20 Things Every Computer Science Graduate Should Know Before Starting a Job

You’ve completed your Computer Science degree and have got yourself a job. Well done! Welcome to the real world! Now, there are a few things you should know before starting your first day, which I’ve listed in this article.

1 – The Days Can Be Long

Finishing a Computer Science degree will often lead you into a software development-related role. There are usually standard hours for this kind of role, which is something like 9AM to 5PM. The actual hours may be slightly different, but in general, it’s an 8 hour day.

That’s a long time to be at work if you’re new to the industry. If you’re coming from college or university, you may have had a part-time job, where you worked a few hours at the local grocery store or in a cafe or something.

Coming into a role in software development is different. You’ll be in an office. You’ll be sitting down. And you’ll be there for about 8 hours each day.

This is something I didn’t really consider when I started working. Sure, 8 hours may not seem like much, but when you’re sitting down for most of it, you can get pretty tired pretty quickly.

Also, it requires a lot of concentration. University classes are broken up into blocks and often have breaks. The day doesn’t always go for 8 hours at university, either.

So, it might not be something you are used to. The days may seem long.

You’ll get used to them though.

My part-time job in uni was in a restaurant. I found it hard going from a job where I was walking around all the time to a job where I was sitting down all day. But I got used to it.

2 – Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions

Being a graduate and starting a job means you’re new to the job and new to the industry. People have lower expectations of graduates than other employees.

So, if you’re not sure what to do, ask someone. If you’re not sure what something means, or how something works, ask someone.

You shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions. Everyone in the workplace was new at one stage, so they know what it’s like. They may know the kind of questions you want to ask and the struggles you might have.

If you have a question, ask someone. Ask your manager, ask a co-worker, ask someone you see around in the kitchen. People will usually be happy to help, especially if they know you’re new.

I still ask questions at work when I don’t know what something is. It’s much better to ask a “stupid” question than to make a stupid mistake (even though I don’t think any question is stupid).

3 – Take Lots Of Notes

When you start your first job, you’ll be learning a lot. You’ll learn how the company works, how the systems work, who people are, and what each department does.

You should take notes on this. Lots of notes. Don’t rely on your memory, as you’ll be learning a lot of things when you start. There’s no slides or lecture material that’s available that people will send out.

Sure, there may be some documentation and information on the Intranet that describes how the company works, but in most places, the documentation is not kept up to date, or they may be “exceptions” to the document.

Whenever you go to a meeting or are learning something from someone, take notes. Write them down in a notebook, or write them on your computer.

I prefer taking notes on the computer as they’re easy to read (my handwriting is messy), searchable, and accessible anywhere. I use Evernote for this, and if you’re interested in learning how to use it as a software developer, you can get a copy of this Evernote guide.

4 – Dress For The Job

If you’ve had a job before, such as a part-time or casual job during your college years, you may have had to wear a uniform. If not, at the very least you might have had some dress standards you needed to stick to.

The same concept is true for full-time work in the IT industry. You’ll need to dress for the job that you’re doing. When I say this, I mean that each company has dress standards, which is criteria of what is appropriate to wear at the office, and what isn’t.

I suggest that when you start working, get an understanding of this dress code, and stick to it. If you are required to wear a suit and tie every day, then wear a suit and tie every day. If you need to wear a shirt and pants but no tie, then wear that every day. If it’s neat jeans and a collared shirt, then you can wear that.

If there is no dress code, just ask about it. Ask someone during the interview or after you have received an offer for the job (if they don’t tell you during this process anyway).

It’s better to know before you start work, than to show up on day one with something inappropriate.

5 – If You Have Nothing To Do, Ask For More

Your manager’s role at work is, among many things, to monitor your workload. They will give you tasks to do for the project or team that you’re in.

If you get to a point where you finish the work they have given you, then you have nothing to do. In this situation, ask for more work. Don’t sit there with nothing to do and browse the Internet aimlessly, or play with your phone.

