It's like a star trek script before they fill in the [tech]s
November 18, 2009 7:03 PM   Subscribe

I am out of my depth at work.

Unfortunately, I have to be vague because there's a good chance I could accidentally out who I am. But: a few months back, I was hired for a job in a technical / coding position, even though I have very little actual software development experience, based on having a background in the (non-technical) stuff my employer does, and also knowing the basics of a set of fairly obscure tools/languages they use.

My direct boss is herself not all that technical, and is pleased with my performance on most of the tasks she assigns -- which as a rule aren't all that technically complicated and which are at worst time-consuming. However, I'm starting to do work which involves talking with / assisting people in affiliated organizations, most of whom have a decade or more in this field under their belts, and it's becoming increasingly obvious how out of my depth I am: each casual email sends me scrambling to reference texts to figure out what the hell they're even talking about, and I'm getting a real sense that although I've got amateurish experience as a code monkey, I simply don't understand the basics of the field I'm in.

Complicating this is that I am the only remotely technical person directly associated with my organization, and further complicating this, I work mostly from home. One takeaway from this experience for me has been to remind myself that, if I'm ever in a situation where I'm hiring a coder for this sort of very independent position, to definitely not hire someone as inexperienced as me. That takeaway, though, is not immediately useful.

How do I deal with this? There is no one at my organization who I could turn to to say "plz, am need mentor, halp!", and the coders I'm working with in affiliated organizations have, well, better things to do than babysit me. I don't especially have long-term intentions to stay in this field -- I'll be going to school for something entirely different next year -- but quitting sooner rather than later isn't really an option. Furthermore, my direct boss seems to believe I'm a super-techy whiz-kid who hung the computer-moon, even though I'm starting to think that if the situation continues, I'll jeopardize our organization's position.

I have to guess some member of the hivemind has been in a similar situation, and has some tips on how to deal with it. If nothing else, if anyone has any advice for how to admit that I don't know what the people I'm corresponding with are talking about without making things worse, I would love that.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It makes a huge difference what you mean by "affiliated organizations." If they are clients, and they are losing confidence in your organization's ability to deliver its services, then you need to tell your boss that it's time to "pull in additional resources."

If they are vendors, i.e. if your organization is paying them, then how they feel about babysitting you doesn't really matter; they just have to deal with it. This scenario, too, comes with the option of asking for "additional resources" in order to preserve your own sanity.

Note that you should never, ever, tell your boss that you don't know what you're doing. As the head of the one-person tech department, you are making an accurate assessment of your department's needs. Calmly explain that technology is highly specialized, that no one person can do everything, and that it's just not feasible for you to spend so much time doing research and also getting your work done. Suggest that someone be brought in under you to help you out. Then find some eager beaver who just got a CS degree and give the work to them. Conveniently, they can replace you when you leave for your unrelated job.
posted by bingo at 7:17 PM on November 18, 2009 [17 favorites]

This is called a "learning curve" and you should refer to it if someone acts like a douche. Tons of people learn on the job and that's what you're doing. Just wok your ass off and google everything you hear and don't understand.
posted by mckenney at 7:25 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Despite your misgivings, you do have three very important things: My direct boss ... is pleased with my performance; you have a background in the ... stuff my employer does, and you know the basics of a set of fairly obscure tools/languages they use. It sounds like you know the business and you have the support of your boss. Those are good things to build on. You also know that you don't know everything. That's a sign of being conscientious.

It sounds like you're working on an appropriate transition plan to leave the company in a year or so. bingo pretty much nails the advice I'd give.
posted by scruss at 7:42 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do as bingo suggests (as along as your decisions aren't a pressing matter of life or death for somebody), it'll be valuable experience if you find creative ways of pushing through this. You might look back in later years with some regret, if you bow out now (however noble your intensions).
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:42 PM on November 18, 2009

Don't hasten to throw yourself on your sword! For one thing, your company is probably getting your work at a discount compared to what they would pay for A Real Programmer.

So you haven't been doing it for that long compared to other people - well, they started out somewhere, too. And you bring a lot of value to the table as far as knowing your organization that A Real Programmer wouldn't.

