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Yesterday I was put in a situation where the CEO provided us a list of mobile devices and asked us to select which mobile device would be best to purchase for an entire department; he asked two of us - me (an Android programmer) & our network admin. He gave us a deadline (5pm)

The list had 3 different manufacturers with 4-6 devices each. Originally, he gave us basic information on what the device will be used for. Feeling that information was lacking, I proceeded by asking him questions so I can get more context as well as provide him information why a particular feature was important (which he didn't ask for)

Basically, he only needed a recommendation, I wanted to get more context, and he was pissed that I was asking looking for a feature a phone was better at and that he was going through the list himself and comparing which should have been what we we're doing.

How should've I handled that request?

EDIT: I did provide a device suggestion - I chose a device simply because it excelled in camera quality, middle-range price, and overall bang-for-the-buck. Shrugged it off by saying camera quality is not a priority. (which in return led me to ask more questions)

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How should've I handled that request?

Let's be straightforward here. You should have given your boss a suggestion.

Then, you should have shown your boss a list providing all the advantages and the disadvantages for each (adding the features not mentioned, per @Kilisi, initiative).

"..he gave us basic information on what the device will be used for..." "...I wanted to get more context..."

The boss provided basic information, you should have suggested one product that will comply. You had features you had in mind, you could've added this after giving your boss a recommendation.

"...and he was pissed that I was asking looking for a feature a phone was better at and that he was going through the list himself and comparing..."

You could have visited some online discussions or reviews for the products (used for the same purpose as indicated by your boss), and took note of users' feedback. You should've summarized (including the feature you had in mind) and pinpointed the closest items that may be considered, and suggested one of those.

Your boss asked for a recommendation, a suggestion from you was expected.

Edit:

"...Shrugged it off by saying camera quality is not a priority. (which in return led me to ask more questions)..."

You should've focused on the basic purpose, and not redirected it to other features. The core purpose (I think) was provided: "...he gave us basic information on what the device will be used for..."

  • Hi, editted the question. – Kevin D. Mar 19 '16 at 8:49
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From one programmer to another: Don't overthink situations like this. It sounds like he was on a tight deadline (had probably promised to get back to someone) that's why he delegated. The fact that deadline was so tight means that he was just looking for a recommendation on MVP (minimum viable product), not looking for an intense market analysis of the perfect intersection of features and value. Asking questions made him load a lot of information into his brain -- the exact thing he was trying to avoid.

To answer your question:

How should I have handled that request?

Next time just accept his requirements at face value, and make 2-3 (max) recommendations based solely on those requirements.

For example, If he's looking for a phone for salesmen, where they can access the company CRM, then recommend a couple of nice looking models with large screens (and who cares if the camera sucks; those guys don't need to take pictures (unless it's of themselves doing shots with clients)).

If it is for building inspectors, then recommend something that is very sturdy, has a decent camera to document violations, and has a great antenna for remote locations, and don't worry about SD card reader or fast processor.

If it's for a traveling exec, get something simple with a good FaceTime / Skype camera, and a leather case.

I guess my point is, just take the requirements, make 2-3 (max) different recommendations at different price points that meet those requirements, and move on. Don't overthink.

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    (+1) I missed that point on overthinking. Touché. – shin Mar 20 '16 at 3:39
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I think that you could have done better, but I disagree with answers that say you completely failed and should have done X or Y instead.

It's important to understand that a CEO needs to delegate: this is how she uses her time for the right thing. Being executive implies commanding, not doing!

I can see why your CEO was irritated at being brought in after believing he'd handed the task off. He has better things to do. This does put you in a difficult position when you feel like you don't have the required resources to do the task.

However, without seeing the exact list of basic phone requirements you were given, it's hard to say whether your questions were warranted or not—just maybe going straight back to the CEO with them may not be the best strategy.

Here are some suggestions for the future. When given a task that you feel isn't in your area of expertise, or you don't think you have enough information to carry it out, you can do several things:

  1. Inform the requester something along the lines of, "this task seems a bit unclear to me, and I don't think I have enough information/experience to do the job well. Would you like me to do my best anyway, or is there a way I can get some help with it?" Make the requester aware of the constraints on you and ask him to decide how to handle them (not the task, the constraints). This extends to basic job duties as well: if a new priority assignment will jeopardize past assignments, it's your responsibility to say, I can't do this new task T2 and get task T1 done by the due date. Could you help me understand the priorities between these two? Solving constraint problems is a legitimate managerial task.

  2. I am curious whether in this situation there was anyone else you could have known to seek help from besides the CEO? You do want to be seen in the eyes of management as an effective person to whom they can safely delegate tasks. But it's not impossible that you could further delegate, yourself, especially if someone else feels invested in the area. CEOs don't always make the right decision and you might not have been the best person for the job, anyway.