Ask your manager for something else to do. They may not be aware that you’ve run out of work or that you’ve finished it.

They may also want to review what you’ve done. So, if you need to, you can show it to them, or send the work to them to review.

The point of asking for more is to show initiative, and show that you are there to get the job done and help the team, not to slack off until 5PM arrives.

6 – Programming In The Real World Is Not Like College

You would have done some programming in college as part of your degree. When you write code, they would have taught you to do some design at the start, and then build your program from there. You would perform tests, compile the code, find an issue, fix it, and repeat.

It would usually move pretty quickly, and the only constraints would be how much effort you wanted to put in. You were often working on it by yourself, so if you wanted to work late to fix something, you could. You could add in any features or designs that you wanted.

Now, in the “real world” of working as a programmer, it works quite differently.

You usually start with the requirements which are provided to you by the business analysts, who get those from the users. The BA’s document them in a way that makes sense for the team, such as in Agile stories or a BRD.

From there, you, as a developer, would analyse them and see if they make sense to you. If they do, you can build them. If not, then you’ll need to clarify them.

After your requirements have been confirmed, you would them start some kind of design. This is done all at the same time, or in stages, depending on the methodology that your team uses.

At some point during the design phase, you may need to estimate how long it would take to build it. In many projects I’ve been on, this is one of the hardest parts to do. The estimate needs to be realistic, but can be hard given that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Once the work has been estimated, it may need to be approved by the project sponsors, to basically say “yes, we are happy with this and wish to proceed”.

From there, you would start the actual development.

Because you’re in a team, you have less control over what you can do with it. You’ll need to stick to the requirements that are provided, but any changes or suggestions you have would need to be confirmed with other people.

If something takes more time than you thought, you may need to put in overtime, or the project team may make a decision to not add that functionality in.

So, basically, it’s not all up to you to do the development, as you’re part of a team, and there are other people paying for the project who specify the requirements.

7 – Keep a To-Do List

I started in the IT industry in an application development and support role. It started pretty smoothly, but as I got more experienced, I found I had more work to do and more things to look after. I tried keeping track of things I needed to do, with limited success.

Now, one of the most important things I do at work is maintain a to-do list. It’s also one of the first things I set up when I go to a new client site.

The realisation for this was when I read “How To Get Things Done” by David Allen. He teaches a principle called “Getting Things Done”, or GTD for short. Basically, it involves keeping a written list of everything you need to do, instead of keeping it in your head.

This book and the GTD concept has probably been the most important concept I’ve learnt throughout my career. It’s helped me be more productive in my work and in my life overall.

So, when you get started at a new job, keep a list of things you need to do.

You can do this by:

  • Pen and notebook
  • Evernote list
  • Specific to-do app on your phone
  • Some other method

It doesn’t matter how you keep a to-do list, the important thing is that you actually keep one. It will improve the way you work, and impress your new team with how organised you are.

8 – Don’t Take Too Long On Your Breaks

As part of working full time, you’ll probably get an allocated time to take a lunch break. The actual time depends on the company, but I’ve usually been able to take a lunch break of up to one hour, at any time between 12PM and 2PM.

If you’re new to the IT industry, it can be hard to stick to this time, especially if you came from college. College is a bit more relaxed, where you may have skipped a few classes, or had a three hour break for lunch between classes.

With the workplace, it’s a bit different. You’re part of a team that depends on you working and getting things done. It’s also not setting a good impression if you take a lunch break longer than the recommended time.

My lunch breaks are between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on if I need to make phone calls or run errands for the day.

9 – Be Careful What You Say and Talk About

Working full time in the IT industry is different to working part-time or studying at college in many respects.

One area where it’s different is what you can say and what you talk about.

You might have felt comfortable talking about anything with your friends in college, or co-workers at your part time job. You could have talked about how drunk you got on the weekend, the crazy things you did, or other aspects of your life.

