With more than two decades in the tech industry and having managed various teams for large global corporations and startups, CB Insights CTO Pål Høye gives advice to new engineers.
When a new engineer joins a team they most often bring energy, drive, curiosity, and creativity. It’s refreshing and stimulating, and it’s why at each new company I’ve joined — from Tapad to Goldman Sachs — I’ve loved working with new engineers: their energy helps foster an openness to new ways of doing things.
Through the years, I have enjoyed giving advice to these new hires. In exchange I’ve learned quite a bit, too.
Here’s a sampling of what I tell them:
- Ignore the perks.
- Money doesn’t matter the first ten years.
- Build your network.
- Pick your mentors.
- Be a mentor.
- Learn to communicate.
- Focus on what you can control.
- Embrace change and be adaptable.
- Take care of your health.
- Dare to take responsibility.
- Write down your goals.
- Know your core values.
- Always be learning.
- Instill good habits.
Ignore the perks
I decided a few years ago that I will not care about perks. I am not going to let free coconut water in the morning determine how I feel about my job or which company I pursue.
Perks may seem enticing in the beginning, but over time you will realize they just aren’t important. If you’ve chosen a good opportunity at a company that treats its employees well, you’ll be able to afford your own cereal — and if you really like coconut water, that’s pretty cheap too.
Similarly, I don’t care about dress code. What we wear does not change our work ethics and what we bring to the table. If the company wants me to wear a white shirt and tie to work, fine with me. If they don’t, then I’ll wear my jeans and hoodie. Either way, I will do my work just as well, and I will not spend energy concerning myself with minutiae.
Money doesn’t matter the first ten years
Work is a long game. How much money you earn in the first few years is insignificant compared to what you’ll make when you have more experience and a larger network. If you perform well in your first ten years, you will be setting yourself up for making more money in the future.
When you start your career, don’t pick your employer based only on money.
Learning Java early was a much better investment in my career, as it gave me a core skill that was relevant for the next 20 years.
My advice is to think about what is important to you in your career and what you want to learn. For me, this was new and innovative technology.
I have been pretty particular in my career and have striven to work with technologies I thought were leading-edge or forward-looking. For example, a couple of years into my career I turned down a lucrative offer to work with COBOL and went to a company with a more innovative tech stack based on Java.
Even though the COBOL job offered more money at that time, learning Java early was a much better investment in my career, as it gave me a core skill that was relevant for the next 20 years.
Build your network
During your career, you will meet many different people from all walks of life, some of whom you will connect with more deeply than others. Keep those connections strong!
Having a group of peers you can reach out to and run ideas by or get help from is invaluable. Also, be a resource to your network. When someone reaches out to you, offer help and invest time and energy.
A special part of my network whom I appreciate deeply is a small group of fellow Norwegian techies working and living in NYC. We meet regularly and share thoughts and feedback on technology, startups, and relevant topics. Sometimes we also work together.
It is a hardworking and mutually stimulating group of friends, and I know I will receive completely unfiltered advice regardless of the topic.
Pick your mentors
I’ve been fortunate to have had many good mentors throughout my career. I have worked with some of them closely for several years, while others don’t even know the impact they have had on me.
I worked with John Perkins in 2003. We met as programmers and connected at the code level while pair programming. Later we worked together shaping an engineering department. While we currently do not work in the same company, I still regularly get advice from John.
Others I consider mentors are, in my view, world leaders of their field. I follow their thought leadership through books, blogs, Twitter and other channels: Rod Johnson (creator of Spring framework), Martin Fowler (Refactoring mastermind), Kent Beck (world’s best programmer, in my opinion), and Allan Kelly (Agile guru).
Be a mentor
While having good mentors is invaluable, being a mentor is just as important. As a mentor, you build deeper relationships. Through helping others, you develop stronger empathy and widen your scope of knowledge.
I’ve found that the awareness I get from sharing knowledge has sharpened my abilities over time, and made me a better communicator and manager.
Learn to communicate
Techies have long been stereotyped as geniuses light on words and interpersonal skills. Communicating well can increase your value and strengthen your workplace fulfillment.
For me, this is not just about public speaking or presenting — it’s about being able to clearly articulate my ideas verbally and in writing with peers and senior leaders.
One of the most useful classes I took in college was contemporary business writing. We practiced getting our point across by writing short and concise documents, with proper introductions, bodies, and conclusions.
