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Do you see growing your junior engineers as an investment or a time suck?

Feb 7 to April 18, 2023 Group leadership course
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My first engineering job out of college was with a government contractor. I was by far the youngest person on a team of career veterans. We were all working together to build, well, something. The actual project was classified, and none of us had clearances, so we all built very generic ‘services’ that would quite literally be transported to a secure facility to be deployed as part of a larger system.

On my first day, I was assigned to work on the file service. I felt woefully lost. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing (outside of basic instructions) and I felt like a complete imposter. ‘Why did these people hire me? What do they want from me? Is this a joke? They seem happy for me to be here, but I can't be meeting expectations.’ These thoughts lingered in my mind for weeks as I slogged through my work. I was fresh out of school, and I knew my algorithms in and out, but I didn't know how to be a software engineer.

My surroundings were as generic as they come. I sat in a small cubical – grey, 5x5, a shelf across the top where I placed my textbooks and an HP PC. The scene was not unlike the film Office Space, complete with unexpected visits from my boss. Next door to me was an older gentleman – let's call him Chad. Chad, at the time, was approaching retirement. He was grumpy in a well-earned cynicism kind of way, and he didn't seem to have any regard for me. He came off as radically neutral. Whenever I gave my morning status update, he'd be the only one who wouldn't look at me while I talked. (He rarely looked at anyone, so I didn't take it personally.)

One morning, while I suffered through trying to get my project to build, Chad appeared at the entrance of my cubicle. He must have heard my frustrations. (I sometimes talk out loud to myself – especially when reading error messages I've never encountered.) He was holding one of the thickest books I had ever seen in his hand and he threw it to me saying, ‘This should help.’ Before I could thank him (or even acknowledge his presence), Chad disappeared. I looked down to see that the book was all about Ant build files (my nemesis at the time). This was my first mentoring experience.

A little effort goes a long way

As lackluster as his methods may have been – the book did, in fact, help. When dealing with early-career individuals, even the most minuscule amounts of effort can yield fantastic results. This isn't a case to only do the minimum; it's a case to ensure you do something. What you do will be dependent mainly on the individual. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one-size-fits-all to growing junior engineers. Some individuals want you to point them in the right direction, and they're more than happy to jump in, dig themselves out, and show you what they've done. Others value your commentary along the way – wanting you to guide them, if for no other reason than to expedite things. Neither is right nor wrong, but you have to understand who you're dealing with so you can proceed accordingly. I was definitely the dive-deep type. This is why being tossed a book was actually okay for me. I didn't want anyone spending a ton of time pairing with me, I just needed a north star so that I could build some momentum and confidence. From there, I could fly. If you need to guide someone, guide with intent. Had I needed that, instead of being tossed a book, I might have wanted someone to pull up a chair, ask me precisely what the issue was, and have them walk me through possible solutions.

More than a one on one

Fast-forward seven or eight years, before I began my career transition to management, to when I was a senior engineer at a company with an apprenticeship program. We'd scoop talented folks from boot camps, train them up for a few months, and then hire them full-time. Since I had previous experience interviewing folks, my manager asked me to help vet candidates for our next apprentice. I did so and made a solid recommendation for bringing on an individual who, in my eyes, demonstrated strong potential. Because my recommendation was so strong, I was also asked to help onboard this person and mentor them to full productivity. I didn't really know how to do this, but I was happy to give it a shot. I began meeting with this person at least once a week in an official mentoring capacity. I called it ‘Lightsaber Training.’ (Don't even think about judging me.) Basically, we'd meet and discuss the work they had on their plate; I'd answer questions, explain concepts, review their code, etc. But it started out as an awkward meeting: I wasn't managing this person or assigning work, nor was this person accountable to me in any way. It took a few weeks of relationship and trust-building before they were comfortable asking me questions they perceived to be ‘dumb’. I cannot stress enough the extent to which your juniors are terrified of asking questions. If you do nothing else, get them comfortable doing this.

The apprenticeship was a success; we enthusiastically hired this person (who subsequently became a key contributor on the team), and looking back, my company probably asked me to step into management primarily from this experience. If I'm honest, I probably received too much credit. This was an extraordinarily talented individual with whom I had the good fortune of being paired. Unless we completely dropped the ball, they were always going to be successful. That said, there's something to be said about targeted time – about making space for vulnerability. You don't want your early-career individuals floundering with tasks a simple question could clear up. This also means you, the manager, or mentor need to be vulnerable – demonstrate that it's okay not to understand things, ask questions, and overall not be perfect. This posturing can be difficult for some of us because we believe our identities and reputations are wrapped in our expertise in such a way that it would damage our career prospects. This, however, is blatantly wrong. Myths and legends surrounding well-respected professionals may provide effective marketing from afar but do little (if not outright damage) the people who work with them most closely. Demonstrating vulnerability makes you a better professional. It makes you approachable, relatable, empathetic, and genuine. These are vital characteristics of effective leaders and inspire loyalty among your team.

Expect excellence – prepare for failure

It doesn't matter how much you prepare; at some point, that early-career individual will experience some level of failure under your watch, whether that's missing a deadline, shipping a bug to production, or just a bad quarter. Just as you should build a system for resilience (and not try to build a perfect one), you should grow your juniors with resilience in mind. Don't mold a perfect employee; mold an employee who understands their (and your) limitations and is well-equipped to work through them and grow. It's a bit of a cliché to say that we should learn and grow from failure, but it's a cliché for a reason – it's stood the test of time. This molding extends beyond this individual, though. You need to build a culture that expects and deals with failure in a healthy way. You can't always be around to give pep talks to this person. You should be in a place where you're sure the culture will catch this person when they fall in your absence – a culture safety net of sorts.

On the other hand, you'll never get anyone's best work (junior or not) if you don't set that expectation. Even when this person does well, you should try and find areas of improvement. Tread carefully; you don't want to come off as impossible to please. Balancing positive reinforcement with constructive feedback is a skill – learn it. From my experience, the vast majority of people want this feedback, they want to learn how to improve. If you deny them this, they will likely plateau and seek challenges elsewhere.

Conclusion

It feels odd to conclude here because I've barely scratched the surface. Taking a human and growing them to their full potential is a gargantuan task. Unfortunately, many organizations treat it as a nuisance – little more than a time suck for a more experienced professional. It's certainly an investment, but like all good investments, the idea is that you end up with something more valuable in the long-term. Putting intentional strategy into efficiently growing early-career individuals is no different than coming up with an investment thesis. Without that strategy in place, it's gambling. Don't gamble with your business and the careers of others. Do the work.