Stepping into a new career, whether you’re a recent graduate or shifting your professional focus, can feel overwhelming. Effectively navigating your new environment while expanding your knowledge and network presents a challenge that, if approached with care, can foster professional growth in many rewarding ways. In the early stages of your career, the choices you make and the resources you leverage can significantly shape the way in which you impact your community and contribute as a developer!

This series will outline tips and strategies that will make this daunting endeavor a bit more digestible and help you leverage the resources you’re given to identify your strengths and build a robust network to propel your career. 


  1. Understanding what the expectations are for yourself as an early-in-career engineer
  2. Learning how to navigate a relationship with your manager(s)
  3. Finding and learning from mentorship 
  4. Owning your career growth 

In this post, we will be focusing on setting up expectations for yourself as an early-in-career engineer and navigating your learning journey.  This guide offers insights into the nuances of being an early-in-career engineer, emphasizing proactive learning and collaboration as keys to success.

Understanding what the expectations are for yourself as an early-in-career engineer

You don’t already know because you’re still learning! Ask! 

When starting a new position, embrace the unknown. Remember, in the early stages of your career, you’re still acquiring the experience needed to excel and may not have all the answers. Growing your skills and expertise involves actively seeking and understanding your new domain. It is critical that you dedicate time in the beginning of your career to being a proactive learner and focusing on a growth mindset in order to best set yourself up for success in the future. 

It is important to recognize that no one is born with innate knowledge about their domains, so release the pressure of needing to present yourself as the smartest person in the room because, oftentimes, if you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room! 

Tips for asking effective questions 

  • You can reach out to someone who is more knowledgeable about whatever system/feature/problem/domain you want to know more about. You do not need to have any specific questions in mind when you do this (although if you do - then that’s great!). If you are coming from a blank slate then ask this person to step through whatever system/feature/problem/domain with you from the ground up or tell them what you do know (it’s okay if you do not know much about it!) and ask them to walk through it with you based on that. 
  • Be honest with your team on how clear something is or is not to you. You will be a fresh pair of eyes on your team’s domain and codebase so things that are confusing to you will be confusing to others who are new as well! 
  • If your team is having any sort of meeting on a topic that you don’t know much about then ask for some context setting before diving into details!
  • If you are not comfortable interrupting a meeting to ask your questions then write it down and ask it later 

Perfect pairs - pairing with your peers

The best way to familiarize yourself with the domain and codebase is to get hands-on! Pairing with another engineer and participating in how other people tackle tasks and problems from start to finish can give you insight on how you best operate. This will help demystify taking on new challenges and build a framework for effective workflows. It also allows you to test the waters and parallelize learning your domain and fine-tuning technical skills without yet having a full grasp on your field. 

Remember that you are not limited to pairing with engineers solely on your team! Pairing with engineers across different teams exposes you to a variety of skills and helps you understand cross-functional requirements, making you a valuable asset. Besides gaining technical expertise through pairing, building relationships with your peers fosters an environment where you feel comfortable seeking help and contributes to a more pleasant work environment overall.

Making the most of your pairings

  • Set up pairing time with other engineers on your team as needed (Some teams have weekly pairings with everyone on their team and others do ad hoc. Ask your team members what they prefer!). Ask your manager to help facilitate this if you need to.
  • Pairing time with your team can be vital as it gives you an opportunity to work with folks on your team at a more individual level and allows you to pick their brains and get their thoughts on team projects. If they are working on a ticket and you want to see how they approach it, ask them if you can watch what they are doing and ask questions! You can also use this time to pick up a challenging ticket and drive it forward while this person helps guide you if you run into challenges
  • In addition to helping you ramp up technically - pairing time with a variety of engineers can help you grow relationships with your teammates as well as help you start picking up collaboration and mentorship skills. Pairing is a useful skill to hone and is a tool that many senior engineers at Gusto frequently leverage

Jumping into your team 

Once you’ve gained stable footing, you may begin integrating into your team. Understanding your team's dynamics and fostering relationships with your colleagues will enhance communication and collaboration. Take this opportunity to identify important and frequently used tooling in order to most efficiently tackle future tasks. Acquaint yourself with your team's domain and grasp the business implications of your work within the organization. Doing so will allow you to see the impact of your day-to-day work and how it affects customers, knowing this will encourage you to take pride in your work and in delivering your best efforts to customers.Another way to engage with your team is to coordinate with your manager. Initiate weekly 1:1s to discuss technical foundations, align on expectations, and outline career goals. This can be crucial as your manager can help accelerate your growth and guide you to the correct resources in order to sustain your learning throughout your career and direct the trajectory.

💡Don’t be afraid to participate in code reviews! Even if you don’t understand what is going on or give a full review on a code review - this is a good place to ask questions to other engineers on your team to help build context and understand decisions that they have made.

Documenting and building your toolbox 

While onboarding, you may find it useful to take notes of what you’re learning! You might stumble upon valuable resources and tips that prove more beneficial than others, and documenting them will aid in the onboarding of future engineers. Not only will this be a helpful resource for posterity, but having notes to refer to and review will help bolster your expertise in the long run, as this information is easily accessible and readily available if you find yourself in need of a refresher. Organizing your thoughts while onboarding will also help you understand and map out intricate domains and processes in the organization. Doing so will help you stay sharp and be a resource to others when the opportunity to provide help to other engineers arises.

While note-taking can be valuable for your learning journey, prioritize documentation according to your needs. Only document what you consider important and only if it helps you absorb what you’re learning! Creating documentation for others may be beneficial but may also be considered "glue work” in terms of performance evaluations and leveling up. (i.e. make sure you are meeting your mark in terms of coding)

You better cool it off before you burn it out

Not knowing when to ask for help or how to build a support network is a recipe for inevitable burnout. Making mistakes early-in-career is unavoidable, they’re part of the learning process! Reflecting on incidents, whether they’re successes or failures, is crucial for personal and team growth and helps us avoid making those same mistakes in the future. It’s important to remember that this occurs at every level and to everyone, so don’t be too hard on yourself when this happens.  

One strategy to help you know when to ask for help is timeboxing. Timeboxing is setting aside time (30 minutes is generally a good rule of thumb) to try finding a solution to your problem on your own before asking for help from your more experienced teammates! This allows you to familiarize yourself with the codebase, as well as, develop your own process/workflow for tackling challenges in the future. If you’re unable to arrive at a solution in that timeframe, the best way to accelerate your learning and your work is to ask other people who may know. Although prior to reaching out, to maximize your individual learnings, make sure you’ve exhausted all avenues, such as technical and company documentation, debugging, and googling.

Another strategy to avoid burnout is to reflect on your work styles. Asking yourself what went well, what didn’t, and what you can do differently next time can help you readjust and fine tune your work style in a way that best suits your needs.  Being able to adapt, adjust, and overcome your struggles in the workplace is key in maintaining healthy work habits. Acknowledging your strengths, where you can lean in, and your weaknesses can help you learn what adjustments you can make to make yourself the healthiest and most effective engineer.

Last but not least, it is okay to take time off! If you begin to feel the effects of burnout or mental fatigue, this is an indicator to reflect on your habits and discuss a more sustainable way to move forward with your manager or mentor. Generally, you should feel empowered to take PTO on a steady basis to prevent burnout. Take care of yourself and listen to your body’s cues for rest!

Wrapping Up! 

Once you’ve found a workflow that works for you and can best foster your growth and learning, you may begin to navigate other parts of your career. In the next part of this series, we will tackle how to leverage a relationship with your manager.