Volunteer Story: Manager finds fulfillment in transformative role at Code Platoon

Snapper Ploen is a Digital Marketing Manager at MCG who served on the design, content and advertising teams at Code Platoon.  The following is a reproduction of his original blog post which is posted here:

https://www.mcg.com/blog/2018/05/10/transforming-veterans-into-software-developers

As an employee of MCG, you are part of an important mission which includes moving people toward health and improving the patient journey. However, it also grants you the opportunity to impact the community and help those in need. Last year, MCG began offering its employees the option to use 16 hours of paid company time per year to volunteer with an approved non-profit of our choice. With a large number of organizations in need of help, choosing whom to serve can be overwhelming. My fellow MCG team members supported local food banks in both San Diego and Seattle, and after hearing their stories, I did some research into groups who were looking for assistance.

 

WHERE TO VOLUNTEER?

As I browsed VolunteerMatch.org for requests, I asked myself a few questions:

  • Who has a mission that is changing lives with a long-term impact?
  • Could my efforts somehow address multiple issues affecting our society right now?
  • What unique skills do I have that could best help them?

As I considered the options, I took some guidance from current events in my life: My nephew had just enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and joined a long line of family members who had already served in the military. I was very proud of him and attending his graduation was a milestone of 2017. In addition, MCG has been in discussion with legislators in Washington D.C. to improve healthcare delivery for military personnel at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Between these events, my mind was already focused on the veteran community. Around the same time, my friends working in software engineering mentioned that recruiting qualified candidates was growing increasingly difficult. It’s no secret that automation is replacing much of the manufacturing job base in our country, and writing the software that provides much of this automation is where job growth appears to be headed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 24% growth in software developer demand by 2026 with median pay for this field hovering around $103,500 in 2017.1 Finally, I knew I wanted to offer my creative abilities because I felt they were the most valuable thing I had to contribute.

 

CODE PLATOON: A CODE CAMP FOR VETERANS

Through my search criteria, I found a Chicago-based coding boot camp exclusively for U.S. veterans called Code Platoon. This non-profit outfit provides a unique learning environment where vets can learn alongside other vets to become full stack developers. It offers in-person and remote learning pathways as well as generous scholarships that pay virtually 100% of the tuition. With 14 weeks of intensive training, Code Platoon veterans can learn:

  • Programming Languages: Ruby, JavaScript, HTML and CSS
  • SQL Database
  • Frameworks: Ruby-on-Rails and React.js
  • Version Control using Git
  • APIs
  • Object Oriented Design

Code Platoon also supports veterans transitioning from military life to a civilian career by offering three- to six-month internships during which the hiring organization can “vet the vet” to see if they align with the company culture. Many veterans seem to do well in the software field as it is a natural fit considering the structure-oriented work and mental discipline required – particularly in cybersecurity and software architecture roles. Veterans also tend to perform better in stressful situations, and in today’s rapidly changing IT environment, this can be a highly valuable quality in a software developer.

Although most veterans are eligible for G.I. Bill benefits and can pursue a four-year college degree, many do not have a transitional environment that includes learning alongside other veterans. And while a four-year degree may be the appropriate option for some, others are seeking an expedited route to an in-demand career that offers rewarding challenges and a competitive salary. Code Platoon can help them achieve those goals at an accelerated pace, and students who chose the in-person learning path still have the option to apply their G.I. Bill benefits towards the program’s tuition.

 

HOW I HELPED

After submitting my application to become a Code Platoon volunteer, I attended a few conference calls with the organization’s leadership. Rodrigo Levy, the founder and CEO of Code Platoon, always puts the veteran first, and he wanted the organization’s branding to reflect that focus. He was keenly aware that trust is vital to U.S. military vets, and it is something they’ve held in the highest regard since their days at basic training. He also emphasized how much they deserve transparent information. Trust and transparency are sacred values at MCG, so I already felt like I was on familiar ground with Code Platoon.

