Excelling Without Exams: Succeeding as a New Grad
Entering the “real world” can be a scary prospect. Previously, you had clear metrics for success: getting top grades, standardized test scores, scholarships, internships. In this panel, we will hear from four women who successfully made the transition from college to full time industry careers. They will provide tips, tricks, and advice on smoothly transitioning to life after college and what it takes to succeed in this new environment.
How did you pick your first job after graduating?
Charu: She picked to work for Gencore, a startup originally created by her professor, to learn new and hard technical skills. She also though that working for a startup would maximize both her learning and impact over time.
Wendy: She wanted to work with a product that she used daily as it would she could really relate to and be passionate about her work. She also wanted to work for a medium-sized company—not a large corporation but still larger than a startup (approximately a few hundred people) so that she would be able to maximize her impact while still having lots of opportunities to receive mentorship. She found this environment at Pinterest. As a bonus, Pinterest was also incredibly passionate about diversity, even introducing new hiring goals, which is a passion that Wendy shares.
Nini: She really wanted to work on Big Data and ended up finding her ideal work environment at Microsoft. She did some internships first before joining full-time. She has been fascinated by the evolution of big data and how it has been occurring. Since this is such a large field that impacts so many she felt she could really make an impact and help people both with the field as a whole and at her company.
Thogori: In Nairobi, she wanted to focus on helping people and humanity as a whole. This point was driven home when she asked herself one day what was she contributing to with her work? And the answer then was helping rich people get richer. She decided she had to work somewhere that resonated with her and she found this at LinkedIn. At LinkedIn she gets to help people connect with others and is really able to touch people’s lives.
Were there things in your first job that scared you about trying to achieve the level of success you wanted?
Wendy: Yes. She felt that when she first joined her team, everyone was older and more experienced than her. Everyone on the team had also worked at other companies and on other apps while she had just been on the mobile team at Pinterest. This meant that they could take the best parts of their other companies and apps and help to improve Pinterest overall through that. This made her ask whether she was really contributing to the team since she was only working on the Pinterest app. However, she has said that this isn’t actually true, which she elaborates on later.
Charu: Her biggest fear was actually one on missing out. She said she was worried that there were other opportunities out there that were better for her. She said she then realized there were “tours of duty”—there isn’t a perfect opportunity for you for the rest of your life. You just need to chose what is right for you at the time and invest yourself in that. You can then look out for your ext tour of duty and see, if at a later time, that will be the best place. She quoted that Beyonce wasn’t built in a day. It takes time and effort to get where you want to be so you just need to keep working towards your goals.
You mentioned being around this fear about being around people more senior than you which can often happen as a new grad. How were you able to get over that fear? When you’re the youngest/newest person in the room, what do you do?
Wendy: She realized something as she spent more time at Pinterest and got to know both their app and codebase really well. Three years later she actually has atlas some knowledge and context on every class that is written. This means that when new people come in from other companies she’s an incredibly valuable resource to these people who actually have more experience than her when they have questions regarding the codebase and why things were built a certain way.
Nini: She had worked on big data quite a lot but was unaware of how all her work necessarily related to the IT world as a whole. Studying and reading up helped her tremendously. Studying gives you the confidence to raise your voice in meetings and gives you context to help solve problems. It’s also good to have questions ready, especially if you are not aware of some aspects of the field you’re in. She also stated that you should leverage the resources and knowledge around you by asking questions. Your coworkers will normally welcome this as they really want to help you and the team succeed. As you work you should also ask for feedback. This shows maturity with your work and that you’re a good team player. When you get feedback you should also get back to people so that they know their feedback is valued and appreciated. She also said that it’s completely valid to reach out to other people outside your team too. She also touched on imposter syndrome and said that networking can actually help with this.
Thogori: Meet with people who started around the same time as you regardless of what level of skill you’re all at. Having those connections can really help you as they know what you’re going through as well.
What do you think is in store for you over the next 12 months? What are you excited about accomplishing?
Thogori: She wants to focus on taking on higher risk and higher impact projects. Year 1 you’re new and you want to focus on taking on things you understand so they can succeed. You can see a clear line of success with those projects. Now she wants to push forward and take higher risk projects and also to learn to be okay with failure.
Nini: She wants to focus on pushing herself and developing her technical skills. She has stated that she will also take some courses and try to read more to gain more context and knowledge. She will also continue to grow and pursue her curiosities.
