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I manage a technical team that's dramatically understaffed.

It's not about our processes or anything like that. It's really simply about too few hands that can do what we need to do. Plus those we have are relatively inexperienced.

Now my boss wants to give me additional resources to coordinate our work better, gather business requirements, etc. Basically they would be people with soft skills, not much technical knowledge. They would support the morale of the team, give it a bit more of "business perspective", etc. They wouldn't be able to solve tickets since they wouldn't be technically savvy.

I find the idea really strange. Our problem is a huge technical debt. We don't have the technical capacities to implement solid solutions, no matter how much we work and the idea is to get us someone who won't be any support in that but who will give us more of "business perspective". (We do understand business perspective and needs - we just can't support business to the extent expected since we don't have headcount).

My goal is to make my boss understand that a team in which all are good at managing, coordinating and talking to business but no one really has a clue about technicalities isn't the best IT team and won't deliver what business expects us to deliver. What arguments should I use apart from those listed here?

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    Has your boss been specific about what they thing the problem is? It'd be easier to come up with an argument if we understood why they think hiring non-technical people will be helpful. Are they unaware of the technical debt or do they think it's not a problem (or that it doesn't exist)?
    – BSMP
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 22:27
  • I would start with the arguments from the Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks goodreads.com/list/show/15072.Best_Geek_Management_Books#13629 Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 10:31
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    Are you the only developer on the team, or are there others who are junior but could be trained? Also, as a frame challenge, even if you can talk to the business people, maybe having dedicated people for that could free up time to do actual coding?
    – Llewellyn
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 17:13
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    Has your team complained that getting bogged down in the non-technical stuff is reducing their effectiveness in completing the technical aspects of their job ( ie "Where do I find time to code when I have to file 20 reports a week and chase down requirements on every step?")? This is a common default complaint from a lot of overworked people who aren't seeing the forest for the trees and your bosses actions seem like this is the problem they are trying to solve.
    – Myles
    Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 14:17

8 Answers 8

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What you need to do is do some better analysis of what's causing the shortfall.

Now, I sympathize - I've worked in a couple places where we had "too many chiefs, not enough Indians" syndrome - a large company where we had one product manager per developer; a startup where we had 6 leadership people staring at one developer wondering why we weren't getting all our roadmap done. The CEO loved to come to me and try to "look at things a different way" 2x/day to try to magically wring blood from a stone; it took months for me to show him, using all the product/project manager clarity I could bring to bear, that he just had to suck it up and hire more developers.

But it is possible that you are doing work you don't need to do, or incorrectly prioritizing work, or inefficiently getting requirements on that work. That's an entirely possible thing that happens and that's what your bosses are thinking when they are looking to hire more nontechnical people (perhaps combined with bias in that it's comfortable for them to hire people like that and uncomfortable for them to hire techies, who are expensive and talk about weird stuff they don't understand).

What you will need to do is bridge that communication gap and build trust in your analysis. Do some meaningful analysis behind your team's velocity and the things blocking it. You say "the process is not the problem" but what reason does anyone have to believe that? Do you have the right people in the job? Is the team of a size that can usually fulfill the size of the task/number of people to support before them in the industry? No business likes to feel like they are throwing people at a problem that needs optimization instead.

It's probably best to stop using the term "technical debt." While it's intended to be a "language business people understand" it's actually pretty vague and it's going out of vogue as a result. There's what you can do and what you need to do, and the gap.

Analyze the requests coming in, their nature, and how long it takes to fulfill them. It takes 12 hours to do onboarding because of a lack of automation and integration? And doing a project to establish that automation would take a week? That's a real solution you can offer. What work should you not be doing? If you are restarting servers because app developers are writing crappy code, that's a problem to get them to solve.

If you are the person performing these analyses and making. your team effective, then a) they won't feel like they need to hire someone else to do that, and b) they will trust your recommendation of who to hire.

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Put it to your boss by way of an analogy.

Let's take a person with a phone (people with business and communication skills), for example. The phone (business and communication skills) is very useful and this person can get many things done by talking to the right people.

Imagine you have a problem that requires a hammer (a technical problem). The people with phones aren't equipped to deal with it themselves because they don't have a hammer (technical skills). The most they can effectively do is call a person with a hammer (a technical person) to get it fixed. However this can only work if there are people with hammers. You're not going to fix a problem that needs people with hammers by bringing in more people with phones.

Conversely, a team filled with people who only have hammers is also ineffective; because they have a far more limited ability to communicate, telling them where the problems are at gets a lot harder, jobs can become disorganized, and people will become angry at the fact they cannot reach the people with hammers because they have no phones.

What you need is a team with a healthy mix of people with phones and people with hammers, or even people with both phones and hammers. Enough of each so that calls aren't going unanswered and hammer jobs aren't piling up in a backlog.

Exiting the analogy, your team has a problem with the backlog of technical work, so you need more technical people that can work on these issues.

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  • It appears your solution says the opposite of what your the problem is...the team has a bunch of playmate hammers, and no phones, the boss wants to give phones, the team lead wants a real hammer...the boss seems to think adding phones will get direction for the playmate hammers....hearing this analogy will only reinforce it and prevent the procurement of real hammers.... Commented Jul 8, 2020 at 16:03
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a team in which all are good at managing, coordinating and talking to business .... won't deliver what business expects us to deliver

Why not? These are the perfect people to talk to others in the company and find out what you're expected to deliver. You can then deliver on that. If these people had too much technical knowledge, they'd cause more problems than they'd solve.

