Advice for someone in their first job

What advice would you give a newly graduated person starting his or first job as a knowledge worker in IT? 

In my last job I had the pleasure of working as a mentor for young people beginning their first job after graduation. Mentee meetings happen at a slower pace than project meetings and are a good way to fix issues that are easily ignored in a busy work day. We talked about onboarding. How it feels to change from a student to a knowledge worker, to become part of a team, to take responsibility for solving tasks and issues. Expectations and daily feedback. Setting goals and working towards them. 

I enjoyed meeting my mentees where they are in life by asking open questions and listening to their concerns and ambitions. I shared stories from my own life and career to inspire and comfort, being careful to listen more than talking.

In this post I share my advice to young people starting his or first job as a knowledge worker. The first three are about professional behaviour. The last three are about personal wellbeing.

Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise. Practice what you preach. Climbing the local hilltop.

Own the problem

When you pick up a task, you frequently discover issues and complications. You don't have the permissions you need. Something else needs to be done as well before you can complete your part. You discover a flaw in the design or inconsistent requirements.

Don’t sit on your hands and wait for some else to fix this. Solve it and solve it properly so that it doesn’t resurface later. Seek out the information you need to solve it. Reach out to those who can help or can fix it. If you can’t solve it yourself, share what you have learned. Provide options, list consequences.

Be proactive and be thorough.

A story of how not to do it

Here is a story of how not to do it:

I was running a project where we integrated a development team and their product into the main code base and development processes. We wanted to align how we deployed updates to customers to remove a frequently occurring issue where the integration broke due to different patch levels.

As part of this work, a senior developer took on a large refactoring task to update a third party component across the code base. This needed to be done before we merged the two repositories into one. While we had some flexibility on the timeline for the migration of the repository, we had a window of opportunity every 6 months where the migration could be done with less risk.

The senior developer worked on the task for weeks, soon overdue on the initial estimates. All the time he reassured his line manager and me that the work was on track and would be completed in time for the migration. Then in his last day before leaving on vacation, he announced that the work was completed. Only then did we discover that while he had completed the refactoring, he had worked in a separate branch and had not merged with changes made by the rest of the team.

Two very loyal team players then spend the next three weeks merging in his changes while he was partying in Spain.

To this day I still don’t understand how he managed to talk his manager into not firing him on the spot.

Say what you do, do what you say

Working in IT is complicated with lots of little details and many experts. Rarely can one person know and do everything. Hence we work in teams. 

For this to work efficiently, we need to trust each other and understand each other. This is hard work. Trust is earned over time and begins with communication. To be a good communicator, be specific and communicate often. Check in that the message was understood.

Nothing beats face to face communication around a shared screen. If you communicate in writing, provide screenshots. Draw on the screenshots to highlight the message.

When you make a commitment, deliver on it. If there is no way you can meet it, then communicate as early as you know and provide options.

In the story above, we clearly had a different understanding of what “Done” meant. Here is how I first discovered the importance of clear communication:

A story of miscommunication

I had just joined the framework team at my first workplace where I took up a trainee role for the engineer who had built most of the core system. A business consultant approached us with ideas for how we could improve the product documentation. We had a very constructive meeting where we agreed on most things. Then we went each out separate ways with a clear course of action. To my surprise three weeks later, the consultant got back in touch and I discovered that we had had very different ideas of what were supposed to happen.

Help the team

Once you are on top of your own work, have an eye for how you can help the team. 

Write documentation, demo and discuss code, provide actionable feedback to code and design documents, help out troubleshooting tough issues. Teach the tricks you know about how to debug, how to profile, how to test.

Invite them for lunch or after work. Grow relations, get to know your colleagues. They may easily become life long friends. 

People walking up Oslo Opera house.
Climbing the Oslo Opera house.

Have fun at work

A favourite question of mine when I held my mentor meetings was: 

What was the most fun thing you did at work the last two or three weeks?

Work in IT should be fun, most of the time. Check in every now and then: When was the last time I had fun at work? If you one day realise you don't remember, then do something about it. 

Do I look forward to go to the office in the morning? Is there a knot in the stomach when I log on? Work is not always fun, crunch time and conflicts happen from time to time, but it should not be a constant. 

People may forget to check in on themselves, so do your colleagues a favour and check in on them as well. If they are not smiling in the morning, ask if they are all right. 

Life outside work

There are other things in life than work. Attend to your life outside the workplace ask well.

Spend time with your family. Spend time with friends that are not also colleagues. Find a partner. Have kids before you are too old. Or make a conscious decision to not have any. You will never be completely ready to have kids. If you wait too long it will be too late.

Take care of your personal finances. The best investment you can make (besides graduating within STEM) is to buy a house when you are young. Also, start your pension savings early. Money isn’t everything but it sure helps to have financial freedom to follow your dreams.

I didn’t follow this advice too well myself, but I am catching up.

It’s just a job

The most important piece of advice: It is just a job.

You fall in love with your job. You build your identity around what you do. You tell your friends about it. You even tell your grand mother about it. You are passionate and excited. Then something happens. Things don't work out. What you loved so much now seems so terrible.

Take a deep breath and remind yourself: It is just a job. It is not the end of the world. Fix it if it can be fixed and is worth it. Otherwise walk away. 

My best managers have been those who helped me slow down when I was going too fast. Step away from a problem or a commitment. Take a break, sleep on things. There is also a day tomorrow.

Thanks for reading this far. Do you agree on my list? How is your list? Comment below or subscribe for more stories.