Making the leap from Military to Software – Osvaldo Vargas – Medium
Writing about my transition from military service has been difficult. The journey is filled with ups and downs and is simply too long to include in a single article. Very briefly, I had the pleasure to serve in both the 82nd Airborne Division and 7th Special Forces Group as an Unmanned Aerial Systems Technician. Achieving the rank of Staff Sergeant, I had the privilege to work for and lead some of America’s finest soldier’s. I had planned to do 20 years in uniform, but due to medical reasons, my career was cut down to 7 years. With a small amount of money in the bank, my wife, 1-year-old-son and I moved in with my mother-in-law. She was kind enough to let us stay with her in her two-bedroom townhouse while we got back on our feet.
I was an Unmanned Aerial Systems Technician in the Army, but being in Florida, there did not seem to be a large market for those skills. I decided to do whatever it took to become a Software Engineer after remembering the excitement I had when I took a C++ course at Saint Leo University while serving in the Army and the feeling I had when I built WordPress websites for my previously attempted online businesses. Now that I knew what I wanted to do, I had to figure out how to get there. It seemed I had three options, enroll in a Computer Science Degree, go to a coding boot camp, or be self-taught. I read about self taught engineers who had skipped the formal education but felt there was no way I could do that. It turns out I was partially wrong, but more on that later.
I wanted to attend a formal boot camp, but the ones I felt were worth the investment were out of state and did not accept the GI Bill. For the record, many coding boot camps now accept the GI Bill, but I urge Veterans to carefully research these programs and organizations as many take an entire year’s worth of benefits for 12 weeks of instruction and do appear not to have the data points to back up many of their student outcome claims. Of course, Universities cost much more and may take four years to land you the same job the boot camp got you in 12 weeks. The topic of boot camps, university degrees, and self-teaching is not as easy as choose this and not that, and is an article for another day.
I started the VWC cohort in September 2017, and for 14 weeks met four times a week for 2-hour sessions. We were given tons of resources, had terrific talks with industry professionals like Will Grannis from Google Cloud, Tammy Butow from Gremlin Inc., and even Wes Bos from wesbos.com! We got tons of one on one mentorship, peer programming sessions, group projects, individual projects, and valuable feedback. We experienced what it was like to work on agile teams, use Github, work with clients, and learned industry relevant tools and frameworks. All this only cost deep commitment. Think of this as laser focused self teaching with top notch mentorship. You get the tools, the basic instruction, the resources, mentors, and a project due each week. It’s up to you to decide how to manage your time and resources but there is a team and community helping you along the way.
After the program ended, I saw many of my peer’s land careers in tech, become freelancers, or take other paths entirely. Regardless of their decisions, they were moving forward. I, on the other hand, was not. I have a confession to make; I believed the program could help people land a career in tech, but not me. Despite meeting people who made it with the program, I felt a degree was my golden ticket. After all, almost all the Software Engineering and Developer job postings in Tampa “require” a four-year degree or formal boot camp. As such, I did the VWC program when my bandwidth was at capacity. I was in University, working part-time first at Chick-Fil-A and later in IT, juggling life with a wife and son, going to every transition program I could find, and when the day was over, do my VWC work.
In December of 2018, I had a talk with Jerome that honestly changed my life. To preface that talk, my IT job converted to full time, and I had to make the difficult decision to turn it down so I could focus on my dream of becoming a Software Engineer. Although I had the GI Bill, I could not afford to be unemployed and only had enough savings and financial assistance to make it to summer. An employer reached out to VWC troops to see if anyone was interested in a developer position and I quickly reached out to Jerome.
I wish I could report that he recommended me for the job landing me that sweet Software Developer job, but that wasn’t the case. His response was unexpectedly much better than that. He made the difficult decision to inform me that he could not recommend me for the position, but proceeded to explain why, and gave me actionable advice. Through a series of conversations, he helped me realize that I could become an engineer, but I needed to trust in myself, trust the process, and demonstrate to employers that I can code not say I can. He was spot on, the truth is I did complete the program, but my projects did exactly what was asked nothing more, my Github was full of unfinished projects both from VWC and my external mentor, and worst of all when I went back through my slack messages, every month over 3 people would offer help and mentorship and more often than not I never took advantage of it.
From that day forward, I double downed on VWC and trusted myself and the VWC team. I reached out at every opportunity, volunteered with the product team, got feedback, and leverage any resource I could to solidify my knowledge. A little over one month later, everything came to a head, and it was time to make it or break it. My wife was diagnosed with a rare condition, and although it is currently non-active, I realized I could not wait until I obtained my degree to better my financial situation, I could not afford for an emergency to hit. You could say, mid-January I tripled down on VWC and amped up the self study. I applied to every Junior Developer internship I qualified for from Florida to California, the amount of resume’s I wrote, coding screenings I took, and interviews I attempted was insane. I was in school in the mornings, interviewing or preparing for interviews in the afternoons, and studying data structures and algorithms at night.
If I had trusted in VWC and my abilities on day 1 of the cohort like they believed in me, I could have been a Software Developer over a year ago. Sometimes thing’s that sound too good to be true appear that way because we fail to see what is really offered. VWC doesn’t promise to make you a software developer; they promise to provide resources, training, and mentorship to those willing to commit to achieving their dreams. I realize now there is no such thing as a golden ticket, whether you attend a boot camp, 4-year degree program, or are self-taught you only get out of it what you put in. I wholeheartedly believe that if a Veteran has the desire to become an engineer and is willing to work hard, this program will help them land that career.
If I have one advice for anyone trying to get into tech, it is believe in yourself and take action today to achieve your dreams, don’t wait.