Whether you want to become a go-to problem-solver or a business-minded CTO, your first engineering job is an opportunity to build the skills and habits to get you there.
As in all things, the best way to learn is by doing. But longtime engineers Laura Buzek and Brian Campbell still have a few tips.
Buzek is an engineering manager at human resource software company Gusto, where she works on the platform’s integrations with other apps. She encourages new engineers to focus hard on bolstering their technical skills, even if it means saying no to other responsibilities early on.
One way to do that, she said, is wringing all the knowledge you can from code reviews.
“Even if you’re pretty junior yourself, pair with someone who doesn’t have the same skills you have,” she said. “One of the most effective things I’ve seen is someone who knows back-end programming pairing with someone who knows the front end really well, and they can teach each other those skill sets.”
For Campbell, who holds the title of distinguished engineer at identity management company Ping Identity, cultivating excellent communication skills should be a primary focus for early career developers.
“Building and maintaining relationships and being able to have respectful conversations about topics that can be complex, and even charged, is a lot more valuable than I realized early on,” he said.
Tips for success in your first engineering job
- It’s OK to ask a lot of questions. Think of them as investments in future projects.
- Be honest about what you want. Even the small stuff can make a big difference to your fulfillment and productivity.
- Job loyalty can open unexpected doors. Before you start looking for your next move, consider what you could gain by building expertise where you are.
- Consider where your motivation comes from. Are you building a rewarding career — or just a good-looking resume?
- Shake off the side project pressure. Coding at midnight is fine, but not necessary.
- Learn to persuade rather than argue. Showing the technical logic of your idea isn’t always enough.
It’s OK to ask a lot of questions
When a tricky problem arises, asking coworkers for advice is often the fastest path to a solution. However, asking a question means admitting you don’t know, and that can be tough for new hires who want to prove themselves.
If you feel sheepish asking questions, try to think of those questions as investments in future projects, rather than distractions from a current one.
“Don’t hold yourself to such a high standard that you start to think it’s wasting someone else’s time,” Buzek said. “As a junior engineer, that’s time well spent, and it should be treated that way.”
Kicking things off by telling your team member you look up to their work can’t hurt either, Campbell said.
“A lot of people don’t hear that sort of thing a lot, and it can be really fulfilling and a big motivator,” he said. “Knowing someone wants to emulate your work makes you want to give back to that person and help them achieve whatever they’re trying to do. As long as it’s genuine, it can be really powerful.”
If you’ve researched the problem yourself, come up with some preliminary ideas and still feel uncomfortable asking a question, a negative team culture may be to blame.
“If you’re in a space that discourages that energy, maybe find a new one,” Buzek added.
Be honest about what you want
Similarly, staying quiet about what you want at work — whether that’s something big, like a dream role, or something small, like different software tools — doesn’t serve you.
Buzek said she wants her direct reports to come to her with requests that can help them do their jobs better. When they succeed, she succeeds, so going the extra mile to reorient a tech stack or shift some assignments is no sweat.
“Even if someone communicates a need that seems irrelevant to the task at hand, it’s not irrelevant,” she said. “It’s what makes the company work.”
“If you’re willing to talk to your managers about what it is you really want and how that can add value, oftentimes there’s space to make that work.”
When you have your sights set on a particular role or promotion, the confidence to ask for what you want becomes even more important. Traditionally, employees move from junior roles to senior roles to people management positions. In tech, however, some people see themselves thriving elsewhere, like in technical management or as high-level individual contributors. Voicing your desire early helps you avoid landing in a position you were never excited about.
“If you’re willing to talk to your managers about what it is you really want and how that can add value, oftentimes there’s space to make that work, even if it’s not yet part of your official org chart,” Campbell said.
Job loyalty can open unexpected doors
Tech professionals often want to work with the latest and greatest companies and technologies. And while company-hopping is becoming more common and accepted, bouncing around too much can rob you of opportunities to improve.
Campbell has been with Ping Identity for 16 years. While he’s got nothing against job-switching, he said, his decision to stick with one company created opportunities he wouldn’t have found elsewhere.
“It’s a little more rewarding, at least to me, to have a broader impact and footprint in my industry.”
When tasked with helping his company adhere to evolving industry standards, Campbell found himself just as interested in the standards themselves as he was in their implementation. He reached out to the standards development group, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
“I started asking questions to try to understand how we could do the right thing with the product. And that slowly transitioned into saying, ‘Well, if I have this misunderstanding, then I’m probably not the only one, so maybe we need to change the text in the standard a little bit.’”
