Veterans Who Code

Celebrating veteran developers and the organizations empowering them

Each year 200,000 men and women transition out of the military and look for jobs in the civilian workforce. Many veterans possess the technical and soft skills—like IT security experience and team-building skills—that are highly valued by tech civilian employers. But during the civilian job search, many veterans have a hard time finding jobs in tech: they struggle communicating how much value their military skill set adds to tech civilian employers.

In honor of Veterans Day, HackerRank is launching Veterans Who Code. This series of interviews share the stories of veteran developers who have served our country, navigated reintegration into the civilian workforce, and now lead projects at Dropbox, Yelp, Vets Who Code, and Operation Code.

These veteran developers share the obstacles they faced while transitioning to civilian roles in tech, how companies can better partner with veterans, and what resources veterans should use to start their developer career.

At HackerRank, we hope that by highlighting these veteran developer stories and the organizations that have made them possible, more veterans will be inspired to pursue a developer career, and companies will learn new ways they can partner with veterans in the hiring process.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on Veterans Who Code and learn about how your company is supporting veterans in the workplace. Feel free to tweet us at @HackerRank.

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Joe Laws, Premium Mobile Developer at Dropbox

Photography by Shinsuke Kishima

Former Army Operations Officer Says That Finding a Coding Hobby Project is Key

Today, Joe Laws spends his time building frameworks and executing mobile development in Dropbox’s New York headquarters. But 9 years ago, Joe was leading a 30-soldier heavy weapons Platoon in the Pech River Valley, Afghanistan. During his time in service, Joe planned and executed over 200 combat patrols and 5 major combat operations.

After returning from Afghanistan, Joe served as the Operations Officer for an Infantry Battalion, where he planned and coordinated the training of 800+ soldiers for Afghanistan deployment. Joe walked away from the Army with a Bronze Star Medal and Combat Infantry Badge, 4 years of service, and firsthand leadership, organization, and management experience. Here’s what he has to say to veterans considering a developer career:... continue reading

  • What are some challenges that you encountered when you first entered the civilian job market?

    One of the biggest challenges transitioning to the civilian job market is explaining how the skills acquired while serving in the military map to the roles and requirements of the job. For example, “experience leading soldiers while under fire” would be “experience managing in high stress environments” for those not in the military.

  • As a veteran, are there any skills that you picked up while serving that have crossed over and help you now as a developer?

    A 90% solution now is better than a 100% solution later. In technology, we need to move fast to stay competitive. This means getting something out to users and iterating on it as fast as possible rather than waiting and building something based on a grand vision.

  • What is one of the hardest challenges you’ve had to overcome specifically as a veteran developer?

    Adjusting my communication to people outside the military who are not used to the level of candor that is necessary when time does not permit more delicate communication. The book Radical Candor has been a great resource in this regard.

  • If a veteran wants to become a developer but doesn’t have coding experience, where should they start?

    First, find a mentor with experience as a developer. Preferably someone willing to dedicate the time to review your code and is able to answer questions you have that are not easily resolved via Stack Overflow. Then, and most importantly, write code. I’ve worked with people from top universities who are horrible developers and those who are self-taught and are great developers. The only common trait amongst the best developers in both groups is that they spend a lot of time writing software and are constantly learning.

  • How does Dropbox work to empower veteran developers within engineering? What sorts of support can a potential hire expect once they join the team?

    Within Dropbox we have a Slack channel, email groups, and regular meetups for veterans. With the large number of veterans in our organization, we have veteran mentors for junior, and senior veteran engineers. Having a team and mentors with a deep understanding of our shared experiences has greatly helped me, and my fellow veterans, with our careers.

  • If you had one piece of advice for veteran developers looking for their first job in the civilian workforce, what would it be?

    Find a hobby project and spend as much time as you can coding. This helps acquire and hone new skills that are not taught at a school. It also demonstrates a passion for software engineering and will greatly increase your marketability. On top of that, most coding interviews test skills that are practiced every time you write code or fix a bug.

  • What advice would you give to companies who have their own military hiring programs?

    Veterans are used to working long and hard on the tasks they are given. Applying this dedication to a new craft enables them to improve quickly. When evaluating a veteran do not dismiss them if they are missing some skills needed for the job right now. Determine if they are capable of learning them. Would you rather have someone who has the current skillset you are looking for but no desire to grow, or someone who is a hard worker that will learn not just how to perform the current task, but every task thereafter?

Former Army Battalion Tactical Director Encourages New Veteran Developers to Find Mentorship

During his 4.5 years of service, Kent Wills climbed up the ranks from Platoon Manager to Battalion Tactical Director. As Battalion Tactical Director he served in the 1-1 Air Defense Artillery Regiment, was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and led tactical training for over 400 soldiers. Kent’s growth in the military was an indicator of his future growth at Yelp.

