Sean McBride, a West Point graduate and US Army veteran, received our first full-tuition scholarship to the Remote Immersive Program in partnership with veterans non-profit, Operation Code.
In honor of Veterans Day, we were lucky enough to record an interview between Sean and Conrad Hollomon, a fellow veteran and Operation Code’s Chief of Staff. Here they discuss the journey of learning to code in relation to the transition from Military to civilian life.
Interview with Conrad Holloway: Nov. 10, 2016
Conrad: Thanks for taking the time to talk! How has the Fullstack Academy experience been so far?
Sean: Yeah, it’s been an incredible first couple of weeks. The intensity has been far more than I expected. The Immersive absolutely requires 100% effort. I’ll probably be working on some things until midnight tonight.
Tomorrow is a virtual reality social event. The immersive has a minecraft server and they’ve recreated the Fullstack campus. There’s a competition to write code in Node.js.
C: That sounds like a lot of fun. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your time so far. Let me ask you, does the experience live up to the Bootcamp moniker?
S: Yes, totally. I’d say it’s similar in intensity to Airborne School, but instead of jumping out of perfectly-good airplanes, we’re committing lots of code to GitHub
C: Did you have a chance to go when you were active?
S: Yeah, I was a cadet when I went to airborne school, so that was 2006 or so.
C: Wow, that’s going back. Looking at it now, what brought you to that point? What brought you to the Military?
S: Growing up, college wasn’t really on the radar for me. My dad worked at a naval shipyard, and when that shut down he gradually became a strange cross between Snoop Dogg and Donald Trump.
C: Interesting pairing.
S: I had a pretty chaotic home life at times, and I joined Junior ROTC looking for a bit more structure and discipline. I actually still have a shirt from those days. It was an extra large, which was huge at the time, but between repeated washings and weight gain, it fits finally!
C: All part of the training plan.
S: Absolutely. My grades started going up after Junior ROTC, and I was thinking about the military when September 11 happened, and that really changed my perspective on things.
C: Do you remember where you were on Sept. 11?
S: Yeah, I remember it was one of the days I had to wear my uniform to school, so I had gotten up early. I was showering while listening to some goofy California hip hop station, and suddenly a song from Jay-Z or Mystikal or whomever else ended and the DJs sounded like they were in shock -- they started talking about these very serious things. I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was at the time, being a west coast kid.
C: It changed a lot of people's lives that day, for sure.
S: So many folks decided to enlist around that point. 9/11 tipped the scale for me. I had been thinking about maybe not going to college, trying to get a tech job, but after that I firmly decided on Military.
C: And what was your process of enlisting like?
S: My Junior ROTC instructor told me to start thinking about my Military experience and what I want to do with it, and they encouraged me to apply to the Service Academies. West Point was my first choice, my second choice was enlisting in this special program to immediately complete to join the Special Forces. I got into West Point and it was beyond what I could’ve hoped for. A friend of mine did do the special enlistment, and I later learned from him that pretty much nobody in that program actually passed the special forces assessment.
C: That’s great. What was it like stepping into West Point for the first time?
S: First impressions were “look at this gothic architecture, look at these spires, the uniforms are like something out of another century.” Otherwise it was a pretty huge adjustment for me. Growing up in my family, the cleanliness of my room wasn’t a top priority. Adjusting to the higher standards was a little challenging!
C: So quite the change of perspective?
S: Yeah, I was a bit of the oddball too. Some of my company-mates were multiple-generation West Point grads, and then I came in there. I always felt a little out of place but it was a great experience. I got to train with the German military, and that was my first time ever leaving the country. It was all very cool.
C: So you make it through West Point and enter the Army, what was that perspective and experience like?
S: You spend so much time at West Point -- all of your college years -- and you think you’ll enter the military as this large-and-in-charge Second Lieutenant, but then meet an E6, E7, E8 and you’re like, “Well, I’ve got a lot of learning to do.”
C: Yeah, you step in and those E7s, E8s have so much knowledge just in their little finger.
S: It was a lot about meeting the troops, learning all the organizational stuff, and “fake it until you make it.”
C: Where were you stationed?
S: I was down at Fort Rucker and also at Fort Sill
C: I’ve been to Fort Sill -- Lost in Oklahoma!
S: Have you been to that abandoned mining town with the one burger place? I forget the name. [Meers Store and Restaurant]
C: Yeah, but you know what, that burger place was very well attended.
