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Monday, July 12, 2010

how long should it take a new hire to get up to speed?

A reader writes:

I'm a former academic mathematician who left academia, because...well...suffice it to say that I didn't go to college for nine years to become a glorified babysitter. After a job offer from a Very Large Government Agency fell through, I found myself severely underemployed. While slowly crawling out of the deep, dark depression in which I found myself, I started slowly picking up some extra skills so that I could start a new career (and no, I found myself unable to go back to academia, as the thought of entering the classroom again literally sent me into panic attacks). That all of this happened was bad enough; that all of this happened as the economy started circling the bowl made things even worse.

Finally, after two years, I have a job as a Data Analyst for an advertising company, with slightly over two weeks from the recruiter saying "Hi, I passed your resume to the hiring manager, and he'd like to talk to you..." to the job offer, with two phone interviews, an online programming exam, a personality profile, and a problem that the hiring manager gave me to see how I thought on my feet in between (there might have been a partridge in a pear tree in there somewhere, too :P ). The interview advice on your blog was invaluable, especially for the phone interviews. I think I impressed the hiring manager with my questions, especially "What differentiates a good employee in this position from a great employee?"

The work environment is great, and the people are awesome--not to mention the pay and benefits! However, I find myself in a completely new industry doing work I've never done before, and despite the fact that I've only been here less than two weeks, I'm taking longer in getting up to speed than I would like. I recognize that I'm putting a significant amount of this pressure on myself--as the old saying goes, I am my own harshest critic. I have received many assurances from my manager that he's confident in my ability to catch up, and he proactively suggested weekly meetings to keep track of my progress. However, I want to make certain that I stay on task and don't fall behind, especially as this is a contract to hire position.

So, my question is this: What, generally speaking, is a reasonable amount of time for a new hire that is talented but inexperienced to get up to speed?

I think this varies widely from job to job, and also depends on factors like how well the company trains you, exposes you to resources, etc.  However, based just on watching people over the years, I'd say that there's often a moment of clarity that occurs about four to eight weeks in -- when suddenly all the pieces start to fit together in a way that makes more intuitive sense, and all of a sudden you don't feel quite as much like you're treading water. I'm not talking about mastering the job -- that takes way longer. I'm talking just about getting that sense that you're no longer in a foreign and mysterious land.

Again, this really varies depending on the job. But you've only been there two weeks? There's a good chance that you're putting unrealistic pressure on yourself, as you seem to recognize.

Now, another good question is whether there are things you can do to help yourself acclimate faster.  To answer that, I'd want to know whether there are specific things that you know you're struggling to learn, or is it more a general feeling of being overwhelmed?  If there are specific things, can you ask a colleague to walk you through them again? It's very, very hard to retain all the information that's thrown at you in your first few days on a job -- so if most of your training happened early on, you might find that you can retain it better now. Also, if possible to do diplomatically, you might even seek someone different than whoever taught you the first time; different people teach things in different ways, and you might get someone who presents it in a way that resonates more for you. 

If it's more a general feeling of being overwhelmed, the weekly meetings with your manager are going to help. Make sure you prepare for these ahead of time so you're getting as much as possible out of them. For the next few weeks, it might be useful to send him a list ahead of the meeting -- here's what I accomplished this week, here's what I'm planning to do next week, here's what I have on my longer-term to-do list -- to ensure it lines up with his thinking and to catch any areas where you're out of alignment.

Also, ask your manager what he'd like you to have achieved by the end of your second month and by the end of your first six months. If you have a very concrete sense of where you need to be headed, it's easier to figure out what you need to do to get there.

While we're on the subject of getting new hires acclimated, one thing that I like to do is to give each new hire an outline of all the things they'll need to learn about to really know the job. This includes everything from the basics of how to do the job, to who key internal and external figures are, to what they do and don't have authority for, and on and on. To be clear, this is just an outline of topics, not fully fleshed out information on each (they'll get that in face-to-face conversations with the various people participating in their training). I've found it can be really helpful for them to have a written list like that to consult a couple of weeks in -- because it can make you think, "Oh, I vaguely remember a mention of Topic X on my second day, when it made no sense to me and I didn't retain it. So let me seek out information on it again now, when it'll make more sense." Or you might realize that no one talked to you about Topic X at all, and then you can proactively ask your boss about it.  It can also just help to get your arms around the breadth of the job if you see each aspect outlined like that.

You may not have that exactly, but do you have any other written materials you can review -- department manuals, etc.? I've found people often don't take advantage of those things after the initial read, even though reading them again a few weeks into the job can be a lot more useful than the first read was.

I suspect you're going to do just fine. You sound like you're having normal first-few-weeks-on-the-job jitters. You also sound like you've landed in a really great situation. So congratulations, and good luck!


Anonymous said...

Without naming where I work, we expect new hires who are new to the industry (which is sort of your case) to take up to 6 months to really get ramped up to full speed.

