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First, let me introduce the situation of the company as background information that will help understand the difficulties I am facing. Our company is an internet technology company with two projects: one project has been invested in for a long time but has not made a profit, and the boss is reluctant to give up and believes it will eventually become profitable; the other project is becoming increasingly difficult to make a profit, but is still profitable. I am a programmer who was transferred from a non-profitable project to another profitable one to work on development.

Perhaps due to the company's profit problem, the boss's pressure is increasing. In every meeting, the boss puts a lot of pressure on the employees, demanding innovation without providing specific directions. On the contrary, he asks employees to come up with ideas and work plans, but their opinions are not supported or even completely rejected, leaving employees embarrassed and unsure of what to do to make the company profitable.

As an ordinary programmer, I believe my job is to complete specific and clearly defined requirements, not to rack my brain to think about market directions and write business plans for the boss (I do not know the market situation and am not at the forefront of business; I just write code). However, the boss is gradually shifting the pressure onto me, demanding that I provide market directions. I have also tried to give my opinions, but I have been constantly rejected by the boss, which makes me feel very frustrated.

I do not have much work experience, and this is my first job. I would like to ask for everyone's help to think about my situation. Am I not working hard enough? Should I make an effort to complete tasks beyond my professional scope as the boss demands?

Also, I suspect that the boss's demands are somewhat unreasonable and that he may be trying to oppress or psychologically manipulate me. As a technical person, I believe that improving my professional skills should be my top priority.

Updated 20230620:

For example, when he doesn't assign tasks to you, I analyze from his words what I need to do next and report on my work at the next meeting. So, you have to find things to do on your own without a specific goal, and think about areas that need improvement. However, there's no guarantee that what you're doing is what the boss needs, but I don't really care about that.

In a meeting, other employees implied that he lacked direction and the company's policies lacked continuity. In a subsequent meeting, he candidly admitted his incompetence and explained that his incompetence referred to his failure to keep employees busy and he is busy. He also acknowledged that other business lines under his leadership were not profitable.

Important background information: 12 formal employees (including the boss).

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    How big is the company exactly? And did boss ask for business plans, or just ideas?
    – Aida Paul
    Jun 19, 2023 at 11:15
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    Any examples of ideas you give that are then rejected? Sounds like a management problem and not a you problem. A Jr Developer (By your description) shouldn't be making business decisions that drive profitability - unless you are going to go the route of "I'll make the decisions but wheres my stock options to compensate for the risks?" (Which begs the question: what motivations are they giving for these decisions? stock? overtime? do it or I'll fire you?)
    – WernerCD
    Jun 19, 2023 at 19:11
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    12 people, so it's essentially a startup, which changes the question and it's nature quite substantially. I may pop a full answer later if time allows, but in this setup I would 100% expect everyone to be on board with marketing/business side of things. This is too small to have tight compartment where you only do "your thing".
    – Aida Paul
    Jun 20, 2023 at 7:21
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    @TymoteuszPaul a 12 person company is not necessarily a startup. My wife's company has been going for 30 years and has just 7 employees.
    – Darren
    Jun 20, 2023 at 11:05
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    As a software engineer, I do not consider my job to be "completing clear and we'll defined requirement". In real world, nothing is that clear and well defined. Understanding customer's need is critical to our role. That being said, I admit your boss looks to be indeed demanding way to much because he doesn't know what to do to make things finally work. Jun 20, 2023 at 14:48

6 Answers 6

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There's one very important note in comments that requires bringing up and addressing:

12 formal employees (including the boss). He's not satisfied with a simple idea and often shows employees products from other companies, saying they made a lot of money and you should reflect on your shortcomings. He expects employees to move closer to the goal on their own and report progress at meetings, but no one cares about specific action plans. It seems amateurish.

This seems like about any startup I've worked with seen from perspective of junior employee, and big part why juniors and startups generally do not mix well as no one is going to have the time to hand hold you.

As an ordinary programmer, I believe my job is to complete specific and clearly defined requirements, not to rack my brain to think about market directions and write business plans for the boss

and

For example, when he doesn't assign tasks to you, I analyze from his words what I need to do next and report on my work at the next meeting. So, you have to find things to do on your own without a specific goal, and think about areas that need improvement.

Further highlights exactly that, you have expectations of getting a ready spec, working on just that which is... Just not how startups, or really even many/most big tech companies operate. Independence, being able to gather requirements and fact finding tends to be a big part of the job, and those are skills you will do best to develop fast, getting over the expectation of getting ready requirements. It's just now how software dev works bar very few examples.

There are some worrying tones in the way you describe your boss behaviour that worry me, like him outright rejecting ideas without consideration after asking for such ideas, and abandoning ship may be something for you to consider, I think it may also be getting blown out of proportion due to the massive cliff of what you expect (air-proof detailed specs to work on) vs the reality of startup life (5 minutes chat as jump-off point to be worked on). This level of misalignment can easily make mountains out of molehills.

