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I have posted about many challenges at my workplace, and the issue of how to manage downtime is one that we've been struggling with, and I speak on behalf of my colleagues as well.

What exactly do we mean by downtime? First of all, our boss is one who does not write expectations for any projects. They briefly tell us the new idea and then to implement it, and leaves it up to us to divide up the work. They are also busy working on other things, so they visit our work area every so often. Since there are no written expectations, we often do not know what to do next if we complete our tasks earlier than expected.

When we approach our boss and ask what to do next, they tell us to be more proactive in making decisions on adding features to the project or enhancing it for better visuals and/or user experience. And more often than not, taking this "proactive" course lead to wasted effort because it ended up not matching what our boss really wanted, which wasn't even verbally communicated to us, let alone, written.

So we decided to instead learn newer technologies or explore unfamiliar concepts of the technologies we already use. During those downtimes we devoted in keeping up in our field, our boss suddenly walked into our work area and reprimanded us for "wasting time learning technologies and concepts we don't need."

Again, there are no written expectations, and "taking the pilot's seat" in a project often ended up being wrong. We just got better at sneaking in some learning time so we wouldn't get caught. What was the result through all those years? We learned Git, newer frameworks for both front-end and back-end, better programming practices, user experience, and more, and yes, 100% of our efforts became official practices and implementations for our subsequent projects, and yes, we became more effective and efficient overall.

Now, we do have evidences that our learning time spent actually paid off, but telling our boss things along the lines of "had we not spent some time at work to learn, we wouldn't be able to pull off the project this well and this quickly" may sound quite confrontational. We know that in our industry, we must learn to keep up, and the projects just get more demanding. Still to this day, our boss emphasizes that we should spend no time at work learning because it "takes away time from development and improving our current products." But we must, and we continue so, unfortunately covertly.

And let us remind our readers again - this is downtime, and we would complete all known tasks first before we take some time to learn something.

So, how do we convince our boss that learning new things during downtime is the way to go, if they don't buy all the empirical evidences that our learned knowledge became official practices and information? What other suggestions may you have for managing this situation?

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    What's preventing you from using your downtime to improve your requirement gathering, project management, and task estimation skills which is what you seem to be lacking here? – Snow Jun 13 at 14:44
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    Thank you for those suggestions. Now there are newer things we can research, covertly. – Mickael Caruso Jun 13 at 14:46
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    Exactly why I posted in the first place - because the boss's orders are highly questionable. Yes, we played "proactive", but we ended up putting features that were ultimately deemed useless for the project. Being "proactive" seems to mean we need to learn how to read their mind to get it right, and the likeliness of success for that is very low. – Mickael Caruso Jun 13 at 16:18
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    Your boss has a short-term outlook that will ultimately drive the department/company (depending on the boss's position and/or size of the company) into the ground. Is the boss a technical person, what's their background? – seventyeightist Jun 13 at 20:53
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You have a manager that does not understand knowledge-based industries, and apparently no trust for your knowledge of your craft. This cannot change unless they themselves starts honing their own skills as a manager. My first question when I started reading your post was: "Have you shown them that your proactive learning was useful?". Then you went on to describe how you have indeed been able to show this and it did not change their opinion, neither did it make them trust your judgement. This means you have proof that you cannot convince them im their current state of mind.

Ideally your closest manager should be on your side. You should be able to have a conversation about this and they should be able to trust you. Reading between the lines it does not seem like your manager is that kind of person.

So there is no arena where you can raise this subject, your manager is only focused on the short term money and does not want you to develop your skills. This is a sweatshop. If you are not fine with that, you should go above their head and talk to the person above them. If it turns out this will always be a sweatshop you have to polish your resume and start applying for other jobs, or perhaps suggest that you work as a consultant so you can control your own time.

For me, this is such a red flag that I would have my first interviews booked by tomorrow, and a meeting with my manager's boss on schedule. If the situation does not change you risk stress and eventually burn-out after banging your head against a wall for months or years.

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    Simply upvoting doesn't convey how right you are. Unless they are building tools for developers, there's no reason there should be virtually no design from anyone outside development. And if they ARE building dev tools, they need to be far more leading edge than this buffoon allows. This boss is way out of their depth. – John Spiegel Jun 13 at 16:04
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    I wonder what the boss's background is? Are they perhaps from a production or manufacturing based environment? – seventyeightist Jun 13 at 20:47
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Rephrase it a little.

Your boss doesn't like research for it's own sake. Fine. Don't describe it as such. Instead, for every new technology you're learning, figure out some practical, useful thing to do with it to support the product. Then, when you're teaching yourself how to use the new thing, it's not purely for the purpose of knowing how to use the new thing, it's a necessary requirement to implementing this new piece of functionality for the product.

Your boss is already telling you to be more proactive in making decisions about features. Make this into a "making decisions about features" thing, and you should be fine.

