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I recently (6 months ago) got my first job as a Software Developer (before I spent 2.5 years as tech support with some programming/software support). About 20% of the time I don't have any work to do. There is only one other programmer: I was hired to reduce her workload. It seems that she's so busy she doesn't have enough time to make work for me, or it takes a long time for her to break off pieces of work for me to do. Also, most of the work comes in through her, so I am dependent on her for work.

I should also mention that all of our time has to be accounted for, so I have to somewhat fudge the 20% time or put it in the non-billable work bucket (something that is constantly measured).

Our supervisor is a mix of incompetent/lazy/non-confrontational. So I have a hard time believing they would be of help. I'm tempted to start looking for another job, but am worried how 6 months of employment would look.

Should I just start looking for work, or try to fix things at this company?

  • 2
    Sounds like you have plenty of time to write documentation. Also your attitude towards your supervisor is not very healthy and will most likely give you problems during your career. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen May 15 '13 at 10:41
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    This question is not a dup but it is not constructive as it is a rant disguised as a question. Should I just start looking for work, or try to fix things at this company? is not a question we can answer for you – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 17 '13 at 12:40
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Here's a collection of thoughts:

  • Take the initiative - you're talking about a really small team here. Take a non-confrontational initiative - get the manager and the other employee talking about how work can be planned and shared. Don't wait and assume they know how to do this, or that it even needs to be done. A well-developed team has a method for communication about overload, sharing tips, and planning future work. Have ideas, don't just voice a need for a solution. Any crazy idea will get the ball rolling - and so long as it works, there's no need for it to be done any specific way (although processes may help here - agile programming, waterfall - each has a thought for dividing and allocating work)

  • Make others aware - we'll never know, outside looking in, what you've tried or the best way to share the information. But don't let a week of fudging your time card go by without some sort of a notification to your coworker and/or your boss. If no changes are occuring, I would escalate: week 1 - heads up to coworker, week 2 - heads up to coworker and boss referencing previous week's notice to coworker, week 3 - notification in firmer language, week 4 - don't fudge the time card, see if the time reporting system explodes... Different cultures will require different degrees of politeness - in my current job, a quietly spoken "I can do more" will be greeted with a loud "hooray!" and loads more work, many years ago, I literally told my biggest boss "My productivity right now is the equivalent of playing solitaire, please give me something useful to do" in order to get a reassignment. I don't recommend something so blunt until you've tried a NUMBER of polite ways.

  • Verbal and in writing - a particular caveat - putting concerns in writing adds weight. Usually the softer form is to say it, and a form of escalation is an email.

  • Don't attribute motive - you're not psychic. Neither is your boss and your coworker. I'm reading in your post "my coworker is too busy to allocate work", and "my boss is incompentent/lazy/non-confrontational" - a too busy coworker may be readily observable (although many people are capable of looking busy while getting nothing done!), but incompetence is a real judgement call here. It could be true, but with you having 6 months in the field, I'm likely to think that a simple cause here could be that you two haven't figured out how to communicate to him yet. Keep at it. It's not his job to understand you or what you need the first time you try to tell him... it's his job to keep listening, and your job to keep trying until the two of you figure it out.

  • Bring solutions, not problems - In almost any case, depositing a problem on your coworker or boss' doorstep and then waiting patiently for them to fix it is likely to fail. Your coworker is super busy. Your boss doesn't know and may not have time to find the right way to solve it - and at least part of the problem is yours - you're not contributing the value to the company that you could be, and you're faking your time cards. Recommend approaches, or just try stuff. Send an invite for a planning meeting. Book a weekly 1 on 1 with your boss. Suggest a list of potential projects. Something that goes beyond "hey, here's a problem... someone fix it, please". I can almost guarantee - trying 10 solutions will be more likely to bring success here than mentioning the problem 10 times will.

  • Look for feedback - Do you have a skill gap? Is there a learning curve they need you to address? Sometimes it really just does take a while to get the new guy rolling... sometimes you want him to have time to break into the work before you deluge him with the crazy stuff... but if there's any case where they were looking for a skill you haven't shown, ask for the feedback. Particularly if your boss really is non-confrontational, asking yourself may help him be more clear about what he needs.

Anyone who says good workers don't manage their bosses is fooling themselves. Bosses need feedback and input from their people as desperately as people need feedback from bosses. The difference between good bosses and bad ones is the good ones listen.

New job vs. Stay

Depends on specifics, but seeing a new hire looking for a job in 6 months isn't a great sign to a hiring manager. It says to me "I didn't stick around long enough to try to fix the situation". That said, I can see cases of truly toxic work environments or imploding companies where changing jobs is the only option. Only you will know for sure how intolerable the situation is.

Regardless of whether you embark on a job search, try to fix the current situation. Benefits are:

  • during your optional search you can speak about trying to fix your current position
  • you may learn some great political tricks
  • sometimes being so fed up you don't care whether they love you or hate you is just the right place to be for fixing a hard problem that involves people - when you have nothing to loose, you may be more willing to try just about anything

It's certainly not an either/or - if you really can't stand this, start looking.

