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I’m one of 10 software developers within a government organization. We support the 30 or so pieces of software that keep the organization running and build new software to ensure that we can continue to service our citizens. Some of those software pieces have multiple client organizations across North America.

The people assigned to work with them range from software developers to people who do DB reporting, but are used to GUI tools and think that SQL is a wrapper.

We provide most of the technical support for all of these various people.

The problem is that all these various people want to dip their hands deeper into the developer pool of resources and nobody seems to know what should be prioritized.

It isn’t a matter of getting more work done as 1/4 of the work is sitting in meeting so they can get developer input “just in case” or providing an immediate solution to the person who couldn’t be bothered to read the manual and decided to instead repeatedly call my Skype and will just call and call and call until he gets an answer. I can’t work my way out of it by working long hours.

My main problem is this:

I am assigned to three projects.

  1. Building a new application for one of our business units. This is a major production application which will take two years to build with current theoretical resources.
  2. Building a new (much smaller) application for another one of our business units. This should just have been a few weeks but stakeholder meetings drag on and on and on.
  3. Supporting two of our existing applications. Support is defined broadly as per above.

The product owner for project 1 insists that I was promised to her full time. Her manager also agrees that promise was made. As a result, I should, in her mind, be 100% available to work on her project.

The product owner for project 2 insists that her project has the highest ROI and should be prioritized. She also claims that she is only getting half the developer resources promised and thinks that she deserves 100% of me as well as another developer. She also wants me in the endless stakeholder meetings (mostly doing other stuff on my laptop). Problem is, those meetings overlap with project 1.

Finally, the support calls come in randomly and people want their answer NOW. They just won’t stop calling my Skype or my office phone until they get an answer because they want it NOW. When I need to do deep work, a colleague and I call each other and just leave the phones off the hook so they get a busy signal. They still light up Teams, but that can be muted. None of these calls are urgent. They are all SQL reporting from employees who need every select statement written for them.

My manager doesn’t know what I should be prioritizing as it was his predecessor who made all the promises to various people. He just said “realize you will piss people off and know you won’t get fired.”

I find this answer unfair to me as I have to deal with the angry people. I told my manager this as his answer was a factious “come up with a script to automate his job and I’ll nominate him as a wasteful expenditure.”

His manager keeps promising to figure out a solution (I asked two months ago), but never gets back to me even though I ask every two weeks.

What would you do in this situation? I’m mostly trying to figure out how I should prioritize my work/meetings attendance.

  • 6
    "I am assigned to three projects." Can you clarify who assigned you and what instructions you were given? – Matthew Gaiser Feb 21 at 18:07
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    @MatthewGaiser that would be the predecessor to the existing manager from what the op wrote... – Solar Mike Feb 21 at 18:25
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    My past manager did. Wasn’t given many instructions about it. – confusedfocus Feb 21 at 18:26
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    Is there any charging structure in place? So you can charge $x/hour for work, $x*2.7/hour for meetings, $x*1.6/hour + $y/call for support of documented things, (minimum 0.5 hours charge), and so on. – Andrew Morton Feb 22 at 14:56
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    @AndrewMorton not really. We charge our “clients” flat rates. Internally there is no tracking of resource use whatsoever. – confusedfocus Feb 22 at 21:39
167

Your manager appears to want you to set the priorities yourself.

If no one will tell you what the priorities and boundaries are, write up a document laying out those priorities yourself. Be sure to include estimates of time and effort you will spend per week in each area. Then, run it by your boss. If he doesn't like the priorities you've picked, incorporate his feedback and resubmit. Do this until he's mostly OK with it. This forces him to provide guidance and signoff to your priorities.

Once that's done, you share your established and approved boundaries with the 2 product owners. They won't like it. They will push back. Hold firm. After all, you have your boss's buy in. He already said he expects people to get angry and that you won't get fired. As long as you are polite, firm, and professional, you will probably be OK.

As far as the support workload. Do you have any kind of ticketing system? Get one. A paid one is probably best, but there are free options available. Make users enter support tickets into an actual system before you will help them. Do not help anyone who refuses to do so. A ticketing system will allow you to prioritize work based on actual (rather than perceived) importance and to provide clear metrics as to how your time is being used.

