An Infantryman Learns To Code

Before getting into this software thing, I was an infantry officer. My job description was something like:

An Infantry Officer performs a wide range of duties, from commanding and leading soldiers […] operating anywhere in the world, in any environment […]. The primary role of Infantry during operations is to be involved in combat.

On the job, I looked something like:

Somehow I ended up learning how to code while on tour in Afghanistan.

Fast backward to 2009

In 2009–2010, I was an infantry officer working in Kandahar Airfield for a brigade HQ known as Task Force Kandahar; a Canadian HQ then. My job was to receive all the reports from the ground and fan that info out throughout the HQ and our higher ups/sides.

The HQ was processing things like medical evacuations, support fire missions, contact reports. The way it was done was very frustratingly inefficient. For instance, a medical mission would go like this:

  • A unit would report an IED strike with critical injuries (using a 9-liner).
  • The unit would pass a MEDEVAC request by radio to their company -> battalion -> brigade HQ (us).
  • We would then be the dispatch center for the helicopters and synchronization of airspace and hospital and all.

The request would arrive ~30s to 1m after the actual strike. I would yell at an airman that would get out of his chair, walk to the center map, and with his ruler measure the distance in miles between the hospital landing pad and the strike. He would then compute ETAs for the helicopters based on various parameters, and then ask the helicopter HQ to send a chopper on site. Only then would he slowly type a message in a predefined format, and then post that text in the communication channel (that’s ~5m after the strike).

This 5m latency in sending the request to choppers, and giving back ETD/ETA info to the unit on the ground, would result in people dying from their wounds or staying in dangerous/exposed locations longer than strictly necessary (waiting for chopper ETAs). This 5m latency was putting people at risk and killing folks.

The whole thing was very frustrating. The man’s job was crying for computer automation, but I didn’t know anything about programming at the time. I googled a bit and came up with people saying that to program, you had to learn Java or C, and needed a compiler for them. I didn’t know anything about this whole “programming” thing back then, the word didn’t mean much to me. You can only imagine what the officer of the Signal Squadron thought when I asked:

“Can you install a C compiler on my computer?”

Would you give a C compiler to an Infantry Officer?

Would you? The Signals Officer sort of laughed at me and told me to use Excel. So I wrote a tool to automate this man’s job in Excel. I picked up what I could using fancy techniques like the Pythagorean theorem and string concatenation.

In the end, the tool was very crude but accomplished something very useful: It had a flow that ensured all the reports required by people on the ground, and above, were sent in a timely and orderly manner. Each step of that flow was almost entirely automated. Each button filled a template and put the text in the clipboard for copy-pasting in the chat. Events were timed automatically. Distances and time of travel were computed automatically. A dropdown menu facilitated entering common values. Big warning signs were visible when a time critical step was ongoing, or some important data was missing.

The result was this spreadsheet:

… and it reduced the latency of “receiving 9 liner to returning an ETA” from ~5m to ~15s.

For that work, the Wing Commander gave me a commendation:

Eventually I figured out that there was a scripting language behind Excel called VBA. So I wrote tools to automate many other parts of the HQ, like a tool to manage airspace for fire missions or a database to handle multiple concurrent critical incidents:

After writing all that code, someone noticed I guess. Our operations were running much better, the ability of our TOC to handle multiple concurrent incidents was greatly increased. So I also got a coin from Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS, the top general at the time):

From left to right: unknown, General Walter Natynczyk (used to be CDS), myself, General Jonathan Vance (current CDS), Peter MacKay (used to be Minister of National Defence).

Then I realized I liked this programming thing much more than running around with guns.

Then I came back to Canada (2010) and started a degree in software engineering (2011).

Then I learned to code in Go (2012) and interned at Amazon (2013).

Then I interned at Shopify (2014).

Then I graduated (2016).

Then I’m here today.

When I joined the army, I felt I had begun a second life. A life where I would learn to be a disciplined and organized person. When I started my degree, I began a third life. Now that I graduated, I’m not sure what to do. It’s the first time in years that I have so much time on my hands, with only a full time job.

I can recall when I started writing that code in VBA, as I realized that I was doing something that mattered — that I was changing the status quo. And I realized it’s not hard to do different, to do something that matters.

All you need to do is overcome inertia and get started.

Note

Here’s a sample of the first lines of code I ever wrote. (warning: it may hurt your feelings)

https://gist.github.com/aybabtme/89e1f475c731ae985a1f