Engineer to Engineer: Karelle Danielou — Software Engineer at Yext
Written by Ivana Dokic
From left to right: Ivana Dokic and Karelle Danielou
In this edition of the Engineer to Engineer series, WWCode NYC Lead Ivana Dokic speaks with Karelle Danielou, a Software Engineer at Yext. They discuss the trajectory of Karelle’s career, her views on inclusivity on the industry, time management strategies, leadership philosophies, and the role of emerging technologies in the development of new products and innovations.
Hi Karelle! It’s nice to meet you. I’d like to start by learning more about you and your current role.
Nice to meet you as well, Ivana! I am originally from and attended college in France. I graduated in 2014 and after that, I had my first role working at a tech company. In 2016, I wanted to experience life in the U.S., which is when I found my current job at another tech company, Yext.
I’ve been here for over four years now. Our company mission is to transform the enterprise with AI search, and our AI-powered Answers platform can be seen powering search experiences on our customers’ websites and beyond, allowing people to more easily get the information they’re looking for.
As far as my role, I’m a Team Lead on a team of four people. We focus on all the core data for the Yext platform. That includes everything around accounts, users, access control, permissions, and the core platform that all the other teams are building on top of for their own services.
Amazing! I formerly worked for T-Mobile, and they used Yext’s solution to optimize showing up in Google queries and helping customers find T-Mobile faster.
Can you tell me what’s the company culture and structure are like?
It’s funny, when I came to the U.S., I had a harder time relating to what the company was doing because I wasn’t familiar with some of the larger clients we were working with. I was new to the culture and the country, and it was really hard for me to explain to my family and friends back in France what I actually do. I’m sure my parents still can’t remember.
It has been great seeing the company expand since I started. As I was learning about the U.S. culture, we started expanding worldwide and even having customers in France. With that, I was able to relate more. So now, with the Answers product, it’s easier to explain what we do because I can actually show them an example.
In terms of culture, what convinced me to join Yext was the robust learning culture. The company was looking for engineers who would come in and solve problems without being specialists in a specific technology. That was what I was looking for because I was new to web apps and modern software technologies. I really appreciate the learning culture where if I am able to solve a problem, then they trust me to do so.
Second, I discovered the community that the engineering team was building. We had a lot of offsite events, and I think that definitely helped me integrate both in the company and even in the new culture.
That’s awesome. On that note, what do you think is important for companies to do in order to create an inclusive and collaborative environment for women in technology?
One thing that helped me grow a lot as a woman in the company was to feel like I had a support group. That’s been there from the start for me. When I started, I had an assigned buddy, who ultimately became my mentor and really close friend. I’m happy to have her on my team.
It was nice to know that I had someone I could rely on as I was getting into that new environment. Even in general for my growth as a woman in the company, I had a great manager that was able to read between the lines and understand that my biggest obstacle was that I wasn’t confident in myself. They were able to hear these things, and push me further, and encourage me.
It’s also great that I’m working with other women on my team. We’re a team of four and there are three women! We encourage each other and it’s a great feeling.
That’s amazing! It’s really good to hear that!
I’m curious, how has the influence of emerging technologies, such as shifts in machine learning, changed the way engineers are considering building products and services? Furthermore, how does your team use machine learning in its products and search experience?
When I started, Yext was focused on listings — in other words, we wanted to make sure that location-related facts about a company were correct across all online publishers, like Google and Facebook, and generally across the internet. As we started growing, we expanded this idea to all facts about a company.
Soon, it became clear that we could use our technology to help the user experience on company websites by implementing an AI-powered search engine that could deliver those accurate company facts as answers to complex customer questions. We had all the answers in our hands, and we just had to be able to map them to a question.
A year or two ago, one of our teams focused on machine learning and how this could be leveraged to process natural language questions that people were asking through search — and return the right answers. Even though I’m not directly involved with that team, I’ve seen a shift where we’re more aware of trying to create a seamless search experience for the user on a company’s website, and it even applies to our own platform. As my team is owning core services, we’re seeing shifts in our product. For example, we’re starting to dig into elements like our navigation and making it more intuitive for our own users. We just added a Quick Find tool that lets users easily search and navigate to any page in the navigation bar. So, machine learning is helping our customers and our own platform.
Thank you for walking me through that. Can you talk about your journey and any challenges you faced with work? Are there any tips you would like to share with other women in the engineering community?
When I started at Yext, I mentioned that I was really interested in the learning culture. That was because I lacked confidence. I felt like I had to learn so much and had to prove so much, and I remember always overthinking everything.
One of the first conversations with my manager was me saying I don’t think I’ll pursue a career in software engineering. I didn’t feel like I had what it takes to be the super software engineer that I had all these preconceived notions about and didn’t feel like I identified with. . Because I didn’t see myself fitting that mold, my conclusion was that this field is not for me.
