Tech Life Say something really stupid

Ninety Days

When you accept a new job, you don’t know who you are going to work with, what you are going to be doing, and how much (or little) you’re going to like it. Call everyone you want. Ask their opinions. Trust the fact that a good friend referred you for the gig. Revel in the idea that the company has a good pedigree, but don’t delude yourself that in a smattering of interview hours that you’re going to have anything more than a vague hint of your new life.

Try this. Tell me about your best friend. Give me a bulleted list of five noteworthy things you think I should know about your best friend. Got it? Read it out loud. Does this do justice to your best friend? I hear you when you say, “He’d do anything for me”, but why is that? Why is he protective of you? What’s the story behind the bullet? That’s what I want to know.

Each person in your new team has a story they want to tell you and it’s never a bulleted list. Some are going to freely give this story whereas others will carefully protect the fact they even have a story, but until each person you need to work with has shared this story with you (and vice versa), the interview isn’t over. The jury is out and you won’t know if this new job that you’ve begun is actually your job.


Your first job is to relax. Like the first day of school, you’re going to overcompensate in your first day, your first week. Most people do not lay their clothes out the night before they go to work. You’re doing this to calm yourself. Those clothes neatly laid out at the end of your bed are a visual reminder that you have control over this thing that you can’t control.

Relax. There’s an industry standard regarding the amount of time it takes to make a hire and it’s ninety days. New managers hate when I tell them this because they’re so giddy they’ve got a new requisition and BOY WATCH HOW FAST I CAN HIRE. Yes, yes. I appreciate your velocity, but I’m not going to worry about your hire for ninety days.

This chunk of time applies to your new job as well. You’ve got ninety days — three months — to finish your job interview. Draw an a X on a calendar ninety days from now. Make it a physical act that reminds you to relax and to listen rather than fret about what you don’t know. The new team isn’t going to trust you until you stop laying out your clothes, until you stop being deliberate.

I know you’ve done this before: you’ve had five other jobs and you have well refined people assessment instincts. Except, well, they’re biased. These instincts are based on where you’ve been and you have never been here before. My suggestion is that the less you trust your instincts, the more you’ll learn about your new job and that’s why I wrote you a ninety days list:

#1) Stay late. Show up early. You need a map of the people you work with and I find the best way to start scribbling this map is to understand people and their relation to the day. When do they get there? How long until they engage in what they do? Coffee run? Wait, no. Late arriver. Doesn’t leave until he gets something done. Makes his coffee run at 4:30pm. Doesn’t drink coffee? Really? Why? These long days of watching give you insight and they give you tools for understanding what each of your team members want.

#2) Accept every lunch invitation you get. People are stretching themselves for you the first few weeks you show up. They’re going to go out of their way to include you and no matter who they are, you’ve got to take the time to reciprocate. The lunch invite from that guy in the group you pretty sure you’ll never interact with will result in stories and you have a stunning lack of stories right now.

#3) Always ask about acronyms. It’s great that we’re all speaking English, but why is it that you’re sitting in your first staff meeting and not understanding a word? It’s because every team develops acronyms, metaphors, and clever ways to describing their uniqueness which you must understand. Cracking the language nut is absolutely essential to assessing the hand you’ve been dealt and you’re going to need to ask a couple of times.

#4) Say something really stupid. Good news, you’re going to do this whether it’s on this list or not. I’m saying it’s ok. This stupid thing that you’re going to say is going to demonstrate your nascent engagement in your job and when they stop giggling, the team is going to know you’re desperately trying to figure it all out.

#5) Have a drink. Similar to the lunch task, but more valuable. No barrier is crossed when someone invites you to lunch, but when you get the drink invite, someone is saying, “C’mon. Let’s go try a different version of honesty.” Stories are revealed over drinks, not lunch.

Warning: the next three on the list are at the bottom for a reason. These are advanced moves that you don’t want to attempt until you’ve built some confidence that if they go horribly wrong, you have some confidence that you won’t permanently damage your still developing reputation. Read on.

#6) Tell someone what to do. Everything above this list is about listening and this task involves you saying something. More importantly, it involves you telling someone what to do. I don’t know who you are telling or what you’re saying, but the goal is to exert your influence, to test your influence. More importantly, to test your knowledge of the organization and see if this thing you have to say is true. Telling is the sound of your instincts aligning to this particular organization and this thing you are saying is your first bit of inspiration. Trust it. Tell the right person and realize that everyone was waiting for you to say it.

#7) Have an argument. This is the riskiest item on the list, but potentially the most revealing. There’s a good chance when you pull a #6 that this is going to happen anyway. Again, what you are willing to argue about and who is going to be on the other side of the argument is a function of your situation. What you want to understand is how does the organization value conflict? Is it ok that you’re digging your heels in? Do others engage in the argument? Who swoops in to save the day? Can these people argue without losing their shit? Does this team argue out in the open or do they use devious passive aggressive subtlety?

You’re going to learn two valuable things during this professional battle. First, how does this group of people make a decision? Second, you’re going to have a better taste of their passion and their velocity.

