Professional FAIL x 2
October 10, 2009 3:24 PM   Subscribe

I have had two major professional failures in a single week. I would like insight into a couple of aspects. Sordid details inside.

1) I was written up by my current manager for performance and attitude issues. Without going into too much detail, I feel like I am taking a larger share of blame than is fair of the current project's direction. I feel there is some justification to some, but not all of his issues. I have been given 60 days to produce high quality code and a major improved attitude or I lose my job. This is a manager who has given me stellar reviews in the past. I do feel like the work I am doing is very good and there are certain technical aspects beyond my control that have caused problems for our project.

2) I was given an immediate interview by a former employer. The job is in a language that I don't have recent experience in, but it is an enterprise platform and I have been working with a close counterpart. I interviewed with three people and took assessment and thought I did really well. BUT they decided to pass.

I can do some aspects of interviewing very well .. but I often find the technical interviews unnerving. I sometimes have trouble articulating the structure and flow of some of my projects. I experience the occasional whiteboard fear. But I have had success and have been a valuable employee for the few companies I've worked for (including this one) throughout my career. I'm excellent at tracking down problems and finding solutions. This is starting to sound like a cover letter .. sorry.

I'm experiencing somewhat of a professional crisis. I've been a software developer for 14 years and these two events have really blown my confidence. So, I have a couple of questions.

How do I recover my confidence and from the humiliation I feel at being written up? I need to perform well enough to not lose my job when my evaluation period is over. I can do the work, but being there I find interactions with my manager to be uncomfortable.

How can I improve my technical interviewing skills? I know the technology, but I often freeze and stumble when listening to questions.

Thanks for insight.
posted by sidd.darko to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have been given 60 days to produce high quality code and a major improved attitude or I lose my job

The beatings will continue until morale improves!

How do I recover my confidence and from the humiliation I feel at being written up?

By attending with integrity to those parts of the writeup that you feel were actually fair, and paying no mind at all to those that weren't. And if that's not good enough for them, well, fuck 'em.

being there I find interactions with my manager to be uncomfortable.

Not surprising. Best you can do is let them be uncomfortable; don't try to fix them. Turn in the best code you can, document any roadblocks, and see how you go in sixty days.

How can I improve my technical interviewing skills?

Same way you improve any skill. Practice! If you can't find a friend to practice with, do it at home - run both sides of the interview yourself.

All the best.
posted by flabdablet at 3:36 PM on October 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

It would be useful in this AskMe thread to know how they will measure an improvement in your attitude. What was the problem?

As for interviews, searching for a job is often like trying to hit a bullseye in archery. The more you have, the better chance you will have to find the next job.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:52 PM on October 10, 2009

Oh yeah, getting passed over for a job is not a failure per se. It's got to be a good fit.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:58 PM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: He took issue with my attitude toward a walkthrough. I was 'too cavalier' about the state of the application. I was under the impression it was a 'see the current progress' walkthrough, while he had expectations that it was QA ready. There was a minor piece that wasn't working and it was unstable because I was showing it from my local dev environment.

Also, during meetings he thinks I am unprofessional and too defensive about my code. I take issue with this. I do get a little cranky during meetings when specs are resolving with delivery dates unchanging and rapidly approaching. He sees that as inflexibility and me being defensive.
posted by sidd.darko at 4:00 PM on October 10, 2009

If you're having trouble explaining some of the program flow stuff, perhaps you could try working on explaining skills (or do you say 'explanation skills'? I actually think the correct word would be didactic skills, but I digress). Before an interview write down a concise explanation of every aspect of your projects before hand so you can explain them more clearly.

Now, while I personally hate changing code that's already written, the fact is people do change their minds about things. I usually write code with future changes in mind so that things that I expect might change can be changed easily. Of course, sometimes you get asked to change something you didn't anticipate that can screw up the whole design, but unfortunately that's how it is.

And while communication isn't entirely your responsibility, your boss should make an effort to understand where the project is, etc, it's a good idea to make sure he's up to date and knows where things are, via time estimates or whatever.

