (and other coding bootcamps) were getting was really wonderful. But primarily because it was teaching the latest technologies that were being used in the industry, best practices, and it was a primer to stepping into a company ready to code.
Eric, when you went to Turing, they actually were not yet approved for the GI Bill. Is that right?
Eric: Unfortunately, no. I had looked into it when I had first applied and they said, "We're working on it, but it's not going to happen right away." For me, it was more worth it to start my journey on a career switch sooner rather than waiting for the benefit. That being said, I'm really happy that the GI Bill is approved now for veterans at Turing. It eases that transition from military to civilian life in a huge way. So it's really great that they're doing it now.
But if Turing had been accepted to use the GI Bill, would you have used it?
Eric: Absolutely! Without question.
Erin, speaking of getting approved for the GI Bill, you just finished the GI Bill application for Software Guild. Congrats! Really high level, could you explain the process from your end as a school?
Erin: Absolutely. I think it's important to note that if you have multiple locations like Software Guild does, you actually have to apply in every state that you are in. I'm somewhat in the middle of the process because we have been approved in Kentucky and we're working on our Minnesota approval right now. So we're very excited to hopefully be accepting the GI Bill at both of our locations soon.
The first thing that we tackled was just getting the most up-to-date application. There's a little bit of ambiguity about that online, so reach out to the VA office and make sure that you're starting with the right application. Pulling together all of the documentation was huge – there’s a robust checklist.
Once we submitted it, then you have to schedule a tour. The VA wants to come out and make sure that you're not just five computers set up in somebody's garage. So they came out and saw our location and spoke with our team.
Once all that was done, they send it to a secondary office and you get your facility code. Then you're able to schedule your training where they come in and teach you about using their online system, which is about 20 years old – I know Maggi knows what I'm talking about. But the training was fantastic.
You have specific certifying officers at your school – they're the only ones that are using that system because of all the sensitive information, and you get them all trained up and you're told what you're allowed to say in the marketing and then you can go out to market with it.
How long did that process take you from start to finish (ie. actually being able to accept students)?
Erin: It probably took us a solid month to get all of the paperwork together. There are some really in-depth financials/insurance things that you have to get together. You have to customize your catalog, because there are certain aspects that are laid out by the VA; refund policy, attendance, etc. You absolutely have to follow their policy regardless of what your existing policy was.
So it was about a month to get all the paperwork together, and then probably another month before we had our full approval. In that time, the tour happened, we kicked back any additional paperwork they needed. Then once the tour happened we got our facility code within two weeks and we were able to schedule a training for two weeks after. So it took about three months in total.
That sounds time and effort intensive. Why was it important as a school to go through that process and to devote three months of resources to getting approved for the GI Bill?
Erin: We're always looking for ways that we can better serve our communities. Coding bootcamps are expensive, When we look at the students’ outcomes, we absolutely know that these programs change lives. But not everyone can afford to take that leap or wants to go down the lender route.
We found ourselves serving so many veterans in our Louisville location, and it seemed like a no-brainer that we should put in the effort to get approved for the GI Bill. We're approved and accredited in every state that we’re teaching in, so we're used to these regulating bodies. We know it's a lot of work and a lot of effort, but it's absolutely worth it in the end. Being approved for the GI Bill goes back retroactively a year, which is going to benefit half a dozen of our recent graduates, so we're just really excited. It seemed like a really good next step for us.
Maggi, is that process something that Operation Code would help with? Do you typically work with schools to get them through that approval process?
Maggi: Yes, we absolutely can work with other schools even if it's just an initial phone call to sort of lay out the process, the big picture, and the purpose of doing this. I know it seems very intense, but actually, I think to Erin’s credit, three months is really fast. I know that some code schools have taken nine months to get approved.
And as Erin noted, the process is different because essentially the VA delegates the approval process to a person in every state. So you essentially have 50 different state processes. Actually, I have been considering that a lot – I think that could be streamlined. Instead of having to adjust your catalog, there could be an addendum that you could add on to it that provides all the GI Bill information. Now that we're up to 21 code schools in 15 different states that accept the GI Bill – I think there's a critical mass. Information and best practices could be streamlined even further to make it easier for more code schools to accept the GI Bill.
Maggi, you did that for Code Fellows, didn't you?
