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The Nonprofit Strategist

FMS Interviews: Operation Code’s Executive Director Talks About Nonprofit Innovation

It’s fair to say that almost every nonprofit professional I’ve ever met has a passionate interest in doing better, or in a word: innovating. At the same time, successfully innovating is often elusive, especially in undercapitalized smaller nonprofits, but also in larger institutions that have a way of stifling initiative.

We do know innovation when we see it, though, so that’s why we recently spoke with Conrad Hollomon, Executive Director at Operation Code, a truly innovative nonprofit run by veterans that helps veterans and military spouses break into the tech industry. He is also a director at Techstars, a startup accelerator fostering diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship, has worked at tech startups and is a veteran, too.  

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

David Reis
Conrad, welcome to the Nonprofit Strategist. We write about strategic issues and solutions affecting nonprofits, so it’s great to have you here today to talk about innovation. (Full disclosure, I know you because of FMS’s work with you, and I’m now on your Board). It seems you have a lot to offer to people who are thinking about nonprofit innovation. There are a couple of reasons for that, but one is that Operation Code is a kind of incubator of innovators. Thousands of your members are already innovating or are about to get started.  

In my experience, I've noticed that people define innovation very differently. How do you see innovation in a nonprofit context?

Conrad Hollomon
It all depends on how you define innovation. There a lot of innovative ideas in the nonprofit space, but consistent improvement in the form of operational excellence and execution can be its own innovation. For example, we shouldn’t expect a soup kitchen should be expected to design for scale, or to have a slide deck with a detailed revenue model to be ‘innovative.’ If what they're doing is collecting food in the basement of their church, and they're feeding homeless folks, and they’re finding more and more effective ways to do that, that’s its own kind of innovation.

Unless somebody figures out something new! There was a Drucker Prize winner a couple of years ago that went to an agency serving the homeless. They said to themselves: why don't we prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place, and they did. To your point: soup kitchens are here for a reason, and it is absolutely necessary they do a great job, that there are good results. But you also need innovators who think big and make change, so that maybe soup kitchens aren’t needed as much.

Yes. It's both. Making it like it's all one or the other is where we go wrong. You can innovate in small ways, iterating and improving consistently. Or attempt system-changing, disruptive innovation. They’re both essential.

In the conversations we’ve had with people working in large and small nonprofits, it’s actually very hard to innovate, much less tinker with your existing programs by improving quality.  Either the daily work gets in the way, or there’s a problem with how you’re managing to improve or not, or the culture doesn’t support it, or it’s just not getting any resources. Can you talk a little about what you think it takes to BE innovative?

Yes. It's not as simple as having a good idea and going and doing it. Two things are key. What I would call intentionality has to be in place—the intention to innovate is present in what your organization is doing all the time. And second, you need an iterative process that sustains both innovation and everyday quality.

Two things are key. What I would call intentionality has to be in place—the intention to innovate is present in what your organization is doing all the time. And second, you need an iterative process that sustains both innovation and everyday quality.

Let’s get real here. What is really going on? It seems that a lot of us say we are for innovation, but our organizations seem stuck, or at least that is what I hear from people. What’s that about?  

Yeah. There’s a saying in the military. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. That's the way I see innovation in the nonprofit space. You get: ‘Yeah, give me some of that innovation. I want that innovation. Oh wait. I have to change? I have to do all these things and convince all these people? I don't know about that.’ So that’s the tough part: it’s getting culture change—that intentionality—in place. Everyone wants to innovate, but nobody wants to change.

So how has Operation Code become an innovator?

Well, we made a decision early on that we were not going to try to do everything ourselves. We saw all these opportunities in tech, but so many in the military or veteran community just didn’t know about them. We found that the challenge is mostly communications. It’s mostly about connecting the right person with the right opportunity. And this is where our decision to build the Operation Code community comes in. And you know, the result was that we innovated by getting the folks need the help all in one place–online.

When it comes to helping transitioning vets, one of the big challenges for any nonprofit is actually being able to get on military bases to talk to them. So what do you do? What we came up with was this: Let’s reach out to the people in the military who are best suited to these careers, who are motivated to take on these opportunities and make use of them. But let’s skip the part about getting on military bases to reach them. Let's reach out to people directly. Let's get on social media. Let's get online.

Well, we go online to find folks who are part of the military community and who are already geeks. And we tell them: you know, you don't have to be either a grunt or a geek. You can be both. There are folks like you who have done this. And we're going to connect you to folks who share your background and interests.

Very cool. So, the online community is huge, and you also have 19 physical chapters throughout the country, which is also interesting. But you do more, right?

I think the big thing is that Operation Code is fostering a vibrant, growing open source community. This means we provide the opportunity to experience software development in a real-world environment. It's one thing to have that degree on your resume. It's another thing to know how to get things done. Like Linus Torvalds (the main guy involved in developing Linux, which is open source) said, “Talk is cheap. Show me the code.” That is what our open source community allows beginners to do: show their work.

Let me explain. Open source is an environment where what you build is in the open, and you work with a group. It enables new software developers to show potential employers what they've built AND to show that they can work as part of a team. Also, their code is not buried behind an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), it's not hidden at a company where they may have worked but they can't show anything. Instead they can share their portfolio. I'm talking about a real portfolio. Not one line on a resume, but hundreds or thousands of lines of code. They can point to their work and be like ‘yeah, I built that, and people are using it out there in the world.’

I see real potential, especially because by 2020 the tech industry needs to fill an estimated 1.2 million job vacancies. I want them filled by our nation's finest. I want those jobs to go to the folks who have served. Now those jobs could easily go to other countries. They can go to China or India. Let's keep them here.

Hey, wait. Our readers might think…so they’ve got people coding. But coding WHAT? Do your baby coders actually make stuff?

Well, one cool thing we found in building this online community is that we needed a lot of tools. They either didn’t exist or were necessary to scale it, especially involving mentorship, community management tools, that sort of thing. So, we started building!

After a while we took a step back, and the first thing was wow, these are all volunteers coming together to build the software with just a couple of experienced engineers supervising. And then it was like, wow, there are actually a bunch of tools that could deliver a lot of value in the marketplace.

After a while we took a step back, and the first thing was wow, these are all volunteers coming together to build the software with just a couple of experienced engineers supervising. And then it was like, wow, there are actually a bunch of tools that could deliver a lot of value in the marketplace.

That’s interesting. In other words, just by virtue of the open source environment and having to solve practical problems, Operation Code’s new coders are getting an experience that has all the hallmarks of the iterative innovation process. The customer feedback, beta testing, the debugging process, the addition of new features—these are all real-world experiences. And maybe they help develop a killer app!

Exactly. It's also why we think of Operation Code as very much like a virtual tech startup. It's a company where everybody gets hired. [Laughter] I mean, anybody can volunteer. If you want to jump in, work remotely, learn the skills and then contribute to a product, well, at Operation Code, you can do that right now. It doesn't matter if you're in Kansas City or Kandahar.

Awesome! Now, if members are building stuff for Operation Code, could that process be directed to help other nonprofits, too? Do you see Operation Code evolving to creating innovative products for social good, or not?

Yes, absolutely. I see it as a natural evolution. The Operation Code mission is to help the military community learn software development, enter the tech industry and code the future. When I talk about coding the future, I mean that we help our members take that sense of service, civic responsibility and citizenship that a lot of vets have—it’s a real thing. And then we help our members combine that passion with the engineering skills and work on the betterment of society. Our people will learn to code by doing, and as they do, they’ll be giving back to their country in a whole new way.