But be prepared for the question "Why are you looking only 6 months after starting this job?" and be ready with answer that is better than "They don't give me enough work to do." You'll want to be ready to allay the interviewer's concerns that you won't leave in 6 months on the new job, too.

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    I was going to write something simliar to this but you saved me from spending the time. The Look for feedback paragraph is especially critical. If 6 months into a job, you aren't busy and people around you are, there may be a lack of confidence in you that needs to be fixed ASAP. Many bosses won't discuss it, they will just decide you won't work out and get rid of you. You need to know how they view your performance sooner rather than later. If the boss is passive, then you can't be. His perception of you is critical to your success at that company. – HLGEM May 15 '13 at 20:38
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Sit next to the other programmer and learn something. If she doesn't like it, she can find something for you to do.

I don't think you've found out why this person is not helping you. Maybe she is too busy. Maybe she is protecting her territory. Maybe she thinks she's doing you a favor by taking all the work. There is only one way to find out and that is to ask.

If your supervisors aren't confrontational, you better let them know you don't have billable hours before the client finds out.

If all else fails, study, learn a new language, just look at the old code and refactor it. Doesn't matter if they never use it. You may have to get another job; be prepared.

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    +1 for using the downtime to study. There are always new technologies and different ways to do things. Heck, a quarter of what I know about SQL came from the MSDN forums. Browse similar forums. Read dev blogs. Start trying to write some of the code in a different language. Document things. If you have explicitly asked for more work and aren't getting it, be constructive with your time in some other way. – Dave Johnson May 15 '13 at 13:03
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20% slack time is normal, it's good ans generally it's a must for productivity (but you're still young enough and maybe you are feeling it as a waste of time). And if you feel it as a waste of time, most likely you are just wasting it. Invest those 20% time in researching better ways to do the tasks you've did - acquire knowledge in both the technical and business domain, leave the code cleaner, automate something... there's always room for improvement in the work you do, and those 20% free time are a great opportunity for constant improvement. The only question is if you have to account this time as non-billable or to add it to the time you've worked on the tasks - if you actually work on the codebase of the completed task, it's natural to add it to the task's time; if you're researching or building something that will help you next time when you have similar task, you can count it as non-billable, but keep track of exactly what you did in those non-billable hours.

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What have you tried already?

From your description, you've got a very busy programmer that is finding ~32 hours a week worth of work for you to do but you're "fudging" the number of hours that you're reporting so that you're reporting ~40 hours a week worth of work. Are you absolutely certain that the other programmer knows that you're underutilized? Are you explicitly telling the other programmer when you're out of work? Are you telling her far enough in advance of when you're out of work that she can figure out the next bit of work for you? Are you certain that she's not getting mixed signals from the fact that you're reporting 40 hours a week of work?

If she's finding 32 hours of work every week for you to do, it seems unlikely that she's actively trying to sabotage you or is actively trying to protect her turf. It seems more likely that she thinks that she's giving you a full week's worth of work or that it takes her a certain amount of time to figure out the next thing for you to work on and she's getting caught out when you finish a task unexpectedly.

Have you had an explicit discussion with her where you explain that you're only getting 32 hours a week worth of work? Have you asked her for help in ensuring that you've got a full week of work? If so, what were the results of that meeting? If not, that's probably the first step.

If you had that meeting and you've done everything that she asked in order to ensure that you have a steady amount of work, then you need to have a meeting with both her and your manager where you explain the problem. Again, this needs to be explicit, you need to be sure that no one is confused by the hours that you've been reporting. If you are convinced that your manager won't do anything to help, bring solutions in addition to problems. Are there problems that you see that you could be solving for the company in your downtime? Is there training that you could be doing to improve yourself (even if it is simply reading something)? Could you be sitting in on some meetings? Could you be sitting with her watching her code to get a better understanding of the system? Figure out what outcome you want and ask for that. If you've got a truly incompetent manager, the option that will involve the least work for him is simply to agree with whatever solution you propose.

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Make yourself at home

Know everyone in the company if its a small one and the department if its a large company you work for. Go out for lunch with your co-workers. Or make Fridays the lunch days. Quick catchups with one or two people in the department everyday in your breaks is a good idea.

Ask for work with everyone

A functioning workplace always has work. To begin with, ask work from the closest members of your team. See if they have anything you could assist with or help.

Speak to your boss

Get some 10 mins and let her/him know of your situation. And then follow up in email in a while if you find no changes.

Think of what you could do

Maybe you could propose a new workflow. Build it and send it off for review. Maybe you could document a bunch of things intimately related to your working so that efficiency is increased.

Train yourself

Any free time is great for training yourself in your field. Use it. Read related news. And then, write a blog about it, preferably in the company website. If they do not have blog, volunteer to do it yourself, set the trend.

Empower yourself

The truth is, nobody can stop you if you want to leave a job. You can leave it at any moment, no matter what. And with this very knowledge, feel free and unbound. And thus empower yourself to work.

And BTW, as most posters have mentioned, being proactive and optimistic helps to a very high degree.

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