My role was to help update Code Platoon’s branding and develop some recruitment collateral that could support efforts in raising awareness of the program. We started by redesigning their logo which includes a variation of the military chevron symbol with the stripes pointing right to denote progression and forward movement. After that, we developed a brand style guide which included some bold color choices to make us stand out in the overcrowded coding camp community. After that, we developed print collateral for career fairs and corporate partnership outreach. We then moved on to their website, and I collaborated with a very talented web dev pro named Bob to align the look with the new branding. Recently, I have taken on their paid search campaign management (AdWords), and I am working their content team to optimize their email marketing so we can keep potential veteran students interested and engaged.

What have I learned from all of this? Well, first of all, it’s not always common that your employer will let you use work time to help a community in need. For that, I am extremely grateful to MCG, and our parent company Hearst, for being so supportive of this endeavor. Even though I rapidly used up my allotment of company time, I chose to stay committed to Code Platoon. I continue working weekends and after regular work hours to provide support when needed. Secondly, I have to say I’ve never experienced a more productive volunteer collaboration than I have with the people at Code Platoon. These are dedicated people who are genuine about helping our veterans achieve productive and successful careers in software development. This opportunity – along with the work I do every day at MCG – serves as a reminder to myself that even though I am just a single individual, my contributions can help deliver something positive to the world and give back to people who have sacrificed so much for all of us. In the bigger picture, my role is small, but it gives me a great deal of fulfillment to help vets join the rising tide of technology professionals.

Snapper’s contributions to Code Platoon have been indispensable to our continued growth. Snapper re-designed our branding (which outperformed two other designs by wide margin), and helps us – strategically and tactically – with messaging and advertising. Special thanks to MCG for allowing him to use company time to help us support veterans pursuing a career in software development. We are very grateful to them for their generous volunteerism policy.

Rod Levy

CEO, Code Platoon

In closing, I want to add something that isn’t particularly profound but always worth repeating: Education is one of the most transformative tools that we have in life. Learning new skills doesn’t just improve your career; it allows people to elevate their socio-economic status, it benefits interpersonal relationships, and it can put you in a position where you can help others rise to their full potential. When pursuing an education, it certainly helps to have lots of time and financial assistance, but the first step is having the courage to believe in your ability to learn and adapt. Even if you’re not a veteran with a dedicated group of people supporting you, self-motivation and access to a public library or the Internet can yield wonders for your skillset. And if you ever doubt what you can achieve just think of all the honorable individuals who answered the call of duty for our country. They did it so that we can all enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t waste the opportunities they’ve afforded you – always strive to learn, grow, and adapt.

And never fear the future.

– Snapper S. Ploen, Digital Marketing Manager, MCG

Code Platoon’s Partnership with Repl.it

Since 2016, Code Platoon has trained four cohorts of career-changing veterans to enter the technology sector. More than 80% of our students have found employment as full-time junior developers with an average starting salary of $65,000. As we planned for 2018, we asked ourselves, “How do we scale our product to reach and train as many veterans as possible?” While our in-person immersive bootcamp in Chicago was a success, the need for veterans to relocate to Chicago was a limiting growth factor. After mulling over potential solutions, we decided to create a remote program that would run alongside our in-person program.

The feedback was incredible – applications were flying in. In our current cohort, Echo Platoon, 50% of our students are remote, calling in from Ohio to Italy! While we were thrilled to get this influx of students, a new challenge arose: grading. Instructors were completely overwhelmed with the sheer volume of pull requests from students and spent more time grading than with students.

It was at that time that we discovered Repl.it classroom. Repl.it classroom gives our instructors the ability to create digital classrooms of students, assign classwork/homework, automatically grade that work through unit tests, and keep track of outstanding assignments. In addition, since Repl.it is an entirely browser-based IDE, it is OS agnostic, allowing students with Macs or PCs to write code with minimal setup. The ability to save and send code between students and instructors is also invaluable.

We’re proud to call Repl.it a sponsor of Code Platoon. Through their platform, we will be able to quickly and effectively scale our program to reach veterans around the globe!