#8) Find your inner circle. In your arguments, lunches, drinks, and late nights, you’re going to find kindred spirits. This is the short list of people who share your instincts. These are the ones who complete your sentences and they know your stories. These are the ones who welcome the argument because they know great decisions are made by many. Your inner circle is not exclusive because you’ll go nowhere drawing relationship boundaries among the team. This is the list of people with whom you share your raw inspiration and your stories because you know they’ll gleefully help refine them.

The discovery of your inner circle won’t happen until time has passed. You’ll instinctively be attracted to people who feel comfortable, who feel right, but they can’t be in the inner circle until they’ve passed the test of time. They’ve got to pass through the ninety day list a few times before you’ve heard enough stories to let them in.

Finishing the Interview

It’s not just that you forgot to ask key questions during your initial interview process; it’s that the person that you were walking into that interview isn’t who you are. You’re a resume, you’re a referral, and you’re a reputation.

Your job interview isn’t over until you’ve asked all the questions and heard all of the stories.

Your job interview isn’t over until you understand the unique structure that has formed around this particular group of people. It’s not just the organizational chart, it’s the intricate personalities which have settled into a comfortable, complex, communication structure.

Your job interview isn’t over until you have a framework for how you are going interact with these people and that means understanding not only their goals, but also their invaluable personal quirks. What they tell you the first week has more to do with the fact that you’re new than what they actually feel. What they tell you after ninety days is the truth.

Your job interview isn’t over until you’ve changed to become part of a new team.

Happy New Year.

17 Responses

  1. I’d be curious to see what this list might be like from the opposite point of view. It’s not all that often that we take a new job for ourselves (speaking for myself there), but as many people come and go I’d be interested in being able to somehow use that same list on them. Any suggestions on implementing that?

  2. julian 17 years ago

    Extremely well-timed for me. I had sort of gut feelings about many of these, but it was great to see them spelled out and detailed.

    It’ll be good in a month when I’m nervous to come back and reassure myself: “Rands says I should do this.” ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Great post…

    In my experience that has been absolutely the case.

  4. wibble without a pause 17 years ago

    Oh dear. I’m the team leader and I am not doing the other side of this stuff.


  5. Great timing on this one – I just accepted a new job offer today ๐Ÿ™‚

    Glad to see others agree with my instincts. The ‘have an argument’ part is very useful, as it really shows other sides to people.

  6. reilly 17 years ago

    thats sage advice

  7. Amen. I’m about 60 days into my latest gig – just getting to the hard part :-).

  8. Mark Space 17 years ago

    Well written post. I couldn’t agree more. As a automation engineering consultant for more than 15 years, I have to say this advice is applicable with minor tweaks for consultants and contractors as well. Great advice.

  9. Great great great great post. I’ve been trying to articulate a lot of those points on my own recently, but you nailed it.

  10. chikoz 17 years ago

    Bravo, Rands!

    This was an amazing read because I just started a new job about, oh, 90 days ago. I started with 2 other guys and while I’ve pretty much ticked off everything on your list, the other 2 haven’t. And I can see they already being marginalized in the team structure.

    This needs to go in Spolsky’s next book, no question about it.

  11. pheryx 17 years ago

    Absolutely brilliant. I’m coming up on ninety days (Jan. 23rd) at a new job and I’ve crossed every item on your list except the one about getting into an argument.

    As an employee I’ve given companies the 90-days test of my own. After ninety days I can always tell if I’m going to stay there for five years or start planning an exit. Your article may be the recipe for passing this test. I’m sending this to my coworkers. Thanks Rands.

  12. Konstantin 17 years ago

    Rands, where were you with this article a year ago when I got a new job? That was the first time in my life when I really had to stumble through the whole list item by item without fully understanding what I was doing. Tough experience. Now I know I was neither crazy nor seeing things.

    Thanks a lot for the brilliant article full of insight!

  13. How accurate! and appropriate.

  14. I’ll also note that this first 90 days is one of the places where us remote workers really lose. I’ve had 5 jobs in my career. For two of them I was in the office for (at least) the entire first 90 days, and for the others I was there about 4 to 6 weeks of that 90 days and working at home the rest. It’s not crippling, but it definitely makes things harder. It also becomes crucially important to get some quality social time (read: drinking) in during those first weeks when visiting the office.

  15. Ugggn 17 years ago

    Nice article indeed, but it’s been a while, and we could use another one! We miss you, Rands!

  16. adolf garlic 17 years ago

    Bollocks. Just be yourself. If you are worried that you will offend people then you are just a brown nosing liar afraid to show your true self. Beauty = truth. Everything else is bunch of sycophantic crap you can’t trust. No one likes a faker. Don’t be a clone. Oooh how exciting, a team of people all copying one another, all trying to be alike, not wanting to offend. Oooh can I come to lunch and sit and make some inoffensive conversation with you, you’re bound to like it. A thousand years on your knees or one day standing? In the words of Trevor the Skinhead: Bollocks!

  17. nayana 17 years ago

    hi rands, i am trying to do the right things for someone who is going to join me in a couple of days…because i am getting over someone who left my team within the first ninety days….your list shows what she did not do…and how we really ‘freaked’ out….whatever we did to make her comfortable did not work. so i was looking for another angle.