Congratulations! Your endless nights of revising your resume and rehearsing interview questions have finally lead you to secure your first steps in your career. Let out a huge sigh of relief and be proud of your accomplishments! As your first day is rapidly approaching, some of you may now be wondering,
“How can I maximize my learning opportunities?”
Stepping into the industry, you may realize that you seriously lack business knowledge and tooling. Being at the bottom of the knowledge totem pole may make you feel incompetent, which can increase your self-doubt and maybe even your frustration. It is completely normal to feel this way at first. The great thing about being at the bottom is that there is only one direction you can go, and that is to go up. It is your responsibility to initiate and sustain your learning to build your own confidence.
How do we get out of a discouraging mindset? You need to accept that you are embarking on a life-long journey of learning. You need to remember that your work will have an impact on your organization as well as everyone around you. It is extremely easy to fall into the trap of continually doing mediocre work and coast through weeks, months, and even years. You should ask yourself, “will I gain any beneficial opportunities or experiences from doing mediocre work?” Most people will say “no", but will return to the vicious cycle. We all seem to like to preach, “don’t be afraid to fail”, but I think everyone is afraid to fail. As a result, most of us get fixated on doing “safe" work. I think that we need to challenge ourselves to acknowledge and embrace our shortcomings to learn and be better equipped for future opportunities. I believe that we need to challenge ourselves in order to do great work and contribute to the bigger picture. Instead, we should not be afraid of success. Don’t be afraid to succeed. You can turn your lack of business knowledge and the tooling to your advantage by being engaged in your work and challenge the status quo and most importantly, get consistent feedback along the way. A good first step may be to find the pain points in your initial work and improve the processes that your teammates might have originally been overlooked or over-engineered. You may ask questions like, “why does this task follow this process? How can we improve it so that we can use the time to do something more interesting or useful?” Start small and be patient.
Post-secondary institutions have curriculums that safely define the scope of problems with solutions ready to satisfy your curiosity or understanding. As you get into the groove of things in your new role, you will realize that you will encounter many problems that have no apparent solutions. After all, this is the “real world”, and there is no textbook for that.
I felt discouraged when I couldn’t find viable solutions to challenging problems. I lacked exposure and was held back by a myriad of factors — business pressures and lack of technical and business context. It took me a long time to realize that it was okay to not know the answers. Why did it take me a long time? I felt uncomfortable sharing my shortcomings and my “I don’t knows”.
I learned that I must be willing to say,
“I don’t know the answer but, I am going to find out.”
Not one single person is expected to have all the solutions. Instead, we are expected to have the knowledge to be able to create or find the solutions. When I first started my internship, I was in an uncomfortable tug-of-war between convention (assumed knowledge and status quo) and unconventional (originality and innovation) ideas, practices, or solutions. From my experience, whether I knew I was right or wrong, it was best to share my conflicting thoughts with my team. No one is expected to solve problems in isolation. Your team will most likely have both the technical and business context to help you solve your problems or at the very least guide you in the direction of a promising solution. Your team is one of your greatest resources and it is imperative to work collaboratively to solve challenging problems.
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.“
A good rule of thumb is to always try to solve the problem by yourself first. It will greatly benefit you because you will gain the exposure and understanding you need. If there are no clear solutions, your next step may be to consult your favourite knowledge bank, Google. Say you had the question, “How do I sum the values in a column in Excel?” It is probably better to search on Google for this answer, rather than bothering your teammates. Search engines such as Google provides you resources and answers at your fingertips. We should utilize and maximize that power to our advantage to get quick answers to problems that had already been solved.
When you interrupt your teammates to ask them a question, it forces them to switch their context. We all want to keep the context switching to a minimum because work can get mentally challenging when there are multiple interruptions that take us out of deep thought, also known as “the zone”. So when is the best time to ask your teammates? The best time to ask your teammates is when there are business contexts or roadblocks. For example, “I’m not familiar with the next steps in the process, can you walk me through the process after I complete this task?” It is clear that Google can’t answer organizational related questions and your teammates will be your best resource for a solution.
If you feel guilty bothering your teammates (I know I do), it can be beneficial to openly discuss with your team how to effectively communicate as a team. If a problem is not urgent or it concerns multiple people, you can probably save your questions and ask them at the next related meeting. A good workaround to the potentially unwanted context switching is to request some time to talk about the problem through instant messaging. Even better, you could post your question or request in your team’s group chat channel. This way, your teammates will respond when they are ready to do so. This is beneficial for the entire team because every individual can choose when to discuss problems and when they do not want to be disturbed, which is a compromise between context switching and productivity.
What is this, kindergarten? No, but I can’t stress enough how often I get asked questions where I simply don’t understand and end up more confused by the lack of context or structure of the problem. If I can’t understand what your problem is, how can I help you solve it?
- What are you trying to accomplish?
- What have you tried? What are you struggling with?
- What is the expected outcome? What was the actual outcome?
Why do I like this format? It provides an opportunity for the person asking the questions to slow down to reflect and understand their questions. When we think methodically, we can sometimes figure out the solutions before even having to ask the questions. I had many experiences where I solved several problems in mid-sentence, simply by explaining the problem to my teammate in this format. Not only does this method provide your teammates the context of the problems, it also provides them a way to formulate the questions asked. Gone are the days that they needed to spend lots of time trying to piece together your disarray of questions. Your mentors will be more equipped and enabled to understand your problems more quickly. They can provide a better learning experience for you by guiding you through the process of solving your problems. Lastly, this also shows your teammates that you have put some thought and effort into asking methodically and not simply asking a question for the sake of asking a question.