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Career Advice

Moving from school to work

How should a freshly minted graduate behave when they are hired for their first professional job out of university?

BY UA/AU | OCT 05 2009

The answer will vary, of course, depending on the industry and the type of job. Carolyn Watters, a professor of computer science and dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie University, asked this question of Dan Russell, the manager of research for Google. Dr. Russell is speaking mainly about graduates of computer science and information technology programs, but his advice easily applies to other fields.

Here’s the advice he gives new Google employees

Number One: Figure out what’s important. For example, Dr. Russell says that Google software coding styles may seem “retrograde” to fresh-out-of-university graduates, but he cautions that you shouldn’t “fight code formatting styles. It’s not important.”

Dr. Russell tells fresh grads to carefully assess their surroundings. “When you transition, you have to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Don’t latch onto the first project.”


Number Two: A mentor is crucial; Google provides one. “You need someone who can point you to important, useful things. You need to learn stuff by asking the right questions, and the right person can give you a bigger picture.” It’s normal to “feel small” when you come on board. “A mentor’s job is to make you see how [your job] fits in the larger scheme.”

Number three: While still in school, students need to pay attention to more than just the curriculum. There are non-academic skills you need to start learning during your studies.

“The most important is teamwork skills. Everyone says, ‘We work in teams at school.’ I want to emphasize that it is important. It’s important for you as a graduate student to be meta-aware – knowing when to take on part of a project, when to stop working on it, when to tell the team that you’re failing. … It’s useful to reflect on teamwork, to have a post-mortem to talk about what worked, in a blameless way, and why.”

Number four: Companies valueinnovative solutions. At Google, the code you write has to be short and efficient. “As a mentor, I tell my mentees to try to look at your solution with the most acerbic eye you can have. Is it too obvious?”

Some skills you learn in university, such as how to do research, will serve you well if you can apply them. “At Google, part of the realm is really data. A sketch on a back of a napkin won’t get you far unless you can collect data and show the analysis.”

Number five: Develop “gumption.” That’s “the mindset or personality that says, ‘When I drill down and problems come my way I’m going to roll right over them.’ If I have a problem as a software engineer, your job is to figure out how to solve it. If you can’t, you better say why not in an interesting way.”

But“gumption is not being bull-headed. Knowing when to quit is an important aspect of working on a team and a fundamental aspect of managing your own team. People who succeed at Google have a lot of willingness to drill through a problem to get to a solution.”

Number six: Develop an elevator sales pitch about your work. “The shortest pitches are the hardest,” says Dr. Russell. At Google, they want you to be able to say what the problem is, say what the solution is, show the data, and wrap it up with a great conclusion. “In essence, presentation skill is really important. You need to figure out how presentation skills fit into the culture [of the company] and how to get the fundamentals across.”

To sum up: Dr. Russell says the three main things you need at Google are: novel solutions, gumption and teamwork skills.

“It’s an attitudinal thing – a lot of students come out of school knowing their discipline is the primary one. It’s something you have to get over. Everything fits in the corporate world for some reason. Don’t assume yours is the best.”

For more of Carolyn Watters’ interview with Dan Russell, please listen to Episode 2 of the Dean’s Podcast (“An interview with Dan Russell”).

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