CommunityFrom Aviation Electrician to Back End Engineering: Bret Funk’s Operation Code story

Linnea Schulenburg
writes on July 8, 2017

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This week, we’re sharing interviews with members from one of our Treehouse Scholarship recipient organizations, Operation Code, a non-profit that helps military veterans and their families launch new careers in software development. So far, we’ve heard from Operation Code’s founder and ex-Army Captain David Molina, and Operation Code students, Marine Corps veteran Billy Le, and Navy veteran Geno Guerrero. Now, we’d like to highlight another veteran from Operation Code that we’re honored to have learning with us.

36-year-old Bret Funk was in the Navy for 4 years as an Aviation Electrician on F-14s. As a lifelong learner, he pursued a few different careers after getting out of the military, working as a commercial pilot, as a congressional spokesman in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and as a small business owner. After selling his business, Bret was considering his next career move when he stumbled across coding and never looked back. Now, he’s a student at the Turing School in Colorado where he’s learning back end engineering, and hopes to use his skills to someday make a positive impact on the world.

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In speaking with Bret and other Operation Code veteran students, we’ve been privileged to hear about the strong commitment and drive they have to learn new things, help and mentor others, and make the world a better place. We asked Bret if he would share some of his experience with the community. Here’s his story.

What first encouraged you to learn to code?

I wasn’t planning on learning to code, but I sold my company and was looking for something to do, I thought I would just start another company but then I started doing FreeCodeCamp and really enjoyed it.  I started looking into the tech world and ended up connecting with Operation Code and they connected me with Treehouse. I absolutely love Treehouse.

Tell us a bit about what you’re doing with your coding skills now.

Right now, I am a Back End Engineering student at the Turing School of Software and Design, a very intense seven-month course in Denver, Colorado. I used Treehouse to prepare for it. Turing is very intense, so going through the Treehouse Ruby track really helped lay the groundwork for my classroom successes. Also, I have been taking courses on building Ethereum apps and Machine Learning on Udemy.  I hope to eventually get a job doing some or all of these things when I graduate in November.  

What do you want to do with your skills in the future?

I hope to get a job making interesting things that solve difficult problems. I am attempting to teach myself the basics of Ethereum and Machine Learning, so hopefully I can combine what I have learned so far with some kind of cutting edge technology and go from there. I spent a lot of my time down in Ecuador, which is basically a Socialist Dictatorship, so I hope to build things that can help free people from oppressive governments around the world.  

How has your opinion about code changed, now that you’re studying it?

My mom is a teacher and she’ll say things like ‘Coding is important, we should all learn it.’ Now that I’ve been studying it, I’m kind of a zealot about how important I think it is because, to me, coding has nothing to do with it. It’s more about logic and problem solving – these are the types of skills we need to be teaching people.

Teaching code is fundamental because if we should be teaching children anything, it’s the ability to think logically and think about second and third order consequences of decisions and being able to problem solve and break things down. It’s shocking to me, now that I know more about it, that we’re not just teaching this already because students could be learning all these skills and have fun doing it. In my third week, Turing had me build a battleship game that had a visual output to the terminal and I thought, ‘That’s crazy, I have no idea how to do that’. But figuring it out is fun, it’s a game, and meanwhile I’m learning all these skills and it didn’t feel like work.

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I think veterans are the perfect people to get into coding because they are natural problem solvers, they’ve got grit and they are great at working on teams.

What has been the greatest challenge while learning to code?

I have difficulty with a lot of the abstract ideas in programming, like the idea of Ruby classes and objects, self, etc.  The great thing about Treehouse is when I don’t understand something I can rewatch the videos at my leisure. It’s like having an entire programming department in my pocket.  

Which Treehouse courses/tracks have been the most valuable to you?

I started off with the Javascript track and got about halfway through before switching to the Ruby course.  I finished the Ruby track and am about 4/5ths of the way through the Rails track.  The Rails track has many different components. One day you’ll learn HTML and another SQL, so it is pretty engaging.  I also watch videos in the Treehouse library on things that interest me: Photoshop, Git, etc.

How do you think being in the military impacted your learning journey?

I think what really sets veterans apart is their work ethic and grit. I don’t feel like I’m smarter than anyone else in my class, but I think where I really shine is I can handle adversity. You know, once you’ve been on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier for 10 months in the Persian Gulf, you feel like you can handle anything. And you don’t get flustered. You have the grit to handle disappointment, which is good because 9 times out of 10 when you run your program, it’s not going to work right. That can be very frustrating, and I think serving in the military really helped that.

What would you tell other veterans considering learning to code?

People can be intimidated by computer science. I think veterans are the perfect people to get into coding because they are natural problem solvers, they’ve got grit and they are great at working on teams. But beyond that, there is a huge need for programmers, not just in the private sector, but in the government. Those jobs require security clearances, and who has those? You’ve got all these veterans with all sorts of skills looking for something to do, and you’ve got the government saying they need people to help them fight cyber attacks. There are lots of these jobs out there, and they are good paying jobs. If you’ve got military experience, you can roll it over, and you can rollover your federal benefits. I think this is a no brainer. What Operation Code is doing in saying ‘Hey, let’s make sure all these code schools accept the GI bill’ is great because the process right now is so outrageous. The mission of Operation Code is fantastic, and I can’t say enough good things about them.

2011 Youth Tour sponsored by the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives. Day 6, June 14, 2011. Capital Hill Day. Visited with our senators and representatives then touring the Library of COngress, Supreme COurt and United States Capital Building

What makes veterans great programmers?

The military aspect of teamwork and being very mission-oriented. Working in teams can be difficult. Code is kind of like art, where you have creativity and you want to do things a certain way. It’s kind of your baby because you thought through it and you want to do all these things. But when you’re working on teams, you’re changing their code and they’re changing your code. It’s easy to get annoyed and thinking ‘No, my way is better.’ Being able to say ‘It’s not about me, it’s about how we can best solve the problem.’ That’s been fundamental for me.

Is there anything you wish you’d known when you started learning to code?

I didn’t realize just how supportive the tech industry can be. From the great folks at Operation Code to TeamTreehouse it always seems like there are lots of people that encourage you along the way and help you navigate some of the trickier concepts.  I already feel the need to help others just starting out because I have already received so much help myself.  It really is a great community of folks

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