Denver Startup Week: An Ambassador’s Experience

I had the distinct privilege of being part of the inaugural Ambassadors class for Denver Startup Week (DSW). The DSW Ambassadors program was a 3-day all-expenses-paid trip where out-of-town entrepreneurs, business leaders, and technical folks got the opportunity to visit Denver and experience their startup ecosystem. Having never been to Denver, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and thankfully, I was selected to experience this vibrant city firsthand.

Stereotypically, when outsiders think of Denver, we think of ski resorts, a vibrant outdoor lifestyle, and of course, marijuana; Denver traditionally does not hold a reputation of being a technology hub like San Francisco or Chicago but in recent years, there have been rumors of it starting to establish itself as a real technology player. I am happy to report that these rumors are true: Denver is certainly establishing itself as a prime technology hub ripe with top talent.

As an Ambassador, I got the opportunity to visit 6 Denver companies that helped sponsor my class and talked with their business leaders. I learned the history of each company’s inception, their growing pains, and what they were excited about looking into the future. A number of themes/lessons persisted:

  1. As a business leader, exemplify your company’s values. If you set an unlimited vacation policy in hopes reduce employee burnout/turnover but never go on vacation, neither will your employees. Be the example for your company
  2. Taking a longer time to hire the right employee is a better return on investment than rushing to hire someone to fill a role. The amount of damage that a poor hire can wreak on your company can be immeasurable.
  3. Your company’s success will likely depend on how well your team members can work with each other and communicate effectively. High emotional IQ is often a greater indicator of future successes than a high amount of technical talent.

Personally, the most welcome surprise of attending DSW was finding out how warm Denverites were and and how they truly wanted outsiders to join their community. While many people and cities pay lip service to welcoming others to their hometowns, I actually received personal phone numbers from folks who told me to call them if I needed help moving. The entire city was a warm and inviting place with a high emphasis on helping their fellow community member – fellowship takes precedence over the bottom line. I would highly recommend Denver as a city to start any company – the top technical talent, beauty of the landscape, and community-driven people make it second to none.

Deja Baker’s Coding Journey Leads the Way for Women and Veterans Alike

Despite the fact that the tech community is growing faster than ever, there are still two demographics that are often overlooked – women and veterans. However, the dearth of representation from both communities is quickly changing, especially when you have individuals like Deja Baker spearheading the effort. Baker, who enlisted in the Navy as an Analyst, eventually pursued her interest in technology as a Computer Science major at the Naval Academy.

Seeking to further her education in the coding industry, Baker applied for and received Code Platoon’s Women In Technology Scholarship, which fully covers her tuition, and is scheduled to attend the all-veteran coding bootcamp this fall. While there were a number of other bootcamps to choose from, Code Platoon was always the first choice for Baker.

“One reason why I chose to apply for Code Platoon is because its exclusively for veterans,” Baker said. “I feel that being around people from a similar background, who are working towards the same goals, will prove more beneficial to the process.”

In addition to providing a sense of community, Baker believes that an all-veteran bootcamp will likely be composed of the most highly motivated and disciplined students in the coding industry.

“Veterans have worked in a variety of different roles all over the world, and because of that, veterans have a wide array of experiences that allow them to adapt quickly when engaging in new projects,” Baker said. “I feel that a lot of veterans have the drive and the aptitude to work towards a role in tech.”

Although many of today’s veterans often have skillsets that translate well to coding and programming few choose to pursue a career path in the tech industry. Baker says that veterans who have given thought to a career in coding should, at the very least, give it a try.

“I know a lot of people that are interested in coding who are too worried to see what it’s all about, but there are abundant resources online to just dabble in it and see if coding is for you.”

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by leading tech giants such as Google, IBM, and Intel, all of whom have taken measures to help veterans gain a footing in the tech sector. And because there are plenty of opportunities waiting for veterans with strong programming skills, Baker says she’s eager to begin her first day at Code Platoon.

“I’m excited to have this opportunity to study and work towards becoming a developer; I’m looking forward to working in teams in a highly collaborative environment and to be challenged while solving difficult problems.”