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My manager seems irritated when he asks for an update and I inform him of a barrier I’m working on. For example I was working on implementing a subprocess call, and when tried it on the program to be launched got an error but tried on a simple system command and it worked. I then started searching online for information about the error message.

My manager walked in and asked for an update at the moment of troubleshooting. I explained to him about the command I was using to launch the new process and told him I got it working with a simple example but got an error when launching the target program; showed him the error message. I told him I am researching the cause of the error. Reading between the lines he was unhappy and made a scoffing noise and said “you’re the programmer I cannot help you with this”.

It’s been my observation if I ever talk about a “setback” or show any sign of uncertainty he gets displeased. How should I address this issue or should I ignore it? Should I always just leave out any hindrances?

The manager is slightly technical but does not know programming. He is from Russia and grew up in the army and it is clear he comes from a different culture. I’m not saying I think this is how Russian culture is, but I notice with my manager he thinks very linearly, in terms of binary (either it was done or not, yes or no) and he is very in tune to the structure of things (for example he often doesn’t refer to people by their names but by their position e.g. the programmer, the account etc.). This description is not intended to be bigotry, I’ve got friends who are Russian and the difference in communication may not be caused by culture at all.

EDIT: I'm a bit surprised by all the suggestions saying not to give technical details but to focus on when things will get done. I thought more people on this site new it cannot be accurately predicted when a program will be finished. For reference https://softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/648/how-to-respond-when-you-are-asked-for-an-estimate

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    It sounds to me like you've just discovered a pattern in how your manager behaves. He clearly isn't interested in hearing about petty hindrances like this and expects you to work them out for yourself, which you in fact are. Just adjust your future responses to him with that in mind. Or is this also how he reacts when actual serious issues requiring action from him come up? – Lilienthal Aug 18 '15 at 19:30
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    it's normal when starting to code something to run into an error. Why does he need to hear about it? Just say "I started implementing blah blah, hope to have it done by X time." Imagine you hired a new cook for your restaurant and you checkup on him. Would you rather hear, 1) "I am trying to use the stovetop but it's different than I'm used to. Maybe there's a way I can light it using a match... Are there any matches in this kitchen?? I hope I can find one at the drugstore then!" or 2) "I'm settling into using a new kitchen and should be good to go in a day or so." – Chan-Ho Suh Aug 18 '15 at 22:44
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    @Chan-HoSuh: in that specific case lighting the stovetop might be something that the restaurant owner can help with, in which case "I haven't yet figured out how to light the stove" wouldn't provoke the reaction "you're the cook I can't help you with that", it would provoke the reaction "we keep matches on the top shelf over there", whereas going out to the drugstore to buy matches would provoke the reaction "why didn't you just ask someone where the matches are?" The important thing is to learn to identify what issues will benefit from management input and what will not. – Steve Jessop Aug 19 '15 at 0:27
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    The army culture has likely left a larger impact on your manager's personality than him being Russian. I myself have not been in the military, but the people I know (who were) tend to be no-nonsense and when they encounter a problem, they find a way to get it done with what they have. He is probably used to this "no-problem-I-can't-handle" attitude. To tie that in with all the other answers/comments, he doesn't understand why you are telling him all about the problem and supposes that you want him to help you figure it out, which he is unable to do at the technical level you are talking about. – DoubleDouble Aug 19 '15 at 15:55
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Technical people get caught up in this type of thing all the time. Stop including details in your explanation. I know he asked what was wrong, but all he hears is "blah, blah, command, blah blah target, blah, blah error." You're either still working on it or it is completed. Doesn't matter why to him. Try to include some time frame when you think it is ready. Some people will ask, "What is the problem?" but don't get sucked into it thinking they want details. You're getting an error. That's it.

Also, you could probably remove the detailed technical example from your question to get some practice.

