Why you’re (not) failing at your new job

It’s your first month at your new job, and you’re worried you’re on the verge of getting fired. You don’t know what you’re doing, everyone is busy and you need to bother them with questions, and you’re barely writing any code. Any day now your boss will notice just how bad a job you’re doing… what will you do then?

Luckily, you’re unlikely to be fired, and in reality you’re likely doing just fine. What you’re going through happens to almost everyone when they start a new job, and your panicked feeling will eventually pass.

New jobs make you incompetent

Just like you, every time I’ve started a new job I’ve had to deal with feeling incompetent.

  • In 2004 I started a new job as a C++ programmer, writing software for the airline industry. On my first day of work the VP of Engineering told me he didn’t expect me to fully productive for 6 months. And for good reason: I barely knew any C++, I knew nothing about airlines, and I had to learn a completely new codebase involving both.
  • In 2012 I quit my job to become a consultant. Every time I got a new client I had to learn a new codebase and a new set of problems and constraints.
  • At my latest job I ended up writing code in 3 programming languages I didn’t previously know. And once again I had to learn a new codebase and a new business logic domain.

Do you notice the theme?

Every time you start a new job you are leaving behind the people, processes and tools you understand, and starting from scratch. A new language, new frameworks, new tools, new codebases, new ways of doing things, people you don’t know, business logic you don’t understand, processes you’re unfamiliar with… of course it’s scary and uncomfortable.

Luckily, for the most part this is a temporary feeling.

This too will pass

Like a baby taking their first steps, or a child on their first bike ride, those first months on a new job will make you feel incompetent. Soon the baby will be a toddler, the child will be riding with confidence. You too will soon be productive and competent.

Given some time and effort you will eventually learn what you need to know:

…the codebase.

…the processes, how things are done and maybe even why.

…the programming language.

…who to ask and when to ask them.

…the business you are operating in.

Since that’s a lot to learn, it will take some time, but unless you are working for an awful company that is expected and normal.

What you can do

While the incompetent phase is normal and unavoidable, there is still something you can do about it: learn how to learn better. Every time you start a new job you’re going to be learning new technologies, new processes, new business logic. The most important skill you can learn is how to learn better and faster.

The faster you learn the faster you’ll get past the feeling of incompetence when you start a new job. The faster you learn the faster you can become a productive employee or valued consultant.

Some skills are specific to programming. For example, when learning new programming languages, I like skimming a book or tutorial first before jumping in: it helps me understand the syntax and basic concepts. Plus having a mental map of the book helps me know where to go back to when I’m stuck. Other skills are more generic, e.g. there is considerable research on how learning works that can help you learn better.

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