5 things I learned as an intern and graduate engineer

Aug 1, 2021 7 min read
5 things I learned as an intern and graduate engineer
Graduates Class of 2019

It’s the 3rd July 2017. After many applications, rejections, interviews, it’s finally my first day as an engineering intern. Fast forward 2 years later, I level up to the graduate scheme as a graduate engineer. Add on another 2 years, and we are here, in the now. Software Engineer.

When I first started as a wee intern, I would’ve never imagined this is where I would be. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

We grow outside our comfort zone

Discomfort is an inevitable part of getting better; we usually have to suck at something first before we can get good at it. Think about driving – when we are learners, we are consciously aware of our beginner-ness, and it’s only after many hours in the driving seat and exposure to different situations that it becomes automatic and second nature. As human beings, we are wired to seek comfort and things that are ‘safe’ and in our control – that’s why doing new and unfamiliar things is uncomfortable.

Source: Global View Leadership

During my placements, I had opportunities to have increased responsibility. I’m going to be honest with you, I was scared. I was afraid I was going to fail and sometimes had an overwhelming feeling of “oh no”. Well and truly, in the fear zone and lacking self-confidence. I had a choice of continuing that narrative or reframing it.

Cue the learning zone. I realised that in order to get better at something, I’m going to have to get stuck in and embrace the process. There is no fast-pass to being good at something, we all have to go through it. Everyone around us was a beginner once, and we can learn from them a whole lot too. Before you know it, you’ll look back and realise how far you’ve come.

I also learned that things usually are never as bad as we think they are in our minds, and that failure is the stepping stone to success – it’s not something to be afraid of. And remember, someone wouldn’t task you with something if they didn’t think you weren’t capable of doing it!

“Moving along the upward spiral requires us to learn, commit and do on increasingly higher planes.” - Stephen Covey

Source: Slide to Doc

Prioritise your wellbeing

I had received a diagnosis of anxiety with depression literally a couple of weeks prior to starting my internship. Navigating my own feelings and starting a new job was silently challenging, but I am incredibly grateful that my managers were very supportive.

Over this time of recovery and healing, I have realised how important our wellbeing is and how it affects us showing up at work. In a 2020 survey, of British adults in employment, “79% commonly experience work-related stress”. That’s a lot!

Source: Mindfulness & Clinical Psychology Solutions

Some stress can be good for us and aid our performance, but we need to be aware of when it starts to become negative for us. Burn-out is real!

Here are a few ways I try to manage my stress:

  • Break things down into smaller chunks and tackle the smallest actionable step to try and avoid overwhelm
  • Use a time management method like the Eisenhower Matrix: this is very helpful when you have a lot on your plate, to focus on what’s most important and de-prioritise/eliminate the things that are less important
  • Set boundaries wherever possible: especially when working from home, our work/life boundaries can get blurred, and before we know it we aren’t taking proper lunch breaks, moving from our desk enough, or switching off the laptop when our hours are done. Boundaries and learning to say “no” was often a challenge for me, but I’m working on it and I am much better now at protecting my time.
  • Write in a journal: I reflect on my day every evening and let my thoughts, worries, and wins out on paper. This helps to ‘de-clutter’ my brain before I go to sleep.
  • Seeing a therapist: highly useful to get a different perspective and releasing thoughts/emotions in a safe space.

P.s. this is your reminder to relax your shoulders and unclench your jaw!

It's okay to feel lost

During my graduate scheme, I went through a period of just not knowing what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. My expectations were that by this time, I’d know what specific career/role I want to pursue.

I scheduled calls with lots of different people to learn about their journeys, and was soon reassured that this is normal, and that many others have shared the same feeling. One of my favourite things I heard someone say is “everyone is confused” 😂.

Some advice from myself and others I talked to:

  • Know yourself and know your motivators (there are psych quizzes you can take to get a feel for what it is you’re motivated by)
  • Get as much experience as you can whilst your early career position allows it
  • Develop skills that (1) you enjoy, (2) make you more valuable, and (3) are transferable
  • You do not have to know everything
  • You will not enjoy everything you work on, but they can still add value to your learning – in these situations, think “How can I make this work for me?” and “What can I learn from this?”
  • Things can change a lot in just a year, and new opportunities can inspire or change your career path. Make the most of them!

Enrich yourself in community

Outside of my direct work team, getting involved in different communities and events lead me to network with some brilliant people. I mean getting through a Tough Mudder and being electrocuted together was a whole new experience, and a real showcase of teamwork 😅.

Contributing your time to volunteer is also very rewarding – check to see if your company has paid volunteering days you can utilise to spend some time making a difference. In addition to this, if you have an idea and see something missing, don’t be afraid to be the first to do something!

Online community has also been a huge motivation for me over the last year. Connecting and sharing experiences with people in engineering/tech, especially other asian & mixed-asian women, really helped to feel a sense of belonging. Representation matters!!

The first no should not come from you

“The most powerful words in the universe are the ones you say to yourself.” - Marie Forleo

“Am I good enough?” How often has this self-directed question stopped you from going for something?

For some reason I had a deep-rooted belief that I wasn’t or couldn’t be a ‘technical’ person, and that I wasn’t smart enough or capable enough, despite having a technical degree. This limiting belief was diverting me away from something I was highly curious about.

During my graduate scheme I had started coding on the side, learning Web Development during #100DaysOfCode. I don’t recall why I started the challenge at that time (perhaps I wanted to spice things up during lockdown), but I am so glad I did. I realised that I loved making things happen on a screen and felt positively challenged with the problem-solving that came with it.

I realised I wanted to explore more of the software side of things at work, and eventually told our engineering manager my thoughts. I was nervous with a fear of being told no, looking silly, and being told that I should pursue something else instead. To my delight, they were so supportive and welcoming to it. And that was the same for every person I spoke to, for which I am beyond grateful for. If I had given into my negative brain-talk, I likely wouldn’t be here starting as a Software Engineer, and soon to be starting an MSc Computer Science. The first no should not come from you!

There are people there, your colleagues, your managers, the people at the coffee machine, that want to see you succeed. I want to see you succeed!

Advocate for yourself and your abilities. Take up space. You belong!

“There can be no significant change in the world unless we first have the courage to change ourselves. In order to change ourselves, we must first believe we can.” - Marie Forleo

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