If I were you , I would hang onto that job like grim death. Five years from now you'll remember this AskMe and smile at how much you have learned since you posted it!
posted by ErikaB at 7:51 PM on November 18, 2009

I'm not a hi-tech guy, yet I've twice found myself working in a hi-tech environment. In both situations, upon starting, nobody had any illusions about my tech-abilities. But neither did they really care. I was just the proverbial kid that gets tossed into the deep end of the swimming pool.

Sink or swim.

I didn't drown either time but I hardly surfed either. One thing I never did was misrepresent my abilities. If something was demanded of me that I wasn't up to, I'd say as much, but in coaxed in terms of ... "Well, if that's you want, this is what it's going to take." (ie: as bingo suggested, hire me an "assistant")

In both situations, I came to realize I didn't want to live like this for long (TOO MUCH STRESS). In the first situation, I turned this into an opportunity to really map out a thorough job description for them (three actually). That is, this is team you'll need in order to accomplish these tasks properly. They thanked me for it and we're still friends.

In the second situation, the boss was ultimately an insane asshole. I finally just quit one day after he spent an hour eviscerating me for something he'd done.

God I love the corporate world.
posted by philip-random at 7:55 PM on November 18, 2009

You don't explain how you got into this situation, and I have to wonder. Either you misrepresented your skill set to get the position, or your employer misrepresented the nature of the position to you (likely through ignorance—especially since you say there are no other technical people there—but still). Either way, someone fucked up.

Of course, that doesn't help you much at the moment.

I started to offer some advice on learning to program, but you say you're not interested in programming—and my advice isn't going to teach you how to program in a year, anyway. You can learn some stuff in seat-of-the-pants mode, but to really understand what you're doing, you have to make a dedicated study (formally or on your own) of the theories and concepts. That's impossible to do in a live system, amidst deadlines and interdepartmental politics and unavoidable compromises and legacy cruft.

I do agree that you shouldn't misrepresent your abilities—and if you really don't think you can perform a particular task, don't hesitate to explain the situation to your boss. Don't just say "I can't do this", though—if at all possible, lay out some possible solutions to the problem (hiring an outside contractor, buying a prefab solution instead of building a custom one in-house, renegotiating the requirements, getting a temp to handle the more basic stuff so you can focus on the hard stuff, etc.).

I've had to do this before. It's not fun. But most bosses will appreciate your honesty; it's far better for her to know that you can't do the job from the outset than for her to find out when the deadline arrives and you don't have anything to give her. By being honest (and saying "I can't do this, but we have A, B, and C options here") you are looking out for the company's interests. It's not ideal, but you're not in an ideal situation.

Meanwhile, take solace from this: you are the expert at your company. Your boss thinks you're Epic Computar Guy, and within the walls of your workplace, you are the most qualified person to evaluate this stuff. If you say "I'm sorry, but this is going to take a while; it's a tough problem", they're at least as likely to think "wow, it must really be a tough problem, if Epic Computar Guy says it's tough". And if the problem turns out to be easier than you thought, and you get it done ahead of schedule, then they'll think you're a genius! Relax; be honest; do the best you can.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:40 PM on November 18, 2009

I'm going to go out on a limb and disagree with bingo regarding how "you should never, ever, tell your boss that you don't know what you're doing". I respect my employees that can tell me they don't know the answer to my question or don't quite have a solution but will be doing x, y and z to get to the bottom of it right away. In fact, the know-it-all that always has an immediate answer leaves me wondering whether or not they put enough effort into all possible solutions.

IT is about research and creative solutions that aren't immediately apparent at the time they are needed. Be honest with yourself, your colleagues and your boss about a topic that you don't have completely figured out (which is not the same thing as having a serious 'I'm out of my depth conversation' with your boss).

Concentrate your free time on research, prototyping and read everything you can get your hands on. This will make you more marketable in the future and give you a great interview/career story.
posted by shew at 9:24 PM on November 18, 2009

In a somewhat similar situation, I faked it. I was hired for a technical job despite having almost no experience in that field. The company knew this when they hired me, but after a chaotic reorganization and layoffs, I was the sole remaining person doing that job, and somehow everyone assumed I knew what I was doing... I needed the job and I didn't say anything...

