A reader writes:
I’m a former academic mathematician who left academia, because…well…suffice it to say that I didn’t go to college for nine years to become a glorified babysitter. After a job offer from a Very Large Government Agency fell through, I found myself severely underemployed. While slowly crawling out of the deep, dark depression in which I found myself, I started slowly picking up some extra skills so that I could start a new career (and no, I found myself unable to go back to academia, as the thought of entering the classroom again literally sent me into panic attacks). That all of this happened was bad enough; that all of this happened as the economy started circling the bowl made things even worse.
Finally, after two years, I have a job as a Data Analyst for an advertising company, with slightly over two weeks from the recruiter saying “Hi, I passed your resume to the hiring manager, and he’d like to talk to you…” to the job offer, with two phone interviews, an online programming exam, a personality profile, and a problem that the hiring manager gave me to see how I thought on my feet in between (there might have been a partridge in a pear tree in there somewhere, too :P ). The interview advice on your blog was invaluable, especially for the phone interviews. I think I impressed the hiring manager with my questions, especially “What differentiates a good employee in this position from a great employee?”
The work environment is great, and the people are awesome–not to mention the pay and benefits! However, I find myself in a completely new industry doing work I’ve never done before, and despite the fact that I’ve only been here less than two weeks, I’m taking longer in getting up to speed than I would like. I recognize that I’m putting a significant amount of this pressure on myself–as the old saying goes, I am my own harshest critic. I have received many assurances from my manager that he’s confident in my ability to catch up, and he proactively suggested weekly meetings to keep track of my progress. However, I want to make certain that I stay on task and don’t fall behind, especially as this is a contract to hire position.
So, my question is this: What, generally speaking, is a reasonable amount of time for a new hire that is talented but inexperienced to get up to speed?
I think this varies widely from job to job, and also depends on factors like how well the company trains you, exposes you to resources, etc. However, based just on watching people over the years, I’d say that there’s often a moment of clarity that occurs about four to eight weeks in — when suddenly all the pieces start to fit together in a way that makes more intuitive sense, and all of a sudden you don’t feel quite as much like you’re treading water. I’m not talking about mastering the job — that takes way longer. I’m talking just about getting that sense that you’re no longer in a foreign and mysterious land.
Again, this really varies depending on the job. But you’ve only been there two weeks? There’s a good chance that you’re putting unrealistic pressure on yourself, as you seem to recognize.
Now, another good question is whether there are things you can do to help yourself acclimate faster. To answer that, I’d want to know whether there are specific things that you know you’re struggling to learn, or is it more a general feeling of being overwhelmed? If there are specific things, can you ask a colleague to walk you through them again? It’s very, very hard to retain all the information that’s thrown at you in your first few days on a job — so if most of your training happened early on, you might find that you can retain it better now. Also, if possible to do diplomatically, you might even seek someone different than whoever taught you the first time; different people teach things in different ways, and you might get someone who presents it in a way that resonates more for you.
If it’s more a general feeling of being overwhelmed, the weekly meetings with your manager are going to help. Make sure you prepare for these ahead of time so you’re getting as much as possible out of them. For the next few weeks, it might be useful to send him a list ahead of the meeting — here’s what I accomplished this week, here’s what I’m planning to do next week, here’s what I have on my longer-term to-do list — to ensure it lines up with his thinking and to catch any areas where you’re out of alignment.
Also, ask your manager what he’d like you to have achieved by the end of your second month and by the end of your first six months. If you have a very concrete sense of where you need to be headed, it’s easier to figure out what you need to do to get there.
While we’re on the subject of getting new hires acclimated, one thing that I like to do is to give each new hire an outline of all the things they’ll need to learn about to really know the job. This includes everything from the basics of how to do the job, to who key internal and external figures are, to what they do and don’t have authority for, and on and on. To be clear, this is just an outline of topics, not fully fleshed out information on each (they’ll get that in face-to-face conversations with the various people participating in their training). I’ve found it can be really helpful for them to have a written list like that to consult a couple of weeks in — because it can make you think, “Oh, I vaguely remember a mention of Topic X on my second day, when it made no sense to me and I didn’t retain it. So let me seek out information on it again now, when it’ll make more sense.” Or you might realize that no one talked to you about Topic X at all, and then you can proactively ask your boss about it. It can also just help to get your arms around the breadth of the job if you see each aspect outlined like that.
You may not have that exactly, but do you have any other written materials you can review — department manuals, etc.? I’ve found people often don’t take advantage of those things after the initial read, even though reading them again a few weeks into the job can be a lot more useful than the first read was.
I suspect you’re going to do just fine. You sound like you’re having normal first-few-weeks-on-the-job jitters. You also sound like you’ve landed in a really great situation. So congratulations, and good luck!