After serving, Kent went on to earn his Masters of Science in computer science from the University of Maryland College Park, and later landed a software engineering internship at Yelp. Today he is the Engineering Manager of Engineering Effectiveness, and leads 6 different teams. Here’s Kent’s take on what it was like to jump into the developer world after serving in the Army:... continue reading

  • What are some challenges that you encountered when you first entered the civilian job market?

    I learned very quickly that while companies valued my leadership experience, they held me to the same high standard as other engineers for coding interviews. I spent a lot of time preparing for interviews by taking some undergraduate algorithms and data structures courses in grad school. I also spent a lot of time practicing for my interviews.

  • Why is inclusion important to your organization’s engineering team, and how has that affected your work?

    Yelp has a great mentorship program no matter where you are from. I had struggled a bit in my internship, but received amazing mentorship from my fellow engineers. It helped create the technical foundation that I have today.

  • As a veteran, are there any skills that you picked up while serving that have crossed over and help you now as a developer?

    In the military I developed the physical and mental fortitude that helped me learn quickly as an engineer. I found myself comfortable in areas such as public speaking and building relationships with others.

  • What is one of the hardest challenges you’ve had to overcome specifically as a veteran developer?

    Taking the first step and telling my boss that I was going to leave the military was challenging in a lot of ways. I had a rough plan that I was going to grad school, but I didn't know what was next or how I would break into the technology industry. It got even tougher when I started grad school and realized that my undergrad degree hadn't prepared me in all the areas I had expected, never mind the fact that I hadn't taken a course in 4.5 years.

  • If a veteran wants to become a developer but doesn’t have coding experience, where should they start?

    There are a lot of great places to start. Finding a mentor to guide you on your journey is a great first start. They can give you direction when you feel lost. Open source is another area where you can get involved with zero credentials. Many times they have starter tickets in the issues section that you can contribute to. This is probably the best way to get an understanding of what standards organizations usually hold their engineers to when submitting code. Lastly, a bootcamp is a targeted way to learn a lot in a small amount of time. But remember, it's a lifelong journey.

  • How does Yelp work to empower veteran developers within engineering? What sorts of support can a potential hire expect once they join the team?

    Yelp has a veterans employee resource group that gets together every once in a while to help form a supportive community. No matter who you are, we take a lot of pride and time developing new engineers.

  • What advice would you give to companies who have their own military hiring programs?

    Military veterans bring a lot of leadership experience to the table. If they have been able to ramp up technically, start giving them leadership opportunities and watch them thrive.

Read more Yelp veteran developer stories here.

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Kent Wills, Engineering Manager at Yelp

Photography by David Law

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Jerome Hardaway, Founder of Vets Who Code

Photo provided by Jerome Hardaway

Javascript Developer, U.S. Air Force Veteran, and Vets Who Code Founder Helps 250 Veterans Land Developer Jobs

Jerome Hardaway’s story is one that too many veterans have experienced themselves. Jerome served in the U.S. Air Force for six years. Once his service ended, he tried to find a place for himself in the civilian world. Instead of landing a full time job or returning back to school, Jerome found himself living out of his car, hotels, and staying on the couches of friends for 6 months.

During this time and the following 4 years, Jerome decided to take on the challenge of code, spending every spare moment learning how to code and make himself more valuable to the civilian sector. But it wasn’t until Jerome built a website to help raise money for the burial of a fellow soldier and friend, that he realized other veterans can benefit from his new found skills. This moment inspired Jerome to create a platform that benefits and empowers all veterans. The final outcome was Vets Who Code, a non-profit that teaches veterans JavaScript and computer science. Here’s what Jerome has to say to veterans who are considering a career in software development:... continue reading

  • What are some challenges that you encountered when you first entered the civilian job market?

    Total lack of marketability. A lot of “thank you for your service,” but no “we will take a chance and hire you.”

  • As a veteran, are there any skills that you picked up while serving that have crossed over and help you now as a developer?

    In the military you learn how to be a self-starter, take ownership, discipline, and critical thinking. All translate well in the software world.

  • If a veteran wants to become a developer but doesn’t have coding experience, where should they start?

    I’m biased but Mozilla MDN and Front End Masters Handbook are the way to go. Then do as many tutorials and technologies as you can get your hands on. TwilioQuest is great, as well as all the Gatsby tutorials, and scotch.io has a ton of great resources. Javascript.info is another one I recommend.

  • What coding skills do veterans need to secure developer jobs?

    Frameworks come and go, but you need to learn one language and learn it well. Deep dive into the basic boring stuff that no one does cause they want to make the fun Create, Read, Update, Delete (CRUD) apps. That’s the stuff that’s gonna save you in the tech interview.

  • As an organization that prepares and equips veterans to become a developer in the civilian job market, have you come across any reasons why companies choose not to hire developers?

