Starting Your Tech Career Off in 2021: Mentoring Tips and More

You’re a few years into your technology career. You’ve established some contacts, begun work on your first big projects, and developed a better sense of what’s expected of you. 

If you’re lucky, you’re figuring out what skills you’ll need in order to deliver your best performance over the next year or so. As you settle in, you might be thinking more strategically—how will you use this first job as the launcher for the rest of your career? 

At this juncture, setting some short-term goals is important. You wouldn’t shoot an arrow without having a target. But where should you aim, and why?  

Short-Term Goal-Setting 

You might have entered your new job with a lot of enthusiasm, but without a goal, you risk burning up all that energy without results. These goals should always be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based).  

Take this scenario: You have a new job as a junior iOS developer at a firm that builds mobile apps. You’re strong with Swift, Apple’s newer programming language for building iOS and macOS apps, but you’re not quite as proficient with Objective-C, Apple’s older language. If you want to impress your boss, you can make it a short-term goal to learn Objective-C in a quarter or two. If your next goal is to build up your portfolio of projects within the company, you could then proactively volunteer to use your Objective-C knowledge to maintain and transition the company’s massive pile of legacy code.  

Embracing short-term goals is a great way to build a magnificent career. Remember, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos didn’t start out resolving to conquer e-commerce, streaming media, and cloud computing; he just wanted to build a website to sell books online. Early in your career, things are generally moving quickly and you’re still trying to figure out what you want to do, so there’s no point in planning beyond that.  

The Value of Continuing Education 

Whatever your career path, the most vital element is that you keep learning, and then use that education to inform your short- to medium-term career goals. Platforms and programming languages evolve, especially in relatively new fields. If you’re jumping jobs or seeking promotions every few years, you’ll no doubt encounter interviewers who will test your familiarity with the latest and greatest tools of your trade, and you better be able to demonstrate that you’ve kept your knowledge up-to-date.  

Fortunately, a good employer is as interested in your education as you are, since that ultimately makes you a more valuable employee. Even if your manager seems disinclined to negotiate over increased compensation (more on that later), they may prove willing to pay for classes and other educational opportunities that boost your current skillset. Online learning courses, for instance, can offer flexible scheduling that allows you to juggle work and education. 

Certifications 

When you review job postings, you’ll note that certifications are either heavily recommended or required for certain jobs. 

From an employer perspective, certifications show in a concrete way that you have the necessary skills. Fortunately for technologists who are short on time and resources, relatively few positions cite certifications as a requirement. According to a Burning Glass analysis, only 10.2 percent of job postings for network/systems administrators ask for certifications; for computer systems engineers/architects, it’s 5.1 percent.  

Even if a position doesn’t require certifications, they can still help show that you have the skills to do the job and advance up the career ladder. If you’re just starting out as a sysadmin, you could earn a few cybersecurity certifications, then use those to convince your manager that you can handle increased responsibilities. 

As with degrees and bootcamps, you need to do your homework when it comes to certifications, which can prove complex. Amazon Web Services (AWS), for instance, has 12 certifications broken out across four categories, ranging from AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner to AWS Certified Machine Learning–Specialty. Training and exams often cost money and demand a lot of time and energy. Carefully consider your career pathway before plunging into a certification journey.  

Mentoring 

Early in your career, finding a mentor can be key to your continued growth. It’s not just a matter of finding someone with more experience who’s willing to share knowledge with you from time to time; you need someone with whom you can build a genuine relationship. Mutual chemistry matters as much as the knowledge they can impart. 

You can begin your mentor search in the following places: 

  • College/university alumni networks. 
  • Among your more experienced colleagues. 
  • Online professional communities (preferably around your interests and profession). 
  • Friends/family connections. 

The ideal mentor should have a career and skills that you want to emulate, and they should be willing to share their knowledge with you. During your initial interactions, ask yourself if you enjoy being around them. It’s important to analyze the advice they give as impartially as possible, and judge whether it’ll truly help your career.  

Many younger technologists find it’s helpful to ask a prospective mentor for advice or feedback on a project they’re working on. That’s an organic and easy way to judge the relationship’s chemistry, and whether the advice is useful. Elevating your mentor/mentee relationship beyond the purely transactional is an absolute must; take the time to get to know your mentor as a human being; pay attention to their concerns and interests.