Career Evaluation: Top Tips for Making Your First Job Work for You

As you look for your first job, a prospective employer is obviously evaluating you. But I would encourage you to also evaluate the evaluators. Every touchpoint is an opportunity for you to get to know the folks you might be learning from soon.

Who will I work with?

The single biggest success factor (aside from your own engagement and effort) in your first job will be the caliber of people you surround yourself with. Are they engaged? Smart? Driven to succeed? If the answer to those questions isn’t a resounding “yes,” you might want to reconsider the position you’ve applied for.

I’d also recommend asking about project team makeup and size. You want to aim for a small- to medium-sized team. It’s ideal if the team is small enough that your contribution will be necessary for team success (that puts the pressure on you to grow) and big enough that you’ll have mentors to pair with and learn from. You’ll also want to understand what the project team would look like. Is the team divided up into silos like back end, front end, and design? Or is everyone on the team encouraged to work collaboratively on software as a whole? Where is the team located? Are they in one specific place, or are they distributed? The ideal is to be co-located for maximum efficiency and learning.

What software development lifecycle practices are in use?

Coming into your first job, you probably won’t be in a place to revolutionize staid technical practices. The odds are that you’ll be in a learning position. So, be discriminating about what you learn. Are the technical practices at the forefront of the industry? Or have they lagged behind and become more heavyweight than they need to be? Effecting change in organizations is hard, largely thankless work. Be smart and avoid this type of work early on in your career.

What industries will I serve?

Some job opportunities will be extremely specialized along industry lines. Specializing makes it easier for those companies to hire professionals with focused experience in a specific vertical or tech stack. However, as you think about your first position, you want to get broad rather than narrow experience. Metaphorically speaking, you want to put a lot of eggs in a lot of baskets instead of putting all your eggs in one basket. A good software firm does the same thing. To maintain a robust, resilient business, they should spread themselves across many industries and many clients. If one industry or client experiences a downturn, it’s a small inconvenience for the consultancy instead of a major crisis.

How much exposure will I get to the day-to-day running of the business?

Does the company expose its members to the financial model of the company? Would you be aware of how and why leadership makes financial decisions? Would you have a vision and a voice at that level? Does the company practice open books management? You’re not asking these questions as a criticism or examination of the viability of a prospective company. Instead, you’re asking because exposure to all of these is the best way to gain business acumen. And business acumen is a key differentiator between those who are going to lead and be led. Starting your career at a place that will help you understand how to run a real, sustainable, profitable business is a fantastic first step.

What sort of projects will I work on?

This question isn’t necessarily about whether you’d be interested in the projects you’d be working on. Instead, it’s to gauge whether the projects you’d be working on should be worked on at all.

In the 21st century, ethics is not someone else’s job. It’s ours.

Example: Facebook (Now Meta)

If you went to work at Facebook (now Meta), think about the ramifications of what you’d be building. I could ask similar things of going to work at a “cool” place like Google or even Apple.

“Who are businesses really responsible to? Their shareholders? Their customers? Their employees? None of the above, I have finally come to believe. Fundamentally, businesses are responsible to their resource base. Without a healthy planet, there are no shareholders, no customers, and no employees. As the conservationist David Brower liked to say, ‘There are no profits to be made on a dead planet.’” – Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia Founder and Owner

Facebook is accountable to its users. Right now, they are experiencing a reckoning because they have wronged their resource base.

Example: Frank Lloyd Wright

I took a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House in Grand Rapids as part of a design conference. During the tour, the docent guiding my group remarked that Wright was incredibly opinionated about how to live a modern life. Wright worried that the American public of his time was losing intelligence and connection at an alarming rate, and he carved his opinions into every facet of his architectural creations. He believed a sitting room was for contemplation, reading, and conversation. So he made no affordance for any other type of activity in the main sitting room of the house. No paintings were to hang in the main area of the house. Additionally, there was to be no radio or tables for playing games because they would distract from the central intended activities.

As I commented on this “opinionated design” Wright practiced, a friend agreed and posited, “This is the sort of design we should engage in. We should think about the world we want to see and design for it.”

At your first job, will you work on projects you believe you should bring into the world? Will you be making a better world as a result of employing your efforts?

Make your first job work for you.

Although it may not feel like it right now, the future is yours. You have a hand in determining what you will do with your career. The beginning of your career will largely determine the rest of your career. So, don’t postpone what you really want to do for what you feel you should do. Go after a job that will serve your life goals, not the other way around. Start assessing your current opportunities based on where you want to end up. Use these questions, but also make up your own. If you come up with some good ones, please get in touch!