2023 advice to new grads
I’m a bit late this year, but each year typically I write a LinkedIn post of advice for new grads, then update it each year. This year I started with a blank page and went significantly deeper than previously.
1. Relax! Nobody is expecting you to be anything other than a grad. A grad is hungry, energetic, optimistic, curious and adventurous. They’re not expected to be an expert, or to know any answers, just to try.
2. Be professional. How you do things is more important than what you do. In consulting there is an expectation by your clients, employer and teams. Be sharp. Take pride in your work, preparation, presence and appearance. You can be the most gifted person in the room, but if your work is sloppy, you leave your desk a mess, you arrive late, looks like you’re dressed for the weekend, say you’ll get back to someone and you don’t, be super casual, scroll your phone during meetings, turn up unprepared for most interactions, make spelling mistakes, whine, and gossip… you’re not going to be the first pick on great projects.
3. Relentless curiosity. This is the cornerstone of a great career. Everything that gets put in front of you, be super curious. You’re starting a new project with a new client tomorrow, get curious. Read their annual report, check out their webpage, call their call centre, see what they’re doing in the news. I would call this a superpower as it’s great for your work, but also simply makes work so much more meaningful.
4. It’s ok to enjoy working hard. Making sure you’re not working all the time and you wake up refreshed and mentally sound is critical. However, if you prefer spending your evening making something beautiful, researching, tinkering, building, instead of watching Netflix, more power to you. The concept of work/life balance is yours to define and own.
5. Keep an open mind. You may start your career thinking of a particular type of project and role you’d like to do, let go of that. Every role will have lots to offer you, and you’ll pick up good skills from it. I’ve witnessed new starters come in thinking they want a specific role but go all in on what’s presented to them and build rewarding, meaningful careers. I’ve also seen the stark opposite, where someone continually wants to change roles because they believe their role is why they’re unfulfilled and unsuccessful.
The goal of the start of your career is to get good at a core set of competencies, see how the real world runs, build great relationships, find what activities feel natural and easy to you, and show value to your team and client. The number one competency you should learn is how to be Swiss Army knife. Technologies, roles, clients, projects, problems will come and go and always be different, but your ability to deal with them should not. Once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll start noticing what’s easy for you and the direction you want to go, you won’t know this before trying a few things. The obvious exception here is where you’re placed in a role that is completely out of your capability, but this is usually limited to putting a non-technical person into a technical role, like a BA into Developer role.
6. Bias towards action. Without action, nothing moves. It’s very easy to freeze and think about something too much before acting, I’m the guiltiest of this. Don’t overthink it, get something done, progress over perfection, a dirty draft for feedback. “I took a stab at this, can you check it out”. The juxtaposition of this is that the action is the thinking. Building your way through something is often the only way to find out where you need to go.
7. Get used to asking ‘dumb’ questions. You have the badge “I’m new”, what a gift! Get comfortable with being uncomfortable asking questions. The fool is the precursor to the expert, how could it be any other way? Get used to this now and never lose this confidence. For the rest of your career get very comfortable with paying the price of insecurity about looking a fool to achieve the goal of knowing every last detail about what you need to know. Be happy to feel like an idiot today, to be the expert a few weeks from now. By the way, this is all in your head, nobody is thinking you’re asking dumb questions, just you are. Be brave, ask those questions.
8. Be proactive. Dispel any thought that your tasks will arrive in a beautiful structured format to you, that there is a team of dedicated individuals making sure that you are adequately informed and prepared of how, when and what to do. I wish it were this way, but it isn’t. Ask what you can read in preparation, do some googling, think about the problem, search the project folders. You might not get a response from someone, but there are hundreds of other things you can do.
9. The small things matter. Building on from being professional, get there early, check your spelling, do what you say you’ll do, ask questions if you’re unclear, dress sharp, be polite and professional.
10. Be the most helpful person in the room. I changed careers from finance to technology. “Be the most helpful person in the room” was one of the ways I measured myself. This is one of those things that costs you nothing and is appreciated by everyone.
11. Give yourself a little time before you ask for help. This one goes against the grain, but I tell grads to spend no more than 20 minutes stuck on what to do next, but do spend the 20 minutes. Think about it, google, try something, then if after 20 minutes you’re stuck, ask. Your question will be far more effective. “I don’t know what do next” vs “I want to get your thoughts on doing xyz, I thought of doing abc but it seemed more logical to do xyz first”. It’s a great salve for anxiety knowing you’re not going to struggle more than a short while. This also feeds into the advice of being proactive and being curious.