When you start working full time, there are some topics that are not appropriate to talk about at work.

It’s not usually a good idea to talk about getting drunk or your massive parties on the weekend. It’s also not a good idea to talk about people of the opposite sex in an offensive or discriminatory way. You should also respect other people’s race, religion, and culture.

Some things that you might have said around your friends or other co-workers are just not appropriate in the workplace.

You might already know this, but it’s good to be safe.

10 – You Won’t Get Paid Overtime

A part time job in college usually meant that you have a set number of hours you work, and you get paid an hourly rate. Any extra time after that and you’d get overtime.

This is generally how it works, but it depends on the job you have.

In the IT industry, you don’t get paid overtime. You are expected to work the minimum hours, of course, but when the need arises, you’re also expected to put in extra time.

This is all covered under your salary, so you don’t get paid extra for the additional hours you do.

This might seem unfair. Why would you put in extra hours if you don’t get paid for it?

Well, there are a few reasons:

  • A project deadline is approaching
  • There’s an issue in a live system that needs fixing
  • You’ve found something takes longer than expected and you’re already behind

So, if you’re expecting to get paid for extra hours, then you probably won’t be. The only exception is if you’re in some kind of on-call support role, as they are often paid for overtime and weekends.

11 – You Need To Be Able to Budget

Another important lesson is that you’ll need to learn how to budget your money.

Going from college, where you might have had a part-time job, to full time work, usually results in a big increase in your pay.

You’ll be tempted to spend the money you get, buying new gadgets and going out for dinner.

However, you’ll find that you don;t have enough money for what you want to do. If you need to pay rent, this is something you must pay, and you don’t want to be short one month for rent!

It took me a few years to realise that budgeting is important.

Budgeting might sounds boring, but it’s just the process of working out how much you get paid and how much you need to spend in different areas of your life.

The best way to improve something is to actually track it.

So, to start, write down how much you get paid each period (weekly or monthly, for example)

Write down all of your expenses for that period.

The number you have left over is what you can spend.

Now, this isn’t a personal finance site, so while it’s a topic I’m really interested in, I won’t go into details here.

12 – The Environment May Not Always Be Suitable

When you were working on college assignments, you may have done them at home, or gone to the library. You had the option of moving around to find a place that’s suitable for you.

However, when you go to work full time, the environment you work in is fixed. It might not be suitable for the way you work.

The main thing to be aware of is distractions. Because there are so many people in an office, there can be a lot happening.

Some examples of things that can distract you are:

  • Other people getting phone calls
  • Your phone ringing
  • Other people talking to each other nearby
  • People walking around and making noise (closing doors, etc)
  • Some people playing music at their desk
  • Group activities in the office (foosball table, TV)

Working in an environment like this takes a lot to get used to.

Fortunately, over time I’ve been able to block out everything around me and focus on my work, most of the time. Sometimes, though, I don’t even notice when people are talking to me, which can seem a bit rude!

So, it’s just another thing to be aware of. Having distractions in the office can often mean that your work environment isn’t as suitable as you like.

Many offices these days also adopt the open-plan structure, which means they have no partitions between desks and people are sitting close to each other, instead of the high walled cubicles that you see on TV and in movies. This means that noise travels further and it’s easier to get distracted – not good if you’re a developer and need to focus on solving a problem in your code.

13 – Managers Love Having Meetings

You might think that managers are responsible for giving you work and managing projects you’re on.

This is true, but there’s also another thing they do with their day.

They have meetings.

So many meetings.

I’ve worked for quite a few clients in my time, and a common theme is that all of the managers are always in meetings for most of the day.

It’s like it’s a requirement of that position, and that it’s the only way to get things done.

I don’t think they actually love the meetings, it’s just an obligation or a way to discuss what needs to happen.

However, you’ll notice that your manager, and probably other managers, will be off in meetings for a long time. It might come as a surprise, but this is just a part of working life.

