Dan Coady

as i’m writing this i’m a few days out from my time off until the new year, something I’ve not properly had since probably first year uni, and to say i’m pretty keen would be an understatement. i’ve learned a lot this year as i’ve tried to navigate industry, making my way as an engineer in a field i never thought i would even work in and thus was never really prepared for. it’s been a really hard year with lots of very, very tough lessons that frankly, i wish i knew before things got as bad as they got.

so i wanted to reflect, both so i could put down this milestone for myself to read in the future, but also as a cautionary tale for those who are finding themselves in the same position as me a year ago.

first, a little background on me

this is important i swear.

throughout uni if you asked anyone who knew me what i was like, you’d be told that i was the kind of person who was always working on something. i never settled for good enough, i was always striving to learn and do more, which in an academic setting is pretty great. it’s a sure fire way to get high marks, and i totally did.

i invested myself in learning all sorts of new things, doing whatever i could to get my hands on new tech to see how it ticked so i could wrangle it for myself. and hey, i still do! i think tech is crazy cool and far too often taken for granted when there’s so much cool and interesting stuff that underpins the operation of it all. it’s why i’m grateful for the job i have now, being able to work at such a low level twiddling bits to make hardware do cool stuff with code that i’ve written.

and so begins the lessons i’ve learned

being the way i was is pretty good for an academic setting, but once you move out into the “real world” it becomes a bit harder. and so, in no particular order, here are some lessons i’ve learned one year out of uni working in industry:

computers are cool, but you need to have balance

don’t get me wrong, i still love computers and want to do so much with them. i’ve actually got a lot of half baked blog posts lined up that i can see as i write this which detail smaller projects i’ve been doing throughout the year that i wanted to get the process of documented down.

the problem i ran into part way through the year though is burnout. yes, burnout, at the age of 23 all of a year out of uni.

i burnt out because i was doing too much work adjacent stuff, outside of work. i was doing avr programming, i was designing keyboard pcbs, i was reading technical reference manuals for old computers, i was doing a lot. it was to the point where any free time i got where i had access to a laptop, i was working on things. and i was taking my laptop everywhere, even to family gatherings i would have my laptop with me in a corner while i read up on what ground planes are and why you should have them on your pcb.

it got to the point where if i looked at my computer outside of work hours, i got overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety. i had to pack away my pc, stop playing games almost entirely, disconnect from the world outside of work hours, all this just to feel a sense of peace when i wasn’t working. it’s taken around 6 months of this to feel okay with doing computer-y stuff outside of work again, and it was an awful time. i’ll spare all the details, but suffice to say that this is not an experience i would recommend to anyone, especially for anyone fresh out of uni because if there’s one unfortunate truth in all this, it’s that nobody will take you seriously if you claim to be burnt out while so new to industry. at least, in my experience this seems to be the case (i hope this changes in the future!). chances are though you’ll be on your own trying to figure out how to wrangle burnout while also working.

which leads into my next point:

invest yourself in things outside of computers!

again, computers are really cool, but the world is a vast and wonderful place full of incredible things and incredible people who are ready to teach you about said incredible things. in this past year i’ve taken up going on long walks, doing coffee science, baking, and knitting among other things. not only does this help you keep balance like i mentioned before, but you also get to learn about new ways of thinking about the world and problems which have genuinely helped me at work, even when it comes to hobbies or activities that you think are entirely unrelated.

so put yourself out there, have a go at something completely different and see how cool the world really is!

lean on your team, and let them lean on you

your team members are there for you, just as you should be there for them. everyone needs help and it’s okay to reach out when things are hard and you don’t know what to do–especially if you’re a junior!

seriously, this is something i struggle with really bad because of some intense imposter syndrome. all too often i feel like i need to prove my worth by working like a lone wolf, solving the problem at hand on my own to show that i am a capable engineer.

i spoke to my team lead about this the other day, and he said something to me to the tune of “nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something. you don’t see all the messaging i do to other people behind the scenes, but i frequently ask others for help and you should too”. nobody is an island entire of itself, and you’d do well to remember that you are a part of a team. teams work together to solve big problems, so lean on them as you need to and let them lean on you.

talk with seniors about how to approach problems

another thing my team lead told me is “the only difference between a junior and a senior is time”, and honestly that seems to have been true from observing the seniors on my team and how they work. they often aren’t outright writing better code, and they make mistakes too. what they are able to do though is iterate faster, recognise problems quicker, apply complicated architectures in their head before you’ve even been able to think about the problem at hand.

this doesn’t come from somehow being insanely smart though, it comes from years and years of tackling similar problems and noticing the patterns. “i’ve had to solve x problem before that has some similar elements to problem y that i’m working on now. so i can adapt elements from x to y to create a solution quicker”.

it’s a learned skill, one that you can’t really pick up overnight. what you can do though is use existing knowledge to accelerate the learning of this skill by asking for input from seniors where appropriate. even something as simple as writing as out a skeleton for an interface you’re planning and then taking it to them to talk through is super helpful.

