A collection of meaningful things I’ve heard, overheard or been told over my years in the workforce.
I started my first job when I was 16. I hadn’t even received my actual driver’s license yet and was still carrying that awkwardly large piece of paper. But there I was dressed up and ready to go. I was a host at a California Pizza Kitchen. So what kind of sage advice could a 16 year old kid learn while working at a restaurant?
“Save your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”
This may seem oversimplified but for some reason it’s stuck with me. Sometimes you’re faced with something that’s too large to grasp in one sitting, and in those times, it’s important to only focus on what’s in front of you. It doesn’t do any good to be overwhelmed by a large project, you have to break it into small enough chunks that you can make sense of things.
My next job was for another restaurant chain but I wasn’t the host, I’d hit the big time and worked for the corporate office. I think my official title was “The Office Bitch”. I spent most of my time putting together Ikea furniture, painting offices or helping move things around. So why stay there? Free Food. When you’re 19 free food is priceless. Eventually I had worked my way to installing artwork at new locations. I had an expense account and was traveling like crazy. It was awesome. Until the day I forgot something. I don’t even remember what I had forgotten that day, but I remember what my boss said as he handed me a yellow legal pad, a clipboard and a pen.
“I don’t ever want to tell you anything twice. Ever.”
I’d say this was my first real failure at a job. This wasn’t a private matter either, he said it loud and in front of more than a few people. There’s nothing easy about failing, but everyone has or will at some point and the best thing to do is to “get back on the horse”. So I did what anyone would do, started taking notes. I’m still terrible at it but I never want to relive that moment so I do my best.
I made the jump from the restaurant to the tech industry a year or two later and landed a technical support job at a private high school. I have a ton of sympathy for tech support workers. It’s a thankless job to say the least. People only come to see you when something has gone terribly wrong and it’s ruining their day. The real bummer was that I was supporting students. You see every student at this high school was required to rent a computer from the school or purchase one, but either way they would come to me for help with everything from wireless connection problems to, “uh, I only dropped it once or twice” as she handed me the laptop in two pieces.
“I didn’t download any porn, I must have a virus.”
You see students that rented a laptop from the (did I mention Catholic?) school were required to follow certain rules. Not filling your hard drive with so much porn that you don’t have room for school documents was most definitely one of them. If there’s a more awkward conversation than telling (or showing after being requested to “prove it”) a parent about this, I’m unaware of it. What’s the lesson here? Well, other than the obvious, I think it’s important to follow rules that are really only there for your benefit. Sometimes you have to look beyond yourself and realize how your actions can and often do affect other people. Believe me, I wish I didn’t have some of those conversations in my memory.
Thankfully I made another leap from tech support to software engineer. I started working at a pretty small startup in Irvine as a Ruby on Rails developer. It took me a few years to realize just how green I was when I started that job. I had only been programming for less than 1 year with no formal schooling or background knowledge in computer sciences.
“Nothing speaks louder than code.”
It’s a simple quote, but still one I think about all the time. You may recognize the line, “It’s what you do that defines you.” and to me they mean the same thing. We are (at work anyway) defined by what we produce. Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful to be a software engineer. We get to create things that didn’t exist before like a piece of art or sculpture, but so much more complex and interactive. But at the end of the day, there’s no talking your way out of empty files. Which also flows directly into the next quote:
“If you want to be promoted, just start doing the work. We’ll change your title eventually.”
It’s taken me a long time to realize that you can’t do only exactly enough to “finish” and expect anyone to notice how brilliant you are. Even if what you’re working on is difficult and you really are a genius. Taking that extra few minutes before a meeting to talk to your boss about an idea you have to make something work better or writing some code on the weekend that solves an issue. Even if they don’t immediately fall in love with whatever you suggest, you’re showing them you noticed the problem and fixed it without being told to.
So I’ve had a lot of different kinds of jobs and met all kinds of different people, but one thing sticks out:
“Be the best version of you possible.”
In a society where people are trying anything to get rich without working too hard or loose weight without eating healthy, it’s important to hold yourself to some type of standard that seems just out of your reach. Work hard, be respectful and don’t forget to enjoy what you do.