36

I'm starting a new project after 3 years of software & AI development in the same company & department.

I was initially supposed to develop the software/AI part of the project based on skills, but in a literal last-minute decision, my area of expertise was given to a colleague with more credentials (PhD) but actually a mediocre track record vs my 90% success rate in projects.

However, the new project requires the purchase of a very pricy 50k+ hardware equipment for telecom testing.

So my managers asked me to assess the procurement of hardware that requires at least EE/ degree in communications or as perceive several months of testing.

He also said he wants me to take over the telecom part (Again I have 0 experience in this arena!).

However, my manager insists that he wants my opinion by the end of the week.

I told him several times, that I have never in my 10-year career done any telecom work and that he requires an expert EE (Electrical Engineer) with at least 5 years of relevant work.

He is a Physicist with 15 years of hardware & software experience, so I'm not sure why he's not aware of my competencies (or this might be some hidden agenda).

But he firmly insisted that he wants me to make the decision on which equipment should be purchased.

I really take pride in my honesty and feel that 1 week is not enough time, an honest decision would require "some knowledge" & extensive talk with the companies.

What are my options:

  1. If my job depends on giving an uneducated guess should just do it?

  2. Or stand my ground and insist that I don't have the qualifications, and see what happens (most likely get fired)?

  3. If I'm forced to give an opinion how can I wisely do this & minimize my risk?

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Mar 19, 2021 at 20:38

13 Answers 13

62

If my job depends on giving an uneducated guess should just do it?

You've got a week. There is no need to make an uneducated guess. You can do some research in that time.

Or stand my ground and insist that I don't have the qualifications, and see what happens (most likely get fired)?

You could do that. I don't know why you would. The outcome is probably worse than if you just chose poorly.

If I'm forced to give an opinion how can I wisely do this & minimize my risk?

When sending through your recommendation, you make sure, as part of the same communication, you reiterate that you don't believe you've even an expert level opinion.

There may be marginal differences between the different candidates, so it may not make economical sense to hire a consultant. You manager is making a risk assessment and determining that if you get it wrong, there is no major harm to the company.

Stating over and over again that you don't have experience is a bit meaningless. You need to try and describe the business risk (which may be difficult if you lack experience, but you have to try).

If you've explained the situation to your manager, and they are happy for the risk, then you go for it.

The only instance you should push back, and stand your ground, is if acting in a certain capacity would be illegal. If there is a legal requirement for those doing telecom engineering to be properly qualified and have appropriate certificates, that is something that you need to raise with you manager straight away (keeping in mind that they may not be aware). That isn't likely to extend to the purchasing of the equipment, but more likely the work that you are to do that follows.

13
  • 21
    While I agree with this, I've been put in this position several times and if it's "wrong", it's always come back to bite me, no matter how hard I say I'm not qualified to make a decision. Most of my decisions have even been minor compared to $50k, and $50k can be a major expense to many companies. Even with lots of research, I've been "wrong" just because the "favorite" disagrees with me, even if they don't have any experience, either. Unfortunately, it really depends on the manager if this is a "no win" situation for the OP. Mar 17, 2021 at 22:08
  • 29
    If it's something that requires an EE degree to do correctly, a week is not nearly enough time to make an educated guess, even if you spend the full week educating yourself. Mar 17, 2021 at 23:18
  • 3
    @BlueRaja If the OP has as they state no expert knowledge of the subject, how could they possibly correctly identify what expertise is required to analyze it correctly?
    – Voo
    Mar 18, 2021 at 8:27
  • 20
    As one with *cough* decades of telecomms software development experience, I scoff at the motion that he will be able to make any sort of informed statement in a week. Mar 18, 2021 at 13:26
  • 2
    @computercarguy This is how I read it too--that perhaps OP is being setup to be the scape goat, in which case this makes perfect sense: find someone not qualified to make the decision, force them to do so, then throw them under the bus and drive over them a few times if the decision turns out to be a dud. This reduces the manager's personal career risk. If the decision turns out well, the manager takes the credit. If it goes south, they blame the scape goat. Not saying that's what's happening here, but it could be.
    – bob
    Mar 18, 2021 at 18:40
51

When writing any report that makes recommendations, it's always a good idea to mention the degree of confidence you have in the report's conclusions, regardless of whether that degree is high or low.

