Three things I wish someone had told me when I started my career

Good advice for people just starting out in technology.

By Jim Grey (about)

It’s summer, and the college interns have arrived in software-development shops everywhere. Here’s a story I wrote for my personal blog a couple years ago about some advice I gave a young intern who worked for me.

Me in 1988, almost 21 years old, leaving for my summer job. (Those were my heavy metal years.)

I felt like a fish out of water when I got my first career job. I’d had jobs before, the kind anybody could do — ushering at a theater, working the counter at a Dairy Queen, driving for a courier service, that sort of thing. But my new job as a technical writer for a software company involved a specialized skill, it created real value for the company, and it had a future. It felt like the big time, the real thing — and it sent my anxiety off the charts. I didn’t know how to behave!

This summer I hired an intern to test my company’s software product. This bright engineering student from Purdue started a couple of weeks ago, and was he ever nervous. He had a hard time looking anybody in the eye and when he spoke, his voice always trailed off. His body language was shouting, “What the heck am I doing here? I have no idea what I’m doing!” So I took him aside and gave him some advice — three key tips I figured out on my own over the years, but that I wish someone had told me back when.

Act like you belong here. Have you seen the film Catch Me If You Can, based on the true story of master forger Frank Abagnale? In it, he forged and faked his way into jobs as an airline pilot, a chief resident pediatrician in a hospital, and as an attorney. He was not trained for these jobs, but he skated by because he behaved confidently, as if he had earned his right to be there just like his colleagues who actually did. Stop short of breaking the law, of course – but anywhere you go, take this one play from Abagnale’s book. And you have an advantage over Abagnale: We know you legitimately have what it takes to do the job. You made the cut, and we want you here. Stand confidently on that.

Know who to call. I turned 22 shortly after starting that first career job and someone threw a small party in the office. When I revealed my age, all the middle-aged guys just shook their heads and wouldn’t say a word. I’ve been through that a few times now that I’m their age — they realized that they had been working longer than I’d been alive. It makes a man feel old. But that age does bring some wisdom, and those guys showed me the ropes. Lots of people helped me get better at what I do over the years, and I still reach out to some of them for advice. Everybody knows you don’t know anything, so relax and ask all the dumb questions you want. Even after you leave here, don’t lose track of the people who were the most helpful. They might stay helpful to you — and it will surprise you one day when you find yourself able to help them.

If nobody is leading, you do it. There is no shortage of people who will simply wait to be told what to do. If you want to distinguish yourself, be someone who figures out what to do and does it. Don’t be afraid to do that when working directly with others, either; it’s startling how often people in a group will stare at each other hoping someone else will take the lead. But be sure to ask what your team’s and your company’s goals are, and make choices that help achieve them. You are bound to make some wrong decisions, but you will learn and grow from them.

The fellow seems to have taken my words to heart; at least he seems a lot less uncomfortable around the office.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the beginning of your career?

By Jim Grey

Writer. Photographer. Leader of geeks.

2 replies on “Three things I wish someone had told me when I started my career”

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