The Vets in Tech Hackathon at Facebook

'Veterans don’t mind risk; entrepreneurship is nothing compared to what they have been through.'

Nearly 70 tech-savvy veterans gathered at Facebook’s headquarters last week to exchange ideas and glean experience from some of Silicon Valley’s top entrepreneurs.

The Vets in Tech Hackathon brought together 69 military veterans at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., to work on business plans and chat with  some top mentors in the tech community – such as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and Chuck Wallace, a former Air Force pilot and founder of Esurance.  

“Getting a hand with a job is the least we can do for vets and their families, and I feel it’s a high priority,” Newmark told Wired Workplace on Friday. “Vets are highly committed, highly disciplined, team-focused and can make tough decisions under pressure. Consider the phrase ‘situational awareness.’”

The Vets in Tech initiative launched last July in an effort to provide training and resources to veterans and to connect them with leading tech companies in Silicon Valley. The program focuses on the three E’s – education, entrepreneurship and employment.

“Veterans don’t mind risk; entrepreneurship is nothing compared to what they have been through,” said Katherine Webster, founder of Vets in Tech, on Thursday. “Many will start their own businesses, but if not, it’s a great education process for getting into a tech career.”

The Facebook hackathon included a full-day business and app development competition where veterans were given one minute to pitch an app concept to a tech audience of veterans, engineers, designers and mentors. Once the best ideas were selected, teams of 5 to 10 veterans were formed to develop those ideas out into applications.

Marine Corps veteran Jeffrey Sommers, a second year law student at Stanford, won the competition for his idea called Campus Drive, which helps assess the risk of student loan default. Sommers’ team won one month of co-working space as well as lunch with a venture capitalist. 

Webster said the event is proof that many veterans bring a unique set of skills – including leadership, teamwork, determination and discipline – which, when combined with also being part of the most tech-savvy generation, can translate well into tech careers or entrepreneurship. “Many of them have skills on smart phones, social media and new technology, some of which has been learned even in the military,” she said. “Roughly 50 percent to two-thirds of veterans who respond to Vets in Tech have some level of tech skills.”

The White House and several private companies in April launched the IT Training and Certification Partnership to help up to 161,000 serve members gain access to training and certifications for 12 high-demand technology professions.

Webster said that while the Vets in Tech program is separate from the White House initiative, many of the same companies – like Cisco, HP, Intuit, and McAfee – are active in both programs.

“Michelle Obama is supporting the whole concept and certification for vets to help fill some of the skills gaps,” Webster said. “We aren’t working directly with the White House, but that’s not to say we won’t in the future.”

To learn more about the Vets in Tech program and future hackathon events, click here.