By Braden Shipley, Software Engineer at Oddball
In March of 2011 I enlisted into the Texas Army National Guard as an 11C Indirect Fire Infantryman, colloquially known as a mortarman or a Chuck (short for Charlie). I enlisted without any college credit and started my career at the lowest rank. It was still two months till my 18th birthday, so my mom had to sign the contract with me. I went to Fort Benning, ran to the Tree of Woe like every other Chuck before me, and started my career. I was promoted to Sergeant in 2014 and planned to stay in the service for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, my appendix ruptured in the late summer of 2016 while I was on orders, and complications from that had some long term effects that resulted in me leaving the Army in March of 2017 after completing my six years.
Without a college education, an infantryman is qualified for only a couple of jobs: Police Officer and Security Guard. I flipped a coin and chose security. I worked in security for a little over 2 years and in that time I ran security teams for corporate offices and worked at a data center for a very well-known social-media company. I was planning on going to college ‘once the perfect time came.’ When my wife and I found out that she was pregnant, the possibility of a ‘perfect time’ disappeared. I couldn’t justify taking four years to go back to school at severely reduced or no income while my wife worked full-time with a new baby. I had to find a path forward.
While working at the data center I met many people who had started in the field without a college degree, but I didn’t think it was possible for me. I didn’t figure someone like me, who hadn’t been programming their entire life, would be able to work in the field. I stayed up late at night googling “how much money does a baby cost,” “best jobs you can get without a college degree,” “can a human survive on a diet of rice and beans,” and other things like that. I stumbled upon an article saying that many people were getting into software without a college degree by attending bootcamps which were usually about 3 months long with a semi-high upfront cost.
Of the bootcamps near me, the closest was DevMountain in downtown Dallas, an hour and twenty-five minute long train ride each way. The earliest I could start would put my graduation from DevMountain at around 7 days before my wife’s due date… hopefully enough time to hit the ground running with a new career. My wife and I didn’t have much savings, but with a small loan from family and from our bank we were able to afford tuition and around four months of living expenses. There were a lot of unknowns. It wasn’t clear this was a good idea. But with my wife’s support, I signed up for the fall cohort.
Bootcamps are a relatively new thing. The first coding bootcamp was General Assembly in New York and others followed almost immediately. Most full-time bootcamps follow a similar format: around three months of 5 day weeks, starting from the fundamentals all the way up to developing full-stack portfolio projects. The time is split up between classroom lectures and guided hands-on work for the first half of the course, with the latter being mostly guided individual and team project development.
Most attendees have little to no background in programming. There is a heavy pressure to learn and improve quickly, so while the course schedule may be 9-5, most will be working 12 to 13 hour days so as to not fall behind. It’s almost impossible to work while attending coding bootcamp full-time, so most attendees put their lives and their income on hold. For me at least, there was a big fear of committing all that money and time without seeing a benefit. I think that fear is what drives a lot of people into bootcamps in the first place. College is a large time commitment and the cost dwarfs the cost of a bootcamp. For many people, myself included, it’s hard to justify the cost of a four year degree. A $13,000 loan is a much smaller pill to swallow than the student loans most college graduates will be paying off for their foreseeable future.
I truly enjoyed my time at DevMountain. I felt challenged by the material, but picked everything up in time to really feel like I was on track. The social environment was a huge catalyst for learning, and competing against others was a good motivating force. I didn’t know if I would know ‘enough’ to get a job at the end, but ‘enough’ is subjective. Had I waited till I felt ‘fully ready’ to work in the field, I don’t think I would have ever started. Like many people, I struggle with my fair share of Imposter Syndrome when I talk with other professionals, and I don’t think that would be magically fixed if I had a college degree.
While I was at my second job the company underwent ‘restructuring’ due to the coronavirus. I began looking for work like my life depended on it. I applied to approximately fifteen jobs in the immediate area, and when my search expanded to remote positions I applied at Oddball. During the interview process I was excited to hear that the position would have a chance to work on veteran-facing technology for the Department of Veteran Affairs. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs is an incredibly important part of the federal government, and any work done to improve the process that Veterans go through is worth the effort. If someone like me could improve the outcomes of veterans in this country, it would be some of the most important work I might ever do.
Currently I work as a backend software engineer for the team overseeing the Veteran End-User Experience on Va.gov. I get to focus on building software to improve the experience of other veterans and the software I write has a measurable impact on the world around me. My experience as a veteran gives me insight into the benefits of debated features, and my coworkers, both those who are veterans and those who are not, take the veteran perspective seriously when talking about future work.
Oddball is a very bootcamp friendly company — both our CEO and CTO attended bootcamps, and in the interview practical skills were prioritized. It’s not always a guarantee that companies will take people like me seriously in the recruiting process, but having employees with a diverse variety of backgrounds allows Oddball to stay competitive across a variety of projects, without being shoehorned into one ‘type’ of work.
I haven’t been in the field very long, and I still feel like I have a long way to go. My situation isn’t that unique and there are a lot of people like me who are searching for ways to start a new career, and are worried if there is a place for them. There are some very public criticisms of bootcamp programs and the graduates they produce in comparison to the traditional college route, however I would encourage people who are considering whether or not this path is the right one for them to forge ahead. If you put in the work, there are roles for you and your newly acquired skills.