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www.codeplatoon.org

A large portion of veterans can be overlooked or have difficulties finding jobs as civilians after their service.

With the high demand for tech savvy workers and software developers, one Chicago company is trying to break the mold within the tech community.

Code Platoon, a non-profit coding bootcamp for veterans, is trying to provide opportunities that haven’t always been around. Located inside the Peoples Gas building at 122 S. Michigan Ave. is a classroom with future software developers. The atmosphere in class on this particular February morning is calm and focused. Students sit listening attentively to their instructor go over a lesson on “Mixing and Matching Args and Chaining.”

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Since the inception of the information age, tech job offerings have skyrocketed and continue to grow. Nowadays it’s easy to get into coding, as in most cases a person only needs a laptop. Over the years, there have been so many coding boot camps popping up across the U.S. to account for this shift in learning style and approach to beginner software developers.

CUSP Magazine sat down with Rod Levy, executive director and founder of Code Platoon, to talk about software development, veteran skill sets and the Chicago tech scene.

Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Code Platoon

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CUSP Magazine: How did your company come to be, and what was the process for it?

Rod Levy: It’s a non-profit. This is my idea from about a year and a half ago. I decided that I wanted to create a coding academy for veterans and provide a pathway to job training as software developers. I formed a board, and we started looking at ways to identify veterans who might want to go to a program like this and all the funding options. We’ve been iterating over that process for the last year. This is our first cohort, and we hope to build on this cohort.

CM: What kind of services do you offer?

RL: The primary service we provide is training for veterans. When they are done with their 16-week immersive program, they should be prepared to enter the workforce as junior software developers, having started from no knowledge whatsoever in software development.

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CM: What makes your company unique in the way you function compared to other veteran services in the city?

RL: What we find is that a lot of veterans, when they leave the service, have developed a lot of valuable skills. The way that those skills are described in the military are different than the way they are described in the civilian world. There is a mismatch in their ability to translate these skills to the civilian world. Really the bulk lies with the civilian world. They are not really prepared to understand what the military training provides for them. We remove that roadblock by providing them job ready skills that today’s work environment desperately needs.

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CM: Is there certain criteria for interested veterans that would like to participate in the program?

RL: The primary criteria to apply to our cohort is that they have to finish our application process, which is reasonably rigorous. Anybody that has a strong desire to be a software developer and who is a veteran can do it. It’s designed to be inclusive in the sense that we don’t want to exclude anybody that doesn’t have a college degree or anybody that comes from a disadvantaged background. The only thing that would constrain us is the actual amount of space that we have. In terms of eligibility, any veteran is eligible. The process is transparent and open.

Rod – “The demand is there from the Chicago side. The tech scene is growing, and the tools and the boot camp model is proven and effective. There’s a good-sized veteran population in Chicago that could use our help.”

CM: What kind of careers are you trying to orient students toward? Is it specific to web development, mobile development or general?

RL: Good question. We train web developers, but the skills that we teach would translate to most types of platforms. The specific skills that we teach are Ruby on Rails stack. We also teach a fair amount of Javascript as well. Then we teach Rails framework, so they can build web apps with it and the technologies that are associated with the Ruby on Rails stack. We teach databases, front end development, Ruby, HTML, CSS, JavaScript libraries, but most importantly we teach them how to think fundamentally like a programmer.

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CM: Are you pushing students to contribute to Open Source projects or creatively work on their own outside of classes?

RL: The class time is a fairly demanding process, so we don’t ask that they do anything outside of what we give them. Later on in the curriculum, we will encourage them to get involved in Open Source, but that will really be up to them. Github is an open repository system, which means people keep their code there. Many younger programmers and certainly most of the coding boot camps and many companies in the tech environment use Github to keep their source code and yes, we’ll be having our students put all their Source Code into Github. Github is open, but it’s a little different than contributing to Open Source projects. Most Open Source projects do reside on Github.

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CM: What are the hours typically like in a course program, and what is the tuition?

RL: The hours are eight to five with instruction. They usually have two to four hours of homework a night, and then they’ll have homework for the weekends as well. The cost of the program per student is about $10,000, but we ask the students to make one payment of $1,500. We raise the rest from corporate sponsors and through some private fundraising as well. Primarily we are looking for corporations to be sponsors of Code Platoon. That means they provide a contribution to Code Platoon and that they will take one of our students in as a paid intern when they finish our 16-week class.

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CM: What other skill sets do veterans gain besides coding within your program?

