48

There are 5 project managers who keep coming to me and insisting that their requests are urgent and I find myself switching between 4 different projects, while I am supposed to work on only 1 project a day. For the past week or so, I have worked from 9 am to 9pm. Overtime is not compensated.

I don't know how to say no to these aggressive project managers who literally gang up on me all the time and keep pressuring me why I am falling behind. It's extremely frustrating because what they are doing is very counter productive, and I always feel like I am getting all the blame, when a project goes bad or they complain about clients complaining I feel like they are making it my problem. I thought my job was to do the assigned project for that day and that only, which I had no problem of delivering until this my-project-is-more-urgent-so-do-it-now.

Today the product manager told me that I should start saying no to PM requests. I am wondering why they didn't even train the developers on this. Why after working insane hours is this brought up?

I am not alone in this type of situation, there are a handful of developers, including myself, who are just too nice and we find ourselves working to insanity.

What should I do as a developer to avoid this type of insane overtime? Yesterday I worked 14 hours catching up on critical projects because another project manager decided his client was far more bigger and thus more urgent.

I don't know what to do or who to talk to. Developers on my team talk about this issue but everybody seems to be ignoring it even though they are as frustrated as I.

  • 18
    Do you really have 5 project managers to every developer? Where's the rest of your team? Where's your development manager acting as a mediator for them as a group? – Telastyn Aug 26 '12 at 2:21
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    @Telastyn, multiple project managers are not unusual in many organizations. They usher projects from inception to delivery and it may very well be that during some stages you end up with several PM's "ganging up" on one engineer/developer. – Angelo Aug 26 '12 at 20:28
  • 3
    @angelo sure, but the point is that there should be other developers if there are that many PMs. Share the load if you're overburdened. – Telastyn Aug 26 '12 at 20:43
  • 3
    The company is separated into two divisions with about 4~5 project managers heading 10 developers in each division. My team consists of only 3 people. During this time 1 developer was on vacation, leaving 2 people, with the other remaining developer disappearing for very long lunch breaks. Last week and this week I ate at my desk. The other 7 developers are involved on a diferent platform and is not knowledgeable in our area. There are usually little to no help from the other division. Some reason they thought it was more efficient to put a wall of china between the product team. – joepa Aug 26 '12 at 23:10
  • 2
    @joepa You shouldn't look at them as vultures, they may be deeply flawed individuals that have wronged you, but looking at them as vultures dehumanizes them and makes it easier for you to hate them and harder for you to relate to their problems. – maple_shaft Aug 27 '12 at 12:53

14 Answers 14

87

The easiest approach is simply to direct the project managers to your manager (who I'm guessing is the product manager). Prioritizing work is your manager's job.

If you're working on something for project manager A and project manager B comes to you with an "urgent" request, tell them you'd be happy to do so. You just need an email from your boss saying that B's task is more urgent than the task you're working on right now for A. The various project managers care about just their project-- your manager should have an overall view about which project(s) take priority.

Ideally, the product manager would maintain a prioritized queue of work that developers can work on as they finish tasks. Once the project managers figure out that they can't short-circuit the process by dropping by a random developer's cube, they'll figure out that they need to get together with the product manager regularly to review their new tasks and to discuss prioritization.

Of course, if the request is trivial (different folks have different definitions but generally something in the ~30 minute region is reasonable), it may be easier to just do it as a favor. And if it is obviously urgent (for example, if a production application is down), it's probably reasonable to jump on B's task while dropping your manager a quick note letting him or her know that the task you're working on just got moved to the back burner.

  • 4
    Thank you, that second paragraph is a really great approach. – joepa Aug 26 '12 at 2:02
  • 18
    +1 for the last paragraph. An important skill to acquire is the ability to recognize actual importance. sometimes, you cannot wait for confirmation. Most of the time, however, you can and should wait to get the go-ahead from your manager. – acolyte Aug 27 '12 at 13:27
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    So this is exactly what I did, I started to shift requests to my superior, and my work is so much more manageable! – joepa Sep 19 '12 at 6:50
  • 1
    For trivial requests, it's helpful to block out some time (either per day or per week) to plow through all of small-but-important requests. Cuts down on task-switching and gives you a bit of control over your day. – Allen Gould Sep 3 '13 at 20:40
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    I also want to point out 2 additional dangers of indulging PM's who don't go through proper channels (i.e. your manager): They are not in a good position to estimate how much time it will take you. They may think something is a small task because it sounds simple. Also, their incentives are different. PM's are likely judged on how timely their projects finish. Therefore, if they are behind schedule, everything is urgent to them. Especially tasks which they think are small (but may not be). – Brandon Jan 19 '14 at 18:07
41

I'd be willing to bet that if you refer all possible priority changes to your boss that 2/3 of them will go away immediately. These people are playing you. If they thought the items would genuinely be of a higher priority than your exisiting work, then they would more likely go directly to your boss, not you.