Maggi: Code Fellows was the first code school in the state of Washington to accept the GI Bill. I was in contact with them while their application was in the pipeline and started with them a couple weeks before they actually got approval from the VA. I really built the program from the ground up. And I think Code Fellows was forward-thinking in serving the veterans in their local area and did an excellent job with integrating veterans and military ethics into their entire process. That means from starting up to recruiting to dealing with other questions with admissions and incoming veterans to dealing with the VA certifications. It really was building the program from soup to nuts.
Hearing about the process that Erin just described for Software Guild, would you say that it's gotten more streamlined since those first bootcamps started working with the VA, Maggi?
Maggi: The code schools that were the early adopters – Skill Distillery, Code Fellows – deserve a lot of credit for knocking down those doors. The trend I'm starting to see is actually a quicker approval in some states. I know Software Guild and Code Platoon in Chicago both had an approval process that was between 1 to 3 months. Code Fellows hung in there for nine months until they actually got their approval.
Folks at code schools don’t have a lot of familiarity with the military and the GI Bill, and I think now that we're up to about 21 schools in the nation, it's no longer so strange and so odd. But I think more and more code schools will tackle the approval process.
Erin, one thing that I noticed when I was reading about the new Forever GI Bill is that there is assistance, almost like a refund of GI Bill benefits, for students who used their benefits for ITT Tech, which closed in 2016. That made me wonder about quality assurance in the approval process for schools.
Did you feel like that quality was something that the VA was looking for when they were assessing Software Guild?
Erin: ITT Tech is an interesting situation. Because if you were to look at it from all the boxes that the VA seems to want to check, they check all of them. You need to be in operation for at least two years in your physical location and they do a physical tour to make sure that you are a legitimate school.
Looking at ITT Tech's locations and how long they've been around, they would have checked those two major quality assurance points. But the job placements and the stats there, I think we’re really suffering. The VA wants to make sure that you are doing everything right by the veteran. They are not as focused on what's happening after the cohort as they are what's going on inside the school.
Maggi: I think there's always been a problem with for-profit schools and the GI Bill, back to the beginning of the GI Bill in 1944. I wouldn’t put those bad actors like ITT Tech and the University of Phoenix in the same category as code schools. Code schools have to operate in the technology market. If they don't show job placement, it's just not going to work. It's also still a small enough market and there's enough good word-of-mouth that you can figure out who the good actors are.
I'm not as concerned with code schools and the use of the GI Bill as I was with, say, a four-year, for-profit university using all of a veteran’s GI Bill money and them not getting anything out of it. If code schools don't deliver on job placement, it's going to be pretty obvious. But there's no judging of job placement stats at a four-year university or a community college.
I feel like I've learned some much in the last like 30 minutes just about the logistics behind the GI Bill in coding bootcamps. But if we step back for a second and think about why are we doing this – why does a coding bootcamp make sense for a military veteran?
Erin: At the Software Guild, we've had really, really good luck with our veteran students in the past, even before being approved for the GI Bill. They're very up to the challenge. We don't use the term bootcamp lightly; it's very, very intensive. We've seen a lot of stress-induced panic in some students that weren't necessarily prepared for it, but our veterans seem incredibly ready. They just hunker down, they know what they're getting in for, and they see the end goal and they just know they're going to go for it.
Eric: I was thinking about this earlier. In the military, you're constantly put on diverse teams to accomplish a goal. I know it sounds maybe a little contrived, but in software development, especially in the kind of paradigms that the bootcamps are teaching (agile development, small teams, SCRUM etc), you’re put on a small, close-knit, diverse team to accomplish a goal, like pushing out a piece of software. And it's difficult and stressful and you've got to work well with this very diverse group of people. It's kind of a similar environment to the military.
Obviously, it’s not as stressful as combat. But it's still that same mindset: "We are all going to work together to get this thing done." I think software development can be a great career for military veterans if they enjoyed that aspect of the military.
Maggi: A coding bootcamp makes a lot of sense for veterans because we all go through very intensive training camps as it is. Just the name coding bootcamp has images of the military. I was a radio technician in the Air Force. I went to basic training for six weeks and then my technical training was eight months and that was from six in the morning to two in the afternoon.
When I talked to a lot of veterans who were considering applying for Code Fellows about the intensity of the code school, that intensity was nothing new. We go through a very intense experience, whether that's basic training or a technical training or deploying, and we work in a team and we have a mission. Veterans take to coding bootcamps.
