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July 08, 2011

Day in the Life of a Yelp Engineer

Next up in our “Day in the Life” series is JR Heard: badass Yelp Software Engineer, creator of the “Hipster” ambience feature and bona fide taco connoisseur. JR talks about his transition from college student to Yelp Intern to a member of the full-fledged engineering team and all the bells, whistles and whiskey tastings that come with it!

(And hey, we’ll feature him even though UC Berkeley has a higher Yelp rating than Stanford. Just saying...)

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What did you do before coming to Yelp?
I was a CS major at Stanford, where I lived in a vegetarian co-op and played guitar in the marching band. Tech-wise, I’ve been working on Web sites since I was in the fifth grade, but only really got serious about it  around the beginning of my sophomore year of college. I had a lot of jobs in college, though, so I caught up pretty quickly.

How did you first hear about Yelp and the job opening?
I’ve sort of got a thing for Mexican food, and have been using Yelp as a dedicated taco search engine for something like five years now. I honestly can’t even remember how I first heard about the site, if that helps give you an idea of how ingrained it is in my daily life. By the time I stumbled across the Yelp booth at a career fair, I’d been a user for at least three years, and I was ecstatic to realize that there existed a possible universe in which I could get paid to work on a site that my friends and I all use daily. I applied for the internship, got the job, had a great time, and now here I am.

What's your title at Yelp and how long have you been with the company?
I’m a Software Engineer. I started with the company as an intern and was then hired as a full-time employee. I started full-time with Yelp in August of ‘10.

What comprises a typical day for you?
To start off, I like to go rock-climbing before work a few days a week. Makes it a little difficult to type for an hour or so after you get into the office, but it clears your head and turns you into an extremely awake person. Once I get to my desk, I’m basically just hacking all day, which is exactly how I like it. Mostly, I spend my time building huge features from scratch by myself or with friends; maintaining and improving old features that need a little love; and doing odd coding jobs to keep the site running smoothly for our millions of users and our always-energetic Community Managers across the globe. I also look at lots of pictures of cats.

What's the BEST part of working for Yelp?
It’s definitely got to be the people. All of the engineers here are crazy-smart. Everyone here has an incredible amount of knowledge to share, and they do it gladly at every turn, whether it’s at one of our weekly learning groups, a product implementation deep dive, bi-annual Hackathons or perhaps a CS paper reading group -- not to mention, you know, normal daily conversation. Just don’t get them started on the merits of vim vs. emacs.

What is your favorite perk at Yelp?
Our weekly #caskforce whiskey tastings are great, and there’s always fancy beer on tap via the Kegmates -- I’m getting better at playing fetch with (read: for) Darwin, too, so that’s always fun. Honestly, though, nerdy answer, but my favorite perk is definitely the code. I like reading it, I like changing it, I like writing new stuff that works with it - I just generally like working with it.

What has been your favorite memory at Yelp?
That’s a tough one -- it’s definitely a tie between two different memories. On the one hand, there’s the day we rolled out our Hot New Businesses feature, which really was a labor of love. On the other hand, there’s the couple of weeks when the Internet exploded with blog posts after some code I wrote allowed our users to mark businesses as having a “hipster” ambiance. Both of those were pretty powerful experiences.

What separates Yelp from other places you've worked?
At Yelp, I really care about the product I’m working on. It’s cool, it’s shiny, and it’s something I used every day even before I started working here. I’m reminded of a warning a professor once gave to my class of bright-eyed young programmers: “If you pick a project you want to work on, you’ll never have to worry about being motivated -- just, you know, try to remember to eat and go outside once in a while.” Yelp is the kind of project he was warning us about.

Finally, what would be your one piece of advice for someone interested in your role?
Have side projects. We’re looking for people who do this stuff because they love it. If you’re able to point to something awesome that you’ve made, that’s bonus points like you wouldn’t believe. Extra bonus points if you can direct us to your project’s GitHub (or equivalent) repo.