  • I think this severely limits the ideas considered worth learning and risks stagnating Mickael's knowledge. It also puts pressure on using technology that you don't yet understand, even when it isn't the best fit for the task at hand. – Emil Vikström Jun 13 at 15:06
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    @EmilVikström I believe you misunderstand, then. If they have tasks at hand, then they're working on those tasks, rather than doing research. It's once they're done with those tasks, and saying "we should learn this technology" that you do this at all - and then it's just saying that you should come up with some practical benefit to work towards rather than learning in a vacuum. If it turns out that that technology is not useful for that purpose, you can ditch it, but in the meantime, you get cover. – Ben Barden Jun 13 at 15:18
  • Don't get me wrong, your idea have merits. It is one approach to learning, probably one of the best approaches. My two issues are: 1) Mickael will stagnate if this is the only approach to learning. You should be exposed to radically different ideas from time to time, ideas that will not look immediately useful but might be used sometime down the road, and 2) (I have seen this first hand) new tech sometimes can pollute rather than help, but if you have to use the tech to be able to learn it lots of people will tend to force it into the product just so they are able to learn it. – Emil Vikström Jun 13 at 15:33
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    @EmilVikström I think we're all largely agreeing here. I think it's more a matter of definition. It's just presentation. Even the radically different or tech that doesn't fit could be repositioned as a win. "Technology X was applied to feature A. In doing so, we found Technology AbsolutelyNotX addresses the feature and allowed us to clean up issues 2 and 6." It's largely duping someone who shouldn't be leading a software team. – John Spiegel Jun 13 at 16:00
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If I were you, I would not waste my time trying to convince this boss of anything. It's a game you can't win. The style of project "management" you describe is wasteful and completely unpredictable. If you really feel a need to improve things, suggest that everyone, including the boss, take a course in Agile Software Development.

That is the right thing to do, but I doubt anything will come of that. There seems to be no self-reflection or interest in career development. You had to sneak in learning git??? That is completely nuts! That's almost a basic requirement for a developer today. Were you even using source control before that?

In spite of all the negatives, it does sound like you have somehow progressed as a developer, and have covertly learned new things. That's great, but you probably don't get enough time for this to stay current in the industry. Ultimately, that will be harmful to your career. But it also sounds like you have been there a while and aren't interested in leaving. In my opinion, this is foolish.

  • It's interesting and strange that they didn't specifically reject the implementation of Git and other tools in subsequent projects. So, we'd be fine as long as we don't get caught learning. Before .git, we were instructed to manually save multiple backups of our projects every time we're about to make significant-enough changes - very messy. – Mickael Caruso Jun 13 at 17:30
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    @Mickael Caruso Amazing. So very little process, and what process there is is heavily flawed. I would run far away from this. You don't want to pick up bad habits, and you don't want to fall too far behind. – Mohair Jun 13 at 17:45
  • Not sure why this answer was being downvoted. This scenario sounds like the ideal use case for Agile Software Development. – nick012000 Jun 14 at 2:25
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You seem really focused on learning technical concepts, improving your technical skills, and staying up to date on new innovations in your knowledge space. That's good. You've got initiative to continually improve your technical skills. It is too bad that your boss isn't able to support that growth, but it seems like the focus you have on technical skills is causing you and your team to ignore the opportunity to improve in areas that may be more meaningful.

While it's always great to learn a new framework, the choice of framework won't matter if your requirements aren't clear.

While it's productive to spend your downtime improving your skills, it could be even more productive to spend "downtime" improving your relationship with your boss.

You mention that your covert learning has made you more efficient, but if you don't clearly understand your goals, efficiency doesn't matter.

Do you see the pattern? There's a difference between learning or improving in general, versus learning or improving things that matter - that is, identifying the root cause of problems, and focusing improvement activities around fixing them.

I don't mean to come off as suggesting that the things you're learning aren't important, because they are - but based on the way you've described the situation, it sounds like you're missing bigger opportunities to improve in areas that are actually important in terms of delivering quality work and actually meeting your boss's expectations.

Simply put, if you're able to improve the areas you're complaining about (work management, scoping, estimating, requirements gathering, goal setting) you may find that your situation improves to the point that your boss becomes more receptive to the things you're trying to do covertly.

  • We have asked our boss to sit down with us and discuss project management matters, especially communication so we're all on the same page and we all know what and what not to do. Our manager pretty much told us that written expectations will never be written. They will just pop into our work area whenever a new idea or changed requirements pops into their head. Any objection to or suggestion besides how they want to run a project, as we're told automatically means that we are too set in our ways and/or not resilient. – Mickael Caruso Jun 14 at 17:22
  • It sounds like your boss is not going to give you what you want, so rather than trying to get him to change you may want to focus on a work process that accounts for the variability and lack of clarity in your inputs. Notice how none of the things you're trying to get permission to do have any direct relationship to what you're stating is your main problem at work. My point is, stop focusing on trying to change your boss, or trying to get him to approve things he clearly doesn't think are appropriate - and instead, focus on what you and the team can do to adapt and meet your boss's needs. – dwizum Jun 14 at 17:29
  • I am open to suggestions on how to adapt/cope with such a boss with such needs (especially the need to not properly communicate). This is a tough one for us to crack. – Mickael Caruso Jun 14 at 17:43
  • I think it would be a disservice to get into something so important in comments on an answer on an otherwise unrelated question, you might be best off asking a new question (assuming you can't find any relevant duplicates by searching first). – dwizum Jun 14 at 17:54

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