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Voices of Gatsby: How I Survived the First Week of My First Tech Job

Linda Ikechukwu
February 19th, 2021

Gatsby believes in cultivating inclusion and elevating the many members of our diverse community. Our new Voices of Gatsby series, publishing every other Friday, showcases and celebrates our users for who they are as they share stories from the tech life. True tales from the front lines, personal accounts of each of us came to be where we are today. Got a story to share? Visit the Voices of Gatsby info page to learn more and connect with us! Accepted submissions pay a $500 author’s fee, because we recognize the value of writing whether it’s words or code 💜.

My name is Linda Ikechukwu, a frontend developer from Nigeria. To tell you about arriving at the very first week of my first tech job, I’ll have to start from the beginning. 

The story of how I got into the software engineering sphere, web development specifically, might be a common one. You may have heard something like it before — just another young Nigerian, from a below-middle class home and a non-traditional CS background, teaching herself to code in hope of a better life. Regardless, I’ll still tell it, because I believe it has the potential to inspire and guide someone, somewhere.

Coming from curiosity

I became interested in web development purely out of curiosity. During my second undergraduate year I put together a gossip blog using WordPress, because I read somewhere that one could make money from blogging. Did I make any money? Well, no. But something else had sparked up in me. I got really curious and started to research how systems like WordPress were built. Working with it seemed rather like magic to me, and I was hell-bent on finding out what the secret spell was.

Turns out it was something called web development. After more experimenting and more research, I discovered some coding communities around and joined them. I also started to learn HTML/CSS on my own, with whatever time I could squeeze out from school activities, using the occasional 2 hours of electricity I was lucky to get on some evenings (Shocking yeah, but Nigeria still has an electricity problem). My broke self had to use all my savings plus payments I got from some minor jobs and a loan from my mom to purchase my first laptop. It was nothing to write home about, but it was my joy. 

Early 2020, I rounded up my undergraduate studies and moved to a new city in search of greener pastures. Few months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit and cities were put on mandatory lockdown. Consequently, I had more time on my hands. I was also lucky enough to have landed in a place with almost constant electricity. Thanks to these two factors this was my tech journey truly started. I spent close to 4 hours every day learning and building projects with JavaScript, React, and Gatsby. I also started applying for some jobs I saw online during this period, but unfortunately was constantly receiving rejection mails.

Finally, my first tech job!

Finally, in September 2020, one of my mentors, a real role model to me, posted a job opening on her WhatsApp status. It was for a React JS frontend developer position. I reached out to her and she encouraged me to apply. I researched about the company and discovered that my role was going to be focused on building a dashboard application. Luckily for me, I had recently built a dashboard PWA for a previous freelance gig. I quickly added that to my resume and sent it across to the recruiter.

A few weeks later, I got an invitation for an interview. It wasn’t an interview in the way I imagined it would go. The company’s frontend lead and I simply chatted about the React dashboard application I mentioned in my resume. He asked me about my thought processes, why I picked one library over another, why I arranged my components files the way I did, plus a couple more questions and that was it. Shortly after that I was made an offer and I joined the company as a React developer.

Surviving

Yippee! I finally had my first tech job. But the battle was far from over.

My new job would be working on a set of PWAs used by thousands of distributors and retailers of the Tolaram Group, the largest wholesale food company in Africa. But prior to my first day on my new job, I had only been exposed to very small scale frontend projects. Projects where I was usually the only frontend dev, started the project from the very beginning, and therefore knew where everything was. Now I was walking into a huge and completely unfamiliar codebase.

In my first week I was terrified, even though I was given a full week to get familiar with the codebase before any tasks were to be assigned to me. At the end of the week, I didn’t feel any better, though. I was certain I was going to be fired after one week due to incompetence and inability to do anything correctly. Somehow, though, I managed to get through the next week, and the one after that. Well, It’s been 4 months, and I’ve yet to be fired. I even got a pay raise, so there must be something I’m doing right. But no matter how advanced I become as a developer I will never forget that first week’s powerful fear and bewilderment. 

Looking back, I can see there were things that helped me get through the early days. Here are the tips that helped me survive — and how you can too if you’ve just landed your first tech job!

1. Breathe

This is important: If you don’t, you will literally suffocate. But it can be easy to forget when you are in a brand new situation feeling completely overwhelmed and frightened, to just keep taking deep breaths. In my first week, I tried to read the entire frontend codebase. Quite ambitious, yet very foolish. Doing this only got me more overwhelmed and frightened. 

It’s easy to forget the reality that, in your first weeks, it’s almost certain that no huge tasks will be assigned to you. This means you do have breathing room, time to gain some much needed understanding and context. Instead of trying to read the entire codebase like I did, start out with trying to grasp a holistic view of the entire platform you’ll be working on — what it is all about, and how the different parts of the codebase relate to each other. When you’re assigned a task, try to figure out other functions and files that are related to the task and what they’re all about. For me, even after 4 months, I still haven’t covered the entire frontend codebase. But from a bird eye’s view, I now know how everything relates to each other. And I can find my way around.

You’ll get there too — just go one step at a time. 

2. Ask questions (even the stupid ones)

Trust me, no one at your new company expects you to know everything, especially not your manager (who was once probably in those very same first week shoes)!

In my first few weeks I was so, so scared to ask questions because I was afraid this could make me seem incompetent. It cost me a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, of course, and spent so many days on tasks that could have taken less than one day, max, if only I had asked a couple of questions. 

Here is the important thing I finally realized: Your team lead is there to answer all your questions — that’s actually part of their job spec — so ask away! Bask in your ignorance! Ask questions about the codebase that you do not understand, ask about processes, inquire about decisions that led to writing a piece of code in a particular way. Do not make assumptions. Anything you do not understand is a perfect opportunity to ask questions. You’ll find that a lot of your teammates are happy to help, as it also helps them reinforce their own knowledge.

3. Keep Notes 

No one likes to repeat themselves, not even history. At the same time, it is completely human to not always remember the answers to questions we’ve previously asked because, well, we are not computers. If you keep on asking the same questions over and over again, your teammates and team lead will start to see you as an unserious person (as if the imposter syndrome you’re having isn’t already enough).

Keep a journal. One thing that helped me catch on fast and not make the same mistakes over again, was writing down questions I asked alongside the answers to them. Now, every time I come across a difficulty, I first check my notes to see if I already have answers to them.

4. Socialize

As you try to get better at your job technically, also try to get to know your teammates and people from other departments. Why? This will give you the opportunity to get a better idea of how the entire company and business works. A well-informed developer makes a better employee. Also, since these people have been there before you, they’ll let you in on the secret do’s and don’ts of your company. They will feel comfortable sharing their experiences, ideas and expertise with you whenever you get stuck, since you are the new kid on the block. You’ll also be growing your network. You’ll never know when you’ll need someone to put in a good word for you. People will readily work with someone who they like and find adequately capable over someone who is an expert but very hostile. 

These four tips all bring us to the same conclusion Go easy on yourself.  Be willing to learn. You’ll make a lot of mistakes, but that’s OK — you’ll definitely become a better engineer in the process!  

Whether you are just learning front end web development or are a seasoned professional, please join us at GatsbyConf ! Two days of speakers, workshops, and some really cool launches and announcements…plus Gamer vs. Gatsby. Watch live as World Record holder Kosmic tries to beat his Super Mario Bros speed run world record of 4:55 while Gatsby engineer Kyle Gill races to spin up a live ecommerce site! Thrills! Chills! Free and virtual, March 2-3, see you there!

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Frontend Developer, Technical Writer and wannabe professional Karaoke Singer, based in Lagos, Nigeria.

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