This article originally published on The Hum, and written by David Powers.
David Molina is the Founder & CEO of Operation Code, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that helps the military community learn software development, enter the tech industry, and code the future. David grew up in Mount Vernon, WA and spent over a decade in uniform before learning to code through hackathons, tech meetups, and open source conferences. He took this experience and wrote the first iteration of Operation Code in Ruby on Rails to petition Congress to expand the new GI Bill to include code schools. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Forest Grove, OR and sometimes travels to D.C. to speak on veterans and tech.
When you hear the word entrepreneurship, it is natural to think of venture capitalists, unicorn companies, and startup founders driven to make a profit above all else.
With that in mind, you might call Operation Code an unconventional tech startup and David Molina an unconventional entrepreneur. But he and his company’s impact is reaching as far as any of the tech companies turning out billions. And their purpose is far greater as well.
“So I did.”
David Molina did not follow a tech entrepreneur’s typical path. He dropped out of high school, eventually graduating a year late and then attending community college. After not knowing what was next, he enlisted in the military in 2000. After 9/11, he enrolled in Army ROTC and graduated with a degree from the University of Oregon in 2004. He served several stints overseas, eventually ending active duty in 2013.
Towards the end of his time in active duty, he knew he wanted to build a technology company and began working on an idea for a database driven website, but had one problem. He knew very little of how to code. He decided to fix that.
“I had been reading that if you wanted to build an application, if you wanted to code, you went to hackathons. So I did. In 2012 I went to NYC. I would say that I maneuvered and bamboozled my way there.”
Registration was already closed so David convinced the director of the event to allow him to volunteer. That is where he met another volunteer, Nick Frost, a former member of the Navy. Their first task, at 5 AM, was to drive to Costco to get food for the event. Nick didn’t waste any time offering up his advice to David.
“On the way, this guy is on me, saying ‘If you want to start a company, you need to do it. You need to quit the Army and do it.’ This was the first guy to tell me to jump off the cliff. He had actually done that, at the denial of his commander. He was told by everyone up and down the food chain in the Navy, ‘Don’t leave, we need you. You’ll never make it.’ And that’s it. He built his startup from a tent in Afghanistan.”
David was inspired.
The problem: The GI Bill
After that hackathon, David immersed himself in Ruby on Rails. “I fell in love with it. It was so easy.”
He teamed up with a co-founder to build an app to start a company, but found, despite his new found love for Ruby on Rails, he was not contributing in the way he wanted. So, he decided to apply to Flatiron code school in NYC.
“When it came time to pay Flatiron, I sent them by GI Bill. And they said, ‘We don’t even know how to accept this.’”
The GI Bill provides funding for education and job training for veterans, particularly those who served after 9/11. It can be used for colleges and universities and to learn a variety of trades, but David could not use it to pursue his passion by attending code school. And he could not afford to pay for it himself.
“A lot of guys on active duty save money, but we’re a family of 5 with 3 young children. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I don’t have anything.’”
David began work freelancing with the goal of sharpening his coding skills while saving up enough money to send himself to code school.
He then began work on a second app idea, but again found he didn’t have the complete skill set he needed. He reached back out to Flatiron, asking if they would now accept his GI Bill and they once again said no.
That’s when David realized this problem went far beyond him. “I asked another friend of mine at a school in Seattle. They said the same thing. They also said that one-third of their monthly inquiries were GI Bill related. I was floored. I thought, ‘One-third?! I thought I was the only one with this problem.’”
The same thing that was standing in the way of David pursuing his passion was stopping countless other veterans from doing the same.
Building a solution
David immediately recognized this as the problem he wanted to solve and he reached out in Washington D.C. to try and find a solution.
“I asked a Senator in Virginia, ‘Sir, what are we doing at the government level to relieve the burden so that code schools can take the GI bill?’ and he didn’t answer me directly. He was very bureaucratic. He gave me his aide’s card, and they never called or emailed me back.”
Disappointed, but not discouraged, David reached out to a friend working in Congress and got some advice. “He said, ‘You need to know three things. 1) How many veterans like you want to use the GI Bill to go to code school? 2) Are code schools on board? And 3) How much does this cost?’”
David set out to find these answers, building web applications to collect the data from veterans to do so. But he struggled with several problems along the way. After two years of trying to figure it out on his own, David met the right person, Dr. James Davis, who now chairs Operation Code’s Board of Directors. “He asked how he could help, and I told him… What took me 2 years in the making took him 2 hours. I shit you not.”