    I think there is a stigma on veterans, considering most of tech is very left-leaning. Many of us have the same values that are expressed in NYC and the Silicon Valley, it's just that politicians don’t really reach out to us about that stuff, so the perception stays. They also tend to think we aren’t friendly, which if you’ve met me know that is not the case. It's the reason why I do so many talks so that people can actually interact with a combat veteran.

  • What’s the most exciting thing you accomplished through Vets Who Code?

    That’s easy: I get the privilege to shorten the arc for veterans that want to become JavaScript developers. It took me years to find this field and then a few years to get a shot in this field. So when I am doing work that helps a veteran get into the field within a quarter, it's a win. It’s all about being the hero you needed.

  • What advice would you give to companies who have their own military hiring programs?

    Invest in the pipeline you have with veterans and focus on more than the officer corp. I never understood why everyone is looking for officers when enlisted actually works for a living (military joke that only enlisted will get). But seriously, if me, a lowly Security Forces troop from the Air Force can be trusted with million dollar user interfaces, maybe look at the E-4 mafia (another joke only veterans will get) to help fix your web apps.

  • Anything else you’d like to share with veterans who are considering becoming developers?

    Keep pushing and ask for help early on. You don’t have to do this alone. I remember years ago Ken Wheeler answered a question I had on slick carousel when I was a new dev. You know how cool it is to speak to the creator of tech, to ask a question, to have them solve it, and they answer it, when you’re a no one? It's awesome. The days of the chain of command are gone, you can be as amazing as you want to be if you’re willing to do the work. Get it done.

Read more Vets Who Code veteran developer stories here.

Operation Code Co-Founder and Former Army Signals Officer Helps Veterans and Their Spouses Learn to Code Software Development

Conrad Holloman spent time in Afghanistan from 2010 - 2011, and served a total of 9 years as an Army Signals Officer. Once he finished his service, Conrad began his journey of restarting his civilian life. While working as a Senior QA Tester at Harmonix Music Systems, Conrad noticed that his old comrades had a hard time entering the job market.

Instead of being offered jobs that properly utilized and compensated their military skills, they were only being offered minimum wage jobs. This realization inspired Conrad to partner with veteran David Molina, and start Operation Code, a non-profit that helps veterans learn software development and enter the tech industry. Here’s what advice Conrad has for veterans who are trying to learn how to code on their own:... continue reading

  • As a veteran, are there any skills that you picked up while serving that have crossed over and help you now as a developer?

    As a Signal officer, the most important skill you can have is being able to communicate effectively between technology needs and mission needs. The folks you are working with, rely on your technology to work and your networks to be online, to do their jobs. They also rely on you to make it relevant to them - to not get caught in the technical details and give them the “so what” they need, that will help them get the job done.

    This is super relevant for developers, especially as they interact with the larger business. The ability to communicate effectively, as a developer, is a huge force multiplier.

  • As an organization that prepares and equips veterans to become a developer in the civilian job market, have you come across any reasons why companies choose not to hire developers?

    The process of transitioning from one culture to the other is challenging for anyone. Going from the military world to the civilian world is no different, and it takes a great deal of additional effort for folks leaving the military to understand a lot of the unspoken norms and rules that the corporate rules.

  • What’s the most exciting thing you accomplished through Operation Code?

    I encounter people from all walks of life at Operation Code. Military spouses raising their first child who want to learn to code while they’re at home. Veterans who are on the edge of homelessness, who are learning to code on computers at the local public library. Service members who are learning to code in their spare time while they’re deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s a privilege to have an opportunity to help them, even if it’s in a small way by showing them how to make their first pull request in an open source repository, or to review their resume and offer them feedback.

  • Have you or do you know of any veterans who have used HackerRank as a tool to help them prepare for the workforce? If so, how has HackerRank helped you and/or other veterans develop coding?

    We’ve had a lot of folks at Operation Code use HackerRank. The HackerRank Interview Preparation Kit has been a great resource. This blog has also made its way around our community.

  • If you had one piece of advice for veteran developers looking for their first job in the civilian workforce, what would it be?

    Be patient, but persistent. Take the time to understand what interviewers are truly looking for. Networking helps immensely - not just to get to know people that can help you with internal references, but also to learn from others who have gone through the process and can give you tips.

  • What advice would you give to companies who have their own military hiring programs?

    Have an expansive approach to military hiring. Look at veterans who have already been out, but may have not decided to go straight into coding. They have valuable life skills and experience that will make them an asset to your team.

    Work early-stage with service members on bases, to help them learn to code, do interviews, and write resumes before they leave the service. Many of the challenges that service members face are because they weren’t able to prepare for their transition before they left (and that can be for a variety of reasons).

  • Anything else you’d like to share with veterans who are considering becoming developers?

    The skills that made you successful in the military—focus, dedication, drive—those are the skills that will enable you to push through difficult technical problems and get the job done. That’s a constant in any job and being a developer is no different. Stay the course, focus constantly on learning and growing, and you will be successful.

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