I now see that’s not the case, and that’s something my manager helped with a lot. I’ve come so far from being in that state of mind. Now, I’m a Team Lead and feel empowered. I can drive projects and help my team grow. It was a process of building confidence. For me, a growing organization can’t be successful with just one type of profile, so if you don’t feel like you’re fitting the “typical” qualities or skills of a software engineer, it’s okay! Put your different strengths into the project and see where it takes you. I wasn’t spending a lot of time figuring out new technologies, but I really enjoy digging into issues, prioritizing, planning new projects, and helping people grow. Following my strengths led me to try leading teams.
Remember, there’s not just one type of software engineer! That’s the tip I would give.
Being a leader comes with different demands. I’m sure there are a ton of meetings and time management becomes crucial. How do manage your time wisely?
When I was an individual contributor, it was easier to manage time because I was just assigned to specific tasks. I’d have something to do and then it’s either done or not done by the deadline. Now, with leading a team, I can’t just rely on my memory anymore for time and project management.
One thing I picked up to help here is bullet journaling. I write down my different tasks for a given day — it doesn’t mean I’ll do them all, but just having them written down in a centralized place where I can mark things as done or move them to the next day has helped me a lot. Every day, I take a look and make sure I’m addressing the top priorities first and then if I have some down time, I’ll come back to look at it and check for other items.
That’s a helpful tip. Especially to ensure you can establish a work-life balance. What do you like to do for self-care?
With the work-from-home situation that we’re all experiencing right now, it’s a bit hard to find that line. It’s really easy to fall into the routine of sleep, wake, desk, couch, repeat. Walking my dog every morning definitely gives me a nice start to the day, and keeps me from going from my bed to my desk.
I also have regular yoga Zoom meetings with my friends, and it’s nice to allocate time for things that aren’t work-related. I enjoy crafting quite a bit as well. I’ve done knitting, crochet, sewing, and the most recent one has been quilting. It puts me in a meditative state, forcing me to not be on my computer which I enjoy a lot.
I think great software engineers developed several traits that are more or less specific to their field of specialization. What traits do you think make software engineers successful?
When I started and was a bit lost in the whole thing, a mix of curiosity and perseverance went a long way. The curiosity of just trying to learn more would push me to pick up tasks where I had no idea what the team was doing. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew I would learn from it.
Something that my manager says about me is that I never leave any stone unturned. I like to make sure I fully understand the problem, or else I can’t move on. I don’t like giving up, and I’m really dedicated to the tasks I set for myself. That has been key when it comes to learning and growing.
Another thing was realizing that I’m adaptable. When learning, software engineers tend to get really focused on the code because it’s the stable thing we know. At some point, I had an opportunity to go to another team for a short amount of time, and I was convinced this was the worst idea because I would have to start from scratch learning their code. That’s when I realized the other skills I could pick up — how to approach a problem, how to think about an overall system, and so much more.
By taking a step back from my original team and its codebase, I became aware of the engineering skills I’ve developed and learned that I was able to have an impact rather quickly without having to dig deep into the new team’s code. That has led me to believe that adaptability is very important.
Yes, it is! I agree 100%. The ability to collaborate well in a team not only produces benefits for the people around you but you also get exposed to different ways of solving problems. As they say, “great engineers attract great engineers”. It seems you are a great team player.
I feel like I have to be. Even as a Team Lead who has spent considerable time at Yext, I feel like so many people here have different points of view or approaches that I can still learn from.
In my position, I’m not necessarily the one designing and handling all the projects. Instead, there is a lot of delegating projects to the rest of the team. I trust the team and the way they’d like to approach their individual projects. If they need me as a resource, I’m always happy to help. It’s important to give them room for creativity because I can also learn from whatever solution they come up with. I learn how to delegate, and they learn how to grow as an engineer, so we all get good learnings out of it.
You sound like an inspiring leader. What advice do you have for women who want to pursue a career in software development?
It’s really important to make sure we don’t define our success within the parameters of whatever we think is a “typical” software engineer. There are so many different ways to be a software engineer that you shouldn’t fixate on one mold and decide filling it exactly is the only way to be successful.
I try to just make sure that I always feel a little bit uncomfortable in what I have to do. I know that if I’m uncomfortable with a task, then that means I need to learn from it. You want to also take time to reflect on what your strengths are and how they can be leveraged to instill a positive impact in your company and the industry.
That great! To wrap things up, would you like to share any recent accomplishments that you’re proud of?
I mentioned my crafting earlier, so I have to say I’m pretty proud of my first quilt. It came out pretty well.
As for work, I’m proud of the recent accomplishments we’ve had as a team. We’ve been working really hard to make sure the user experience is at the center of our recent initiatives. With just a few weeks of digging around trying to improve our platform, we had significantly improved performance on core endpoints that are used by all the other teams. The work we’ve done is improving not only the user experience but also the experience for teams that we work with within the company!