To put it another way, your job is to inform your manager to the best of your ability -- which includes informing them of your ability to inform them.

In this instance, you can state in the report that your degree of confidence in the conclusion is very low, for the reasons you give in the question.

In any normal workplace, that will be totally sufficient, and you don't need to fear being blamed for the decision your manager takes based on your truthful report.

3
  • 13
    Yes +1. Even if they do not want a "document" of your equipment pick, issue one and make your opinion on this matter clear on the first page.
    – Pete W
    Mar 17, 2021 at 13:01
  • 2
    Maybe it's just because I've had less than stellar management, but when I've done this, it's always gone badly. "I gave you ___ days to get this done. Why are you still saying you don't know enough about it?" Mar 17, 2021 at 22:11
  • 1
    Exactly this. Maybe open the report with something like "Based on one week of googling and learning about the topic, I've concluded X"
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 19, 2021 at 9:41
15

Perhaps an alternative?

As someone who has spent *cough* decades developing telecomms software (exchanges, eNodeB (cell towers), handsets - plus sat com), I can tell you that you have zero chance of giving any kind of informed opinion in a week.

But, your boss demands one. So, what to do?

CYA. Put your doubts in writing.

Others suggested asking the manufacturer of the test equipment. Well, guess what they are going to say.

An alternative might be to ask the boss to pay $5k to some external consultants to do the evaluation. Explain your needs to them and give your budget and ask if they would recommend this equipment or something else. Personally, I would push, push and push again for that.

If the boss won't bite, document that. Then ask him for requirements - what should the test equipment do? - present them to to the test equipment manufacturer and ask them to explain how their equipment meets those requirements. Present that to your boss and let him make the decision.

Also, consider looking for a new job. The boss won't like you much after this, and I doubt that you are too keen on a company that treats you thus.

2
  • 4
    And it's entirely possible that when asking the boss for requirements, the boss will hand-wave or punt back to OP ("figure it out!"). Perhaps the boss had this foisted on them by a higher-up and is trying to dodge blame by passing it down. Either way I agree--this situation stinks.
    – bob
    Mar 18, 2021 at 18:49
  • 4
    Then document, "as I was given no requirements, I simply asked the supplier if they would recommend their product. Unsurprisingly, they did. Fortunately, I am not the one who who has to make the purchase decision based on this". Just get everything in writing & polish the CV/resume. I have been in this situation before and simply refused to cooperate. Nothing happened to me and I have no idea what the boss did about it (but we did not make the purchase). Mar 18, 2021 at 19:16
8

Based on what you said, it sounds like your boss knows this is not your domain. He still wants your opinion, so at the very least it means he trusts in your ability.

I would make a fair analysis as he asked, and report back at the end of the week. Just state that while you are no expert in this area, you feel X and Y about A, and B. And just put that you are confident only because during your research you found M, N, and O.

4
  • 4
    Or, it could mean that the boss is expecting trouble over this decision and wants to be able to blame OP if things go wrong. This answer is good for either situation, though in the second case it's particularly important to keep a record. Mar 18, 2021 at 1:18
  • I tend to agree with this answer. Do your best to figure out what is probably best given your limited experience, work out two or three possible solutions, try and come up with their pros and cons and pick the one you like best. Present it all to the boss with a massive disclaimer that you're basically a layman when it comes to this, he might not care, but the written trail will back you up if it becomes a problem. You aren't spending company money, he is. He's just doing it on your amateur recommendation in full knowledge that it's a lay-opinion. He might get in trouble, but you're covered. Mar 18, 2021 at 8:41
  • Trainwreck in 3-2-1. Go back to boss and say you've taken your own expert advice on what to do when you're clearly being set-up for a fail, and the conclusion is 'no way'. Decision-making at your place is obviously very poor or malicious. Document everything and keep private copies to cover your arse. Go to your bosses boss or HR and ask them to sort out this impossible position you find yourself in.
    – Peter Fox
    Mar 19, 2021 at 21:43
  • If the boss is really a trained (experimental) physicist, he may simply not think of a 50k$ tech gadget as super expensive or consider it unusual to evaluate some tool like that. Pricey sure, but a typical lab tends to have racks full of such stuff, typically a few times more than the pay of the persons working with it. And he might even be qualified to judge the offerings you present after research. He might just lack time to do it himself and trusts you to weed out the total trash.
    – schlenk
    Mar 19, 2021 at 22:20
5

