Chicago coding bootcamp trains veterans for IT

By Wenjing Yang

Conlin McManus, 23, heard about Code Platoon, a coding school in Chicago geared for veterans, two weeks before the end of his active duty as a Marine. He thought it could be “a fighting chance” for him to develop a successful civilian career.

Code Platoon, a Chicago nonprofit that puts military veterans through an immersive 14-week coding boot camp, is aimed at turning them into quality programmers.

“When coming out of the military, you don’t really know what you can do,” McManus said.

Four months before getting out, McManus applied for a job as a data center engineer, but was rejected which he demonstrated a lack of technical skills. With a dream to be a software developer, he decided to go back to school at Code Platoon this January. He is one of 12 in the class.

It was not just McManus who had a hard time landing a job when first out of the service. Although the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans hit a record low of 5.1 percent in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a recent study focusing on Chicago-area veterans found that transition to the civilian workforce for them are often not smooth.

Post-9/11 veterans have historically higher unemployment rates than the national average and veterans overall. (Wenjing Yang/MEDILL Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The survey of 1,300 Chicago-area veterans released by Loyola University Chicago and the University of Southern California showed 65 percent of post-9/11 veterans left the military without a job.

Among those who did get a job, only 54 percent reported having full-time employment, the study found.

In fact, veterans were ranked third on employers’ list for priority recruitment, behind women and candidates with advanced degrees, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program. But a lack of skills hurts their competitiveness in the job market.

“Veterans step forward to serve our country, they deserve our help,” said Rodrigo Levy, founder and executive director of Code Platoon, who shifted his career from trading to nonprofit three years ago.

Levy went to Dev Bootcamp, a pioneering for-profit coding boot camp in Chicago, in 2013, where he found the model effective to give career changers an entrance into tech in a relatively short time.

“A lot of veterans struggle expanding their skills,” Levy said. “We want them to recognize that the boot camp is a viable path for them to be job ready, even if they are not technically oriented, even if they don’t have math or science background and even if they don’t have a college degree.”

Levy said the difference between someone with a computer-science degree and someone trained to sling code is the difference between an architect and a carpenter.

“If you are an architect, you can see the big picture,” Levy said. “If you go to a boot camp, you are going to be a carpenter. You may not have the capacity to see the big picture right away, but you are ready to take hammer and nail to build.”

But that’s what most veterans want. Coding boot camp, as a kind of vocational training, rams student through intense crash courses in precisely the software-development skills that employers need.

Jonathan Young, the lead instructor at Code Platoon, said the curriculum is designed to lay a foundation for students in programming rather than teaching everything.

“Languages we teach are user-friendly and easy to learn for beginners,” said Jonathan Young, the lead instructor at Code Platoon. “Some of them may not be what they use at their first job, but we are equipping them to learn how to learn really fast, so every person can walk out with a job.”

Veteran students work on projects during independent study time at Code Platoon’s downtown Chicago classroom. They work 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. (Wenjing Yang/MEDILL)

Affordability is another selling point for Code Platoon. At the nonprofit platoon-size school, veterans who decide to enroll will automatically receive a $10,500 scholarship, funded by the government, foundations, corporations and individual contributors.

Students end up paying $2,500 out of the $13,000 price tag, only a fraction of the tuition of a for-profit code school such as Dev Bootcamp, which charges $12,700 for an 18-week session. Average tuition nationally is $11,450, according to Course Report, one of the few organizations that track these schools.

Code Platoon was founded in 2014, the year coding schools started to spring up, and graduated its first class in 2016 with nine graduates. Eight out of nine worked as a junior software engineer through a paid internship program provided by sponsor companies.

Greg Glover was one of those 2016 graduates. More than a year earlier, Glover, then 34 years old, with no college degree, had been a construction worker for 10 years, having served previously in the Army. After graduation from Code Platoon, he started an internship as a software engineer at DRW Holdings Inc., one of seven Code Platoon’s sponsor companies. He expects to become a full-time employee after his one-year contract as an intern ends in two months.

His salary during the internship was $80,000, nearly double his previous pay.

The considerable income growth was satisfying enough, but even more is what the new career has granted him mentally, Glover said.

“It’s fantastic,” Glover said, referring to his new life. “It gives me the access to interesting problems that I would never have had.”

Part-time instructor Ben Golden (left), a software engineer at Cultivate Labs Inc., helps a group of students with their projects. (Wenjing Yang/MEDILL)

“We reviewed the training and curriculum before we sponsored and we thought it was high quality,” said David Hummel, chief technology officer at Power Reviews Inc., another corporate Code Platoon sponsor. The Chicago-based tech company hired a graduate in the last cohort and plans to hire another veteran student this year.

After last year’s positive feedback, Code Platoon plans to conduct three sessions this year. Twelve veterans are enrolled in the current class.

“We know we have a lot of intangible assets from the military, but we need to add tangible technical skill sets,” said current student Scott Plunkett, 28, a Marine veteran, who quit his job as a tech sales account manager to join the program. “It’s definitely challenging, but it’s a lot of fun. Everybody seems motivated and it’s tough to put a mission aside before it is completed.”

The current class has received support from a wide range of parties, according to Levy. Over a dozen assistant instructors who work in the industry volunteer in the evenings and weekends to either teach courses or help students with projects. Many sponsor companies have already started to hunt tech talent among them.

“We have many open positions that we have never been able to fill, we are always looking for talent,” said Hummel. “The fact that we did find the right person in the Code Platoon program makes us pretty excited about it.”

On the top of technique skills, Hummel said, the life experience and qualities that veterans bring to the workplace are highly valued by employers.

Along with other firms, Power Reviews also consults on what the boot camp should teach. In a way, the boot camp is an outsourced training academy for its partners.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics posits there will be a shortfall of 1 million computer-related workers by 2020, with a 17 percent growth rate from 2014 to 2024.

As more companies recognize the value of boot camp and hiring veterans, Levy said, he hopes the program can serve as a beacon to connect veterans to those vacancies in the job market.

“It takes time,” Levy said, referring to his program’s early stage of development. “But we are getting there.”

Photo at top: A student works on coding at Code Platoon’s downtown classroom. (Wenjing Yang/MEDILL)