One nice aspect of consulting is we get a lot of practice starting new jobs, projects, or contracts. Through personal experience and mentors, I’ve formed a personal list of things I try to do when beginning a new engagement with customers. This advice is geared toward consultants who work on short to medium termed contracts, but it is appropriate to anyone starting a new job.
I consider the initial stage of an engagement to start at the interview and end a couple weeks after starting the job. This stage is all about forming solid first impressions, building relationships with people, and gathering information about a project.
The first week is the most important time in any job. First impressions last a very long time, if not forever. Any negative first impression you may leave with someone is probably going to stay with others. How others perceive you and your work is their reality. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the first impressions you leave are positive. If you leave a negative impression with others, it will reduce your ability to be effective later in the project.
This is also the time in the project where you get your directions. It is essential that you understand what it is that you should be doing. The focus of your efforts should be toward portraying a professional image of yourself and understanding what it is that you should be doing.
1. Prepare yourself
Before interviewing for an opportunity, I will talk about the project with the account executive representing me. I ask about the customer, what they are looking for in terms of technologies and responsibilities, the state of the project, if there is anything I should avoid talking about, and who else I can talk to about the project. If I can get in touch with people I know who is (or was) on site at that customer, I will try to talk to them too. I will ask them the same questions and try to get into more detail. My goal is to get context around the opportunity, the people and the project.
2. Make a good first impression—be early, be professional, and form relationships
The first day on the job is the most important day. You’re the new guy and people will be forming opinions about you. Your responsibility is to make those opinions as positive as possible. The best things you can do include looking and acting professionally, showing up on time – that means early – and introduce yourself to everyone you have not met. Be very careful of what you say and do. Assume that someone will hear, see, and remember everything.
3. Be alert and gather information
Pay attention to what’s going on. On my first few days at a customer I furiously take notes about everything I see. It’s too early in the engagement for me to know what information is important and what isn’t. The information that is available on the first week of a job isn’t usually prepared for you. Consume as much as you can and ask questions when it’s appropriate—not necessarily when you have the question. Consider whether asking a question may be disruptive to meetings. If you can’t ask a question, write it down and ask an appropriate person later.
Look at source code, design documents, automated tests, wikis, requirements and anything else you can get your hands on. Get up to speed on what’s going on.
4. Make a difference
A goal I have is to fix or build something during my first week on a project. It doesn’t have to be huge, but find a way to contribute and make a difference. Maybe someone’s struggling with a technology that you are familiar with. Find a bug. If all else fails, write some unit tests and check them in.
5. Report your progress
If a tree falls in the woods…make sure that someone knows about it. Status reports are one of those things that can seem painful and unnecessary, but sometimes they are the only visibility a manager has of your work. A simple list of things you did, things you plan to do, and other notes is all it takes to let your manager know what you’ve been up to. Make it short and to the point, and report at a regular interval.
After the initial phase of the engagement, your efforts will likely be focused on delivery. If you’ve formed relationships, gathered information, and prepared yourself, you will be in a great position to deliver and succeed.