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TL;DR: How do you say "no" and enforce time limits to helping/unblocking others without coming across as unhelpful, and not negatively impacting your performance review?

I work as a developer, but I can say only around 30% of my time is spent actually doing my work. The majority is spent on the following:

  • reviewing and critiquing others' code
  • investigating system failures
  • fixing those failures
  • helping other people understand errors in automation tools

I know all these are necessary, but I do think it's unhealthy that my best skills are not exercised, and instead I'm part of a small group having to take on the tedious work which, if not done, systems fail and we are probably seen as providing "bad service", whereas if we do it, we get no commendation because "things just work as per normal, as they should; now show us what you've been working on".

Note: we have escalated the situation to our managers multiple times, but the only change so far is "everyone, please log the breakdown of your work time, categorized by the kind of work you are doing". This change is recent so maybe the data collected will change how the responsibilities are delegated.

  • In a nutshell, your job title is supposed to be developer, but you now actually spend the majority of your time investigating, fixing, preventing and teaching others about system failures. So you have inadvertently become a systems engineer or SRE through the back door. Does your company actually have any systems engineers or SREs (guessing no), and can you make the case to management to hire one or two? Your management is technically clueless, and there is no accurate timesheet logging of who actually does (or doesn't) do what. You probably also don't have a working bug/task ticket system. – smci Aug 21 '17 at 3:42
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This is a common problem when you're seen as the go-to guy for something. If the constant requests for help or input are distracting you from your work it's reasonable to start enforcing boundaries as long as you clue your manager in first. When a pattern like this is established, your coworkers may be surprised or annoyed that you're suddenly pushing back and you want to make sure that your manager is both aware that you'll be doing this (as he may receive complaints/questions) and okay with it. It may be that this is a significant part of your job even if it didn't use to be and in that case you can't push back here. If that's the case though, it means that your "real work" is not as high of a priority as you thought and your manager thinks your time is better spent in a supporting role as knowledge or domain expert. If that's not what you signed up for it may be time to move on.

If your manager doesn't want you pushing back but still wants you to do all of your original work then that's a contradiction that needs to be resolved. The conversation there will boil down to "I have X hours available per week and if I dedicate Y to supporting my colleagues I'll only have Z left for my other projects. That means that A, B and C will be delayed." Your manager will have to decide the priorities.

Now, as for how to push back, I'll copy some excellent advice from Alison Green over at Ask a Manager. The full articles are definitely worth reading. From "How to say That's not my job":

There are times when it’s appropriate — and in fact necessary — to communicate that you aren’t the right person to do something. That’s especially true when dealing with coworkers, but it can be true with you’re communicating with your manager as well (although usually that should be rarer).

In doing that, you don’t want to simply say, “That’s not my job” — or you would indeed risk coming across as being overly rigid. Instead, you want to explain why you’re declining.

In your situation, I’d use language that refers to having other priorities that you need to focus on. For instance:

  • “Right now I need to focus on X and Y so don’t think I can be of help.”

  • “I’m swamped and realistically don’t think I’ll have time to weigh in on this.”

  • “I’d have to spend some time digging into that to figure it out, and unfortunately I can’t right now because I’m on deadline.”

If you can, try pointing them in the right direction (like, “try checking the X document on the server — it should help”). But if that’s not feasible (because you don’t know or would need to invest time in figuring it out), it’s fine to skip that.

More broadly, in some contexts you can try:

  • “I’m not usually the person who handles that. You might check with Jane to see if she can point you in the right direction.”

  • “I’m not usually the person who handles that. I’m not sure who is, actually!”

(Whether or not those last two are appropriate will depend on the nature of your role. If you’re the CFO and someone is asking you about making a change to the website, this is probably appropriate. If you’re an assistant and your boss is asking you this, you probably need to find out who the right person is to consult.)

The following is from "my coworker’s questions are getting out of hand" and while it's about a single coworker, the same strategy can be applied to multiple colleagues that have established a pattern of taking up too much of your time.

