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I work as a programmer in a small company and a small team. I am currently working under a senior supervisor/architect. The problem I face is:

The architect assigns work to individual programmers in his cabin. The programmers submit their work at end of the day and have a quick chat about it. Now, about once in 2 weeks during the end of day meeting with him, he says he never asked me to code what I coded! It could range from an entire feature to a field on a form/database. Assuming I was at fault, I started writing everything down from then on. This still continues. When I show him what I had written down about the days work, he says I wasn't paying attention and I got it wrong. After which I started paraphrasing everyday what he wants me to do, but this still goes on.

There is no documentation to code against. And there are no requirements. All the tickets/work requests that are created are advisory only. It's a small shop that does repetitive government web systems, so whatever the architect says is usually the law.

What can I do in these situations to politely bring the facts to light (without offending my supervisor) ?

At the moment it's just me and my supervisor working on a project. Right at the moment he says "I never asked you to do this" I am dumbfounded - what are some of the ways that I could deal with this situation ? It's almost impossible to refute him and if things flare up it will be his word against mine.

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    Nothing exists until it's on paper. Tell him that you'll need to have the instructions in email form so you can know exactly what is expected. – Joel Etherton Jan 8 '15 at 11:51
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    Are you absolutely sure that you did not misunderstand his requests? – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 8 '15 at 12:27
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    Hmmm. I on the other hand have experienced telling a junior: "Do not do XYZ. Person A will be doing it." ... only to later discover the junior did it in any case (and incorrectly)! – Disillusioned Jan 8 '15 at 12:34
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    I'm just going to echo @LightnessRacesinOrbit: Are you sure that you're not taking a request and elaborating on it beyond what he was expecting? I've certainly had times when someone asked for a small feature and I implemented a whole system to handle that feature and every possible variation... – Bobson Jan 8 '15 at 15:26
  • Does the company use a bug-tracking system (like FogBugz or Bugzilla) to track change requests? If not, I recommend using it -- that way, any change that is made to the software has a case number, and pulling up the case number gives you a nice history of just what was requested, when, who requested it, and who was assigned to do it. – Jeremy Friesner Jan 9 '15 at 23:03
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Say that to avoid misunderstandings you want to make/take notes of what he says.

Have a whiteboard (in his office, which you can both see) on which you write (in note form) what he asks you to do.

Agree with him (i.e. confirm), at the end of the meeting, that the notes on the board are correct/accurate.

Take a photo (e.g. using your phone) of the finished notes on the whiteboard, before you walk out of the office.

That ought to solve this problem, "When I show him what I had written down about the days work, he says I wasn't paying attention and I got it wrong", because by writing on a common whiteboard he can verify what you're writing. Writing correct notes together becomes the shared product/deliverable from your meeting.

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    This might be the only answer which isn't repeating what I have already done and can understand the gravity and the subtle nature of this problem. I am going to sincerely try this. Thanks mate – happybuddha Jan 9 '15 at 0:21
  • I'm glad I tried to post it then, though it was a late answer. Using a whiteboard is 'old-school' (i.e. respectable) and unobtrusive: hopefully, easy to introduce. Instead some other people (teams) do it by each person using their own computer to simultaneously edit (and/or oversee someone else editing) a shared document (of notes) in real-time; or, instead of software and networking for real-time shared editing, one computer with projecting (using a projector) from the minute-taker's (scribe's) computer onto a whiteboard. Free-hand is good for ad hoc 'architectural' diagrams. May you be well. – ChrisW Jan 9 '15 at 16:20
  • Also you may be right that he's forgotten. From the perspective of an impartial (see various comments to other answers) it's also possible that you forgot, and/or that there was some misunderstanding / non-agreement in the first place (memories of witnesses can be unreliable). Anyway, having/making shared notes might mitigate any of these problems, and focus people's attention on (constructively) improving the notes instead of (unhelpfully) blaming each others' imperfect memories. – ChrisW Jan 10 '15 at 8:00
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The way I'd approach this would be to get positive confirmation from your supervisor that you're doing the right thing - depending slightly on how you're assigned work, perhaps the most obvious way is just to have a "read back" at the end of your meetings with your supervisor and say something like "Just to confirm, today I should be working on features A, B and C. Is that correct?"

