The Best Ways to Crush It as a New Team Member

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Last week I wrote a short and simple post on How NOT to Join a Software Engineering Team. It wasn’t comprehensive or broad enough for teams in general — but I felt I needed to write down some of the DO NOTs before moving on to the DOs. Here is another list of how I have tried to recently join a new team and what I have learned from others as they have joined the teams I have been on.

The fastest way for you to become a contributor to a team is to understand the team you are on. How they work; what they work on; why they do things in certain ways; what they expect of you. You need to figure all that out, and the best way is to be up front and ask.

Don’t be afraid to ask the “dumb” or “silly” question. Dumb and silly questions usually result in simple pieces of information that you didn’t know before, or they reveal something is broken. Asking “Why do we do things like that?”“How did this get this way?” will be sure to expose the shortcomings of your existing team, or expose how they have figured out a new paradigm you hadn’t considered.

Also, do your best to ask a question as few times as possible; i.e. actually listen to and learn from their answer. Otherwise, you will be annoying your teammates.

I have accomplished this if by keeping a list of the questions I ask and their answers. I usually keep this in something simple like Evernote or old-school pen and paper. I try to resort to that list first if I don’t understand something. If I don’t find it in my list, then I will ask a team member.

The best thing about this approach is I have already set up others for success in the future. When another new team member joins, I will have already compiled an FAQ of sorts to give to them so they shouldn’t need to ask the same questions. And of course, I can document it all in a wiki, README, etc. Which leads to the next point 👇

Documentation is always broken. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t invaluable. I believe documentation is a tool that continues to refine and build a team’s understanding of what they do and why they do it. So read the docs. And I mean read — avoid skimming if you can.

As you do, ask questions (see above), compare what you read to what you are told, and then fix the docs when they are wrong or missing information. If you are on a software team, open a PR. You’ll likely get feedback and thus answers to more of your questions (see above).

Then read it all again. And again. Until it starts to make sense.

We had someone join our team at Bandwidth (we’re hiring by the way!) a few months ago and the first thing he did was read. He read every doc we had ever written about the solution we were building. He read code for hours. We even got nervous because he was sitting and silently reading everyday for a little over a week. 😬

But then, he knew it. Like, really knew it.

He spoke up one day about a feature and how it fit within our system. He described it better than our architect at the time did. He had spent so much time reading, that when it came time for him to write something and make a new contribution, he knew exactly what it meant.

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”

— Harry S. Truman

Serve your new teammates. I don’t mean bring them coffee and donuts (though a lot of people like those things, so maybe it isn’t a bad idea). Learn what the things are that no one wants to do or no one has had the time for. Figure out how to do it, execute it, and then make it better for the next person that needs to.

Are there silly little tickets that you can clean up? Are there any big tickets that no one wants to take? Be the one to do it. And as you do, be asking questions, reading and correcting everything you can. The benefits of this is that by the end of a few months, you will have likely done some the hardest work you will do on that team. Everything else is downhill.

At some point, you go from being the “new guy/girl” to having real responsibility. And you will, sooner or later, screw it up. You botched a customer call, setup something in a system wrong, wrote a bug that made it to production, etc.

When it happens, don’t make an excuse, blame a system or claim you didn’t know something. If you’ve been doing the things above, you shouldn’t really have those excuses anyhow.

Fess up, fix your mistake, and learn from it.

By doing so, you practice humility. You learn to own your mistakes quickly. You show your team you are willing to fix whatever mayhem resulted. Most importantly, it shows that you are actually doing something! No one sitting on the sideline of the Superbowl makes the big mistake that cost the game if you lose; they also never contributed to the victory if you win.

Seriously, grab lunch together. Eating together helps you build relationships beyond work. You get to know your teammates outside of the things they “do”. Its time for brainstorming ideas in an informal way that you can’t do at a whiteboard in a stuffy conference room. It doesn’t have to be daily or even weekly either. Just be willing to ask a few co-workers every once and a while.

As a side, happy hours are great too, but be careful! No one wants to be known as the office gossip and it can be easy to fall into a trap after a few drinks. Even if you aren’t saying anything, what you hear can be equally as dangerous.

I hope this was a helpful quick snapshot of how to crush the game as a new team member. Many of them are good strategies to becoming a better team member of time as well. The core of all these things comes to down to that balance between staying humble and staying hungry.

I’d love to hear what you think is important too. What are some other ways in which you or others have had great impact when joining a new team team?

Jesus follower | husband | IJM advocate | software engineer. I share tips and tools for building great software as a team.

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