The other day, a recent university graduate emailed me to ask me for advice on working in high tech. Initially, I pointed her to the post I wrote a while ago called ‘Things I’ve learned from working ⅓ of my life at the same company,’ but after thinking a bit more, I decided there are 5 key tips I’d give to a recent university graduate who is looking to start his or her career in high tech. In case you are wondering, these tips are based on my experience working in a high tech company for almost 13 years.
1. Get used to organizational changes
It’s not unusual for things to move fast in high tech companies. It’s great when things are going well. When things aren’t going well, however, changes will happen, and they will happen fast. Having worked almost 13 years in the high tech field, I have seen many major company changes both internally and externally. Some of the changes included senior management changes, change of my reporting manager, sales of a division of the company, acquisition of a different company, complete company organizational structure changes, company pivoting, etc. All these changes triggered people getting let go, how the company operated, and/or who I worked with on a day-to-day basis.
Years ago, I saw a news announcement stating that a well known high tech company was laying off 25% of the workforce. I happened to work with people from this company on a daily basis, since they are a customer of ours. Shortly after seeing the news, I got a phone call from someone at that company to inform me that he was let go. During the phone call, he was very emotional as he had been with the company for 16 years.
Through all these years, what I have learned is to never take anything for granted. The company can and will make changes quickly. I have seen decisions of laying off 10% of the workforce made overnight, and I have seen cost-cutting changes that were implemented over the course of a year. You may have a boss called Joe one day and Joe may work alongside with you and become your peer the next day. Be friendly to everyone in the company and don’t make enemies. You never know who will be in charge.
2. Adapt or get replaced
Since things move fast in high tech, it is extremely important to adapt to changes.
If you can’t adapt to these changes within the company, you will get replaced by someone else. What do I mean by adapt? This can range anywhere from working with different teams within the company, getting assigned to a new team, working with people in different time zones, changing technical projects that you work on, changing your day-to-day responsibility, changing job title, or asked to take on more responsibilities. The truth is, a year from today, you’ll probably be working on something completely different from what you are doing today.
Unfortunately, I have seen co-workers getting let go because they kept telling themselves that the “good old days” would return. They kept reminiscing what it was like a couple of years ago and were reluctant to changes.
As a new university graduate who is looking to enter the high tech world, you must learn how to be adaptable and how to learn things on the fly. You also need to be willing to take on new responsibilities. If you can’t be adaptable, your career in high tech will be very short lived.
3. Learn on the job
In almost 13 years, I have changed my job title five times, going from a junior hardware engineer to a senior product manager. Early on, I realized that I didn’t use many things I learned from university. Majority of my job tasks were learned while on the job. As an engineer, I had to learn how to solder components with 0201 size, how to use RF and audio test equipment, and how to do HW design reviews. As a project manager, I had to learn how to manage a project and how to run a meeting and present. As a product manager, I had to learn how to run profit analysis, how to create and justify roadmap strategies, and how to do sales and technical training.
University wasn’t a complete wasted time though. Although university courses did not directly help me in working in a high tech company, university did teach me two very important skills: how to learn new knowledge/skills quickly, and how to problem solve. Thanks to these two important skills, I have been able to learn new knowledge quickly and apply new knowledge to help me to complete tasks.
Therefore, if you want to be successful in the high tech world, be willing to learn on the job and learn to pick up new skills quickly.
4. It’s OK to ask for help
There had been times that I was assigned a task and I had very little knowledge how to get started. When that happened, I always asked for help. There was no shame in admitting that I wasn’t knowledgeable in something and needed help, especially if it was something new to me. Often, all I needed was a pointer or two from someone who was more experienced and knowledgeable than me.
It is far worse to pretend to know everything and end up wasting hours and hours before asking for help. Most people are willing to provide a helpful pointer or two. The important thing is, make sure you don’t ask the same question over and over again. If you do that, people will tune you out and stop helping you.
5. Find a mentor
When I graduated from university, I thought I could do anything. For a while, I didn’t understand why there were more “senior” positions. I was naive and thought I had the experience and knowledge to apply for senior positions and perform well. Once I started working, I realized how foolish I was.
I realized it was important to continue to learn, I also realized that I needed a mentor. I don’t mean asking someone officially if he or she can be your mentor. What I mean is finding people within your company (outside of your company too, if you can) that you can talk to in confidence and give you career advice and guidance.
For example, when I was working as a project manager, a director approached me out of the blue one day asking me if I would be interested in joining his team as a product manager. Although I had worked with this director for many years, I had never thought about switching my engineering career to start a new career in marketing. Fortunately for me, I was able to ask a VP for guidance. This VP simply told me that this was a good career advancement opportunity and I should go for it. A few months after we discussed this idea, he even followed up with me to see if I had applied for the position. I was really appreciative of his encouragement and career advice.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to know a number of co-workers that I can talk to in confidence about work related things on my mind. I see them as my mentors, and they have been extremely helpful. As a new university graduate starting in the high tech world, I believe it is crucial to find yourself a mentor to help you with your career path.
High tech is fast paced and highly competitive. As a recent university graduate or someone who recently started their career, it is easy to think that you can do everything and anything. It’s OK to have confidence in yourself about your ability, but don’t be cocky. Learn to be humble and be willing to learn from anyone and everyone. Don’t take everything for granted because things will change quickly. While the 5 tips mentioned above will help with your high tech career, remember to not let work define who you are. Don’t become just another high tech figurehead who works mindlessly. Find your work-life balance; learn to find the personal balance between saving money for the future and spending money to enjoy the present moment.