First days at work are scary. I still recall many instances where I lay awake at night before my first day at work, having an internal meltdown over what would happen the next day. Starting a new job is uncharted territory for most people. Even if you're a veteran in the industry, there's no denying that there can be a part of you that's a bit terrified of what is to come.
Understandably, a lot is happening. There are new people to meet, new projects and technologies to understand, documentation to read, tutorials to sit through, and endless HR presentations and paperwork to fill out. This can be overwhelming and, coupled with the considerable degree of uncertainty and unknowns you're dealing with, can be quite anxiety-inducing.
Two reasons motivated me to write about this subject. The first one being that back when I was a student, most of the discussion revolved around getting a job in tech, and no one talked about what happened next. How do you excel in your new role? Now that I look back, I think I assumed that the hard part is getting the job, and whatever comes after, I could probably figure out myself.
Similarly, once I started working in the industry, most of the career-related content I came across was about how to go from one senior level to another. No one really talked about what to do in the middle. What about the interns and the junior engineers? How do they navigate their early careers?
After completing three years of full-time professional experience as a software engineer (and a couple of internships before), I reflected on my time. I put together a list of tips and tricks I've employed while settling into a new tech role. I wanted to look beyond just the first couple of months and prioritize helping achieve long-term success.
Reflect on existing processes and documentation
Most new employees start by either having a ton of documentation thrown their way or none at all. Instead of being overwhelmed by either of these possibilities, you could view this as an opportunity.
Identify gaps in existing documentation and think about how you could improve it for the next engineer that gets onboarded. This not only shows initiative on your part but also demonstrates that you're committed to improving existing processes within your team.
I've seen both ends of the spectrum. I've been on teams with no documentation whatsoever. I've also been on teams that were very diligent with keeping their documentation up to date. Your path is pretty straightforward with the former, and you can work on creating that missing documentation. With the latter, you can always think of ways to improve what already exists. Sometimes, too much documentation in written form can also feel intimidating, especially for new employees. Some things might be better explained through other mediums, like video tutorials or screencasts.
I encourage you to look into whether a buddy will be assigned to you when you're starting. This is a fairly common practice at companies. The purpose of a buddy is to help you as you are onboarded. I've found this incredibly helpful because it gives you someone to direct all your questions, and you don't have to run around trying to find the right person/team.
While asking questions should always be encouraged, it is also necessary to do your homework before you ask those questions, including:
- Do your research. This encompasses doing a web search, checking forums, and reading existing documentation. Use all the available tools at your disposal. However, it is essential to timebox yourself. You must balance doing your due diligence and keeping project deadlines and deliverables in mind.
- Talk it out. As someone whose first language isn't English, I recommend talking things out loud before asking questions. In my experience, I've often found that, especially when I'm struggling with something difficult, I think in one language (probably my native language) and must explain it in another. This can be a bit challenging sometimes because doing that translation might not be straightforward.
- Organize your thoughts. When struggling with something, it's very common to have many scrambled ideas that make sense to us but might not necessarily make sense to another person. I suggest sitting down, gathering your thoughts, writing them down, and talking through them out loud. This practice ensures that when you're explaining your thought process, it flows as intended, and the listener can follow your train of thought.
This approach is called the rubber duck technique, a common practice developers use while debugging. The concept is that sometimes explaining your problem to a third person can be very helpful in getting to the solution. This is also a testament to your excellent communication skills.
Respect people's time. Even if you're reaching out to someone like your buddy, be cognizant of the fact that they also have their day-to-day tasks to complete. Some things that I've tried out include the following:
- Write down my questions and then set aside some time with my mentor so I could talk to them.
- Compile questions instead of repeatedly asking for help so your mentor can get to them when they have time.
- Schedule a quick 15-20 min video chat, especially if you want to share your screen, which is a great way to showcase your findings.
I think these approaches are better because you get someone's undivided attention instead of bothering them every couple of minutes when their attention might be elsewhere.
Deep dive into your projects
Even on teams with excellent documentation, starting your technical projects can be very daunting since multiple components are involved. Over time though, you will understand how your team does things. However, it can save you time and potential headaches to figure this out early on by keeping a handy list to refer to, including basic project setup, testing requirements, review and deployment processes, task tracking, and documentation.
If there's no documentation for the project you're starting on (a situation I have been in), see if you can identify the current or previous project owner and understand the basic project structure. This includes setting it up, deploying it, etc.
- Identify your team's preference in the IDE (integrated development environment). You're free to use the IDE of your choice, but using the same one as your team can help, especially when debugging, since the choice of IDE impacts debugging. Different IDEs offer varying degrees of debugging support.
- Understand how to do debugging, and I don't just mean using print statements (not that there's anything wrong with that approach). Leverage your team's experience here!
- Understand testing requirements. This might depend on the scope of your project and general team practices, but the earlier you figure this out, the more confident you'll be in the changes you push to production.
- Visualize the deployment process. This process can vary by team, company, etc. Regardless of how informal or formal it may be, make sure you understand how your changes get deployed to production, what the deployment pipeline looks like, how to deploy changes safely, what to do in case of failed builds, how to rollback faulty changes, and how to test your changes in production.
- Understand the ticketing process. Understand how to document tickets and the level of detail expected. You will see a lot of variation here. Some companies expected us to submit our tickets daily, showing our progress. Other companies might not require that level of documentation.
Given everything I just mentioned, a beneficial, all-in-one exercise you can do in the first couple of weeks is to shadow another engineer and do peer coding sessions. This allows you to observe the entire process, end to end, from the moment a ticket is assigned to an engineer to when it gets deployed to production.
