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Over the years I've acquired some Perl skills to get the data in a shape I can work with (marketing analytics).

Average dataset sizes have grown over the years, and colleagues tend to say "Excel can't handle that" and send the work in my direction. The other day my boss referred to me as the data guy to consultants, which now send the most basic processing tasks (adding a column/renaming headers) over to me. I think I spend more time prepping data for others than I do working on actual BI work.

Most often they can do the work with Excel. They could spend a weekend learning basic scripting skills for the rest.

How can I tactfully push this work back to my colleagues?

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What's your goal in pushing back? To minimize your workload? To use this for career advancement? To avoid doing boring/tedious work? It's not clear why you want to do this. –  enderland Jul 23 at 13:25
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Well, wouldn't any of the reasons you mention suffice? –  user25477 Jul 23 at 13:27
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@User25477 If other users ask for clarification in comments, edit your question to answer them and don't brush them off. If you say you 'got to be tactful', you could start being tactful here. –  Jan Doggen Jul 23 at 14:06
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What about simply saying I will do it after I finish X, Y and Z? If it starts taking a few days to get their task done for them then maybe they'll start doing it themselves. –  Dunk Jul 23 at 14:20
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I guess you have this in your head for a while, a concern growing big every time someone reaches out for your help. Now ask yourself, are others aware of your discontent about it? While talking with your boss or making a big deal about this is a good approach if you are so unhappy as to post this in here, maybe the problem starts with your own attitude: does anyone has a reason not to ask your help? Start giving such signals, speak out your mind, don't hide your feelings. –  Mr Me Jul 23 at 14:59

8 Answers 8

What is the best push-back strategy? For one, most often they can do the work with Excel, and two, can't they spend a weekend learning basic scripting skills? Got to be tactful. Thanks.

As is often the case, you need to start a conversation with your boss.

Your boss is the one who indicated your expertise as "the data guy", and that appears to have started the drain on your time.

Talk to him/her. Explain how your time is now being spent. Explain what additional work you are doing, and how it impacts the remainder of your tasks. Ask if this is how you should be spending your time, or if you should be doing something different.

You can offer to help train others in basic scripting skills, but you should try not to come across as whiny. For example, don't use the phrase "can't they spend a weekend learning...". It's not up to you to decide how they spend their weekends unless they work for you - that's for others to decide.

As @PurpleVermont correctly points out, this is also the time for you to express what you would prefer to spend your time on, everything else being equal.

Accept whatever your boss decides with good grace, and execute it to the best of your ability. Be part of the solution.

If your boss decides that you shouldn't be handling this work, then your push-back to the requesters might be something like "Sorry, my boss wants me to concentrate on other tasks, and doesn't want me handling these. I could give you some suggestions on how to do the tasks yourself if you would like, but I can no longer just do them for you."

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"Explain how your time is now being spent. Explain what additional work you are doing, and how it impacts the remainder of your tasks. Ask if this is how you should be spending your time, or if you should be doing something different." <-- If you have a good boss, they should want to know how you would prefer to spend your time as well. Don't be afraid to state your own preference, while making clear that you're willing to be a team player and do what the team needs you to. –  PurpleVermont Jul 23 at 18:40

A terrific question. You have become known for having a distinctive skill, and it seems also for being cooperative. That's a good personal reputation to have.

And now lots of people are taking advantage of your reputation and your skill to -- I'll be blunt -- avoid learning the basics of this particular trade.

I suggest you do these things:

  1. Schedule some lunch-and-learn sessions or other similar workshop style training sessions to teach other people the basics.
  2. Keep track of who shows interest so you can refer some of the things you're asked to do to them. People may appreciate being empowered to do their own work.
  3. Keep a log of tasks you do so you and your supervisor can keep track.
  4. Make up a bunch of "get out of jail free" cards: meaning, "This card buys you one rush job from me." Give each of your frequent users one of these cards each calendar quarter. So, when they come to you over and over with rush jobs, you can tell them, "go buy a get out of jail free card from one of your colleagues." You can do this in good fun, but it establishes a value for your service.

Good luck, and congratulations on finding a good niche for serving your co-workers.

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Id suggest getting the company to switch to a proper tools such as R or SPSS –  Pepone Jul 23 at 13:56
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@Pepone, I would say that using R is a good way for the OP to super-charge their data-wrangling. I have found though that many folks just can't/won't program a script-- they can do amazing things with pivot tables in excel, but once you crack open a blank VBA project they get lost. Working with something like R would be even harder for those folks. –  teego1967 Jul 23 at 14:28

What is the best push-back strategy?

For most people the most successful way is to simply indicate that you will get to their work when you have time to do so. Further, if you throw the ball back in their court, they may not come back to you unless they really are stuck.

"I probably won't be able to get to this request for a few days. Contact me again in two days if you still need help."

If they do come back to you in two days you may consider taking their time as well, and teaching them. This will not only give them a clear signal that they won't save time and effort by using you, but it will reflect badly on them if they keep having you come over to teach them something you already taught them.

"I have enough time now to walk you through it. I'll be over at your desk (or will call you) in a few minutes."

Then teach them.

This will significantly reduce the number of requests people will make on you and your time. There will always be some people who will persist regardless of this, or any other, technique, but this should help.

It doesn't turn you into a roadblock, it doesn't shame them, it just raises the bar of effort a little so that those who are simply using you as free labor will find other resources since you are giving them more work than they were trying to get rid of. Be reluctant to make this about priorities, or to explain why you can't get to it immediately - you don't want to get drawn into a battle over whose project or task is more important. Always end with "I'll come over and show you how to do it on your computer" and don't touch their computer, make them go through every step themselves. This will work even if they sound like they're going to complain to management that you aren't doing what they suppose is your job.

