I recently assumed a new position at work: Integrated Product Team Lead (IPTL) for a production program. Being an IPTL is not foreign to me. I’ve done it before, so I’m familiar with the toolbox and expectations, but without exaggeration, this is the first time in 16 years a new position overwhelmed me.
As I said, I have IPTL experience so it’s not the job I’m overwhelmed by. It’s the hardware involved. It’s a different subsystem than what I typically work. I know where it fits in the system and its basic functions. Beyond that, the technical details and challenges are over my head.
Obviously, I was hesitant to accept the position, but the program office and other personnel know me, or at least know of my reputation, and told me of their confidence in me, and added me to meeting invites and the org chart before I formally accepted. That confidence, however, did not alleviate the initial onslaught of data overload.
This is a half-time position, so I’m supporting several other programs at the same time. Because the other work is in my wheelhouse, I noticed right away I gave it more attention by default. It’s easier, more exciting, and the accomplishments are more readily apparent.
I need to force myself to confront the unfamiliar subsystem, but with the bombardment of emails, status, and new acronyms, that was easier said than done. It was all a blur. With no intuition for the hardware, the questions and status all bled together, and I lost track of it all before I could establish traction.
Then a lightbulb came on. I already use Microsoft OneNote for my engineering notebooks, because it offers many advantages over the traditional paper notebook, not the least of which is easier recording and recalling large amounts of data. Therefore, I was sure OneNote could help me accelerate the learning curve I faced.
I created a daily log of the information gathered from emails and meetings. However, simply copying and pasting the information for later consumption wasn’t sufficient. Instead, retention and learning required rewriting the information in my own words. It ensured I actually understood the data and comments as they hit my inbox.
During the first week or two, I found it incredibly helpful to type out full names in place of their acronyms, at least until I could recognize them. Though, to be honest, there is still one acronym I can never remember, but at least I know its function now.
Including the time-stamp of any email or the name of the person delivering the information made searching for and retrieving the primary source a simple process. This was helpful wherever I needed to reply to an earlier email, verify facts, or ask follow-up questions.
I also found an unexpected benefit of maintaining a weekly data log – reduced time writing my weekly program review charts. Part of my self-education plan was highlighting, in various colors, the takeaways and other important facts of each entry. This meant my weekly program review charts were effectively already written. I just needed to copy and paste the highlighted text, reducing this typical hour long task to about 15 minutes.
In summary, being thrown into an already established program facing imminent deadlines is understandably overwhelming. It’s also understandable to struggle to find traction in that kind of sink or swim environment. Keeping ahead of the data dump by summarizing information in a daily log greatly accelerates your understanding and reduces the learning curve, resulting in less stress and the ability to help your team sooner rather than later.