Found a job in your field? Check.
Nailed the interview and salary negotiations? Check.
Thrive in your new position, rather than fumbling your way back out the door? Here’s how you get started:
Do Your Own New Hire Onboarding
“Onboarding” refers to to the process of socializing new hires within an organization, where you are introduced to a company’s culture, processes, and personnel with an eye towards smoothing integration. Unfortunately, not every organization does this particularly well. New hires are often left to learn as they go, feeling out organizational practices and relationships by trial and error. If that’s the case with your new position, you can help things along with a focus on three key areas:
As with career transitions, one of the first steps is to determine what is valued in your new workplace. Which metrics measure success or your value as an engineer? “Engineering in the real world is very different from school,” cautions Mark Herschberg, CTO of Madison Logic, veteran engineer, and MIT instructor. “Most engineers work in teams, rather than alone. In school, there’s always a right answer, and you’ve been given what you need to know to find it… Real world problems aren’t so cut and dry.”
This extends towards your success in the business, as a whole. Whereas completing the problem and moving on is sufficient in academics, there’s much more than that in play for professional engineers. Herschberg uses typical classroom problem sets as an example: “When deciding which of three materials to use, you can do the calculations and determine which has the best heat efficiency for the goal. In the real world, that’s important, too, but you also need to balance cost, weight, supply chain issues, manufacturing limitations… There’s no simple engineering formula to solve it.”
Similarly, there’s no universal array of metrics to max out when trying to succeed in your new position. Every company has its own sets of values, processes, and expectations – seek these out if you want to do well.
Next comes establishing communication with management, both your direct supervisor and beyond. More specific than overall corporate culture, you need to pin down management’s expectations for you. Why does your position exist, and why were you selected to fill it? What are their goals for new hires after the first thirty days? Sixty?
Three hundred and sixty?
These objectives aren’t always explicit, but they will help determine the strength of your working relationship. You can’t work towards goals until you’ve identified them.
Good mentorship can help navigate your new environment and provide crucial career guidance. Unlike in college, where you were essentially surrounded by professional mentors, cultivating mentors in the real world requires active, ongoing engagement.
Brian Renzenbrink, Director of Platform Engineering for LocalResponse, puts it bluntly: “No one is going out of their way to find you and coach you up into the engineer or scientist you could be.” Once in the field, you must seek out senior engineers as mentors, rather than trusting luck or circumstance. “Mentors are the most important people to the early stages of your career,” he continues, “but the dynamic changes once you leave college. You have to find your own mentors, both inside and outside your company.”
Networking through online engineering communities or social media is one way to meet strong mentor candidates, as is attendance at local meet-ups. Within the company, senior staff can be approachable, once you’ve proven yourself. Don’t expect instant results; selecting and cultivating a mentor relationship takes time. Renzenbrink recommends searching out promising candidates in your field and “find a way to buy them a beer and pick their brains for an hour or two. Go on enough of these ‘dates’ and you’ll find some people that can be great mentors for you and are happy to do so.”
Negativity, Office Politics, and Real Networking
The solitary, scruffy engineer is a revered stereotype in Hollywood, but much less so in professional circles. Doing the job requires networking, collaboration, and developing those dreaded ‘soft skills’… even more so when it’s your first job, or you’re a new hire on an established team. “Engineering classes are pure meritocracies,” Herschberg writes. “You are judged by a single, objective metric. In the real world, it’s much more subtle and complex.”
Herschberg recalls learning this lesson as an interviewer, screening candidates for an engineering position. “I interviewed two candidates,” he recalls, “and while one was clearly smarter, the other was more personable and communicated better. It made me realize just how important that was.”
Engineers with the skills to communicate, develop solid professional relationships, and cultivate positive team dynamics go much farther in the field. Herschberg advises that engineers “should always be building [their] network,” and that’s self-evident. As a new hire, however, there are serious pitfalls to avoid:
- Office politics are unavoidable, to an extent, but new hires should take pains to remain neutral and avoid gossip. While social maneuvering and competition are sometimes part of the job, it’s too easy to pick the wrong side before learning the lay of the land. Be polite, be positive, and be Switzerland.
- Negativity is to be avoided at all costs. It’s terrible for morale, accomplishes nothing, and gets you lumped in with the wrong crowd. In my experience, overly negative workers will latch on to new hires and try to ‘help them see the light’… usually, because everyone else is tired of their constant whining.
- Misreading the culture.This can be anything from violating unspoken dress codes to inadvertently offending your colleagues. Humor is wonderful but especially subject to such misunderstandings. If the other members of your team tease and mock each other with a smile, it’s probably because they’ve well-established relationships and a knowledge of how far is too far. Hang back and get a sense for what is and isn’t ‘safe for work’ in your new environment before pitching in.
When in doubt, default to politeness and respect. That’s (almost) never the wrong move.
Herschberg writes: “You will continue to develop your technical skills, [but] take some time to develop your other skills: leadership, negotiations, public speaking, writing [ … ] Most engineers focus on the technical skills, alone. With even modest improvements in the other areas, you’ll stand out against your peers.”
Keep One Eye on Career Development
As a new hire, your natural priority is doing well at the position you’ve landed. Some companies will encourage further career development, but you can’t rely on that. While you’re growing your personal networks and learning the new environment, continually ask yourself: “Is this effort aiding my career in the long term?”
Herschberg and Renzenbrink both erred on the side of poor direction early in their careers. Herschberg writes that for “the first few years of my career, I didn’t have a sense of direction. Always have one.” Not that anyone expects you to map your way from graduate school to retirement on day one, of course, but you should always have at least a rough heading in mind. “It can change,” he continues, “but if you don’t have a direction in mind, you’re like a ship adrift in the ocean, subject to wherever the currents take you.”
Renzenbrink agrees. “I made what I consider a huge mistake, in my early career,” he writes, “by working for a company whose core business wasn’t my field.” If you select a position – or move outside of your desired career path, within the company – that only indirectly involves your core expertise, you risk dead-ending your career development.
“When you’re not part of the primary competency of the business, your department becomes marginalized and treated as a line item,” Renzenbrink writes, “just another cost that has to be paid before the real work can be done.” Needless to say, these are not prime positions for career development, networking opportunities, or further education.
“If you want to be treated well, have the opportunity to dramatically affect the business you work for, and be put in a great position to learn, aim for a job directly in your field.”