Career, Year One: 8 Lessons Learned
Ever since I started my career as a computer engineer last summer, I’ve been bombarded by lessons of all types, both from my many smart coworkers and from experience. Moving from the comfy classroom that had been my second home since kindergarten to a full-fledged professional work environment, I couldn’t help but feel excited, intimidated, confused, and enthused — sometimes all at the same time! When I started out, I had no idea what I was doing, but a few seasoned mentors guided me in figuring out the basics. My goal is to share what I found out, so that your first year at work can be as interesting and productive as mine was!
Take a moment to think back to English class. It’s the final semester, and your hand trembles a little bit as you hand your homework in.
"There it goes," you think. "My last paper ever!"
Now snap out of it. I hate to break it to you, but you’re not done with writing. It’s an essential part of getting your ideas across and getting things done. There’s plenty more where that came from!
Not to worry, though. Odds are you’ve been communicating effectively for years. With just a small amount of daily effort directed toward sharpening those skills, you’ll find yourself with a new edge in the workplace, opening doors you didn’t even know were there.
I was initially very surprised at how hard it could be to really communicate at work. My habit of taking notes from textbooks was built on the assumption that everything in those books had been verified, and that it was just a matter of absorbing the information. On the contrary, life in the office is fast paced, and nobody has time to double- and triple-check their work or to write a novel on the topic before making a change. As development takes place, modifications to products are discussed in a whirlwind of emails, IMs, and phone calls, sometimes with little else left behind to describe the final result.
If you’re looking for a way to immediately provide value as a new hire, start documenting things. There are likely many processes that have yet to be documented, and still more details of the organization that are just "understood" by people who’ve been around for years. New hires are tasked with finding their place in the organization and coming up to speed with all of these cultural conundrums. By documenting your journey, you’ll save time (and company money) for the next person who tries to do it.
It’s also helpful to realize that what you’re writing may seem self-explanatory to you, but someone trying to understand your writing may have a different skill set. They will appreciate that you took the time to write it all down.
It didn’t take me long to realize that having a full time job isn’t always a party. There have been plenty of times when I felt bogged down, bored, or overwhelmed with the tasks I was working on at the time.
If you’ve been in this situation, you’ve probably had wild thoughts run through your head:
I’m stuck, so I must be terrible at this!
I’ll do anything to get away from this one stupid task!
I have to check my email. Let me go see if my lead has anything new to do.
This is taking way too long — it’s never going to get done.
I need to change careers, now!
It’s not as bad as you think. The fact is that your assignments at work will sometimes take longer than you want them to. There is a multitude of factors out of your control that can and will stop you from finishing what you’re working on. You may have to wait for someone to get back in the office to approve your request, or maybe you just have to grind through a sticky technical issue that won’t budge.
Regardless of what’s bugging you at the time, the point is you can’t just quit. For those tough tech problems, continue working on it, even if it feels useless. If you’ve really reached a blocker, don’t just sit there. Take a second to evaluate your priorities (more on this later) and move forward. Give it some time to percolate in the back of your mind, and maybe ask someone else for their take on the issue.
When I started out last August, I sprinted into my new position. Fresh out of college, I entered the role eager and hungry, ready to prove myself and get as much done as possible. At first, this worked well. There was plenty to learn from my initial tasking, and when I got bored, there was always someone new to talk to and learn from. There wasn’t much for me to do in the beginning, as I had a lot to learn before I could truly provide value to my department. As for the tasks I did receive, I chased them without reserve, beating them into submission and over-delivering as much as I could.
As the tasks stacked up, my enthusiasm waned. I started getting pulled away and distracted; after starting to pour myself into the intricate details of a scripting issue, I would be interrupted by someone stopping by my desk to discuss something entirely unrelated. In response, I began to rush through everything on my list, feeling obliged to complete everything that was handed to me. As one may expect, this had a poor effect on the quality of my work. Far from setting myself apart with the results I provided, I had to cut corners and gave barely enough time to each individual task. I felt like I was juggling six plates, and it wouldn’t be too long before I dropped one.
As the old adage goes, haste makes waste. If you find yourself rushing to get more things done, consider taking a deep breath, stopping everything, and re-evaluating what’s on your plate, why you’re working on it, and how you’ll get it done. In other words, prioritize your work.
The book I read this year that had the biggest effect on my work was The One Thing by Gary Keller. The ideas in this book helped me realize the key to solving many of the problems I was experiencing in the office: You can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Really. In his book, Keller explains that it’s actually impossible to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, so we should stop trying.
To borrow one of his examples, think of your mind as a computer processor. While your computer may appear to be doing many things simultaneously, the processor is actually only executing one instruction at a time, switching between any number of processes very quickly. This works great for computers; as it turns out, they are far better at switching between tasks than we are. For a human to switch, it’s very inefficient. We have to stop what we’re working on, get all of the context ready, both in our minds and on our desks, and find a starting point. More task switching means more time wasted, so it’s best to choose the most important thing on your list and stay with it until it’s done.
Another helpful lesson intoned by Keller was that nothing is equal. For any two tasks, one of them is more important than the other to you, no matter what. Since their priority can’t be exactly the same, prioritizing should give you a definite path forward when you’re stuck. At any given time, one task on your list is the most important. This is the one you should work on. In doing so, the other items on the list may resolve themselves.
When I finally came up with a system of prioritizing tasks, my productivity skyrocketed. It was simple, but effective. I made a "Board" in OneNote where I threw all of my tasks, big or small, from anyone or anything that may require my attention. After that, I make use of three lists — To Do, Complete This Week, and Completed. Each list will show the project, task description, and priority.
