As more coding bootcamps are approved to accept GI Bill benefits, veterans are taking the opportunity to learn to code. But why is coding a good fit for veterans, and how do their skills and experience from the military transfer over into tech? We asked veterans and current students at Cleveland coding bootcamp Tech Elevator – Justin Orgeron (Marine Corp ‘96-’04), Brian Siebert (Army Police ‘07-’14), and James Tanner (Coast Guard ‘10-’15) – about the similarities and differences between their military bootcamps and learning to code at Tech Elevator, plus tips for using the GI Bill.
What is your background in the military and beyond, and how did your career path lead you to wanting to learn to code?
Jamie: My military background is in the United States Coast Guard. I started on a boat in the Caribbean on a 378 in 2010, and ended up going to rescue swimmer school.
I left the military in 2015, and applied my GI Bill benefits to an MBA program at Case Western Reserve. I graduated in December 2017, and started applying to jobs, while looking to start my own tech company. There was a shortage of technical people here in Cleveland, and after trying to find a CTO for a while, I decided to use my GI Bill to learn tech skills myself. I reached out to Tech Elevator, and found they accepted the GI Bill so I knew that their Java bootcamp was going to be my next journey.
Brian: I served in the Army National Guard for seven years as a military police officer. I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, and Afghanistan in 2013. I went to school at Cleveland State and Kent State between my two deployments. I bounced around a little bit with different majors, but wasn't really sure which direction I wanted to go.
After the military, I was working at a casino as a Table Games Supervisor. But it wasn't much of a challenge and I wanted to explore my options. I have a few friends in the tech industry so I did some online coding courses and enjoyed it. I was planning to go back to Cleveland State for a computer science degree when I found out about Tech Elevator’s Java class. At 30, I figured a 14-week bootcamp would be more efficient and having the GI Bill help pay for it was a huge benefit.
Justin: I was in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2004. My specialty was a 0844, which is fire direction control for field artillery. When I left the military, I went to school in Louisiana for a few months, but that was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina. I ended up working overseas as a Program Manager for large federal IT contracts for 10 years. I managed teams of developers, saw the cool work they were doing, and decided I wanted to do more of that.
I created a couple of websites which blew up in a semi-big way. When I returned to the US, I felt I was paying developers for tasks I could do myself. I played around with coding for most of my adult life, but I never really got anywhere with self-teaching. When my wife and I moved to Cleveland, I came across Tech Elevator’s .NET class. When I first applied, they were not accepting the GI Bill, but luckily after I started the program, they were approved by the VA for its use. They helped me put in the paperwork for the GI Bill and backdated it to my first start date. So it ended up being very fortuitous.
It sounds like you all used the GI Bill for traditional education as well as bootcamp. How important is the GI Bill, especially for programs like coding bootcamps?
Jamie: This is a great question I find myself thinking about a lot. Justin and I both already had MBAs and used our GI Bill, which is great. But I think that opening up the GI Bill to coding bootcamps specifically, is a huge seismic and fundamental shift that needed to happen. The marketplace is ripe for it – if you look at where jobs are heading, tech is the place to be. I believe that as long as coding bootcamps meet certain criteria, then that’s where veterans should go. I think vets are a perfect fit for coding.
Brian: I used the GI Bill at college prior to Tech Elevator, and that was definitely beneficial, and relieved a lot stress. Knowing that my tuition is taken care of, and I won’t have a big loan to pay back when I graduate, means I can focus on my schoolwork and on getting a job after Tech Elevator.
Justin: The GI Bill has been incredible for me. I've taken advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill, vocational rehab through the VA, and when the Post 911 GI Bill came out, I quickly signed up for that. I used it for my MBA and for two graduate certificates from Villanova. Now I'm using the last dregs of it at Tech Elevator – I still have a couple of thousand dollars left.
I wanted to echo what Jamie said about bootcamps accepting the GI Bill. This is something that's needed to happen for the last four or five years. I know the VA’s concern has always been, “Are veterans getting their money's worth from a program?” and “Are bootcamps preparing vets for a career, not just a next job?” As long as due diligence is being done on the bootcamps themselves, I think it's a wonderful thing that the VA has opened the GI Bill to so many of them.
For veterans who haven't used the GI Bill before, could you outline the process of using the GI Bill for bootcamp?
