Fighting First Impressions


A buddy of mine, we’ll call him Jim, took a job at software company X a year ago. What followed was unpleasant.

He was given a straightforward assignment in the beginning: design and code a new micro service to deal with analytics reporting for their business analysts. The analysts were using multiple Excel spreadsheets at the time, and combining them manually was time consuming and tedious.

Flash forward 8 months, and Jim’s service was in production, doing what it was designed to do. The business analysts were ecstatic because it was saving them hours of time every week.

But Jim’s boss was not happy. His boss had wanted the service done in 3 months, but it had taken 6. His boss had wanted technology A using Framework B, but Jim had chosen technology C and Framework D.

Flash forward another few months, and Jim and his boss engage in constant conflict. Every week something comes up that requires a closed door meeting. Jim’s boss never seems happy with anything, and he’s cold and dismissive towards Jim in front of the team.

My advice to Jim: Find a new job. If you can do it within the same organization, then great, but otherwise you’re going to have to switch companies.

Now many of you will be thinking “That sounds like a terrible boss. Of course Jim should find a new job, for that reason alone.”

I don’t disagree. Maybe Jim’s boss is truly unreasonable. But that’s not the reason I told him to get a new job.

It’s age old wisdom that first impressions matter, especially in new jobs, and software development jobs are no different.

The problem is that Jim’s boss got a terrible first impression of Jim because his first assignment did not make his boss happy, and now it’s going to be near impossible for Jim to recover.

Let’s explore why. Over the years I’ve read a ton of psychology, but I’m by no means an expert. What follows will be a completely non-scientific explanation of what I believe happens in people, based off of my own experience and of those I’ve worked with.

At our core, we represent other people as a series of thought patterns. Thought patterns grow stronger and stronger over time. The more you think a given thought, the stronger that pattern becomes in your brain, the more habituated that thinking becomes, and the more likely you will be to fall into that thought pattern in the future.

Which means that if your first thought patterns about someone are negative, you’ll probably keep thinking negatively. Momentum builds over time, and it’s hard to stop once it gets going. We all know how hard it is to change a habit.

In Jim’s case, it doesn’t matter if his boss is right or wrong. What matters is that his boss will no longer be able to think of Jim rationally. Even if Jim is doing his job better than his coworkers, he’s going to be fighting the negative impression in his boss’s head. Jim will have to perform twice as well as everyone else to receive the same amount of praise and accolades.

If this goes on for long enough, it’ll be impossible to recover. Jim’s boss won’t trust him anymore, and he’ll view Jim as dead weight on the team.

Maybe if Jim’s boss is extremely aware, and Jim works his butt off, he can turn things around. But why bother? Odds are that Jim’s boss is not aware, so it’s probably easier to start over. Jim is on a treadmill leading nowhere when he could just as easily run outside.

This is one of those situations where normal job advice applies to software jobs, even though we work in hip offices, and we don’t have to interact with people much. People are still people, and they still control our destinies.

It’s also why I’m a fan of other age-old advice like “show up early and leave late for the first month on a new job.” It follows human psychology by setting the thought momentum of your colleagues in the right direction, and as far as I can tell, it works.

So if you find yourself in Jim’s shoes, where you’re in constant conflict with your superiors, especially if it’s a new relationship, I’d try to switch jobs.

It’s important to remember that the conflict isn’t necessarily your fault. Maybe you’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, and your boss is being unreasonable. But realize that the odds of the situation improving are stacked against you. The thought momentum in your boss’s head is too hard to change.

Personally, when my source of income and my future raises are on the line, I prefer to work in situations where the odds are in my favor.

Photo Credit: Kevin T. Houle