14 – You Can’t Always Install What You Want

Companies like to lock down their employee’s computers for security reasons. The restrictions depend on the company, so some companies are more relaxed than others, but overall, there is usually some kind of restriction on the computer you use at work.

As someone who works in the IT industry, you’re probably pretty familiar with how computers work. You know your way around the operating system and are comfortable with many different programs.

To get things done easier, you might want to install different programs on your computer. Evernote, 7Zip, Sublime, and Dropbox are some examples that I’ve seen.

However, the IT department might have prevented you from installing these. You won’t be allowed to install some programs on your laptop.

This is mainly for security reasons. They set up a company-wide policy that meets their security requirements, and it will either block you from installing this software, or automatically remove it every so often.

This might seem alarming to you, and even quite annoying. What do they know? You’re not going to do anything suspicious! It helps you get your work done?

There are two things you can do. You can suggest to your manager that these tools will help you do your work and see if you can get an exception to the policy.

Or, you can use the tools that are available on your computer.

Most of the time, I’ve just stuck with the tools available on my computer. They are not ideal (I’d rather use Notepad++ than Notepad), but it still lets me get the job done.

15 – Keep Your Personal Work To A Minimum

Working full time means that you’ll be occupied during normal business hours – from 9AM to 5PM. This is the time that most other businesses open as well.

As you start working full time and getting more responsibility in life, there are probably more things you need to get done during the day outside of your work.

Some of these are:

  • Booking your car in to the mechanic
  • Buying tickets to events
  • Calling your phone company
  • Shopping for clothes
  • Buying things for your house
  • Keeping track of your finances

Some of the tasks I’ve listed here can be done online while at home. Some other tasks can only be done during business hours. Your phone company may only accept calls between 9 and 5. This means you’ll need to take time out of your day to do this.

When you start working full time, I suggest that you keep this kind of work to a minimum. Don’t spend hours each day going to the shops, making calls, and browsing other sites to get your personal work done.

Sure, you’ll need to do a bit here and there. I recently moved house and there were a lot of calls to make and a lot of places to update my details online. However, I kept it to a certain time each day.

The reason for this is so you set a good impression. You don’t want people to think all you do is your personal to-do list.

The best time to do this is during your lunch break. However, a lot of other people have the same idea, so it’s often busy. If you can’t do it during lunch, choose another time, perhaps in the afternoon, or a time when you don’t have an immediate task to work on.

16 – Getting to Work May Take Longer And Have Delays

Aah, the joys of commuting to work.

If you had a part-time job while you were studying, it may have been pretty close to where you live. It could have been the local supermarket, restaurant, or some other kind of retail store.

When I was studying, I worked in a Mexican restaurant which was about a 10 minute drive from home. This was great for getting to and from work.

A lot of full-time jobs are based in a central business district (CBD). This, of course, depends on where you live, but it’s quite common. And, you may not live in the CBD. Which means it will take you longer than what you’re used to getting to work.

You can either drive to work (if you have a car), or get public transport. It depends on where you live, of course. In Melbourne, we have a few choices. I used to drive to work, then I started getting the train.

The time it takes to get to work will be longer than what you’re used to. Don’t be surprised if you find you have to leave home at 7:30 to get to work by 9.

Also, because it’s the time when everyone is going to work, it will be busy. The same drive at night time will be a lot faster than in the morning peak-hour traffic.

It can also mean delays. Car accidents can cause delays for a long time. Delays with public transport may be rare, or quite regular, depending on your city. In Melbourne, they happen almost every day!

So, just be aware that getting to work will take longer than you expect.

17 – You’re Not Stuck in One Role

The good news about working in IT is that you’re not stuck to a particular role. In many other industries, you’re often working in a role for a long time, and you get promotions to more senior roles. The roles may be quite similar, just with more responsibility.

However, in IT, you have a lot of flexibility to move around.

Are you a .NET Developer? Great.

