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I am a software engineer who joined a new company about 2 months back. I've been given small tasks here and there and usually was given little to no context. In those tasks, it was easy enough to figure out what to do, and usually I just did my own research and clarified my understanding with the team after the fact. I completed these tasks successfully.

The company is a well-known big tech company and tends to have a "figure it out/read the wiki" culture.

Recently, I was given a task, and unfortunately it interacts with a ton of different internal tech that I'm unfamiliar with. Whereas other tasks I've done were usually 1-2 unknowns, this task is like 4+ different unknowns for me. I'm struggling to even ask the right questions because the task is that vague. I've gone through some docs for those different techs, but the tech has so many different use cases that its hard to narrow down what to do for my use case.

I am sure that once I learn how to do this task, it will be much easier for me in the future. But right now it feels very overwhelming. And I believe I need guidance/pair programming with someone with experience doing this who can help guide me in the right direction, or even just someone to bounce ideas off of.

I feel nervous asking my manager though because the company is notorious for being tough on engineers and I don't want to give him a bad impression of me. Is there a way I can approach this while not seeming incompetent?

FWIW, I did explain to him that in other tasks I was given little context and I still figured it out, and he has acknowledged that and said I did well on those projects.

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    Asking for help will not make you look bad. What will make you look bad is not asking for help and then making of a complete mess of something which would not have been a problem if you asked. Aug 5 at 0:17
  • "this task is like 4+ different unknowns for me. I'm struggling to even ask the right questions because the task is that vague." You should definitely speak to your manager and ask for clarifications and clear instructions. Also keep in mind when handling such difficult tasks to dig into them step by step until you see the bigger picture and become familiar with all parts.
    – iLuvLogix
    Aug 5 at 11:51
  • Are you working alone, not part of a team? This sounds like something that more established/experienced team members should be able to help you with (i.e. your team members should have knowledge of the company, systems and other teams). Aug 5 at 14:13
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    You are a new employee. The manager, team lead, senior employees, and coworkers will understand that you need some initial guidance and help in the beginning. So, it won't be that bad if you ask for help in a constructive and professional manner. Aug 5 at 16:45
  • @MarkRotteveel I am not working alone technically, but every task so far has been presented to me as "we need to do X. here is the package." ocassionally paired with a reference package. In this case, the reference packages are not helpful as the use cases of those packages is very different. I reached out to my boss and explained the research ive done at a high level and asked if he knew someone who was more experienced in writing them who I could consult. Aug 5 at 16:47

4 Answers 4

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Your manager is ramping up the complexity of problems being given to you. This is a very good positive sign. Most likely your manager appreciates you. Now this is a positive situation.

I can think of 2 ways to approach the problem

  1. See what your peers are doing. How are they approaching such problems. -- Difficult thing. A lot of research is required. You will have to filter a lot of noise.
  2. Best if you can have a discussion with your manager asking for help to break down the problem in to simpler problems. --Easy thing to do.

In any case make sure you dont sound negative or pass wrong comments about the project. Make sure you sound positive and have (or act) that you have the eagerness to learn --These positive attitude attracts a lot of help by themselves.

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You can and you should ask for help.

But first, you should try things for yourself. Search the documentation, search internet, try to read the relevant part of the code. If things are exhausted and you still seems stuck, go ahead and ask. Ideally, you should be asking related questions at once. Explain what all things you tried.

Remember that not asking questions and screwing up is considered very bad.

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    It's just like asking a good stackoverflow question. Detail everything you've looked into, determine if you have a good overarching idea of the concept, then ask specific questions about the technology that will allow you to move forward. Don't just say "I haven't figured out how to do x, can you help?" Aug 5 at 16:07
  • Yeah I wouldn't ask anyone without having put in effort first. I did read the relevant docs, but the difficulty is narrowing down what is applicable for my use case. It's kind of analogous to reading a book on baking, a book on how ovens work, and a book on how leavening agents work when I am just trying to bake a cake. We have an internal version of youtube as well but unfortunately the videos i found for this case were not super helpful. Aug 5 at 20:29
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I am sure that once I learn how to do this task, it will be much easier for me in the future.

Then you shouldn't feel worried, you should go with your manager and with that confidence, ask him for the guidance you need, you can mention your researches and how you still need clarification.

I don't want to give him a bad impression of me

Instead of giving him a bad impression, he would see that you're interested on doing your work correctly. Its better to admit when you need some help than doing a mess with some task.

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I think you should re-frame your situation a bit.

Instead of telling your manager that you do not know how to do the task, ask which team member is best to ask for help.

Obviously, as others noted, explain the gist of the situation and your results so far.

This way your manager's task will not be to solve the problem for you, but to find you a suitable helper.

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