Wednesday, May 2, 2007

After College

A little advice for software engineers just graduating from college. My son who is age 19 just got done with his first year at college in CS. He just started his first real corporate job as an engineer/intern. Sure brings back memories, so a little fatherly advice is in order.

Your in for a big change in how you are treated. All your life you have been surrounded by people that had a major interest in your success. Parents, teachers, etc. This is no longer true. In the post-college world people are looking out for Number 1 and you are expendable. Even that boss that wants to promote your career is doing it because that is what promotes the boss' career. You will only be successful from here on out if you make it happen. In my first job at Westinghouse I was put on the really sweet project that everyone wanted to be on. One employee said to me, 'You are so lucky.' I thought (but had enough tact not to say) I make my own luck.

Outcome Based Education is an big fad in schools, but has no relationship to reality. In business, results matter, and effort plays a distant second. If you try really hard and fail, you may get a sympathetic pat on the back, but you're also silently labeled a looser.

You are now an equal to all those adults around you. It is a real trip the first time you get introduced as Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so. Don't let it go to your head. Having just graduated from college, you have the latest ideas about how to do things. Don't discount the years of experience those boring old guys have. They have seen more computer fads come and go than you even know existed. (Remember 'visual programming' in 1993?) Make suggestions and explain nifty new ideas, but don't be snooty about it.

When you start any new job, but especially your first one, you go through the phases of Initial Enthusiasm, The Doldrums, The Learning Curve, and then Productivity. Just wait out the doldrums and work steady and hard.

The absolute most important aspect of engineering is the interpersonal relationships. It took me 15 years to learn this lesson the hard way. As my sainted father once said, Never Burn Your Bridges. Its amazing how that jerk you worked with ten years ago shows up working for a company you are interviewing with. This works the other way too. It is pleasantly amazing how the people you worked with 10 years ago pull you along into the really good start up companies.

Seek a mentor in the company, not directly above you in the management chain, but higher up, and frequently ask for their advice. A little flatter here will go a long way. They can warn you of covert attacks from older experienced snipers in the company. Also, make relationships with people that have the skills you don't have. If you are a complete computer nerd, make friends with a management charismatic type. That is how great start up companies are made.

Always be loyal to your boss and make the boss look good. If you get a bad boss, have the mentor help you get moved (quickly).

Always keep a resume out on line and up-to-date.

Try to take jobs that are so interesting that the pay is secondary.

Never get a secretary (oops, I mean Administrator) angry. They run the company and can make your life miserable. An occasional bag of candy goes a long way. In fact while were on the subject of candy, do something that is above the call of duty for everyone in the office. I keep a bucket of candy on my desk. It has brought me allot of good will and contacts that otherwise would not have been there. Keep your head up and looking around, not just buried in code. Keep track of the big picture. This makes for a good Halo player, and a good engineer.

Start a contact list right now, even if you're currently 10 years old. Have the name and address and phone number of everyone you ever talk to. It comes in very handy if you suddenly get laid off. I hear that Jimmy Carter's contact Rolodex fill two whole Rolodex.

And the final advice: The only way to be successful is to have ownership. Always keep an eye out and have some kind of spare time start up in the works. Take advantage of being young, single, and uprooted to take risks.

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