David officially launched Operation Code on GitHub in August of 2014 and its use exploded. They began collecting information of veterans that wanted to use the GI Bill for code schools and building a community. The capabilities of the platform quickly increased. They added resources that introduced members to all of the coding schools and programs available to them.
Starting in 2015, they built out their ability to provide mentors and access to conferences for their members. They began pairing developers with veterans and their spouses and getting sponsored tickets to attend developer conferences for members.
They also moved their community, now numbering in the thousands, to Slack, which allowed them to better disseminate information and build 1-on-1 relationships to help the veterans and their families facing the issues of transitioning back into domestic life.
And those 1-on-1 relationships made a huge difference. As David recalls, “I spoke to one gentleman… He had signed up for Operation Code, but he was depressed. He was on the verge of suicide. His transition off of active duty really sucked, just like most of us. He expressed that if it wasn’t for Operation Code, he probably would have committed suicide.”
With their impact growing, David and his team began receiving invitations for national speaking engagements in 2016. Their veterans were invited to be judges at hackathon events. They even partnered with that same NYC hackathon that started it all for David back in 2012.
Still, while all of this was going on, David was able to make little progress in D.C. on Operation Code’s key goal of expanding the GI Bill to include code schools. “I was very depressed. I was reaching out to both sides of the aisle and we got no reception.”
That was about to change.
Fulfilling their mission
In the fall of 2016, they received interest from the office of the House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy. They wanted to know the issues Operation Code’s veterans were facing and David and his team were ready to tell them, with a laundry list of 16 items to be addressed. David was invited to meet with leaders in Congress in November 2016 and again in March 2017.
“For the first time, Operation Code was at the table in D.C. with the country’s largest veteran organizations — the American Legion, the VFW. We were sitting at that table representing veterans who wanted to go to code school, who wanted to be technologists, be software developers.”
They returned to D.C. again in May, this time meeting with giant tech players Microsoft and Udacity. At that point, McCarthy and the Veterans Affairs Committee began acting on legislation.
Just last month, in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, the Forever GI Billpassed. In addition to eliminating the previous 15-year expiration date on educational benefits for veterans, $15M was given to code schools as grants to be issued to veterans seeking to use their GI Bill.
“It’s very bipartisan, the idea that we should help our veterans. And under the majority leader, it really took off. Now we have a seat at the table.”
Today, 13 code schools accept the GI Bill. (David can provide names and locations for them all by memory.) Operation Code’s Slack group contains over 23,000 members and they have assisted thousands of veterans with mentorship, attendance at conferences, and code school placement. They have even expanded to offer their services to veterans in other countries outside the U.S.
As David says, “We’re leading the way… I think it’s a win-win globally, in terms of the tech ecosystem, to make sure we are the tide that lifts all boats… We have helped so many thousands of veterans. The mentors and the community are so moving that it keeps me going.”
A bigger purpose
David sees Operation Code as a vital part of an even larger mission. He believes veterans can provide much-needed benefits to a largely toxic tech industry facing many problems.
“I think the tech ecosystem has taken a black eye because of poor leadership at the investor, Board of Director, and even the C-Level. It’s pretty pathetic…
I think that what sets us apart, why veterans make better candidates to lead and advise for these tech companies, is integrity and work ethic.
On a broader sense, it is about being mission-oriented. We’re very purpose driven. We’re given a purpose, a mission, and we go out and execute. There is no failure; there is execution.
I think that if more veterans are asked to lead and advise, you would see fewer problems in the tech ecosystem. There would be less discrimination against women, against lesbian and gay sisters and brothers, and just in general. You would have that nipped in the bud fast because veterans don’t tolerate that. When you see something wrong, you don’t tolerate it. You say something. It’s ingrained in our training, our culture.”
Focus on changing lives
Founding Operation Code and helping to change so many lives has left a mark on David and his approach to business and entrepreneurship. His advice for young people pursuing entrepreneurship themselves? Focus on making a difference and changing lives rather than turning a profit.
“I advise young people getting into entrepreneurship to start with the true problem that you want to solve. We called it backward planning in the Army. My case started with the idea of expanding the GI Bill to accept code schools. I would never have thought that I would run a nonprofit, but I learned early on that entrepreneurship isn’t just profit and grow, grow, grow…
I think often times we look at entrepreneurship and think, ‘We need to build the next unicorn.’
No, you just need to build something that is of value to others. Whatever you build, build something that changes the lives of many people.”