RL: We spend a fair amount of time developing the whole individual. We have yoga once a week, which is not a skill but it helps them develop a sense of self and mindfulness. We bring in speakers from the industry to come talk about technical and non-technical topics. We’ve had speakers come in who are veterans themselves and talked about their transitions from the military into being software developers. We’ll be bringing in outside speakers to talk about certain Nest practices. We’ve had folks from Hashrocket, a software consultancy in Chicago come in. They did a full day training on Feb. 17 about test driven development, which is a fundamental paradigm on how you write software. In terms of other skills, we really want to develop the whole individual. We try to teach a growth mindset — how to overcome the hurdles that you face when you are learning. When you are a software developer, you are always learning. It’s a professional mindset, so we definitely advocate that. If they are interested, then the drive is inherent. If they are not interested, it won’t last.

CM: In addition to receiving funding from corporate sponsorships, what other kinds of interactions do you have with companies in terms of support? Are there ways the general public can help?  

RL: The Chicago tech community has been very receptive to our efforts. As I mentioned, we’ve had Hashrocket come to speak to us. A lot of companies are taking time to send in their experts to come help show our students real world practices. Thoughtworks sent out a couple instructors. They did a day on feedback and retros, how to do that properly. We’ve got many of our sponsor companies also coming in to do one-hour to half-day workshops. Corporations that are either tech facing or tech focused can support us and have supported us by not just giving us instruction during the day, but also many of them have provided mentors. All of our students have two professional mentors, which will help them learn what the world of software development looks like, kind of demystify that side of it. Corporate sponsors from PowerReviews, NogginLabs, DRW and Reverb.com have all provided mentors. Thoughtworks and Enova Financial have also been very generous with their time. Enova in particular is also going to be hosting a couple hack nights for our students, just for them. There’s a fair amount of corporate involvement, which they are all doing for free. We have a donate section on our website. We are a 501(c)(3) tax exempt non-profit, so anybody that wants to support our cause can go there and help. I don’t think we have much need for physical goods. We are here, and the students have their own laptops. Certainly in future cohorts laptops would be the one piece of hardware that would be helpful for us. I am new to the non-profit space, so everyday I learn something new about organizations that are interested in supporting veteran causes. McCormick Foundation are very veteran friendly, and they’ve been very supportive. With their help, I am learning more about what the foundational landscape looks like in Chicago as well.

 

CM: Why is Chicago an important place to start Code Platoon?

 

RL: Chicago has a vibrant tech scene, and it’s growing. The demand for developers is there and present. I am a graduate of Dev Bootcamp. I was part of their first cohort in Chicago, so I believe in the coding boot camp model very strongly. I think it’s an impressive way to get somebody from zero to junior developer and then into a new career. It’s a trade school, in our case 16-weeks. The demand is there from the Chicago side. The tech scene is growing, and the tools and the boot camp model is proven and effective. There’s a good-sized veteran population in Chicago that could use our help. Not to mention, we are bringing in veterans from all over the country to join our cohort. I was in finance and entrepreneurship for about 20 years. I am living proof that you don’t need to have any technical background to enter this space. Even though I don’t code at this point, it’s undoubtable to me that the coding boot camp model is effective in getting people trained well enough so that they can go on into productive careers in software development.

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CM: When can veterans register or sign up for the program?

RL: We’ll probably start taking applications in the next month or two for upcoming cohorts. The goal is to have our next cohort at the end of this year or early next year. Then they will be every 12-16 weeks thereafter. The biggest thing for us is to make veterans aware of this opportunity. If there are veterans out there or individuals who know veterans and think that they would like to transition into this career, just encourage them to at least look at the website and see what their opportunities are.

CM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

RL:  Our overarching goal is to make the career of software development accessible to all veterans. Even though we only have a cohort of nine people here and we will need more space and training in the future, we do post our videos on our website. Anybody that wants to see what happens in class is able to. We have also Open Sourced our curriculum. Our curriculum is on our website, and it’s on GitHub. Anyone that wants to can use it for whatever they want except for professional purposes. If they want to go through a day in the life or try to learn the material on their own, it’s all there and it’s all free.

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CM: Do you know someone or another company that is on the CUSP, someone that we should know about?

RL: National Able Network. They are not a startup, but they do great work for the veteran community.

Code Platoon is an affordable alternative to coding boot camps and an innovative space for veterans looking to enter the tech industry. Veterans from any walk of life are welcome and add a unique perspective not only for the tech community, but within the veteran community as well.

 

For more information about Code Platoon, check out their website. Help support Code Platoon by making a donation today. Stay connected by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter.

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