Being An Effective Junior Engineer Without Coding

Being An Effective Junior Engineer Without Coding

The first thing any new engineer should focus on is trying to and learn as much they can and bring value to the team quickly... but oftentimes they express feelings of being lost, overwhelmed, or unhelpful when it comes to code. Limiting yourself to just software takes away what you can bring from other skills you may already have. As a fresh set of eyes you are in a unique position to bring new perspective and energy to a variety of areas that a team may be lacking in. Organizational bottlenecks and inefficiencies exist in every team and are often the result of technical/non-technical debt, hypergrowth, or just not-so-best practices. As the newbie you are actually in the best position to make suggestions since you are free of any office politics alliances and have the veil of ignorance to fall back on. "Oh I didn't know that, I was just wondering if...[Insert Suggestion Here]" has a lot of mileage in your first month. Just don't make it your default response the entirety of your time there.  

How do I get started?

Joining a team with basic skills I learned online and 2 community college courses behind me, I wasn't really handed anything too technical to do and I was starting to decay at my desk as I was reading legacy code for the fifth time over. At some point I felt pretty worthless to the team and as that sank in, I felt the pressure of being an imposter and basically just taking up office space. My solution to this was to try and do something.. ANYTHING to help the team out. I was lucky to have such a receptive team but I believe anyone can do it as long as you come from a point of wanting to help make other people's lives easier.

Some examples of things I did included:

  • Organizing the ticket system that has been untouched for about 4 years –> Gave me more product knowledge and depth into the pain points of the project.
  • Proposing reduced meeting times to force concise updates –> Yielded more time for the devs to mentor me and made it easier to digest information.
  • Writing small scripts to automate cumbersome processes –> Allowed me to write simple code using JavaScript and reinforced my basics.
  • Setting up weekly team emails to increase communication on deployments –> Established me as a person who knew what was going on with my team while forcing me to be on top of what was happening.
  • Consolidating all our tooling and information into a central source –> Provided me a big picture idea of what we use and how we use it.

Only one of those things required some programming and while it can be argued that those responsibilities could be assigned to a Scrum Master or Project Manager, it built my credibility and trust as a someone who can get things done. A rising tide lifts all boats and when everyone can be more effective, you can be more effective.

But what if there is NOTHING I can work on to improve?

Get permission to start learning something. When I was a QA tester and I started to run out of tests, I began to ask around if there was something I could do to learn how to code understand what I was testing beyond a superficial layer. After taking my own time outside of work to find a reputable program, I began to ask engineers for help on certain concepts or topics that I felt like they might be able to explain in context of what I was working on. This led to the QA team getting access to CodeSchool and even getting dedicated time to learning it each week! If you can tie your goals with the companies and have reasonable people to support you, it will never look bad on you to ask. If you have to pay for it yourself, it shows more chutzpah and an ambition to grow.

They said no to me learning on the company dime, I still have no idea how to contribute, I have no mentorship, and/or they expect me to just do it on my own.

GTFO. Do the bare minimum and prep for another job. The longer you stay here the longer you'll stagnate and it's clear this isn't an environment that fosters growth. It sucks but the only answer here is to keep grinding. That's it.

If you are worried about these things potentially pushing you into a different path... That's a good thing! All the skills learned in the stories above could easily help transition into another role and you never know what you may like. Either way you are improving your whole package. Small wins are important throughout your career eventually lead to bigger wins down the road. Every story will be different but I guarantee you the themes between them will be the same. What's your story?

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