If you record your teaching efforts and make your manager aware of how many people you've helped, you may find it viewed very positively in the organization.

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This used to concern me, but I've somewhat changed my opinion. I undertake personal development tasks out of work anyway, so the majority of my own development is done in my own time...

They're paying you for your time, if they are foolishly allocating tasks that come nowhere near your skill level, then it's their loss, not yours.

Hope this helps.

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I do work for the pay I receive, but the reason I don't switch jobs is because I'm learning what I want to learn and working in the space I want to work. This should create a great incentive for my employer to "work with me" to negotiate an arrangement I'm happy with. If I leave, the company loses out in a big way--all my domain knowledge and experience lost. So, unlike you, I expect to be able to work in areas that interest me and to learn in a way that helps my long-term career. Employers who don't want that deal need not keep me at their company. –  ErikE Jul 24 at 2:19
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It's most definitely the OP's loss, too: if he or she spends all week doing little things instead of important high-visibility projects, it will seriously impact his or her career, and the business's overall health. This answer reflects a seat-warmer's perspective, a poisonous attitude. –  Jon of All Trades Jul 24 at 18:57

Its important to remember that as we grow professionally, our tasking and carreers may take unanticipated but rewarding new directions. In this case, your expertise with Perl has resulted in you becoming what is called a "Subject Matter Expert" or SME.

The great thing about your boss recognizing you as an SME, is that you now have a foundation and basis for promotion, raises, and possibly promotion. Instead of pushing back, I suggest you go "all in" as the poker community would say.

The question I would have is more about whether or not you can do the SME tasks while also doing the tasks you were originally assigned. To address this, list the tasks you perform as part of you normal duties. You can assign average hours our percentage of weekly time you give to those tasks. Try to be as realistic with your estimates as possible. Then, do the same thing with your SME tasks.

Regardless of whether you are salaried or not, you can't be expected to burn 60 hours a week forever without burning out. That's why good managers try to limit the amount of work thier high performers give to between 40 and 50 hours a week. If the total amount of time you are providing now exceeds what you were providing before, you have an issue you can address with your boss.

Set up a meeting with your boss. Then show your boss your tasking, and what the SME work adds to it. If you want to continue to be recognized for your growth as an SME, try to get your boss to re-assign some of your normal day-to-day tasks to someone else.

When all is said and done, be grateful you are being recognized as an SME. Add it to your resume and if you can't get a satisfactory resolution to the issue, use your new status as an SME to get a new job with a nice raise.

I hope that helps.

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Being a 'go to' person isn't all bad - but if you are just getting the grunt work - then yes it is time to demonstrate your value.

Saying "I have several priority projects on my plate right now- would you like for me to talk to my manager to see which one he/she wants me to move down the priority list to handle your request?" That is professional - but also demonstrates that your time is valuable too.

As an extra nice gesture (since you are the nicest 'can-do' team player), send them an email later with a link to training of an article on how to quick start using that tool.

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I encourage people to ask me for help whenever they feel they're wasting time with a big Excel project, because there's probably an easier way. Nine times out of ten, yes, I can help them save hours.

This hasn't become a burden, because with a few exceptions I don't say "send me the file, I'll take care of it." Instead, I'll sit with him or her and go over what they're trying to do, and show them how. Unless the commands get super-hairy, I don't touch the keyboard. It may take a few repetitions, but eventually they'll learn some techniques. Now there's less work for you, more productivity for them, and everyone wins. It's worth the investment of time.

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tl;dr

  • factually explain the problem to your boss, with concrete examples
  • provide solutions
  • provide opportunity for discussion
  • do whatever they ask

"Explain how your time is now being spent. Explain what additional work you are doing, and how it impacts the remainder of your tasks. Ask if this is how you should be spending your time, or if you should be doing something different." <-- If you have a good boss, they should want to know how you would prefer to spend your time as well. Don't be afraid to state your own preference, while making clear that you're willing to be a team player and do what the team needs you to. – PurpleVermont

The fact that you're on a Stack Exchange network means you're probably above average. Average people just bring their boss' problems. The top performers bring problems and solutions.

You've noticed a problem - that you're spending a bunch of time doing silly/menial tasks that other people could do most of the time (and probably in less time that in takes to ask you to do the dang thing in the first place). Now you get to bring your boss the problem and several possible solutions. What I've found works well for me is to talk to my boss (or other responsible parties) and say, "Look, here's what's going on..." and then clearly and factually explain the situation. That means no, "All these other jerks are wasting my time," but more, "I find that I'm spending X hours a week doing Y - this last week I was asked to do several simple tasks, like renaming columns, sorting some rows, and so forth. This takes away from the time that I could be doing Z. My preference is to be frobnosticating the fizz buzz, but I'm happy to do whatever helps the most. I can see a couple of options here.

1) Keep doing these simple tasks for people (like renaming columns, sorting rows, etc.) 2) I would be happy to train other people on a 1-on-1 fashion, or in a class, or write up some documentation 3) I can just let people know that I'm not available for such simple tasks

What would you like me to do? Or is there something that I'm missing? "

I'd say that you do usually want to allow for the fact that you're missing something. There have been many times that I've thought I knew everything, but there were some strategic goals that I was unaware of.

By providing solutions you're not just adding another problem to your boss' plate, but you're working with her/him to solve a problem that's bigger than you. A good employer will appreciate that. By offering the opportunity for your boss to provide another solution you're not coming across as arrogant, but willing to learn. And it's a good thing not to insult other people, because maybe they were having problems doing something that you view as simple and your boss just said, "Take this to Joe, he'll help." Then you've unknowingly insulted your boss and I'm sure that's the last thing you want.

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