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I'm an intern at a (relatively large) software company. When my supervisor gives me tasks, he is often somewhat vague and high-level about them. I do my best to interpret what he wants me to do and then do as much of it as I can, and then when I email him the result of my work or email him saying that I pushed code, very rarely does he reply. When I finish a task and need more feedback in order to do more work, I tend not to recieve the feedback even when I explicitly (but politely) ask for it. It comes to the point where I have to send multiple differently-worded emails to him and another leader of the project team in order to get a reply about what work I am supposed to do next.

This is mainly stressing me out because the attitude I sense from their lack of replies makes it seem like they think I already have work to be doing (which I tell them I do not) -- so it makes me paranoid that the tasks they assign me are lost in possible poor interpretation of their communication (which seems unlikely but possible because they never are around to check in with in person), or that maybe the work I've done so far is not what I was supposed to do (which I only think is possible because of how vaguely the task was assigned and the lack of feedback when I finished the task).

My boss's boss likes to meet with interns to see how their internship is going and during my meeting I mentioned that it is stressful that I don't recieve replies to my emails asking for tasks or asking for feedback (even though it seemed like this was supposed to be a typical "yes everything's great" meeting).

Is there something I'm doing wrong here? How should I deal with this -- is my stress justified?

  • Can you do the communication with your boss face-to-face instead of by email? – Jim Clay Jul 13 '15 at 17:32
  • Not easily -- he is not in the office half the time because he splits his time between offices in two cities, and he is currently on vacation. When he is in the office, (which is hard to know about) he is in meetings all the time, and I don't think he has a specific desk of his own where I would be able to find him. – vijrox Jul 13 '15 at 17:42
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    Just a small tip when communicating by email : keep it short. If your boss is really busy, he is more likely to ignore your mail if it is a big wall of text. I often use bullet list, as there a usually shorter, clearer, and easier to read. – Emilie Jul 13 '15 at 18:51
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Its not something you're doing. What you're dealing with is learning how to address different communication styles or lack thereof. This happens more often than not, especially if the person you're reporting to is more of a manager and less of a developer. When it comes to communicating with your manager, first I would address whether he/she is a technical person or more of a manager managing technical people. If your manager is the second one, then you have to word you communication with as little software language as possible.

You'll never get perfectly exact answers to everything. Some things like how to write a particular function or what design pattern to use may be decisions left to you to decide because many managers don't care. They just want to know it works, and is on schedule. When you're entering a new project, try to get as much of those finer details up front but do it in a business language fashion more than technical speak; (e.g. Ask what features the application needs to have as opposed to what functionality). Leave the datatypes, design patterns and the like out of the clarification discussion unless you're working on a development team who understands that stuff and where it would be most relevant.

  • He is actually more technical than I originally thought; I just found out a few weeks ago that he's the one who wrote the base of the code that I was working on for the first few weeks of my internship. I know sorting out technical details are more my job than my manager's; the vagueness is of a higher level than that. – vijrox Jul 13 '15 at 17:48
  • If your manager doesn't effectively communicate in a way that provides you the answers to successfully do your job then you may just have to go to the project manager then to seek clarification. – Alex Jul 13 '15 at 18:00
  • I wish -- the project manager works 1000 miles away and responds to emails equally infrequently. And I've been CCing him in all the emails to my boss because my questions have always been for both/either of them. – vijrox Jul 13 '15 at 18:11
  • @vijrox That's not project managing then. – Jane S Jul 13 '15 at 21:03
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When my supervisor gives me tasks, he is often somewhat vague and high-level about them. I do my best to interpret what he wants me to do and then do as much of it as I can

So here's the first problem. You are not working undercover and receiving cryptic instructions monthly via articles in an obscure trade journal. You can ask your boss for clarification, and you should, if there's any doubt about what is expected. Don't treat it as an exercise in uncovering your boss' all-encompassing and infallible vision, either, treat it as a genuine conversation which stops when you understand what you're going to need to do. It's entirely possible that your boss hasn't thought through what is being suggested.

