After changing the company I work for, I became member of a new project team a couple of weeks ago. In this article I want to describe what tools I used and what habits I use to make myself a productive coworker as soon as possible.
1. Learning by Repeating
My main learning infrastructure are learning cards. These are index cards with a question on one side and the answer on the other. I amy constantly working on at least two stacks of these cards: one for technological and one for business questions concerning the system. The technological stack has questions concerning programming languages, frameworks and toolkits. The business stack is about the specifics of the project. It contains the most important business cases, rules and regulations and also questions like who the project leader is or where the DBA sits. Every morning I review all or a part of the cards by reading and answering the question and checking if I was right. These cards have given me the best learning results since my time as a student. That is because most people learn best by repeating stuff as often as possible.
2. Staying Calm
Several times a day, I am leaning back in my chair or go outside to think about what I just learned and how it fits in the understanding I have about the project and the business cases. In the past, I sometimes got overwhelmed with tasks and concepts at the beginning of a project and didn’t took the time to reflect all the new stuff. That lead to false conclusions and sometimes to a false understanding of some concepts. These misunderstandings are hard to overcome and especially in the first weeks within a new team you don’t want to screw up by coding some weird business case that does not exist.
3. Keeping your Mind Set
A bad mindset leads to negative results. I had to work on ugly tasks I didn’t like before (who didn’t?) and manipulated myself by cursing and having negative thoughts about my work. I did not perform well because the negative thinking was blocking me. Before my first working day in the new project I told myself: “I am an observer. I learn without judging. I will understand some concepts as I go on, there is no need to rush it.” That leads to much more constructive thinking and to a calmer and more relaxed working experience. I also noticed that I am more forgiving towards unfriendly situations or people and more resistant to stress. Most of the everyday problems aren’t problems at all. It’s all in the mindset.
4. No Multi-Tasking
In a new project it can be very easy to jump from one task to another and from one point of interest to the next. That often leads to dangerous half-knowledge and the feeling to not understand it at all. It is naturally to have much input like “Have a look at this class”, “read this document here” or (my favorite) “look at the wiki”. A simple trick recommended by many productive experts is making a list. There is a reserved place on my desk for two stacks of paper: One with empty, large (A4) sheets of paper and one with a list of tasks still to do. That allows me to observe all open tasks and create new ones quick. The empty sheets are also great if you have to rush to a coworker to discuss something and want to take notes. Just grab one of the empty sheets, fill it with new tasks or thoughts and file it on the other stack to process it later.
5. Having a Target
This one is similar to the thoughts before, but still a bit different: I have one goal to achive in what I am doing. It is easy to have multiple goals (“If I implement A, I shure could refactor B … oh look, there’s a bug I could fix in C … “) as it is to have no goal at all (“I implement A. Oh interesting, look at that cool construct in B. It points to C where … wait, what was I still doing?”). Just as multi-tasking, this will lead to confusion and demotivation. So I stay focused and try to achieve one thing at a time.
6. Being a Team Member
Last but maybe most important: If I’m a team member, I am a team member. That means I ask questions as well as answering them if I can, I talk with my coworkers, have lunch with them and sometimes buy them coffee so that they can answer more of my newbie questions. I hope they don’t read that … ;)