Five skills every junior engineer needs to succeed

In my conversations with junior engineers, especially during my live streams, a question that comes up a lot in different variations is: “What skills do I have to have to be successful?” I thought I’d summarize my recommendations in this article.

Photo by Oluwatobi Fasipe on Unsplash

Analysing problems

The first skill any junior engineer needs is problem-solving. As a software engineer, your job is to turn ideas into code. And if you’re a system administrator, you get paid to keep software running despite constant changes and entropy in general. Learning how to detect and analyse issues will be part of your day-to-day for most of your career. Once you’ve noticed that something’s not working right, the next step is going to be to identify the root cause. Only then can you go on to design and implement an effective solution. Cultivate your problem-solving skills to tackle system changes with confidence.

Writing documentation

On a recent Office Hour live stream, I was asked an interesting variant of the question: “What core skills would you advise junior engineers to pick up that will have an impact on their entire career?” The answer didn’t take me a single second: note-taking. I wish I had learned about personal knowledge management decades ago. Sure, I would still have forgotten shelves worth of knowledge over the decades, but it would have not been lost. I would still be able to retrieve it whenever I need it. Effective note-taking can make your long-term growth so much easier. This applies even more in a team setting. Keeping organized, detailed documentation of configurations, troubleshooting steps, and solutions is essential. Only then will this information be easily available to current and future team members. Build a “second brain” from which you and your team can retrieve all important knowledge.

Being curious

Our industry is evolving constantly and rapidly. That’s why the ability to self-learn and adapt to new technologies is vital. In my experience, it’s also great fun! I am deeply grateful that I can expand my skills and knowledge all the time. I consider curiosity one of the most crucial character traits of a great engineer. Ideally, make this your core skill while you’re still a junior engineer. Stay curious, explore new topics, and leverage online resources (including my courses đŸ˜‰) to expand your knowledge continuously.

Managing time

If decades of work experience have taught me one thing, it’s that there is one resource of which we will never have enough: time. There’s always more stuff to do, but we all have only 24 hours in our day. That’s why time management is another key skill for junior engineers to acquire. Your success depends on your ability to focus deeply on a task despite having to juggle many at the same time. But mastering time management also includes making sure you get to take time off, to recharge your physical and mental batteries. Start early with cultivating a way to manage your time that allows you to effectively handle your responsibilities for both your work and yourself.

Communicating

Of course, this list can not be complete without communication skills. Regardless if you’re a software engineer, system administrator or SRE, there won’t be a week in your whole career where your work will not require you to communicate. This communication will take many forms: posting on a DevOps community platform, asking questions in team chat, or notifying customers of an incident are just a few examples of situations in which your success will depend on your communication skills. Develop your communication skills to share knowledge, ask for help, and work effectively in a team.

These are the five skills junior engineers need the most, in my experience: problem-solving, note-taking, curiosity, time management, and communication skills. If you can think of more, reply with your additions!


This article was originally published in my newsletter, “News From the Server Room”. To get my column “Mentor Monologue” fresh when I publish it, subscribe here.

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