Vets in Tech: Fireside Chat
Trent Wooton, lead of Vetflare, Cloudflare's employee resource group that supports veterans at Cloudflare and throughout the tech industry, is hosting a fireside chat with Zachary Nelson, Front End Developer at UPLIFT desk, who also served in the US Navy.
All right, we're live. Zach, wanted to thank you for taking a few minutes to sit and chat with me.
For those that don't know, my name is Trent. I'm an Enterprise Business Development team lead here at Cloudflare.
I'm also the global lead for Vetflare, which is the Cloudflare Veterans ERG.
And this week to commemorate veterans and other people of service throughout the globe, I wanted to take a few moments to interview people throughout the space, throughout the industry, and kind of shed a little light on the value of veterans in tech.
With me, I've got Zachary Nelson from Uplift Desk.
He's also a Navy veteran. We'll love to kind of give him a couple seconds to introduce himself.
Zachary? Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Trent. Yeah, so as Trent mentioned, my name is Zachary.
I am a Navy veteran. I did seven years in the United States Navy.
I served as a gas turbine engine technician and did a couple jobs afterwards and recently made my way into the tech industry as a front -end developer at Uplift Desk.
Nice. Now, I guess from your previous experience transitioning from the Navy into kind of the civilian life, I guess, to start, how long did you spend?
How long were you in the Navy? So I did just over seven years in the Navy.
I was active duty from 2010 through September of 2017. And that was pretty much when I got out.
I didn't do any additional time in the reserves or anything.
It was just all active duty. Nice. I think you rounded out that last year of IRR, Independent Ready Reserves, with a full seabag for one year, right?
I don't think they actually had me in the IRR for that period of time because it was actually less than a year.
I think I had like seven months before I hit eight years or something like that.
I think it just rounded off. Oh, nice. I had to keep a full seabag for an extra two years when I got out.
Oh, man. They got you. Yeah. They definitely locked me in on that contract.
And kind of getting to the point of whenever you're starting to consider transitioning out or making the decision to either stay in or stay out, what were some of your thoughts whenever it came to making that decision?
When it came to the decision to actually get out of the military, it was not an easy decision to make.
Like I said, I was seven years in and I was pretty much at my reenlistment point where a lot of people decide whether they're going to get out or they're going to do 20 years.
Because once you come up to that halfway point, a lot of people tell themselves, well, I'm already halfway there, so I may as well stay in and retire.
I was on shore duty at the time and I ended up making the call to separate because I had a kid on shore duty and I didn't want to leave my family again and have my wife deal with all that when we lived in a place that there was no family around or anything.
And so it really just ended up being a better option at the time.
And I was ready for something new as well.
I had gotten the experience that I wanted out of it. I had pretty much done everything I wanted to do.
And so I just thought it was time to move on. Yeah, I remember the day that I made the affirmative decision to I'm finally going to get out.
Trying to figure out what those next steps was, was kind of the next daunting task.
Whenever you were getting out, did you know kind of the pathway that you wanted to take, whether that was going to be in development, like IT development or computer software, or if you wanted to stay more of a mechanical guy?
What were your thoughts around that?
So I had a pretty good general idea of what I wanted to do, or at least the direction that I wanted to go in.
During my time on shore duty, I had started working towards my first bachelor's degree, kind of part time, mostly doing it online.
And I ended up majoring in information technology, which, for the record, did not contribute to learning to code at all.
So if you're looking to code, an IT degree might not be the best route.
But during some of my off time, I did actually start to dabble in code a bit back in 2017, around the time that I was getting out.
Honestly, I don't even remember how I found it or, you know, kind of got into it.
I just started kind of messing with it. And I kind of went from there, and was on and off with it for the next couple years before I really, like was able to fully like dedicate time into learning it.
I guess, were there any kind of side projects or anything kind of on your own behalf that kind of helped drive towards either the success of finding an opportunity or kind of defining the role that you're looking forward to?
Well, if you want to get into development, you definitely have to have projects, like side projects and things because, you know, you're going to need some form of portfolio to show off your work.
And that I mean, that can be a lot of things like there's not really a right answer to what that is.
I'm not sure like, you know, what's kind of specific stuff you're looking for.
Well, I guess if there was a way to kind of maintain and hone your skills, of course, there's always the education and can kind of getting the IT degree was kind of one step in that process.
And as you mentioned, like an IT degree doesn't necessarily guarantee a job.
And so there's, I'm sure there's ways to kind of hone your proficiencies that really set you in a better position to kind of take it like to get a time to get a position to speak with somebody, say like Uplift.
Oh yeah, of course.
Okay, I understand your question a little better. So yeah, definitely, especially like today, there's so many resources out there that like, it's pretty much unfathomable, like you could never complete all of them.
A lot of places that I recommend personally that I've used over the years are like courses from Udemy.