If you can't meet face-to-face, do it by 'phone. If you genuinely can't do that (and I suggest you at least try), then make sure the correspondence happens through the issue tracker so it's always clear when you're waiting for spec from him. Arrange regular meetings and spec out a bunch of things at once (and write down the spec) so that you have always have a prioritised backlog of work to do so that if you do get blocked you can switch to something else while your boss is unavailable.

and then when I email him the result of my work or email him saying that I pushed code, very rarely does he reply

Do your emails demand a reply? My rule of thumb when I'm busy is that if I am not being personally asked a direct question I don't prioritise responding. By the time I'm not busy, chances are I'm not going back through my already-read mails to find things I could have replied to at the time.

When I finish a task and need more feedback in order to do more work

Do your emails indicate this is the case? When I'm really busy, I flag up as 'things to-do later' anything which doesn't give a clear indication of urgency and importance (like 'I need this by first thing Monday in order to do X' - but not 'could I have some feedback ASAP'). Are you sure that your boss actually knows that if he does not respond you will be spending the next 4 hours of paid time honing your Minesweeper skills? I don't suggest putting it quite like that, but an email saying "I'm now doing X which should take me through to tomorrow lunchtime, but looks like nothing else is ready yet - could you confirm Y so I can start X?"

they think I already have work to be doing (which I tell them I do not)

Is there a side project you can find that you can work on at your own pace that doesn't require much input from others and is job-related? If they genuinely aren't concerned that they're not making the most of you (it's possible), think about what you can do that might be instructive, might impress them or might look good on your CV.

You don't mention that you've received any negative feedback. Although that doesn't mean for sure you're doing fine and although a lack of positive feedback can be demoralising, some places don't have a culture of giving structured or regular feedback. Chances are you have nothing to worry about. If you are still concerned, ask to book in some regular time fortnightly or monthly just for a catch-up and explicitly ask if there are any concerns or if your work has been good, where you can improve, etc. (in fact, this is good practice in any job).

  • Thanks for the detailed answer! To address some of the points you brought up: - when my boss gives me directions I always ask for further clarification, but this most often results in him repeating the vague description of my task again, to the point where I fear I'd look stupid if I ask for more clarification and he just repeats the same thing again - I've been sending multiple emails explicitly asking for responses of feedback or assignment of tasks, and not gotten responses - I may try calling, but these are high-level guys who are in meetings most of the time and I'm just an intern – vijrox Jul 13 '15 at 19:44
  • @vijrox: Is there some colleague who also knows about your project? Ask your manager if you are allowed to approach someone else about your project, as he appears to be busy (I had the same problem in my last company. My boss back then was hoarding tasks for himself, working for three mans worth but would not let me ask anyone else...) – jwsc Jul 15 '15 at 6:27
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Use this framework whenever you feel overwhelmed or think the given task is unclear.

Step 1. Set up a meeting

"Hi, could we have a short chat about X? I would like to ask you (3-5) questions."

Use e-mail if supervisor is not around. Upon meeting supervisor, move to a different place -- even when it's not necessary.

Step 2. Engage with your supervisor

"I'm currently working on X, which is about Y. X is very interesting because of Z."

Meetings are usually boring and negative. So show some enthusiasm and a proactive attitude.

Step 3. Give purpose of meeting

"However, there are a few challenges I face and I think you can help me with."

Notice I said 'challenges'. We want to keep the conversation light and positive.

Step 4. Ask your questions

Ask your questions with the following structure

"The [first/second etc.] challenge is X. Which is [Give context]. However [give problem].
Should I [your possible solution with clear action steps]?"

Sharing a possible solution is not about the solution, it's about putting the supervisor in your shoes.

Step 5. Making sure you understand

"So to sum everything up, what I will do is: X, Y, Z. Am I on the same page?"

If the supervisor does not agree, blame yourself for interpretation it differently. They will love you for it.

