Getting to Know the Veterans Community: A Conversation with Kelly Macleod

Making the transition from military to civilian life is not easy. What makes it even more difficult for veterans, is the skills gap that they often face. One of the most difficult sectors for them to break into is tech, given its dynamic nature in recent times.

Various tech giants such as Microsoft and Cisco are working toward creating a more inclusive work environment for vets. However, the underlying problem that still persists is bridging the skills gap. The Topcoder Veterans Community, launched last fall, is a platform for veterans to acquaint themselves with the latest in tech, in addition to providing them with employment opportunities.

Although a subset of the larger Topcoder Community, the Veterans Community functions in a slightly different way. For starters, there are challenges that are exclusive to the members of the Veterans Community. They get to work on projects for customers, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and some of the world’s largest enterprises.

Kelly Macleod is a former Human Resources Specialist from the Army National Guard, now self employed, splitting her time between web development projects and Topcoder. Kelly joined Topcoder in March 2018 and is one of the most active members in the Veterans Community. She is also a copilot, which means she not only participates in challenges but also acts as an ambassador of sorts for Topcoder among her fellow U.S. veterans.

I spoke with Kelly recently about what she — and U.S. veterans in general — expect from participating in educational and real-world challenges and how Topcoder can pave the way for them to ease into a full-fledged career in tech.

Challenges the Veterans Community participates in

There are exclusive coding and design challenges meant only for U.S. veterans. The idea is to get them acquainted with how the platform works and educate them on latest languages before they start participating in challenges where the competition is stiffer. Kelly gives us more insights into the whys and hows.

“For now, the challenges in the Veterans Community are funded by the VA and are a little chunk of their overall budget for their projects. The way we are crafting them is to be somewhere between the little projects you would build on freeCodeCamp or Codecademy or something like that, and real client projects. The goal is to get vets coding, building (and paid), and trained to participate in the mainstream Topcoder Community challenges. Eventually, the Veterans Community will have client challenges like the main Topcoder Community.”

Making vets believe in the Topcoder model

Although a career in technology post service is not uncommon, initiating it through a crowdsourcing platform is probably not the first thing that an ex-military personnel will think of. Awareness is the key to make these men and women see Topcoder as the gateway to pursuing a career in tech. In doing that, establishing credibility is the biggest challenge and Kelly realizes that all too well.

“Vets tend to be skeptical. So, the idea that they can submit some code and have the opportunity to get paid might seem too good to be true to them. A lot of military spouses get burned by pyramid schemes where you have to buy x amount of product every month, regardless of how much you’ve actually sold.

So we’re basically going to have folks coming from a population that gets smacked by these kinds of scams often. We have the challenge of trying to bring vets in to try it out before they would be completely sold. We also need to reassure them that they don’t have to pay any money into Topcoder. So far, people who have won challenges in the Veterans Community have been our biggest marketing assets for the community. Growing this community will come down to our members and winners saying, ‘Yes I am a real person, yes I have won real money, and it didn’t cost me a thing to participate.’”

Getting more members to participate in challenges

At present, the Veterans Community has a growing member base. However, most of them have yet to participate in the challenges. Kelly is of the opinion that most of them are capable of becoming the best coders at Topcoder.

“The veteran population is a pretty standard distribution that reflects the rest of the American demographic. So you are going to have folks who like coding and play Magic: The Gathering and you also have people who like to knit (I’ve met a ton of vets who do)! The veterans I have met who happen to be in tech are very knowledgeable in their domains. I think most of our members in the Veterans Community are absolutely capable of becoming top-notch coders if they want to. But we need to make these challenges more visible to the community as a whole.”  

Pushing vets toward real-world challenges

The Veterans Community is still getting used to participating in challenges. They enjoy participating in educational challenges that they get to work on. Kelly thinks they are really up for learning new frameworks and language and will eventually become more confident about real-world challenges.

“Vets really enjoy the small apps that leverage an API to present information to the user. We have launched more challenges that use Angular 2, if I am not mistaken. They really enjoy having an incentive to learn new frameworks. One member even teased me a bit because he’s about to start exams for the classes he’s taking and our challenges are more fun and interesting. I have had a couple specific requests like a material design app, a challenge that uses Prolog, and more Angular 2 apps.”

As for real-world challenges, I don’t think they have gotten into those yet, though we are encouraging them to. Most of the veterans who are developers are employed and don’t have a lot of time to participate, or they are so new that they aren’t ready to try challenges, or they are spending their time job searching. I try to push folks who are in between to Topcoder just because there is that potential to earn money by coding.”

Final thoughts from Kelly

“I absolutely believe the technology sector is a viable career option for veterans! Honestly, veterans are diverse in and among themselves — that’s what I really want to drive home. It’s difficult to answer questions about all veterans in the U.S. because we are so different in many regards. But for those of us who want to kickstart a career in tech, being a part of Topcoder is a great step for career building. Both coding and leveraging Topcoder as “training” or resume building is a great start.”

You can get more insights from Kelly, along with Dustin Weaver, Topcoder Community Architect about the Veterans Community and how it’s helping vets kickstart a new career, in this recorded chat session hosted by and Nick Castillo, Community Manager.  

Know a veteran? Ask them to join the Topcoder Veterans Community!