If you don't have a boss (nothing worse to work in than a matrix organization), then you tell the PM whose work would move down the priority list that the request has been made to do this "urgent" work and let him fight it out with the other PM and don't do any work on the urgent task until they both come back to you with an agreement that it is more urgent that the task you are assigned to.

Next, do not work those hours. You are killing yourself for stuff that is most likely not urgent at all. They will get the bonus for early completion and you will get the hospital bill. It is critical to your health and your productivity to stop working longer than 8 hour days. http://www.alternet.org/story/154518/why_we_have_to_go_back_to_a_40-hour_work_week_to_keep_our_sanity

As @justincave said, learn to identify genuinely urgent items (hint, they almost always have to do with problems in production not development projects) and be willing to take responsibility to switch to fix those. But when you do, make sure that everyone involved knows you are working on an urgent production problem. This especially includes the PM of the project you put on hold. One reason PMs get pushy and panicky is that we don't always keep them as well-informed when things change as we should.

  • 3
    Another +1 for getting PMs to work out their conflicts before wasting your time. Like big kids, like gladiators, I don't care: just figure it out among yourselves and with my boss before coming to me. – Will E. Aug 29 '12 at 15:02
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    And another +1 for referencing that article. – dgundersen Jul 21 '15 at 16:44
15

First Try - Talk with your direct supervisor

My first advice would be for you to have a sit down with your direct supervisor. Just having you fill out forms isn't sufficient, he needs to take a hand in the flow of assignments in his group. Have ready examples of how there is no clear priority structure, so you end up working for the PM who screams the loudest, which is unlikely to be the best approach for anyone. Also have ready how much of your time is wasted each day by conflicting priorities.

If he doesn't seem willing or able to help, be ready to propose a solution yourself, which lets you streamline requests from project managers and find a way to work hours that are sustainable.

This would be my approach...

Second Try - Day by day planning

Given that it sounds like demands come in daily, suggest a standup with with PM group - every PM that wants you to work on something is invited, and the only way you'll accept tasking is if they are at the morning meeting. Let them agree amongst each other whose priority is highest and then commit to the work you can actually accomplish that day. Whatever you can't finish goes on the backlog until there's time to do it or until another developer can be found to step in and help.

Invite your supervisor, so he has a say in what's going on, since really this is something he should be leading... but it sounds like he's not involved in this part of the work right now.

If a PM comes in later in the day with a new priority - tell him to wait for the morning meeting. A half day turnaround cannot be too slow in an organization that is working properly -- if they couldn't see far enough ahead of the situation to avoid the crisis, it isn't your fault.

The goal here is to get it all out on the table - what all this work is. It sounds like you're getting pulled in multiple directions and no one is really organizing the work. No one is setting priorities for your time or the product, which in the end will result in a mess - both for you and the product.

Getting others involved

If possible, make this meeting a team meeting - don't make it just you and your priorities, but get the whole team engaged in supporting these PMs. That way you can discuss and back each other up with what's easiest and hardest - you may even be able to help prioritize and reorganize work so it's done more efficiently.

  • 6
    A half day turnaround cannot be too slow in an organization that is working properly -- if they couldn't see far enough ahead of the situation to avoid the crisis, it isn't your fault. +1 The gospel truth... – maple_shaft Aug 27 '12 at 14:18
11

Where is your supervisor? It can't be the project managers. Somebody above all of you should set the rules about who you answer to.

Document your accomplishments and review them with your supervisor. He is the one who ultimately decides if you are getting the right things done in a timely manner. Make everyone aware of the problems with the interuptions. That's why you only work on one project in a given day (Not arguing this is the ideal solution, but it is one way to manage interuptions.).

If I was your manager, I'd tell the PM's to check the schedule and don't interupt once the day has begun. I would take serious issue with anyone accusing my people of not working long enough hours (You mess with the cubs, you get the mamma bear.). When we lose quality develpers because of the burn-out due to 12 hr days, I'm the one that has to replace them, not the PMs.

10

Type B personalities allow Type A personalities to bully them and then wonder how to say no?

I am naturally a Type B personality myself but when you are surrounded by Type A people all day it is crucial that you learn basic defensive instincts. It is no different than when a bully singled you out when you were in school. Your first and immediate reaction is to have more confidence than the bully and no fear.

Confidence

Whether it is a school yard bully or pushy PM, have supreme confidence in your self and you will exude an aura of strength. People sense confidence and strength and it completely changes their interactions with you. When they talk with you, look at them in the eyes, don't avert your gaze or look at your feet. Speak candidly and fluently, do not stutter or stammer, do not use ummm, and uhhh when talking. A person with confidence and resolve knows how to articulate EXACTLY what they want to say and how to say it.

No Fear

When lowering your confidence level does not work, another tactic they will use is to instill Fear in you to lower your confidence back down to a level that makes you easier to control. This can be extremely hard to deal with, especially for myself as I suffer from Generalized Anxiety disorder which is an obstacle to overcoming negative emotions.

Fear is NEVER rational, an important survival instinct for sure and a healthy amount will keep you out of trouble, but most fear can be harmful. Who wants to just survive? For somebody who needs to be on top, who needs to lead the pack, fear will hold you back as the only way to overcome it is to have a do or die attitude.

When you feel the fear of negative consequences, attack it immediately with rational thought. Dispell it, prove to your mind how ridiculous your emotional reaction is, remind yourself of your own strengths and ignore the disapproval of others.

Social pressure can be the biggest, fear of disapproval, fear of being judged. I dispell this by reminding myself of my own just actions and by attacking the notion that the person passing judgement has no right to do so. A little bit of arrogance or narcissism helps to deal with this.

Analyze weakness and the power of Pity

We are all human beings and deeply flawed. These flaws manifest into inherent weakness we hold. Some are better at hiding them than others, but a trained eye can spot them and use them to better understand the people you deal with professionally and otherwise throughout your life. It isn't a battle, so it is wrong to think of it this way, because when dealing with people you always want to win without having to resort to an altercation. When this happens, nobody wins. A good read that COMPLETELY changed my frame of mind for the better is:

The Art of War

Weakness can be exploited, the PM coming at you guns hot, what motivates him? Pleasure? Not likely a sadist. Greed, possibly he wants to get the product out the door faster to impress the client or secure a nice bonus. Fear, thats probably it. The client is not happy and is on the phone placing all the blame on him/her. They simply do not have the resources to address the problems they face. They are scared. Really scared. Who can save me? Nobody. Then who can I exploit? The other PM's are in a more dire situation than myself, and I am not about to go to them and start a fight. That one developer, the quiet guy who is easy to get along with. If I can convince him...

Now that you understand their motivations you know their weakness, fear is a bigger motivator than greed because fear is more primal. How can you use this to your advantage?

In conversation I start talking about the clients and the problems with them. I start bringing up the bigger picture. If I can get the PM to open up and trust me then it is harder for that person to do something unfair to me. I use emotionally led arguments, talk about the fear, this lowers defenses and they are more likely to have a friendly moment with you. This is easy to do if you approach an oppoenents fear with pity, but you need to be careful not to be patronizing.

Pity can have a powerful effect on people, powerful enough to motivate you to post a question about your problems anonymously on a Q&A site, more or less to advertise your troubles and evoke a pity response from others in supportive comments or advice.

Fear and pity can help you turn the converstation into a dialogue, and not a bully session. In a dialogue, you go back and forth until the two of you come to a mutually beneficial arrangement that leaves both of you walking away with a good emotional response from the encounter.

I am unfortunately focused on completing another high priority task at the moment, which will take me about the rest of the week, and I understand and sympathize with your lack of resources to address your problems at the moment, but you will be my number 1 priority next week.

So ultimately...

Just say no

This simple two letter word is the most powerful in the English language. Much more so than yes as any married couple will tell you, it takes two people to say yes in a relationship, but it only takes one to say NO and stop something immediately.

It all starts with No and it need not be any more complicated than that.

  • This is pretty dark, but I think poster is absolutely correct! Fear is the most commonly used form of leverage in the workplace. Simply by being aware that others will try to use it against you, you can be a lot better off. – Code Whisperer Jan 16 '14 at 14:54
  • I can relate to the "PM getting blamed by client" part. God that was a stupid PM, glad I don't work with him anymore. – scheien Apr 4 '14 at 13:04
8

You are accountable to your manager(s). (In a matrixed organization that could include the PjM or PdM of your project.) When someone else diverts you, that hinders your ability to deliver your assigned work.

For a single urgent request you should try to help unless it will derail you, but when the same people come back to you over and over, it's time to say "I'd like to be able to help you, but I've been directed to work on $project and your request will take too much time away from that. If you need my time on an ongoing basis, please work with $manager to schedule me so that I can give you my full attention."

  • I find also that if it's a PM that I socialize with outside of work, it's even harder to just say no. I am thinking maybe I am getting schmoozed. – joepa Aug 26 '12 at 2:07
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    @joepa, you might be getting schmoozed. But either way, it's ok to say "hey, you know I want to help you out, but I can't keep doing this for you and the other four guys without putting my assigned work at risk, and if that happens my manager is going to be upset. Could you try to work it out with him so everyone's happy?" – Monica Cellio Aug 26 '12 at 2:12
4
"I have 5 project managers..."

or

"Today the project manager said..."

Which one is it? Do you have one boss? or 5?

If you have 5 bosses ("I have 5 project managers...")... you need to keep a queue that they all have access too. Make sure all 5 get updates on each and every change request. "Dear Bosses. Boss #3 said to bump Request #37 to #1 spot. Here is a list of my current project queue. Please adjust your schedules accordingly. Thank you. -Peon". When something gets moved they all get noticed... immediately. When things get changed 20 times in one day... they notice... immediately. There is no confusion that you are simply following 5 sets of orders. Let them fight to the death. Something will have to get worked out if work is to get done in the appropriate manner.

If you have one boss ("The project manager said"), and he said "Say No"... then by all means say No. Other 4 don't like it? They can talk to him. Let HIM manage your queue. Let them go through him. All requests go through the gate keeper.

You can't have 5 bosses AND The project manager. Which one is it? Either way, you have a work queue and it's all about communication. Either a public queue that the bosses fight over, or a public queue that your singular boss decides.

Your a peon. Put the decisions back at their feet.

And by any means necessary... stop working overtime (Unless you get "comp time" off to balance it... but it doesn't sound so at your work.)

  • The second one is product manager, of which there is one. There are 5 project managers. – starsplusplus Jan 23 '14 at 13:47
4

1) Manage up. Meet more with these managers, document each request - and cc the 4 other managers for each one. Request (politely) change in the context of better quality work, better employee retention and less bugs and re-work, in other words business terms. Making sure to strip out the personal feelings and resentments will be key - no matter how justified they are. This is actually an opportunity for you to take a leadership position but you will have to keep your cool.

2) As for the hours, if you are somewhere without legal limits and it's only your sense of obligation, then you are just going to have to set those limits yourself. Pick the hours you'll do (as standard) and stick to them,. Once they are known and you have proved dependable it's usually not a big issue. Make sure you are doing the work well and are flexible for urgent matters - as long as 'urgent' isn't really 'routine'.

3

Being in this position a lot myself, because I do Excel VBA, Web design, graphic design, and a lot of "pet" projects a lot, I have three bosses, technically five, but three that bother me the most.

I have used the "ask my boss" line before, the problem is one of them says "I emailed him, and you are to do what I say" line a lot. Which I catch him in this lie all the time, but till I do I need to do the work.

What I have done to solve this issue when working on multiple projects, I pick a project that seems to need attention that day, and if someone says, "My project takes priority" I say, I" am working on Mr. X's project today, if you want I'll email and CC you on a request to Mr. X to see if it's ok to let his project drop for today, so I can get yours done? "

90% of the time they will leave, but if not, you have started a communication between the other bosses, and at the same time showing some backbone, and saying if you want your projects done at the same time, you three or so need to fight it out which is most important. Otherwise let me finish.

If they decide to not CC one another, and directly email you saying that to hell what they say, CC the other boss, and let the flame wars begin. Sometimes it is so much fun watching the three go after each other, because while they are doing that, you can get your job done.

1

The fact that you are working yourself to the bone combined with frequent PM panic sounds to me like you are understaffed and that your company doesn't really have a big enough development pipeline to support your project load. The problem is, as long as you keep working 14 hour days and whipping yourself raw, this problem will never surface and no new people will be hired.

Bringing this problem front-and-center is, in fact, doing the company a service and it will help in the long run to get an appropriate level of resources. So how then?

First thing is to refer all requests that are outside of your current load directly to your manager. When they push more work on you than you have time to do, they are essentially forcing a prioritization decision onto your shoulders. If you accept that, then you are also accepting to take the blame when things go bad.

As a developer, project prio decisions are typically above your pay-grade and you shouldn't be the one to make them. Send it to your boss and tell the PM "this requires re-prioritization of my current project load and I can't make those decisions, they have to come from [insert manager here]".

If your manager is unable to make those decisions, or you can't identify which manager should, then you have a bigger problem that has to be addressed in the longer term. In the short term, this can be handled by forcing the PM:s to all agree on re-prioritizations before you take any action. So if PM A comes by and asks for task X to be done, then you say "this will force me to push task Y for PM B down the list. If you get PM B to approve that, I can do X for you".

To circle back, if you start handling these request through "formal" channels, it's going to be much easier to start a discussion about expanding your team as you'll have a track record of over-allocation.

  • +1 for "if you accept the work, you are also accepting responsibility for it" – sleske Aug 30 '12 at 15:12
1

You have one boss. Two at most in cross-functional teams (the project manager and the department manager). Anyone else who seems to think you work for them should be directed to the person you actually DO work for, who should apply the smackdown on the other manager and keep them and those who report to him away from your desk.

If your manager is unwilling or unable to stem the tide of distractions to your desk (that's what these are; you should be focusing on one or two things on your plate that between them occupy your 40 hours for the week at least) then escalate. Bottom line, there is a management problem in your company, where every middle manager thinks they have authority over anyone they need to do a job. This is almost certainly not the case, and if it is, that culture needs to change ahorita.

1

There should be some criteria within the PM group that allows them to prioritize projects. So ask to see it/these, or ask them to review those criteria -- you know, the ones that convinced them to green-light the project in the first place? -- and get back to you with a prioritized list.

1

I second anyone who tells you that those project managers need to stop ordering you around, and that they need to negotiate timelines, deadlines and priorities with whoever is your manager. And that your manager needs to start doing the job they got a paycheck for and stop these project managers from bypassing the manager and going direct for your throat (and the throat of the other devs)

Don't ever let anyone pressure and extort you into AGREEING to doing something that you don't want to for the very good reason that you are not in a position to fulfill the agreement, be it because of time or other demands on your time or mandates from management, etc. Because if you agree to it, you OWN it and the onus of any failure rests squarely on your shoulders and your handsome head. And if you agree to do something knowing in advance that you can't come through and deliver - well, you just turned yourself into a liar. And a scapegoat. And a fall guy. Like and appreciate yourself enough not to do this to yourself.

In the future, refer all requests for your time to your manager, and warn your manager that they have some serious coordination and liaison work to do and that needs to be done.

-1

What should I do as a developer to avoid this type of insane overtime? Yesterday I worked 14 hours

Get it out of your head that you owe all of these managers the work done in the time they need it done. They almost certainly aren't coordinating your time between them.

There are only 8 (or whatever) hours in a work day. Yes, sometimes there's a need to do a bit of overtime if there are urgent deadlines, etc. or sometimes staying back half an hour later might be done, e.g. if you're close to finishing the task and they really need it done today.

But these extremely long hours should be the exception not the rule.

The fact that you can't get 14 hours work done in 8 hours isn't your fault. It will just have to take two days instead of one to get these tasks finished. - You could start quoting estimates in days instead of hours.

If you're being asked to do two tasks then keep in mind that you can't do them both at the same time. If they each give you a task that should take a day, then it will take two days.

Assuming you don't have a supervisor to sort this out for you:

Manager A: I need X done end of day today it's very urgent.
Manager B: I need Y done end of day today it's very urgent.
You:       Actually I'm working on X for Manager A today, I'll get to it tomorrow.
Manager B: But this is very urgent, I really need it done today.
You:       Then can you talk to Manager A about it because he said the same thing?

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