November 18, 2009, 9:09 AM — One of my colleagues asked me to substitute for her in a systems engineering course that I used to teach until a few years ago. The assigned topic was how students could best work effectively in software development groups. With the instructor's agreement, I decided to discuss some beliefs, attitudes and behavior that can help students entering the workforce for the first time as interns or new employees make the best of their opportunities. Some of these topics may be helpful to a wider audience.
From this point on, I'll simply address readers rather than using the past tense.
1) How to enter a new work group
The worst approach a new employee can take – especially a recent graduate or an intern – is to swagger into a new workplace and start comparing the way things are done to the style at a previous workplace – or worse, to what some professor told the student in a course.
The first steps to success in any new job are to observe and learn: listen, watch, think! Keep your opinions to yourself until you have learned more than superficial impressions about your new work environment. Watch, listen, learn, and think. If you don't mind the idea, keep a notebook (file) about what you learn.
2) Making suggestions
Keep your opinions to yourself until you have earned credibility by doing your job well and being thoughtful, courteous and helpful. If you do see opportunities for improvement, find out who is likely to be responsible for making the changes you think might be useful. Don't launch into a diatribe about how rotten the current situation is: ask the person if she can discuss the specific issue you are concerned about. Describe your impression of the current situation, define the problem neutrally (avoid emotional language), and ask your contact about what she thinks about it. Then offer your suggestion respectfully (not arrogantly, not from a position of assumed superiority, not rudely) and be prepared to listen to a different perspective. Don't assume that just because you think something ought to be changed that it will be.
3) Work (and life) is not a zero-sum game
Helping someone to do better (at work, in your family, in your marriage, in your life) does not subtract from your success. Take every opportunity to share knowledge, lend a hand, prevent an accident – you will win as a worker and as a human being. Don't believe the cynics who tell you that the individual is all that counts, that there is no valid social group beyond the family, and that everyone should maximize their gain at the expense of all comers. Life does not have to consist of a battle with every person competing against every other.
4) Egoless work