How Veteran Developers Find Support at Yelp
In honor of Veterans Day, we’re launching Veterans Who Code. This series of interviews features the stories of 4 veteran developers. Each one has served our country and navigated the ups and downs of reintegrating into the civilian workforce. Today they each lead projects at Dropbox, Operation Code, Yelp, and Vets Who Code.
In addition to speaking with the developers in Veterans Who Code, HackerRank also had the privilege of interviewing 2 more veteran developers from Yelp. Both of these veteran developers share the obstacles they faced while transitioning to civilian roles in tech, what changes companies can make to better support veterans, what resources veterans should use to start their career, and how Yelp has supported them in their professional growth.
Jeryl Contemprato, Ad Platform Software Engineer, Former Surface Warfare Officer
Jeryl Contemprato served as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) in the U.S. Navy for 3 years. While in the Navy, Jeryl served on two guided middle destroyers across 3 deployments. He also led a team of 12 Information Systems Technicians in security, and coordination of the ship’s radio, satellite, network, and computer systems. Before Jeryl entered the Navy, he was already interested in becoming a software developer, and received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. But even though he had his degree, Jeryl still had a hard time finding employment in the civilian workforce after he returned from the Navy. Here’s Jeryl’s perspective on what veterans should expect when starting a developer career.
What are some challenges that you encountered when you first entered the civilian job market?
I got my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) prior to going on active duty as part of Berkeley’s Naval Reserves Officers Training Corps (NORTC) program. The time gap between graduation and the time I left active duty made it difficult to even get interviews for a software engineering job. I also had no industry internships, mainly due to summer training requirements for the Navy. After leaving the ship, I spent 3 months applying for jobs all over the state. I ended up lucking out with an interview for a software position at a large Silicon Valley company, where the interviewers were actually part of the team that I would be joining. I’m very grateful to them for that chance and giving me a foot in the door of the tech industry.
Why is inclusion important to your organization’s engineering team, and how has that affected your work?
I think Yelp Engineering definitely fosters inclusion both during the recruiting process and within the organizational culture. Inclusion allows us to gain more varied perspectives both in terms of product, as well as diversity of ideas when solving problems. It’s also really important for engineers to feel welcome here; it brings out their best effort and creativity. I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and viewpoints while at Yelp because the organization gives avenues for employees to share their stories, such as our regular learning groups (with a different topic each week), as well as ad hoc panels and events.
As a veteran, are there any skills that you picked up while serving that have crossed over and helps you now as a developer?
Empathy. The military is a microcosm of the country in general — it’s one of the most diverse places I’ve ever worked, considering many dimensions. Working closely with people of different backgrounds from all over the country helps you better empathize with both coworkers as well as the customers using your product.
While serving as a naval officer, I needed to understand and reason complex systems. Warships have a lot of complexity, and Surface Warfare Officers are expected to have at least a high-level understanding of most major shipboard systems. This ability carried over to complex distributed software systems like those at Yelp.
Additionally, the Navy gave me significant experience in operating under pressure. There are quite a few high pressure situations during deployment and operations. The Navy also imposes many deadlines during training cycles and deployment workups. This carries over to the engineering world—quickly resolving high-priority user-facing or revenue-impacting issues, or working on urgent projects.
Lastly, ownership and responsibility was pretty much drilled into us from day one, even pre-active duty. This has carried over into my work at Yelp as a project lead and team technical lead; veterans with leadership experience can assume those types of roles more quickly.
How does Yelp work to empower veteran developers within engineering? What sorts of support can a potential hire expect once they join the team?
Veterans get the same support as other new hires, which is significant. We have a mentorship program, a helpful code review and design review process, a career structure for growth on both the technical and leadership sides, technology learning communities, and a plethora of employee resource groups (including one for veterans, but also many other groups for other interests you might have).
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve built in your time at Yelp? Any projects you’re particularly proud of?
I led a long-term effort with fellow developers to modernize and secure Yelp’s payment stack using two new payment processors. This was a complex project, had a ton of security considerations, and it was business critical to get it right while transitioning to the new system live over time. I learned a lot about UX, performance, security, and distributed system operations while working on this project with my teammates and other teams at Yelp.
Anything else you’d like to share with veteran developers considering a job at Yelp?
Go for it! Yelp engineers are friendly, welcoming and supportive—we can use your drive and life experience, and you’ll learn and grow a lot working here (I certainly have).