Justin: This has changed over the years. The VA has made huge strides in making it easier to sign up for courses, and more courses are getting approved. The website eBenefits is a tremendous resource for walking you through the GI Bill step-by-step. My advice to anybody who’s doing it for the first time would be to sign up for eBenefits, because they walk you through each aspect. You don't even have to mail in anything. Most well-run coding bootcamps will have somebody on staff who is very familiar with the process.
Jamie: I would add that when you meet with a bootcamp – and we all had this experience – if you're thinking about using the GI Bill to cover any variation, whether it's Montgomery or Post-9/11, really make sure that the bootcamp team itself has an idea of how the Bills work and a general direction, because confusion around that can add a lot of stress to a veteran. Like Justin said, at this point when you use of the GI Bill, there are only a few forms to fill out. It's not a long process – it took me maybe 15 minutes to do it. Just find a bootcamp that cares about veterans and knows the process – that's going to be the place for you.
How is Tech Elevator going for you so far?
Brian: In a coding bootcamp, we learn a ton in a short amount of time. At the end of the day, I go home and continue to learn. There are a lot of valuable resources out there, and instructors give us even more reading material. The instructors are always available if we have any questions or need extra help.
At Tech Elevator, we also have a tutor, who can meet with students one-on-one to go over homework, answer questions, or do practice interviews. I was very impressed with the professionalism of the instructors and of the school in general. It's a lot of work and a lot of long nights, but definitely worth it. I think it'll be very beneficial for my future career. I'm excited to get out there and land a job.
Justin: It's a lot of information to learn in a very short amount of time. There's a part of you that can't wait for it to be over and another part of you that wants it to go on for another six months. The joy of software development is that there is always something new to learn. The breadth of knowledge out there is incredible, so you will never learn everything. Tech Elevator does a wonderful job condensing the material down to ensure you learn the most important parts. When we finally get out of here at 7pm, we go home and study some more. You start the next day smarter than the day before, which is all anybody can really ask for.
Jamie: My experience at Tech Elevator has been similar to a military bootcamp, except it’s not as physical. It's really like drinking out of a firehose and you try to digest as much as you can – a lot of veterans would relate to that aspect. As Justin said, you're never going to learn everything you need to know, especially in this industry. There are so many languages, applications, and nuances to learn. It's really just putting one foot in front of the other, taking it slow, grinding on. It's crazy that we've come this far and can actually build real applications that do something and don’t just look pretty on the screen. That's the awesome part of it.
How do you feel your experience in the military and in military bootcamps prepared you for the intensity of a coding bootcamp?
Brian: The military teaches you a lot of discipline. Military basic training consists of a lot of routines, and it’s the same thing with a coding bootcamp. You go to class, you have your lesson, you have your projects, your homework, and then you have to make sure you continue to search and do extra studying on the side as well. So the military teaches discipline and you definitely need that at Tech Elevator. But if you push yourself, you can definitely do it.
Jamie: Justin and Brian probably had tougher bootcamps than I did! But I think that when you go through bootcamp in the military, honestly, it's really just confusion one day after another. You wake up and don't know what your day is going to look like, except for a lot of push-ups and sit-ups. That adds stress in a way that really prepares you for life in the military. Then as you go through the military, you experience more stress, and you learn to deal with that stress and compartmentalize it, which prepares you not only for coding bootcamp, but also for life in general.
As I learn to code, I like to compartmentalize every task and deal with the stress of it. I look at the next task in front of me, get through it, and keep on grinding. If we need help from our classmates, then we know we’re all in this together. Just like in a bootcamp at your barracks, you're going through it with people and you get through it with people – that's what the correlation was for me.
Justin: Like Jamie said, in a military bootcamp, you have absolutely no control. You're at the whim of the day's events. Whatever gets thrown at you, you do have to deal with. At a coding bootcamp, you'll find that to be true as well. The Marine Corps has a motto "Improvise, Adapt and Overcome." Those skills are absolutely necessary in the military and beyond – if you can get good at those, it sets you up for pretty much everything else in life.
Jamie, Justin and Brian of Tech Elevator share their collective military and coding bootcamp experiences.
Do you find overlap in the skills you developed in the military and programming? Did you learn anything technical in the military?
Jamie: My first task on a Coast Guard boat was to map out all the boat systems. I continued that throughout my Coast Guard career working on Coast Guard assets. If a system went down on a boat, I had to figure out where that system was and figure out what happened. In coding as well – if something goes wrong, you’ll probably have three or four places to check for an error. Coding is about identifying a problem, then figuring out the solution.