So to the actual question, which I think is:

So what do I do now, being a junior in a chaotic startup?

I would extremely recommend to first have an honest chat with your boss, tell him exactly how you feel, that you don't understand the work you get, that you lack details, that you think there's lack of business direction - all the stuff you've poured out here, including saying that from your limited perspective this operation seems amateurish. How he handles that will tell you everything you need to know.

He may cut you off, interrupt and otherwise move with the pattern which you've described above - in which case run don't walk away from that place as Hilmar said in his answer.

He may also take a pause, and be very surprised why you've not spoken about any of that before. This is the reaction you want, and you should then continue the very honest conversation in the nature it has begun, because while clearly there was a misunderstanding between you two, it is at least partially your fault for not raising the problem whenever it rears its ugly head - communication is a two way street.

Either way your path forward will be clear, including being clear of gossip, rumors and guesses about how good, or bad, the boss is as a business person and manager.

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    @Ziliu Every company can fail, startup or not - something to keep in mind wherever you go. The difference is that in startups it tends to be more visible, hopefulyl not hidden behind corporate speak. As for why work in startups, well, people like me do it because we love the chaos, moving fast and breaking stuff. This is obviously not for everyone, but if it is for you, you get stuff done many times faster than anywhere else, which means exposure to loat more than you otherwise would.
    – Aida Paul
    Jun 20, 2023 at 9:42
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    It's worth saying, talking to your boss can backfire, especially if they are already in an erratic mood. If you are more minded to leave, I'd just persevere and keep your head down until you find something else.
    – Bennet
    Jun 20, 2023 at 10:05
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    I think that this is good advice. However, before having this conversation, make sure your resume is up to date and get in touch with a couple of recruiters to start actively looking for a new position. Open, honest communication with your boss is generally a good thing, but this boss sounds like he's more than a bit erratic and is an emotional mess based on the stress of running this company. Go into the conversation fully prepared to walk out fired, because that could happen.
    – FreeMan
    Jun 20, 2023 at 12:09
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    @Ziliu The benefits for (experienced) employees at a startup company are things like being able to bring one's experience to helping design the product, freedom from past mistakes, and expanding one's experience into new fields. There might be financial benefits as well, but those might not appear. Junior developers are there to work long hours, learn a lot, and have experiences they can use elsewhere. One lesson to learn comes from watching bad bosses and seeing how they destroy the company.
    – David R
    Jun 20, 2023 at 14:02
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    @Davor I love being an idiot then, as I gather feedback from juniors, randos and my friends gf about business plans :D.
    – Aida Paul
    Jun 21, 2023 at 13:54
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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news: this ship is going down .

The company is in trouble and management has no idea how to fix it. The actions that you describe smell of panic and frustration. There ARE structured and orderly processes that can turn a situation like this around, but your boss does not seem to be applying anything like this. There is very little chance this will work.

Best you can do here is polish your resume and start looking. In the meantime just ignore the managerial flailing. Don't let it get to you: it's your boss who is being incompetent at their job, not you.

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    Developers are not the people to ask for market direction. Customers are. Move on.
    – David R
    Jun 19, 2023 at 14:34
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    @keshlam: there is certainly nothing wrong with generating ideas. However coming up with commercially viable product requires a lot of different skills and insights. Besides the technical aspects you need to look customer needs, market size assessment, competitive analysis, sales channels, business model, sourcing/supply chain, customer service, legal/certification/compliance etc. It really doesn't sound like the OP has a lot of experience in any of these.
    – Hilmar
    Jun 19, 2023 at 16:57
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    If you happen to find an answer, your boss will be the hero. Never fail to apply the PHB principle. Jun 19, 2023 at 18:53
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    @mhdadk: "Pointy-Haired Boss", of Dilbert fame
    – Ben Voigt
    Jun 19, 2023 at 21:54
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    @keshlam OP's boss is grasping at straws. Even if OP comes up with a great idea the company without funds that is haemorrhaging talent due to the boss badgering employees won't be the one to execute it. Jun 20, 2023 at 7:00
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Who owns the company?

The products managed by this boss are clearly going down. This may take the company down with it. In the short term this is bad news for employees, but unless they go bust whilst still owing you wages, it's not a huge deal. (And even then it's usually recoverable.)

A company is always owned by someone though. (Or a collection of someones.) It's an asset that belongs to them, and if it goes under then they lose the money they put into it. Depending on the jurisdiction, how far it goes under and who they owe how much money to, the owners may also be prohibited from running other businesses for some time and may have problems getting personal finance too.

These are the people who need to be making strategic decisions. The boss clearly doesn't have the capacity to do it, and as an employee it's not your place to do it because you've got no skin in the game.

The simple answer then is to stop waiting for the boss to do anything. Go over his head, talk to the owners, and find out what's going on. Chances are the boss is running in circles because the owners are putting pressure on him, but this isn't achieving anything.