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    I was going to write this exact answer. Manage up - set your own specific plan of "60% time on project 1, 20% on project 2, 20% on support and that's done using tickets or office hours from 4-5 PM daily", have him approve it and communicate it to the others. "But we were promised 100% of your time!" "This is the new plan. I was promised to only work on one thing too, looks like we can both be sad together, at least for 60% of the time." – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Feb 21 at 21:29
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    Then you've got to stop answering the phone. It shouldn't be acceptable to bypass the existing escalation structure – Fred Stark Feb 22 at 23:00
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    When it comes to support you are to nice. Don't do support that you receive the wrong way. Ask people to go through the correct channels. When they won't, tell them you don't do support from now on, they have to go through the correct channels. When they still don't get it tell them how to contact the correct channel, make sure they have it and then hang up. You aren't rude for doing this, they are rude for disturbing you with stuff that shouldn't go to you at all. People will soon catch on and stop bothering you. Just be firm, if you "do it just this one time" they won't learn. – Polygorial Feb 22 at 23:30
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    @FredStark answer the phone. Then tell them "sorry, you need to call support, here is their number". Do this every time, without fail. If calling you is less effective than calling support, people will stop calling you (eventually). – Roland Heath Feb 24 at 0:01
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    Make sure your product owners that want your time know that your time includes sitting in meetings, not doing programming. Rather than breaking down your time into percentages, do it by hours per week, laying out how many hours per week you have to work on their projects based on your percentages of a normal work day, and the more they request your time to sit in meetings reduces the amount of time you can be spending directly working on their project. Keep a log to show how much time has been wasted by them having you in meetings. When things fall behind, you show where "their" time went. – Milwrdfan Feb 24 at 5:47
23

One option that I have used in the past is proposing a priority list based on the resources (including time) that are available to me and informing my manager as such. Giving a deadline for feedback requires that either your manager adjusts your priorities or accepts the priorities (either by not responding by the deadline or explicitly accepting the priorities). This usually encourages the groups that are not selected to escalate the issue to levels which will get the problem actually addressed.

Example email below (Email as a mode of communication is critical so that you have paper trail when the parties who are mad about the time allocation complain):

"Hey Boss,

Further to our conversations on Insert Date regarding my allocations as a resource, my proposal is to allocate my time as follows:

  1. 70% Project 1 (Resource was promised 100% but project 3 requires 12 hours per week)
  2. 0% Project 2 (High ROI [Return on Investment] proposed for project, however no directive to proceed, please reach out to project owner if you need more information on this project and the project's ROI)
  3. 30% Project 3 (During typical weeks I am consumed on average 12 hours for this task. Reduction in this project will require either more resources in our department or a better method of ticketing requests for support).

Please let me know if you would like for any of these priorities to be adjusted given corporate goals. I will be informing the relevant stakeholders on Insert a date approximately a week out, of my time allocations for the various projects.

Thanks,

confusedfocus"

After sending this proposal and after the deadline for feedback has past or your manager has agreed to your plan, email SEPARATELY both project owners to explain the time allocation permitted to their project. Copy your manager on these emails. The reason for emailing separately is so that the project owners are required to discuss with your manager the prioritisation rather than fighting amongst themselves.

The benefit of this method is that it forces your manager to prioritise the projects, and if they do not, you will prioritise the projects as you wish. I generally ensure that I prioritise the projects which excite me the most if no one is giving me a clear definition of top priority.

Note: Having documentation which supports the time allocation required per week for project 3 would be beneficial to support your proposal.

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    In the case of the OP, I would assume project 3 to be support (SQL)? – CGCampbell Feb 21 at 18:42
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    This manager sounds like the sort of guy who would get these requests for priority and say 'discuss it with project owner A since you two are the ones fighting for priority' and the support stuff will be ignored, but still have an impact on available time. The end result being about the same as the starting point. – TheEvilMetal Feb 24 at 6:23
  • "The reason for emailing separately is so that the project owners are required to discuss with your manager the prioritisation rather than fighting amongst themselves." What's the problem with the two project owners fighting amongst themselves? – Heinzi Feb 24 at 12:38
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My manager doesn’t know what I should be prioritizing as it was his predecessor who made all the promises to various people. He just said “realize you will piss people off and know you won’t get fired.”

