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I am 2 months into a new job as a software engineer. One of the things I've quickly realized is that confusion about requirements and time lines is the law of the land.

To give some more context, the management would like us to do a project X and wants estimates on how long it will take. This is a foray into a new domain and requires significant rework on the existing code base with potentially breaking changes, significant resource commitments across various teams, and multiple iterations to ensure things are running fine.

In a follow-up meeting between the engineering manager, the product manager, and I, there was no consensus on whether this was supposed to be a prototype or a full-fledged rework of a part of the existing code base. This would've decided the time line and resources required.

When such confusion happens on a frequent basis, what's a good strategy to keep things moving forward without letting it affect one personally?

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I personally feel like the harbinger of bad news

Then do not be the harbinger :)

As an engineer, you do not need to be stressed about strategic decisions in the project. If they ask you for you opinion tell them. If not, it is out of your responsibility.

As an engineer, you need to perform the tasks assigned. So:

  • if you do not have enough work to do, ask for more tasks;
  • if you have to much work and you cannot deliver in time with the proper level of quality, report it and have a prioritization done;
  • if anything is not clear / ambiguous / preventing you to perform the tasks, report it and have it clarified; be prepared to explain clearly what prevents you to do the job, and what is the impact if the clarification does not arrive.
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When presenting your estimate, state how you have interpreted the requirements and what assumptions you made when calculating your estimate.

The person receiving the estimate can then either accept it as it is, or clarify the requirements and ask you to update your estimate.

If it won't over-complicate things, you could also give estimates for things where it isn't clear if it's a requirement or not. But beware of delivering a confused message. You want to give the impression that you know what you are doing even if the people giving you the requirements don't. But whatever you do, don't say that in your response!

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    +1 for "don't say that in your response".
    – An SO User
    Oct 17, 2020 at 11:07

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