If your paraphrasing is already doing that, get this into writing instead - as soon as you get back to your desk after the meeting, send an e-mail to your supervisor confirming what you're going to be working on today. That way there's no confusion about what you're doing. As suggested by Aleksander, the language can be important: "Just confirming what we discussed" is going to be a lot less confrontational than "Making sure you don't forget what you told me".

  • I find that when I get verbal instructions, I NEED well written notes or else I end up being the one that forgets items on the list. I tend to follow up with the other person with an email that says something like "I took these notes during our conversation today. If I've missed anything, please let me know." Then I can go back to my sent mail and follow step-by-step to make sure I hit each item and no others. – TecBrat Jan 9 '15 at 14:09
  • Perhaps he can sign off on your notes to validate that he looked at them and approves of them? – Tyzoid Jan 10 '15 at 18:31
  • The good thing about this answer is that it works when the employee gets it wrong as well... – André Werlang Mar 8 at 11:53
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What can I do in these situations to politely bring the facts to light (without offending my supervisor) ?

At the moment its just me and my supervisor working on a project. Right at the moment he says "I never asked you to do this" I am dumbfounded - what are some of the ways that I could deal with this situation ?

At the time you are asked to do work, write an e-mail confirming your assumption regarding what you are planning to do. At the end, include phrasing such as "Please let me know if my assumptions are incorrect."

Send it to your supervisor and copy yourself. Save all these emails.

Then, if questions come up, you can trace your work back to the requirements.

  • This sounds like the kind of supervisor who would ignore the emails, or invent some spurious reason that what he said wasn't what has happened. OP has in effect been making those notes, although I appreciate that the asking for confirmation part is a valuable enhancement for cases where the other individual is not deliberately vexatious. In short, I think what you're suggesting is usually worthwhile but I don't think it will help in this case. – Tom W Jan 8 '15 at 12:38
  • A second step if this does not work would be to firmly require from the supervisor to send those email himself. – njzk2 Jan 8 '15 at 15:22
  • @TomW Actually it could well help. Notes you've written yourself haven't been signed off on by the supervisor. When you email him what you are doing to be working on then he doesn't have that excuse. (If he never reads the emails that's a different issue) – Tim B Jan 8 '15 at 16:29
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    @TomW The fact that he has made what his notes say does not rule out the possibility that he has misunderstood or made assumptions at the point of making the notes. By getting them approved you can rule that out and now have something concrete to take to his boss about this problem (or your 'paraphrasing' might be highlighted as the cause). – JamesRyan Jan 8 '15 at 16:36
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    +1 the only thing to add is, make sure the implication is "I want to confirm that I understood correctly" and/or "I'll be more productive with a signed-off brief in writing I can check my work against" (and not "I think you're going to forget"). – user568458 Jan 8 '15 at 18:10
5

Good question. I think there might be a lot of variations on it in different fields.

This might be a bit out there, but you might try suggesting that you be allowed to record the audio from when you discuss your tasks. You need not mention that this is because of the trouble you've had, but because you might use it to better understand his request when you're further into the task. That way, you'll still have the details fresh.

It might be helpful to say that it's because you've become unsure about your memories. That way, you're not accusing him of having a bad memory.

Also, this answer doesn't have to assume that you (the asker) is the one who is remembering correct. It can just as easily prove that your supervisor is in fact in the right.

5

It sounds as you have done a reasonable amount of problem-solving on your own to try and fix this issue, to no avail. You can clearly show evidence that you've been conscientious and proactive in trying to resolve the communication problem. I think this is the point where you can consider involving his boss. I'd suggest being open with him about it:

"[Supervisor], I have noticed we've had a number of disagreements over what work I'm meant to be doing. I've tried [measures] but this doesn't seem to have improved the situation. Unless you have any ideas to improve our communication I think it's the right time to ask [boss] to suggest a way forward"

Underpinning this is your perception that your supervisor is being unreasonable. If you have made a good-faith attempt to understand the problem and you have a sincere belief that you are right and he is wrong, you are within your rights to defend your point of view in a constructive and civil manner and from what you're saying this is the time such a conversation should be had.

  • 'Right vs wrong' may be unnecessarily confrontational. I would always word it as 'clarification required'. – Gusdor Jan 8 '15 at 13:52
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Consider his problem; either he's not easily able to articulate what he needs to you, or he's changing his mind a lot. The former could be partly your responsibility for not making sure you understand perfectly at the end of a meeting; the latter's all on him.

