From zero to hero: a newbie’s guide to learning and building a reputation along the way

A friend of mine is a new IBM consultant who wants to learn more about and develop a reputation in social analytics. I thought I’d share some tips on how to learn and build a reputation along the way.

Pick your field carefully. Another mentor of mine said that emerging technologies offer the best opportunities. In a new field, it’s easier to not only catch up, but even distinguish yourself. In mature fields, it’s hard to compete with people who have years of experience. Even in mature fields, though, you might be able to find niches where things are rapidly changing.

Read. Read everything about that topic that you can get your hands on. Learn how to speed-read if you don’t already do so. Don’t worry about words you don’t understand or concepts that are too complex. Gradually, as you absorb more information, more of the things you’ve read will make sense to you.

Stay up to date. Find the key players in the space that you’re working on. Check out their blogs, their presentations, their tweets – whatever you can get that gives you more information. Set up searches and alerts so that you can find new material as it gets published.

Use bookmarks to organize your research. You’re going to immerse yourself in a flood of information. Use social bookmarking systems like Lotus Connections Bookmarks or Delicious to keep track of interesting things you’ve read, and to organize resources into your own categories. That way, when you need to find something again or if you want to send someone a link, you can quickly get it along with related resources.

Collect examples of ideas being been applied to real life. If you’re interested in Web 2.0 and financial services, you need to be able to tell stories about innovative companies and the results they’re seeing. If you’re interested in social analytics, find case studies where analytics has led to increased collaboration and productivity. Learn about pitfalls and challenges, too. There’s no substitute for experience, but awareness is a good start – and that can help you brainstorm opportunities for you to get involved.

Write notes and look for ways to explain ideas in simpler terms. Summarize what other people have said. Link to resources people might find useful. Share examples and the principles they demonstrate. Share your notes on a blog. Make presentations and volunteer to speak. This helps you understand a topic deeper and build the beginning of a reputation.

What can you write about? Write about what you’re learning and why. Write about the mistakes you made and how you solved them (or are trying to solve them!). Write about how you’re learning and from whom. Write about the resources out there. Write about the things you’re finding out. Write about the connections between your topic of interest and other things you know about. Write about what you want to learn next. There are plenty of things you can share, even as a beginner.

Experiment. Can you try things out yourself? Apply the ideas to your own life and share the results. As you build credibility, you might be able to convince your team to give a new practice a try. Share those results, too. Come up with ideas and try them out. Use these experiences to convince people to let you work on projects.

Volunteer and expand your responsibilities. Make sure your manager, your mentors, and your coworkers know what you’re interested in learning or doing. Volunteer to help with projects or presentations that need to be done. Ask your manager to help you structure a way to learn on the job.

Learn. Share what you’re learning along the way. Experiment. Volunteer and expand your responsibilities. You can go from being a newbie to being known in surprisingly little time, but you need to get out there and make things happen. Good luck!

  • Great post Sacha. I suggest another tip I am working on now – blog about it. You may not be comfortable doing this straight away (it took me a decade to work up to this). The discipline of writing it down for others is great for forcing you to make sense of what you are reading, thinking and experiencing.


  • Hi Sacha!

    As a newbie, sometimes I really get anxious about how I can build my reputation in the company. Especially with so many experienced hires who come from various projects, I sometimes feel helpless and “small” especially because I have no project experience (coming from the academe).

    Your post helped me find some ways to establish myself in this new company. I really wish I could speed up all my learnings on J2EE so that I can use it on future projects. Now that I’ve read on your post on having to “pick my field carefully”, I am unsure if it’s right for me to choose J2EE or just pick another field that could help me get deployed faster.

  • Mylene: You can do J2EE – it’s popular enough to get work. Just find something in it that you can use to rock. That might mean also learning some front-end work so that you can do JQuery on your webpages, or learning about setting up automated tests for your J2EE sites so that you can work even better. Good luck!

    Geoff: Absolutely! Sharing is a great way to learn.

  • Yeah, I guess that’s really the best thing I can do right now. “To find something in it that I can use to rock” – and focus most of my energy on it. At least I can narrow down my targets and not drown in the ocean of possibilities.

    Thanks for the suggestion on JQuery – I think I want to look into that. =)
    Just wanna let you know that this is really a great post.

  • It’s okay if you’re not a star right away. It’s okay if nothing immediately stands out as “Here, this is what I’m good at!” You can develop that over time by paying attention and working on small improvements.

    If you could work on being 1% better tomorrow than you were today, and so on, you’d be a hundred times better in a little over a year. This is an exaggeration, of course, but even if you were just 0.05% better, you’d be surprised at how those improvements compound over time. This is one of the reasons why I think about and write about so many decisions, so many little changes on this blog. Continuous improvement – kaizen is a powerful thing.

    When I started with IBM, I also felt a little intimidated by my experienced coworkers. I had been prototyping applications and working on systems for school, but they’d built applications during coop terms or on regular work projects. Some of the advantages I built on were that I wrote a lot and I was comfortable preparing presentations – well, not entirely comfortable, but I’d do it anyway because I learned a lot along the way. I also kept thinking about how we could do things better and better. Even though I wasn’t an expert, writing and sharing what I was learning helped me learn even more effectively. Now I can handle these Drupal and Rails projects pretty well, and we’ve developed a lot of practices worth sharing with other people. I’m going to learn even more and share even more in future projects.

    Good luck! You can do it.

  • Sacha, thank you very much for helping me out. It’s great to have someone like you give me tips and pieces of advice. You have inspired me to try out the industry and be in the “real IT world”. And now I’m here! =)

    Thank you for reminding me that “it’s okay not to be a star right away!” It took a lot of pressure from me and just left enough to get me excited to learn and improve my skills. I have already focused on “continuous improvement”… getting better – at least 0.05% at what I do in the company. It makes me really excited and positive that I will be able to contribute in my own little way and that will just compound over time.