On a Mission to Build Careers for Military Veterans in the Innovation Sector

Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his [/ her] country's cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause. —Abraham Lincoln

We’ve had a number of transitioning military veterans go through our program in pursuit of new tech skills and career support, who’ve gone on to build fulfilling careers in tech. Time and again, our students who have served have stood out in their abilities to listen and communicate ideas effectively, motivating teammates around a clear goal and course of action. They take calculated risks and approach problems resourcefully. They lead, or follow—doing what’s necessary to make the cause a success.

Military veterans have the transferable skills that the tech sector needs. The innovation economy is dynamic and fast-moving, and it requires scrappy and action-oriented team players who will make the decisions that drive a mission forward. They also have a broadened perspective and worldview that makes our industry richer. At Startup Institute, we’re always glad to have these people in our ranks.

Recently, we teamed up with Operation Code for a hackathon to help bridge the gap that will bring more service men and women into the innovation sector. Operation Code is a veteran-led nonprofit, with a mission to get active military, citizen-soldiers, veterans and their families coding and building software to change the world.

In this Idea Hack, Conrad Holloman, military veteran and Chief of Staff at Operation Code, challenged our students to hack user experience on operationcode.org, to develop a solution that would optimize engagement for a diverse group of site users. They had 24 hours.

I caught up with Conrad following the Idea Hack to learn more about his mission and the hackathon outcomes.

Q: Conrad, tell me more about Operation Code. What is important about what you're doing?

A: Operation Code's mission is to empower military veterans, transitioning service-members, and their families to learn software development and enter the tech industry. We do this through our programs and services, which include advocacy, career services, mentorship, and scholarships. Our community ranges the full spectrum—from software engineers at top tech companies, to seasoned technology leaders; from major defense contractors to Silicon Valley startups. At Operation Code, we believe that coding is the future and that anyone—regardless of their background—can take part in that future.

[bctt tweet="We believe @operation_code that #coding is the future + anyone can take part, says @hollomancer " via="no"]

Q: What do you want civilians to be aware of that we might not be aware of already?

A: When you're transitioning from the military, it's like entering a whole new culture. Writing resumes, interviewing for jobs, and figuring out how to tell the story of what you did in the military, in a way that a hiring manager can relate to, is a tremendous challenge. If you're lucky, you might have a transition assistance program on base that helps prepare you for civilian life and puts you on a track for your next career. At Operation Code, we want to take luck out of the equation—by providing opportunities for transitioning military personnel to move straight into software development.

[bctt tweet="Transitioning from the military is like entering a new culture, says @hollomancer @operation_code" username="StartupInst"]

Q: What problem did you ask Startup Institute students to solve for you in this hackathon?

A: For this challenge, we were looking for the students to help us with an especially difficult problem: building a website that caters to numerous diverse demographic segments. We want to make sure that whether you're a veteran, transitioning from the military, a military spouse or family member who wants to learn software development, a tech industry professional who wants to give back, or a hiring manager looking to find military talent—that our site helps you find what you need.

So we gave Startup Institute students this challenge: How do we provide a user experience that encourages partnerships with other organizations while making it easy for visitors to join our community?

Q: Why is this an important challenge for you? What is difficult about it?

A: Developing web content and a user experience for such different needs and demands is challenging. You only get so much language, so much screen space, so much branding and color to work with. Saying a lot with a little—that's a critical skill for any designer. [bctt tweet="Saying a lot with a little—that's a critical skill for any #designer, says @hollomancer" username="StartupInst"]

Q: What expectations do you have going into the Idea Hack?

A: Given the amount of time students had, I expected we'd get a few recommendations here and there about what we could do better, places where we could streamline our copy or our navigation flow.

Q: What was the result?

A: I was blown away by what some of the groups came up with! I was really impressed to see the groups who went out to talk to veterans and military families, to really develop empathy and perspective with how they see and perceive an organization like ours. Some of the groups went even further than that, actually designing a live, working site—in less than 24 hours!

Q: What surprised you most about the hackathon or students' solutions?

A: What surprised me most was the level of detail and professionalism that went into what I saw. In a very short time, I saw presentations with amazing content and thoughtful, detailed analysis that we are already working to put into motion in our organization. [bctt tweet="I was surprised by the level of detail. We're already implementing these solutions @operation_code, says @hollomancer" via="no"]

Q: How was the winning group chosen?

A: This was a really, really tough call. The group that we felt stood out the most, though—they delivered on the whole package. They not only had great ideas, they presented them well and showed how they actually worked with a prototype. If a picture says a thousand words, a live site is a thousand pictures—there's no substitute for actual interaction with a product.[bctt tweet="A picture is 1000 words, but a live site is 1000 pictures. No substitute for interaction, says @hollomancer" username="StartupInst"]

Q: What did the top-performing groups have in common? What improvement feedback would you give to students overall?

A: I would say that the top-performing groups focused on the people more than on the website. While there are always bugs to fix and optimizations to make, at the end of the day, a website exists for people to use. By understanding the people who the website is intended for, it makes it possible to make good design decisions on how to appropriately convey information to them.[bctt tweet="Websites exist for people to use. Good #UXdesign starts by understanding people, says @hollomancer" username="StartupInst"]

Q: Are there any actionable takeaways that you'll actually be able to implement moving forward?

A: There were great things that came out of every single group that I saw! We're still going through it all...

Q: What stood out to you most about this experience?

A: One of the reasons I love hackathons is that they brings people together from all walks of life. The cross-disciplinary nature of the Idea Hack isn't just great preparation for a startup, or for working on a product development team at any company—it's great preparation for helping people understand each other, and work as a team.

[bctt tweet="Cross-disciplinary #hackathons are great for learning how to work as a team, says @hollomancer" username="StartupInst"]

Thank you to Conrad and the team at Operation Code for joining us and collaborating on this hackathon. More than that, thank you for the work you do to honor our servicemen and women and their families, and to support them in their transitions back into civilian life.

To those who have served and sacrificed to protect us, our deepest gratitude.