Nicholas Roberts is the Director of Advanced Support Technologies at ServiceNow in San Diego – and a huge advocate for military veterans in tech. In the past year, ServiceNow has hired two Sabio graduates (also military veterans) into their apprenticeship program. We caught up with Nicholas to find out why coding bootcamp graduates should keep an open mind during the job search, the challenges veterans face in transitioning to tech (and how to support them through it), and why hiring managers at ServiceNow said the Sabio candidates “interviewed perfectly.”
Tell us about your team at ServiceNow and who you’re hiring!
ServiceNow is a cloud based digital workflow company. We make the world of work, work better for people. We offer a development platform that helps companies create more efficient workflows, where people who have maybe never coded before can build apps for their business. There are 10,000 employees at ServiceNow – and 55% of them were just hired last year! We're moving fast, still hiring even during the Coronavirus pandemic.
I've been with ServiceNow for over 10 years. Currently, I direct a team called Advanced Support Technologies (AST). We're part of the Support Operations group. Our tools and applications help our support team assist our customers better and faster.
How did you learn to code, Nicholas?
I started programming at age 12. I got my first job with computers at 15. I went to college for a year, but I went into the military because I didn't want to spend all of that time going to school and end up being stuck with massive loans and a job that I didn't like.
I decided to go back to computer science after six years in the Navy. I realized throughout my military career that I was a natural leader and that I missed working with computers. At that point, the only way to get a good computer science job was to get a degree so I went back to college and then got a job in programming. I've seen the industry change and morph over time.
How does a coding bootcamp graduate get a job at ServiceNow?
ServiceNow traditionally hires former interns and fresh college graduates for many of our entry-level positions. And typically, all of those interns come from college computer science degrees. Those interns will fill a plethora of roles if they did an adequate job in their internship.
As the company grew, I wanted to find a path for veterans to get an entry-level job with ServiceNow, so we started our Apprenticeship program pilot. Someone who has used their GI Bill or VET TEC to attend a 13-week bootcamp like Sabio would be qualified for an apprenticeship here. Apprentices are on a 3-6 month contract with an option to continue with the company after that first trial period. The potential starting pay is between $30 and $36 an hour, depending on experience.. If they hit the ground running, are productive, and follow the guidelines, there is no reason they shouldn't get a job at the end of that period. We will accept any bootcamp graduate that passes our interview process but we do have limited positions available each year.
Did you have to convince your company to hire bootcampers?
It took me a while to get somebody to take a chance on it, but our hiring managers told me that the Sabio resumes were some of the best resumes they'd ever seen. I think this is the first step in convincing the larger team that college interns aren't the only way to go. It's shown them that there are other avenues out there.
The truth is that a lot of technologies companies want are cutting edge languages that traditional universities don’t teach, and this is why I think a lot of people have problems going through a traditional university. If you want to learn a cutting edge technology, there may not even be a class or a book for it. You may have to go read documentation or pour over the source code to learn it.
As we continue to grow, I want to make sure there is a lower barrier of entry for people on nontraditional education paths who can add diversity to our team. That's why working with Sabio made sense – they accept the GI Bill funding and VETTEC program.
How many Sabio graduates have you hired as Apprentices?
Two so far. We had about 20 candidates from Sabio, and every single person interviewed perfectly. If we were in a vacuum, we would have hired them all! Sadly, I've only been given the capacity to hire two for this round. Sabio graduates had the soft skills we were looking for. That also says a lot about who Sabio admits to their program.
Why did you want to partner with a coding bootcamp like Sabio?
I wanted a partner who could be with us for the long run that would give us quality entry-level developers. We end up competing with other companies, including our customers sometimes, for the same employees. That doesn't do anyone any good; we can get more people in the ecosystem. There is a lot of opportunity for veterans within our industry, and Sabio is a preferred partner of the VETTEC program.
I found out about Sabio through that VET TEC program. It’s interesting to me that there are several military bases around San Diego, but Sabio is the only school in the San Diego area that is part of the VET TEC program.
Why did it matter to you that Sabio is a Preferred Partner of VETTEC?
Being a preferred partner means they essentially offer a job guarantee. They give back all of the tuition money if their graduate does not get a job. They put their money where their mouth is! I basically started calling and pestering everyone there until I could get an appointment with their founder, Liliana Monge. Liliana is amazing. She's a force! She answered my curriculum questions and I knew they were the right school for us to work with.
What types of roles can a bootcamp graduate land after their apprenticeship at ServiceNow?
All of our entry-level positions are available to apprentices and interns after a certain period of time has elapsed. On my team, these include Quality Engineer, Support Engineer, or Developer roles.
Sabio graduates are ready for the Quality Engineering department, which gives them a chance to get up to speed with the code, the product, and how it works without the added pressure of having to handle customers too. By working in the QE department they have the most opportunities to figure out what they like the most and to move into that role. Placing people in roles that they like is important for productivity long term. I wanted to make sure they would be able to see everything and learn what they like over their first 3-6 months.
What does the Technical Support Engineer do?
The traditional developer, in most people's minds, doesn’t deal well with people. That's had to change over the years! Especially with roles like this. You are a developer but you're also working with customers. This is made more difficult by the fact that our platform is a development platform. Not only do we offer a bunch of applications that our customers can use but customers can also make applications themselves and even modify our existing ones. It is infinitely more complex than just troubleshooting customer's code!
