How to be a better employee - Use Your Judgement

April 08, 2015

Very often, junior colleagues ask me what they should do in a particular situation. Very often, to the point where I feel like a broken record, my answer is “Use your judgement”. This is partly because I don’t have as much time as I’d like to guide them through how I would approach the situation, but mostly it’s because I want them to be able to figure it out for themselves.

I want my colleagues to investigate problems for themselves, and figure out how to ask the right questions, not just expect things to be handed to them on a plate. Besides, these days, knowing the right questions to ask (aka knowing how to Google) is one of the most useful skills to have.

I want my colleagues to be adaptable - to be able to turn their hand to an unfamiliar problem, outside their comfort zone, because if we’re not solving difficult problems, we’ll be out of a job. I want them to have initiative and think for themselves. If all you’re doing is following a set of instructions, it’s only a question of how difficult it is to program those instructions into a machine, and increasingly, the answer is ”not as difficult as most people think“.

We’re hiring humans is an admirable statement, and I agree entirely with a the suggestions, but the article is premised on the basic assumption that the company trusts the people it’s hiring, and wants to empower those people. When you pay someone for taking on responsibilities, you should trust them, but the sad fact is that this isn’t always true, especially in organisations who do a lot of offshoring - there are plenty of managers would rather hire machines if they could.

I want my colleagues to be pragmatic - to care about standards and design patterns and doing things the right way, but to be able to cut some non-essential corners when a tight deadline is looming. To paraphrase Joel Spolsky, I want a colleague who is “smart and gets things done”

I want my colleagues to become comfortable with taking responsibility for their actions - as I’ve said before, sometimes it’s better to be making progress than to be right. What’s the worst that can happen? Someone might tell you that you did it wrong. And if they do, who says they’re right? Just because someone has more experience, it doesn’t mean they know all the answers.

Maybe it will turn out that you were wrong. Big deal - everyone makes mistakes, and besides, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”.

It’s important to have the confidence in your own abilities that you can cope with being wrong, that you’re OK with someone telling you in a code review comment that your solution is terrible, to realise that you’re wrong.

I once heard about a teenager whose mother hired a professional to do his A-level coursework for him. To me, that is terrible parenting. Soon that boy will be a grown-up, and the world isn’t going to let his mum fix everything for him. He needs to be able to fail at something, to understand what it’s like to not get straight As.

I want my colleagues to learn how to learn, and how to teach; how to listen, and how to talk. I want them to tell me when I’m wrong, when to talk, and when to shut up.