I totally hear you about not understanding industry jargon, having to consult references to understand emails. At night I would read and struggle to catch up on this giant mass of things I didn't understand. I felt so, so far in over my head.

Yet my boss was also pleased with my performance. I lasted a full year, and after I left they re-hired me to do contract work! Either no one noticed/cared, or I wasn't doing as bad as I felt. (Do you have a tendency to be too hard on yourself?) I guess I eventually did pick up a rudimentary understanding. Still, it was immensely stressful. If you try the fake-it-til-you-make-it route, it's probably a good thing that you have a defined period of time after which it'll be over and you'll be in school.

Some things that helped me:
- "...For Dummies" books. Seriously.
- Although they assumed I knew much more than I did, no one thought I had 10 years experience or anything like that. So occasionally, I just admitted I didn't fully understand, was still learning about so-and-so, etc. Co-workers with more experience were often quite kind about giving help and answering questions.
- Aside from being so unqualified, I was otherwise a good employee with a reputation for working hard (always at my computer, frowning seriously at the screen...)
- When I was about to implode from the stress of feeling like the world's biggest fraud, I'd remind myself that my supervisors were checking my work, and hey, if they're happy...
posted by asynchronous at 9:43 PM on November 18, 2009

Remember, compared to your "direct boss", you are, technically speaking, The Guy in your immediate organization. Being remote gives you an advantage as well, in that you're not on the spot as often, so you can look stuff up if people email you. If you don't know, then if I were you, I'd say I didn't know, and then research the best answer I could.

Don't belittle your domain knowledge--while you wouldn't be wealthy if you had a nickel for every software company that failed for the want of it, you'd still have a hell of a lot of nickels.

Behold: xkcd's universal Tech Support Cheat Sheet! It sounds like you're already pretty much following it, so good for you. Remember the "ask people for help" part; many products have forums for just this reason. Sign up under an alias if you want; the Fantasy Name Generator may help give inspiration if your library doesn't.

Finally, just because I'm feeling a bit silly tonight, on the authority vested in me as Grand IT Poo-Bah at my work site, I hereby pronounce YOU, anonymous, Probationary Grand IT Poo-Bah of $YOUR_ORGANIZATION! May your response times be quick, your complaints be few, and your users bother to read the instruction manual before calling you.

(You may drop the "Probationary" the first time you contemplate sending someone to Naturally, a benevolent Poo-Bah would never actually do such a thing, but that does not stop him/her from thinking about it every so often.)
posted by tellumo at 10:00 PM on November 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm a database administrator and have also worked as a developer, and I've dealt with client/colleague companies where my counterpart is less knowledgeable. I've also been in situations where I'm the one out of my element (for example, my systems knowledge is obviously lacking when I'm dealing with systems administrators).

In either situation it's never been a problem for the "lesser" person to admit their ignorance or lack of experience; when I've admitted to missing information, people are often happy to explain or to lead me to the information. And I've been more annoyed by people "faking it" and having to argue with them than I would have been to just be asked to explain things from the start. Being able to ask questions shows that you're honest and confident enough to not fear "looking stupid".

So I suggest you cut yourself some slack, most of us have felt underqualified about what we do at some point and it's better to see what you need to work on than to assume you're awesome and not try to improve yourself. And don't be afraid to ask questions, and to talk to your manager if you really are worried about your abilities; maybe he can get you some training? Unless you admit defeat you're just showing you care about your job and your company, and how can that be bad?
posted by sinderile at 10:37 PM on November 18, 2009

Make friends you can ask dumb questions to.
posted by xammerboy at 12:18 AM on November 19, 2009

You'll be fine precisely because you're so worried. What's happening to you is the painful transition between doing everything yourself and asking others to help you do it.

You didn't know you were being hired to be a manager. But, as it turns out, that's what you are. Now you need to ask others to help you. If you can do that, you can joyfully admit you don't know everything they do. And both your boss and your helpers will value your role.
posted by mono blanco at 4:45 AM on November 19, 2009

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