The easiest option is to stop making yourself so available to help her. When she IM’s you questions, you don’t need to answer them immediately. You can minimize the IM window and continue doing what you’re doing. Or you can respond back, “Sorry, right in the middle of something.” The same thing goes for questions in person — there’s no reason you can’t simply explain that you’re busy and can’t stop what you’re doing.

Alternately, you can address it big-picture rather than case-by-case. Say something to her like, “I tend to get really focused at work and having too many questions pulls me out of what I’m focusing on. I can answer the occasional question when it’s urgent, but could you direct most of your questions to ___ (fill in your manager’s name here)?”

In other words, while her behavior is absolutely too dependent on you, you’re contributing to the situation too. Be more conscious of your own contributions to it, set appropriate boundaries, and tell her directly when she should handle something on her own.

This one is also useful reading though it doesn't apply to this type of situation exactly: my coworker relies too much on my help.


As for the problems with notifying management about the situation: their reaction (department-wide mails about time tracking) is a classic example of non-management. You need to have a proper meeting about just this topic with all the people and managers involved to clearly define the priorities for you and your colleagues. They should have done this long ago when you first raised it but evidently it's up to you to spur them to action.

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I realize many programmers like to be left alone, and work on their own assigned work, without having to manage the work of others or maybe even fixing 'side stuff' threatening the uptime.

However, the tasks you mention are very necessary and show that you are deemed capable and senior enough to coach and correct colleagues. Knowledge is a valuable commodity, and by helping others become better and more knowledgeable you make yourself a valuable asset to your company. This also is a way of using "your best skills".

I say this because a developer that's left alone can only provide "so much" added value, whereas someone in a more senior, managing and teaching role is likely more beneficial to the company. Having more impact increases your visibility. But do make sure people know how you spend your time. The manager needs to know what you are up to if he wants to pass a fair judgement.

But if this kind of extra work is something you really want to stop doing you can always bring the timesheets you mention to your manager. Discuss what tasks you would like to see passed off to someone else, and what the possibilities are.

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How do you say "no" and enforce time limits to helping/unblocking others without coming across as unhelpful, and not negatively impacting your performance review?

Does this scenario sound familiar?: you are working on some code, and a colleague stops by your desk or calls and asks for your help. "I was working on [X] and now I'm getting an error message that says [Y]. Do you have any idea what's going on?" So you stop what you're doing to help them. Meanwhile your stress level is rising as you are thinking about all the work you aren't getting done, and your approaching deadline. On the one hand, you want to be helpful. On the other, you need to get your work done, and you wish they would spend a little time on Google first before instantly reaching out to you.

This is easy. Just be a less helpful.

When people approach you with problems, dont get up to help them. Instead, listen attentively, and then say, "it sounds like maybe you have a problem with the [X] configuration, or maybe with the [Y] library. I would start by looking those things up on stack overflow, or google those error codes."

Then if they are persistent say and ask, "could you maybe help me please?" Just say, "sure, I'd be happy to help. Send me an email to remind me, and I'll help you later when I finish working on [Z]. It could be later this afternoon or tomorrow until I get to it though."

If they are very persistent and ask, "Inreally need your help right now," then judge if it really is an emergency (help them) or if they are just stressed by their own deadlines ("Sorry. I have a thing I need to finish"). Either way, still make them send an email.

Asking for an email accomplishes two things:

1) It puts them off. If you are lucky, they will start to look into it themselves and (hopefully) solve the problem while waiting for you.

2) If they are very inexperienced or dependent on you to do their job, and you continue to help them, it gives you documentation of the disruptions, and helps you in the conversation with your manager about why your deadlines are slipping.

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You do not need to give them a "no", but just remember the following.

The points you have mentioned is also a part of your work, but it is not your work. When you go out of your way to help others, or give a lecture, or even train your colleague, always inform your immediate senior about it. This is the unsaid protocol that must be followed in any organisation.

It is this lack of communication between you and your immediate senior that will lead to the management asking questions about your performance. Most companies won't explicitly tell such a thing to you when you join them. They would even let you do as you please. But you will come to understand their silence when they call you in for your annual or semi-annual review for your appraisal.

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