Iconic Tour

Boot camps for vets are popping up to help them snare IT jobs

Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com

U.S. Army field artillery captain Jon Deng will end his active duty in about a month. His stint included a deployment last year to Iraq, where in between marshaling military duties, he learned on his own how to become a software developer, or coder in geek-talk. He's eager to transition into a promising career as a website developer — with some help from a couple of organizations that smooth veterans' often bumpy about-face into civilian life.

Andy Katz | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images

Deng, 27, graduated magna cum laude in 2011 from Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Business School with a degree in finance. He spent a year at Harvard Law School before deciding "that being a lawyer wasn't what I wanted to do with my life," he recalled. So in January 2013, aiming for a new direction, Deng joined the U.S. Army.

While stationed in Baghdad, his full-time job involved manually entering data into Excel spreadsheets, a tedious task that didn't exactly thrill him, either. Fortuitously, he met another GI, a computer engineer by trade, "who turned me on to the idea of coding," Deng said. For months he spent nights and weekends taking free online coding classes, primarily through Codecademy, and eventually became what's called a full-stack JavaScript web developer. Currently stationed at Fort Drum in upstate New York, Deng is immersed in a coding boot camp, Hack Reactor, toiling remotely to hone his talents.

He'll be going to battle in a crowded field, loaded with scores of other young, bright coders clamoring to earn six-figure starting salaries at Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech giants, as well as myriad start-ups and smaller companies, where software developers are in high demand. Beyond normal competition, though, Deng's soon-to-be status as a veteran can make his path even more daunting.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 250,000 men and women will leave the military this year and during each of the next three. Their changeover from uniforms to civvies includes a one-week transition-assistance program, presented by the Department of Labor and its subcontractors. The goal is to match the credentialed skills veterans have mastered in a branch of the service to jobs in the civilian realm. Yet with their nontraditional backgrounds, compared to non-military peers, it can be a challenge for vets.

"What you get is a one-size-fits-all solution to one of the most diverse workforces in America," stated Mike Slagh, co-founder and CEO of VetTechTrek, a nonprofit company based in San Francisco that links veterans to tech companies. Slagh and his partner, Steve Weiner, know the drill, as they're both vets turned tech entrepreneurs.

U.S. Army field artillery captain Jon Deng
Source: Jon Deng

During his transition after two years in the Navy, Slagh said, "I realized there weren't any pathways into entrepreneurship for vets to join early- or growth-stage companies."

He and Weiner figured that vets were as capable as non-military counterparts looking to start businesses. But because of their training, "vets can add a different perspective, a different set of experiences," Slagh added. "Vets can see through a chaotic environment and make sense of it."

Launched last year, VetTechTrek has hosted a half-dozen experiential "treks," two-day sessions that where tech-savvy veterans meet with fellow vets who work at more than 60 technology start-ups in New York, Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, among them Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook and Y Combinator. VetTechTrek is about to announce a rebranding tweak of the company to add longer, immersive internship and work-trial programs matching vets with potential employers.

Deng hasn't been on trek, but will be working with Slagh on a software-development project once he leaves the Army. In the meantime, Deng continues to sharpen his coding acumen and improve his marketability on HackerRank, a website where nearly 2 million coders from around the world virtually gather to show off their skills to would-be employers. The coders undertake challenges, test projects provided by companies looking to hire, and HackerRank grades their performance and assigns them a rank.

Vets can add a different perspective, a different set of experiences.
Mike Slagh
co-founder and CEO of VetTechTrek

Résumés alone aren't enough to weed out coders, said Vivek Ravisankar, co-founder and CEO of Palo Alto-based HackerRank. "Companies send us a challenge, and the developer gets a score on how proficient he or she is," he explained. "This helps connect developers to companies based on skills, not just résumés, which completely changes the way they think about recruiting."

"It's a really good test of computer-science knowledge," asserted Deng, who is getting ready to take some HackerRank challenges that hopefully result in job interviews. Armed too with his military attributes, he feels he's uniquely qualified. Vets are routinely put in ambiguous situations where if things don't go right, they have to figure out something else, he said. "Start-ups in the tech world need somebody who can work long hours, try different plans and quickly and unemotionally pivot to something new.

"That's the value vets bring to tech," Deng maintained. "Add the specific skills companies are looking for, like software engineering, business development or sales, and that's a pretty good combo."

— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com