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What To Do When You’re Struggling In Tech Probation

Probation periods can be especially trying for tech jobs. Let’s look at how to handle them.
Boss checking female employee work results, probationary period at workplace
Adobe Stock / motortion
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

Probation periods can be uneven. Some people experience them no differently than regular time on the job, while others go through them feeling extremely self-conscious (and sometimes awfully anxious).

Whichever way you approach them, in any case, there’s no doubt that probation periods are a bad time to encounter trouble. Struggling on your new job will dent your confidence, which will make you struggle more, which could ultimately lead to your boss dropping the bomb that you didn’t pass probation – and then it’s back to looking for jobs.

This can be especially angst-inducing in a field as competitive as that of tech –  so what can be done if your probation period is turning out to be a much bumpier road then you were hoping for?

Let’s take a look at a few of the steps you can take.

Reach Out

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Adobe Stock / Panya Studio

This one is by far the most important item on this list, and honestly I’d be satisfied if it were your only takeaway. People who are on probation have the unfortunate (if understandable) habit of covering up their problems and not asking for help when they’re struggling, thinking that doing so will be interpreted as a sign that they can’t do their job.

In fact, not asking for help is far more likely to lose you your job than to preserve it. Start by talking to your fellow team members. Explain what you’re struggling with and what sort of help you need. Be friendly and humble, but not needy, pushy, or servile. And don’t ask at random – wherever possible, identify the team members who are most suitable to help you with your particular problem.

If that doesn’t get you unstuck, it’s time to ask your manager for help. Do a little bit of preparation, as you will want to go into detail regarding what the problem is and (this is super important!) what steps you took to address it. It’s your manager’s job to make sure you can perform at your best, so turn to them when and as you need – including during probation.

Take Initiative

Some parts of your job will likely be streamlined and you will have no control over them. In other areas, however, you should realistically have a measure of freedom to organise your work.

If things aren’t working out for you, then within the limits of that freedom you should try and change the way you work. Routine, schedule, workload, collaboration – talk to your manager before turning any of these things upside down, naturally, but make adjustments where you have to.

Make sure none of your work hours are idle – if they are, find a way to fill them. Look for ways to go the extra mile, and take up some tasks you may not be expected to, at least as soon as you are reasonably capable with your core duties.

One caveat only: although you want to go the extra mile, I do not recommend working overtime for no extra pay. It might seem like a possible emergency measure to save your job (and maybe in some rare cases it is), but mostly you’re just setting a bad precedent. It tells the rest of the team that you can’t finish your work on time, and your manager that you are willing to be exploited. There are better ways to show a special effort.

Take Perspective

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Adobe Stock / Kevin Carden

Unless you lied about your skills at the interview, there is a solid chance that most of your probationary struggles are psychological. You may feel that whatever problem you have been given to resolve is insurmountable, but that’s just not very likely – new hires are usually not given the hardest problems.

I understand that being told “Don’t panic!” isn’t very helpful if you are an inherently anxious person, but at least be aware that the challenge, or much of the challenge, is probably in your head. (The possibility exists that your company may have given a disproportionately difficult challenge to a newbie, in which case, see above – talk to your boss).

On the subject of perspective, understand too that your manager and your company want you to succeed. You have people on your side, and they believe in you. The last thing they want to do is to waste more time and money going back to the job market to look for somebody else for your role. This is why my first item of advice was to ask for help – if you need it, well, usually you can find it.

Take Care Of Yourself

If you’re stressed about being in probation, then you may attempt to compensate by over-exerting. That means skipping breaks, not stepping away from work until absolutely every last thing is finished, or working extra hours. This in turn will have the effect of disrupting your sleeping and eating patterns, further increasing your stress in a vicious cycle, and damaging not just your productivity but your personal life as well.

If you notice yourself falling into that sort of pattern, it’s time to take your foot off the gas pedal. Schedule regular breaks and use them to do something away from the computer. Get some exercise, even if it’s just taking walks. Make sure you eat and sleep properly. Also, look into stress-relieving routines – meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or whatever does the trick for you.

As an addendum to the above, if you’re worried about keeping your job, it’s probably a good idea to take care of your presentation as well. Dress reasonably smart, and don’t neglect your hygiene. Even if you work from home and this only matters for Zoom calls, it will still give off a professional vibe to your manager, and help boost your own confidence as well.

Move On If Necessary

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Adobe Stock / stockphoto-graf

Sometimes you have done all of the above, but it’s just not enough. If that is so, understand that a setback is not a tragedy. Many if not most people will experience what it’s like to not pass their probation at least once or twice in their careers. It’s perfectly possible that you simply applied for the wrong job this time, or that the recruiter misjudged. The job market is not infallible, and neither are you.

This can be hard, of course, but now is not the time to abandon yourself to a negative attitude. See your probation as a learning experience, and use it – retrospectively if it comes to that – to assess what you were missing and what you needed to work on, and – why not? – perhaps which new topic you might want to learn next. That knowledge will be precious in due time, and will prove key when you prepare your next job application.

If you feel that you are struggling in probation, then adopting an attitude of “I must keep this job at all costs” simply isn’t healthy. You’re human like everyone else, and like everyone else, you can’t always win. Just move on and keep going. Something better will come your way.

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