Coding With a Mission: Claim Academy student, USAF veteran, and Boeing full stack developer, Kevin Thornton.

At Claim Academy, our students are our true inspiration. Their sacrifice, dedication, and personal stories motivate us all to raise our own game.  Each of our students has a great story to tell. Today, we’re going to let one of our current Claim Academy students and Air Force veteran, Kevin Thornton, tell his story. Kevin recently accepted a job with Boeing in St. Louis and will be relocating to the greater St. Louis metro after graduation this month.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Austin, Texas, went to high school there, and did a bit of college at UT (The University of Texas at Austin), and then my folks moved out to West Texas and retired in San Angelo, Texas, so I relocated there for a few years. Around this time I realized I would need additional money for graduate school so I decided to enlist in the Air Force earlier than I had originally planned.

While in the Air Force, I considered making it a career, but my parents were older in age and as the last, and youngest child, I knew that I would be needed at home to help them out. After my time in the military, I finished my undergraduate degree at Texas Lutheran University. I studied Patristics, which is the study of early church history and writings.

After earning my bachelors, I began to pursue my masters at Southern Methodist University. Unfortunately, my dad developed cancer at that time I was in grad school, and I came home to take care of him. After he passed away, I stayed in San Angelo to take care of my mother.

Did you return to school or work after that time?
While in San Angelo I worked as a special education teacher at Belair Elementary. It was during that time where I developed the idea of using coding to help parents with autistic children. There was a lot being done for the kids, but not much that was being done to help the parents.

I also worked at a help desk at the hospital, and that was kind of like being the cop of the IT world–no one wants to see you until there’s an emergency. And, then, everyone wants you to be there immediately. I felt like one could plateau pretty early on the IT side.

I knew the real future lies in coding–creating products and things from scratch that real users needed.

What languages were you coding back in the 1990s?
Working at the help desk, I mainly used scripting, automation, bat files, and things like that, though I did experiment with C++. In terms of coding, I wasn’t doing as much of that as I was in hardware and software troubleshooting.

What was your first exposure to coding or software development?
When I was in high school, it was Basic and COBOL, and I took some classes on it. I took those classes in the 1980s, and it wasn’t that interesting at the time. It was basically databases and very basic automation, and where you’re in your teens it wasn’t that exciting.

In the ’90s, the internet was growing exponentially and I could see the possibilities that were happening all around…

How did you decide to enlist in the Air Force?
Every member of my family served in the military, and I also wanted to get the GI Bill for graduate school. I felt that it was a responsibility to the country to serve and give back. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the Job Corps or the military, just give something back to the country you are fortunate enough to live in.

What was the most valuable thing you learned from your time in the military?
Working as a team and working with people with different backgrounds, personalities, and how to troubleshoot and organize on a massive scale. Also how to prioritize, triage and prepare technologies for deployment.

And finally, learning how to adapt and overcome. There’s an old saying, I believe from Helmuth Van Moltke, who stated that “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”* That’s very true. You can make plans, but you also have to be able to adapt very quickly.

If you can, describe what you did in the Air Force?
I was part of the first crew chiefs assigned to the B-2 Stealth Bomber when they reactivated the 509th Bomb Wing. It was a prestigious assignment, and I was proud to serve in the program.

How did your experience in the Air Force shape your life and your outlook?
It just reinforced my idea and feeling that I was part of a bigger picture and a team. It instilled in me the belief that what you do matters, and how you do it, matters.

How did you decide to pursue a career in software development?
I reached that aha moment where I realized that IT help desk had a limited future for me. I wanted to leave footprints or do something that impacts peoples lives,  and I realized you have to create a product that actually does some good. I wanted to do something that gave back to the parents of the children I worked with. When I was teaching special ed, I realized there was a need for a portal that was directed at these adults. I had the idea for my Capstone (software project for Claim Academy’s final) before I came here, but I realized that I needed to learn how to code.

Learning how to code on your own can be done, but it’s a lot easier when you have structure, guidance, and immersion. That’s why I decided to go the coding boot camp route.

What have you learned from travel?
I’ve learned that geography and the landscape might change, but people are people in every culture.  You’re going to find people that you really like and have a lot in common with, and you find people you’re not going to mesh with. The things that are going to change are our culture, food, and their approach to life. Basically, you’re going to find good and the negative in every country and situation. You could talk to the Inuits in Alaska or any culture on the planet, and find some that you like, and others that you just do not get along with.

Who inspired or continues to inspire you?
I think that people that attain a level of success in their fields yet stay good people and give back are inspirational. Keanu Reeves is approachable and good with his time and willingness to help people. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook set up the scholarships that enabled me to attended Claim Academy and obtain the job with Boeing. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and his wife (Melinda), etc. People that think outside of their circles to help others.

How did you decide to select Claim Academy from all the coding boot camps out there?
I previously looked at other boot camp programs, and I was accepted into one of them, and I even made a downpayment on one. Then I discovered, and this struck me as false advertising, that they’d simply used the university’s logos (UT, USC, University of Oklahoma, etc). They would use the university affiliation, letterhead, images, etc. so they appeared to be part of the university, but in reality, they are just licensing the name. When I found that out, that struck me as a caveat emptor situation (buyer beware), and it was disillusioning. To be fair, in the tiny print, they do have verbiage indicating they’re not really affiliated with the university.

So I decided to research more schools with solid reputations. Claim Academy was one of them. The pre-course work was challenging and was real coding. Plus, Praneeth seemed very knowledgeable, and Jennifer was very helpful with the logistics of getting here. After speaking with them, I felt like the school really had their act together. When you’re traveling in from out of state, it’s important to have a place to stay before you arrive and Claim Academy made it as easy as possible.  Additionally, the Facebook scholarship and endorsement on websites such as Course Report stood out for me. If Facebook believed in Claim Academy enough to allow them to distribute scholarships, then there must be something positive going on there.

What was the most challenging moment at Claim Academy and how did you overcome it?
For me, it was probably the first week and adjusting to the pace. There’s a reason they call it boot camp.  There’s so much information, but what’s kept me going is my classmates and my instructors who reassured me that everyone feels this way initially. Understanding that everyone is pretty much in the same boat, but others with less prior knowledge than mine have made it. You have to be willing to spend the time outside of class to make it work, and it takes effort on your part.

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