Brian: As a military police officer, I didn't have much experience related to coding. But one thing that I believe all veterans have is a “never quit, don't like to lose” attitude. I think that will help a lot going to a bootcamp because nobody likes to lose. Especially veterans, we are definitely very determined individuals.
What have your favorite projects been so far at Tech Elevator?
Jamie: My final capstone project. All the projects were fun and challenging, but this one brings in everything we've learned from database development to back end development to front end development.
Visitors to Cleveland can use our site to create a unique itinerary, or we can create one for you based on your preferences. Seeing it all come together, and knowing that my team is building something that hasn’t been seen yet is pretty exciting.
Brian: My favorite project is our final capstone project. We’re a group of five students and we've been working on it for two weeks. It's a fully functional door-to-door sales app. I thought of this application because I have a buddy who is a financial advisor, who goes door-to-door asking people if they're interested in talking about their 401Ks. I asked him how he keeps track of all the houses he visits, and he said, “Just pen and paper.” I was like, 'Wow, it could be a lot more efficient than that." It's definitely exciting to see it come to life, and see all the different pieces of the puzzle come together.
What are your plans are when you graduate Tech Elevator?
Jamie: When I graduate, I want a job that will utilize my MBA, my sales experience, and my tech experience. I’ll continue to build my own application – a scheduling app for families that links to different networks like babysitters and friends. Hopefully I can launch and get funding for that app and make that my full-time job!
Justin: I'm looking for a company where I can get some firm foundations and best practices on top of what we've learned at Tech Elevator. I'm coming from management roles, but I don't want to go back to management for a couple of years – I just want to do software development.
Brian: I’ll continue to learn and get a job in the field. I would like to be able to help others on the side, doing websites and web applications. My sister is a personal trainer and has her own website and blog, so I want to help her with it. I think that'll be pretty fun.
Is Tech Elevator prepping you for jobs and interviews?
Jamie: That’s something that Tech Elevator does a great job with. Starting in week one, we start the Pathway Program, which is designed to help us get jobs. I think the amount of job opportunities and interviews I'm getting are a testament to that program. To be honest with you, I am hearing more interest from companies now than I did after completing my MBA. I think that says something about the tech community at large, but also Tech Elevator specifically.
Justin: I've hired hundreds of veterans and I tell them that many times, the bar in the civilian world is set absurdly low compared to military life. It's not hard to excel coming into the civilian world if you take the mindset and the discipline from your military life and apply it to the civilian world. There are a lot of similarities. You're working with a team in order to do something larger than yourself.
Coding bootcamps are the future of the tech industry. More and more employers are starting to recognize the fact that there are only so many computer science graduates coming out every year. If they want local, homegrown talent, bootcamps are the answer to fill that demand.
What advice do you each have for other veterans who are deciding if tech or a coding bootcamp should be their next career step?
Jamie: The tech industry is growing and has a shortage of talent, so it's worth a look. You must have a conversation with the coding bootcamp you’re researching (or alumni/anybody familiar with them). Second, you should take some online coding classes. For Tech Elevator, we did some free pre-course work on Free Code Camp before the bootcamp started. So if you’re on the fence about it, dive into coding a little bit. If all those check out for you, it's time to make that jump. Our futures are bright – I would recommend it for everybody.
For vets specifically, you have worked in dynamic team situations, which is what coding requires. Coding bootcamps put you in these teams to conquer these huge challenges, and vets have done that on a regular basis. I hope more and more veterans take advantage of coding bootcamps and the GI Bill.
Brian: Like Jamie said, talk to people. If you know anyone in the tech field, ask them about it. There are plenty of resources out there to explore. Tech Elevator has a free open house where you can come in and ask questions. They even have a former student at the open house who will share their experience. There are plenty of options out there. So, if you’re interested in tech and you're unfulfilled in your current career, a coding bootcamp is definitely a great opportunity.
Justin: For veterans specifically: if you just need to know how things work, if you know that your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) isn’t directly applicable to civilian life and you’re looking to do something different; if technology really excites you and you want to learn how to create things, then software development is a wonderful industry to get into and the bootcamp model is a wonderful way to achieve that goal. If you like to learn and create, then you'll find a lot of similarities between military life and software development in the civilian world. Then, find a bootcamp that will support veterans and understand how to communicate to employers exactly what veterans bring. In addition to what they're learning at the bootcamp, the work ethic and experience that comes with a veteran is also very helpful.