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I'm doing a technical job for a non-technical manager. He likes to be updated every few hours but I find it can be an issue as he doesn't really know my job. I'm a software developer and my boss only knows only a little programming (probably not even enough to write a complete hello world program by himself, but enough to recognize a print statement).

I normally tell him the most recent ‘part of the program’ I accomplished and what I’m currently working on. He always says “what’s the holdup”, “what’s the obstacle”, “what’s the dilemma”, “what’s the problem”, “what’s the issue” etc. I have trouble answering this question as there usually isn’t one. I’m just working. I guess non-technical people may think if there isn’t a problem it should be done by now, but even with the idea in mind it physically takes time to code.

It's like he keeps asking what the obstacle is and when I finally give him one he gets mad that I didn't tell him about it sooner and acts as if I had been wasting time (this doesn't even make sense because I don't even tell him how long I've been working on the "obstacle").

  1. How do you give technical updates to a non-technical manager?
    He gave me a list of instructions but what I’m currently implementing in the program doesn’t neatly correspond to a single step in the instructions.
  2. How do you phrase “no problems, I’m just working” when the manager asks “what’s the problem?” after you give an update.
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    This went down hill at likes to be updated every few hours. Would "The obstacle is that I am here reporting to you rather than working on my task" be too direct? – paparazzo Aug 6 '15 at 19:22
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    I'm with you noteme123. It's a common issue in the Technical field. It's also super irritating to try to quantify everything you do to someone who doesn't understand the complexity of certain aspects. I can't tell you how many times I've reported back and gotten "It's too low level. I don't need this" so the next one I send is higher scope and get "Seriously, what is it you do all day? I need to know what I'm paying you for." Unfortunately sometimes there isn't a fix. You just have to do the best you can. – zfrisch Aug 6 '15 at 22:46
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    How about a simple, "No obstacles at the moment. The work is progressing at the expected pace. I will let you know if I find anything that would slow it down." – Wesley Long Aug 6 '15 at 23:29
  • In your boss's mind, what can he do to help the situation when you get stuck? Does he get more technical help or alter the requirements? – user8365 Aug 7 '15 at 0:51
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    "What's the obstacle?" " Interruptions." – Andrew Whatever Aug 7 '15 at 22:16
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I used to annotate the list of tasks my manager gave to me when he wanted an update. If a task was complete I would mark it as complete highlight/tick it. The assumption being that if it was complete he didn't need to know implementation detail. If I was working on it I would give him an ETA for its completion. If a task was a blocker I would write a description of the problem i.e. 'Fault on PCB so I can't flash the firmware yet, reported to engineering'.

In my role that worked well for everyone, the manager doesn't need to know the details but he was aware of what he wanted to know i.e. what I had done, when will the rest be done and is anything blocking my progress.

Although it seems a bit like too much micromanagement that he requires you to update him every few hours. I would update my manager at most once a day unless we were really up against a deadline.

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    I have trouble with a linear checklist because (I find) in software dev A LOT of unforseen things come up. – noteme123 Aug 6 '15 at 21:15
  • @noteme123 That's what issue trackers like Jira are for, but that's getting a bit off-topic. – The Merry Misanthrope Aug 7 '15 at 5:09
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    Software development is not a linear process; although what you suggested is excellent if you are following a standard op like what is usually done when installing components or troubleshooting; but in development even the best developers cannot enumerate all that they would need to at the task level; even the best PM only budget at the "module/component" level, and not (what apparently the OP manager wants) task level. – Burhan Khalid Aug 7 '15 at 9:32
  • @KevinKrumwiede fwiw I pitched the idea of an issue/ticket tracker and they said no – noteme123 Aug 21 '15 at 19:53
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He likes to be updated every few hours . . .

That's simply nuts. Your boss needs to learn about management practices for software developers. Frisbee's snide comment was correct; the truthful response to your boss's question would be, "You, Sir. The obstacle is you."

But to be more tactful and constructive, introduce him to Scrum. Scrum is very popular and is considered highly successful. Managers like that kind of thing. In particular, introduce him to the daily stand-up. This is a strictly-timed meeting of fifteen minutes or less, usually first thing in the morning, during which you will update him about what you did yesterday and what you're planning to do today. In the software world, this is considered a very high level of communication.

Also point out that interrupting a programmer has a significant cost to the business. Here's a humorous take on it, and a more serious one.

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He likes to be updated every few hours but I find it can be an issue as he doesn't really know my job

To me, this suggests he is nervous about progress as he is not able to accurately determine the implications of information you are giving him, and is checking back frequently to compensate.

