Since the White House Department of Veterans Affairs hosted the first coding bootcamp roundtable in September 2014, it's been clear that the use of the GI Bill for bootcamp tuition is on the minds of both educators and government. Recently, Skill Distillery, a 19-week Java Coding Bootcamp in Denver, Colorado, was VA-Approved and began accepting the GI Bill- huge news! Skill Distillery CEO Cole Frock talks to Course Report about the process to become approved, why veterans make excellent transitions into tech, and how the Java bootcamp is training civilians and veterans in valuable tech skills.
What does the GI Bill have to do with coding bootcamps?
We look at the GI Bill as many different bills. The most common is the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is for current military all the way back to the end of the Gulf War. When a veteran was in the intelligence division or had a technical background in the military, they get out of the military they have to go through a program called TAP (Transition Assistance Program) for transitioning back into civilian life.
When a veteran wants to go into IT, the VA tries to place them into the correct education program, but there’s nothing really built around IT programming. Doing admissions, we had a lot of people asking if we accept the GI Bill, so we started to see it as a priority. Bootcamps are the most current and modern way of training programmers. The most up-to-date skills are not taught in college. When you get a computer science degree, you learn philosopy and the process, but it’s not necessarily going to land you a job. A veteran doesn’t reall have time to go through a 4 or 8 year program.
What does the GI Bill cover at Skill Distillery? Tuition? Room/board?
The GI Bill pays for tuition to Skill Distillery, which is $16,000. Plus, in Denver there’s the Basic Allowance Housing (BAH), which is $1650 per month for housing and a couple of other perks. Anybody who has the GI Bill and who qualifies for Skill Distillery can use those funds.
Using the GI Bill for Skill Distillery does take time off total GI benefits, but when you compare the average junior developer job (which pays around $65,000 a year) and compare that to other programs that the VA offers, that’s an exceptional opportunity.
How many unemployed veterans are there in the US?
The statistics are surprising. The unemployment rate amongst vets is actually better than the unemployment rate against the whole country. Getting a job is not necessarily the issue, but a job with a great salary is the issue. The White House is recognizing that there’s a massive shortage of developers and has launched the federal Tech Hire program, which we’re also a part of.
Why are veterans a particularly good fit for technology jobs?
A lot of vets are coming to us with top secret clearance. For defense contractors, that’s a huge deal. If you can find a vet who has top secret clearance and can program, it bypasses a lot of the standard process that they would have to have a regular citizen go through.
There are also a lot of tax breaks for companies that hire veterans; upwards of $20,000 per vet. We couldn’t care less about the benefits to the corporation, but if veterans have a wonderful job to transition into, then it’s beneficial. There are 50,000 Java jobs right now in the US, on top of the 90,000 Front-End Developer jobs. Our intention is to give students the most options for job placement. If you don’t want to do front-end, then you still graduate with your Oracle certification from the Oracle Corporation, which holds a lot of weight with these companies, especially when it comes to a junior level person.
How did you get approved to accept the GI Bill?
The VA cannot promote any particular VA-approved school. Long story short, Skill Distillery’s parent company, Batky-Howell, has a 25-year history in Denver. We’ve educated more than 40,000 people. That played a very large role in getting the approval.
So if a bootcamp opened tomorrow they couldn’t get on the GI Bill?
The VA required that we’re state licensed and bonded. While Colorado requires this as well on a state-level, not every state requires that, so some bootcamps could go under the radar for years and then when it’s time to get VA approval, they’ll hit a roadblock.
Bonding is the most important part- if you pay $16,000 in tuition and we close in week two, the student will have no recourse against the school to get their money back. Being bonded gives students the assurance that they’ll be refunded.
The VA really wants to see that a bootcamp is not a fly-by-night scheme; you’re actually an established company that has results and provides quality to their veterans.
Was there a personal motivation to get VA-approved? It sounds like a long process- why go through all the trouble?
It’s not a purely business-driven decision; we have a maximum class size of 15 people, which is on the smaller side. The motivation comes back to why we started the Skill Distillery. We already have a successful corporate training company, publication company, and online learning company called Batky Howell. We could’ve just continued to pursue that- Skill Distillery was a departure from our standard way of doing business to accommodate students and lower our prices. The ability to completely change a non-technical students’ life is what we really enjoy. The instructors at Skill Distillery are world-class and have been teaching for 15 years and been developers at corporations all around the country.
When we heard applicants tell us that there was no way they could do Skill Distillery unless we accept the GI Bill more, we knew we had to figure out whatever we needed to figure out to accept that bill. These applicants were super sharp and talented. They have experience and we talk about motivation and working on a team and dealing with stress- these guys have all those qualities.
Applicants using the GI Bill are still going through the Skill Distillery admissions process?
Correct. Having to go through the 4 part interview process throws some of the applicants off, but Java is not like Ruby. It’s extremely difficult and the way we teach the program is extremely difficult. I’d like to accept everybody who applies, but in the long run I’m doing people a disservice if I let them into the program and they don’t have the ability to get through a 19 week bootcamp.
Why choose Java as the teaching language?
There are more Java jobs right now in the nation than any other programming language. The statistics speak for themselves. People think Java is going to go away, but the important note here is just that breaking into the Java job market gives people the most for their money.
Are there special requirements or any details we should know?
Legally, we can’t run an 100% VA class. We have to have a certain percentage of civilian students in each class.
Another rule with the VA is no scholarships or discounts.
There are no geographic limits; because the class is here in Colorado, students just have to come to Colorado. If we ever open up another location in another state then we’ll have to get VA approved in that state, but students can be from anywhere in the US.
How much interest are you getting from veterans? Will people be taking advantage of the benefit?
We thought that after we got the VA approval, we’d have to get more people to answer the phones, but that’s not been the situation. One of the biggest hurdles from any bootcamp that’s going to get VA approved, is educating the educators. The whole movement of alternative education and bootcamps is new to a lot of educators. This is a brand new concept for the country, and extremely new to a military base! However, as we get the word out, this is a very attractive option to a lot of people.