For a lot of folks coming out of the military, a coding bootcamp fits a lot better than a traditional university. Using your GI Bill for a coding bootcamp and transitioning into the workforce and then using the remainder of your GI Bill later on to pursue a computer science degree or something more intense – that's just a natural fit for our military training, our ethics, and our sense of teamwork.
You all have pointed out traits that I hear all the time from other alumni and employers who have hired veterans: collaboration, teamwork, etc. Eric your point about working on a diverse team is so so smart. On top of those overlapping soft skills, military veterans must also have valuable assets like security clearance or other more tangible benefits, right?
Eric: Yeah absolutely. I think there are several tangible and intangible benefits that you see in a veteran who goes through a bootcamp and then goes on to work in the industry. If a company does work with the military or the government in general, the government and military can be a black box. There's a lot going on in there. Having the understanding of how the federal government works can really help when you're integrating with a government team to build something new. Also if it is a job or project that requires a security clearance, that's obviously a huge benefit going in.
One of the intangible things that you get with military folks is this idea of grit. In the military, you can't quit. There's no quitting. You're given a job and you've got to make it work. It's got to happen. There's no "Ah, I didn't feel like it” or “this person said that or did this."
Obviously, we want healthy working environments but when things get tough you can pretty much count on that veteran to have a level of grit that's going to help them push through the hard problems. You count on that grit a lot in software – any time you work on really difficult challenges, maybe work with other groups, or the code's difficult, or the technical challenge is really hard – veterans are going to tough it out. And I can trust that in a new hire who has a military service.
Erin: You know, Eric, I have to agree with you. That's exactly what I was trying to convey - the concept of grit. We absolutely see grit in the vast majority of our veterans. And on the job placement side of things, if someone does have that military clearance, they are generally scooped up before they even graduate. That's how desired they are.
Maggi: A security clearance can be really important for an employer. If an employer has to take a civilian and walk them through a security clearance, that can actually cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars. I had a secret clearance when I was in the service. When you get out, your security clearance is still active for two years. And once you've had a clearance, it's much easier to reactivate.
I know we had a lot of veterans who went through Code Fellows and then they moved over to Amazon, and the fact that they had a secret security clearance made them a more attractive candidate for Amazon. It also resulted in a boost in their starting wage.
One thing that I hear a lot about coding bootcamps, in general, is that they’re a “fast track” into tech and into the middle class. But do you think that a coding bootcamp works for every veteran who's transitioning into a civilian career?
Erin: I definitely think that the initial aptitude helps a lot. Not every single person can be plucked from anywhere and be made a developer, but we have seen such a diverse background be successful as a developer. From musicians to yoga instructors, to military, to someone fresh out of high school. It's absolutely crazy.
But because software development is something that you have to continue to study to keep yourself on top of the industry, you have to have that passion. If you are just looking for something to “make a lot of money,” then you're not going to be in it long enough to hit that point.
Eric: To your point, I think it's an incredible just where talent can come from. One of the things I love so much about the industry and one of the huge benefits of bootcamps is that they make tech accessible to a larger group. It is hard to make a career switch and facing down 4-6 years of education versus 7 months makes a huge difference.
I think opening up tech to more veterans and people from all areas of society is great because it creates diverse teams. In fact, I was at a conference today and they were just saying, “What's great about a diverse team is you get rid of the blind spots when you're talking about solving a problem." I've got ideas from all walks of life so it removes the blind spots. You end up pushing up things that are better for society as a whole, which is really a great thing.
I love that you say that, Eric. We talk about why bootcamps are so interesting to the tech industry as a whole because they're opening up tech to people who have been traditionally left out or excluded from it. But we talk about that theoretically. So hearing you say that having diverse perspectives on your actual team is helpful to the bottom line is so huge.
How do we feel about additional support for veterans? Is that necessary? Is it something that coding bootcamps have a responsibility to do for veterans?
Erin: That's a really good question. As far as the dedication and the ability to handle the curriculum, they are probably a bit ahead of the curve or at least floating towards the top. I think that you always need to be mindful that veterans could come from different aspects of the military. On the operations side, we need to make sure that we’re very open to what they need as far as communications or managing stress levels in case there are any concerns there. And as long as they voice them to us, we can handle them.
Eric, was there anything that Turing did specifically for you as a veteran?
Eric: Not really. There was a veteran’s channel in our Slack. I thought that was good. What I really appreciated about Turing is that they focused on diversity, but it wasn't like, "Let's single out this group and talk about how special they are." It was like, "Well, here you go. I don't care where you came from, you're in the same boat now." Which is really interesting because that's what happens at bootcamp.
