3 ways new Valley engineers can crack the code for success

December 16, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

What to do and look for from day one.


FORTUNE -- So you've been hired as a software engineer. Congratulations.

That was half the challenge. The other? Hitting the ground running from day one. Because whether you're coding from the plush comforts of Google's (GOOG) Mountain View headquarters, toiling at an early-stage San Francisco startup of 10, or plugging away elsewhere, the demand for software engineers is as high as it has ever been. If you excel at this job, who knows what opportunities will come your way for the next?

Zach Sims, co-founder of the education startup Codecademy, offer several tips for ensuring that new job becomes a showcase for your talent.

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Set expectations early. Figure out which tools your employer relies on. Companies use technology stacks that often dictate how they work internally. Some, like MongoDB, help to develop open source technologies. And managing source code may happen via Bitbucket, GitHub, or a system like Subversion. Knowing these tools and how your team uses them is essential to functioning well on a team.

It's also important to understand the company's structure: Does everyone work in one place, or do some employees work remotely? Some companies, including web app maker 37Signals or question-and-answer network StackExchange, are composed of lots of remote workers, explains Sims. These cultures tend to be different from those where everyone is located in the same office. (To wit, 37Signals founder Jason Fried penned the book Remote on the subject). As such, working in this kind of environment tends to require over-communication and being adept at working independently.

Okay to fail? Everyone makes mistakes, but each company handles them differently. Some smaller companies iterate their way to success. If the company moves quickly, an approach Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries explained in the 2011 book The Lean Startup, failure is acceptable so long as you learn and can fix your mistakes. But other, larger companies usually have solid ship deadlines and can't permit bugs in production code. "Knowing the standard for production and stability guides how a product goes through the creation process," says Sims.

MORE: Management tips from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer 

Find a mentor. Rising stars within a company don't often impress without a mentor guiding them, and software engineers are no exception. Sims recommends finding someone inside the company or outside who clearly has more experience, but also is "just ahead of the curve from them" as opposed to some advanced wunderkind. Says Sims: "To design a learning process for a beginner, you need to remember and understand what it's like to not know everything."

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