The first couple weeks can also feel frustrating if you're not yet given an opportunity to get your hands dirty. To counter this, ask your manager to assign some starter tickets to you. These are usually minor tasks like code cleanup or adding unit tests. Still, they allow you to tinker with the codebase, which helps improve your understanding and gives you a sense of accomplishment, which is a very encouraging feeling in the early days of a new job.
Speak up, especially when you're stuck
I want to stress the importance of communication when you're stuck. This happens, especially in the early months of a new job, and as frustrating as it can be, this is where your communication skills will shine.
- Be transparent about blockers and your progress. Even if it's something as trivial as permission issues (a fairly common blocker for new employees), ensure that your manager is aware.
- Don't wait until the last day to report if something will be delayed. Delays in your project push many other things forward. Share necessary project delays well in advance, so your manager can share this with stakeholders.
- Don't forget things like thoroughly testing your changes or documenting your code just because you're in a rush.
Gain technical context
Gaining technical context is something I've personally struggled with, and I've actively worked on changing my approach in this area.
When I started as an intern, I would go in with a very focused mindset regarding what I wanted to learn. I'd have a laser-sharp focus on my project, but I'd completely turn a blind eye to everything else. Over the years, I realized that turning a blind eye to other or adjacent projects might not be the wisest decision.
First and foremost, it impacts your understanding of your work. I was naive to think I could be a good engineer if I focused exclusively on my project. That's just not true. You should take the time to understand other services with which your project might interact. You don't need to get into the nitty gritty, but developing a basic understanding goes a long way.
A common experience that new employees undergo is disconnecting from the rest of the company, which is a very natural feeling, especially at larger companies. I'm someone who develops a sense of exclusion very quickly, so when I moved to Yelp, a significantly larger company than my previous one, with projects of a much larger scale, I prioritized understanding the big picture. Not only did I work on developing an understanding of my project but also of other adjacent projects.
In my first few weeks at Yelp, I sat down with various engineers on my team and asked them to give me a bird's eye view of what I would be doing and the project's overarching goal. This approach was incredibly helpful because not only did I get varying degrees of explanations based on how senior the engineer was and how long they had been working on the project, but it also deepened my understanding of what I would be working on. I went into these meetings with the goal that my knowledge of the project should allow me to explain what I do to a stranger on the street. To this end, I asked my tech lead to clarify at what point my work came into the picture when a user opened the Yelp app and searched for something.
Architecture diagrams can also help in this scenario, especially when understanding how different services interact.
For the longest time, I thought that all I needed to do was my best and be a good employee. If I was doing work, meeting goals, and no one complained, that should be good enough, right? Wrong.
You must be strategic with your career. You can't just outsource it to people's goodwill and hope you'll get the desired results just because you're meeting expectations.
- Establish clear criteria the moment you start your new job. This varies by company, as some organizations have very well-defined measures while others might barely have any. If it's the latter, I suggest you sit down with your manager within the first couple of weeks and establish and unanimously agree on a criterion.
- Make sure you thoroughly understand how you will be evaluated and what measures are used.
I remember walking out of my first evaluation very confused in my first full-time role. The whole conversation had been very vague and hand-wavy, and I had no clarity about my strengths, weaknesses, or even steps to improve.
At first, it was easy to attribute everything to my manager because the new employee in me thought this was their job, not mine. But over time, I realized that I couldn't just take a backseat as far as my performance evaluations were concerned. You can't just do good work and expect it to be enough. You have to actively take part in these conversations. You have to make sure that your effort and contributions are being noticed. From regularly contributing to technical design conversations to setting up socials for your team, ensure that your work is acknowledged.
Tying into establishing expectations is also the importance of actively seeking feedback. Don't wait until your formal performance evaluations every three or four months to find out how you're doing. Actively set up a feedback loop with your manager. Try to have regular conversations where you're seeking feedback, as scary as that may be.
Navigate working in distributed teams
The workplace has evolved over the past two years, and working in remote and distributed teams is now the norm instead of a rarity. I've listed some tips to help you navigate working in distributed teams:
- Establish core hours and set these on your calendar. These are a set of hours that your team will unanimously agree upon, and the understanding is that everyone should be online and responsive during these hours. This is also convenient because meetings only get scheduled within these hours, making it much easier to plan your day.
- Be mindful of people's time zones and lunch hours.
- In the virtual world, you need to make a greater effort to maintain social interactions, and little gestures can go a long way in helping make the work environment much friendlier. These include the following:
- When starting meetings, exchange pleasantries and ask people how their weekend/day has been. This helps break the ice and enables you to build a more personal connection with your team members, which goes beyond work.
- Suggest an informal virtual gathering periodically for some casual chit-chat with the team.
Maintain a work-life balance
At the beginning of your career, it's easy to think that it's all about putting in those hours, especially given the 'hustle culture' narrative that we're fed 24/7 and the idea that a work-life balance is established in the later stages of our careers. This idea couldn't be further from the truth because a work-life balance isn't just magically going to occur for you. You need to actively and very diligently work on it.
The scary thing about not having a work-life balance is that it slowly creeps up on you. It starts with you checking emails after hours and then slowly makes its way to you, working over weekends and feeling perpetually exhausted.
[ Related read How I recognize and prevent burnout in open source ]
I've listed some tips to help you avoid this situation:
- Turn off/pause notifications and emails and set yourself to offline.
- Do not work weekends. It starts with you working one weekend, and the next thing you know, you're working most weekends. Whatever it is, it can wait until Monday.
- If you're an on-call engineer, understand your company's policies surrounding that. Some companies offer monetary compensation, while others may give time off in lieu. Use this time. Not using your benefits like PTO (paid time off) and wellness days really shortens your longevity at work.
There's no doubt that starting a new job is stressful and difficult. I hope that these tips and tricks will make your first few months easier and set you up for great success with your new position. Remember to communicate, establish your career goals, take initiative, and use the company's tools effectively. I know you'll do great!
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