I've been at a company for about a year and have 5 years experience in my related field. I can make things work and do my job if given a task.

I have a colleague, Ivy, who has worked in the industry for 15 years and was the guru for everything before I began working here. She is not my boss but is a senior who is the main contact point for our department; we are a 2-person team. Ivy has an alpha personality and I have an omega personality.

We have an ongoing project (framework) that Ivy has built from the ground-up, with some of my help, but she certainly did the bulk of the work. Our framework is actively maintained (by us), and anything I need to change undergoes intense scrutiny in reviews. Sometimes I need to redo work entirely to comply with our standards; which I am fine with, our deadlines are not hypercritical and I'm happy to do things the right way. The framework is still fresh and Ivy and I refactor large portions of it.

However, whenever I'm asked to review Ivy's work, she will downplay any 'hacks' and say that there is a better way of doing this but it is not important right now.

My first 4 years in the industry were in mastering a different language than we are currently using, but there are key differences in syntax with what we are working with now. This really affects my productivity, and additionally I now catch myself thinking "How would Ivy structure this?". Now I need to actively ask her very simple, low-level questions that I know the answer to, but I feel it makes me look stupid. She is just a workhorse who does incredible work efficiently, she is not a people-person who will teach you things in a respectful manner.

I always present myself with an amicable personality, whether the server is on fire and stress levels are at an all-time high; you will always see me with a smile on my face and a joke in my pocket. But Ivy makes me internally pull my hair out because we communicate so differently. She gets so incredibly wound-up in the process of developing software, that her attitude towards people can make her unapproachable. Still, I will admit that she is much smarter than I, and I am thoroughly humbled by the lessons she does teach me, even if they come across with disappointment in my abilities.

My main question is how do I maintain a healthy work relationship with Ivy? She is able to insist that I completely redo everything to make it fit for something else, but I have no place insisting that she does the same (due to seniority). Should I be worried about my job security? How do I even begin to get on her level of understanding?


2 Answers 2

"How do I even begin to get on her level of understanding?" 

You can start by seeking to understand why she does things in the way she does instead studying her, which is "What would Ivy do?" indicates. Getting the right answers starts with asking the right questions. "Why does she do things in the way she does them?" is the right question to ask.

You are not a mind reader. In particular, you can't read her mind so you'll have to ask point-blank. You'll just have to keep asking and probing her mind, knowing that she sucks at person to person interactions. You have to be agile. You ask, get an answer, probe the system based on her answer or using her answer as reference, get some kind of understanding on the system, apply your understanding by doing some mini-task on it. Rinse and repeat. You are going to have to eat this elephant one bite at a time.

You won't look like you're making any progress at getting the system, at least at first. In fact, you won't look like you understand anything until you have a level of understanding of the fundamentals of her system together. You're going to be making visible progress when you are able to build on your understanding. Get the fundamentals on what she is doing right, so that you can build on them.

The key requirement to your success is that you don't allow yourself to be intimidated out of asking questions including stupid questions. And you will be asking apparently stupid questions - that comes with the territory. If she gives you an answer and you're wondering why she is giving this answer instead of the answer you have in mind, it is incumbent on you to set your fear of asking her aside and follow up until you are satisfied you understand why she came up with her answer. If she blows up on you (*), let it go past you and continue working on her.

There is nothing you can do about your job security - it's not in your hands. Don't worry about things you cannot do anything about, even if they affect you. As long as you have a decent cash reserve - and you should have a decent cash reserve at all times - and as long as your resume is up to date, you should be okay.

(*) I had a boss who is a screamer. I stopped giving a shit about his screaming after I got a heart attack - I took the attitude that this job ain't worth my life. Just don't let her blowing up get to your head - you may be hearing, but you don't have to listen to this crap so don't.

  • +1 for your last line. Life is too important to take screaming coworkers seriously. Just bypass the screaming part, and try to get any useful information that might have been communicated besides the screaming. Makes you feel better, also, to ignore that kind of things.
    – gazzz0x2z
    Nov 19, 2016 at 17:45

Firstly when you say "her attitude towards people can make her unapproachable" and "she is not a people-person who will teach you things in a respectful manner" you need to bear in mind that from her point of view she may feel approachable and doesn't understand why you are so reticent. People who aren't great with people skills can be unaware of how they come across. Her disrespectful manner may seem just fine to her. I would ignore the way she comes across when talking to her.

Anyway, you maintain a healthy working relationship by talking to her. She might not like it and you might not like it but it has to be done. I know it's "just" talking but it is worth planning out how you are going to do this and adjusting the plan as time goes by. You've got a few obvious options:

  1. Just keep plugging away asking questions when you are talking about your code.
  2. Arrange a regular informal break where you both talk about stuff outside work over a cup of coffee. Knowing a bit about each other outside work can help smooth relationships.
  3. Have a regular one-to-one with her where you talk about the work, what was done, what's coming up etc. Having this meeting away from the computers can help both of focus in what's being discussed rather than the immediate code you are writing.
  4. Ask her to mentor or tutor you on some particular area.
  5. Have a daily stand up meeting where you discuss issues, blockers etc for the day.

As she isn't a people person she may not be good at reading relationships so she may appreciate you being very clear and explicit about why you want these meeting and how they will help.

Finally there are a couple of comments in your question that could be red flags: "she will downplay any (of her) 'hacks'" and "How do I even begin to get on her level of understanding". Don't assume she knows everything and is always right, this is a learning experience for her as well. eg where appropriate be prepared to challenge her ideas. She may decide to leave hacks in the code but having questioned will make her think about them and be less likely to add them next time around.

  • Re getting questioned on hacks - I'm in Ivy's position most of the time. When I sit with juniors and review my own code with them, the hacks stick out to them but not to me - when they mention them, it takes a while for the negative ramifications of my own work to sink in. I often go back later and clean them up, though far from always.
    – sq33G
    Nov 19, 2016 at 23:17

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