These days there probably isn’t a field that wouldn’t list “communications” as a critical skill needed for successful candidates, but I’ve found that this is even more important in the field of computer science. Why? Programmers don’t like people – even themselves.
Talking about yourself is hard. Too much and people think you’re a motormouth, too little and people wonder “why is he so quiet?”. Mentioning your accomplishments can get you marked as a braggart and never talking about them can make you seem like a loser. Where is the happy medium? Learning to talk about yourself in a self-effacing manner is not only important for interpersonal communication, but it is critical to your success in your career.
One of the best pieces of advice came to me during one of my first jobs out of college. My boss would regularly walk around the office, talk about how things were going, maybe ask you about your weekend. He almost always started with the same question: “What have you been working on at home?”.
I remember being surprised and confused by this question. Why would my boss want to know what I worked on at home? Was he implying that I should’ve been researching work issues at home on the weekends? I hadn’t really been working on anything on the side. I was pretty overwhelmed at work with all of the new things I was learning. I almost felt like I would be wasting my time on things that had nothing to do with my work. After a few months I finally got up the nerve to ask what he meant by this question. What was the expectation?
The advice he gave me is this – ALWAYS have something to tell me.
I started picking up side projects so I would have something to talk to him about. Little freelance projects that did or did not pay, fun applications and websites that I wanted to write. I learned so much, so fast. I picked up Python and learned to write little applications and connect to websites, I wrote a web-app for a new business in England that landed me a gig I still work on (5 years later), I picked up C++ and started working on games, I cracked my head on my first Android application. Whatever interested me or sounded fun, I spent some time on. Many of my personal projects never got finished or were abandoned, but what I had learned stuck with me.
During my time there, I almost always had a side-project going and I always had something to tell my boss about when he came around. Sometimes he would nod thoughtfully and smile, other times he would give me some pointers or direct me to something I should read. In a way, my work I was doing outside of the job helped me connect with my boss better than my actual work performance. He would stop by and ask me how the project we discussed last week was going and he became a mentor I could talk to when I was really stuck. When I decided to move on, he wrote me one of the best recommendations I could ever ask for and I will never forget that encouragement.
I still do side-projects and freelance work today. Most of my projects are from repeats, referrals, and word-of-mouth and I don’t really have to go looking for them anymore. Learning to talk about myself has also allowed me grow my communication skills and learn to speak with people that I would once be intimidated by as well as communicate about technical details and programming in a way that you can never really master in school. Whatever you’re doing right now, find the time to start working on side projects. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. Employers want initiative and passion – show them you have what they need and you’ll surprise your boss, clients, and yourself.