My last 4 months were spent with MNP LLP, a financial firm and technology consultancy. I’ve learned a great deal from playing a small but essential role on the Digital Integration team. Becoming close with team members, coordinating development efforts, and discovering the strengths and weaknesses of my coworkers (along with my own,) has been a particularly rewarding experience. All this was not earned without hard work; I’ve made a great deal of mistakes, stepped on a few toes, and bumbled aplenty. The following article summarizes my growth at MNP, the mistakes I’ve made, and the life lessons learned from making them.
Table of Contents
- My Role at MNP
- Listen and Comprehend
- Asking Questions
- Think, then Act
- Quality Work is Priceless
- To Win, You Must Play
- The Best You Can is Good Enough
- Plans for Summer
My Role at MNP
I was hired as a Co-Op Analyst-Developer, which has primarily involved running quality assurance and assisting team members; writing docs, light automation, prototyping features and troubleshooting. While I technically haven’t completed any development or analysis work per se, I have proper .NET development work scheduled for next semester.
- Quality Assurance: After spending a week reading documentation for the systems we were utilizing, I began to run quality assurance for the new team. I was not given a predefined workflow or quality standards as the team was new to the system we were implementing, and had to develop my own work-flow to catch bugs. This took many weeks to be effective and time-efficient, but I was eventually able to review the work of the developers and ensure everything worked with reasonable efficiency.
- Writing Documentation: My formal understanding of the English language is quite good; I’ve written good portions of major release documents and entire smaller manuals for the client, with only minor revisions to contextual language before submission; this freed hours for the project managers to complete other tasks.
- Load Balancer: Along with the above, I have taken small steps into a variety of roles; frontend development, management, and backend logic. I’ve spent days discussing or making minor revisions to project materials, modifying simple data structures and prototyped features to report the feasibility of different methods for solving a problem.
All of these roles required plenty of communication, an area in which I’ve seen significant improvement. Many of my trials and tribulations early in the semester involved misinterpretation or a lack of initiative to investigate and ask questions. With the team running overtime, I am occasionally left to operate independently; I’ve learned to make safe and justifiable assumptions if guidelines were not given. Deciding when to assert myself to clarify important details, or to rely on my predicted expectations has been interesting.
While the company name is MNP LLP, the environment I operate in has the guts, crew, and visage of the amalgamated A Hundred Answers, a boutique tech consulting firm. “A Hundred Answers (AHA) is a Canadian professional services firm providing advisory, digital and technology solutions and services.” The culture, while not quite what I expected, has been excellent for personal development. I have been provided with a mentor, a buddy, and a diverse set of team members who are happy to answer questions and give guidance.
With my company and role defined to the greatest non-NDA-violating extent, I will now present the life lessons I have learned throught my work term. One thing to note: This is a snapshot of a work in progress. I’m nowhere near perfect, and still in the process of learning more and applying my lessons. Take these notes with a grain of salt!
Listen and Comprehend
I cannot stress enough the unbelievably critical importance of listening.
At the beginning of the work term, I would frequently panic and interrupt during conversations due to some misplaced sense of always needing to have the correct answer, immediately. Predictably, this made most interactions very, very stressful, while also ensuring I only heard half of what the other person was saying. My anxious need to appear knowledgable and provide quick answers was impairing my ability to communicate.
Communication is essential in a fast-paced and collaborative environment like MNP. Taking the time to listen will allow you to understand, with depth and clarity, the idea your colleague is attempting to share. Without listening carefully to your colleagues, time spent conversing will be squandered, leaving the bitter taste of lost time in everyone’s mouth. Gradually, I have reduced my tendency to respond immediately and replaced it with focus and quiet contemplation; the feeling of relentlessly being quizzed has lessened.
After comprehension, it is important to follow up with good questions. Speak only when your colleague has completed the presentation of a thought, following their idea with questions to further your understanding. The difference between a productive, learning conversation and a pandering, useless one is in the structure of the questions posed. Leading questions, formed to draw the conversational partner to a particular idea, are not productive and will only verify what you already know. Presenting your carefully worded questions does two things for a colleague; first, it reassures him or her that you have a grasp on their intended message, and eliminates the ambiguity of your comprehension; second, it may strengthen the idea by revealing flaws or gaps, organically pushing your colleague to expand the idea. A good question, spoken with intention, should try to meet a few of the following criteria.