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    This. As a technical person and a manager when I ask how long something's going to take I don't need the life story behind the issue. I'm just interested in how long it's going to take 'cause I need to determine whether I should tell you to stop working on it, help you out, push back at the business I just let you get on with it. Some things are binary and that's okay... – Ben Aug 18 '15 at 22:23
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    Furthermore, when someone asks for an update they want to know what you've achieved since the last update. They don't want to know what you've not achieved during the past 10 minutes, but hope to achieve in the next 10. "Working out what this error message means" is not a meaningful milestone in the progress of the project, so an update consisting of "I've got as far as starting to work out what this error message means but have not yet completed that" is not a meaningful update. Tell your boss what you have done. – Steve Jessop Aug 19 '15 at 0:18
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    @Ben When a manager asks me "How long to solve {problem x}?", I always reply, "I can tell you, if you can answer 2 questions for me: First, how long will it take you to answer my 2nd question?" Every manager in the past 30 years immediately understood. When researching, I can't know how long it will take to solve a problem we've never seen before. I can't know how long it will take to learn what I don't know. Sometimes there is no answer ever. The fundamental question is wrong. Ask "Is it worth continuing research?" or similar. – user2338816 Aug 19 '15 at 7:12
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    @mxyzplk If we programmers knew how long everything would take, we'd be all too happy to tell you. We can't know for sure whether something is going to be done by the end of the day, and we weren't really sure when we said it would to begin with. You get a "technical diatribe" partly because we're trying to pull a number out of our behinds and we're trying to give it some kind of reasoning in hopes it'll have some basis in reality. Sometimes that stack trace is a mountain we can't even gauge the height of. It's only natural for us to flounder trying to answer a literally impossible question. – jpmc26 Aug 19 '15 at 8:33
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    @Ben I haven't assumed anything, I've replied to exactly what you wrote in your comment "I don't need the life story behind the issue. I'm just interested in how long it's going to take", if you meant something else, that isn't what you wrote. As for open ended investigations, every novel task starts as one and can become one by hurdles found on the way, that is exactly what the OP described. The mistake is not acknowledging that problems will be encountered that need to be investigated before you can assess how long they'll take to overcome. – JamesRyan Aug 19 '15 at 10:45
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Reading between the lines he was unhappy and made a scoffing noise and said “you’re the programmer I cannot help you with this”.

He maybe has a very direct way of saying: "Too much information". The next time he asks a question you know better and can only give the relevant information.

It’s been my observation if I ever talk about a “setback” or show any sign of uncertainty he gets displeased. How should I address this issue or should I ignore it? Should I always just leave out any hindrances?

Your manager has to make decisions based on the information he gets from you. It's obvious that he gets nervous if you show signs of uncertainty. If you were a manager and would get uncertain or evasive answers from a subordinate you wouldn't be pleased, too. I think there are two solutions if you are uncertain about something without showing it to him directly:

  • Tell him what you need to have done to be certain (e.g. more time to dig into a subject).
  • Be upfront about the uncertainty. Tell him in a certain way that and why a situation is uncertain and what is the best and worstcase estimate.

but I notice with my manager he thinks very linearly, in terms of binary (either it was done or not, yes or no)

You realize, that from a contractual viewpoint most projects are of a binary nature?

While from your technical viewpoint there are a lot of nuances of course, in terms of a contract, a project is either done and can be invoiced or it is not - in which case the project may get delayed. Your manager is in the end paid to collect this facts from you and take the appropriate steps based on that information.


In my honest opinion your whole question reads like it boils down to the question of the viewpoint (technical vs. management). Maybe in the future you could more often try to switch to the "management view" of a certain situation and try to understand the implications of that viewpoint - I personally think this could make you a much more valuable employee in the long term.

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    Agreed - OP is bad at managing up. – Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 19 '15 at 10:03
  • @Davor You are correct, the managers are paid to handle this so the programmers don't have to bother with it. But I wouldn't say it's "leaking" down in this situation - I would rather say that there is a communication border and if the OP would better understand the implications of that border, he would be able to improve the communication with his manager and make his managers and his own work life easier. – s1lv3r Aug 19 '15 at 10:29
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    Seems like OP's manager is also bad at managing down. The communication issue exists on both sides. – Todd Wilcox Aug 19 '15 at 11:47
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There are a lot of insights in the existing answers and comments. Some things jumped out at me in reading what you wrote.

  • Your manager stopped by in person for an update. That's actually a good sign. He isn't hiding behind email or a closed door. He wants face-to-face interaction, even if only briefly.

  • It sounds like he actually stayed and listened while you showed him details of a problem he couldn't help with. He could have just cut you off and walked out. He could have immediately asked someone else to "help you" or even take over.

  • The phrasing of his response seems rude, but the intent is encouraging. He said he couldn't help you with it. He didn't say he didn't care, it didn't matter, or wasn't his problem. There are a lot of genuinely rude things he could have responded with. I've seen managers insult employees or resort to ad hominem attacks in those situations ("why did I hire you?"). Instead he expressed frustration that he couldn't help you, and it felt like you were asking for help. It's a subtle difference, but one that matters.

  • He is probably there to know if he needs to take action. The only action he can take is to cancel the work, delay the work, or assign it to someone else. What he wants from you is the confidence that you're going to solve it somehow, or to know if he needs to assign it to someone else because you can't do it (too much of that usually means a person isn't qualified).

  • You didn't really answer his question. A manager asking for an update and an employee getting into technical details is equivalent to a type mismatch. He asked a boolean question and you gave an array of information back as an answer. That actually makes it sound like you aren't listening to him, which can be frustrating.