You've already told your manager that you don't have experience in this field, but he wants you to go ahead anyway. So he already knows that whatever you come up with won't be the right answer.

So treat this as a learning exercise. You don't have to buy anything right now, you just need to propose some equipment.

Ramp up on learning this stuff and document your workings (what you've researched and how this relates to the upcoming project) and then present those findings as best that you can.

Also detail, if possible, what you need to be trained up on and how long that training will take.

Shy away from "uneducated guess" territory, you have some time to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of how telecoms testing works.

5
  • 4
    Could also document a requirement for an EE consultant with a proposed number of hours/cost if that is needed.
    – Dragonel
    Mar 17, 2021 at 16:34
  • 1
    Agreed. I once asked my brother, a USMC officer, what would happen if he had too little info to know what the right decision is. He said, sometimes you just have to work with incomplete info and make a decision anyway -- you do your best and know that sometimes you will be wrong. It's just that simple.
    – donjuedo
    Mar 17, 2021 at 18:54
  • @donjuedo, speaking as a US Army Vet, I can say that the military takes failure very differently than civilian managers. In the military, there's a formal inquiry for major f-ups to fall back on, to investigate who is actually responsible. For anything else, there's the "chain of command" for assigning responsibility, and that usually protects the lower ranks from the responsibility of the decision required of the higher ranks. Civilian employers can just fire whomever they want, and I've seen people unrelated to the issue get fired because of office politics. So it's not "just that simple". Mar 18, 2021 at 15:49
  • @computercarguy, in the US Army and given a direct order, you had to follow it or not follow it (huge repercussions). Was your choice just that simple, or was it not?
    – donjuedo
    Mar 18, 2021 at 15:54
  • @donjuedo, no, it isn't that simple. You always have to consider if it's a legal order. If it's not a legal order, you are legally obligated to not follow it. So it's still not that simple. thebalancecareers.com/military-orders-3332819 And yes, it's required of the soldier/sailor/marine/etc to know at least basic international and federal law, like the Geneva Convention, to know what's legal and what's not. Using AA rounds on ground soldiers is a war crime, so you can't legally follow an order to do so. Mar 18, 2021 at 15:58
4

In my experience, the outcome totally depends on your manager.

You can do everything that the other Answers suggest and still come out getting the short end of the stick. I know I have.

The best you can do is to do some comparisons of relevant and related equipment, including any online reviews, determine if the equipment hits the specs you need, and just do a good job in general research. It might help to narrow your options down right away to 2-4.

Write down the pros and cons of each, and make sure you keep all the documentation of your considerations. Be sure to keep them handy when making your final recommendation. I've had other employees suggest options I'd dismissed because of what seemed like obvious reasons, but since I didn't have the documentation, I couldn't defend why I'd dismissed that option.

You may even want to consult some outside experts, if you don't have them inhouse. Talk to people who do have the experience and get their recommendations. Ask them not only what equipment they use and prefer, but also what to watch out for as red flags or good signs with equipment. This can be more important than anything else you research.

Confidence

As far as rating how confident you are with your decision, that's a gamble. I've given confidence ratings with my recommendations and unless I'm 100% confident, I've been asked why I'm not 100% confident, then they'll do their own research, complaining I didn't do my job and that I'm wasting their time.