A Good Question
- Clarifies an ambiguity
- Draws on the personal experience of your conversational partner
- Invokes a genuine and open response, which will be used to form more questions
- Compares the personal opinions and experience of all parties
- Allows your conversation partner to understand your interpretation of his or her point of view
- Strengthens an idea by allowing your partner to see the idea from a different angle
Think, then Act
Henri Bergson1 spoke the following at the Descartes Conference in Paris, 1937: “act like a man of thought and think like a man of action.”
Compulsively making decisions based on gut feelings is only effective if you have honed your guts with experience, as explored by this study on London traders. For a co-op student, attempting to act immediately on gut feelings (unless you are highly articulate, which I am not,) will only result in vague and unhelpful mumbling about how the action being discussed is a bad idea.
Taking the time to carefully mull things over, even spending a few extra seconds contemplating how to articulate an idea, is far more productive than spurting the electrical contents of your brain into the room. Attempting to connect your logical dots while you are speaking is incredibly difficult for me, and I would assume for others as well.
Slow thinking is an incredible tool that I’m only just beginning to use; up until now, I have been shuffling through life and hurriedly dealing with problems as I came upon them. Frantic babbling can’t hold a candle to contemplative silence followed by calm, purposeful words.
Quality Work is Priceless
Even under the stress that comes with deadlines, overworked colleagues, and repetitive tasks, it is important to never rush a job. The quality of your work sticks; echoes perpetuate long after you have changed teams, roles, companies, even countries. Establishing a baseline for quality, and producing nothing less, will follow you throughout your career; it is important to establish these good habits as soon as you begin working.
Having noted this, the consistent quality of your output is something you can improve. People will be happy to see you taking pride in contributing higher quality work. Another important and wholly unintuitive fact is: Nobody cares if you fail.2 if you try hard and fail, people will usually remember the effort more than the outcome. Fear of failure hinders many, but shouldn’t.
To Win, You Must Play
By God, there is a game afoot. A game I was truly, fully, completely unprepared to play.
As a technical worker in a consulting firm, you are indirectly exposed to the visceral cunning and unbelievably razor sharp edges of honed business machines; men who are either warm, well spoken and intelligent, or with a mastery of manipulation so they comes across like so.
Truly, to succeed in the consulting space, you need to be an excellent reader of character and an influencer, a man of the people. You need to remember names and genuinely listen and be a friend to all who cross your path. Wether this ideal is persued genuinely or as a grand game, people with people-skills are the men who become leaders.3
While I could wax poetic about the fine art of conversation, it would be disingenuous; I speak far worse than I write. Conversational skills are still something I am developing. Daily engagement at work has helped me to improve a great deal, and I would probably be even further ahead if our team ditched Slack instant messaging, which truly does belong in a video game.
The Best You Can is Good Enough
One of my favorite Radiohead songs is Optimistic. The chorus includes the phrase “If you try the best you can - The best you can is good enough”. I’ve found this line to be a painful truism; being human, with limited powers, you can only get so much done in a day. Without reasonable expectations for personal productivity, your days can turn into a vicious cycle of disappointment.
Thus, the best you can is good enough is a good mantra; No matter how much work you have ahead of you, the important thing is that you poured enough hard, smart work into your tasks to be satisfied with your hard-earned progress at the end of the day, independent of how much closer you came to your final goal.
(The song has other connotations that are best left undiscussed in what is essentially a reflection on corporate living.)
At the end of the day, it is important to be content with what you have completed. Putting in a consistent daily effort to reach your goals should be more than enough to finish any given task before a reasonable deadline.
Plans for Summer
I am continuing to work with MNP LLP for the next four months. Development work in Microsoft’s .NET ecosystem, using C#, will become my primary focus as the rest of the development team moves on to new clients. With the bulk of development complete, my knowledge of the system I have assisted in building, bug tracking skills, and Microsoft TFS experience will pair nicely with my developing .NET skills as I step into the new role.
Summary of Learnings:
- Good communication requires attentive listening and thoughtful questions
- Speak after contemplation, with intention
- Strive for quality work as your standard
- Be wary of the game, play with caution
- Maintain reasonable expectations for your personal productivity
Above all the lessons mentioned above, I have come to understand what my father has been telling me for years: There’s no quick fix. Learning and personal growth require a time investment, and there is no magical formula you can design and implement to immediately see a change in your habits, your life, yourself.
May your conversations be productive, your work crafted with care, and your evenings relaxing.
All the best,
The line has a more powerful ring when I don’t endlessly repeat person, and is not designed to be problematic. If you want to praise the many excellent female leaders out there, including my own boss, write your own article. Male and female bosses share the same “Classically Masculine” personality traits anyhow. Source. ↩