Advice for Interns and New Employees

by Walt Stoneburner
The best job is the one where you are paid to play.

Advice for Interns and New Employees

Whenever I get a new intern or employee that is just starting out in his career, I offer them the same advice which was handed down to me and that I still follow to this day:

  1. Learn everything you can.
    One tends to have more fun when when you're constantly learning. You can't expect others to always teach you, so you'll have to challenge yourself. Listen, listen, listen. Be a sponge that absorbs information. The more you pickup is the more valuable you are to the company. That translates to more compensation, privileges, and respect. Quite often you'll even get the more interesting jobs.

  2. Document everything you learn.
    Career growth and security occurs by teaching others to do your job so that you can advance. Teach what you've learned to the next person. People who horde information eventually get cut out of the loop and people don't like helping them.

  3. Keep a daily log.
    Be as detailed as possible. You never know when this will come in handy and save your rear.

    My own personal logs keep track of my start date, vacation, holiday schedule, and sick days at a high level. Each day I come in and record the day of the week, the date, the time I arrived, the time I left for lunch (also where we went, who went, and what we discussed), the time I get back, and the time I left for home (and any work I did from home). Every meeting, task, and relevant phone call gets logged. If there's events interesting about the day (bad weather, traffic, birthdays, something fun or interesting that happened) I record that as well. I can then compute exactly how long I was at the office minus non-working lunches. It serves as a backup for time card systems and allows for reconstruction and reexamination of events. At the bottom of my logs I list my projects and to-do items. Anytime I make a recommendation, I record that too. If the company takes it and it works then I can cite that at review time. If the company takes it and it doesn't work, I can examine why it didn't. If the company doesn't take it and they fail, I'm covered. Keeping a detailed log may seem anal and detail oriented, but the first time you need that information it pays for itself; I use nothing more than a plain text editor and self disclipline.

  4. Don't be afraid of failing.
    Part of growing is taking the initative and taking calculated risks. If you fail, that's okay -- just be able to justify your thought process and learn from your mistakes. Look at it this way, if you guess, you pretty much have a 50% chance of getting a decision right; you're a bright person -- therefore you'll be right more often than not, and that edge is all a business needs. Managers get far more upset over being surprised with news than learning bad news; so if you have bad news, don't sit on it.

  5. Admit your mistakes.
    If you've made a mistake, even a little one, fessing up to it early and admitting it was your fault removes the need for other take a swing at you. Ask why the mistake happened, how it got by you, and what can you do to fix it.
    Managers, directors, and vice-presidents make huge, expensive mistakes all the time.

  6. If you have any questions, ask.
    Asking questions shows you're paying attention. It shows that you're learning and listening. Understand how and why things work and what it would cost to do things differently before you suggest changing them.

  7. Make friends and network.
    Should you ever change companies, it's your friends, peers, and management around you that are going to know your skillset and performance level best. These are the people who will write you recommendations, hire you, and let you know when job openings happen. There's truth in "it isn't what you know, but who you know;" that's because it's who you know that opens the doors to demonstrate what you know.

  8. Under promise and over deliver.
    Never promise what you can't do, and don't be pressured into doing so -- explain why or what you need to meet such a goal. Don't over commit; once you say you'll do something, do it -- even if you have to move heaven and earth to make it happen. Account for the unexpected -- allow for at least 20% additional time for things like phone calls, interruptions, and unforeseen problems. When you do deliver, go above and beyond what was expected in terms of quality or scope. Make an impression that will last.

  9. Be nice to the janitor.
    Smile and learn the guards by name. Say hi to the janitors. Thank the person in the mailroom. Compliment the secretary. You'll soon learn that the real power of the organization lies in the perceived lowest job on the totem pole: these people are the ones who you have to interact with, directly or indirectly. They can make your life plesant, they can make your life hell. They control how fast the red tape gets processed. They can make incidental problems go away sooner than later. They can do damage by being passive. You never know who's ear they have. You never know when they can do you a favor. You never know what value information they may pass on to you. All they ask is to be treated like human beings and not looked down upon because their job title isn't a snazzy as yours.

  10. Nothing to do? Tell someone.
    Don't let yourself get bored or end up with nothing to do. There's usually always something that needs to get done; the person reponsible for tasking you will have the answer.

  11. Know the role of your manager.
    Your manager has the responsilibity of removing obstacles from your way so that you can get your job done. When confronted with problems, present several solutions and your manager will tell you which one is applicable based on the constraints of the department.

  12. Keep your resume current.
    In government and contracting jobs, it's essential. But more importantly, if you don't record the details while you're doing the job, you will forget about them later.

  13. Give credit where credit is due.
    When someone does something for you, thank them. Let their boss know how helpful they were. When a subordinate or peer performs a task, sing their praises up the management chain. Never claim someone else's work as your own.

If you have corrections, ideas you'd like to contribute for credit here, spotted a dead link, or would like to suggest a useful resource, please feel free to send them to the author.

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