Wendy: She wants to switch around teams for bigger opportunities to learn. She has just switched to the iOS team, actually. It shows her a very different way of thinking than just building features, so she’s very excited to explore this. In the next 3 - 4 years she wants to develop herself and become of the best mobile developers in the industry.
Charu: A lot of what she has been doing the last few years is collecting experiences—exposing herself to new things. What she really wants to do for the next year or so is hone in on the fewer quality, meaningful experiences that will matter to her (which she still has to figure out). It had been easier for her until now since she was just exploring, but it’s really important to start honing in on meaningful longer term experiences.
What professional development and support have you gotten so far or will hope to get that will help you reach these goals?
Charu: Her professor had built this platform with RAs. This actually meant they had technology and were trying to find a problem to solve with it (which is the flip of most startups). She said it was a really intense period as they only had a few shots to really get the product market fit right. The 5 people she worked on this with really closely were her support network during this. She stressed to really make sure that the people you are solving problems with are people that you can look up to and count on. She also said it’s helpful to check out things on LinkedIn and Medium to see how other people are tackling problems and meeting challenges.
Nini: She reached within her team, and her great manager. He’s been super helpful with telling her her strengths and weaknesses. She said you can also reach out to former managers as well. They can really see and tell you how you’ve grown. The same goes for mentors as well.
Wendy: She said if you know you’re going to be somewhere for a couple years figure out what you want to get out of it and strive for it. Otherwise it’s not as meaningful. This same concept can be applied to mentors.
Thogori: Meet with many people and have coffee. Be very specific about what you want to get out of an interaction with a mentor. Other places she found support was through joining an APM program. It’s a group of 6 people she knows she can rely on. They can give her good criticisms so she can improve. And there are no stupid questions. She also has people she considers to be her personal board of directors who are helpful. Also, regardless of how senior someone is they can make time. She reached out to someone senior and they said yes, stating that, “Everything I do in my day is by choice. I chose to be with you hencce I’m very happy with the time I am spending with you.”
Personal board of directors: They act as a sounding board for advice. She also feels accountable to them for her actions and choices. They help to put things in perspective when they get hard and help when making difficult decisions.
Omosola: With Shopify, something nice to mention is that all panelists have discussed reaching out to other people and gotten positive feedback. When you’re new to the company it’s easy to assume that people are too busy and don’t have time. But that isn’t true. If you put the time in they are actually interested and up for helping and are excited because you are. Don’t feel anyone is too high to be able to respond to you.
Life outside of work? What’s that about?
Nini: Yes. A lot has surprised her about life after work. She started a fashion and food blog. When she started working for microsoft she felt that it would be the end of her blog since work would be so encompassing. She was wrong. She met women who were also doing fashion and tech and her blog has grown through that. If anything she feels that she was at the right place at the right time and it helps her enhance her career and hobby. Also, when moving make sure to explore and check out where you now are. When you get out there you also feel inspired.
Thogori: When she got her letter of offer she got 15 days off. But where she’s from she would normally get 30. She thought it would be the end of her passion of travel. But she was wrong. Her manager has been flexible and has really been receptive to her working remote and travelling to other places.
If you could go back to a younger version of yourselves before graduating, what is one pice of advice you’d give yourself?
Charu: When you start out you just want to ace everything. You’re super invested and spend all your time at work. Especially at a startup. That kind of becomes your identity. While that’s important it’s also important not to forget that you’re a person with other interests and things in your life that you should be doing. At school it comes naturally at work it has to come from yourself (joining clubs and such vs going out and doing things for yourself). Have that thing where you’re looking at yourself. Look at your quality of life. Value other parts of your life. Focus on stuff outside of work that’s for you.
Wendy: To stop every once in awhile and take note of all the exciting things going on around you. It’s easy to get caught up in your first year in your own work with your head down. She was focused on her job solely. When she looked around a year later, her company had doubled in size then doubled in size again the next year and she hadn’t even noticed. She wished she’d taken the time to look around and see my small startup growing from 90 to 200 to 400. It was a really cool transition period that she didn’t really observe. Second piece of advice would be don’t be afraid to be yourself. First year she was afraid to ask questions because she wanted to be viewed as competent and self sufficient. This actually hindered her. Asking questions helps you get done faster and this will help people view you as competent. Don’t worry about what other people think. Be shamelessly yourself.