It's impossible for someone not involved in the situation to know who's actually being unreasonable. It could be you or your boss (or both!), or it could be that both of you are being reasonable with the information you have. If that's the case, the problem can be fixed with more information. If not, then screw 'em.

As far as interviewing goes, the job market is kind of tough right now. You could always look at job listings and see what kind of skills are in demand now and make an effort to learn them on your own time.

I think it's hard to come up with some 'general' rules about what to do in a job interview because each interviewer is different.
posted by delmoi at 4:18 PM on October 10, 2009

Yeah, how can you sweat #2? You were probably up against a thousand other well-qualified applicants.
posted by rikschell at 4:25 PM on October 10, 2009

I face the job interview thing myself; it's frustrating that the skills you actually use in your job are not the ones you need to interview. You don't write programs by reciting the four defining features of object-oriented development. I've found it useful to review basic texts and prepare answers to the most likely questions.

As for your work problems, try to reduce the crankiness. It's not fun to work with someone who's defensive about their code, and managers hate to hear "no". Always be calm, and try to suggest alternatives: e.g. "If we add that feature it's going to be hard to make the date; is there another feature we can cut back on?"
posted by zompist at 4:44 PM on October 10, 2009

Managers have a lot of responsibility without any of the control so those reporting to them need to appear especially responsive and supportive. If you appear lackadaisical or unprofessional you threaten your manager's feeling of being on top of things. Your goal needs to be making your manager feel secure about the project.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:01 PM on October 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

Wow, this almost sounds like it was written by me a few months ago.

I had just received a evaluation which labeled my work "excellent." I was also promised a bonus, which I politely but firmly insisted on receiving. The next day, literally, a "problem" developed with my code, which I was called out on publicly and in a completely inappropriate way. I also received a write-up for being late for the last "two months," even though my evaluation made no mention of it at all.

Here's what I did: quit.

It was scary, and I still don't have another job, but life is just too short to let people like this stress you out. My experience with those "30/60/90 days to shape up" things, is that the intention is always to get rid of that employee. If you are a manager who genuinely wants your employee to improve, there are a 1000 better ways to go about it. What they are doing is:

a) treating you like shit, hoping to make you quit
b) setting groundwork to fire you later, if necessary
c) fucking with your head, which almost guarantees your work will suffer, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy

I have witnessed this set-up a lot, done to good people, and I have never seen anyone (myself included) recover and continue at that job. That's the bad news.

Now the good:

They're just assholes. You can quit and be done with them forever. I wouldn't even waste time thinking about if any of the criticism is legit. Maybe some of it is, everyone can be criticized for something if you try hard enough. But really, who gives a fuck? When criticism is coming from assholes with ulterior motives, it deserves to be thrown in trash unread. I don't think it's worth going down the path of exacerbating your self-doubt. If you are a conscientious programmer and your work was always fine up until now, the only problem you need to fix is finding a job where the managers aren't assholes.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:03 PM on October 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

re: interviews. Yes, it is frustrating that people still interview based on trivia questions. I once didn't get a job simply because I gave them a blank look when they asked me if I used the "box model" a lot. Nevermind that that's something I had done every day for 8 years or so, I happened to have never heard that term for it before. Apparently what they wanted was someone who knew the same random jargon as them.

Anyway here's what you can do:

1) Go ahead and "freeze and stumble." there's no clock in interviews, and great public speaking skills are certainly not a requirement to be a programmer. Take as long as you need to feel out the answer, and don't apologize. Don't be afraid to ask for a clarification or re-phrasing of the question. Despite the above, most interviews are not psychotically looking to nail you for not knowing jargon; they honestly just want to see if you know your shit, and any way you can get across that you do is fine. Given the right situation, you can even kind of dodge the question and talk about something vaguely related. All you really need to do is communicate: "I have the knowledge and background it takes to do this job."