  3. One possible strategy is to intentionally "practice strategic incompetence". I'm not saying to sabotage anything or to not do your job, but if there is an area that is clearly outside the imaginable domain of your skills, coming up with a horrible option for the phone could have been a quick route to your boss realizing he had picked the wrong person for the job. Use this technique carefully. This could be combined with the previous suggestion. You go to the executive assistant and quickly describe the task, show him the list, then tell him that you are thinking of recommending a phone that is way overpriced and is missing some important feature. This could be all you need to get the executive assistant to take over for you! The important thing is to do this very early, and not give up responsibility for the task being done until you're sure someone else has officially done so.

  4. Perhaps best of all, bosses and CEOs are looking to see you do the best possible thing you can with the information you have. Even if you couldn't perform the entire task with the information you had, could you have excluded most of the phones and come up with a much shorter list? Could you have worked with the certainties you had, and done more research on the aspects you were uncertain of, so that when you went back to the CEO, instead of having nothing, you had already done the majority of the grunt work? Providing him with a list of four or five phones that you thought were suitable, their benefits, drawbacks, and prices, would probably have fit the bill perfectly for him, or at least irritated him less. Then he could perform his executive function again by quickly scanning the list and picking one. In the future you can't be criticized for making the wrong decision because your boss is actually the one who made it. But you did the heavy labor of studying out all the options and eliminating obviously unsuitable ones. You also can't be criticized for lacking initiative, like some people here have done to you, because you didn't let lack of knowledge stop you from doing the portion of the job that you had enough knowledge to do.

These options should help you find the middle ground between doing it all yourself and getting the CEO's direct help.

Think about this answer to your question compared with other answers you were given. Which ones were the most helpful? Being given a short list of options to choose from is a great way to give your requesters most of what they wanted, while still pushing some of the responsibility back to them when you can't do it all yourself.

  • He did fail, it's not whether you think he did it right or not, his boss wasn't happy, so he failed, and his boss is the only one that matters. – Kilisi Mar 19 '16 at 21:49
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    @Kilisi That's ridiculous. If that were so, he wouldn't be asking here, and people wouldn't answer! What if his boss is stupid and foolish; would his boss thinking he'd failed always be actual failure? Perhaps leaving a company led by such a CEO would be the most sublimely extravagant success a person could have!? In the larger scheme of things, telling someone they flatly failed because a boss was irritated one time is to exhibit a kind of orientation toward mindless obedience that is hardly to be admired! You say to the OP "You absolutely failed." I say to you, "you mindless slave!" – CodeSeeker Mar 19 '16 at 21:54
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    @Kilisi Here, go ask this question here on workplace, and give me the link, and I'll answer for you. Q: "My boss was unhappy with what I did. Did I fail?" A: "Yes, you failed. Do exactly as he tells you next time. Now go away and don't ask stupid questions!" – CodeSeeker Mar 19 '16 at 21:55
  • hehe... ok not going to argue with you, it's just a phone, not worth the effort :-) – Kilisi Mar 19 '16 at 21:56
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That will teach him to ask a developer :-)

What your boss wanted: Not to be bothered until 5pm, at which point you give him a recommendation which phone to buy for the whole department.

I would have looked at the state of company equipment to see of the boss is usually cheap and looking for the cheapest item that does the job, or willing to pay out for a good product. Then I would have picked phones in the right price range, and read reviews, focussing on whether the phones are reliable, and whether they are easy to use by an average or slightly sub-average user.

Then I would have made a recommendation for a phone with best usability and reliability in the right price range. Plus another cheap recommendation and another expensive recommendation, which gives the boss a choice and shows that you are thinking ahead.

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How should've I handled that request?

You should have just given a recommendation at 5PM instead of bugging him with questions. Many bosses don't appreciate it if people are given a task and can't use a bit of initiative.

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    Initiative to decide a phone for an entire department with no experience or background in such tasks, on a short deadline, without asking questions of apparently the only source of information on what those needs are? Frankly, I think the OP showed good sense trying to get some rational principles out of the CEO instead of trying to guess (your "show initiative"). It would be lame to make a recommendation, be criticized later for it, and have to say "well, the information given wasn't enough, but I didn't ask questions because I didn't want to be seen as lacking initiative." – CodeSeeker Mar 19 '16 at 15:22
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    Following instructions to the letter is expected in sweatshops and indentured servitude. Professionals performing skilled labour are expected to posses a more critical mind and a great deal more common sense. Mindless obedience is a passive resistance strategy, not something to encourage. – Lilienthal Mar 19 '16 at 17:43
  • If I told one of my developers to recommend a phone at 5pm and yet I had to hold their hand while they did it, I'd be wondering if I needed him/her at all. It's just a phone, not rocket science where I forgot to give them some key info on the moons gravity affecting trajectory or something. – Kilisi Mar 19 '16 at 21:48
  • If it's not rocket science then why is the task being handed to a software engineer and a network administrator? Certainly anyone with some common sense can pick a phone for some basic needs. The fact that the CEO gave the task to two technical people implies that a bit more technical thought was desired. – Cypher Mar 31 '16 at 19:59

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