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Operation Code website.
Operation Code website.

Software and technology rank among the top jobs in the country, but military veteran David Molina fears that the country’s military veterans aren’t getting the support they need to successfully land tech positions when transitioning into the workforce.

There are employment opportunities as defense contractors or working in security in Afghanistan, Molina said, “but who reaches out to us and says, ‘Do you want to do software or start your own company?’ ”

David Molina, founder of Operation Code.
David Molina, founder of Operation Code.

So the former U.S. Army Captain with 10 years of service is trying to fix that. Molina, who lives in Portland, Ore., has founded Operation Code, a nonprofit organization that supports veterans who want to learn to code and write web applications.

His group helps veterans by connecting them to mentors, scholarships and apprenticeships, and by sending them to coding conferences at no cost. Operation Code is a resource for employers seeking to hire veterans and it recently launched Deploy, a veteran-run web development consultancy. A few hundred veterans have received mentoring or other support through the group, Molina said.

“We love what we do,” Molina said. “We’re military vets who love software and programming, and we want to help other vets.”

The focus of Operation Code has evolved over time. Initially, Molina was primarily focused on the G.I. Bill, a program that helps veterans cover costs such as tuition for academic and vocational schools.

Molina, who studied political science in college, began teaching himself coding while in the Army to do some web development, including building a site to help recruit drill sergeants. As he tackled more complicated projects, Molina realized he needed additional skills but he struggled to master them on his own or find useful resources. Eventually he turned to online, short-term courses.

In no time, he was hooked on coding.

“It came faster. I was excited,” Molina said. “I told my boss, ‘I’m going to get out of the Army and be a software developer.’” His boss thought he was nuts to walk away from a secure job with the military, but Molina saw it otherwise.

“I’m not crazy,” he said. “Software is bad ass.”

Operation code logoBut he ran into a problem. When Molina quit the Army to pursue his new career goals, he realized that the G.I. Bill has specific accreditation requirements for the programs it will pay for — and it doesn’t include most coding schools.

Molina raised his concerns with members of Congress and started a petition to get the G.I. Bill changed. When it became clear that this tactic wasn’t going to work, or at least not in a timely manner, he changed strategies. Molina turned Operation Code into a nonprofit to help vets trying to learn to code right away.

Fernando Paredes, an Army veteran and iOS/Android developer at Seattle-based Shiftboard, an online scheduling startup, is one of the Operation Code mentors and a board member. Paredes helped the organization set up a mentoring community using the Slack collaboration tool, and he assists others who are eager to learn Ruby, JavaScript, iOS and other programming languages.

In the tech field, “vets are really an underrepresented community, just like there are very few minorities, and that shouldn’t be the case,” he said.

“It should be inclusive. People should be able to get into it without having connections or having to drop $30,000 [on a college education] to do this,” Paredes said. “We as a community should try to hold each other up and push each other forward.”

Molina is reaching out to coding boot camps to encourage them to enroll more veterans. He’s also trying to connect coding schools with former military attorneys to help the schools jump through the required hoops to become eligible for payment through the G.I. Bill.

“Getting accredited takes resources we don’t have,” said Mattan Griffel, CEO of One Month, a New York-based coding school that Molina took courses from.

Code Fellows, a Seattle-based coding boot camp, is working with Washington regulators to get state-level approval for receiving G.I. Bill dollars. It appears that a coding school in Colorado is the only one currently eligible for G.I. Bill payments, said Dave Parker, CEO for Code Fellows. Their company hopes to join them in the next few months.

David Molina, right, when he served as a captain in the U.S. Army. Photo from David Molina.
David Molina, right, when he served as a captain in the U.S. Army, pictured with General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps. Photo from David Molina.

This past summer, Code Fellows announced a $250,000 scholarship program targeting veterans, women and underrepresented minorities. So far five veterans have received training using scholarships that pay 70 percent of tuition costs, Parker said.

Parker acknowledges that his program doesn’t have the depth and rigor of a university computer science degree, which some have raised as a concern. His company offers an alternative, he says, for people looking to quickly acquire and apply programming skills.

“It’s really about job readiness,” Parker said. The veterans already have multiple skill sets — they’re often strong team players, have a good attention to detail and useful leadership skills — and just need more coding background. Some veterans also have security clearances that certain tech jobs require.

Molina is eager to forge an easier path for more veterans, removing some of the hurdles he faced. He’s hopeful that Operation Code can help veterans find good paying jobs and ease homelessness, depression, PTSD and other challenges plaguing some former service members.

“It’s a supportive community,” Molina said. “We are veteran founded and driven.”

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