  • If you can't estimate right then, stall for time, but be specific. If it's 9am, ask if you can update him at noon, or after lunch, or close of business. Give him something concrete that he can plan around. A dodgy answer prevents him from communicating the info back out to anyone else who is depending on it (including his boss). When your appointed time comes, give a real estimate.

  • Get help from a coworker that has a good relationship with your boss. There is usually someone that they get along with in the workplace. Find out from them what makes their communication successful with him.

  • Be humble. In your next one-on-one admit to your boss that you do not feel like you are successfully communicating with him, and ask him what he wants to hear from you. Likely it will be a short and simple answer. Listen to it, and then make an effort to do it. If he believes you want to help him reach his goals, he is more likely to work with you (even if frustrated).

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It's very difficult to provide a coherent update when you're in the middle of troubleshooting or designing a solution to a problem.

Consider delaying your response until you have a clear idea of the issue, and one or more plans to mitigate or solve.

If your manager demands an instant, on-the-spot update, simply say that you don't have enough information at this time, and don't want to waste his time with incomplete information.

Then as soon as reasonably possible draft a short, concise update email that you can follow up with an in-person discussion.

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    In my experience, managers who frequently demand status/timeline updates generally need to pass them on to someone else, and telling them "I can't say" will just lead to more demands for your best estimate. You have to say something to get them off your back, and since what you say will never be accurate at this point, learn to give them an estimate that works to your advantage. – Air Aug 18 '15 at 21:07
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    @Air Which of course leads to inflated estimates, and eventually missed dead lines anyway. But the key point is, that's the managers decision - if he wants agile development, he'll have to be flexible enough to accomodate that the thing that should have taken an hour will take ten hours instead (either by giving you the time, or by changing the specs), and you should give your best estimates. If he wants a hard number, give him your 90% - even if it means saying ten hours for something that will most likely only take an hour. – Luaan Aug 19 '15 at 11:21
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    @Air agreed, but sometimes it only takes a few minutes to clear your head and come up with a coherent response. If you can say something like "I'll be in your office in 15 minutes with an update," that at least buys some time. If the manager consistently wants updates RIGHT NOW, well that's a problem best solved with a change in scenery. – mcknz Aug 19 '15 at 22:48
  • Yes, in this situation, where I really don't know right now if this problem is going to be fixed, or when, I say, I will give you an answer to that on Tuesday at 12 am. And so I have a deadline for myself, if I can't figure it out by Tuesday 11 am I am not going to get it done, and I need a lot more help, or a contractor specialist or whatever. – RedSonja Aug 20 '15 at 12:41
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When you inform your boss of an obstacle, do you also come with a solution? I realize timing doesn't always allow for this (as in your example when he walked up as you identified it). Manager's (should) want their team members to be problem solvers, not problem reporters.

Unless the solution is actually something you need the boss to do personally, what do you expect your boss to do with the information? You don't necessarily have to know that your solution will work, but you need to come with some plan. "hey boss, I just ran into this problem, and here is what I am going to try do do to solve it." If they have a better idea than they can give you some ideas or feedback.

If you don't come with any proposed plan, it seems like you are just asking them to solve your problem. I think this is probably why (s)he said “you’re the programmer I cannot help you with this”. You mentioned that he is somewhat technical, but not a programmer. What do you think (s)he can do with your problem report and no idea of a solution?

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    "What do you think (s)he can do with your problem report and no idea of a solution?" I don't expect him to do anything but he seems to think I do. Is there a way I could word it differently? He came to me asking what I'm doing, I didn't go to him to tell him about the problem. – noteme123 Aug 18 '15 at 18:56
  • I understand that this time, he arrived in the middle of the problem, but your question title says "every time". If this happened just, forget about it. If it happened more often(as the question suggests), then some of the time you are going to him. In those cases, have a plan. You may not expect him to do anything, but if you come to him with no plan, that is probably how he is looking at it. If you have a plan knows you aren't asking him to do anything – cdkMoose Aug 18 '15 at 19:00
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    To your boss, "what are you doing?" is not "I am fixing an improper implementation of the Observer pattern" but "I have fixed all priority issues and I am through 10 of 30 non-priority issues, the project should be ready by next monday". – SJuan76 Aug 18 '15 at 19:00
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Different strokes for different folks.

Your manager has indicated already what he wanted from you. He doesn't want the details because it was not his thing.

What's in it for me? is a question that you must answer every time you talk to someone -- be he a manager or your subordinate. His background may have something to do with his response, but you must first answer the question based on what he needs to know.

Take human beings as human beings. Suspend your judgement about their race or beliefs and you will be able to see things clearly from where they stand.

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