I didn’t know how useful it was at the time, but once I started working I recalled the techniques I learned, and put them to use in meetings, one-on-ones, and even the occasional blog post.
Focus on what you can control
There are a myriad of priorities in a company no matter the size. Instead of trying to be somewhat involved in everything, strive to be deeply involved in a few things.
Prioritize initiatives where you can have more influence over and take more ownership. This will help you focus and spend your time effectively. It will give you the greatest opportunity to make an impact.
One item you have control over is your image. Decide how you want people to perceive you and act that way. At some point in my career, I decided it was important that people see me as happy and solutions-oriented. I also decided to be perceived as focused and organized.
By deciding how you want to be perceived and then behaving accordingly, you actually become that.
Embrace change and be adaptable
This is from the Agile playbook, but goes way beyond Agile software development. You will learn that change is constant. Rather than joining the group who resist change and wants things to stay status quo, embrace change and adapt.
Think of change as a great opportunity for learning and to take on new and interesting roles. Be part of the team that make things work. Be part of the solution and you will be rewarded.
When you develop a mindset that change is constant, it removes your fear of trying new things. Worst case scenario is that the new approach does not work — well, then you reinvent it again!
Be open to feedback, continuously reassess your performance, and change where necessary.
Take care of your health
This may seem out of scope for a manager, but if you want peak performance, think like an athlete. You will perform better if you take care of your physical and mental health. Exercise regularly, eat healthy food, and get enough sleep.
These are not always the habits we focus on in college, and I’ve seen a few newly minted professionals who carry their college habits into work. It didn’t set them up for reaching their full potential. I was one of them, and it took me some time to recognize the problem and change.
Dare to take responsibility
Many of us avoid taking on new tasks or additional responsibilities because we fear not being able to handle it. Our ego often drives this fear because we naturally don’t want to fail. The downside of this strategy is that our personal growth is inhibited, and thus we don’t reach our full potential.
Ignore this fear.
If you get an opportunity, jump on it. Don’t over analyze, even if you don’t know what to do or how to begin. Most things are not rocket science (unless you are a rocket scientist, that is) and you will figure it out. Have that confidence.
And even if you don’t figure it out, it’s usually not as bad as you fear.
Write down your goals
Write down your long-term dreams and what you want to do this week.
Having concrete dreams is inspirational. Write them down and read them to yourself every night. I admit I don’t do that consistently myself, but during difficult periods it has helped me move forward and be decisive.
Writing down immediate goals is my best advice for staying focused and getting stuff done. Today I write down weekly goals. I pick one thing I just have to get done this week. If it means getting up early or working late, so be it.
At one point in my career, I was very extreme in setting immediate goals. As an ambitious programmer I would tell myself and the other programmers around me by what time today I was going to complete a piece of the feature. “I am going to finish the pop-up helper by 3pm!” That gave me incredible focus.
Know your core values
I have a clear set of core values that have guided my work throughout the years. Most of them have stayed the same, while some continue to evolve.
I have always been very conscious about what those core values are. The things I believe work best have been extremely valuable to me during the most challenging times of my career.
When I have struggled to get through a specific situation or time period, it has been tremendously helpful to step back and review my core values and use them consciously to take action.
Always be learning
Keep an open mind to learning. Always.
Take responsibility for your own learning and development. Seek out books and courses that can help you gain more knowledge. Make learning part of your job and the expectations you have for yourself. Never sit back and expect others to feed your brain.
Manage your ego. Don’t be afraid to change your mind as you start seeing an issue from more angles. This point is very important and can be used to your advantage.
If you are close-minded and argue your point just because you want to win the argument, you’re not helping find the best solution. But if you listen, reanalyze, and change your mind because you have gained a deeper understanding, you will help create a better outcome and create proportionate successes.
Instill good habits
Be conscious of your behavior towards work and people, and strive to create habits that allow you to be a productive team player. Rid yourself of bad habits!
For example, the Pomodoro technique is a good way to ensure you are focused on the task at hand and avoid interruptions. If you find yourself constantly checking Instagram throughout the day, shut it down and make a self-imposed rule of zero Instagram during work hours.
I don’t think this can be understated: Creating good habits is the best thing you can do for your career.
Having shared with you my tips from my experience, the last thing I want to impart is this: Take this as only one input out of many. Never blindly follow what others tell you to do. Incorporate the advice as you see fit, but shape your own views from your experiences and observations. Find your own style.