Want to move into something focused more on SQL Server? Great, you can do this.

Want to be involved in testing? Sure.

Want to move into project management, or team leading, or business analysis? Sure, you can do that as well.

To move around roles you need some training and some experience. You can use experience in one role to move to the next, so after a couple of years in one role (for example) you can look to move towards a different role, if you want.

Training is the other big factor. You’ll need to know how to do the job that you want, so it’s a good idea to look into some training and learn how the new role works. This will make it easier for you and the company.

Many vendors and companies offer all kinds of training, so do a Google search for some related training courses.

18 – This Won’t Be Your Last Employer

The company you start working for in your first job in IT won’t be the last employer. It’s rare for people these days to stay in a job for their entire lives, like our parents or grandparents might have.

Don’t be afraid that you’re taking the wrong job, or that you’ll be stuck at a company. Sure, it’s important to start working at a good job and one that will improve your skills and career, but don’t feel like you need to pick one and commit to it for life.

It’s common for people to move around employers, and it’s a great way to improve your salary.

If you start working somewhere and get some good experience after a few years, you are allowed to leave. Firstly, you should look at your current employer to see if there is room for growth, but if not, you can consider moving employers.

19 – Going Out for Drinks the Night Before a Work Day is Not a Good Idea

Young people like to drink. We like to go out with friends for dinner, which leads to drinks. Or we just like to go out and start drinking.

Most of the time, this happens on a Friday or Saturday night.

Sometimes, it happens during the week. Especially when you’re at uni or college. When I was at uni, a lot of bars had “Uni Nights” which were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where uni students went out and drank.

Going out for drinks is fun. What’s not fun, is going to work the next day after going out drinking.

You might be tempted to have a few drinks on a week night, which leads into a few more drinks, and all of a sudden you’re getting home at midnight and are quite drunk.

You’ve got to get up for work the next day and put in a full day’s performance.

This is one of the hardest things to do in life – working while hungover.

I did it once, and won’t be doing it again.

It’s just not worth it.

So, it probably requires a change in lifestyle if you’re the kind of person who likes to go out and drink during the week.

20 – The Quality of Your Work is Important

One of the most important things to know is that the quality of the work that you do is important.

In uni and college, the quality was important as well. You write an assignment, or develop some code for your assignment. Once it’s submitted, it’s marked, you get a result, and that’s it. The assignment is never used again.

A better quality assignment meant a better grade. However, it didn’t last long. The only purpose of the assignment quality was to get a good grade.

In the IT industry, the quality of your work lasts a long time.

You code is deployed to a live, production system, and stays there for years.

Your documentation is used by the team for the entire project, and may even be used by the support team.

Your spreadsheets for your analysis may be used by other people for a while to help them do their job.

So, it’s important to produce good quality work. It helps your team, it helps your team manager, and also helps others who are affected by it.

One of the most important books I’ve read recently is “Clean Code“. It explains the importance of writing good quality, clean code. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.

The quality of your work is important as it can also help you get promoted and move into other roles. It’s a reflection of you and how you work, so make sure it’s good!

Summary

So, in summary, here are the 20 things that every computer science graduate should know before starting a job:
  1. The days can be long
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
  3. Take lots of notes
  4. Dress for the job
  5. If you have nothing to do, ask for more
  6. Programming in the real world is not like college
  7. Keep a to-do list
  8. Don’t take too long on your breaks
  9. Be careful what you say and talk about
  10. You won’t get paid overtime
  11. You need to be able to budget
  12. The environment may not always be suitable
  13. Managers love having meetings
  14. You can’t always install what you want
  15. Keep your personal work to a minimum
  16. Getting to work may take longer and have delays
  17. You’re not stuck in one role
  18. This won’t be your last employer
  19. Going out for drinks the night before a work day is not a good idea
  20. The quality of your work is important

I hope you found these tips useful. Share this article with your friends and colleagues to spread the word!