Beth said...

I agree with the 6 month mark. I see it and I've experienced it. The 6 month mark may be more from the perception of the hire who suddenly feels like they have a good handle on things and aren't exhausted at the end of every night. From the perspective of the manager, it probably appears they've caught on to everything faster. Learning a new culture is exhausting, even when it's only a new company culture. Be prepared to feel a whole lot better after 6 months.

Lisa said...

I may be off the mark here but there's a bit of an undertone to me that the poster expected working in the private sector to be a breeze after being an academic mathematician and is now panicking because his/her new job requires some slightly different skillsets, tools, and techniques to what they're used to, and they're not the instant expert they were expecting to be. Which is fine! Two weeks is just about long enough to start getting a handle on where the tea and biscuits are kept, to me.

I would suggest that the poster think about why they're being so hard on themselves and perhaps rearrange their expectations about what their capabilities should be, given their particular experience, and take some time to understand what the new job needs and how they need to adapt their current skills to fit.

Anonymous said...

Geez, after two weeks at my last FT job I was only just able to find the cafeteria by myself. Cut yourself a break!

Mary Sue said...

I'm the person who onboards and trains new employees within my department. We expect new hires in my specific department, irregardless of industry or job experience, to take no fewer than 6 months to get up to speed, and a full year for them to feel fully proficient. We have to deal with an ever-changing array of law (federal, state, and local) and policies that I tell new employees, "This is the deep end. We're throwing you in. But don't freak out, I'm your life preserver."

I spent the ten years before I stepped into this position as a contract employee; by the end of two weeks of those assignments I could be counted on to know which desk was mine and which person was my supervisor... and that's about it.

Anonymous said...

If the employer has a probationary period, I think that is a good indicator of how long it should take you be able to operate independently (not synonymous with expert level).

Anonymous said...

I'm the OP. First of all, thank you for posting my question so quickly.

To tell the truth, there are both particular things that I'm learning one step at a time, and I've also had a general sense of feeling overwhelmed. In particular, I've had to learn a new relational database management system and to write SQL code that's far more detailed than what I did while learning the language by myself.

However, yesterday I was given a particular task to work on--up to that point, I was basically told to "dig in and explore" without any more direction than that, and I've actually produced some code that can be used to reach a solution. Granted, it would take a lot less time for someone else on the team to solve this problem, but I'm already learning a lot about this particular dialect of SQL and the structure of the data warehouse.

Today, I managed to refine my code (in the amount of time I had that wasn't eaten up by meetings), and this time, I (mostly) rebuilt the program from the ground up to be more efficient and to get at more of what I want. In comparison to yesterday, when I was flailing and panicking, today I was more relaxed, and for a few fleeting moments, I could visualize the data. Things flowed somewhat. (To be continued....stupid character limit...)

Anonymous said...

(Part 2 of 2)

Both yesterday and today, just before leaving the office, I sent an e-mail to the lead person on my subteam--cced to my manager--with an explanation of what I was doing, and attached the code. The fact that I'm able to produce SOMETHING--even if it's only a baby step or two--makes me feel a lot better.

These reports will definitely help with my weekly progress meetings, and I'll bring a tentative to-do list as well. I haven't asked what he wants to see accomplished by X date; during our first meeting last week, I tried to get a rough deadline out of him as to when he would expect me to get up to speed. Upon reflection, your approach is much more sensible, and I'll give it a try during my meeting later on this week.

I think part of what contributed to this feeling of being overwhelmed is that since I'm in a contract to hire position, I wasn't eligible for the three day orientation, during which one is given a rundown of every branch of the company, what they do, etc, etc. I've been given some brief overviews in the form of meetings, but it's still left me with the feeling of being thrown to the wolves--friendly and supportive wolves, but wolves nonetheless.

There is a company wiki--some pages of which are better written than others--that I've perused fairly thoroughly. The absolute meatiest things, though--including the documentation for the database management system--is given in the form of hundreds of pages of power point slides, which are of limited use as reading material.

@anon 1:27, Beth, Mary Sue, and anon 9:04: Thank you for your input. From the research that I did before getting this position, it seems as though six months is a fairly standard contract term. However, my contract period is actually for 90 days (with the possibility of being brought in before the 90 day period is up). Being new to contract to hire positions in general, I don't know first hand what the significance of the 90 day contract period is (as opposed to six months), but a few people that I've talked to have indicated that it's a good thing.

@Lisa: I have no idea what gave you the impression that I "expected working in the private sector to be a breeze" or that I expected to be an "instant expert."

Quite frankly, I'm sick and tired of the assumption that all academics are lazy. Throughout my years in the ivory tower, I spent many a 60 hour workweek juggling several tasks at once, including keeping to an extremely active program of scholarly research.

