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Currently I work at a company that used to have a sizeable number of developers. Different teams were responsible for their own specific domains. There was a database team, a systems team, networking, multiple frontend teams, backend, analytics, security, etc. Over the years, mostly due to attrition there's been a massive consolidation of responsibilities. Teams that were 40 people 4 years ago are now 5 total people. All with an increase of actual responsibilities with 4 years of growth (new tech, new projects, new ways, etc).

We manage so much that there's no time for anything to stick. Each day I could be working on projects written in many different languages. While it's easy enough to move between them. Being able to actually remember any given one to lets say do a whiteboard coding interview is nearly impossible. There's never much time to focus on any one thing.

How does one manage this other than leaving, unless that's the only option?

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    Is management aware that they're way understaffed? What's their stance on it? How much overtime and stress are you doing to put out all the fires? – Erik Jun 18 '20 at 6:30
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    "How does one manage this" is incredibly vague. It depends on what your target outcome is so what do you have in mind? Succeeding in this environment? Changing it? Focusing tips? Reducing the scope of your role? – Lilienthal Jun 18 '20 at 8:53
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    Here's the logic behind 40 people going down to 5. If 39 people an do the work of 40, 38 people can do the work of 39. If the workload doesn't change, you end up with 5 people doing the work of 40. – B540Glenn Jun 19 '20 at 14:01
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    Losing 80-90% of dev staff in just 4 years is a pretty bad sign, even if the developers are being replaced. If they aren't being replaced, it sounds like your company is going out of business. In which case you should be planning your exit. – DaveG Jun 19 '20 at 16:09
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    @NKCampbell it's not about whiteboarding my own projects. It's about being able to find new work. – Biff Jun 20 '20 at 1:40
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You prioritize.

And, when you manager says “I want X” you do it but they have to understand that Y no longer gets done. It’s a difficult concept for some managers that the time, or work, available is a finite amount.

We had this once where there were 4 jobs needing completion by Friday. Went to our manager and told him one would have to be postponed to Monday... Not accepted, so we told him we would contact one “client” (they were all internal) and tell them it would be delayed. (We chose the client with the biggest ego / temper :) ) The manager said quickly “no, I will contact X as he is easier”. X was actually happy and all sorted.

So you have to prioritize... if you keep covering then they avoid having to replace staff...

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    "You prioritize" more accurately, you forced your manager to prioritize. – Robin Bennett Jun 18 '20 at 11:27
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    Choose the priorities is one of the task of a manager. If he don't do it or worst he don't understand this need, he probably isn't a very good one. – k4ppa Jun 18 '20 at 14:51
  • A good question to ask when getting assigned a new task is "Instead of what?" It can provoke a useful discussion of all currently assigned tasks, and can improve manager knowledge of what you're currently spending time on, and possibly get you relieved of one or two projects which aren't as critical as they once were. Or at least let you know which ones are most important. – Cristobol Polychronopolis Jun 19 '20 at 15:17
  • It's awesome to be able to prioritize. Do you have any advice on how to prevent the anxiety of making those decisions get to you? – Biff Jun 20 '20 at 1:41
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    @Biff making the decisions allows you to pass the anxiety on to the manager... – Solar Mike Jun 20 '20 at 6:35
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Normally, you make a list of tasks, estimate the effort to complete the tasks, and then you prioritize with the agreement of a manager.

However, you say:

Teams that were 40 people 4 years ago are now 5 total people.

which means that workload increased pretty much 8 times per person. Even though prioritization can be still done, it is highly unlikely that all the work can be done, and one of the results of the prioritization will be to decide which tasks shall be canceled or postponed indefinitely. That is, unless the total time increases by about 8 times, or more. Combine this with the fact that 35 people left for a reason, and you have your best solution: update your CV and find another job at another company.

You cannot fix alone what all the managers cannot fix. You have to choose between your impossible job and your health.

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    @JoeStrazzere: you are right, that is what I meant. I updated the answer, I hope I did a better job now. Thanks. – virolino Jun 19 '20 at 5:57
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    @JoeStrazzere It can be "impossible" in the sense that doing so is futile. E.g. you need output X to have a saleable product which must be finished by a deadline, and items A B, and C are prerequisites whilst D and E are optional. If 5 people can do all items on time, and you drop to 3 people, then you can still complete X by prioritising on A, B, and C. But if you drop to 2 people then prioritising any further is futile as A and B alone are not sufficient. Both scenarios involve not finishing all the work, but if you sustain the latter approach eventually the company goes bust. – Jon Bentley Jun 19 '20 at 8:54
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Obviously communication is key here, like the other answers already point out.

