Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to avoid "I don't know" at work

When I first started my first "real" corporate job at Johnson & Johnson, I ran into my first big learning within the first month. And it simply is to never say "I don't know". Now I'm not saying you aren't allowed to say that specific sentence while you are at work, but it is the concept that is important to understand. When it comes to a fact or figure, don't just say you don't know. Say you will find it and get back to them. Then actually deliver on that. While it may seem subtle at first, the difference is huge. It helps build your credibility- not only are you finding the correct answer but you are also being reliable about delivering the answer to the source that asked.

The same goes when you are asked to work on a project that you have no idea how to do. Within the first couple of months, I was asked to build out a report that used something called macros (which is essentially code written in Excel to manipulate data). When my manager asked me to work on this project, I responded by saying I didn't know how to do it. It was completely true- I had never worked in that program and had no idea how to even begin working on the project. So I told her that I didn't know how to do it. Now to people still in school, this may seem like a logical response. However, in the work world, you are expected to take the challenge.


In school, I feel like there are so many different resources at your fingertips to learn new concepts and theories. When you had a problem, you could always consult a text book, look it up on the web, ask a peer, or as a last resort go to office hours and ask a professor. Unfortunately, your company does not have a textbook with a glossary of acronyms and cheat sheets to get you up and running. Neither does your specific job function. There are no office hours and no professors to help you solve your problem. You have to create those resources for yourself (whether it is literally on an excel spreadsheet or figuratively in your mind).

Now the next logical question is how the heck am I supposed to figure all of this out without any resources?! This is the very question that tripped me up those first couple of months on the job. I was so frustrated with my manager that I remember driving home from work thinking she was asking for the impossible. She wasn't. In fact, she was challenging me to learn and grow; I just couldn't see it at the time. So after a couple weeks of being frustrated and complaining about how I didn't know what I was doing, I realized that I had to find some resources or let down my manager. For those of you who know me, the latter simply wasn't an option. And so began my on the job learning.

The first thing that I did was set up touch bases with people who had built similar projects. They were way more tech savvy than I was, but it was helpful to understand the overall purpose behind what my project was trying to accomplish. When I candidly asked where they learned how to work in that software, they said they learned it from other people and through searching on the internet for answers. This came as a surprise to me- I figured they had learned it in school at some point. But they hadn't. Which meant if they could learn how to do it, I could to.

At this point, I finally felt like I had some traction under my feet. I meet with a few more people, asked to see similar projects they were working on in hopes of leveraging their work and avoid "reinventing the wheel". I was able to dive into the work and begin seeing how everything fit together. I started by looking up basic articles on google about excel and macos, and started building simple codes. I watched excel tutorials, followed examples I found online, and read about different short cuts and tricks that I could use. The more I built, the more I learned. I finally was able to make the basic project that was asked of me.

Now that I had a base, I was able to show people a tangible project and get real time feedback on it. I meet with my manager again and was able to have a much more tactical and specific conversation about what would work for our team. Within a couple more months I had a functioning tool for my team. Throughout the process, I ended up getting pretty good at working in the software, and was able to leverage that skill later on in a future job.

As I finished up my rotation, I reflected back and realized that school may not teach you the specific tools you will utilize in your job. It's more about becoming a good learner and knowing how to find resources to help you along the way. It is sometimes easy to forget that overall purpose of school when you are stuck in the minute details needed to ace an exam. School helps you be able to think on your feet in many different situations.You need to always challenge yourself to try new things- whether its a new way to do something, a new program to leverage, or an added project to help accomplish a certain goal. For that is what keeps you innovative and always improving. It adds value to you as an employee, expanding your tool kit each time you learn something new. It is easy to get stale when you work at a corporation. But if you challenge yourself to try something new or learn a new way to do something, you will always be adding value not only to the company but also to yourself as an employee.

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