8 min. read

January 11, 2021

14 Tips for Making a Great First Impression at Your New Developer Job

I'm beginning a job at a new company soon, and I'm wondering how I can create the best impression on my manager and team while onboarding?

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Neil Green, Author of neilonsoftware.com

Settle in for a 3-month process of building your reputation

Think of your first three months as if you were working on getting in the best physical shape you can. Generally, you'll be doing things in the short term that are unpleasant, but once you get the body you're after, you can ease back on anything unsustainable. A good reputation takes time to build, but provided you are consistent, three months is usually all you need.

1. Get clarity on the expectations for your job.

Managers tend to be horrifically bad at setting expectations for the people that work for them. A typical conversation goes like this:

  • You: "What do you expect of me?"

  • Manager: "What do you expect of yourself?"

  • You: "To do the best job I can, but I would like to know the expectations you have of me."

  • Manager: "I expect you to do the best job you can!"

  • You: "OK, but what precisely does that entail?"

  • Manager: "Be a team player and help us succeed."

  • You: "How will I know if I'm doing a good job?"

  • Manager: "You will be a team player that helps us succeed."

In other words, you will hardly ever get a straight answer to the simple question of what you'll need to do to be successful at your new job.

To pin down a wishy-washy manager, ask this question:

"What are the top-3 things I should always be doing to be successful?"

Assuming your manager does not jump screaming out of a window at the thought of having to communicate assertively, you should get a concrete answer. After that, send them an email repeating what those top-3 things are, and make sure you get a "Yes, that's correct!" response. Your mission is now simple: always do those three things.

2. Find Subject Matter Experts and learn from them.

When you are onboarding to a company, you don't know what you don't know. Sprinkle on a heavy dose of the Dunning-Krueger effect, and your ignorance will lead you to think you know everything. To combat this natural tendency, seek out experts in the organization, and ask them what they think you should know. Identifying experts can be difficult, as a job title often doesn't indicate expertise, but find the people who know what they're talking about regardless. Otherwise, you run the risk of being told to learn the wrong things from people who don't know what they're doing.

3. Don't criticize anything at all, no matter what it is.

Every company has problems, and absolutely no one wants a new employee reminding them of what they are. Generally, the issues you see other people also see, and these problems have persisted for whatever reason. You can get yourself into real trouble by offering even the most innocent and well-intentioned critiques, so generally, it's best to keep quiet on what you think should be improved.

4. Listen and ask good questions instead of offering your opinion - even when asked.

While no one wants to hear you criticize anything, they will often ask your opinion just as a way to get to know you. Even if hired explicitly for your expertise, avoid sharing your perspective for the first three months. Instead, ask questions in response to questions:

  • Them: "So, do you think this deadline is reasonable?"

  • You: "Is the deadline set in stone?"

  • Them: "Yeah, they said it's a drop-dead date."

  • You: "Are they open to changing scope?"

  • Them: "I don't know; we never asked."

In this way, you are showing your level of expertise using the Socratic Method, which generally avoids you earning the disastrous reputation of being "opinionated." Instead, people will get the impression you are thoughtful, curious, diplomatic, and solution-oriented - even if you don't offer a solution. 

5. Always be calm and professional, never frustrated or emotional.

Never share that you are frustrated about anything with anyone - even in confidence. Venting to even one person about your frustrations will give the impression that you don't deal well with stress. Cultivate and project an aura of calm no matter how mad you might be. Regardless of how improper your colleagues are acting or how unfair a situation may be, always be the consummate professional. 

6. React positively when others are being negative.

Interviewers tend to present the best version of themselves to a candidate they want to hire, so you often cannot know if you are joining a toxic culture. If you find yourself in a hostile environment, never participate in the negativity and instead compensate with positivity. No matter what is said, no matter who says it, no matter the situation, always find the bright side and share it with your colleagues. Over time, not only will you build a reputation of being a person others want to be around, but you may end up changing the culture for the better.  

7. Collaborate appropriately - not too much or too little.

Every organization differs on how much collaboration is appropriate or even what precisely constitutes collaboration. Generally, proceed with caution and do your best to figure out the social norms. If you ask for help too much, people may think you're incompetent. If you don't ask for help enough, they may think you're arrogant. The right balance can be challenging to figure out, especially in the first three months when you will need to ask for help but still want to convey your competence. 

