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I’m a software engineer. I’m self-taught and I’ve been working with moderate success for a while.

I’ve reached a level of seniority in my career where I’m required to take on ‘ownership’ of large, ambiguous projects, to ‘lead’ the team in getting them completed, to anticipate and solve problems and go beyond exactly what my leadership team ‘ask’ me to do.

I’m struggling with some of this and I think I’ve identified why : I get very uncomfortable when the scope of what I have to deal with goes beyond something I know I can solve. For all problems if I can’t immediately produce some kind of solution that I know I can implement I get anxious.

This is definitely making me less effective at ‘owning’ the big, messy, important projects that I’m expected to deal with at my level. It’s also limiting my ‘imagination’, I only want to think in terms of problems I’ve previously solved, so I’m not good at coming up with an original approach that might lead to a better solution

Does problem resonate with anyone else? What skills did you develop to deal with it?

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5 Answers 5

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You have a team, utilise them, you don't need to solve the problems fully on your own.

Sit down and discuss the outstanding issues as you see them and see what can be done. Often it can take as little as a different perspective on an issue to see that it's easily solveable. Or a different skillset or experience.

Most 'owners' of large projects cannot do everything in detail and they're not expected to.

What skills did you develop to deal with it?

Know your tools, their limits, their uses and their potential. Hardware, software, human resources, skillsets, are all part of your toolkit. A team can accomplish a lot more than a single person if used correctly.

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I would like to point out that these feelings are common and anxiety levels will go back to normal once you get accustomed to your new role. It might take some time however and your mileage will vary depending on your personality.

What skills did you develop to deal with it?

Kilisi has a great answer already, but there are more things you could try.

What I personally found helpful, is asking your peers for guidance or just observing them. I assume, that there are more project managers or other senior staff members who have dealt with similar problems in the past. Examine how they deal with uncertainties (or have dealt with them in their past) and try to do the same.

Also, sometimes you will have to accept that it is not possible to reach a desired result with the staff/tools/time available. And that it is acceptable, provided you did everything you could to reach that result. That does not mean you cannot succeed later or by spending more time on the problem.

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You're not crazy - lots of people feel this way when taking a challenge that is bigger than their prior experience.

There's a lot of writing on the idea of "Growth Mindset" and how to develop it. The main gist being that growing requires the discomfort of doing stuff you've never done, and that you don't consider yourself good at - because the only way to get better is to try, see what you can improve, and try again. This iterative process is not failing -- it's learning.

That's easy to say, and apparently very possible to package into a slick YouTube video... but it's harder to embrace every day in all circumstances.

There's some great recommendations on the thread - but I have only 1 - find a mentor. Ideally someone who's been through this path before and who's ideas you respect. Don't let them tell you how to break down the big, ambiguous problems - but get them to explain how they approach it, and let them be your sounding board while you try. It's a way to iterate and get feedback in a high trust, low risk environment.

Often when I have folks on my teams starting in this kind of work, we get these sorts of pairings going - since our products are innately large, weird and ambiguous, this is an every day occurrence for our team. But the formality of such processes varies depending on group - if your manager isn't setting it up for you, it's more than OK to ask people you like and trust to be your mentors directly. It's wonderful to be asked.

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Break it down into multiple smaller scope projects, preferably starting with a Minimum Viable Product and building out from there.if necessary break those dwn into smaller steps, until you can visualize what's actually involved in each step, what resources and time it is likely to take, and so on.

Demystify it, and there's less panic.

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Talk to a professional in mental health, not projects

Anxiety is a mental health thing, not a project management skills thing. There will always be work you don't know how to do; you need to learn how to manage your brain, not how to manage the project.

People do this for a living. You wouldn't hire a psychologist to manage a project, so don't ask project managers to help you deal with anxiety.

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