Innovation Spotlight: Veterans Taking On a New Mission With Operation Code
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Company: Operation Code
Interviewee: Conrad Hollomon, Chief of Staff & COO
The tech industry has been growing at a rapid rate for the past few years, and as such, more and more jobs are being created. Here at Deep Core Data, we often talk about automation and technology strategy as being the future of business, both because of its impact on company effectiveness as well as the vast number of new jobs being created in the field. But who is there to fill these jobs? Though the number of college graduates with tech degrees is increasing, this is not the only pool of candidates that employers can pull from. In fact, there are many places online and in the community where people can learn how to code, and to code well, without ever stepping foot in a college.
Conrad Hollomon, Chief of Staff & COO of Operation Code
Operation Code has embraced this idea and is helping to educate programmers who are coming not from the classroom, but from the military base. Conrad Hollomon, Chief of Staff & COO at Operation Code, was a US Army officer deployed in Afghanistan from 2010-2011. He was in charge of managing communications to protect his operating base, and wanted to continue his work once he finished his tour. When he returned to civilian life, however, there were a few things he noticed during the readjustment period.
To begin with, he felt that the transition process from active duty to civilian life was extremely short, and the period of time you have to reestablish yourself in the community was equally small. The civilian world is a very different culture from the military, and as it turned out, he wasn’t the only one having issues adapting. After speaking with other people coming off an active duty lifestyle, he found that many of them were having issues reintegrating with society.
One such example was a veteran who wanted to learn technical skills, but because he was working minimum wage in a trailer park to support his family, he lacked the resources needed to learn. This frustrated Hollomon because he knew that this veteran could excel if he was given the chance, but he wasn’t getting the support he needed to be something better.
Luckily, Hollomon was also a software engineer who had worked for a bunch of different startups in the area. This meant that he had some leftover pieces of hardware readily available, so he took an old laptop, fixed it up, and gave it to his friend. After getting the veteran set up with the proper equipment, Hollomon made sure that he could get wifi at the public library and find helpful learning resources.
“I really got involved in the veteran services community, and focused on more than just myself,” Hollomon says, “I think there are a lot of ways to give but there’s a misconception that you have to suffer in order to give, and that’s not the case. There’s no reason you can’t give in a way that uses your talents. If there’s a way to give back by coding, then do that.”
This is a sentiment shared by all the volunteers at Operation Code. It is their mission is to help members of the military community learn software engineering and coding by providing education and mentorship. The organization is partnered with many of the top coding schools, such as Bloc, Camp Code, and Thinkful, which enables them to offer scholarships to events and boot camps, as well as help build communities and run events for veterans and their families.
This focus on technical skills is what makes Operation Code different from other civilian transition programs. But why the focus on tech? Aside from Hollomon’s own experience in the tech industry, it turns out that one of the military’s major core competencies is being proficient with the physical layer of networking. Because the military uses a very wide and complicated network of enterprise systems, soldiers often become highly skilled at network operations and security. The difficulty is that much of this experience happens on older systems, but companies in the civilian world are using more recent versions of those platforms (such as Microsoft Server 2016, which the military has not yet upgraded to). Because many soldiers and veterans already have experience with the basic processes of networks, with a little bit of extra training, they can apply that knowledge to other types of systems that are similar yet more modern.
Hollomon presenting at Node Summit
But teaching coding skills isn’t the only thing the volunteers at Operation Code are working on. Developing the community is a key focus for Hollomon and others at Operation Code. He feels that the steps they’re taking to help integrate veterans into civilian life through coding also contribute to the overall initiative regarding diversity in STEM industries. For many people, the military is a way to get out of a bad environment because your education is paid for, you get a steady paycheck, and it’s a great way to have some social mobility that you wouldn’t normally have access to. As a result, the military has a large minority population. The theory is that with just a little bit of infrastructure and help, they can access opportunities for upward mobility to the middle class that would normally be out of their reach.
Making a significant societal impact is not going to be easy. Hollomon describes reaching Operation Code’s goals as a marathon, not a sprint. Every one of the volunteers who joined the organization as leadership has been in a startup, but they have no intention of following the standard startup path of doing an MVP then an exit. They know that as a non-profit, their work will take decades, and part of their mission involves taking a comprehensive look state by state to see where they can have the best impact.
So far, they have found that they keep returning directly to the people and communities. Focusing only on high-level programs is not enough for Holloman; he also believes that it’s important to personally engage and get people excited about how technology can improve their lives. The volunteers at Operation Code know that not everyone grew up coding and programming because, for many of us, it simply wasn’t the cool thing to do. But we’ve grown up in the past few decades and as times have changed, we are starting to realize the potential hidden in the tech industry. Helping veterans find these groups and creating the meetups they need to develop their skills can change their relationships and really add to their career and overall quality of life. So for Hollomon, if they can build up those communities in as many places as possible, no matter where veterans are in the country, they can make that change.
If you’re growing your team and want to invest in dedicated, intelligent veterans, Operation Code has a connection for you. They sponsor trained veterans who who have led teams of 8-10 with various backgrounds in development and networking. They also have access to program graduates already within companies who are happy to share their story and advocate for fellow trainees. Additionally, Operation Code is always eager and happy to work with companies to create ways to let vets have mentorship and education opportunities. For Holloman and the Operation Code team, being able to place these skilled workers is a scenario where everyone involved gets to declare victory.