8. Deliver on your commitments no matter what.

In your first three months, be prepared to make sacrifices because you must never miss a single commitment you make. To earn the reputation of being responsible and dependable, you must never be late for anything. If you know you tend to be late on delivering tasks, plan to work overtime. If you have a problem being on time for meetings, always get their 10 minutes early. If you say you are going to do anything at all, always follow through. 

9. Be enthusiastic about any task assigned to you, no matter what it is.

New developers joining a company don't tend to get the most pleasant work to do. You may get assigned work that is menial, boring, tedious, or inconsequential. You may feel like you are being condescended to, or that people don't recognize your true worth, or even that you're subject to unfair treatment. Put all of those feelings aside, and instead show great enthusiasm for whatever the task is. Realistically, you're not going to be assigned the most impactful and glamorous tasks when you first join a company, so patience is a virtue.

10. Get your tasks done quickly, accurately, and to a high degree of quality.

Assume everyone will be judging you on how you complete your assigned tasks - because they will be. Therefore, to build a good reputation, your goal should be speed, accuracy, and quality:

  • Speed: You complete your work earlier than expected.

  • Accuracy: You capture every detail, no matter how small.

  • Quality: You verify that your work is entirely free of defects.

Though people tend to judge you on these criteria, you will rarely hear direct feedback on any of these, but assume people are watching.

11. Understate your contributions.

No matter if you cured cancer, figured out interstellar travel, or made money for the company out of thin air, for the first three months, always downplay your contributions. If you are not a humble person, this is your time to pretend. "It was a team effort," and "I'm glad people like it" is the maximum amount of bragging you should be doing. Most people are very insecure, and if you intimidate them with your accomplishments, they will often become detractors. 

12. Allow others to take credit for your accomplishments.

For the first three months, bite your lip and go for a walk to cool off when you see someone taking credit for your hard work. Smile, nod, and clap; and remember that this situation is only temporary. Channel that frustration into doing an even better job than before, and patiently wait for this time will pass. Most importantly, remember that everyone gets very upset when people take credit for their work, and when they see it happening to you, they will recognize what is happening. The fact that you do not let it bother you is a massive sign of your maturity, which people will respect. After three months, however, this is one of the first things that will have to change.

13. Limit socialization, and when you do, be on your guard.

People will want to get to know you, so your colleagues will usually invite you to lunch or social gatherings. While some people are naturally friendly and good-natured, sadly, others can be devious and spiteful. Unfortunately, when you first join a company, you don't know anyone or their intentions. Good people will ask you about your past to find common interests; bad people want to gather the information they might be able to use against you. Be polite and friendly, but always be on your guard. Above all, never place yourself in a compromising position, such as is guaranteed to happen if you go out drinking with your new colleagues. 

14. Accept the inevitably of developing haters.

Workplaces, no matter how professional they may seem on the surface, tend to be tribalistic. As you integrate into your new tribe, the same distribution of social relationships will emerge as they have for tens of thousands of years:

  • A few people will love you.

  • Some people will like you.

  • Most people will not feel strongly about you one way or another.

  • Some people will dislike you.

  • A few people will hate you.

Welcome to humanity and our primitive chimpanzee-like brains. Yes, you will have haters, but remember that it's not personal, just a natural side effect of social groups. Ignore your haters, never fight with them, or even acknowledge how they may feel about you. A workplace is not high-school, and only in high-school should you be gossiping about who likes you and who does not. 

After three months, begin easing back on unsustainable practices.

Congratulations! You make it through what might have been a gruelling three months. If you followed all of the advice above, you should have an excellent reputation and have impressed everyone with your attitude and work ethic. However, much like working on a beach-ready body, once achieved, it's time to ease back on the habits you know you can't maintain long term. That is not to say you should abandon everything on your 90th day. Instead, slowly cut back on anything that impedes work-life balance. The more of these habits that survive the first three months, however, the more career options you will tend to have - the glaring exceptions being downplaying your contributions and allowing others to take credit for your work. 


Neil writes a lot more about the softer side of software development over at neilonsoftware.com. Check it out!