6

This is a question I should have asked quite a while ago and is no longer relevant for my current situation, but I believe the answer still holds value. I hope this is not a problem !


Context

French start-up, software & web development, created about a year ago. 5 people were working there when I joined : an operational leader, a technical leader, two developers, and a graphist. Things are going quite OK but the balance of the team is still somewhat fragile. Everyone is pretty busy, pretty much all the time, as you could expect it in a start-up environment.

My role was to work on a project not related in any way to what the other developers were doing : different technologies, different organisation... I was supervised by the technical leader for this project, and we were the only two people on the project.

I just graduated from engineering school at the time, and had no previous professional experience, aside from internships. I was not especially proficient in the technologies involved by the project, and there was, as we discussed it during the interview, quite some challenge in it.


Situation

The first weeks went quite OK, the subject was interesting and there was a lot for me to learn. However, I started to notice that the technical leader had little to no time to answer my questions. It was OK at first because I was merely learning about the project, and getting started, but as things got more complex, I found myself in need for some technical advice since I was quite unexperienced and working on stuff that was new for me. But asking questions was somewhat difficult, because TL (Technical Leader) often (sort of involuntarily) seemed annoyed by my questions, sighing and looking unwilling to take time to help. I know it was more of a flow-breaking problem for him, and I understand it because he seemed to have a lot on his plate all the time, but it made me unwilling to ask for help (because it was unpleasant), and lead to a progressive loss of motivation.

After a little more than two months, they put an end to my probation period because they did not feel I was motivated enough, and although my technical ability was fine, my presence felt like an unbalancing factor for the team.


Question

I perfectly understand that recruitment is a difficult step for a young start-up, and choosing a newly graduated person was probably not the best choice for them. We took some time with TL to discuss it and came to a conclusion that there were management issues regarding the supervision of my work.

Still, I wonder if I could have done something to avoid this conclusion (which is me losing the job). I know losing my motivation altogether was not a very mature reaction, and I could probably have handled things better. It is to be noted that the lack of supervision from TL was a real problem that prevented me from being efficient, and couldn't be resolved only by searching stuff on the Internet (I know how to do that). Also, only TL could help on this.

To put it simply : what should have I done to handle this lack of supervision problem ?

  • I don't have a real answer for you, just wanted to let you know I had a similar experience and it's not necessarily something you could have fixed or reflective of your skills if you can't get the help you need to do work! There's only so far you can go if they're unwilling to invest the time in training you, and it sounds like they were. It sounds like you just weren't a good fit for each other. – Cat'r'pillar May 3 '16 at 15:27
7

Probably nothing

You were a relatively inexperienced junior employee who was not fully familiar with the technologies they wanted to use. It's no surprise that you needed more supervision and direct leadership.

It might have been possible for you to queue up your questions and arrange with the TL a weekly 1 hour review. This would have helped with the flow/interruption problem he was seeing, and would have forced to you put some thought and clarity into the questions you had.

You could spend the week researching the questions, making sure they were well written and researched. It is not unusual for the act of writing and clarifying a question to suggest an answer.

  • I like the idea of the weekly review in general, but I don't think it would have helped that much because I used to find myself stuck by conception problems quite regularly (2 - 3 times a week). Maybe do it every 2 days and make it last 15 minutes ? That sounds like a period of time both of us could have taken from our lunch breaks. – Sheldonator May 3 '16 at 19:13
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If being interrupted was the main problem, you can schedule a time when the TL could meet with you and review all your questions at once. This may not be as efficient for you, but you just have to work through it. It could mean shuffling your work schedule.

Startups take risks. They may have underestimated the amount of help needed or the availability of the TL to be available. There's a big difference between freeing a one hour block a day compared to being interrupted 12 times even if they're just for 5 minutes.

Even if you're a senior developer, it's important to ask how the team works. Where and when do you ask questions? Have they cleared time for someone during an introductory phase of hiring? You can tell during the hiring process that they're over-whelmed and barely made time to do the interviews.

  • They actually took some time for the interview, so it came as a surprise. But I learned from it, and I now give quite a bit of importance to this kind of details. – Sheldonator May 3 '16 at 19:16
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The concrete answer depends on the environment, the type of work, your experience and abilities, and the resources available at your job. You have to take the initiative without being (or seeming like) a burden. There are definitely steps you can take to help yourself, even with a lack of supervision.

A few strategies that might work:

  • Write up a list of questions to ask your supervisor and ask him/her to answer it when they are available (or schedule a meeting for it), instead of going to see them each time you want an answer.

  • If you are stuck on a task and do not have an answer yet, find something else to work on.

  • Ask for reference documents, and if there are none, write up what you know, which will help you identify what you need to know and ask the right questions.

Applying these strategies will also show that you are being active in seeking help and getting your work done, without just walking up to your supervisor every n minutes, which might seem like you are not putting much effort into learning on your own.

2

I was in the same situation recently when I first started working for a technically competent team. Everyone was very busy, and I felt bad asking the tech lead for help when I had questions because of their busy schedule. However, I quickly learned that I could ask more junior employees many of the questions I would have liked to ask the tech lead. And even though sometimes they were not as knowledgeable, they had the patience to work out problems with me. It helped us to bond and work together better on other problems later on.

But I won't sugarcoat the fact that it is necessary to learn how to independently teach yourself a lot on the fly... As programmers, we're expected to be able to teach ourselves new technologies and skills when needed. And many teams will cut employees who aren't strong enough autodidacts because they can find better talent or quicker learners to hire. Startups especially look to obtain the fewest and most valuable hires because they are so strapped for cash.

Don't be too hard on yourself, there are plenty of places looking to hire tech talent. I have no doubt that if you have the maturity to reflect on your failures that you will find a team who appreciates your talent and personality and they will invest the time in training you better.

  • The problem is there were no junior employees working on the same techs. It really didn't feel like they cut me off because they could find quicker learners, it was more like they didn't identify their needs correctly and made a recruitment mistake. All of this happened more than a year ago, and I am currently employed, so I'm not too worried ! – Sheldonator May 3 '16 at 19:12
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Start-ups normally require the average employee to don a number of hats because of the nature of the company type. Often understaffed, exploratory/experimental, and lots of promises on the table that need delivery. So the problem is that then, everyone is stretched super thin and you need to be able to hit the ground running. This is just an aspect of start-ups, and if you literally have no idea what they're doing I can guarantee it'll be hard without heavy research and time investment outside of regular working hours.

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