try to organise your time purposefully

at the start of the day, come up with a vague to do list of what you want to get done and prioritise it. you probably won’t get all of it done, especially as people come to disturb you and emergencies pop up that you need to attend to, but it’s helpful to give yourself some structure so you at least know where to go throughout the day. it also helps to manage time between meetings which can sometimes be a struggle if you work somewhere that loves to pile them up. getting good at this early means that you’ll at the very least, be generally less stressed as the work begins to stack up (which oh boy when it does, you’ll be glad you can manage your time).

also included in this is break times! breaks are incredibly important since you’re only human, so make sure to give yourself some time where appropriate to just switch off for a little bit to let your brain decompress. i suggest taking a walk, it’s good for you :)

have a physical notebook and pen for working through problems

i was really aggressively against this for the better part of this year, like really aggressively against it. i would go as far as to try and just write out my problems in vim instead of write anything which helped sometimes, but honestly an actual physical notebook is just so much better in every way and i hate myself for not realising this earlier.

i suggest using a notebook in two key ways:

  1. writing down things you need to do, or things you notice that need doing
  2. planning out solutions

point 1 is straightforward enough, but i would like to stress the point of writing down things you notice need doing. it’s good to have a running list of smaller things you notice that need doing so that while you’re between tasks you have stuff to do.

point 2 though is the big one for me. for every solution i design now, i start by drawing out diagrams and writing out requirements to ensure i really understand what’s going on before digging in. i’ll note down how devices should connect/interact, i’ll draw out the layers of abstraction and list out what they need/expect from other layers, i’ll do quick maths and physically run through low level bitwise operations i need to do on paper before implementing them. physically doing this forces me to really think through properly what it is i’m doing, and then break solutions down into smaller parts to be tackled in sequence. i’ve found that because of this i not only work faster, but i also just generally create better solutions.

pay attention to how you work best, and do everything you can to ensure you’re able to do that

i had a period of time where i needed to figure out how to make myself work better while chasing down an adhd assessment to resolve concentration issues i’d always had, but were becoming serious problems. during this time i experimented with all sorts of ways to ensure i was working to the best of my ability, and eventually i found that sometimes when i’m really stuck on something i either need to switch contexts to something different or just take a walk to give myself some space from the problem. i also found that if i was spacing out constantly that it was a lost cause to try and make myself focus on that task right now, and to try again later.

in practice, i think the best way to go about this is to regularly reflect on how you’ve been working to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. try new strategies, be kind to yourself, and constantly iterate.

be kind to yourself

wow am i bad at this. like, really bad. i’m the kind of person who peaked in uni, and then once i entered industry i was no longer able to coast along like i once was able to. it left me feeling really bad about my ability as an engineer, especially since i was (and still am) surrounded by senior engineers with at least 5-20 years experience on top of me. i compare myself to them frequently, and get frustrated when i don’t meet the same standards as them.

doing this isn’t super helpful though, not only because i’m a junior and they’re senior, but also because we all struggle in our own ways that others won’t see. give it time, do the best you can at your job, you’ll get there eventually. i think back even to when i first started this job and i constantly fumbled through, trying to make sense of data sheets and schematics but failing and needing others to help me. now i’m able to skim through data sheets for the info i need, i can generally read schematics well enough to know what i need to know, and so much more i can’t even think of right now. you’ll get there eventually, you just need to learn first and keep practising your craft.

some final thoughts

it’s been a really crazy year for me personally as well as professionally. it’s good to get this all down in writing, because i sometimes worry about my progress as a person but now i can see that i have actually gotten somewhere this year. i hope that this proves as useful to someone else out there who’s trying to find their feet in industry and doesn’t know how to navigate this unknown and ever shifting territory. there’s some very important final things i want to stress as i close out this post though. if you take only a few things away from this post, then let it be these:

and so with that, i think i’ll leave it there. a huge thank you to my team at blackmagic design for supporting me throughout this year, and especially thank you to my team lead for always being in my corner when things were rough. without this support i don’t think i would have been able to grow as i have this year, and i hope that this growth only continues and translates into me becoming the great engineer i wish to be. thanks to my friends for supporting me through the darkest times of this year, helping me keep on going when everything looked bleak and the world felt like it was going to cave in on me. thanks to my mum for always being the level headed voice of reason i need when i don’t know what to do with myself, even when she struggled harder than me.

and thank you for reading. i hope you have a lovely holiday season.

a small aside

if this post resonated with you or you felt it helpful and you would like to get in touch to talk about it then please hit me up via my contact form! i’m just some idiot on the internet doing goofy things for the hell of it, so please don’t view me as anything more than that. still, i’m an idiot with some lived experience and if you think that would be helpful then i would be more than happy to talk through anything you may have questions about regarding entering industry out of uni. all the best my friends :)