2) Learn the stupid jargon. I study on wikpedia before interviews. If it's a phone interview, I print out cheat sheets. I don't exactly what kind of code you do, but for web developer jobs they ask "what's the difference between GET and POST." ALWAYS. Figure out what they always ask you and practice a good answer for that. Keep in mind that most tech interview questions are on the basics, so don't worry about boning up on a bunch of obscure CS stuff. Just make sure you REALLY KNOW the basic stuff you know, if you know what I mean. (I struggled for a while to explain the difference between GET and POST, even though I feel like I have known it for a decade and it's blindingly obvious inside my head.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:11 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I curious about the relationship in time between these two events. Is there any chance your boss got wind of your interview and is striking back?
posted by cCranium at 6:38 PM on October 10, 2009

Response by poster: This is all very useful information .. It is a very frustrating situation and I'm thankful for all the input.

I do know my part of it. We have a certain way of communicating that doesn't really work for either of us. I'm just hoping I can keep my job till I find another one.

As far as the interview, I really felt that if I had kicked a**, I would have walked out with an offer. My former boss was very excited about the prospect of working with me again. That's why it kind of feels like a failure. But I know that's kind of nowhere thinking and I should just try to focus on better preparing next time.

And on preview, cCranium .. the interview was about a week after the writeup.
posted by sidd.darko at 7:05 PM on October 10, 2009

Ok, couple of points here.

One: if you're being given N days "to improve", it means you're going to be fired "for cause" in N days. The whole N days probation/time to improve is just HR covering teh company's ass.

So you now have fewer than 60 days to get a new job. You should not exhaust yourself "trying to improve", or at least not to the detriment of your first responsibility: to find a new job before you have to explain be fired for cause.

Two: it's pretty clear your boss is looking for a reason to fire you. Any time your "attitude" is written up, it means they're looking to document reasons to fire you. Besides, "too cavalier in a walkthrough" is just bullshit.

Why he's trying to fire you I don't know: my guesses would be: he figures the project is doomed/won't meet expectations/be delivered on time, and he needs a scapegoat, or he's been told he needs to downsize his team, or something about you threatens him. It doesn't much matter; he wants you out, and he's coming up with reasons to justify that.

Three: as to your freezing up in interviews, I find that one of the best things I say in an interview is "I don't know". I know a lot oif things, but there's an infinity more I don't know. So I freely admit that. I smile when I do. And then I try to relate the question to something I do know.
posted by orthogonality at 7:39 PM on October 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

(I struggled for a while to explain the difference between GET and POST, even though I feel like I have known it for a decade and it's blindingly obvious inside my head.)

GET is an accessor (getter), it doesn't (well, shouldn't) change anything; POST is a mutator (setter), it can change things. GETs are encoded in the URL; POSTs are in the message body.
posted by orthogonality at 7:45 PM on October 10, 2009

he thinks I am unprofessional and too defensive about my code. I take issue with this.

Ha ha ha. "He told me I was defensive. I said, 'I am not!'"

We have no way of knowing whether this guy's statements have any validity. He may be an incompetent jerk trying to cover himself by finding a fall guy.

But he might be a well-meaning manager trying to tell you a few things you need to know. After seeing those two sentences together, I wonder if there are some kernels of truth in what he says. You get a little cranky, you say. I don't blame you. But apparently, this comes off to him as you being inflexible, defensive, or unprofessional. You have a valid reason for your feelings, but so what? Being professional, flexible, and non-defensive is about how you communicate about what's going on, not about what is going on. Metaphor: the cop calls you "belligerent." You take issue with that: "But he pulled me over when I wasn't speeding!" Okay. But the response "Officer, why did you pull me over?" is respectful, while "you #$% pig! I wasn't speeding!" is belligerent. It's about how you say it, not what "it" is. So, maybe you could find nondefensive, flexible, professional ways to respond in situations where specs are changing but dates aren't, and other situations that make you cranky.
posted by salvia at 9:46 PM on October 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

(And I admit, I'm extrapolating from 40 sentences, so I might be totally off base.)
posted by salvia at 9:47 PM on October 10, 2009

I concur with the folks who say that "X days" = you will be fired at the end of that time, period. Don't bother trying to kiss ass and improve, they've already decided they hate you. Especially if they cite something like "attitude." Time to frantically job hunt, sorry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:14 PM on October 10, 2009

One: if you're being given N days "to improve", it means you're going to be fired "for cause" in N days. The whole N days probation/time to improve is just HR covering teh company's ass.