You can pick up a lot of courses that'll take you months to finish. And you can get them for like 11 or 12 bucks.
I found a lot of value in Team Treehouse, which has a lot of courses for developers and stuff.
And it's like 25 bucks a month, or even free code camp, which is free, of course, but you know, it's a good place to go and try it and see if it's for you before you actually, you know, put some major money or time investment into it.
And you can definitely do it fully self taught.
I was self teaching for a little over a year, I would say, when I became like fully focused on it.
And then I ended up going to a coding boot camp earlier this year, I went through hack reactors, software engineering, immersive coding boot camp.
And I did that from June. And then I graduated in September, I graduated September 25.
And got my job offer about a month later.
Actually, exactly a month later. Nice. Congrats. So that's all the all the skills and training obviously set you up for for some success on getting the offer there.
I guess one other aspect that I do love about kind of the veteran community is the ability to lean on each other when even if there might not necessarily be an established relationship.
Curious to see your perspective and I guess hammering or pinging the veteran community trying to get a hold of opportunities or at least the startup startup conversations.
Yeah, there's definitely a lot of veterans in tech, it can be a little hard to pinpoint on sometimes, but LinkedIn is your friend for that.
But honestly, like, I know that, you know, us veterans have a major community and just about everything.
We're always willing to help each other out, you know, more or less.
And I think that that's one of the things that I really appreciate about the tech community, especially among developers is it is a community.
Even if the the person you know, that you want to reach out to is not a military veteran, it's it's more often than not, that person is going to, you know, go out of their way to help you.
I've noticed that, you know, there, there's a really good community among developers and people in tech out there.
And like, like so many people that I've met along the way, like that I've reached out to have, you know, gone out of their way to help me or answer questions, put me in touch with one of their contacts.
And that, you know, that's something that I like to pay forward as well.
Like, I like to try and provide value to others who are, you know, on on this journey, learning to code, or, you know, whatever it is, like, if I can provide value to others as well, then, you know, I feel like I'm paying that back to the community that's helped me along the way.
Couldn't could not agree more, which is one of the the big reasons why I actually took part in starting the vet flare ERG was really to kind of get the value out of veterans out to the community, while at the same time, just kind of establish a veteran base, so that not only can we recognize each other from within an institution, but at the same time, we are also points of contact for people outside the company, whether it's looking for opportunities or a way to get in contact with Cloudflare.
I think the Cloudflare or the veteran network throughout throughout the globe, but however, in in tech specifically, is very, very tight knit.
If you don't mind, I'd love to share kind of how I came about to come into Cloudflare because it is, it's kind of in that accord that I got my first conversation with a manager in the business development organization, strictly by reaching out to a Marine Corps vet, who was at the time, a BDR manager here in San Francisco.
And really, it led it was a series of quick little I am's back and forth that led to an initial interest.
Long story short, here I am almost two years later.
Yeah, absolutely reaching out to, you know, contacts or even, you know, somebody you know, who has a contact that somewhere that you're interested in working at, that that network is one of the most powerful tools in this industry.
So it's, you know, it's really important to reach out and talk to people.
And I mean, I myself can be kind of introverted at times. So in the times that we live in now, it's, you know, it's great, because you can reach out to everybody online, you don't necessarily have to, you know, go and meet people in person at group meetups and things like that you can you can build those relationships online.
And it can provide just as much value. Oh, I totally agree. You don't have to worry about having a muggy palms for a firm handshake.
Cool, I guess I kind of getting back to I guess some of the process of looking, looking for opportunities in tech or in a space.
What are what are some thoughts that you would provide to another vet that might be at the beginning of trying to decide whether if they're looking to separate from the military, or they're looking to make an industry change?
What are some thoughts you might want to provide to that person as they're starting to make that decision?
A couple things. So I think probably the first one is if you're going to look at more expensive options, like, like coding bootcamps, or like a CS degree or something like that.
The GI Bill is a powerful tool, there are coding bootcamps now that accept the GI Bill.
So you have that, that tool, use it, you earned it. Another one I would say is if you're, if you're actively on the job search, apply to everything, don't just apply to stuff that looks like you're qualified for it.
There's very rarely something that actually looks like a junior developer job.
I had, I mean, I had no previous industry experience.
A lot of those job listings are written by people in HR who don't have a technical background, and they're trying to hire an entire senior IT department to do one developers job.
And, and that's, that's so common. And it's like misunderstood that, you know, nobody ever thinks they're ready for a job, just because these, these job listings are so poorly written most of the time.
And I just think it's important that everybody knows that you don't have to know everything.
More, more importantly, I think it's important that you're you're willing to learn new things.
Yeah. Oh, I definitely agree.
And then one another kind of aspect that I think can't be undersold enough, I think, just basically to brag about vets and whatnot, we, we have an ability to work under pressure in very diverse groups.