S: Not a lot in Oklahoma, I just remember the winds were so intense. I’m this tough army guy putting chapstick on all the time.
C: All the tornado drills -- I spent some time at Fort Sill myself.
What was the transition to civilian life like?
S: Leaving the Military was a big culture change. Someone told me at the beginning that in the Military you wear your shield in the front and in civilian life you sometimes have to wear your shield in the back, and I’m like, “I don’t even know what that means!”
But I got out and at that point the economy was doing pretty bad. I remember looking for technical jobs, interviewing for an IT position at a Veterans Affairs Hospital and not getting it. Operation Code didn’t exist, so I didn’t feel like I had a support network at that time.
C: If you had the chance to talk to someone in the midst of their ETS from the military, who wants to make a similar transition and work in tech, what advice would you give them?
S: If they’re interested in technology, my first advice would be to start looking into free, online, self-paced resources that help you gain exposure to what software development is about. I think Microsoft and some other companies occasionally offer on-site technical training resources for those approaching ETS, so if there’s something like that as your post or base, be sure to take advantage.
The Military is generally very good at making you sit down and think about a transition plan, realistic plans really need feedback and validation from people that have successfully made the leap. Operation Code is an excellent way to find a mentor and get emotional support, so get active in the Operation Code slack channels.
C: How do you think your time in the military is affecting your experience at Fullstack Academy? How is it informing your life now?
S: It’s definitely a benefit. At the end of the day, the military is one huge training organization, so that culture really teaches how to capture and implement lessons learned. Combine that with the grit and intense self-study that all service members have to demonstrate on a daily basis, and it’s clear that veterans are just well equipped to excel at this type of fast-paced high-pressure learning.
C: We’ve talked about the military now and your experience, but let’s get geeky. Do you remember what age you became more interested in the development side of tech?
S: Yeah, the very first development thing I did was on a Macintosh Plus. I had all these hand-me-down computers, several generations behind. So when everyone else was on the internet, I had this Macintosh Plus with an external 20 MB hard drive and a big SCSI port. On that they had this thing called HyperCard, which was hypermedia before the web existed, so that was the very first thing.
C: When did you think you could do this development stuff as a career?
S: It’s been a relatively recent development. When I was making my civilian transition, there were a lot of people steering me away from coding. People have this preconception of what a programmer-type is like, and military people don’t fit that mold necessarily. I was told to look at finance, sales, or six-sigma-something-something! It wasn’t until I discovered Operation Code and met veterans working in software development that I realized it was possible.
C: Once you decided to get serious about coding, how did it feel to finally build something?
S: It’s amazing. To be able to go in at the ground level and build something, especially with the immediate feedback of the browser, it’s like legos for adults. Very few people are blessed to do something they really enjoy, and I think for the right personality, programming is a very rewarding experience.
C: Out of what you’ve built so far, what do you think you’ve had the most fun working on?
S: We did this project at Fullstack called Game of Life. You create these little simulated organisms that interact with each other in unpredictable ways. It was really fun to see a world I built do things that I didn’t anticipate. I’ve also built an Atari-like frogger game that I had a lot of fun with.
C: If you met a veteran following in your footsteps, who wanted to learn code, what advice would you give them?
S: My first advice is to find a community of like-minded peers. I think Operation Code is the optimal solution for that. Get involved, get plugged in. There are folks at a lot of different skill levels, so find someone just a little more advanced than you as a mentor and just be patient. It takes time to build these skills. The infrastructure with coding bootcamps and everything has improved substantially, but of course the GI bill stuff is really frustrating, and I really hope that more code schools will be able to accept the post 9/11 GI bill in the future.
Side note - My grandfather came back from Korea and learned to use Mainframe computers with the GI bill, so if someone could do it back then for a 3 month technical training program, why can’t we do that now?
C: Definitely, and let me tell you we’re working on it!
What are your career goals post-Fullstack?
S: I’m pretty open-minded. I’ve made some contacts with a local veteran startup incubator associated with Bunker Labs, and I’d really love to work as a software developer for a veteran owned startup, but I’m also weighing the value of employers that potentially have more structured mentoring for full-stack web developers. I’m also eager to find ways of giving back to Operation Code, especially by helping other vets prepare for the technical interviews for Fullstack and other top-tier coding bootcamps.