October 2015

Volume 30 Number 10

Upstart - The Yoga of Rookie Success

By Krishnan Rangachari | October 2015

As a young engineer, I struggled at first to fit into my team. After all, my colleagues had been there for years. How could I ever compare? The more I advanced, the more my teammates seemed to stay ahead of me. Being intelligent wasn’t enough. Maybe I’d made a terrible mistake in becoming an engineer, I thought.

In cracking this puzzle, I discovered that the best way to move from novice to expert was to do the thankless tasks—for example, helping with operational improvements. I had avoided these activities because they didn’t get my heart racing like R&D work. Why would any “real” engineer want to maintain a build validation system or create a testing framework? But it was precisely by serving my team that I could transcend my own narrow realm of expertise. I did tasks nobody else wanted: migrating infrastructure systems, resolving product support backlogs, talking to external vendors, investigating performance regressions. Along the way, I elevated my whole team, gained broad expertise, and built strong personal relationships with the veterans whose experience had intimidated me.

By doing these tasks well, I also gained a reputation as an efficient, trustworthy and reliable engineer. The juicy work I’d wanted, but hadn’t felt ready for in the past, now came automatically. I had matured and proven that I wasn’t obsessed with just myself.

Other positive changes emerged. When I focused on others’ interests rather than my own, I blasted through roadblocks and gained expertise rapidly. When my motivation was to help, I felt comfortable approaching others with “stupid” questions and even socializing with them. Being selfless was simply more efficient!

I began operating at a new level. No longer trapped in an obsessive race for fast promotions and more money, I made it my goal to help others, and soon those same rewards started to come easily. Today, if another colleague serves the team better, I see it as an opportunity to contribute to her success and to learn from her.

A Beginner’s Mind

For a long time, I felt insecure about how much I didn’t know. The more knowledge I consumed, the more expansive the universe of things I didn’t know became. I wondered if a different industry, less subject to drastic shifts, would suit me better.

I struggled with the challenge of mastering a parade of new frameworks and languages every year. My solution? I came to terms with my lack of knowledge and sense of inadequacy.

For example, when asked to lead my team’s iOS efforts, I told my manager that I was excited about the opportunity but intimidated by my limited knowledge of the platform. I mastered iOS a little bit at a time, and treated situations that exposed my iOS ignorance as opportunities to enhance my knowledge so I could be more valuable to the team. I was open about what I didn’t know, and would often say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” (And I always did.) I found that my team appreciated my vulnerability and follow-through.

I used to operate under the illusion that there’s a benefit to being a know-it-all. There isn’t. It’s OK to not know 90 percent of a framework, extension, language, area, product or tool. I know what’s relevant to me now, and I’m OK with having a “beginner’s mind” for months or years—it keeps me curious and sharp! There’s always more to know in our field. Instead of feeling driven by my innate desire to master it all, I trust my intuition and explore only what is driven by a sense of peace of mind.

Krishnan Rangachari is the career coach for hackers. Visit radicalshifts.com to download his free career success kit.