10 Unwritten lines of a technical job description

January 02 2019

Balwinder Kaur, Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics and serial founding engineer, has advice for those who are new to technical roles or want to accelerate their career trajectory in a technical field.

There’s a time in everyone’s career when they are new starting a new job. During this time, everyone wants to make a positive first impression, feel confident, and be successful. To ensure that we grow and thrive in each new role, I’ve learned first-hand that there are some crucial steps every person must take. As a long-time mentor and career coach to those who are early on in their professional journey, I advise that they treat these tips as if they were the unwritten lines of a job description.

So, what have I learned over the years and want people to know? Let’s dig in.

#1 – Create your own learning path. 

In high school and college, a learning plan is already defined for you, but when you get to the workplace, often times it’s not so clear. Therefore, you must create your own path forward, and continue your learning.

  • Invest 10 minutes a day on technology trends relevant to your field of work.
  • Invest 1 hour a week to learn something new, perhaps take a new course.
  • Invest in attending one conference a year. A lot of companies will pay for a conference for professional growth. Talk to your manager to explore options.

#2 – Build relationships. 

Engineers can have quiet and introverted personalities. Feeling like you are part of the team may or may not be easy. You may even feel that there is too much work and socializing isn’t the best use of your time. The truth is, this is an important aspect of your job that isn’t written down.

  • Participate in team events.
  • Help organize outings.
  • If you are passionate about something, start a group, e.g. game night, soccer games, pottery, etc.
  • Go for lunch or drinks with people in “adjacent” teams.
  • Build friendships.

#3 – Understand your customer. 

Customers can be internal or external. Finding out who they are and how they consume what you build will help provide context for what you do. It will empower you to make decisions.

  • Understand how your company makes money.
  • Know who your competition is and what they do.

#4 – Speak up.

Speaking up is important. A typical reason that many folks don’t do this is that they think their work will speak for itself, or they have self-doubts. Sure, if you don’t work and only talk, it doesn’t help either. But it’s important to share your opinions and suggestions. Well thought out, articulated speech can take you a long way, whether it is in team meetings, informal discussions, or one-on-one meetings.

  • Share your viewpoint on whether you agree or disagree with other people’s ideas.
  • If you can’t formulate an opinion, then educate yourself on the topic until you can.
  • If you disagree with an idea, do have a suggestion for an alternate proposal. Just saying “no” doesn’t help anyone.
  • If you need more time to think, request for a team meeting agenda ahead of time.

#5 – Get a mentor.

A good mentor can help you go a long way. If your company offers a mentorship program, sign up for it. If they don’t, you can always ask your manager or your friendly HR business partner to set you up with somebody.

  • Remember, you own the relationship with the mentor.
  • Move at the pace that the mentor likes–not less, not more.
  • Always be thankful to your mentor. The time they provide is an investment in you.
  • Keep them updated with your progress.
  • It is often good to have two mentors, one within the company, one outside. The internal mentor understands the state of the company and can guide you accordingly. The external mentor can be objective.

#6 – Track your career.

Your career progression is your responsibility. It is perfectly fine not to know exactly where you want to go early in your career. It is also fine to change your goals over time. It is also fine to have a career goal of being happy in the role you are already in. It is your career and hence, your choice. But just don’t expect anyone else to look out for you.

Some tips to track your career progress:

  • Is what you are doing translating into a line item on your resume?
  • Schedule regular conversations with your manager about your career progress, either once a month, once every two months, or whatever feels comfortable. Do not confuse this with performance reviews that a lot of companies do.

#7 – Get trained in “the art of feedback”.

There are many occasions during your professional life where the situation is not black and white, and there is conflict and confusion. Knowing how to receive feedback is important, as is being able to give feedback–both positive and constructive. A lot of your success will depend on this, whether it’s asking for a raise, or dealing with a difficult co-worker.

  • Get trained in the “art of feedback”.
  • If your company has classes on negotiation, or feedback, sign up for those. If not, read a book such as Crucial Conversations or Radical Candor.
  • This is a difficult skill to master, so keep at it. Don’t lose heart.

#8 – Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Let’s say you have been assigned to a task, and you get stuck doing it. How do you decide when you should ask for help from your co-workers, or from your manager? If you ask too soon, too frequently, or the questions are too basic, you may come across as either an annoyance, or worse, incompetent. If you continue to work at it alone for a long time, and the company’s crucial business gets impacted, it will reflect poorly on you as not being a team player, or not understanding the timelines. Yet, making that judgement call on your first job can be hard.

So, here are some tips:

  • Know when the task you are working on is due. If it is due in 3 hours, get feedback within 30 minutes.
  • If it is due in a 1 week, it may be okay to take a day to figure it out.
  • If it is a big task, get feedback at 30% of your work. Set expectations up front with the team that it is only 30% done.

#9 – Learn an applicable software process or new tools.

Being a software engineer is a craft. The experts know their tools. Invest time in learning the tools needed for your job. Add those tools to your learning plan. (See #1 on this list.)

  • Keyboard shortcuts are great productivity boosters.
  • CLI and shell scripts are evergreen.
  • Whether your team uses agile or waterfall, scrum or kanban, or the latest recommended SDLC methodology, educate yourself on it.

#10 – Stay energized.

Most jobs have a degree of stress associated with them. Finding the activities that make you relax are key to staying energized and in high productivity. Good software is never written when you are spinning like a hamster and don’t know where you are going.

Everyone Has to Find Their Own Path

Early on in your career, navigating through a new job can be difficult, and everyone has to find their own way. Don’t be afraid of taking chances. There will be successes, there will be failures, but not taking chances and only hoping for the best could end up causing regrets later. Hopefully the tips I’ve shared here will help you maneuver through the initial years of your career with confidence.

Learn more about career opportunities at AppDynamics.

Balwinder Kaur
Balwinder Kaur is a Principal Software Engineer at AppDynamics, and the founding engineer of the Internet of Things team. Prior to AppDynamics, she delivered a cloud-ready video streaming development kit for the IoT Market. In previous lives she has built mobile platforms, Android Apps, Enterprise Software, and founded her own startup. Balwinder also is part of the core leadership team driving the Women@AppD Initiative for making the workplace more inclusive.

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