What would you do in this situation? I’m mostly trying to figure out how I should prioritize my work/meetings attendance.

You were already told the correct answer.

When faced with a question of competing priorities, and when you aren't able to satisfy them all simultaneously, you turn to your boss and ask for guidance. The guidance here was basically "figure it out yourself".

So, you have been told to prioritize the requests however you wish. Do that.

Sometimes we can juggle many projects at once. Sometimes, we can't. If you can't, then you must act.

In general, it seems to make sense to work on the more immediate needs than the ones that won't come to completion for two years anyway. But you are closer to the situation, so you get to decide based on your own sense of what is most important.

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    While this is step one, wouldn't a better answer go into how to then manage up and get the manager to support/enforce those decisions? (I didn't downvote, but this prevented me from upvoting.) – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Feb 21 at 21:33
  • @mxyzplk-SEstopbeingevil Sadly the OP mentions that this is a government organization so trying to get management to support/enforce ANYTHING is pretty much hopeless. Remember, the managers involved all know about situation already, including OP's boss who said "realize you will piss people off and know you won’t get fired". – Graham Feb 24 at 14:10
4
  1. Building a new application for one of our business units. This is a major production application which will take two years to build with current theoretical resources.

  2. Building a new (much smaller) application for another one of our business units. This should just have been a few weeks but stakeholder meetings drag on and on and on.

First off, what was actually promised? Is there proof of this promise? Email, IM chat, meeting notes ... If so, was this previous manager who made the promise fired/let go/forced to resign? If so, you may want to have a meeting with both teams and have them work out the priorities because at this point the previous manager made promises that could not be met and that may be part of why they are gone now. It also appears your current manager is unable to make decisions for the team. This is also a hurtle to get over, but as I said you may want to try to set up a meeting and go over the projects and get an agreement recorded.

If the previous manager left on good terms then you still want to get a meeting going but will not have the excuse that the previous promises were set up with someone who could not manage time frames. You will still need to bring up that both teams cannot have 100% of your time, so a priority needs to be worked out between them and likely their Associate Director/Director as both teams management appear to think they deserve 100% of your time.

Situations like this come up. It sounds like you may be understaffed for the workload, but that is common these days.

As for the 3rd project/support this is just something that is supported in-between task or as needed. Unless it is a work stoppage situation, I have always dealt with supported software as I had a few min here and there in-between projects.

In the end however you will have to establish with your manager how to handle this and future projects and what takes priority and when. If your manager cannot do that I am afraid you may have a hard time going forward.

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    "Proof of a promise" etc. is completely irrelevant. The OP's team has X amount of staffing and various responsibilities, and based on today's business priorities the manager is going to give them the appropriate amount, not yesterday's. – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Feb 21 at 21:31
  • @mxyzplk-SEstopbeingevil That depends on where you work. If a promise is made and a deadline is set then the goal is to get it done. It may not be a factor for actually getting the job done but its going to be a factor in inter team relationships. You want to try to avoid pissing of the people you work with. – Sierra Mountain Tech Feb 21 at 21:42
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Your boss has dumped it into your lap when he said "“realize you will piss people off and know you won’t get fired". So if boss doesn't want to manage your time, fine. Decide what you think is best, then go do it. If it was me I'd A) refuse all the waste-of-time meetings, which probably means all of them; B) work on the smaller project, so that something gets done; and C) tell your boss to hire a support person, but I'm not you. I wish you all the best.

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Call A Meeting

Who doesn't like meetings? After all, you already mentioned spending a lot of time in them. Gather all the stakeholders (including your boss and skip-level, if appropriate) who are demanding your time, invite them to the same meeting, explain that you would love to help everyone and do a fantastic job, but there is only so much of you to go around, and would everyone please discuss the go-forward options? Now, this sounds like nothing more than an opportunity to make some popcorn while other managers engage in a no-holds-barred cage match for a scarce resource. And quite possibly, it would devolve into that with no extra encouragement.

However, this will only work if you go into it with a good-faith intention to get to a solution. Ideally, the stakeholders will realize that there are competing claims that cannot all be satisfied, and that it is, on some level, their responsibility to resolve this conflict, not yours. Even so, you can grease the wheels by proposing an allocation of your time to the projects, as the other answers suggest. But I would only use this as a last-resort deconfliction if the meeting reaches a stalemate, or you have a strong personal preference.