This system allows me to see everything I have been asked to do at a glance. By throwing everything in there, I won’t forget tasks. By frequently dragging-and-dropping tasks to prioritize, I ensure that whenever possible, I’m working on the "One Thing" that is the most important to complete at the time.
A list of twenty tasks is much less daunting with this method— instead of being stuck worrying about how you’ll get everything done, you prioritize, pick your top task, and go. Simple.
As a new engineer at my company, I often found myself running out of tasks. The original project I was assigned to had begun to wind down, and I was finishing my assigned work fairly quickly, leaving more and more space between tasks.
When everything on your list is done, there is temptation to sit and enjoy the feeling of completion. I finished everything I was assigned, so I’m done, right? It’s like school — class is over early. Or is it?
This is another stark contrast between school and work. At school, if you check all the boxes on the rubric, you’re free to go. At work, though, you have to put in 40 or more hours per week; you can’t just leave because you’re bored and you sent your one email for the day. Since you’ll have to be around anyway, you may as well get engaged in something that will benefit yourself and others!
I would recommend two routes in your quest for finding work. The first one requires only you. If you’re between tasks, don’t waste those minutes — look something up online that you didn’t know before, and practice a skill if you can. This means checking out a few lines of that new programming language, or brushing up on pivot tables in Excel. It could also be less technical tasks, like learning a few phrases of a foreign language relevant to your field. Be sure not to get too lost in this one; while these skills are helpful and will make you a better employee, you’re really at work to apply those skills, not read up on them!
That’s when you should move onto the second route: Seeking out work. This is something that can be nerve-wracking and probably out of your comfort zone. However, this is also where a lot of the fun is. Put on your detective hat and figure out where exactly there is a labor deficit in your organization. Who or what needs extra attention to be working at peak efficiency?
If you pursue this when you have time, you’ll have the added benefit of getting to know more people. People who have been around for a while will probably appreciate the help.
Another great read that has helped my career was Lynchpin by Seth Godin. This is a book about the mindset you hold toward your work. Instead of bringing only what your job description describes with you to the office, the book suggests that everyone has art that, if they choose to give it, can move things forward by leaps and bounds.
For example, let’s say you’re someone with a passion for graphic design, and you’ve recently entered a job that involves compiling financial records. At the surface level, it certainly doesn’t seem like those two things have a lot in common. In fact, it appears almost impossible to link the two. If you’re not making the effort, it’s not going to happen. But if you get creative and think of everything as an opportunity, you’ll find a way.
The time has come — Quarter 3 is over, and you’re just finishing up the status package to present to others in your group. With the presentation looming, you stare at slide after slide of white on black text, bar graphs, and cheesy pre-made clip art.
Seeing an opportunity, you use your love of visual design to create custom icons and diagrams for key slides, illustrating the information in a new way and driving the point home. Your manager is so impressed that she pushes for your designs to be included on future company marketing material, both internally and for customers.
This is your art. Your unusual spin on a normally dry topic adds a welcome streak of color, just enough to brighten the day of your audience. Even if this takes up more time than just doing the bare minimum, a little bit of extra effort spent doing something you love won’t feel like a pile of work. On the contrary, you’ll probably enjoy the time and produce a better end-result.
You don’t have to be an artist to bring art to work, though. It could be through interpersonal communication, creating new ideas, and so much more. (If you’re still struggling to understand what your art is, read Seth’s book)
For me, this meant bringing a love of programming into a job that didn’t directly require it. By finding ways to apply my passion, I was able to contribute to projects in ways that others found difficult. As a side effect, the interest I developed in low-level computing ended up teaching me many lessons that would come in useful down the road.
At this point, you may be asking, "If everyone has all this art to give, why don’t more people use it?"
The answer may come as a surprise: Fear. While living in your comfort zone is very enticing, Godin stresses that all of the magic happens outside of it. Feel a little scared to pick up the phone and call a client? Good, do it anyway. Does giving presentations make your knees shake? All the more reason to give it a try. Do you have an idea, but are afraid of being ridiculed for bringing it forward? Take a deep breath, gather yourself, and put it out there.
It’s in this way that your fear is a signpost — learn to listen to it. If you’re afraid of something, it may be just what you need to do in order to grow. Run towards it, not away. Whenever you can, push past the little critic in the back of your head and do something that scares you.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m treading water. There are days when I can do nothing more than stare a problem right in the eye, bewildered as to what the solution may be. Then, miraculously, things will fall into place and the solution will reveal itself. It may take some pondering, or coming back to the problem with a fresh mindset. Either way, the solution will come with persistence.
An essential takeaway is that when you’re struggling with an issue, you’re still making progress. As Jeff Olson argues in The Slight Edge, there is no such thing as a breakthrough. When you finally solve the problem, it’s no miracle; it is the sum of all your efforts finally coming to fruition. Make just a little bit of progress, every single day, even when you don’t feel like it. Your daily efforts are much like the compound interest that (hopefully!) keeps your savings on the uptick. If you let it, this principle will permeate into every aspect of your life.
On another note, you may find it valuable to carefully consider some daily disciplines that you can build. What can you chip away at every single day to move towards your goal? How can you become better at what you do before the sun sets? These are the questions that will keep you on track to getting what you want out of your career.
As some friends have joked, I’ve got one year down, 45 to go. I’ve just scratched the surface of my career, so there’s a whole lot more that I need to learn. In summary, Year One has showed me:
Communication is essential. Learn it.
Stick with it, even when it’s not fun.
Faster isn’t always better.
Learn to prioritize your work, and focus on the most important thing.
Find work when everything else is done.
Take the initiative. Go beyond the bare minimum and add your own touch.
Use fear as a signpost.
Keep moving forward.
Hopefully, some of these points have given you a new outlook on your work day. Keep them in mind moving forward, and if you find anything else out along the way, be sure to let me know!