Over time, Campbell’s involvement grew from making small edits to attending group meetings and writing parts of the standards himself. Now, he’s the co-chair of the security services technical committee for the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, known as OASIS. He’s also done work with OpenID Foundation, which promotes decentralized authorization for web users.
Had he changed jobs or left the identity space, he would not have built the necessary expertise to influence his industry that way.
“I’ve been able to move from developing software and products that we sell to customers to something a little bigger, which is developing the inner, industry-based standards that our products, and even our competitors’ products, implement,” he said. “It’s a little more rewarding, at least to me, to have a broader impact and footprint in my industry.”
Consider if your motivators are internal or external
There’s what looks good on a resume — and then there’s what you actually want to do.
As you formulate a career path, don’t waste time on goals that aren’t genuine. An outgoing personality doesn’t mean you’re destined for people management, just as strong technical skills shouldn’t prevent you from pivoting to lead a team. Pay attention to what drives you at work, and don’t pursue a position just because it feels like the next thing to do.
For example, an engineer may accept a position with direct reports because she feels it’s a step up the career ladder. But if she’s driven by solving technical puzzles, completing projects and seeing fast results, she could find herself unfulfilled.
“It’s important to remember that the core of it is how you want to spend your day and what’s going to feel the most personally fulfilling for you, because people management has ebbs and flows and can have some pretty long reward cycles,” Buzek said. “It’s a different beast.”
By contrast, another engineer may notice her focus shifting from a project’s successful completion to its impact on the company as a whole. To her, making the switch to people management makes sense, because she can guide her direct reports to create the largest positive impact.
“I derive the greatest joy from seeing my team succeed,” Buzek said. “If that’s not for you, it’s OK to make that clear.”
Shake off the side project pressure
Side projects are cool, but they’re not necessary for success.
In fact, when hiring managers make side projects important criteria for hiring or promotions, it can introduce bias into the process.
“They may not have the time to work on those types of projects, and they still bring value to the company.”
“I think it’s really important in building a diverse and effective workforce that we understand there are people who are very technical and yet that’s not what they choose to do in their free time,” Buzek said. “They may not have the time to work on those types of projects, and they still bring value to the company.”
Despite being a frequent open source contributor, Campbell agrees. Work-life balance is tough enough to strike without the pressure to maintain a never-ending stream of impressive side hustles or hobbies.
“It’s certainly useful,” he said. “But gosh, at the same time, I don’t want to contribute to this idea that you have to be doing all these other things to be a viable candidate. There are ways to show your value that don’t involve coding at all hours of the night.”
When in doubt, remember there are plenty of hiring managers who understand your time is limited, and the non-technical hobbies you enjoy are just as important for deepening your perspective and your contributions.
“I hike on my off-hours,” Buzek said. “People do a lot of different things, and they bring something unique to the table as a result.”
Learn to persuade rather than argue
When you chose to become an engineer, you probably didn’t think persuasive speaking would be one of your job requirements. Persuasion, however, is an essential skill for any technical worker.
Often, Campbell said, engineers think in black and white. There’s one correct solution for a technical problem, and anyone who disagrees is failing to see the logic. This can lead to unpleasant disagreements at work when two people view the same problem differently. It can also create problems when technical solutions aren’t in line with broader business goals or constraints.
“I think there’s a tendency to think that getting the technical side right is the only thing that matters, and that’s enough to win the day,” he said. “But the ability to persuade, thrown in with a little humility, is something significantly undervalued in our field, especially early on in people’s careers.”
“It’s easy and super appealing to personalize it and be like, ‘Oh, I just don’t like that guy.’”
To practice effective persuasion, get to know the people in other roles in your organization, paying special attention to their goals and performance measures. Then, keep those things in mind as you pitch ideas during product development or other projects. Do your solutions get those people closer to their goals, or do they fail to account for other business needs?
Next, start looking for inspiration — not in the coworkers you love working with, but in those you don’t.
“It’s easy and super appealing to personalize it and be like, ‘Oh, I just don’t like that guy,’” Campbell said. “But step back and try to understand what it is you don’t like. Maybe it’s how that person makes you feel, or maybe it’s the way they present certain ideas. Try to learn from that and shape your own behavior.”
As you get better at advocating for your ideas with kindness and humility, you’ll build a reputation as someone who’s desirable to work with.
Learning to persuade does not mean you never disagree, Campbell said. It just means you’re better prepared to make a compelling case when you do.