Dear Intern/New Hire: How to Be an Effective New Person

Dear intern/new hire,

Welcome! I’m sure you are excited about your new position and can’t wait to meet your team.  First, let’s address some common fears that new people have and make sure we’re all on the same page here.  As an intern or new hire, it’s likely that you will be the least experienced and youngest member of your team.  Perhaps you have never worked on a team with other people before. And maybe you don’t have any experience with the technology your project is using.

This is normal.

The sooner you are honest with yourself about that, the sooner you’ll cease to be a new person.
After all, that’s the goal of every new person, isn’t it? To stop being a new person and become an integrated team member.
I’d like to give you a couple of tips as you start your journey. You see..

 
<Liam-Neeson-voice>

What I have is a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career of constantly being the “new person” at SEP. (Ask me about my 5 internships and my first 4 projects in 6 months!).

</Liam-Neeson-voice>
 
So let’s talk about a couple of questions that new people commonly ask:

“What does SEP expect of me?”

There are two answers to that question.
First, we expect you to learn.  Everyone on your team has successfully transitioned from a new person to an integrated team member. This makes them all valuable resources to you!  Don’t be afraid to ask them questions!
Second, as far as what we expect out of you as a developer, do your best! Pair when you can and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You aren’t supposed to be able to tackle difficult tasks right away all on your own.

“But what does my team expect of me as a team member?”

You may be wondering what the difference between this question and the last one is.  To be honest, this isn’t a “commonly asked” question, but I think it’s an important one.  I recently read the book, Peopleware. The main premise of the book is that software is primarily a people problem rather than a technical problem. As it turns out, working with other people effectively is hard. One of the biggest ways that a new developer can make a difference is by being an effective team member.
Every time I interned at SEP, I was always put on a team where I was the only new person. This meant that the way I was going to make an impact on my team was not with my exceptional technical prowess. That area is where I would focus on learning and practicing. The area that I could make a difference in was the team dynamic.
As the youngest, least experienced person on a team, it can be easy to feel like you just aren’t very helpful to the team. Everyone else can do things faster and better than you can. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be an essential part of the team.

“We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible… So we will do them anyway.” -William Wilberforce

It’s not uncommon for a parent to learn something from their kids. That’s because kids have a different way of looking at things than adults do. As you get more experienced (in software development or in life), it’s easy to get used to seeing things from your own point of view and stop asking some questions that you answered long ago.  As the new member of the team, your job is to not be afraid of the impossible and to ask questions that challenge assumptions.  Why do we show throw this error when the user hits submit instead of when erroring when they originally provided an incorrect email address? Why don’t we pair with our designers on relevant tasks? With more people on the team, does our current format for daily standup still make sense? These variable names are hard to keep straight in my head, can we name them more explicitly to increase readability? Be bold, but teachable. You might just find that your team is doing things a certain way because no one thought to do it a different way.
The other way that I have found to make a difference as a team member is simply by doing your best to help team morale. If you’re young and energetic, then be young and energetic! If you like to doodle, liven up your team’s work space with sticky-note drawings. If you live close to a donut shop, I have yet to find a team that doesn’t appreciate food. Make some jokes, be eager to learn, laugh a little, and ask people about themselves. You’ll find that it will not only help the team, but it will help you enjoy what you do as well.
I like to feel important, and I think most people share that desire. So instead of being anxious about not always being able to contribute meaningfully as a developer, realize that time will help you as a developer and find ways to contribute meaningfully as a team member.  But most importantly, once you are an experienced developer, don’t lose the mentality of the young, inexperienced intern/new hire.

Always be bold. Always be teachable.

Senior Intern
Software Engineer,
Joe Coy