Professional Development
Career development

What 6 RealLIST Engineers wish they’d known when they started their tech careers

Experienced technologists from's five markets convened on Slack to discuss everything from professional development to mental health. Here's what they said about lessons learned.

"What do you wish you'd known when you started your tech career?" (Photo by Elijah O'Donnell from Pexels)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

Any time we get a chance to ask technologists what they wish they’d known when they first started their careers, we do it.

It’s one question that draws a variety of answers that, because individual experiences in tech are so varied, are rarely redundant. And no matter how many times we ask, we always learn something about working in tech that we hadn’t thought of before.

For an hour this week, a couple dozen of’s 2021 RealLIST Engineers from all five of our markets convened on our public Slack to discuss everything from professional development to mental health, Q&A style.

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While we do encourage you to join our Slack and check out the #ama channel, we don’t expect you do dig through all the threads for information. Instead, here’s a recap of responses to the classic Q: “What do you wish you had known when you started your career?”

Learn to write

Baltimore RealLIST Engineer Paul Tyng, a staff software engineer for Slack, responded: “I wish I had known just how important writing would be to my career. Technical writing, story telling, etc.”

This one got quite a few reactions, including a reminder from Managing Editor Julie Zeglen that technologists can write guests posts for us.

“Wholeheartedly agree with Paul Tyng — writing would be the #1 lesson I’ve learned,” concurred DC RealLIST Engineer Sachin Nene, chief architect at GetUpside. “For those that actively develop code, you can get lost trying to write the ‘best’ code that might impress your peers. The reason we build software, however, is not for the art of it (although it can be beautiful!), but to solve problems that real people have. The best developers I know are the best writers and best storytellers who explain what they are doing and why they are doing it, both for technical and non-technical audiences.”

Learn the tricks

Philly RealLIST Engineer Leemay Nassery, an engineering manager at Dropbox (and occasional guest post writer herself): “I wish I knew that I didn’t have to know everything.”

Nassery didn’t stop there.

“Instead of worrying on how to expose myself to more areas of the tech world and learn everything and anything, focus on just a few,” she said. “There was a good post on Twitter recently that said if you look at how people succeed in various fields, you’ll see theres’ a common approach to learn a few ‘tricks,’ for instance comparing to those that practice Judo. From the Twitter post: ‘Judo is a game of specialization. You have to use the skills that work best for you. You have to stick to what works and practice your skills until they become automatic responses.’ I feel like thats how it is in the tech.”

Here’s that post:

Take breaks

L. Dolio Durant

Dolio Durant. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Delaware RealLIST Engineer Dolio Durant, lead technical instructor at Zip Code Wilmington, shared this: “I know in hindsight it seems intuitive, but I wish someone had told me to take periodic breaks to let the brain ‘cool off.’ Earlier I had the tendency to pound at a problem until I eventually solved it.  At some point, after realizing that burnout was a very real thing, I learned that sometimes that cool-off period is when the Eureka moment happens.”

Celebrate wins

Baltimore RealLIST Engineer I’Shea Boyd, a data scientist at Arena Analytics, gave a Gen Z point of view.

“This is my first year out of college, so I still have a lot more to learn and I appreciate reading all of your responses!” she wrote. “So far, what I wish I knew before starting my career was big career growth and acceleration takes time, but small changes and improvements should be celebrated along the way. It is good to have an idea of who you want to become, but do not focus so much on where you want to be or what you want to do that you do not live in the moment and see the change that you are already making.”

Change what you can

Baltimore RealLIST Engineer Dan Dutrow, director of software engineering for Qualytics, said: “Early in my career, I wish I knew that you can either (a) work to change your organization into the place of your dreams; or (b) find a place of your dreams and work there. (a) is worthwhile, but (b) will get you where you want to go faster and you will go farther when well aligned with the momentum of the organization.”

“I helped turn a 4,000-person research lab into something that was incrementally more accepting of new ideas from unconventional places,” he added; “15 years later, the momentum from what I helped start has turned into something that has elevated that lab into a national best-place for innovation. The cost, at the time, was that I was working on this side project that didn’t align with any kind of promotion opportunity, and kept me low on the salary curve. I’ve always been a work-is-my-life kind of person, and I have a lot of endurance in that area. Where I burned out a little was the pace of change.”

Want to join the conversation? It’s all ongoing on the Slack — technologists, entrepreneurs and influencers are always welcome.

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Series: How I Got Here

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