I've also said I'm 100% confident and then told I made the wrong decision and they are going with something else. This has sometimes been a recommendation by a friend of theirs, they had already done the research and wanted to see if I came up with the same answer, or some other excuse that's left me as "incompetent" in their eyes.

Specs

Unfortunately, the best you can really hope for is to make sure that what you recommend is up to their specs. Get this in writing and make sure you have a solid reason if you don't hit 100% of the specs. Maybe the one piece has a better accuracy in measurement, or a higher quality/lower failure rate, or it's far easier to use than the competition. Whatever it is, again, make sure that you have good reasons for whatever you pick. Make the best case you can, and gear it as much towards any of your managers bias as possible.

Your manager

If you have a good manager, as long as you have solid reasoning for what you recommend, you'll be fine. They will take it into consideration and likely follow it. You'll also be held in higher esteem for getting outside your comfort zone.

If you have a bad manager or one that is trying to find a reason to get rid of you, good luck. Saying you don't have the experience or education to do something is just fodder for these managers. And repeating it just makes things worse for you. They take it as an excuse, instead of a reason or warning that you aren't the best person to ask.

3

Your superior may or may not know what they are doing. With the information given, we can only speculate about that. Maybe they are making a bad decision, or maybe they (think they) make an unusual, but valid choice.

There are two aspects that come to my mind for your situation:

  • You have clearly expressed toward your superior you do not consider yourself qualified for this decision. As others have said, make sure this has been saved in writing. Your superior chose you, anyway, while knowing what you are capable of - thus, come to a decision within the confines of what you are capable of. Do some (if only superficial) research in the one week you have, prioritize based on the experience you have (even if the result will be different from what someone with an EE background might prioritize), and clearly document what criteria you based your decision on. At the same time, possibly take this as an opportunity to learn a few factoids about a new topic.
  • It is not clear how isolated you are in your position. Maybe what your superior wants you to do is make sure that a decision is made and documented, rather than come up with a decision all on your own. How big is your company? Are there any EE people who could be knowledgeable about the topic? If so, I'd take this task as a direct request to get in touch with all of them, schedule meetings1 and/or ask them to give their qualified opinion on what aspects to prioritize for the decision, or about the impliciations of the different eligible products.

1: It depends on your company culture and organization whether you can just do that if your task is important enough, or whether you need to ask the respective superiors of your colleagues for permission to block some of their time, in case you are aiming for more than a brief conversation.

2

You have a choice:

Either:

  1. Do your best about the task given. You may sucessfully grow the expertise needed, later advance in this different area and mark one more successful project. In the process, you get familiar with the people involved in some other parts of the project, their expertise and other sources of information and help.

There is always a possibility that you fail or deliver a medicore result, in which case you (and the company as a whole) are no worse than the initial condition.

Sorry, boss, I learn only that fast. That's what I have now. If I can have another week, I can dig more in areas A, B, C and I can deliver the next approximation that will be better and maybe even good enough.

Or:

  1. You insist on staying in your area of expertise. You compete with the other guy (you may, or may not succeed in the long run). The company may, or may not have enough work for you both. Given your inferior credentials and the initial manager's decision, you are given the less thankful tasks. Or you are fired because your area of expertise becomes overstaffed and your boss needs the payroll available to save other tasks that need to be done. Or you leave because of boredom and lack of promotions.

Background speculation: The hiring process is always slow, boresome and prone to failures. Managers are happy getting one or two sane employees out of a number of candidates of the other kind. On the other hand, the market is a moving target. Your manager may be in a position that no one else can get the new task and you are the only one still not sunk completely in his work. Either you do that, the manager does that himself (other tasks lagging) or the project fails.

P.s. telecom work should not be that much complex. If it was, telecom people would not be able to do it. Works for any kind of work.

