Help your manager help you by owning the one to one agenda

Dear new developer,

You need to realize that your manager is pulled between two goals (this assumes you have a good manager–if you don’t have a manager who wants to help you, find a new job).

1. Helping you.

2. Helping the company for which you work.

Unfortunately, the latter takes precedence. It’s more work (because it includes helping everyone else out) and higher priority.

So what can you do? Make your manager aware of how they can help you. This doesn’t need to be done in a demanding manner, but you need to make sure you are heard. So, for instance, mention that you are exploring or have been reading about a new technology like machine learning, and really want an opportunity to use the skills professionally. Realize that you might not get exactly what you want (if you are working for a webdev shop, you won’t get a chance to build compilers). But if you don’t ask, your manager won’t know your career interests.

I like one to ones for this purpose. These are regular meetings (once a week to once a month) for a short period of time (30 minutes to 60 minutes) where you control the agenda. It’s not a status report or a troubleshooting session. Instead, it’s where you can ask questions and inform your manager.

Things I’ve learned in one to ones (all at different jobs):

  • a colleague wanted to go to clown school
  • I was managing as I wanted to be managed, not as a report wanted to be managed
  • a colleague’s spouse had a long commute and that a move was imminent

All of these were helpful to me in assessing the health of a team, planning for change and understanding the person. These are really what a manager should be focusing on.

Next time you go to a one to one, think about what kind of questions you need to ask or what kind of conversations you need to have to make sure your manager can help you. Here’s a list of topics that might help jump start the conversation.

If you don’t have a one to one, set one up. If your manager is resistant, find out why, and see if there is something less formal, but still regular, that you can set up. Maybe you just need to calendar a regular reminder to yourself to stop by the manager’s office. If you don’t have regular lines of communication with your manager then when things get tough, you’ll have a hard time having conversations that will help both parties. The trust and ease that regular contact builds is key for defusing a tough situation, or at least de-escalating it.



How to market yourself as a new software developer

Dear new developer,

This post from Corey Snipes, an experienced software developer, is well worth a read. From the post:

People skills help so much. It’s hard to overstate that. I am a competent software developer, but I am really good at working on a team and that has carried me to increasingly sophisticated and interesting work my whole career.

There may be some kinds of software jobs where communication is not important. Maybe something in academia? Maybe finance? I don’t know, but every software job I’ve ever been in has fallen into one of a few categories:

  • working on a team. Here communication is important as it helps keep the team aligned and moving toward the correct goal
  • working by myself. Here communication is important because I’m talking to customers about what they need.

So I agree with Corey that communication is crucial.

It’s important to be clear about your limits but also about your potential. New developers are hired for potential. Again, from Corey’s post:

Be honest about your capabilities. Some people will say “fake it till you make it” but that doesn’t work for me and I’m no good at it anyway. I’d rather work with someone who knows their limitations than someone who thinks they know everything, and that’s the sort of person that I try to be. Figure out how to acknowledge your inexperience without making it sound like a problem.

The post is full of other good tips for folks starting out. He talks about two different places where a new software developer can deliver a lot of value: a paid position in a large software team and a volunteer position building something for a small business. I’m not a huge fan of volunteering because I feel like people should be paid for value they provide, but I understand that when one doesn’t have a track record, one needs to build one any which way. Open source contributions are a great way to do that, but this activity is less focused and a longer play than finding a local business that needs a website and just putting one together.

Another tip that resonated was going to meetups and getting out into the community, but I’ve already written about that.