Learning to Thrive in a Large Company

|
I did my undergrad in India, grad school in the U.S., but both education systems fell short in preparing me for what was coming in my real career. I’ve worked at three different companies so far; Caterpillar Incorporated, which is a giant Fortune 50 company, Corning Incorporated, which is slightly smaller, but still a global company, and most recently Fitbit Incorporated, which is a startup recently publicly listed and trying to grow.
 
Every company has its own distinct characteristics, but I’ve learned two lessons that apply to all the companies I’ve worked for. The first is how to understand the company culture and use it to overcome the learning curve. And the second is how to organize and prioritize your day-to-day life in the professional environment. 
 
Within the first month at Caterpillar I was overwhelmed. I had all these meetings scheduled and hundreds of emails flying around. How do you sort through that?  No one taught me about that in grad school. I was like a lost puppy, not understanding how to connect dots. I reached out to my manager, and my manager showed me an org chart, explaining how people are aligned within the company and how information is organized and trickles down from the CEO level to every engineer in the company.
 
Then I scheduled one-on-one meetings with key people. I met with key people in fuel systems, engine systems, machining etc. The first thing I learned was that I actually had a personal rapport with a lot of these individuals. I also got some direction regarding corporate goals, my project goals, and what needed to be executed. Finally, I got some advice on how I should run my project based on their experience and information. These things helped me tremendously in excelling at Caterpillar, and again at my other companies as well. 
 
How does information transfer or flow within the company?  Meetings, meetings, meetings. Sometimes there is a pre-preliminary meeting for a preliminary meeting for a meeting. But without having the meetings you don't have everyone aligned and you don't have a plan of action to move forward. I was spending at least eight hours at work every day, and out of those eight hours it felt like I was only getting two to three hours of time to work because I was sitting in meetings. 
 
It was getting me frustrated, but through frustration comes self-development when you try to innovate your way out of the situation. So I reached out to colleagues, and they told me one simple trick to reduce your time in meetings is to block your work time on the calendar so no one else can block that time for you. Also, whenever you are scheduling a meeting with others, send out an agenda and a desired outcome ahead of time. These tips helped me cope with the inevitable meetings and manage my time effectively. 
 
How do you process the unavoidable information overload? Initially it seemed like I was drinking information through a fire hose: emails, meeting minutes, slide presentations, documents, shared drives, and so on. How can you use this information effectively? The most useful tool that I found through one of my colleagues was to make a mind map. It’s a wonderful tool to take notes and collect different ideas and group them together in an affinity diagram.  
 
There's various software tools that can help you do this. The tools allow you to zoom into the details whenever you want, and you can even use the mind map as talking points when presenting to your managers. Another strategy for dealing with information overload was simple checklists, which helped me to prioritize my actions throughout the day. The checklist can be a living document that you can update anytime. 
 
Then to understand how tasks were connected, I actually used a Gantt chart, typically used for project management, for my personal information management.  These charts really illuminate the interdependencies of different tasks and can be very helpful. 
 
When you join a large company or a small company, doesn't matter, understand the work culture, understand the mission, and understand the values. Reach out to your managers, reach out to your colleagues, and ask for help. And the number one thing, organize and prioritize the information that's coming at you at lightning pace.

Ritesh Lakhkar is an interdisciplinary engineer and is currently working as Senior Operations Program Manager in consumer electronics wearables at Fitbit Inc. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Govt. College of Engineering, Pune, India, a M.S. from Purdue University, and a Professional Engineer license.

ASME FutureME Blog Series: Transitions was derived from the Mini-Talks program at 2018 ASME E-Fest West and East, which covered different perspectives and best practices on transitioning from school to work.