Saturday, March 29, 2014

Career Tip – How to not sound incompetent

A wise person once told me, management isn’t interested in what a problem is, they’re interested in a solution.  The wise person was also slightly intoxicated and we were at a bar, so I thought they were full of hullaballoo.. yet I never forgot that line, and it’s been pretty true as I progressed in my career.

In a project meeting recently, one of the members of the testing team, who was representing the testing group, was asked “what percentage complete are you?”.  After some stumbling and bumbling, they said “maybe about 20 percent?”… notice the question mark in that statement?  The project manager came back with “well, how many test cases have you completed?”, to which the testing engineer replied with “we have 53 cases and we’ve completed 0”.  Go head and check your math, twice if you need, but 0/53 is 0.. as in 0 percent.. as in 20 percent less than 20 percent.

The conversation went on where the project manager had to pull teeth to determine, why is it 0% complete?  Why did you state 20%?  What’s the hold up?  It wasn’t meant to be a confrontational meeting, but the testing engineer was defensive and giving up as little information as possible, and the project manager needed an accurate status to report to upper management.

In the end, the testing engineer had a problem, they didn’t have the proper tooling and training to do their testing, so they hit constant road blocks trying to get through their test cases.  You can’t blame her for that.. that’s an institutional issue and not a personal issue.. the personal issue is that she was absolutely un-willing to offer that as a problem.  That’s not a scape goat in any fashion, she was just un-willing to say “hey, I need some help here, I’m testing something I’m not familiar with”.  The meeting closed out with her being visibly upset, and other members of the project consoling her and offering her some assistance in understanding the system she was testing in.  All in all, it worked out OK, but the damage was already done, as she eventually stated “I just can’t wait for this <bleeping> project to be over with”.

Moral of the story here is simple, nothing’s perfect, and nothing ever goes according to plan, but be resilient and offer suggestions on how to move forward.  I’m astonished how often I talk to other software developers who encounter a system issue and throw their hands up in the air, stating “I had an error and didn’t know what to do.”  We live in the era of Google and Bing and Discussion Boards.  This is no longer a world that we can state “not my problem”, it’s a world of “accept ownership of the problem and offer a solution”, something so few seem willing to do nowadays.

My wise friend mentioned above was correct, management isn’t concerned with problems, they want solutions.  Have a problem, raise it to your manager, but also offer what could\should be done to help mitigate it.  What’s so wrong with saying “I was never trained in this?”, or “I don’t know what this means?”  At the end of the day, it’s not a good enough reason for a project to be behind schedule, and managers like employees who help make them look like rock stars.

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