How do you give technical updates to a non-technical manager?

Either the non-technical manager wants technical updates, in which case simply list the tasks you are doing and be prepared to explain technical language - but it sounds like this is your current approach and it isn't working.

Or, more likely, the manager wants progress updates on the technical work - i.e. answers to the questions:

  • Is the work going to be done on time?
  • If not, when will it be done, what is preventing it being done, and what can be done to speed it up or mitigate the impact of the delay?
  • If the work is going to be done ahead of time, do you have other tasks you can start once you're free?

Notice that none of those questions demand a detailed technical explanation. He may not be asking these questions but they may represent what really what he wants to know.

How do you phrase “no problems, I’m just working” when the manager asks “what’s the problem?” after you give an update.

It sounds like the manager has not been reassured by the tone or the content of your update - "what I’m currently working on" can sound like "the thing I'm struggling with". Consider how you can deliver your updates in a way that makes it clear there is no problem. If asked directly, it's fine to say "Everything's on track" or "I expect to have it finished in good time, unless there are surprises" or "Actually, it's going more smoothly than expected and before I start X I need Y - have you received it yet?".

If the manager keeps asking about "the problem" in the same interaction, it's also ok to state bluntly "There is no problem.", but it might be worth asking "It sounds like you are concerned. What's worrying you?", as there might be something they're not communicating that they think you know. It will also get your manager to think about how they're asking you things and be clearer about they want.

Alternatively, if you are actually likely to finish late, make sure you answer honestly, and give a fair estimate of when the work will be done. If you need information from others to proceed, you should let your manager know as soon as possible - or if you know you will have such a dependency soon, alert them when you get a chance. It's quite possible that your manager is actually trying to find out if there's anything he can do to help.

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Ignoring the fact that your manager should be asking you for this information, what you need to do is to ensure your manager is aware of the tasks that you are supposed to be working on, the effort involved and when they are due.

Then when your manager asks how things are going, you can point out that any delays are due the unforseen things that you mentioned in a comment. You can then also give a clear indication of your progress against the planned tasks and the unplanned tasks.

Again, your manager should really be aware of this or he isn't actually managing. All he seems to be doing is making sure you are actually busy, not that you are setting and meeting targets that progress towards the planned outcomes.

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How do you give technical updates to a non-technical manager?

The main key is managing expectations. Are your projects on a time line or a schedule? Are there milestones or releases that they are waiting on? Do you have level of effort and estimates of the time it would take the work vs. your manager trying to guess how long something should take? It is important to have a work breakdown structure that shows the time it takes each task. Software isn't always an exact science - but you do need to build in consideration for hard deadlines vs. soft ones you can work with.

He gave me a list of instructions but what I’m currently implementing in the program doesn’t neatly correspond to a single step in the instructions.

Sometimes - with lists of instructions that do not match well with what your implementation, you need to have a sit down and look through the list with your manager - and maybe have an outline prepared of the proposed order of work you'd be doing and why.

How do you phrase “no problems, I’m just working” when the manager asks “what’s the problem?” after you give an update.

I think if you take the time to educate your manager, over time this question will be less asked. But, it is important that they understand what is is your doing and the schedule that you're working on, or time it takes to complete tasks. I would also recommend that you send regular updates based on your mapped out schedule of where you're at regularly so that they know something is on schedule, ahead, or late. In regards to your current way of answering "no problems.." I'd say, you respond, things are on schedule or are following the plan. I'd be happy to show you an outline if you have any questions or concerns.

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Looks like your manager has either:

  • Not enough trust on your job (whatever the reason is)
  • A need of overly keeping things under control

Whatever the reason is (and I'd advise you to dig a bit deeper to understand what the real reasons are), I'd try not to take things personally first; then I'd try to turn the thing to your advantage: Don't let your manager ask you about what you're working on, give him a full and permanently updated picture of what you're doing whenever he likes. A Kanban board is a good example of how you can organize your work and make it visible to the others. No more need to ask, he can have the answer whenever he likes, and he doesn't have to interrupt you for this.

Then ask your manager to have a short status meeting. A stand-up each morning (5 minutes, not more) is enough to communicate the most important things: am I on track? Am I blocked on something? etc.

Show him full transparency, but at the same time try educate him on not crossing some basic boundaries. He tells you what the goal is, you get to decide what it's the best way to achieve that goal.

protected by Community Aug 7 '15 at 14:05

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