Flexibility, asking questions key for recent college graduates looking to advance in IT

Learning doesn't stop after graduation and becomes critical to keeping IT skills fresh and staying employable

For young tech workers career advancement is like a game of chutes and ladders.

For young tech workers career advancement is like a game of chutes and ladders.

When Cathy Lee started working at New York startup Faith Street last year, she quickly learned a lesson that could benefit other recent college graduates who want to advance their IT careers -- soft skills like being flexible, taking on new tasks and asking questions matter a lot.

She originally handled office administrator tasks like answering phones and scheduling meetings and soon added marketing and front-end development to her duties. The New York University graduate even researched CRM (customer relationship management) software for the company, whose website and mobile application help people find churches and faith communities.

"I didn't really have a job title at the time," said Lee, who graduated in 2013 and double majored in marketing and information systems. "I was open and willing to try out new things. Whatever the need was at the time I just jumped on board and helped out."

Her interest in user interfaces and user experience helped her get the job of FaithStreet's "user happiness designer," which involves front-end development and product and account management

"I was able to figure out what I could do that was needed by the company but also something that I enjoyed," Lee said. "I'm involved [with] everything from figuring out user needs, evaluating different prototypes to testing quality assurance of the final product or our latest iteration of the product."

The company wouldn't have initially hired her as a designer "but after six months of being available to do different kinds of work, we found she has a real knack for it," said CEO Sean Coughlin. "Folks who are new out of college have ideas about what they're going to do that are too fixed. The first 100 days or even year at your first job you're going to learn a ton about what you are good at."

Transitioning from student to IT professional entails honing in on a specific technology as you're exposing to more IT, said Jay Yeh, who works at NetSuite as a senior software quality assurance engineer.

"In school you're kind of trying to understand a little bit about everything but you really lack a deep understanding of a particular area," said Yeh, who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2012. "When you enter the workforce, you focus on a particular area. Adjust your IT interests based on what you've learned."

New hires who grew up with technology may be asked to use their digital native skills in a business context. This was the case at FaithStreet where Lee was responsible for selecting CRM software. Lee had previous experience at that. As an intern at a startup she had looked into CRM software for the company. She picked the same system for FaithStreet, which builds Web and mobile platforms that help people find churches and faith communities

"One thing that's great about hiring people who are in their 20s who just graduated is that they know a lot about technology and they're really quick learners," said Coughlin. "They've been building personal websites or on social media or using different applications for their entire lives. It's second nature for them."

Employers welcome enthusiastic new hires, but employees shouldn't feel compelled to immediately contribute to products to prove themselves.

"The passion is really nice," said Yeh. "But what we tend to end up not doing as well is set realistic expectations."

Unlike college course work, where the steps to complete a task are broken down for students, completing assignments in the workplace requires institutional knowledge, said Yeh. New employees need to be familiar with the technologies and procedures a company uses before they set goals. Recent hires need strong communication skills since acquiring this information means asking questions, soliciting managers and co-workers for feedback and communicating with colleagues about their role in an organization.

"If you're unsure about something, the first thing you should do is ask because that's going to save everyone a lot of time," said Coughlin. "The worst thing they can do is to assume they know how to do things. No matter what you studied in college working at a tech company is going to bring up some challenges that you haven't faced before. It's really important for people to really over communicate with the folks they are working with, the folks that have been there before."

Lee had lunch with "pretty much everybody" at a 150-person startup she interned at to learn about them, the company and the industry.

"In order to be able to know how your skills fit in [and] to get a lay of the entire company you're going to have to talk to people," she said. "Get to know everyone's communication style so you're able to manage expectations. Be clear about what you can do and be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses."

Knowing what resources are available, especially when a project is taking longer than anticipated, can help workers earn the recognition they're seeking from their colleagues, said Yeh.

"Once you understand what is available this will save you time," Yeh said. "You'll achieve your goal faster and your manager will know that you already know the process in place."

Robert Knight, a vice president at IT staffing firm Modis, reminds new hires that basic principles like punctuality and appropriate use of office technology count as much as knowing the latest technology.

"Nothing leaves a worse impression than being the person who comes on five minutes after the call starts," Knight said. "When I'm walking around the office they shouldn't be on Facebook unless they're recruiting someone."

Corporate culture varies by company and new employees should "be observant and adapt your personal style to fit in. Not every company is a startup," said Knight.

And the long hours and unglamorous work of a startup may not appeal to every IT worker, said Coughlin.

"If you're the kind of person that wants all the bells and whistles then you can go work at Google and that's fine. But that's not what we do."

The latest technology eventually becomes dated so even workers just out of school need to keep their skills fresh.

"Your learning process doesn't stop just because you're out of school," said Yeh. "You really need to stay on top of what is being worked on and what you can do to contribute. It will allow you to stay valuable [as] a technology professional."

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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Fred O'Connor

IDG News Service
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