Recent Foster Alumni Share Experiences Beginning Their Careers in a Virtual World

2020 has brought several changes to our lives, from how we attend classes and collaborate with peers to how we socialize with friends and loved ones. One change that hit home for many recent graduates this year was the experience of beginning their career in a virtual environment. With the uncertainty of how companies will handle their workplace environments for the near future, this may be the experience for some 2021 grads as well. In addition, several companies have already committed to a virtual workplace for their 2021 internship programs. To help future Foster graduates prepare for such environments, Chris Milliken with the Foster Career Center recently caught up with Johnny Liang and Isabel Austin, two recent Foster alumni who began their careers with Coalfire this summer.

Connecting and Networking

As a new grad, you can use the ‘new card’ to spend time networking and establishing connections with colleagues. This will allow you to expand your network of resources down the road as well. Johnny shared that the scope of his network is larger due to the virtual environment since he now has regular interactions with colleagues across locations that may not have occurred as often in a traditional workplace setting. Connecting with fellow alumni is another great way to use your ‘new card’ to expand your network even further. Isabel mentioned how challenging networking has been in the virtual environment, adding that it can be very uncomfortable to connect with new colleagues and build a relationship. She suggests pushing through the uncomfortable aspects to reap the full benefits of your future colleagues. One way she stays confident in these interactions is by preparing and being organized. She makes lists of her questions as they come up to ensure she is connecting with the best colleagues for support.

Johnny, who had a previous internship in 2019, adds that being in person for his internship made it much easier to make a connection and to ask day-to-day questions. Being in the virtual environment can add formality to such interactions when you must schedule time to ask questions versus stopping by someone’s desk at the office. When trying to connect with and work effectively with colleagues, communication style is very important to consider. Both alumni agree that determining communication preferences from day 1, especially with your direct manager, is critical for developing strong working relationships.

Onboarding and Training

Isabel talked about not being able to learn via observation can be challenging to shadow colleagues and get up to speed as quickly. Many companies, including Coalfire, have virtual onboarding and training opportunities to help new grads connect with their teams and new colleagues. Ideally your new manager will set up meetings with your new colleagues to facilitate those initial connections or provide a list of colleagues for you to connect with. If not, Isabel suggests that new grads take the initiative and ask for a list of names. Coalfire supports their new employees by assigning them with a ‘first friend’ to help provide a resource for addressing those uncomfortable questions.

On-the-job training is just as important as ever in this virtual environment. Coalfire has shifted all formal training to virtual formats, including their Consulting Bootcamp which is traditionally in person. Some training, including workshops to learn more about the company structure, culture, etc. and self-learning resources have been online previously and continue to do so. Both alumni shared that these virtual training formats were a positive experience. In addition to providing context and structural information about the firm, they also provided a framework to help new employees understand what a consulting project entails from end-to-end at Coalfire.

Finding a Balance

2020 has stressed the importance of finding the right balance of work and home life as well. Working and living in the same space can bring challenges to the separation of your work and personal life. Johnny finds balance by using separate devices for work and personal use, which is not only a good habit but also enforced by some company policies. Johnny also schedules breaks for himself during his week to ensure he is not working nonstop. Turning off notifications helps to set boundaries. Building a daily routine also helps connect and disconnect from work appropriately, such as walking after the workday. This not only helps to decompress and disconnect mentally but can help remedy the excessive screen time. Your physical space can also play a critical role in finding a healthy balance, especially when you work and live in the same space. Isabel recommends creating a comfortable work-specific space that makes you happy and keeps you motivated to stay fully engaged and connected. Finding new hobbies can help you decompress as well. For example, Johnny baked lots of bread and cakes this year and has become a coffee connoisseur.

Johnny feels like he is stricter with himself in the virtual setting because there is a risk to appearing disconnected while working from home. On the other hand, Johnny finds himself more productive at times because there are less distractions than in an office and the commute is nonexistent. With this extra time, Johnny has been able to actively strive for a balance by exploring new hobbies and interests.

For many, the social aspects of the workplace contribute to a positive experience but getting to know your colleagues can be more challenging in a virtual workplace. Many companies have created social opportunities like Zoom happy hours and other events for colleagues to connect socially in a casual format. Coalfire has created such opportunities for their employees to stay connected socially in casual, but virtual, formats.

As students think about starting internships or new careers in 2021, here are some key pieces of advice shared by Isabel and Johnny.

  • Communication skills are critical to starting off your career successfully. Do not be afraid to ask for help and find answers to questions. Being able to create a network of resources for yourself will help mitigate any long-term issues.
  • Independently motivate yourself. Not everyone will check in on your all the time. Be on top of your workload so you do not fall behind.
  • Slow down to speed up. Have patience in yourself and others. Realize that it will take time to learn and absorb new information. Slowing down, but staying motivated, will help you learn the skills needed to be successful in the long-term.
  • Stay organized and manage your time well. It is easy to yes say to all projects and opportunities but not if that sacrifices the quality of work. Use organizational skills to know if you have the time and hours to take on new commitments.

Victoria Parker, a recruiter for Coalfire, also shared some advice for current students who are currently recruiting in the virtual space.

  • Show up to your commitments. It shows professional behavior to follow through with commitments and attend events and interactions you have signed up for. When attending a virtual employer event, avoid bad habits from your other virtual interactions. Turn your camera on. Ask questions. Be aware of your body language. Being fully present and engaged will help you stand out.
  • Be prepared. Showing up with basic knowledge of the company can help set you apart. If interviewing, research the teams and work in more depth to understand what to expect. Ask your recruiter if this information is not easily available. You will not be an expert but being prepared will illustrate your passion and interest and will help you stand out in the process. Also, leave time for the employer to ask you questions as well.
  • Show a willingness to learn. Employers do not expect you to know everything about the field or role. If you are honest with employers about your skills and knowledge while expressing your interests and willingness to learn, this will show character and will help you stand out as a candidate.

Coalfire is a cybersecurity consulting firm based in Colorado with local offices in Seattle and Bellevue. Students interested in opportunities can visit check out more about life at Coalfire on their careers page (www.coalfire.com/careers) and email Victoria Parker at [email protected] if you have any questions about a career with Coalfire.