May 24, 2022
1575 words | 7 minutes
By: Jessica Murphy
So you did it — you landed your first tech job. What’s next? How can you really stand out in your role, make an impact and keep moving forward? And how can you overcome that sinking feeling — experienced by even the most successful tech folks at one point or another — that maybe you don’t belong amongst all these uber-smart people after all?
Who better to answer these questions, we thought, than the tech bosses themselves — top engineers and innovation leaders who were once in your shoes, new to the industry and perhaps a little terrified by all there is to know.
In our recent career advice webinar, we rounded up friends from some of Ottawa’s most exciting tech firms to share their professional journeys and offer up their best advice on building a thriving career.
We couldn’t have asked for a better group to share their wisdom. They included:
Below, we’ve summarized their answers to some of your most burning questions on how to make it in tech.
The short answer? Being able to change as fast as technology does.
It would be great if there were a cheat code to career growth, an ultimate list of frameworks and languages and best practices that we could learn to keep us relevant forever. But really, there’s no one, single tech track that matters more than any other. A whole host of skills are in demand across a range of platforms, languages and methodologies — and not one will look the same in a year as solution sets change or get replaced.
What’s most important, then, is being able to evolve as technology does, navigating uncertainty and harnessing opportunities as they arise. As with any fast-moving industry, the biggest-impact skill is the ability and willingness to learn. “Things change quickly in technology today, and being able to adapt is very important,” said Taimoor.
Keeping up means staying active in your area of expertise — reading books, taking courses, tapping mentors and getting involved in communities. But, the panel stressed, it’s just as important to go broad.
“Try new things,” Catherine said. “Look at new technologies. Try new types of projects. Go into different domains of specializations, of market problems. Learn about users and the people you’re trying to serve through technology.”
Hubert encouraged similar big-picture thinking, comparing tech skills to words in a language. Learning vocabulary is how we get started, but real language mastery is the ability to engage at a higher level, putting the pieces together to form grammatical sentences, tell good stories, explain complex ideas and so on.
In the same way, hard technical competencies are just entry points to a deeper understanding of how a given tool or framework works at a systems level — how it’s supported, how it operates within a wider solution space, how it really works to translate raw inputs into cool and useful things.
“There are always going to be new technologies happening,” said Hubert, “but all of them require a systems-level understanding. I’d say this is the key in-demand tech skill — somebody who can throw it all together.”
Surprise — it’s not your C++ wizardry or your data wrangling skills. It’s the way you engage with your team.
More specifically, it’s a we’re-all-in-this-together mindset that’s as focused on making other people successful as it is your own contributions.
“So often, I see folks come in just out of school, and they’ve been taught to prove themselves as individuals, and they feel they have to prove every day that they’re a superstar,” Catherine said. “But you’re a superstar when you have a multiplier effect on the people around you.”
Taimoor seconded that. “Having that drive to help others push forward is a great asset to an organization, and usually they’re the ones I’d end up tagging as the next leaders in our company.”
A big part of it is just your attitude. Start thinking about how you can help the people you work with, and be open to doing things that might be outside your job description.
“I see people get siloed into thinking that this is their scope and that’s all they need to do,” said Taimoor. “But what really makes people successful, especially these days in technology, is being part of a project team — seeing that team as one entity and working to make it successful.”
That means understanding what the people around you are doing, including colleagues beyond your immediate team. “I run the development team, but I have to interact with our infrastructure team and our IT admins,” said Noel. “My understanding what their job is and what their pains are and being able to work together as a unit means they want to keep me at the company, and I want to keep them at the company. We’re all in the same boat rowing in the same direction, and if one person rows in a different direction, we’re just going to go in circles.”
The bonus is that looking up from your own role gives you insight into the real sources of problems, which means you can position yourself as part of the solution. Ronnie noted that some of the biggest stumbling blocks in tech adoption and implementation aren’t technical but cultural, having to do with people, process and operations. Employees who round out their tech expertise with “softer” skills that allow them to understand and address these hurdles are thus a huge asset to organizations. “Think about the possibilities to acquire new skills that can help you take those tech skills and help change the culture inside the organization that you’re currently at or want to get into.”
Ever feel like you’re a fraud at work, surrounded by colleagues who are way more capable than you? Welcome to tech! The extremely smart people, the daily explosion of new developments, the near-infinite complexity of the simplest things — the same qualities that make it such an exciting career can also make us feel like we snuck in through the exit somehow, without the real credentials to be there.
A bit of fear is part of the territory as you find your place in a demanding profession. Even our panel has been there — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I’ve taken on roles in all different disciplines of developing product, and that can feel uncomfortable sometimes,” Catherine said. “Some amount of imposter syndrome is healthy. It keeps you humble, keeps you in check.”
The problem, of course, is when self-doubt stops us from trying new things or taking on new responsibilities.
The panel’s advice? Face it head-on and try to turn it to your advantage. Use it as an opportunity for reflection and growth.
Ask yourself tough questions about where the feelings are coming from, Catherine suggested: “Do I understand the expectations of this role? Do I have areas of weakness that I’d like to develop? Can I stay actively engaged in soliciting feedback?”
In other words, are there steps you can take to feel more prepared?
Keep in mind that you weren’t put in your role to fail. When we’re in over our heads at work, we’re often hesitant to ask questions for fear we’ll give ourselves away. But often, it’s our willingness to reach out for help and lean into the discomfort of learning that stands out to higher-ups. Taimoor recalled his first real job in tech. “I was out of my element, and I went to my manager and basically said, ‘I need to do something else — I keep asking questions and I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He looked at me and said he would pick me for the task over and over because I worked hard, I asked questions and I wanted to learn.”
Samir agreed. “If you don’t know something, say that you don’t know — that is, believe it or not, a differentiator.”
Still unsure? Here’s a little trick from Catherine. “Lean into the confidence that the person who put you in the role had in you. Understand what they saw in you and try to see that in yourself, and if you really can’t, lean into trusting their confidence in you until you can build that up in yourself.”
Finally, go easy on yourself. Taking on something new is a vulnerable, often confidence-shaking experience, but it’s the only way up. “Congratulate yourself. Because if you’re feeling imposter syndrome, you’re probably doing something that’s helping you grow,” she added. “That’s a good moment.”
Still looking for your first tech opportunity? Check out part one of this blog, where our panel offers job-search advice for new grads and career changers. Want more career guiding content? Follow the new Work in Ottawa LinkedIn page.