So you now have fewer than 60 days to get a new job. You should not exhaust yourself "trying to improve", or at least not to the detriment of your first responsibility: to find a new job before you have to explain be fired for cause.

It really depends on the state. In many states, they don't need a reason to fire you ('so called 'right to work' states). Also, while I don't know about other states, in my state, getting fired for cause can't stop you from getting unemployment benefits. You need to be fired for "Gross misconduct", not just poor performance
posted by delmoi at 2:42 AM on October 11, 2009

(That doesn't mean they're not going to fire you in 60 days, but you should wait it out rather then quitting if the unemployment benefits are worth anything too you)
posted by delmoi at 2:43 AM on October 11, 2009

I've been down this lonely, miserable, unpleasant road myself. Following consistently stellar reviews and a promotion, it suddenly emerged that I had insufficient communication skills. It happened at a time when the company was more lenient, but had it happened now, I would have been on some sort of 30-day plan for sure.

Since then, I've crossed the Great Divide and moved into management, and I've seen it from the other side. What follows is based on how things work in the Fortune 500 company I work for, but if you work in a large company it may be somewhat helpful for you.

In my experience it tends to be the case that an employee has a certain quality that the manager feels they could improve on - be it coding, communication skills, design ability or whatever. The first thing you need to realise from the point of view of the employee is that while the aspersion on your skills may in fact be complete bullshit, the manager has some reason for believing it to be true. Given that they in turn have a manager and need to be able to stand behind the things they do, they also probably feel that they could back it up or have backed it up with some actual examples.

So you need to figure out what it is they are seeing, and why they believe you have performance and attitude issues, even if you don't believe it to be true. This was a painful lesson for me on how large companies work.

The second major point is that managers often have a certain amount of bad reviews they have to give, either explicitly or implicitly. While it's possible that every single person on their team is a demi-god of their industry, it's unlikely. And so when the manager presents their employee reviews to their own manager in turn, the more senior manager is going to start asking a lot of questions if everyone on the team is getting sterling reviews.

If any of this rings true, go and have a difficult conversation with your manager about why it is they are saying what they're saying, and don't defend yourself or disagree, because the point of the meeting is to understand why they believe what they believe. Keep probing until you are happy you understand why they hold their view. Then tell them you understand and you want to move forward, and you want to figure out a way to do that together.

Good luck!
posted by StephenF at 9:43 AM on October 11, 2009

as a manager at a tech company, i have been (unhappily) on the other side of this story. some managers are unreasonable, vindictive and difficult to work with. that said, having a manager who doesn't believe in you can seriously affect your confidence (see problem #2). if you are a good coder (and it sounds like you are) then it may be the majority of your problems are around expectation and communication.

once you are able to approach your manager without being mad or feeling ashamed, talk to him/her. it seems like there were a lot of unspoken assumptions which were the source of the misunderstanding.

ask what you can do to improve the communication. do you need to give the manager status updates? do these need to be formal or informal? i know that this stuff is a pain in the butt but often it becomes unnecessary as the communication becomes more clear. the worst part of the situation is that both parties feel resentful and communication which was already bad gets worse.

often, the most difficult aspect of this situation for me has been that once "warned", an employee becomes truculent, more defensive and exacerbates an already difficult situation. it's not easy and if your manager is not a good one, the onus will be entirely on you, but it's time to take control of the situation; make peace, ask for clear directives and after this conversation, interact as if nothing happened.

good luck.
posted by memi at 8:02 PM on November 2, 2009

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