I've just changed career from academia (PhD in Mathematics + postdoc in machine learning) to industry. I got fired from two jobs because of communication issues with my supervisors.

My previous job was with a tiny startup, where the CEO was also my direct supervisor. He wanted me to do "some statistical analysis". However, I needed to get some deterministic results to form a probabilistic distributional model before going to the statistical analysis. However, I failed to explain this to him because he was a former software developer with almost no statistics or machine learning experience. He kept pushing for "some statistical results", and fired me from my trial period stating that I wasn't progressing much.

My next job was with a small tech startup in France that works in computer vision. One of the two CEOs was my direct supervisor. He has an MSc in Artificial Intelligence, but I felt his technical knowledge is not really that good. For example, he suggested to use models that turned out quite unrelated to the problem. It wasted 2 weeks of my time, and they fired me after 6 weeks of the 4-month trial period because I met only half of the objective.

Deep down and honestly, I want to solve the problem. However, it feels like the project objectives are not communicated clearly during the technical discussions. The supervisors don't have much technical knowledge and they always talk in a hand-wavy manner. As someone coming from a different background, I fully understand their limitations.

I ask them repeatedly for a clearer explanation, but it never became clear enough. This is different from what I was used to in academia, where the starting point and the final goal are more or less clear, and we would build everything in between.

How could I address this problem so things are expressed more clearly?

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    Please do not take offense, but if you had communication problems in your last job so bad you were fired, and you have similar problems with your current company, are you positive it is primarily your bosses fault and not your own? – pm1391 May 5 '18 at 13:46
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    I think it's a common issue when switching from academia to "the real world" for want of a better term. People are not interested in research, they are interested in results. They may use incorrect terminology or provide vague descriptions - it's up to you to decipher their needs and give them something approximating the results they actually need. If you keep telling them that they are using incorrect terminology, and communications are poor, you risk coming across as an obstructionist. The issue may be more with you than with them. – user1666620 May 5 '18 at 13:47
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    Did you tell them "Sure, I can do that, but first will need to spend some time analyzing and classifying the data. This will take approximately X hours/days/weeks"? Or did you tell them "That can't be done as the data isn't even classified"? Remember, the boss doesn't need to be competent in your field of expertise. If they were competent in that field, they wouldn't need to hire you. – user1666620 May 5 '18 at 13:57
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    Don't send an urgent email. This is something to to discuss face to face. – paparazzo May 5 '18 at 14:07
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    this is probably one of the most useful questions on this exchange, and it's a shame to see it get downvotes. – bharal May 6 '18 at 22:14

When there is a communication issue, then there are always two sides to it. You mentioned that you faced the same problem in your previous job, so it is not unlikely that you are partially responsible. However, it is hard to give you any useful concrete advise on what you could be doing wrong without interacting with you personally. So I will try to stick to more universally applicable advise regarding how to address communication issues in general.

I've written down a list of 4-5 such communication issues, and would like to send them a respectful email stating them clearly.

Stating your communication problems in writing might not be the best approach. Interpersonal problems are best solved by talking from person to person. That's especially the case when the relation is already strained (as implied by "the CTO/CEO expressed dissatisfaction at my work already"). Written communication is easy to misinterpret when it comes to conveying emotions. What you meant to pe polite, might come across as snobby. What you meant to be constructive criticism, might come across as nagging.

So send them a request for a 1 on 1 meeting about how you can improve your communication between you and them.

Then bring up the problems you wrote down. When you discuss them:

  1. Do not blame them! Start from the assumption that the problem is at least partially on your side.
  2. Don't just state problems, propose solutions. Make suggestions how communication could be improved.
  3. Be open to counter-proposals.

And another thing I would like to add regarding " I feel [my superiors] technical skills are really not good": This is one of the greatest differences between academic institutions and companies: While hierarchies in academia put the most knowledgeable people in charge, companies works the other way around. Managers hire people who have the technical skills they personally lack. When you work in a company, your superior will almost always be less skilled and knowledgeable about your field of expertise than you are. That is why communication skills are so important. It is your job to explain the technical problems to your superiors, and to do it in a way that they can understand them.

  • "When there is a communication issue, then there are always two sides to it." No, it might be that one side is aggressive/ completely irrational/ changing their opinion about how to do things every day and lying that they have always said A and the other one isn't. – BigMadAndy May 6 '18 at 7:29
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    The second thing: you are 100% correct what you write about managers not needing to be specialists. However, the OP actually writes about his manager giving him very exact guidelines to follow and insisting that he does what he tells him to do. That's the problem. And not the fact that his boss doesn't have a clue, which is, as you correctly notice, completely normal. – BigMadAndy May 6 '18 at 11:02
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    @Toss what you describe isn't a "communication issue". Nobody encounters that and says "I have a communication issue with X". They say "X is a liar". – bharal May 6 '18 at 22:17
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    @Toss it is the responsibility of the employee to push back when requests are outrageous or nonsensical. From the sounds of it the manager gave very exact guidelines on how to fail at the task, and OP just... did them? And now OP says there are communication issues? Seems like the OP didn't communicate the problem, which makes the communication issue... the OP's. – bharal May 6 '18 at 22:20

I think there are two issues here. This assumes that you are not to blame for the issue, i.e. you just present facts to your boss in a factual way, don't play politics, and you are actually right in what you propose:

  1. Business is rarely data-driven.

I could tell you plenty of stories here where my boss believed things that were clearly contradicted by data. When told so, they would get angry with the person sharing this info.

Now, you work for a tech company, which can make it easier, but doesn't necessarily need to, which is precisely what you discover now. There's a reason why so many startups disappear in the first years of existence.

It's about the organisational culture. There are companies that are data-driven and treat employees as resources to learn from and take the stance "it doesn't matter what you do as long as the solution works" and those that will fight any opinion that contradicts your boss's stance.

Solution: It depends on your alternatives. If you won't find a job apart from the one you have now, just keep your head down, do everything you're asked to do but keep the communication in writing, so that when it doesn't work you can point to an email that says you knew it wouldn't work from the very beginning. Then switch a job when you have a bit more experience.

If you don't mind having to quit or being fired, ask the CEO for a meeting and discuss the problems. Philipp above describes it well.

  1. You are probably better educated than at least 90% of people you will work with.

There's nothing wrong with that of course! However, it's like with bullying in school. Smartest kids are frequently the ones that get bullied. Also now, people you work with may feel threatened or intimidated by you even if you're the most modest person. They may feel that you know more than they do and, especially if they also feel they are higher in the hierarchy than you are (because of them being your bosses or being longer with the company) they may get hostile to you and try to reinforce the hierarchy with means such as aggression, criticising you behind your back, accusing you of lacking soft skills, spreading malicious rumours about you.

Solution: I've witnessed it in several environments but have never found a solution to that apart from trying to work with people that are similar to you. In your case this probably means applying with big companies, not startups or setting up a startup yourself.

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    i think the reason for the dv - at least from me - is that you don't attempt to answer the OP's question (in the title). "Look for another job" isn't a great idea, OP seems to last a few months at each place before encountering "communication issues". I'm unsure what point 2 is answering, or where it fits in. – bharal May 6 '18 at 22:24

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