Use Your Leverage

Use the main part of the meeting to discuss the project allocations, but leave support out of it (because presumably, support won't be championed by a single manager/team that will argue for 100% of your time like the product managers will). If they get to a point of agreement on your project allocation, then you drop the bomb on them and say: "Well, this is sounding very good, and I'm glad we were able to find common ground. But there's one more problem: I spend an inordinate amount of time fielding support calls which would be...perhaps better handled by, say, a junior developer/intern/contractor? Anyway, my support obligation eats into project work, so I just wanted to make you aware that we need to adjust all these allocation numbers down by 40% or more." No need to mention that you leave your phone off the hook, etc.

At this point, expect the PMs to flip out again. But this time, they will be united, because they now have a common enemy. Between themselves and your boss, my guess is that someone will figure out a way to offload some to most of your low-level support calls onto a different resource, leaving you as the escalation point for the "real" support work. But the trick is to make someone else fight this battle for you. If you really are a contested resource, then they will be all too happy engage in a deathmatch to either get a new support resource, or to just dump the work onto someone less valuable (to them).

A nice bonus is that you'll learn a lot about your boss just watching how he reacts to the whole event.

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    You want them to spend hours discussing allocation THEN tell them they only have 60% of the time they thought they did - that's a sure fire way to make yourself look utterly incompetent. If you have a meeting like this then make sure they understand all the competing priorities within the first 15 minutes. – Alan Dev Feb 24 at 15:34
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    Uhhhh.... so your recommendation is to "unite everyone against a common enemy: the OP." This can't be a serious recommendation. – Kevin Feb 24 at 17:23
  • @AlanDev That assumes that support has equal priority with the other demands. The OP made it clear that it does not, and competent PMs will quickly understand this and use their leverage as product owners to clear this competing claim from the OP's plate. It's a negotiating tactic, and actually gives a potentially positive way to end the meeting. Also, it had better not take hours to debate priorities for one person. A 30-60m meeting is either effective, or the OP is stuck in a bad environment. – Lawnmower Man Feb 25 at 0:07
  • @Kevin No. The common enemy is: "a poorly designed support burden." Sorry if that didn't come across clearly. – Lawnmower Man Feb 25 at 0:08
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Everyone here is recommending you make a list of thing to prioritize but I don't think this scales very well as its just going to chew into your time creating this list and this also doesn't stop the constant bickering, calling and meetings your still going to be dragged into.

Instead, I believe you need a BA (Business Analyst) to help you manage the business for you. Its pretty simple. The BA acts as a middle man for you. They attend meetings, talk to the business and figure out the requirements (which they pass to you). This layer of abstraction has several benefits.

  1. You get the requirements. No meetings or fuss (unless high level)
  2. Communication to you is filtered by the BA who deals with the business
  3. Expectations are managed by the BA who will talk to the business and you to determine an appropriate time frame

This way you can focus on developing and bug fixing, and the BA can handle everything else business related.

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  • Hiring another employee just to manage a(n non-manager) employee's time is either very wasteful by the company, or insane if you're paying for it yourself. Making the priority list shouldn't take more than an hour, you literally just make up 3 numbers that total to 100 and send it to your boss. Adjusting should take a few minutes each time based on feedback. After that, you respond to any bickering/complaining/meetings with Sorry, I don't have time for that right now, I will have time on [date]." Will it stop it all? Maybe not, but it makes it not your problem. This answer is career suicide. – GreySage Feb 24 at 16:23
  • This is not that easy. I bet the agency has loads of BAs already. whenever you have BAs you have the danger they will commit the developers to things that are totally unrealistic. it's a choice between meeting hell and implementing impossible requirements. – Nathan Hughes Feb 24 at 16:58
  • @GreySage Its not career suicide. Its extremely common. A Developer has very little understanding of the business requirements or processes unlike a BA. Having someone who can translate the needs and wants of the business into achievable and do-able goals is a skill and a huge time saver. Its like going to a restaurant and ordering "Food". The chef (The Dev) is just going to whatever until you have someone (The BA) tell them exactly what Food they should be making. – Shadowzee Feb 24 at 21:33

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