Your proposal of adding technical staff to beat down the technical debt is logical from an IT viewpoint. But the CEO doesn't care about technical debt (this is fortunate. If he did care, he'd probably fire the people who let it grow so big). The CEO wants IT solutions that allow the business to grow. What these are, we don't know - but the new soft-skilled business people will be ideal for finding out.

Technical debt? Most companies have it. You can plan a way out of it, but expecting extra staff to come on board to help with just that, isn't going to fly.

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    We are an IT team without IT people. In our team everyone can "talk to the business". But we can't deliver cause we don't have the skills. We know very exactly what the business wants. But we won't be able to deliver that since there's nobody in our team who would be able to apart from me and I work massive overtime already, can't make my colleagues learn everything in a week.
    – user32589
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 22:17
  • That's so bad, how come you have an IT team without much of an IT people? It will be very hard to convince your boss if it is the case. I've worked with the same boss as before and he thought that his company is a "service" not "IT". Well we provide integration services though, but my boss saw only "services". So it was really hard to get proposal approvals on IT team part. So likely, it will be very hard to convince him too, unless he/she change the way he look at things.
    – ky-chan
    Commented Jul 7, 2020 at 8:27
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My goal is to make my boss understand that a team in which all are good at managing, coordinating and talking to business but no one really has a clue about technicalities isn't the best IT team and won't deliver what business expects us to deliver.

My experience is this is a slippery slope as non techs take over more and more of the IT responsibility. They cannot handle it, see things from the wrong perspective, and it all goes South as they cover their backs. Unfortunately their only scapegoat is the IT team.

You cannot make the boss see differently, you won't be in that position of trust any more and over time even what you do have will erode away.

You can ride it out and I've tried a couple of times but it's never been satisfactory for me and I wish I'd left earlier both times. The danger is that being scapegoated can affect your professional reputation and being part of failure is never a good look.

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How much time do you spend not writing code? This could be in meetings with people who are working out what will be added next, it could be writing documentation with screen shots and examples, it could be testing code (especially regression testing of existing stuff to make sure it didn't break from the recent changes), making up test data, writing up lists of what has been done since the last time you wrote up a list, managing lists of things that need to be done, making something "a little more blue" and then later "a little less blue", moving things by one pixel, writing (copy-paste-edit line after line) scripts to set up initial tables when "the business" gave you a spreadsheet or a pdf with the data in it, . . . all that sort of stuff? How much time? I bet it's a LOT.

If it is, well, now do you see what your boss is thinking? Taking all of that off you and onto someone you can trust to do it well will give you a lot more time to type code. I know because I've done it. It's wonderful.

If it's not, tell your boss that. Say "I imagine the person you want to hire would do [giant list] and I checked and between the 7 of us we all spend only about 10 hours a week on all that, so I don't see how it will help us to hire this person." Then stop and LISTEN. Your boss may say "actually the person I want to hire will do [different giant list]" in which case you need to see if having any of that lifted off you will help. Or, your boss may say "YES, that's the problem, none of you do this stuff and it's super important and without it you're drowning in technical debt and struggling and thrashing, and this person is going to HELP you because you need help and you're not doing these things." Or your boss may say "Oh. I was so sure that was the problem. What kind of help do you think you need, in that case?"

Don't come in with "you're wrong, change your plan." Come in with facts and questions. You may realize your boss is right. Your boss may change the plan. Either way will be good.

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It's my guess that you have a non-technical manager. In my experience, many (but not all) managers who did not come up through the IT ranks are often somewhat dismissive of the idea of IT as a skilled profession that requires years of training and continuing education to achieve competency. Their reasoning seems to be similar to this: "I have a computer and phone at home and I'm able to use them with no problems. How hard could IT be?"

It can be difficult to change this mindset, but not impossible. To do so, you need to find a way to educate your boss about the technical skills and experience that your team needs to complete the project successfully. You may start with articles or case studies that discuss the best mix of people for projects like yours; by discussing the specific technical skills that your team is missing, and finding sources that describe how much experience and training are necessary to successfully implement those skills; etc. If you're successful with this, you can make a case as to why the team needs more technical chops, not more business knowledge.

Basically, you need to find a way to get your boss to value technical expertise. If he/she is dismissive or incapable of understanding, it's probably time to polish up the resume and look for a position with better prospects for success.

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It's really simply about too few hands

So the boss addressed a part of the problem: he delivered more hands.

but no one really has a clue about technicalities

Well, that is where trainings come into the scene. Make a detailed analysis of what technical skills are needed, and then start training the people.

We don't have the technical capacities to implement solid solutions, no matter how much we work

That is a matter of investing and buying those capacities. By technical capacities I understand servers, software, networking gear...

... technical debt ...

That means nothing to me. What do you mean?


How to deal with a boss who proposes a bad solution to our being understaffed

You explained your problems wrong to your boss, and your boss solved the problem that you reported. He did his job exceptionally good. You reported "understaffed", he "staffed".

On the other hand, you need to understand your own problems, and to explain your problems properly. You did a terrible job at both. Even reading your question above makes me a bit nauseous. You mix conflicting words and ideas in really unexpected ways.


So the title of the question should have been something like:

How to deal with myself if I explain to my boss a problem different than the one I actually have

or:

How to deal with myself and not get angry, when the boss does what I say and not what I actually need

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Things being as tight as they are right now, your manager is at least providing you with more hands. I'm in the same boat and the only thing you can do is use the resources you are given.

This happens more often than you may think.

Assign someone who is good at training to bring them up to speed as people who can handle simple tasks and busywork, and upskill them from there as time permits.

You're assuming that your manager doesn't understand. It may be that hiring constraints right now only allow him to reassign people.

Get them up to speed as best as you can, then revisit it later when things open up a bit more.

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