When most people begin their careers, they’re pretty sure they know what they’re doing. After all, they likely graduated from a programming boot camp or earned a computer-science degree from a reputable university, where they learned the intricacies of the latest technology and development practices.
Ten years later, their viewpoint has usually changed. The difference between the academic and working worlds isn’t subtle, and even the most talented newcomers to the latter experience their share of stumbles, unexpected obstacles and brick walls constructed by their employers’ culture or bureaucracies.
Handling such things can be a lot easier if you have an idea of what to look for. With that in mind, here are five things that tech professionals in their 30s say they wish they’d known earlier.
Employers Are More Than Their Tech Stack
If he could do it all over again, Tariq King, 36, director of test engineering at Weston, Fla.-based Ultimate Software, would have spent more time researching the company culture of prospective employers instead of focusing on the company name or technology stack.
“I would have asked more questions during interviews to gauge how happy employees were about their work-life balance, the opportunities available for career development, different team-building activities, and the level of engagement at the company,” he said.
King learned this lesson the hard way: early on, he interned for a “prominent software company,” but found little appreciation for employees and even a disconnect between the organization and its product. Turned off, he became a college professor before Ultimate attracted him with its more positive culture, which he describes as being “all about people—going the extra way to help employees and customers.”
That leads to…
Your Team Counts More Than You Realize
“The one aspect about the tech world I know now that I wish I had known in my 20s is that it’s not all about working for the biggest company with the latest technologies, or even about the domain of the product that you end up working on,” King said. What’s important is “the people you work alongside and collaborate with every day, and the people, including our customers, you work for every day, meaning the people you build products for and deliver services to.”
Try New Things
When it comes to technology, don’t be afraid of trying new products and new tools, said Ryan Lawrence, 34, a freelance developer in Collingswood, N.J. He sees the process of learning new technology as “organic” and stresses the importance of being able to adapt as tech evolves. “Learn new technologies and be able to put them into production quickly,” he advised. “I think developers just starting out should prioritize that.”
Learn How to Communicate
Whether you’re working for a brand-name firm like Google or Facebook, a smaller development shop or have set up your own company, it’s essential to speak in a language non-technical people can understand. “I see time and again the importance of being able to communicate with clients and put concepts into layman’s terms,” Lawrence said. “You need to speak in a manner that’s more colloquial than a programming language.”
Don’t Underestimate People Skills
Probably a million posts have been written about the importance of “soft skills.” Unfortunately, many tech pros scoff at them. What counts is your technical knowledge, they say: the quality of your code and your ability to deliver on time.
Looking back on his own experience, Jon Rose, who at 36 is the chief security officer for Dun & Bradstreet in Short Hills, N.J., wishes he’d thought more about empathy early on. “Trying to understand other people’s viewpoint and position” is important, he said, because “people do things and make decisions for reasons that are not always apparent at first glance.”
It’s important to pause before you act, he continued. For example, if you draft an email after a heated discussion, maybe it’s a good idea to hold off until the next day before sending it. “A good night’s sleep and a fresh mind help to diffuse tough situations and ensure clear heads prevail,” Rose said. “Delaying responses a bit is often a good thing.”
The bottom line, it seems, is that your tech skills by themselves may not be the most influential factors in your career. Development, QA, security and other technology areas don’t exist in a vacuum. To succeed, tech pros need to constantly learn, effectively communicate and always remember that meshing with the right people is a big part of their success.