Step 6. End with charm

"I really liked what you said about X, I can see how that would help me with Y and Z. 
It was great talking to you, thanks again!"

When the supervisor starts to ramble:

 "Ah ok! So, if I may interrupt, basically X Y and Z. "

Start nodding and responding "yes" more frequently to signal you want to interrupt.

 Supervisor: "Yes ! Bla bla"

Before he can ramble again finish subject with positive re-enforcement.

 "Alright, great. Love it!"

When the supervisor doesn't give enough information

 Supervisor: "Just write a report on that."
 "Ok, so what I will do is: X Y and Z. Would that be sufficient?"

Put your supervisor in your shoes by explaining what you will do exactly. If you don't know what to do, make something up. This way you will force the supervisor to correct you by becoming more specific.

  • Even better than telling them what you will do, is to just do it. Worst case is you do it "wrong", and you get feedback about what's wrong. In time, you can incorporate the feedback to get closer to "right" the first time. Best case is you do it "right", and everyone knows they can trust you to do the right thing without them having to get involved. – Mark Brackett Jul 15 '15 at 19:58
  • It's interesting that you say that, since this exactly what I used to do! Then I realized what makes top-performers different -- they don't gamble. I've noticed that people LOVE this framework because you take responsibility on the quality of your job. Besides, knowing exactly what to do makes your job 10x easier and more enjoyable. – JasperJ Jul 15 '15 at 21:20
  • FWIW - I disagree on the don't gamble aspect. Management is all about making decisions on limited information, and one of the best qualities you can demonstrate is that you're able to sufficiently complete a task given vague requirements and without handholding. Now, of course, that presumes that you're actually completing the task to the satisfaction of those involved; if that's not the case, then you have to work on that first I suppose. – Mark Brackett Jul 15 '15 at 21:33
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The lack of feedback indicates either of several interesting possibilties:

  1. Your manager gave you the assignments he gave to get you out of his hair, and he couldn't care less what you do with these assignments because the work of the rest of the team does not hinge in any way on how successful you are with your assignments. Sounds pretty cruel, but I have had interns parachuted on me by my own management while I was fighting to help my teams meet our company's contractual deadlines, and I didn't appreciate the extra dead weight.

  2. Your manager is not an effective manager because he is not following up with you or anyone else and he is not capable of setting and readjusting priorities. That's the case if everyone on the staff complains the same way about him. If he is very good at following up with other staff especially the senior staff, then that's a signal to you that he is an effective manager and he does not care that much about what you are doing and what you are doing is unimportant to him.

  3. I had a boss, a partner of the firm, who drove me crazy with instructions that were so vague that they might as well be riddles - It did not help that these instructions were based on agreements that he had made with clients without quite understanding what he was agreeing to. His subordinate, a Vice-P of the firm, would pass along these instructions verbatim and he didn't have a clue what these instructions meant. The rest of the firm would refer to us as B!tch, Moan and Swear in that order. Because the partner would suddenly understand that he didn't know what he had agreed to on behalf of the firm and go into panic mode, the Vice-P because he was totally helpless in affecting the outcome and he was not the type that radiated positivity to begin with, and I because I was at the receiving end of this nonsense, I had to make sense out of it and I as the key senior engineer had to figure out how to execute it so that the outcome met the client's requirements, made the management look like they knew what they were doing and made sense to me. And at every salary review, my management complained about my distinct lack of a sweet disposition :) In other words, your boss is naturally incoherent and you just have to make sense of that incoherence. And you have no choice but to make sense out of that incoherence because you have to hand in something that works.

Having said that, you pretty much did what you could as an intern in tems of asking for feedback without driving someone - anyone - up the wall. If the manager didn't want to make time for you, he could have delegated to someone else the task of giving you the feedback. He chose not to do that. His prerogative.

Don't worry too much about being underemployed, it's not as if they're letting you make a financial killing and punching a major hole in your manager's budget out of you playing intern.

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