3
  • "Sorry, boss, I learn only that fast." That hasn't worked for me yet. Mar 17, 2021 at 22:13
  • Not sure I agree with this: "P.s. telecom work should not be that much complex. If it was, telecom people would not be able to do it. ". The real question is "how long does it take to get up to speed on telecom work?". How long do telecom workers have to study to get where they were? I'm guessing it's measured in years, or at least months, not weeks.
    – bob
    Mar 18, 2021 at 18:50
  • It depends on your background. People in STEM fields are pretty much universal, guess where I know that...
    – fraxinus
    Mar 18, 2021 at 18:54
2

My approach to this situation would be communicate my concerns, but do my best. I would tell my boss that I am not sure if I am qualified to make that decision, because it's far outside of my area of expertise and not part of my job description. But I always enjoy learning new things about obscure topics. So when there is nobody else available to do it, then I am going to do my best over the next week to learn what I can about this domain, what kind of appliance we actually need and where we can get one.

Before I submit the procurement form, I would give my boss an estimation of how confident I am that I found the right one and ask for confirmation for whether or not I should proceed.

When it later turns out that I made the wrong decision after telling my boss that it might be the wrong decision and my boss telling me to proceed anyway, then the responsibility for that mistake is on my boss.

Depending on the toxicity level and scapegoating culture of your workplace, you might or might not insist on doing this in writing, so you have a paper trail proving that you communicated your concerns and asked for confirmation.

1
  • 1
    While most of this is good advice, saying "not part of my job description" has never worked IME. I've never heard of it working, either. And a good manager will take the heat for a bad recommendation, but you have to remember that "sh*t rolls downhill", so a bad manager or bad upper management will still cause the OP grief, up to and including firing. The responsibility should be with the manager, but I've lived long enough to know that "should" and "is" are 2 different things. Even CYA doesn't work in many cases. Mar 18, 2021 at 15:43
2

No matter how many excuses you give or how vigorously you explain your lack of knowledge in the problem domain, you WILL be judged on the outcome. That's just how it works. You should do this publicly and non-confrontationally. Do not mention your lack of expertise anymore. Your manager has already made it clear he doesn't care. So he either is doing this to set you up or because he wants to save money on the consultant. There is no getting out of this for you at this point. So what do you do? Do you shoot blind into the dark hoping to hit gold? You could, if you like gambling and have a high risk appetite. The other way out of this is to punt the decision back to your manager, ever so tactfully.

Do your research. You need to CYA by extensively analyzing the pros & cons of the available devices. Enumerate the benefits, costs, and risks of all of the options. Write it down and prepare to share in a meeting. You should do this publicly and non-confrontationally. Come up with a matrix. For example, TK-A1234 is the most reliable. TK-B9876 has the most advanced capabilities. Ask the manager what is important for the company. Now, you ARE making a recommendation but you are not making THE recommendation. You preserve your dignity by not being forced to snivel to anyone and you are not putting yourself on the line.

Here's the thing. I have never used the programming language Rust, but I can discuss its capabilities, merits, and offer up a reasoned judgment on its applicability to my company's software process. I cannot compare very specific technical details, true, but I don't need to know how the Rust compiler works to appraise it holistically. Keep it general so that you are not wrong. It sounds like nobody else at the company understands much about the decision either. Great! They won't be able to understand the jargon either. So feel free to throw in some indecipherable (but true and verifiable) technobabble under a few bullet points to look smart and trustworthy.

You also have a valuable escape hatch if the manager picks the wrong equipment. If the company picks TK-B9876, you can explain how you stressed that TK-A1234 was the most reliable equipment but management chose another strategic direction.

You need public exposure (a meeting, other coworkers within earshot, etc) to tactfully pass the ball to your manager. If you keep calmly and helpfully reiterating the different options and how higher management's guidance is needed to pick a strategic direction for this purchase, but your manager insists you pick the equipment instead, this will look very silly to your coworkers indeed. You will save face and he will look to be an incompetent, possibly scheming buffoon. Most likely, he will try to avoid answering directly. Hold your ground and keep offering solutions until HE picks one. You're just the messenger. He is the leader and he must bear responsibility for this decision.