You mean a military bootcamp?
Eric: Yeah, at a military bootcamp, they are like, "None of you are special." So it's interesting that there's not really any special treatment. And I don't think there should be. Like anything, and Erin said, you just have to be mindful of the different people and how you deal with them and whatnot.
One other thing – some people will look at like the cost of a bootcamp and say "Well, I can just study alone and do this." I think that learning alone can be tough for a veteran. To be frank, it was a little bit of challenge for me too. In the military, there's a lot of camaraderie. If you drop out of the military and you're not in a group that has a lot of camaraderie, that can be very hard.
For veterans specifically coming out of the military and going into bootcamps, it’s great because you’re thrust into another group of people that are in this pressure cooker, which builds camaraderie. You have your team again. It's not like you're floating all alone in the civilian world. I think a coding bootcamp is a terrific path for somebody coming out of the military, because you don't necessarily understand the camaraderie you are missing until you're out.
Erin: One more thing – if the student has come to Software Guild using their VA benefits, there are certain things that you're going to have to keep in mind. For example, none of the coursework can be administered online. At Software Guild, if our standard students were to miss a day, the pace is so quick that we would expect having to make that they up online and to work with our team on Slack and things like that. We can't do that with someone that's using VA benefits. We also there's really strict guidelines around attendance and you have to have a different refund policy.
These aren't things that we would ever make apparent to the general population because we don't want there to be any concern. As Eric said, you don't want to call out any one individual or group. It's all about the diversity of the group as a whole, but these are things that, as a school, you need to keep in mind. There's extra tracking, extra logistics, and changes to your general state accreditation processes that you're going to have to put into place.
How would you like to see the GI Bill expand in the future? Where do you think we can go from here?
Maggi: I think the GI Bill is a very rich benefit. The GI Bill benefit itself doesn't need to be expanded, but I think it needs to be streamlined, both the approval process and the ease of use for veterans. Probably about a third of the veterans that I talk to in working on the GI Bill on a day-to-day basis aren't familiar with their benefits and they don't know how to use the GI Bill, what it provides, and how to access it. So those veterans are sitting on a benefit that can be worth $200,000 over a three-year period. And if they don't know how to access and use it smartly, and if there aren't good training providers approved where they can use it, then it's a wasted benefit.
Thanks so much to Erin, Eric, and Maggi for joining the podcast today. I have personally learned so much about the GI Bill and I feel like we got so many great perspectives. Any final advice?
Eric: I feel very lucky in that I wouldn't have done anything differently. I enjoyed the school that I went to. It was very challenging. I was able to get a great first job out of Turing which led to a great second job. I wouldn't have done anything differently.
My only advice – and this is not just to military people but to people in general – if you want to do it, do it now. There is so much to learn and you don't learn it in seven or eight months. A bootcamp gives you that base and then you've got years of discovery ahead of you to become a really great developer.
And with more and more bootcamps accepting the GI Bill, there's no excuse. As soon as you don't owe any more of your life to the military, if you want to make the change, and you can legally get out of the military, do it and do it now. Don't wait because things will never be perfect. And by the way, every month that you are waiting, there are more and more people that are going to graduate in bootcamps and starting their job. It just makes the competition that much harder.
Maggi: For anyone that's listening, if you're a veteran and you’re not savvy with your GI Bill benefits, go to your county veterans services office, join the Operation Code slack team. There are a lot of resources to find out what that benefit is and how you can use it. If you're a code school and you're not savvy with the GI Bill, reach out. I'm more than happy to talk you through it. It's a huge benefit and it can add value not only for veterans but for your school.
Thank you for that very actionable advice. To see an updated list of schools that accept the GI Bill, you can see the Course Report Guide to Coding Bootcamp and Veteran Scholarships and the Operation Code website. Another resource I’ve found to be helpful is this vets.gov comparison tool where you can put in your military status and the benefits you want to use, and you can see which schools are eligible for you.
*Update: VET TEC, a high-tech training pilot program, is now taking applications. To participate, Veterans need only one day of unexpired GI Bill benefits. The program doesn’t use GI Bill benefits and pays a monthly housing stipend to students in the program. After applying, VA will determine eligibility. Veterans will receive certificates of eligibility on a first-come, first-serve basis until the funds are exhausted. Here's more info about Training Providers (including Skill Distillery, Zip Code Wilmington, and Code Platoon).
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