Just, I think that's one of the highlights that brings us to the table is that we have the ability to think on our feet, work well with others and really understand what goal setting is.
I think that that is a primary, a primary contributor to success. Just kind of curious what in regards to goals, what kind of goals did you set for yourself kind of in throughout the process of making that transition?
I think that one of my main goals was like I needed to, cause this varies kind of depending on where you live, but if you're trying to get into this, I think that it's important that, you know, do some research on jobs in your area and find out what kind of like technology or languages are most common in the jobs in your area or the area that you want to live in.
Set a goal to, you know, to focus on those so that you're not learning things that are irrelevant to getting into the market or that you can learn after you're in the market, you know, learn the most relevant stuff first.
I think that, I think that that's a big one. I'm trying to think I'm losing my train of thought here.
We're thinking about goals. Right, right, right.
Yeah. So, man, that's a tough one. I guess, I think you just have to be motivated to, to learn new stuff.
Like, like you said, like veterans are pretty goal oriented.
And, you know, if you said, if you set a goal, like that, this is what you want to do.
As long as it ends up being something that's for you, like, I don't see any reason that, you know, somebody from the veteran community couldn't, couldn't get into this industry.
I totally agree. And I guess one kind of follow up, or I don't want to say caveat, but what would you think, what would you say a short, shortcoming, not shortcoming, but somebody making the transition, it's easy to make the misstep and maybe miss the goal.
What are, what are some, I guess, if you were to see from other veterans perspectives, like, what do you think some shortcomings might be if people aren't able to achieve the goal of kind of getting into tech?
I think that if I had, if I had to pick something, it would probably be waiting too long, like waiting, either waiting too long to start or waiting too long to start applying to jobs.
Because you're never really going to know when you're ready.
And that, that timeframe of how long it actually takes to get from point A of starting to point B of getting a job has varied so drastically for so many people.
I've seen some people get incredibly lucky. And it, from the time they started to the time they got a job took three months.
And then I've seen people who can only study for 30 minutes a day, and it took them three or four years.
But the biggest thing is consistency.
And what, you know, no matter how much time you have, consistency will get you where you want to go.
Sticking to the plan. So a lot, what I like to refer to it as a lot of the times is, but, but sometimes life happens and kind of that, that plan gets stretched out or whatnot.
So yeah, I totally agree that kind of sticking to the goal and really just seeing it out, because this is your career.
This is my career. This is kind of taking ownership and doing what needs to be done.
And I think that's another highlight of kind of, kind of the veteran community.
And so kind of looking at your interview process, how, I guess, what was your experience going through the, the interview process?
You don't have to give any, any proprietary.
It's just, how was your first interview? How, how did you prep for your interviews?
And I guess what a lot of vets want to hear is how did you adjust your resume to make sense?
Yeah. It's, so I think that as far as the resume question, that might be a little biased because like I mentioned, I went through Hack Reactor and I had a great career services coach who actually helped with resume formatting and reviews and things like that.
So, so I had some help with the resume prep, fortunately, because I actually didn't know until that, that I've been terrible at writing resumes for my whole life.
So, so I was very fortunate to, to have, you know, somebody with who, who does that for a living to kind of help with that.
As far as the actual like job search experience and interviews, that's about as, as dramatic, I guess, as the job listings themselves.
There's so many different interview formats for developers and it varies anywhere from you could get just technical questions to having to do live coding in front of, you know, like a team of engineers on a whiteboard.
You know, in the event that you were doing it in person, I think nowadays they use like Google sheets or some kind of shared code editor.
My, my interview experience, I, I had several phone screens with various companies.
I did technical interviews with two different companies. One of which I did three different phases of interviews over the course of about a week, week and a half.
Three, three of those were technical and I didn't do any whiteboarding questions.
I got lucky. And then the interview that ended up leading to my job, I didn't do any whiteboarding either.
So I got, I got really lucky in that all my interviews were, were really technical questions you know, in regards to coding, but I didn't have to actually like demonstrate my ability to code, which can be really hit or miss depending on like one, where you want to work as far as company and two, where you want to work as far as the city you're in.
I think that, you know, some, some cities are more likely to do that than others.
And I think that, you know, it, it really just depends from company to company.
Yeah. I mean, you hear of some techs or some companies have a five to eight step interview process.
Some have fewer, a lot of times it really kind of just depends on the field they get for you, but congratulations on, on the recent, recent hire.
I guess looking at this role that you're currently in, was it the, was it the dream role or was it kind of the, the foot in the door?
The reason I ask this as a lot of veterans, whenever they, they are looking to take on a new industry, sometimes they feel like the, they come, they come to the table expecting, I don't want to say more, but they, they might feel like they have a certain kind of fit within a certain role where it may be a better opportunity to just kind of take an, take the option and get your foot in the door.
