Sean Ryon, Thomas Shomaker

For Veterans Facing Employment Difficulties, This Boot Camp Boosts Their Tech Skills

General Assembly's Opportunity Fund offers scholarships to those interested in a career in software, coding and more.

“Thank you for your service, but we can’t accept you for this position.” That’s what Jerome Hardaway, an Air Force veteran, heard from several potential employers after he returned stateside from three tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Coming home amidst the second worst economic slowdown this country had ever seen didn’t help, but Hardaway suspects being fresh out of the armed services was a big problem to those looking over his résumé. “Inheriting the stigma of the Vietnam veteran, some people considered us unskilled or untrained,” he says. Today, with the economy largely back on track, Hardaway still hears about comrades struggling to find jobs. The overall veteran unemployment rate recently fell below the civilian unemployment rate, hitting a seven-year low of 3.9 percent in October 2015, but that still means about 422,000 veterans are out of work.

“For a lot of these [employers], the last person that served in their family was in World War II. We’ve gotten so far from there. If you served your country then, you knew you were not going to go homeless, that you’d get a job,” Hardaway says. “We’ve gone from joining the military being the best decision of your life to now, it could possibly put you in a worse position.”

To change that, Hardaway started looking for work in a rapidly growing sector: the tech world. The barriers to entry, like knowing how to code and compute, were higher there, but so was the possibility of finding a high-paying job. Hardaway had some experience — he started fiddling with computers in 2007, while stationed in Iraq, mostly “as a way to keep my sanity,” — but it was General Assembly’s 12-week boot camp in 2014 and a full-ride scholarship from the group’s Opportunity Fund that helped him transition to a full-time career in coding. Now, Hardaway is paying it forward by setting a goal of helping 1,000 fellow veterans follow him into software development.

When Hardaway enlisted, the wars in the Middle East were still new. Soldiers hadn’t started coming home, and the recruiters were persuasive, appealing to his patriotism and the sense of duty he felt coming from a military family. Hardaway, to be sure, doesn’t regret his service — “I’m happy I did it because I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he says, but finding financial stability as an African-American male and combat veteran in Tennessee was tough. Hardaway occasionally found freelance web design gigs, but on the whole, Memphis felt more “old-folksy” than “tech-savvy,” he says. “They call themselves a city,” he jokes. “They have tall buildings, but it’s really a town.” Its social structure operates on who you know, and Hardaway missed six and a half years of making connections while deployed.

He considered enrolling in a degree program, but he couldn’t find a school that offered what veterans needed as  “24-year-olds reintegrating into civilian society.” A class might teach him HTML or CSS, but he wanted a foundation of strong logical reasoning to solve problems that would come up on the job. By chance, he saw a post about General Assembly’s Opportunity Fund on Facebook and applied. The first year, his application was rejected. Determined, he reapplied the following year. Within a week of losing his job, he was accepted for a boot camp in Manhattan.

He says practicing, “just making us solve problems every day,” was the most helpful part of his experience. “It’s like boxing,” he tells other veterans. “I can teach you how to throw all the punches, but you’re not going to be able to know if your first punch should be the right cross or an uppercut.” Now, he knows which tools to use and when. He says he’s started to think like a programmer, rather than a guy who liked messing around with computers.

“I tell people I’ve gone from no job to having one. I can’t understate the importance of General Assembly,” he says. “But I don’t feel like I’m special. I was willing to do the work. I went from being fired to being hired and getting invited to the White House.”

Dressed in sharp suits, a fan of shaken martinis and hot bowls of ramen, Hardaway today might not appear like the stereotype of a veteran. But his military training quickly comes out in conversation. “Roger that,” he wrote in an email about setting up an interview. His yes and no are “negative” and “affirmative,” and they’re often followed by a “Sir.” Above all, Hardaway strives to live up to the Air Force’s core value of excellence in all you do. That’s the principle that guides his nonprofit, Vets Who Code, in closing “the digital talent gap” for veterans. (A celebration of the group is why Hardaway went to the White House.)

Hardaway says veterans are particularly attuned to tech, because from the minute they enter basic training, they’re constantly working on solving problems in high-stress situations. While some employers may doubt those skills can translate from the battlefield to an office, Hardaway is blazing a path for other warriors to follow by sitting down at the keyboard.

Watch the video above to see how General Assembly helped Hardaway achieve a career in the tech sector.

MORE: The School That’s Making a Career in Tech Possible for Everyone

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.