I'm at my new job where I was told I will be developing a new web-based system to add functionality to the main hardware+firmware product line, but that there is no specification yet. I'm supposed to spend some time in other teams to get to know the company, but apparently it's not the right time yet.

Of my first week I have spent some 30 hours doing what I thought best. I read some documentation on related company software, freshened up on technologies and development-practices I'm guessing I will be working with, wrote up a rough-draft specification for the system... no one seems to be interested in how I'm spending my time. My superior is quite busy and comes by once a day to tell me some official stuff for 5 minutes; otherwise I'm alone at my desk.

Tomorrow I'm planning on starting to build a prototype with what ideas I currently have for the project, but I'm wondering if this won't be a wasted effort. I'm invited to a meeting on my project, but I still have 3 work days to fill, and I'm skeptical that a one hour meeting will give me enough work for the time after.

This is my first developer job, and I'm quite unsure about what I should be doing. I want to ask my superior just that: "What do you expected me to do?". But... I don't want to come across as seeming:

  • too low skilled for the job.
  • unable to decide what's important or not.
  • or plain impatient and bothersome.

I can't read my superiors (they all have that "I'm busy and focused on important stuff" poker-face), and I've been told to ask my colleagues first. They're no better informed about my purpose at the company than me though.

  1. What should I be doing on my own? I don't want to just wait around idly, twiddling my thumbs, until I'm told what to do.
  2. What should I be asking from my superior? How long should I wait for him to come to me? I need to get some input so I can get started with productive work.

I feel I can do more, and that I'm spending my time at work inefficiently. Help!

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    For what it's worth, all three bullet points above seem to be applicable to your managers, not you. – Cthulhu Oct 8 '14 at 18:00
  • @gnat - interesting question, i didn't see that one earlier. The setting is a bit different though. That person is already aware of how "normal" work at the company looks like. Shouldn't the expectations towards a worker new at a job be very different than to one who's already been there a year? – Rafael Emshoff Oct 9 '14 at 5:29

Send your superiors an email stating, that you are unsure how to proceeed. You have asked around and helped the people that had some task to do and you learned skills X, Y and Z in preparation to the new project.

You thought it's a good idea to create a mockup now for project X and if there is nothing more urgent, you would do this now.

It is best to inform them about the problem (no idea how to proceed) and offer a sane sounding solution (create mockup), so if they really have nothing urgent themselves they can just nod and don't need to spend time making up work.

Sidenote: Be prepared to be swamped with work, either as response to the email or more probable when the real project starts in a few days.

  • Informing about what I've done and posing only one question "Is there anything more urgent?" seems like a good approach. Thanks for the idea. – Rafael Emshoff Oct 9 '14 at 5:25
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    Since they don't seem to want to spend time on telling you what to do, you could add "this is what I will be doing next, unless you have objections". – gnasher729 Oct 9 '14 at 8:34
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    I ended up coming to my boss for 10 minutes, saying: "I'm not sure what to do next, here's what I think is important, ..." He made some adjustments to what i as thinking and gave me some new stuff. It went well : ) – Rafael Emshoff Oct 9 '14 at 20:21

You're on the right path.

First, your rough-draft for the system is a great start. Be sure you have a very specific list of requirements. Polish that up, and then give it to your manager for approval.

You may have to use your own judgment on this, though: I have started putting a clause in my requirements that if no revisions or objections are received within "X" days, or by "The first of Febrober (whatever)" that the requirements will be accepted as valid.

That puts the onus on them to respond. Given that you're new, here, and seem to be rather junior in the organization, you might not have the clout to do that.

  • I'm not sure that specific requirements will be available if everyone else is off being busy (perhaps making requirements). The prototype is still a good idea though, since it can serve as a basis for discussion at the very least and a time sink at the worst. – Telastyn Oct 8 '14 at 18:21

Current Situation

Depending on the hiring process I've found jobs where I'm really needed, but they can't even get things in order enough to where I can work for weeks after being hired. (And trust me it can be dreadful, I've been one of 16 hired all at once only for the company to realize they forgot to even order desks for us in a new location. Oops...)

Don't be surprised if the first week or two is an absolute mess, just be as productive as you can during that time. Making yourself familiar with the company is hugely beneficial during this time.

What should I do?

Well they do have a project planning meeting coming up, honestly trying to put anything together before you have a clue what it is your building in any real detail is likely a total waste of time (Except maybe just good practice).

Generally speaking I make it a priority to both get familiar with the company's dynamics, the culture, the policies, the work, etc. I also make a real effort to network with people I'm likely to work with. (Like introduce yourself to the DBA, grab lunch together or something) usually a good team will make it a point to drag you out to lunch the first week, but if not don't be afraid to invite others out. (This will help you learn how to best work with these people and generally make for a happier healthier working environment)

Let's say you've done all that and you're really struggling to find things productive to do, if your boss is to busy to point you at something you can help on perhaps ask one of your peers if there is something you can lend a hand with. Even if it's something mundane and trivial, at least you're doing something.

Don't Fret

Don't get too worried about being unproductive your first week or two, do what you can, but I've rarely seen a company where you can just sit down and get to work. There are always things like missing software, lack of planning, etc. That leave you hunting to be productive when you first start.

The only time this really is a red flag is if it drags on. A week or two isn't unheard of, but when you start to creep into three and four weeks. That's typically a bad sign in your company doesn't plan well, planning is the single most important thing for software developers in the working world.

  • Good to hear that this is probably an issue of company organization, and not me fitting in. I'll feel at ease for atleast another week : ) If this drags on I'll help out my colleagues. – Rafael Emshoff Oct 9 '14 at 5:21

You could provide a list of things that need(ed) to be done in your case! I have never seen something like this, at least in the teams I've worked in. It is immensely helpful to have a checklist of things to-do when a new person joins the team. You could do this as you progress in getting into the team.

Something in the lines of:

  1. Request PC from HR/whichever
  2. Get logins for system X, Y and Z
  3. Install programs A, B and C
  4. Get access rights to production platform for running build scripts
  5. Read documents 1, 2 and 3
  6. Study system Foo

And so on. This will be surprisingly helpful!

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