Hell, with only a dozen employees it becomes straightforward. You don't need to do it solo. You all walk into the owner's office together, with or without your manager, and say "can we have a word?" What the owner does about that will inform your decision about whether to stay or go.

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Am I not working hard enough?

First of all, don't beat yourself up over this. The work you do contributes to the company's success, but you are not responsible for the company being profitable. Profit means that you're bringing in more money than you're spending. Plenty of companies had amazing products and weren't profitable because their operating costs were too high or their owners weren't making good financial decisions. The "enterprise" software space is chock full of companies with absolute garbage products yet are wildly profitable because their sales people can shmooze and razzle-dazzle corporate decision makers who don't understand what they're buying. There are a long list of things that impact profitability and that are completely beyond your control or influence. You can change the product, but you don't have direct influence on how much the company spends or brings in.

If your boss says "we can win this new customer if we can solve problem X for them", then that's one thing. A general prompt of "do something that makes us money" isn't something you could ever deliver on unless he's also putting you in charge of pricing, marketing, sales, payroll, etc. The greatest feature in the world is useless if sales people aren't using it to drive sales.

Should I make an effort to complete tasks beyond my professional scope as the boss demands?

Working on tasks beyond your normal scope of work is perfectly normal in most every business, particularly so for small teams. However, there's an important difference between working outside your normal scope and working outside of your competency.

I recently had an electrician out to do some work on my house. While he was here, I asked him to help me clean up some of the cuts in the drywall around the wall boxes for my power outlets. That wasn't officially part of his job, but he cuts holes in drywall all the time so he could do in 5 minutes what would take me several hours. I didn't ask him to help fix the cracked sidewalk, though. He didn't remotely have any of the tools or background knowledge required to do such a task, and it would be professionally irresponsible for him to claim that he did. That's the difference between working beyond your normal scope and doing something you're not qualified to do.

As a professional, you must always present your competencies truthfully. "I'm not qualified to do that" is a perfectly valid response to any request from your boss. In some fields, doing work that you're not qualified to do can cost you your professional license, open yourself to civil liability, or even risk criminal charges. There's probably not a lot of legal risk in this specific case, but you at least have an ethical responsibility to be upfront about your abilities. I would tell my boss something like this:

Before I start working on this, I want to remind you that I did not go to business school. I heard the term "market direction" for the first time five minutes ago. My position at this company does not give me access to market analyses, financial information, competition research, or even direct access to customers. Everything I know about business plans and market research I gleaned from watching Shark Tank reruns last weekend. Do you still want me to do this task, or should this be assigned to someone who actually knows what they're doing? How much time should I take away from my development tasks to do this business research?

Get the response in writing/email if possible for CYA reasons. The main point, though, is to represent your abilities in an accurate way while hopefully also driving home the notion that him asking you to do this part of his job is as absurd as you asking him to tell the difference between "big data" and Pokemon.

If they ask you to go ahead with it anyway, then you have what you need to protect yourself if your boss tries to blame you when it goes pear-shaped. There's always the risk that they fire you and go look for that ace programmer who for some reason also has a marketing degree, but they're unlikely to find such a unicorn before the whole project collapses. Regardless of their response, your future would be brighter somewhere else.

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Why are you asking us, when the answer can be found in your employment contract? If your contract says "write code", then you write code. If it says you are expected to be an ideas person, then you need to be that person.

In general however, it's not the responsibility of software developers - especially junior ones - to facilitate requirements. This line can be blurred in small companies, where it may be necessary for multiple people to own multiple roles, but even if you are facilitating requirements you should have at least have an idea of what exactly you're trying to build. And that idea needs to come from management.

Your boss is quite frankly not doing his job. Over and above the fact that he's trying to push his responsibilities onto others with the excuse of how busy he is, his inability to accept that his pet project is doomed is a massive red flag. Companies as small as this literally cannot afford to pour money into bad projects in the hope that they will eventually come good, especially when there is no obvious path for that project becoming able to justify itself financially.

You can try having a conversation with your boss and raising these points (in a slightly kinder manner that may be more conducive to convincing him that he's making a mistake), but given what you've said (especially about the belittling) it sounds like he's the kind of person who believes they know best, and nothing that anyone else can say or do will change that opinion. And that is the absolute worst type of person to be in a management position.

The best thing you can do is get out.

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There are two different issues here:

  1. The specific company you describe will evaporate in three months or less. Simply leave (today) and start searching for another job.

(The demand for almost every programming field ATM is infinite; if you can't find another job in the current market, you can't find a job at all. It will be quicker and easier for you to get another job, if you're conveniently free and you can "start today" instead of dicking around while you leave the previous place.)

  1. HOWEVER be aware that it is COMPLETELY NORMAL that (in some companies) you will be told to innovate and invent products features, as you describe. If you personally don't like that - then simply don't join a company like that, or, move on if you find yourself in a company/division like that. (There are plenty of companies where that is and isn't the case - you can pick and choose.)

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