The environment you work in can have an enormous impact on you and your career. Its routines, power dynamics and communication networks play a big role in determining how successful and happy you will be. Muchenja Namumba shares how her current company has set her up to succeed as a software developer. Here are her experiences and learnings.
After finishing school in Zambia, Muchenja decided that she wanted to study computer science at UCT. She secured a study visa and graduated a few years later. However, when it came time for her to do her Honours degree, she struggled to secure funding as a foreign student and had to start looking for a job.
Most companies, however, aren’t willing to employ someone at that experience level with visa issues. Some of the companies that did employ Muchenja said that they could only pay her for half a day’s work even though they wanted her to do full-time hours.
“The companies I worked for that year were very hectic, ‘prove yourself’, kinds of environments. I never felt like I was good enough. I had to work ten times harder than the people around me and even when I did, it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.”
When she had made enough money, she enrolled for an Honours degree in Information Systems at UCT. It was during this year that she first came into contact with the company where she is now working as a full-time software developer. “My company didn’t even blink an eye at the fact that I was foreign,” Muchenja says. “They were so supportive with everything – they helped me secure my work permit, welcomed me into the team and set me up to really grow in this role. From the get-go, I knew that it was the best possible environment for me to do well in.”
Reflecting on her experience, Muchenja thinks that a great work environment, where employees can thrive, is made up of three key things:
- Supportive leadership
- Belief in employees and their abilities
- Unlimited learning opportunities
Here is how she feels her company has made use of these things to set her up to win.
Supportive leadership systems
Relatable team leads
Having the right leader can be a game changer. When Muchenja joined her company, she found herself working under a young developer who had been catapulted into the role of lead developer in the early stages of the company. Having to teach himself things on the fly meant that he ended up being a great support for new developers who were struggling to find their feet.
“Honestly, he was the best person I could have had to help me settle in when I first joined the tech team. Because he had to teach himself so much, he understood what it was like to be uncertain and this made approaching him with difficulties easy,” Muchenja says.
Having a leader who is not afraid to talk about their experiences or share their challenges goes a long way in helping people feel comfortable.
Too often, the title of ‘team lead’ establishes this person as untouchable, and other team members feel too intimidated to reach out when they need to.
Muchenja doesn’t think this should be the case. “I never felt like I had to be perfect, working with this team lead. He shared that he had struggled with many of the same things that I struggled with, and so, because of how honest he was, it became pretty instinctual to turn to him when anything hard came up for me.”
Knowing that her company is keen to have its employees discuss their well-being and experiences with team leads every other week is something that Muchenja finds really encouraging. “I like the fact that I regularly get the chance to sit down with my team lead and check in on where I am at and how I am doing,” she says. “The radically candid feedback I regularly receive from my team lead helps me spot my weaknesses and areas needing improvement.”
Because she has a safe space to share what’s on her mind with someone that she trusts, Muchenja has found that she is no longer scared to voice her ideas and opinions.
Now, when she thinks of something new or can see a path to take with a project, she knows that she can share what’s on her mind and have it be taken seriously. This sets her up to want to actively contribute to the team.
In addition to this, Muchenja really felt valued when the CEO recently included her on a big overseas project. “We had never done anything like this before and it was going to be a huge learning experience, not only for me but for everyone that was involved.” Working on this project was an opportunity to work alongside the CEO and have check-ins with him. “I really got to see how much he cares about the people who work for his company and how much confidence he has in our various abilities. That’s when I knew that I had made the right choice when I signed my contract here.”
When a company takes the time to make sure their employees are doing alright, both on a professional and a personal level, a safe environment is established.
Believing in employees and their abilities
Providing opportunities that stretch you
Early on in her new job, Muchenja found herself working on or even responsible for projects way before she felt like she was ready.
“My team lead would tell me, ‘Hey, that new project that we just signed with that international client has been assigned to you. Congrats, I believe in you!’. Suddenly, I’d find myself in charge of work that had extremely high stakes and, more often than not, I would stress.”
All the fears from Muchenja’s previous experiences would come rushing back and it was hard for her to feel like she was good enough to take on such important work. “When you come from a place where people assign only the simplest tasks to you, it takes a lot of self-confidence to accept that you can actually take on something bigger.”
As time went on, Muchenja came to realise how good this level of responsibility was for her own confidence and growth. “As I got more and more of these projects, I started to realise that giving this work to me meant that the company trusted me and valued my contributions. It took a while but now, when something new lands in my lap, I have the confidence to grab it with both hands and run with it.”
Making people feel like they are trusted by handing them projects to run can boost confidence levels ten-fold, which means they can reach new heights, both personally and at work.
Letting people own their work
Something that came with owning the work on big projects was the opportunity to present this work to clients. “The mindset where I work is that it’s important to have the person who has done the work demo it to the people they have done it for.”
Instead of relying on account managers or other senior members of a company to be the sole point of contact with clients, letting the people who actually do the work interact with customers is an excellent way to establish a sense of accountability and ownership amongst people.
“It’s also a great way to establish relationships, build trust and open up communication channels,” Muchenja says.
Setting up unlimited learning opportunities
Providing access to resources
When it comes to the more technical side of the job, Muchenja has found that every resource she needs to upskill has been made easily accessible. “I arrived on my first day only knowing a couple of languages that I had worked with at varsity,” Muchenja recalls. “The tech stack my new team used was a lot broader and I had no idea how to use most of it.”
Knowing that she had come into the role as a graduate with minimal experience, her team lead worked out a plan to help Muchenja quickly level up. He combined online courses and practical work to practice what she was learning.
Importantly, he made sure that the practical work was relevant and actually addressed a need that the company had.
By assigning her a task that had an important outcome but only an internal deadline, Muchenja could push herself without feeling too stressed and know that the work she was doing was valuable.
Investing in tools and courses to upskill employees helps with continuous growth.
Encouraging team interactions
“Something that really stands out for me, working at my company, is the opportunity to work closely with so many different members of the team,” Muchenja says. “I am not kept in a box – I can reach out to anyone and pull anyone in. By doing this, I get to help others and learn a lot at the same time.”
Muchenja particularly enjoys working with the younger developers who join the team: “I felt like I was extremely supported when I joined, and love now being in a position where I can help people who might feel like I used to feel – it’s really rewarding.”
When companies allow employees to collaborate with each other and share ideas, learning opportunities become unlimited. Not only do people get to learn new practical skills, but they learn interpersonal skills, which are important for growth in other areas of professional and personal life.
“I feel really lucky to be where I am now,” Muchenja says. “I have the opportunity to grow and learn new things every day. I feel valued and respected, and I know that I have the support, resources and opportunities I need to do the job, and do it well.”