Be polite and tactful.

Good luck! Please let us know how it goes.

1

Outright refusing to do the task will almost certainly end poorly for you. Do the best that you can, but be clear about your limitations and about how accurate you believe the results to be.

I've been asked to work outside my realm of expertise before, and here are a few pointers.

  • Don't just send your manager the model number of a piece of equipment. Take the time to write up a short report that contains actual details.
  • Include details for several options, not just for the one that you think is best.
  • In the report's conclusion, clearly state that you don't have experience in this field and that the reader should not treat it as coming from an authoritative source.
  • Make sure the report explicitly documents all assumptions that you make during the process and outlines your thought processes for drawing your conclusions.

The end result is a document that empowers your manager to make the final decision. You're giving them everything they need to either follow your suggestion or make the informed decision that another option would be better. My conclusion paragraph included something like this:

Company X's model 123 is cheaper than other options by at least 10%, and is compatible with our existing equipment. This model is currently on backorder, however, and will not be available for at least 3 months. Company Y's model 9876 is in stock and can be shipped by the end of the week, but costs slightly more, will require several additional protocol adapters in order to work with the rest of our equipment, and will be more difficult to install and configure. Assuming that missing our deadlines will ultimately cost more than the price difference between options, company Y's option appears more attractive. Company X's option would be more attractive if budget overruns are unacceptable.

You've given your manager everything they need to make a decision, but ultimately it's their call to make based on the business' priorities. You likely aren't privy to the business aspects of the project, and the manager is in the best position to make the tradeoffs between cost and schedule (or whatever factors apply in your case). You've clarified your conclusion with the assumptions that drove it. If your assumptions are wrong, it should be clear to your manager and they'll have everything they need to make their own decision.

If you have a report that shows that you warned them that you don't have much knowledge in this area and provides all the information for someone more knowledgeable to make a decision, then your manager will have a hard time blaming you if it goes wrong. They would first have to explain to their boss why they trusted the word of someone known not to be knowledgeable in the field and ignored a detailed report containing information that could have avoided the problem (i.e., they'd be admitting more about their own competence than about yours).

1

Put yourself in your boss's shoes. It has been suggested or determined that this piece of equipment is required for the project. Everybody involved is nowhere near where they want to be on the learning curve, but the decision has to be made, or you'll never start climbing the curve. Your boss apparently trusts you to help make this decision. Maybe, your boss doesn't trust the Phd, or maybe they want to ensure that you have some influence in this process.

It could be they simply want to make it clear to that Phd, that they have to collaborate with you, or they are hoping to see you step up and collaborate with the Phd. You need to make the best decision possible with the knowledge you gather in the allotted time. Work with the Phd, split the investigative effort up, then meet and present each other's findings, then make a decision.

0

You may want to consider this an opportunity to take the initiative.

If You Can't Give An Expert Opinion - Find Someone Who Can

Ask your manager if it's possible to requisition some funds to hire in an Electrical Engineer on a temporary basis to give an independent expert opinion on the technology.

In the interim, try to stall for more time whilst you arrange for a suitable expert to turn up to make the assessment. Gather as much information as you can (with the intention of passing it to the hired expert) and research the topic to give a summary so they can hit the ground running.

If worst case scenario occurs and it goes awry, the company will end up blaming what was a temporary hire for the expert opinion being erroneous. If on the other hand it goes well and they ask you to manage other projects, you can in future ensure the appropriate expertise is on hand in preparation for a project.

There's always more expertise outside yourself. If caught really short, see if you can find someone in your social network (a friend of a friend) with the Electrical Engineering knowledge who might offer some guidance and insight which can help you make a decision in the interim.

It's Not Necessarily Final

And any suggestions or decisions are not necessarily 'final', it's possible to catch and rectify any issues early on before they grow. So even if you make the decision without an Electrical Engineer to hand due to time constraints, continue to try to find one to help you sort it out after.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .