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Details have been changed.

Short version of the story is simple: I’m a software engineer, and now I’ve been given IT administration tasks. It’s a major step down in terms of responsibilities, to the point where I would not want to put it on my résumé. I need to figure out how to present this problem to other people at work, or decide to leave for a role at another company.

Here’s the longer version.

I’ve been in this role for a little less than two years. At times I’ve been shuffled around in the chaos of work, but more recently, I led our team’s piece of a larger project. Call it “Project Z”. We delivered our team’s piece of Project Z, under a super tight deadline and a lot of pressure, but now the project is on hold, and I’ve been loaned out to another team.

The other team is not a software development team. It is a system administration / support team. I’ll be doing a bunch of administration tasks like setting up internal sites, upgrading to newer software versions, or migrating data. This is the kind of work I did, like, 20 years ago, before I did software development full-time. There are opportunities to automate some of these tasks, but when I estimate the time savings we could get from automation, the estimates always come out negative. Time spent doing automation would be wasted, no matter how I look at it. It’s going to be manual. I’m not even good at these kind of sysadmin tasks—I tend to do a lot better when I’m given tasks which are more complicated, poorly-defined, and even ambiguous.

To be honest, I hate the idea of doing this new sysadmin work.

It reminds me of when I was younger, at a different company, and our company hired a QA manager. Call her Alice. Alice was smart and had lots of experience. She was the kind of person who could build a QA department. But we weren’t building a QA department, we didn’t need a QA manager, we just needed front-line QA testers to test our software before we released it. Most of Alice’s skills would go unused, she wouldn’t be more productive doing basic QA work than a less experienced QA tester, and she’d be completely bored. After she left, we hired two QA testers for the same salary, and it worked out great.

Now I feel like I’m in Alice’s position. But the difference is that I’m working at a big company. There is plenty of software engineering work to be done. I’ve done good work here, and there are opportunities to continue doing good work. I’ve improved our teams processes, simplified our designs, and mentored more junior team members.

To be honest, I think I ended up here because my manager just doesn’t know what he is doing. I want to describe him as a multifaceted jewel of incompetence—you can look at his performance from any angle and see something bad. I had hoped that he would just naturally fail out of the role; maybe I could outlast him. But recently, I feel less optimistic, and it feels more like I am bailing out a sinking ship with a little bucket. Being assigned to IT / sysadmin work feels like a slap in the face. I don’t think this assignment is some sort of punishment, I just think that my manager (1) does not understand what my job is and (2) makes decisions without consulting anybody. I was not in the loop for this decision.

I’m not afraid to schedule a skip-level meeting, but I don’t want to do that without some kind of proposal or request. (It’s hard to propose a solution for something that feels more like a thousand small problems, rather than one big problem.) I have some contact with my skip-level manager’s peers that I can talk to for guidance. And I’m getting contacted by a recruiter for the last company I worked for. I don’t like that option, because it feels wasteful of the good opportunities I have at my current company. (Or used to have, before the new assignment.)

Other team members have similar complaints about the manager, but some are cynical and don’t report honest feedback through the internal “anonymous” manager feedback systems. If I wanted to get my manager removed, I could probably make that happen, but it feels like I would be handing out pitchforks and torches to my teammates.

Addendum: When I’ve talked to my manager about this, he’s kind of dodged the questions. Eventually I will get a straight answer from him but he is pretty good at stalling for time and avoiding difficult conversations. In a typical meeting, he just keeps talking so other people don’t get to speak. If interrupted, he gets angry. If he is asked a difficult question, he gets defensive, or changes the subject, or gives non-answers. I want to escalate this now, rather than keep trying to communicate with my manager until something happens—and I have limited contact with him, because he is not in the same time zone.

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  • I told him that this is outside my normal job responsibilities, and that I'm probably not a good match for these tasks. I told him that I expected to do software engineering, since that was what I was hired to do, and it's my job title. He told me that he sent me over to this other team because they are understaffed—he didn’t seem to respond to my concerns directly—maybe he’s dodging the question, maybe I need to phrase it differently. Even though the other team is “understaffed”, they are loaning staff to our team. I don’t understand it.
    – Eight Bell
    Oct 31, 2023 at 2:02
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    @EightBell Joe is hinting to you that discussing a situation like this with your manager is the normal thing to do and something it is best to do before you ask on the internet. Oct 31, 2023 at 3:03
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    @EightBell It's actually faster most of the time. Also it turns out you did talk to your manager, so Joe's assumption was absolutely right. If you stick around here you'll find this happens a lot. Good job of editing your comments about it into the question, by the way. Oct 31, 2023 at 3:32
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    @DJClayworth: My experience is the opposite—I have stopped giving hints, because they are too likely to be misinterpreted, both in their content and in their intentions, and hints require back-and-forth. Most of the time, in my experience, it is faster to give a direct answer, and if there’s some kind of XY problem going on, give answers to both X and Y. I’m a long-time and active user on Stack Exchange, but for obvious reasons, this is a new account.
    – Eight Bell
    Oct 31, 2023 at 3:44
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    The straightforward answer is, if you like to do the IT admin job, do it. If not, find yourself a new job.
    – Nobody
    Oct 31, 2023 at 4:02

3 Answers 3

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Find a team or department that does what you want, and talk to their manager to find out if they have an opening that you could fit into. Then you can make a solid proposal to your own manager, possibly in a meeting that also includes the manager of this other department.

It's important to make sure that it doesn't look like its your boss's fault, but rather that you feel really attracted to the other work. Frame it like you were looking to take on some new work and mix things up, and the work the other team was doing looked really, really interesting to you. You'll stay on for as long as it takes to finish your current tasks, and possibly split your time between the two teams for a few weeks if necessary, but you think that your future with the company is going to be with the other team.

If you are unable to directly look for other work at the company, then you may have to go with meeting someone above your boss, either their boss or HR. Same as before, don't blame your boss, but also make sure you don't appear disillusioned with the company. "I really like the company and working here, but my current work just isn't for me. I would rather try and see if there is another team in the company that is a better fit for me than leave. Is it possible I can try moving around to find some work that is more enjoyable for me?". If the prospect of losing a valuable employee doesn't motivate them, then at that point it's time to start looking for a new company.

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I would attempt to get the manager to see my viewpoint, but only once. After that if I wasn't seeing a clear way forwards to what I want then it's showing a lack of respect for me and my worth so it's just fluffing around to continue. Vague answers are not something you need to put up with if you have other options.

In your situation I'd either go over their head or start job hunting. Which is your best way only you can determine after weighing up your options and pros & cons.

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If the fundamental problem is that you've been caught up in a chaotic and thoughtless allocation of staff resources, then I'd focus on explaining this to your manager.

It’s hard to propose a solution for something that feels more like a thousand small problems, rather than one big problem.

It doesn't seem like a thousand small problems. You're a software developer but you've been allocated to work that is different from your occupation - seemingly without consultation or an overall rationale. You want to be returned to the usual work of your occupation.

When I’ve talked to my manager about this, he’s kind of dodged the questions. [...] he is pretty good at stalling for time and avoiding difficult conversations. [...] I want to escalate this now [...] I have limited contact with him, because he is not in the same time zone.

If he is as disorganised as you say, then obviously you're posing a problem for him which he's scarcely able to handle or unwind, and that presumably explains his behaviour.

The obvious next step is to put your issue in writing to him, and ask for some time afterwards to discuss it further.

Obviously, if this doesn't bring satisfaction, then either raise it to a level higher, or perhaps use the connections you have to try and arrange a transfer to a different team and manager.

If talk about your reasons crops up in discussion, then avoid general complaints about your manager or the current work. Just stick to the essential point that you're a developer who wants to be doing development.

Assuming your company has different job titles for IT admins and software developers, and presumably different salaries, then you shouldn't really have to make the point that they are different roles.

And if there's any question as to which role you are performing, one of the irreducible and most characteristic facets of development work is the writing of computer code.

If you're not doing this or any activity in connection with it, you aren't doing development.

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