I'm not panicking because my new job requires new skill sets, tools, etc. I welcome that challenge. I was expressing concern about whether or not I could advance these new skills quickly enough to thrive in my new career. Given the recent developments (see above), that is now far less of a concern than it was.

So, as the kids nowadays would say, the tl;dr version is that yes, you're off the mark.

@anon 1:33: LOL. I was merely after a reality check. Thank you for providing it.

Karl Sakas said...

To pick up lingo and current trends, I suggest skimming a few industry publications and websites on a regular basis. For example: Advertising Age, Seth Godin's blog, Marketing Sherpa, Marketing Profs, and American Marketing Association (AMA) newsletters.

Your new coworkers can make recommendations specific to your subfield. I blog about marketing, too, but you might want to start with the big ones first. Good luck!

Cassie said...

Six months seems like a good starting point for new hires to get a good feel for their job. Well, for more technical/detailed stuff. For a new receptionist, developing basic customer service skills shouldn't take that long.

I like the idea of giving new hires pertinent information that they will need (or may need). We've had several new employees over the past couple of years and they don't really get much of an orientation. They do get some training (depending on their position, some get more training than others). One staffer didn't know she had a mailbox in the mailroom. There's a new executive assistant in our dept and she hasn't really been introduced (except by email). Obviously, she's the person sitting in the office that wasn't there before, but I remember the days when they would walk the new hire around to offices and cubicles and introduce them. Another staffer, who is in a supervisor position, gets mistaken for a temp because the vast majority of people don't know who she is or what she does.

I can only imagine what it's like to be a new hire in our dept.

Lisa said...

My apologies to the OP - I didn't mean to imply that academics are lazy or that academia is anything other than a time-consuming and challenging area of work. My post was based on its seeming to me very strange that anyone would expect to be up to speed in a new industry in less than two weeks. Evidently, my extrapolation as to why that might be was wrong and I'm happy that you've come back to update readers and that things are going well.

Anonymous said...

Fabulus, fabulous post with great ideas. I'm about to start a new position and will take the advice!

Rebecca said...

Think of this, too, if you start to worry that your employer thinks you're terrible:
- They know what skills you have and what skills you don't have, if they were competent at all during the hiring process.
- They trust that you'll be able to learn the skills you don't have. If they didn't, they wouldn't have hired you.

Use those weekly meetings (and it's mega awesome that your boss cares enough that he's willing to have weekly meetings -- lots of bosses would consider it a waste of time) and keep rollin'. You'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

Two important things for the OP to think about:

1) Try not to read so much into people's responses.
Apparently the academia thing is a sore point - Lisa's response seemed genuinely positive and constructive, but even if someone WAS slamming academics - so what? Being defensive like that isn't going to change someone's mind, and in this case made you appear MUCH more disgruntled than you (hopefully) really are.

2) Practice brevity.
Seriously. I mean, holy cow - you're obviously extremely articulate, but it's bordering on loquaciousness. This isn't a slam on academia, but look at the difference between a CV and a resume. If I remember correctly, a CV can be many pages and should list tons of detail, whereas a resume should be one page - two at the ABSOLUTE MOST - regardless of how much experience a person has. A resume isn't supposed to include every detail, it's just supposed to include enough to generate interest and get you in the door so an interviewer can ask for the details they're interested in.

It'll likely take a year or two to really get the hang of it, but this is something that will actually have a tangible impact on your career. If your e-mails are short, sweet, and to the point, they're much more likely to be paid attention to, and if anyone wants to know more details, they'll ask. I know that seems less efficient than just including all the details up front, but trust me when I say that when you do that, many people will just give up reading part-way through (sort of like how some people have already done with this post...)

Note: Brevity should not to be confused with checking the done box, management lobotomy, or death by PowerPoint.

Anonymous said...

The timing of this post is impeccable! I am a week into a new job, and I also had the presumption my acclimation was taking too long. Upon reading AAM's response and the others, especially finding the cafeteria, I feel a lot better!

Speaking for myself, I am hard on myself because of the economic climate. You could say I feel guilty having a job, when so many are searching for one. Furthermore, because of the economic situation, I know my employer does not have to be generously patient. At least, that was my concern. Reading the answers and comments have eased that primary concern.

Anonymous said...

....I started a new job I was there 2 weeks and the office manager comes in to my office to tell me that things just are not working out and sent me home, now mind you I have NEVER!!! done this type of work before, I had no prior knowledge or training and the person who hired me knew this and I was also reassured that eventually I will catch on, well evidently not fast enough for what they wanted and to top it off I was shown what to do by a person that supposedly is the best and that there is no comparing her to anyone else within the company this is what was told to me on my first day! I was blown away I could not believe that I was actually supposed to know everything about this position and the tasks that are involved and there is ALOT!!! IN LESS THEN 2 WEEKS. I just find this to be unfair and there should be a law against such nonsense.