Jimmy Ho, Engineering Manager, Former Transportation Officer
Jimmy Ho served a total of 21 years in the Army Reserve. During his time in the Reserve, he went on four deployments to Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and climbed up the ranks from a Private First Class to a Staff Sergeant. Before serving in the Army Reserve, Jimmy received his bachelor's in computer science and engineering physics, and through most of his military career, Jimmy served part-time. This gave him the ability to work as a software developer for several civilian companies while still on duty. Here’s what Jimmy has to say to veterans and developers who are interested in serving in the military while also working full time for a civilian company.
How long did you serve?
I served 21 years in the Army Reserve. Aside from four deployments to Kosovo (2000), Uzbekistan (2003), Iraq (2008), and Afghanistan (2013), I worked as a software engineer in my civilian life most of this time, including four years at Yelp.
What are some challenges that you encounter when you have to leave your civilian job to deploy overseas?
Fortunately, all of my employers have been very supportive of my military deployments, and I’m very grateful for that. Whenever I get a new boss, I’ll mention that I’m in the Reserves and highlight some of the main areas of the USERRA law they should be aware of, and follow up with an email linking to the Employer FAQ/info on the website. (USERRA is a federal law that protects troops from losing their jobs when they have to serve, among other things.)
What is one of the hardest challenges you’ve had to overcome specifically as a veteran developer?
At Yelp, people are pretty accepting of differences, so I don’t find myself stereotyped or a victim of prejudice. People are accommodating of my absences due to military Reserve service.
I think one challenge is relating my perspective without blowing people out of the water with it. Sometimes, an engineer will have what I perceive to be a minor issue. For example, they might struggle to make a daily 10:30am meeting. And sure, I can tell stories from Afghanistan of 5:20am daily wake-ups, and doing that even after huddling in a bunker from rocket attacks at 1am, but that’s just not a productive conversation. In order to help people, I believe in meeting people where they’re at and coaching from there.
If a veteran wants to become a developer but doesn’t have coding experience, where should they start?
If you’re single and have low debt, given the 9/11 GI Bill, you have an inexpensive path to getting a four-year degree in Computer Science. This is the gold standard for getting a coding job. If you can’t spend that much time, I recommend looking at university extension certificate programs (UC Berkeley Extension, for example) and community college programs, many of which are online. The GI Bill might still cover some or all of that. The coding bootcamps out there are another choice, and some are eligible for the GI Bill.
Lastly, regardless of how you go about it, actively seek collaborative situations. Learning to code by yourself will not get you far—you need to find ways to work on code with other people. It is especially important that you are reviewing each other’s code.
If you had one piece of advice for veteran developers looking for their first civilian job in tech, what would it be?
Take advantage of personal referrals. Network like crazy and keep deepening your skill set. It can be a grind, but you have to do it. If you don’t have a traditional four-year degree in Computer Science, you may have to show contributions on GitHub and so on.
One note about culture: coming from a large, federal bureaucracy, I’ve noticed that a lot of military people are overly-focused on certifications. In the Bay Area tech scene, it’s much more fluid. Yes, you do need to prove somehow that you have fundamental coding skills via some sort of official training or experience, but after that, there are a lot of networking opportunities and ways to get to know people. For some veterans, this can be uncomfortable for those who are used to more simple point systems from military experience. For example, if you joined a group during a hackathon and continued to collaborate afterwards, one of them might go on to a job at a small startup and refer you in, vouching for you, etc.
What can companies change / transform in their hiring practices to support veterans?
Having more veterans in management certainly helps influence things. Simply taking a chance on a veteran can be a great step. If a company asks its employees for help onboarding, training, or mentoring a new veteran, I’m willing to bet that there are veterans that would step up to help with that.
Also, many companies just think that veterans are people coming off of years of Active Duty. There are military Reservists who hold a civilian job while working part-time for the military, and they bring numerous advantages to the table. Lastly, many veterans depart Active Duty and do a stint in the Reserves, while doing a regular job, so it pays to understand this dynamic.
What advice would you give to companies who have their own military hiring programs?
Veterans are often coming from a place with a lot of structure. Some veterans will just require a well-described end state or target metrics while others may need a lot more guidance along the way. I think it’ll be important to understand how much structure each role has and guiding them to understand how your organization’s calibration of how they exercise proactive initiative—taking independent action versus asking first.