When you start on a new assignment and land in a new environment, it is easy to feel a bit lost and confused. As a consultant, especially, you feel an obligation to contribute right from the start, and bring value to the team immediately. Easier said than done! Here are some advice that might help.
Face it: You’re not there because the team has a lot of spare time. Chances are you have been hired for the exact opposite reason. This means no one is likely to help you out much. Even if they do, they probably feel they have more important things to do. This is no doubt contra productive, but it is often how people react under stress.
A common task on new assignments is therefore to read up on stuff. You are handed piles of technical documentation and manuals – anything to keep you occupied.
It is going to be up to you to take initiatives. Keep an eye open for well defined, low priority tasks. Here are some jobs I like to do in the beginning:
- Fixing bugs is a great way of both contributing and getting familiarized with the code. It is often appreciated by the team as fixing bugs is not considered the most glamorous work. It is also often fairly easy to validate the result.
- Configuration Management (CM) tasks are often not domain specific, and chances are your previous experience comes in handy. Sometimes these tasks haven’t been prioritized, even though they might very well be important to productiveness and efficiency. Many CM tasks are relatively independent from other work, making them perfect candidates for new team members.
- Pre-studies and evaluations (spike solutions) are another example of independent tasks where previous experience is valuable. Others on the team may take things for granted. It might even be an advantage to use a new resource, as they look at problems from another perspective.
Be perceptive to the work environment. Try to get a feeling of team dynamics, problems they face and how they apply methodologies and processes. Are there any unspoken rules? Pay attention to how the team interacts, review each others work and give feedback.
It is never a good idea to start criticizing, or talk about how things “should” be done, before you get to know the other team members and the appropriate context for giving feedback.
Perceptiveness might also help you pick up possible further business and areas where you can contribute.
Be Open Minded
Ideally you have a job description of what the customer expects from you: an expressed reason why they hired you. However, once there don’t be surprised if the job description does not match team reality.
Sometimes this calls for a discussion with your manager or sales rep, perhaps canceling the assignment altogether.
Other times, you might simply contribute more by helping out in areas outside the job description. Always make sure you fulfill any obligations you have, but if you have key competence in other areas, help out there as well. It will be worth more to the customer. And to you.
As a consultant you might not think it is necessary to participate in certain events and meetings. (Sometimes you are not allowed to.) Maybe you feel your time is better spent reading up on documentation or getting your hands dirty with the code.
However, meetings and other team activities are a great way of getting to know project internals and team dynamics. Participating in social events might give insight into why certain problems exist, and the context in which the team works.
Try to have lunch and coffee breaks together with other team members. If they eat out, tag along. If they bring own food, follow their example. Not only is it fun, but a lot of interesting discussions take place off radar in social contexts.
Finally, relax! Accept a feeling of chaos. You are most likely overwhelmed by everything from code setup, new tools, names and roles of team members, logins and passwords to mundane stuff like time reports and finding the coffee machine – not to forget how to make it brew the perfect cup.
In the midst of all this, it is easy to lose the foothold. Keep your calm, though. After a couple of weeks you will feel much more comfortable, sitting at your designated desk in the team area sipping away at a perfect cup of coffee, working your way through the code like you’d been their all your life.