You need to discuss with your manager, and prioritize.

To add to the other answers I would suggest putting together a workbook, A day in the life of...

Show all tasks that you work on daily, weekly and monthly.

How long they take, who they go out to, requested by, criticality...

Include some capacity charts figures etc that show what free time you have for non routine tasks.

Then list everything else ad-hoc going on, expected time & resource required.

With your manager simply plan in these jobs into your free time, allowing spare time for any emergency jobs that will no doubt come up too.

I have done this with many managers, and often they will be surprised at all the jobs and tasks I have accumulated, we set an agreement, and this gives a clear plan of what is expected, usually for me this is good for a round 6 month, then I will pull my manager back in to a 1-1 and repeat.

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  • I don't really understand "free time" as a developer. I pretty much expect to have more work ready to work on as soon as (before) I am ready to work on it, and my team is at a reasonable staffing level, not at 1/32nd (!!) staff like the OP. Any new item will be done only at the expense of doing something else. (This includes creating cute reports about how busy I am.) Not to say new items don't pop up, they just aren't done for free--they are done because they were a higher priority than whatever else would have been done. – user3067860 Jun 19 '20 at 20:16
  • @user3067860 you don't need to have free time to adopt this method, and it doesn't need to be 'cute' to work either...but hey good for pal – PeterH Jun 21 '20 at 20:22
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Compartmentalize and prioritize are what you are looking for. I work in a similar context, we are struggling because of the amount of work and the lack of workers. After a brainstorming, we have come this way:

  1. every job has a priority
  2. every priority has an amount of time
  3. we take our top priorities and we dedicate it the amount of time we have assigned to it, and no more time during the day
  4. avoid to burnout ourselves actually IS a priority, so we have assigned ourselves an amount of spare time during the day and we use it every day

Example: I have six tasks. I work 8 hours. Task 1 has top priority, so I will work at it 4 hours a day until finished. Task 2 has lower priority, but it needs to get done in a few days, so I work at it 2 hours a day. Task 3 to 6 has lower priority so I work on 3 and 4 one hour per day until finished, then I switch that time to Task 5 and 6.

Every time the task list changes we reschedule the whole day. The matter is that we know how much time we have for every task, and all tasks are going forward at different velocity. Of course you need to involve your manager while rescheduling.

Meanwhile we are looking for people to re-populate our team.

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  • Agreed that every job should have a priority, but it depends on the job and what is involved as to how easy it is to switch around like this. In my case less than a couple of hours on a job is unproductive, so no more than two tasks allocated per day. And my tasks are longer, so rescheduling can be limited to once or twice a week. – Dragonel Jun 18 '20 at 17:26
  • We actually schedule some weeks at time. By saying "Every time the task list changes we reschedule the whole day" I mean that we reschedule the daily workflow through the next few weeks, not the single day. – Flash Jun 19 '20 at 6:53
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How does one manage this other than leaving, unless that's the only option?

Assuming that the understaffing is the root problem here, it depends on the reason for it.

If it's forced by economics, then yes you're probably stuck with this situation unless you leave. And being plain, if there is more work than can be done yet still not enough resources to hire, it sounds like the decision might be made for you before long anyway. Looking around might be a good move either way.

If it's not, and is a deliberate strategic choice by management, your main recourse is to convince them it's suboptimal and they're leaving money on the table by not hiring.

This is difficult of course, and without knowing specifics there isn't much scope for concrete suggestions, but a general opener for the conversation is describing specific situations where more people would mean more/better/faster work, leading to better business outcomes. Importantly this doesn't merely cover shorter term outcomes like boosted revenue but also longer term ones like, in your case, staff retention!

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To be honest, in my experience, in order to be able to successfully negotiate in situations like, you first need to be in a position where you can tell them, "Go to hell," I'm not saying that is what you do or where you start your talk but you need to have your own back. You may never have to use it. Having it will carry you a long way but it needs to be there. Have an offer of another job, get a fork lift truck ticket, sit your Heavy Goods Vehicle licence, an offer to labour on a building site for your brother-in-law but have something that you can stand up to them against.

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