Our customers open up cases to request help from us. The Support Engineer evaluates the case to determine if it’s our code that has a bug or the customer’s code that has a bug. There are a lot of moving parts. You need a great command and understanding of web development as well as customer service to fulfill that role.
What’s your advice for coding bootcamp graduates who are trying to stand out in the job market?
When you're searching for jobs, keep an open mind. Bootcampers typically want developer jobs, but Support Engineering is this whole other realm of jobs that pay well that will prepare them more adequately for a long term career as a developer. Support roles help new developers become stronger programmers, work well with our products and customers, and gain an understanding of corporate culture. This path makes for a well-rounded developer that will thrive in the senior level roles of our company eventually. Some of what I consider to be our best developers in the company started in technical support.
New hires have a window of time to get up to speed in our development department. If you just went through a 13-week bootcamp and you only have three months to get productive at this company, I'd say that odds are stacked against you. I prefer to set people up for success, not failure, even if it's not exactly what they think they want because by doing this I will get them to what they want. Don't go for the short term gains and sacrifice your long term future.
What kind of feedback did you get from your hiring team about Sabio graduates?
The managers were impressed by every resume that they got from Sabio graduates. The interviews were great too. Every single person interviewed perfectly. The truth is that it's a nuanced process and the most important thing to our hiring team is the cultural fit and the ability to learn. For us, the interview is about your personality and who you are.
Why is tech a good career path for veterans who are transitioning out of the military?
Veterans think differently. When you join the military, everything is in your job description. In the civilian world, you can just quit a job. In the military world, you cannot. You have to adapt and overcome and get stronger. We embrace the suck and move forward. And we do it as a team. That type of training and soft skills are extremely beneficial, in my opinion, to almost any employer.
And what kind of obstacles keep veterans from transitioning into tech on their own?
I wanted to start this program because I've been mentoring veterans for a long time. Most people who I have come into contact with whom join the military don't actually want a degree or want to go to college, but have not had a chance or the money to do so – that's why they join the military. There are many people who get out of the Navy or the military and can’t get the jobs they want because they don’t have a degree or experience.
Some bootcamp graduates went straight from high school to the military to coding bootcamp. Now that they're out of the military, some of them have never worked in a corporate environment before. This apprenticeship program allows them to ease in and take their time getting adjusted.
How does ServiceNow support veterans? What kinds of challenges might a veteran face in the workplace?
I run a veterans meetup at ServiceNow, so every two weeks, we have a beer together on campus and chat about life, our military experiences, and our jobs now. During coronavirus isolation, we've actually set up virtual social hours on Zoom biweekly. Socializing is important! It allows different departments to get to know each other and feel closer.
The ServiceNow veteran's meetup group is helping me mentor our two new veteran bootcamp hires. We'll be mentoring their managers as well to make sure that they're able to communicate well. It's hard when you first leave the military. Civilians tend to communicate one way and the military tends to communicate differently. I had to learn that on my own but I am going to teach our Apprentices how to do that and their hiring managers as well. Another nice thing about placing Sabio graduates in Quality Engineering is that there are a lot of veterans on that team. The Director of QE was an Army Ranger!
At Sabio students learn Node.JS and .NET. Will your bootcamp hires be working in that language or have they had to learn new languages or technologies?
Most of my team members and, I would venture to say, many of the people here at ServiceNow are polyglots. It's more important to know a bunch of different languages than it is to know one really well. Programming languages to me are a lot like tools in a toolbox. Sure you can use a hammer for everything, but that might not be the best tool for the job!
We call Sabio a coding ‘bootcamp’ – are there parallels you see between coding bootcamps and military bootcamp?
In my opinion, coding bootcamp is like military bootcamp in terms of the level of training you receive and the swift pace. It's enough to make you dangerous, but it's not enough for you to be fully trained to do the best job. Bootcamp means that you've got enough knowledge to start using Google and resources to build your knowledge. The next step is to get work experience.
Do you have a feedback loop with Sabio at all? Do you influence their curriculum? Are there any areas where Developers are leaving bootcamp unprepared?
We're providing Sabio with feedback about the resumes and interviews we've done with their graduates. The fact that they care to get feedback from us is what makes them a fantastic bootcamp to me. Education is important, but getting a job is more important.
We’ve also hosted the Women Code meetup twice now with Sabio and plan on continuing once the current restrictions on gathering are removed.
Will you hire from Sabio again in the future?
Absolutely. I wish Sabio or another preferred VET TEC coding bootcamp would open up in the San Diego area! Plus, I love Sabio and I like the candidates they provided; I like this avenue.
What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about becoming a programmer by attending a coding bootcamp?
Look for bootcamps that teach you how to self teach. Become self-aware and self-sufficient in learning. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are and balance them out. When I was a programmer, I would work a full day at work and then I would come home and do another four or five hours of learning. You basically have to be a lifelong student – a coding bootcamp is enough to get you started but you have to start becoming self-sufficient. A coding bootcamp is not just a quick path into tech. You need to have a passion to learn and keep learning on your own. The people that do the best in the software industry are the best self learners.