Developers vs. Managers: Five Tough Conversations

Software developers and their managers sometimes find themselves in adversarial roles.
Posted February 25, 2013

Eric Spiegel

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“You want to do what?!?!”

Did you ever ask your manager for something and then wish you hadn’t?  I have: I thought asking for a vacation wasn’t that big of a deal. 

My manager Gerry had a different take on the request.


Well, it’s actually quite simple. When you ask for something, the request is typically formulated based on only your perspective.  You may feel you need something, whereas your manager believes you just want it. And there are a ton of external factors influencing every decision a manager faces. The key thing to remember: your manager must justify their decisions to their own managers, taking into account all the implications within the organization.

Also, some organizations have a culture where every decision is scrutinized and others are more carefree. It’s important to understand what types of decisions, if any, will be put under a microscope.

In my case, Gerry wasn’t upset I was asking for vacation. He was upset I was asking for vacation just a couple weeks in advance. I was still young and didn’t have an appreciation of the staff planning necessary to support on-call and project milestones – things Gerry had to worry about every day. 

What I didn’t realize was that Gerry was stressing out because another team member had just resigned that morning and one of our business customers was asking him to move up a deadline – which happened to be the week of my vacation request.

I couldn’t have foreseen all these unfortunate events, but I should have considered the short timeframe of my request.

Actually, vacation requests are the easiest (when not done at the last minute) in comparison to some of the other more difficult conversations.  So let’s explore the top five challenging conversations developers could have with their manager.

1. Show Me the Money!

Salary discussions are the ones most developers dread. Your stomach probably turns into mush when you ask for more money. 

The first time I asked for a raise, my manager cussed me out – stating he didn’t care what I wanted and that I was lucky to have a job.  I responded with “but my peers are all are making more than me.”  I knew this because we all talked about our original job offers during an overindulgent happy hour. 

That made him even angrier. 

He said it was none of my business what others made and I could be fired for sharing this information. 


So I was on the verge of being fired because I didn’t prepare my case. I should have started with my accomplishments since starting the job and used external salary information to justify my request.

He still may have had the same reaction for other reasons – like because he was a jerk – but it may have been a more businesslike conversation.  A fallback could have been a negotiation for a three or six month mid-cycle performance review where if I met some well-defined, aggressive goals. Then (maybe) a salary adjustment would have been more palatable for him to sell to his manager.

2. My Peer Stinks

Every developer at one time in their careers will encounter a difficult situation with a coworker.  You may choose to ignore the situation, and if you're lucky the coworker will see the error of their ways or may even leave.  You can also try to address it on your own in a professional manner, but there will be cases where the issue must be escalated to your manager.

In one case, I had a peer who actually did stink. Not stink at programming, but stink as in actual body odor.  This turned out to be an issue HR was able to deal with.  (See, HR people aren’t all worthless, no matter what Dilbert writes about Catbert!)

Regardless of the issue or conflict, you need to present it to your manager without emotion. Relay the facts and what you have done to try and resolve the situation.

If it is stinky code, show how you have offered to help your peer improve.  Don’t just complain about a situation; come to the table with a solution.

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Tags: programmers, developers

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