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The Situation

I am an intern in germany as a german. The focus of the company isn't directly the same as my area of study (I study computer science, the company mainly designs, solders and programs hardware). They surely know things about computer science, but mostly from their hardware-making perspective.

They needed someone with my skills to do a project which is too far away from their skills and knowledge. I should research about connecting two Components A and B and how someday A can be connected to a future existing component X.

The Problem

My Boss is also a Professor in electronics and very self-confident.

I have to explain to him how he can connect A and X on his own. I tried to document as easily as possible how I connected A with B and how A can possibly be connected to X someday.

Every time he doesn't know what I mean, he gives me the feeling that I don't know what I am talking about. He asks me for details which I can't explain because they're none of my business. After I tell him that it isn't neccessary to know, he gives me the feeling that he doesn't trust the things I told him before. There are even details I can't explain to him because he doesn't have the knowledge and I can't teach him.

While I was very introverted in the past, things are much better now. But I have problems in expressing myself when I have to talk and discuss with persons of authority.

[EDIT]

After my internship, I have to study for another year before writing my diploma. While it is really hard to communicate with people which have no detailed knowledge in my area I try to get another job after my studies. But in order to get a good employer's reference I want a "happy end".

The Question

How can I tell my boss that (at least) I can't help him due to his lack of knowledge?

  • 1
    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – Tinkeringbell Feb 20 '18 at 11:41
  • Can you give examples for "gives me the feeling"? If he's not applying electric current to your brain directly I suppose he's acting in some way and you interpret it in a way that makes you think that he thinks X, right? – AllTheKingsHorses Feb 20 '18 at 12:19
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You have to respect that he is your boss, but at the same time you want to feel like you are fulfilling your current role and build your reputation with him. This may mean some humility on your part, but if you can complete this project in a way that is pleasing to your boss he will have more confidence in you, and the more confidence he has in you the less he will question you on future projects.

Without a full technical grasp of what it is you are doing I don't find it possible to give you exact words to use, but what you should avoid is dismissing his concerns. You said that your previous responses have left you feeling like he doesn't trust you - this may be because he feels his concerns have been dismissed, or not considered.

Things to avoid saying:

  • "That is irrelevant" - because he believes it is relevant.
  • "I don't know" - suggests you are incapable or have not researched
  • "It's fine" - this comes across as a platitude, or blindly optimistic.

Obviously you shouldn't say anything that you don't mean or isn't true, so have a think about what you could say to reassure him, even if you don't fully understand his area.

EXAMPLE

Let's say your boss has a computer engineering background and knows all about serial data connections, predating USB (I'm picking something simple that most people know a bit about). Then let's say you have a detailed practical knowledge of modern USB connections in that you know intimately what they can and cannot do, but you don't know precisely how they work.

Now, your boss asks you:

"How can a device draw power from the USB connection?"

You don't actually know how it works but you are 100% assured that it does, so a good answer might be:

"It is inherent in the design."

You're not saying you don't know about it in detail, but you are saying that you know enough to have complete confidence in it.

Have a think about ways you can reassure your boss on a level that you understand and that at least demonstrates you have a practical working knowledge of what you are working with, even though you may not have a deep background knowledge of it.

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    I recommend against not saying "I don't know". Being able to recognize one's own limits is an important part of growing up, and does not mean necessarily that "you are not capable". And not having researched a certain thing is not necessarily bad, if you can motivate it. – Federico Feb 20 '18 at 12:48
  • @Federico I agree one should know their limitations and be honest about them. However the OP has already tried this approach and been met with a feeling that he is not trusted, and he has asked for an alternative approach. My suggestion is not about exaggerating his knowledge, rather presenting his work in a more positive, confident way. – Astralbee Feb 20 '18 at 13:35
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    Your example and especially the "It is inherent in the design"-Answer worked for me pretty well. There is a lot between A,B and X which I do not and probably never will understand (it is simply too much) and this is the best way to express it in a professional way. – QWERTYBoi Feb 26 '18 at 13:18
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I'm writing this as an engineer mostly working on hardware (ASIC/FPGA) design with low level software (think bitwise opcode decoding). I have to work with higher abstraction software people a lot. As such, I'll say "we" a lot. The different perspective might be useful for you.

Don't underestimate your boss

We know how to write software. We especially know how to write fast/efficient software. We just don't use a lot of higher level abstractions and libraries that other software developers take for granted. This is not because of some inherent limitation on which kinds of software we can use, but simply because software at our level is easier to understand to us if it involves a lot of bit-fiddling. We're hardware designers, after all. Even when designing in "high abstraction" hardware languages, everything is easily translatable into bits.

You need to talk us down

..to a lower abstraction level, that is. We need you guys, desperately, but most of the concepts that are useful at high abstraction level only make sense to us if you can bridge the gap between your usage and our knowledge. You template meta-programmed the next cloud-based deep neural net using functional programming? That's great, but somewhere along the line, an ip header has to be generated by my firmware. When you give me your code, I'll seemingly roast you, but only because it's vital that we meet halfway. I need to slowly abstract away my bits to system calls and software routines, you need to come the different direction. We need to internalize the abstraction delta on the fly, this is hard enough that there are complete branches industry between our normal workflows.

This is made even worse when it seems like you don't take our concerns seriously. I'm not saying you do not, in fact, take them seriously, I'm saying it seems that way when you say that "I don't need to know". Especially when in my eyes, I do need to know.

Small example, based on when I last had to work with higher level software people:

  • You're connecting two components A and B via a cable and everything works.
  • In order to connect A to X, you tell me to just use this cable again
  • I know from experience that for some chips, this kind of cable's signal round-trip delay is fine for most applications, but for others it all breaks down because of a non-standardized data line.
  • I ask you if the connection between A and X requires the same cable.
  • In your eyes, the cable is just plug and play and a bunch of libraries take care of the low level signalling, so you know that you don't need to know.
  • I'm sorry, but you'll have to talk me through some of these libraries until you got me to an abstraction level where I have experience. If you don't know them yourself, that's fine, just say so. In the best case, we can find out about them together.
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How can I tell my boss at least that I can't help him because of a lack of his knowledge?

You can´t. As a professional it is part of you job to talk to "amateures" in their language. This is a skill you have to learn and trust me when I tell you it is probably easier with an electronics-professor then with most other people you will meet.

I know it can be frustrating, but as a principle, if the user does not understand something, it is a clear sign you did not present it in an adequate way. Try not to blame him but see it as a challenge to improve your communication.

If at a given moment you don´t know a specific detail, make a note of the question and promise to get back to them. It is often better to honestly admit not knowing something than fumbling your way out of it - especially so if you want to build trust!

If after a review of the question you are still convinced that you don´t want or have to know the answer you should bring that up to your manager and see if this maybe belongs with a colleague.

But always avoid "This is not my job/problem" kind of attitude - you should try to be part of the solution. That said, it is better to ask for help than not delivering at all. Especially given you student-status and you interdisciplinary field of work.

Also, maybe you have some non-technical person in your life you could use as a sparring-partner - explain you work to them and see if they understand.

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