6 mins

I want something more challenging than my current workload but my engineering manager is neglecting to choose me for more complex projects. Can you help?

The back-end team I am a part of comprises six developers and one engineering manager. As a senior developer in the team, my problem lies with the fact that my manager never considers me for designing or creating RFCs on new projects; I am only contributing to small features or enhancements.

The issue is two-pronged as I am currently on parental leave so I can only spend an hour a day enhancing my skills to make me better suited to handling new, complex ventures.  However, I know this can get me so far. I need to gain more practical experience in order to be actively involved in the design and discussion of new projects. How can I build that trust in my manager so that they consider me for new projects, while also using my time effectively to gain practical knowledge?


— Nikita

Hi Nikita, 

From a distance, it’s impossible to know exactly why your manager isn’t considering you for more challenging projects.

The reasons for their approach may be one of several:

  1. They don’t know that you’re actively looking for new challenges.
  2. They don’t yet have the confidence in you and your skills to take on bigger projects.
  3. They may not have any projects right now that would allow you to contribute.

There is also the potential reason that they’re actively keeping you away from these projects. For the sake of this column, let’s focus on the first three.

To start, the key thing you have to do is ask them why they’re not considering you for these new prospects. You may have asked them before without getting a satisfying answer. But I invite you to do so again without letting them off the hook with answers you can’t work with. Otherwise, you won’t know where you stand. Even if they are actively preventing you from taking on more projects, asking them, without letting them get away with easy answers, is the place to start. Whatever information you can then extract from this conversation, can help you build your next steps based on that knowledge.

Making your manager aware of your problem 

Let’s assume your manager doesn’t know you’re looking for new opportunities. There are a few ways you can proceed depending on what’s possible within your organization, how this would fit into career frameworks, and how it aligns with your own progression. 

Here are a few things for you to consider and to bring to your manager.

Tell them what you’re looking for. Are you looking to contribute to an upcoming RFC or project? Do you want to be considered as a collaborator on one of them? What phases of the process do you want to be involved in and in what capacity i.e. as a reviewer, collaborator, creator, or leader? Put it on their radar so they know where they could pull you in on an upcoming project. 

Use this meeting as an opportunity to let them know you’ve been feeling left out and provide feedback on the fact your manager has not been considering you – whether that was intentional or not. It’s worth taking a moment to tell them that you’d wished for a more proactive approach on their part, allowing both of you to reset expectations for the future. 

Perhaps this conversation will provide secondary value for your manager as well, giving them a nudge to review their approach with both other engineers on the team and how they create RFCs overall. It is possible they’ve been only favoring a few folks, leaving out valuable insights from others for a while.

How to build up your confidence

In this meeting, your manager may very well say that they don’t think you’re ready. It sucks to hear this, but it’s something you have to be prepared to hear. That doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the conversation. This is your jumping-off point to build trust between you both. 

Ask them to point out areas you need to work on or skills you need to gain for them to have confidence in your abilities for future, bigger projects. Maybe they don’t feel you’re thinking broadly enough or that you take/give feedback well. Maybe there are engineering skills you need to bolster or they’d like to see you adopt a different communication style. It could be any or none of these things. Don’t let them get away with simple answers. Your manager should have a good picture of what’s missing, so press them for concrete and practical things you can do, for instance, RFCs you could look at, read, review, and give feedback on.

Finding projects when there aren’t any

Once you have an idea of where to improve, start thinking about how you could approach the areas you need to work on. In the current climate of uncertainty and scarce resources, it is possible that there just aren’t enough projects to go around. Or, your manager would prefer for them to go to the most experienced folks to ensure success.

You could start building a mock RFC for yourself, using an ongoing or recently completed one as inspiration, and share that with your manager as a dry exercise. This will show your manager that you can deliver on an RFC, and perhaps quell any of their fears of pushing you into the deep end too early in the process. Though your work may not result in a real-world outcome you've got something to show that you can work at the level your manager would like to see. Make sure to share your progress with them regularly throughout and ask for feedback. The more feedback you get, the more you’ll be able to learn.

An alternative approach could be observing the development of an ongoing RFC. That way you’d get first-hand experience of the process while also being able to ask questions to understand how other engineers approach the project.

Final thoughts 

One key thing to take away from this situation is that your first step should always be to let them know you’re interested. Your manager can’t guess what you want out of your career and where you feel underutilized. The only way to start reconciling this is to tell them. Career progression doesn’t magically happen on its own, it starts by setting expectations with each other.

– Mathias