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Six Things I Wasn’t Taught in School: Starting a Job During a Pandemic

My engineering professors at Vanderbilt always told us that there’s only so much you can learn in the classroom and that we would have to be prepared to learn on the job after graduation. I knew they were right—the real world is a lot more complicated and unpredictable than carefully crafted homework problems—but I underestimated just how unpredictable the real world can be. I expected to encounter things like pipe clogs and construction delays, but one thing I absolutely did not expect to encounter was a global pandemic. Learning on the job not only looks a lot different when you’re starting the job amidst a pandemic, but there’s also a whole new set of things to learn. Below are just handful of lessons I’ve learned while starting my career as a Civil EIT at SSR during the pandemic, and I’m quite confident that they’re not lessons I could have ever learned from a textbook.


Lesson 1: Despite conventional wisdom, a noisy desk neighbor can actually be a good thing.

The loud colleague is probably not everyone’s first choice to have sitting near them in the office—in fact, the google search “how to deal with a loud coworker” returns over seven million results! As someone who has absolutely googled that question before, I was a bit concerned when one of the only other in-person colleagues on my side of the office introduced himself with a lighthearted warning that he’s known for being the loudest member of our team. However, I quickly realized that noisy desk neighbors are quite useful when you want to pretend that your mostly-empty office building is full of people! My rough calculations suggest that one Richard Chappell can hit decibel levels close to those in your average mid-sized office, although others that know Richard might argue he can get even higher during particularly lively meetings. All jokes aside, he has been quite helpful to learn from and has single-handedly made me realize that noisy desk neighbors can be a surprising perk!


Lesson 2: One-way floor arrows can cause pose navigational issues.

The SSR office is big, so I made sure to pay close attention when a colleague pointed out the bathroom while showing me to my desk on my first day. The one issue? I didn’t account for the one-way floor arrows that had been taped down around the building. You see, usually the route from the bathroom to your desk and the route from your desk to the bathroom would be the same but no, not in the era of one-way floor arrows. While I’d like to pretend that this was no issue for my internal compass, I did in fact end up on the completely wrong side of the building on my first solo attempt to find the bathroom. Am I proud of it? No. Did I also still get lost on my second attempt? Yes.


Lesson 3: A mostly-empty office means fewer people to notice that your first bathroom break took over twenty minutes.

See above.


Lesson 4: Desk décor is the pandemic equivalent of small talk.

I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of different endings to the phrase “you can tell a lot about a person by…”. I found one ending in particular to be especially useful during my first few weeks at SSR: desk décor. While you’re probably not going to learn someone’s entire life story through their desk decorations, I did find it to be an incredibly underrated tool when it came to getting a feel for my colleagues early on. A Bonnaroo decorative lunch box? Must be a music lover. A very colorful painting clearly made by a child? They probably have young kids at home. A framed newspaper documenting the Astros winning the World Series? A sports fan, albeit one with controversial taste.


Lesson 5: Company photo libraries are infinitely more valuable during a pandemic.

SSR has an internal photo library with pictures of every single employee, and while I’m sure it still has its uses when everyone is in the office, it is absolutely invaluable when you’ve not been able to meet most of your colleagues in person. It’s easily the best study guide I’ve come across in all my years. Email from a faceless colleague? Time to pull up the photo library. Someone with their camera off in a video call? Photo library. Stumble across the name of a colleague in file? You guessed it, photo library.


Lesson 6: Company photo libraries also have some limitations during a pandemic.

A month or two into the job, I was invited to a socially distant in-person client meeting with colleagues who I had never met in person. I thought my photo library research had easily prepared me to figure out who was who, but I quickly realized that my research hadn’t accounted for two crucial things: masks and quarantine hair. Was this person who I suspected, or was it a client who also just happens to have the same hair and eye color? Had my short-haired interviewer from months ago grown out his hair Bubba Watson style over quarantine, or was I actually looking at the project’s long-haired architect? Several introductions and a multi-hour meeting later, I finally had pieced together who was who, but let me tell you, it was no small task. While I still stand by Lesson 5, I maybe should have considered photoshopping some masks onto the photos before diving too deep into studying.


Thankfully I’ve come a long way since my first days at SSR last summer. Although there are still colleagues who I’ve yet to meet in person, I’ve been able to learn my way around the one-way hallways and have been able to form connection through more substantial means than desk decorations and photo libraries.  Eight months in, I’m still learning—from silly things like which room in my house has the best lighting for video calls now that I’ve transitioned to working from home to more serious things like how to ensure that the mostly-virtual nature of work these days doesn’t slow down my growth as an EI. My professors were right—these aren’t the kinds of things you can learn in a classroom—but each one, even the silly little lessons, are going to help me grow into a more adaptable engineer than the classroom ever could.