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I am software developer. I have heard a lot of managers say that one of the virtues they seek in a good engineer is "Independent execution of tasks". Assuming that there is a mature definition of this virtue, considering the fact that so many managers keep telling this, What exactly is the meaning of this? What aspects of a job do they seek independence in?

Is it the code development they are talking about? Is it the complete project management that they expect the engineer/developer to do? Is it the business decision too that they expect the engineer to take?

Or is there something else or more to it. Would like to have some clarity on this.

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    "Assuming that there is a mature definition of this virtue" - big assumption there ;) – Oded Jan 16 '15 at 14:51
  • Maybe I shouldn't have answered since I didn't provide a precise definition.. but there it is. I'll delete my answer if it comes to that – Brian Jan 16 '15 at 14:58
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    Pro tip: if this requirement is listed in a job description for a job that you get some kind of interview for, make sure to ask them what do they think "independent execution of tasks" means. – Kai Jan 16 '15 at 16:35
  • It just someone who can do the job without having to be closely supervised i.e. someone who can do the job with little to no supervision. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jan 16 '15 at 17:46
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    It means you get it without always requiring a precise definition. Otherwise, they would look for people who can follow explicit instructions without needing to figure things out for themselves. They're ambiguous for a reason. – user8365 Jan 16 '15 at 22:40
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I think this goes hand-in-hand with the "motivated self-starter" and "shows initiative" that show up on job descriptions on the job boards out there.

My feeling on this, is that the managers want an employee they can trust. Someone they don't have to babysit and gets their job done. Someone who can be assigned tasks and gets them done on time and on budget.

As to how they spot this? That depends on when they look for it I guess. If this is after the employee has been hired, then I can see management watching the new hire to see if they're going to pan out. During the interview? That's someone with more skills than I have.

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    +1 - the scope of it certainly depends on the context, but the main idea of "someone I don't need to babysit" is key. – Telastyn Jan 16 '15 at 15:05
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    Spotting it in an interview involves asking questions like "give an example of when you used your initiative" or "tell us about a time when you handled a piece of work on your own". They might sound cliched, but they're cliches because they can work. If the candidate says, "I realised the X project was going to miss its deadline unless I did Y so I did it", you have someone who can work independently. If they struggle to think of something, you might have someone who only does exactly what they're told or who sits there doing nothing until their boss gives them their next task. – BittermanAndy Jul 25 at 8:48
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Typically Independent execution of tasks is fairly narrow in scope.

This doesn't mean you should run off an your own projects without consulting the business or just run off and do whatever you think is best at the moment.

Instead what this typically means is when you're assigned a task(s) you take ownership and don't require constant assistance or supervision to complete that task(s). More or less, once I assign something to you with sufficient details to accomplish it no further involvement is needed. In addition I need to be able to trust you to be reliable in delivering at the expected quality or better, on time, and within budget.

(For short, they want someone who will do what their asked to do reliably without needing constant supervision)

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  • +1 for the "sufficient details" aspect. Key point I missed – Brian Jan 16 '15 at 15:05
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    I would expect someone who is independent to complete the task even if there are not sufficient details. I would expect him or her to proactively seek out the missing information to be able to complete the task. – Eric Jan 16 '15 at 22:24
  • @Eric of coarse, however; there are times critical details are not passed on to the individual that ultimately ensure it will not be done correctly / on time. (I can't ask questions about things I don't know I don't know) Needing to clarify details, locate information, etc is all perfectly fine, but when someone forgets critical details when providing you the expectations / requirements of the project things are probably not going to turn out well) – RualStorge Feb 11 '15 at 17:24
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An "independent" worker usually means someone who doesn't need to be led by the hand every step of the way- Someone who can handle some troubleshooting on their own. It's not a good sign if the rest of the team spends more time helping you than the other way around, with the exception of ramping you up... To put it bluntly, they don't want a liability.

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I think the phrase "independent work" refers to problems we face alone, and work we do ourselves without the help of any other person.

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Generally, working independently means that you would be able to implement a full project, given only high-level instructions. Consider this more like project ownership, where you would carry out the full SDLC on your own:

  • meet with the client to develop requirements and get sign-off
  • create the system design and get approval
  • code the solution
  • perform your own testing and be able to lead the client through user testing sessions
  • deliver the product to Production
  • implement training if needed
  • perform maintenance

Granted, depending on the task, your work may represent a subset of the SDLC. Generally, though, you should be able to perform it on your own.

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