I think that a lot of that comes down to personal preference, like, and depending on where, you know, where you end up, like some companies, you're pretty sure pretty early that it's going to be temporary.
So far, these guys have taken pretty well.
And, and I, you know, I appreciate that. And I think that, you know, between this place and the other place that I was interviewing with, I wasn't, I wasn't really sure, like at the time, like, you know, how much it was going to matter to me, you know, which one I ended up working at.
And I think that I'm really happy with, with where I ended up. And I think that another thing, like, I don't know if, you know, this is like commonly understood outside of the industry, but this is an industry where people change jobs very frequently.
Like, anywhere from every, you know, year to two or three years, depending on, you know, your level of experience and things like that.
So I think that, like, because, because, you know, other industries can frown upon this, upon job hopping, essentially, but it's pretty well understood that developers in the tech industry do that fairly frequently.
And so it's not, I don't think that it's so important where your first job is.
And if it ends up being a company that you love, that's great.
Definitely is. I mean, so far, I really enjoy where I work.
And, you know, that's great. But yeah, I think that it's, it's more important for your first job, I think, to, to get a job somewhere versus, you know, trying to hold out for a company you want to work at.
Like, it's, it's not super common that somebody gets their first job at Google.
So, you know, you may want to push that a little further down the pipeline and get some more experience first, because those are the places that are going to do, you know, six, seven interviews all in a day with different groups of people.
And it's, it's pretty intimidating.
So yeah, they will be the type to expect 10 years experience for a tech that's only five years old.
Right? Cool. Well, I do want to save a couple of minutes here at the end to kind of give some advice to, to listeners, reviewers that are either considering the change, or making the decision, or maybe just questioning how is it done?
I'll let you kind of explain what are what are some suggestions that you have for for veterans or, or veteran families and friends who are, are looking to make the change?
What's your top one or two suggestions? I think that if you're interested in it, and you're not quite sure, like, or you're not quite sure, like what it is, or what's involved in it, probably the top recommendation I have is go go look up some people on YouTube.
Like, there's a huge developer community on YouTube.
And I found a lot of inspiration from those people throughout my journey, and I still do.
But there's so many people that have, like, just amazing advice.
And you can hear, you know, how their journey went, or how they got started.
And, you know, there's just a lot of value and, and even motivation that can come from that when you're kind of down, like on the way when things get hard, you know, you're going to get down.
But the important thing is that you don't quit.
That's the biggest reason that people don't become developers is because they quit.
And, and sometimes it's just because, you know, you try it, and it's not for you.
But other times, it's because it's hard. And most normal people don't like to do things that are hard.
So but, you know, us veterans, we're kind of stubborn, and we like challenges.
So yeah, the path of least resistance is not a not for us.
No, definitely not. But yeah, I think that I think that finding those communities can be very helpful.
And then if you if you check out some of that content, and you know, you decide to give it a try, the first place I would recommend going is probably free code camp, because you can give it a try.
And you don't have to pay anything for it.
So yeah, I think in addition to that, I think some some key advice for vets looking to make the transition or gonna jump into tech is simply to reach out to the community.
Whether it's, it's another veteran, it doesn't even have to necessarily be a veteran.
But the advice I want to give to anyone making the transition is don't be afraid to reach out to people either currently in the role currently at the company, to really get a feel for not only just the role, but for what maybe the culture may be.
What does the typical office environment look like?
Simply just reach out to people. The reason that we're doing this for vets is because vets have a natural propensity to to respond and be as helpful as possible to other vets.
It's one of the easiest connections that we have.
Yeah, I definitely want to suggest anyone looking to make the transition.
Be prepared. Not everything that you're going to learn is easy.
But don't be afraid to reach out for help because other vets, friends, families, and friendlies, they're going to help.
It's just finding them. So people should utilize their resources such as LinkedIn to really grow that network, find a conversation, even if it is simply just an introduction.
And I think one other thing that I want to say real quick that I think is another common misconception, you don't need to know as much math as you think you do.
They're like you can get by with very, very little math.
And I'm not talking like calculus or anything. I'm talking like barely what could be considered algebra and anything else you need to know you can learn on the way or it's already been done and you can Google it.
Yeah, because I think that like a lot of people are scared to learn because they hear computer science and things like that.
And they think, you know, big scary math numbers.
Yeah. Well, the math is just there to make sure you get the degree, right?
Yeah, pretty much. Well, cool. I definitely wanted to thank you for taking a few minutes to sit and chat with me.
It's definitely great to get to know you a little bit more.
Hopefully these conversations continue. As VetFlair continues to grow, I'll shoot out invitations and look forward to having you involved more often.
Yeah, that sounds great. Thanks, Trent. Cool. Thanks, Zachary.
Have a great day. Thanks, you too. Bye. Bye.