In either case, your options are to adapt or quit. Getting a clear "common language" will help with the former issue, and getting him to read and sign off on your notes on what he's asked you to do (which you should be taking during the meeting) will help with the second.

If there are this many "misunderstandings", it's logical for you to ask him just to check your notes to ensure you're going to be working along the correct lines;

"after all, I'm clearly missing something occasionally".

Some people have suggested involving a software tool, but personally I'd start with a less invasive method such as notebook, that requires minimal commitment from him.

Beyond that, as others have stated, you need to talk to him about this. If a 1-on-1 conversation just ends up in a "you're not listening correctly" dead end, then you need to either involve his boss, or to get a neutral third-party (e.g. HR) to have this conversation. If it's literally just you and him, then you can pull the big trigger and invoke a proper dispute ombudsman, but this can be a "career limiting move" if not handled carefully, and seems extreme for your case (unless your problem starts affecting your salary/bonus/health, in which case your career's already being limited, and you need to solve it a lot more urgently).

Also, it's definitely time to at least have an exit strategy, in case this issue continues indefinitely, and you feel you can't tolerate it.

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    Your missing a possibility: Or the OP really just doesn't understand. I've certainly had employees that simply couldn't grasp what I was asking them to do when everyone else believed it was crystal clear. – NotMe Jan 8 '15 at 14:51
  • @ChrisLively See the second sentence. If everyone thought you were clear except the guy you were actually talking to, that's not just their problem. And the solution's the same even if I'm the one being dense, repeat it back for a correctness check. The sign off is just because of the blatant trust issues involved in this case. – deworde Jan 10 '15 at 12:27
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Do you use any enterprise chat applications such as Hipchat or Slack?

On a project I am working on, we have a standup channel on Slack (used Hipchat in the past) in which, after each days standup, we summarize what we are going to be working on that day (basically typing out what we said in the standup).

You could implement something like this, and have every member of your team including your boss do this as part of their routine.

This way you know your boss is reading everybodys messages every day, and if you summarize incorrectly he can tell you at the time.

Then a week later, if your boss claims you were working on something not asked for you can point to your entry from a week ago, and ask why this wasn't raised with you at the time.

I prefer this to email as it's more casual, easier to work into a routine and generally feels more natural.

3

Sounds like you really need a better software change request system or process.

A good system will allow change requests to be put through a series of states where the assigned person enters relevant information for their part of the process.

Just to walk through an example: Your current ticket/work request is just the change request description and would be in an Initial State. Someone decides that they want to work on the particular SCR so they transition it to an investigation state. The investigation state identifies the problem and recommends the solution. It sounds like your architect should be getting assigned SCRs in this state. For each SCR He'll fill out the field describing his findings and recommended solution. He can then assign the SCR to whoever he wants to implement the recommended solution.

The implementer makes their fixes, adds any notes they want to the "implementation notes" field of the SCR and transitions the SCR for verification. Ideally your SCR system is tied into your software configuration management system. This will allow for the person performing the verificaton (sounds like your architect) to quickly see all the changes that were made for incorporating the SCR.

It is really a very simple process that is extremely hard to do wrong. This should solve your problem because you can always go back and point to what the architect had told you to do.

2

One thing that can be done is introduce a new system . Tell him , hey i just discovered a new application , say - Asana (Used it heavily in our previous organization , yet to come across something that's better then it) . It allows to assign tasks and set deadlines for each member involved in the project . As we are multiple developers , this would help in keeping track of all the tasks . This way , you will have your tasks listed and there's a proof that he indeed assigned you that task .

Though it will take some time convincing him , but it will be a win-win situation at the end . Also make sure you let know the other developers of the same and they all agree with your idea . Verbal communication is the most hazardous thing you can come across as a developer , you will always be at fault until you think of stepping up and bring some change .

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    Getting an old man who believes to be right about everything to completely change the way he works by introducing a new technology he worked without for decades? Good luck with that... – Philipp Jan 8 '15 at 9:12
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    @phillpe, over 50 is not old and many of us over 50 are more than willing to try new things. – HLGEM Jan 8 '15 at 14:59
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    The minute you enter the IT industry , you have agreed to learn new things . Irrespective of age , one can't be stuck onto writing in a notepad and expect it to process all the details , that's why he will need to learn Excel . – Caffeine Coder Jan 9 '15 at 5:04

protected by Monica Cellio Jan 11 '15 at 4:20

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