Nini: One thing she would say is not worry as much. She worried more than doing actual work. She found that things just fell into place. She would go back and tell herself not to sweat the small stuff. Just allow things to happen naturally. As long as you go out and explore and put yourself out there…you’ll meet people. You’ll make friends. You’ll get good experiences. Take it easy. Also, some advice if you’re worried about not having a passion. People always talk about having passions. Not everyone has passions in something. She’s someone that doesn’t stick with one passion for too long. She juggles many interests. If you feel like you don’t have your passion or something that drives you, follow your curiosity and let that lead you. You never know where your passion will come from.
Thogori: Push your start date out and travel the world. There were two hers: right after grad and right after starting at LinkedIn. After grad her was the opposite of her at LinkedIn and she feels she should have spent more time with her as she seemed to have no worries at all. Post LinkedIn she would say don’t worry about things. You’re actually smart, everything will work out. People want your skills. Go for it. Enjoy.
Omosola: She travelled for 3.5 months before starting at Shopify. If you have the chance don’t feel the rush to jump into a new job. You spent a lot of time working really hard. Take some time to take a break.
Nini: If you’re interested in things outside school (such as fashion or cooking) pursue those interests. Take some courses and such as it’s refreshing for you and your brain.
Omosola: We all made the assumption that everyone has a job and need to take a break. If you don’t have a job offer at the point of graduation, don’t freak out. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have a job offer graduation (ex. she had a friend who didn’t have a job offer for 2 months then got one to be a product manager at Google and now he gets to travel the world). You will really feel it’s right later on that you took the time to make a good decision. Take the time to make these hard decisions and really appreciate the time off that you have.
There’s a different transition from college to a job, where there’s no exams and no grades, how can you gauge if you’re doing well? Feedback feels fluffy. How do you measure your success?
Wendy: Don’t worry too much about your first job after work. Any opportunity you take is going to give you new experiences and you’ll learn new things. Talk to a lot of people around your level and make sure that their compensation and responsibilities are comparable to yours.
How do you meet people without classes/clubs? Especially outside the company?
Charu: Meetup groups, conferences, events. If you’re interested in stuff in the tech industry there are lots of happy hours and events. The hardest part is the effort to bring yourself there. A lot of it is not about finding the things, it’s more about making the effort and being motivated enough to put myself out there. Go with people to these things too—that can help make things easier.
Thogori, you love travel and it’s something I share. Can you negotiate something like that in an offer? How would you approach that?
Thogori: She talked about it when she had the shock of just 15 days. She asked about other options. They couldn’t give her more days but her manager asked her about it and to tell her about herself. She said within reason that she could work from another city. She also had unpaid vacation options. And now LinkedIn has unlimited vacation days. Try to have a good relationship with your manager. It will all work out.
I have finished with an internship and built part of a product. At the end of internship I talked to my manager and they said I did well with the project but didn’t take a lot of ownership over the project as a whole. How can you own the work you’re supposed to do and do your job but also take ownership on what the overall project is so you can take on more responsibility?
Omosola: Initially, something that helps is asking questions. Build out your particular piece but also ask questions about how your piece fits and what it can do to help as a whole, what else can it do, offer help if shorthanded to work on other things. That way your manager gets a sense that if your’e working on this part you’re capable of working on more than that and are interested in it. Also take initiative. If there are other areas you’re interested in ask about if there are tasks or projects you can do there and work on them. Shows your manager you have flexibility and independence. Leads you to be called on. She actually made a rails bootcamp for inexperienced rails devs when she got hired at Shopify. Her boss noticed that she could take charge and give solutions to problems that weren’t necessarily her own.
Wendy: Drive solutions to problems that you want to solve at your company. Mention roadblocks. Give this type of feedback to people above you will show ownership.
For Wendy, you switched around teams a lot. What did you gain from that? How does that compare to staying on one team and honing your skills and expertise in that domain knowledge?
Wendy: She didn’t really change domain very much while switching teams so she really honed her domain knowledge. But there are also a lot of generalists who can create a whole thing from backend to UI. So it all depends on you. Focusing on IOS and switching teams was just good for her.
Nini: Switching teams can promote understanding of how things work in a certain field. This allows you to view the same idea two different ways.
What happens if you have a crisis of motivation? In school you just aim to graduate. Now I’m working and I have my job and I like my team but I’m not motivated about what I’m working on.
Omosola: There was one job she had where she felt that. She said to take time to reflect and to figure out what it is you don’t like about it. Figure out how you can be excited again if not through this one particular job though other things. Try to see if there are ways to change things at your current company to get excited and motivated again after reflecting. Figure out what you’re really excited about can help guide how you work through the process.
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