12. Create order with everything you touch. Intros.pptx is not a good file name… and it shouldn’t exist purely in emails. Give it meaningful name, store it somewhere logical, even if it’s someone else’s. We’re in 2023, not 2021… fix that footer. Be the person to constantly bring order. You’ll save a lot of wasted time and effort for yourself and your team. There is a disorganisation tax that is applied to us personally and to our teams, do what you can to avoid paying that tax.
13. Writing is a super power that almost no-one harnesses.There is a simple way to create order within your mind, to create signal from noise, and that’s through writing. This blog post is an example of that, but it doesn’t need to be public. With any new project I jump onto, I write out in long form what the project is about, what they’re trying to achieve, who the key stakeholders are, my questions, my initial thoughts, my concerns. 99% of the time nobody ever sees this, but a very complex picture is now very simple. Writing is thinking. You can categorise, label, sub-categorise and so-on. What is hazy confusing mess in your head, can very quickly become order through simply opening a MS Word Doc and doing a long form brain dump.
14. 1 on 1. Never underestimate the power of 1 on 1 activity. If you’re concerned about something, have questions, making some time to connect directly with the expert will make a huge difference. People are different when it’s just you and them. How you do this makes a big difference, it’s messaging someone “hey I need to chat to you” vs “Hi, I’m responsible for agenda for the workshop next week, can I spend 15 minutes with you to confirm the approach, I’ve taken a stab at a draft agenda attached”
15. Be a critical thinker. Avoid the trap of your job being defined to summarising conversations, putting them into a document, making it pretty, sharing it. What I somewhat harshly label as the “voice to text” consultant. Think through the problem, spend some time with a blank notepad and pen, what are all the components? If you’ve been assigned to define a new refund process for a company, first think through what this could look like before doing any research or contacting the client. It’s obvious, isn’t it? A refund could be done over the phone or over web chat, different agents might have different thresholds they’re able to refund, a refund might be done over credit card or to a bank account. Compare this to the person who arrives with a blank piece of paper going “so how do ya wanna do refunds?”.
16. Get good! A promotion is a shitty goal, a super shitty goal. It’s barely in your control, so pick something that is in your control and that you achieve whether or not you get promoted, which client you’re on, etc, like getting good at something! Look at the opportunities presented to you and the soft and hard skills required to perform them, and get good at them. If you land up supporting an AWS cloud migration program, take this as an opportunity get good at what AWS is, how it works, and what it’s like to present complexity effectively. The benefit of this is that your market value has increased, others in the market will now pay more for you, which should be the bedrock of your progression.
17. Focus. Anybody who is boasting that they’re working 12 hours a day and that they’re “so busy!” isn’t working effectively. Case in point is when you have a day off and you miss all your meetings, they didn’t miss you and you didn’t miss them. Effective working starts with focus, doing one thing at a time. The idea of working with a phone on, email, MS Teams and other applications that constantly want to rob us of our focus is absurd. Several hours a day should be spent thinking, researching and producing meaningful work, and the only way to do this well is to do it without distraction. When you’re working work, when you’re collaborating, collaborate.
18. Tinker, tinker, tinker. No amount of research, strategy, planning and learning can ever replace the amount we discover through tinkering. All scientific discoveries come from tinkering. You becoming an expert in your discipline will come from tinkering. What is tinkering? It’s playing around with your topic, it’s trying different things, it’s configuring a report, an application, a template, a workflow, instead of simply researching it. Getting your hands dirty is the only way to master a domain.
19. Make it easy for yourself. If you make something once, store it in a format that you can reuse it. Don’t spend most of your time recreating things from scratch, always reuse and find ways to do things easier and better. Never stop this.
20. You will drop the ball. It’s the painful reality and gift of being human, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to forget to call back that client, accidentally send a document to the wrong person, completely miss something that should have been obvious. So what, you’re human. Some tips on this one, don’t make it a bigger deal than what it is, reach out to your project lead 1 on 1 and share what you’ve done and work with them to fix it. People want you to succeed and want to move forward. Typically these things are all trivial…
21. Reflect, adapt, bounce back. You will have setbacks, learn from them, and bounce back. Reflect on why something happened, and how could you have done it faster, better, next time? There is also the harsh reality that we all face that life isn’t fair and you may sometimes feel that something has happened that reflected badly on you, despite it not being your fault at all. This is hardest lesson to learn of all. You need to move on and remember that good talent is hard to find and that if you’re doing a good job your work will speak for itself, and you can learn from anything that happens.
Finally, have fun. What a gift to be able to generate value for you, your company, your clients. It’s never been a more amazing time to work, we have incredible technology, challenges and people around us that need every type of individual to support.
I wish you nothing but fruitful development, good health and resilience, all the best to all of you, we need your energy and creativity more than ever. Good luck!