In today's increasingly digital world, a significant number of junior developers are vying for coveted roles in the tech industry. The competition is steep, with computer science graduates, bootcamp alumni, and self-taught developers all striving for the same opportunities. As a result, you may find yourself sending out hundreds of applications, only to receive a handful of responses in return.
When you do finally land a job offer, it often comes with a probation period, typically ranging from one to six months. This is the employer's chance to see your skills in action, to ascertain if you are indeed a good fit for their team. But it's also your time to prove your worth. If you don't meet the mark, the harsh reality is that it's relatively easy for them to let you go.
That said, securing that first job and successfully navigating through the probation period can have a substantial impact on your career trajectory. Once you've gained a year or two of experience, landing subsequent jobs becomes exponentially easier. So, this initial phase can be seen as a crucial stepping stone to a prosperous career in tech.
However, an important question arises here: how do you ensure your survival through this probation period? The truth is, it depends.
The experience you'll have during your probation period is heavily influenced by several factors, including the team you join, its size, resources, and its onboarding, management, and mentoring practices. To illustrate this, let's consider three different scenarios through the experiences of three junior developers: Sam, Maria, and David.
Sam's journey starts in a team where there is a well-structured onboarding process, including mentoring. He begins by shadowing and pair-programming with more experienced developers. This direct experience with senior colleagues allows him to learn quickly, absorb best practices, and become familiar with the team's workflow.
After a couple of weeks, Sam starts to work on small tasks that are suitable for his level. This transition is smooth and structured, ensuring he feels comfortable and prepared. This scenario is most common in larger teams that can allocate resources to develop a structured onboarding process, including mentors, onboarding buddies, and suitable tasks for junior developers.
Maria, on the other hand, joins a team where there is no structured onboarding process. The team lacks the resources and time to prepare suitable tasks or spend much time on pair programming and mentoring. She finds herself working on tasks independently just days into the job, a stark contrast to Sam's experience.
Yet, even without a structured process, Maria's team is eager to help. The experienced developers are supportive and approachable, providing her with guidance and assistance when she needs it, even though they can't dedicate significant time to pair programming due to their own deadlines.
David's experience is quite different. He finds himself in a team that either lacks the resources to support him or simply doesn't prioritize it. He experiences a "sink or swim" approach. He is expected to learn on the fly and become productive without much assistance, a very stressful situation for any junior developer.
If David manages to adapt and deliver, he'll survive. If not, he may not make it past the probation period. This is a challenging scenario, but it's also one that can spur rapid growth—if he can handle the pressure.
While you may not have much influence over the scenario you find yourself in, you can take proactive steps to set yourself up for success. Here's how:
Regardless of the scenario, you're likely to be overwhelmed by the wealth of new things to learn: the potentially enormous and unfamiliar codebase, new technologies, complex project setups, workflows, team dynamics, and processes. The first few days can be especially challenging with an influx of information from numerous meetings. The goal of preparation is to expose you to as many elements as possible upfront, thus reducing cognitive load during your initial days and weeks.
As a new hire, especially as a junior developer, you'll require resources from more experienced team members. The most important expectation, therefore, is for you to become productive and independent. The timeline for this varies significantly, as seen in the different scenarios presented earlier.
Understanding the expectations of your team leads and managers is crucial. It gives you direction and guidelines. During onboarding meetings, ask a simple question: "What would make me a successful hire at the end of the probation period (after 1 month/6 months)?" This will establish a timeline of expectations and encourage the other person to reflect on their expectations.
But don't limit your queries to your managers; your peers can also provide valuable insights. In the first few days, it's beneficial to be proactive and set up short meetings with each team member to get to know them. This not only helps establish a relationship but also gives you the chance to ask about their expectations. These conversations can provide a broader perspective and help you understand what it takes to be successful on the team from multiple viewpoints.
After all, your teammates have been in your shoes before and may have practical advice on how to navigate this new terrain. Plus they might be part of your evaluation at the end of your probational period.
Striking the right balance between asking for help and becoming independent can be tricky. There's no set rule, like "asking 10 questions a day is too much." It depends on the team's expectations, the task you're working on, and the project's complexity.
There are two extremes of junior developers:
In summary, asking too few questions can prolong your learning curve and delay your productivity. Asking too many can consume excessive resources and hinder your growth toward independence. Striking the right balance is key.
Most junior developers approach their first job with a healthy dose of humility, recognizing the magnitude of what they don't yet know. However, there are some who, despite their inexperience, carry an air of arrogance, thinking they know it all. It's essential to note that this attitude can be counterproductive.
As a new developer, you might have high expectations for what "production-level code" should look like, only to discover that a lot of it seems to be held together with proverbial duct tape. This can be shocking, but there are many valid reasons for it:
So, instead of adopting a judgmental attitude and wanting to rewrite everything, remember that a long-running project has a history. Things are the way they are not because previous developers were incompetent (though this can be a fun topic for gossip), but because software development is a complex and evolving process.
Humility is key. Recognize that there's always more to learn and that understanding the "why" behind existing code can be as valuable as writing new code. This approach will make you a better developer and a more appreciated team member.
Navigating the probation period of your first tech job can seem daunting, but with thoughtful preparation, clear communication, and the right attitude, you can successfully secure your place in the industry.
Let's recap the main points we've covered:
Starting a new job in the tech industry can be overwhelming, but remember, everyone has been in your shoes at some point. The probation period is a chance for you to learn, grow, and demonstrate your potential. It's an opportunity to set the foundation for your career, and with the right attitude and approach, you can turn it into a launching pad for your success.