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I am one of the technical leads in a team of 40+ people. I recently got put on a task force to develop a new and rather high-profile project within my company.

This new project is very demanding in terms of development, design, meetings, ... The task force was initialy composed of the most "efficient" (for a lack of a better term) people in our team.

Recently, we increased the size of the task force to include some less experienced team members to help us with the workload.

Ever since that happenned, I basically don't have any more time to code (which is still expected of me, given my presence in the task force). Every 15 minutes or so, someone else comes with a - usually perfectly valid - question. This is horrible in terms of context-switching, especially when I have a deadline.

I tried various strategies:

  • Putting on my headphones when I need to stay "in the zone". Doesn't work: people ping me on Slack/Skype or even in person.
  • Saying repeatedly: "I am busy at the moment, can I come back to you later ?". This works... for a while but requests start piling and this causes me stress and I often forget about some requests and people get offended.
  • Working from home: this works best as people are more reluctant to contact me for simple questions when I am not on the premises. This however doesn't work well when I have important design meetings I can't skip.
  • Working outside of business hours. I can do that from time to time to rush on important things, but this doesn't play well with family life and frankly... as much as I love my work, I wouldn't want it to become a nuisance in my personal life.

I understand - and appreciate - that my tech lead position implies that I must help my team as much as possible ("help them grow" as my manager once told me). I actually love teaching people stuff and debating issues. I wish however I could find some balance in all of this.

I am the sole person in the team that get asked that many questions, at this rate. When I raised the concern with my manager, he deflected with humor: "that's what happens when you know so much more than the rest !".

That doesn't solve the issue though. Today, one of the senior member of my team (one which wanted my tech lead position but didn't get it - if that matters) kept asking me silly questions about Go - a "new" langage that we recently introduced. All the answers were found in the tutorial/documentation I pointed to him several times.

After the 8th question, I dared say "I'm sorry but I can't help you right now, I have something to finish for my demo tomorrow and could sit a total of 30 minutes in front of my desk today".

He got offended and yelled "Well you don't understand that by not helping me you are not helping the team !". I really hate that situation because I consider myself a team-player - if a busy one - and this coming from a "senior" developer is inacceptable to me.

I almost snapped and said something like: "you have been at this company for 20 years. I have been here for 2. If anything, YOU should be the one answering my questions !".

How can I handle/improve the situation and manage to get "free" time to perform all my tasks ?

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    I completely empathise with your situation - but at the moment the post is more of a rant than a question - and the inevitable question from everyone here will be "have you talked to your supervisor about balancing the two aspects of your role?" – HorusKol Jul 19 '17 at 22:33
  • @HorusKol Thanks. As I mention in the question, when I raised the topic, he deflected with humor. I could try pushing it again, and again but I don't want to be perceived as the guy that only complains. – ereOn Jul 19 '17 at 22:39
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    I totally understand your situation. Have you considered just holding office hours? Investing documentation/wiki? Explaining to one person and the next time someone asks the same question point to that one person to answer? – jcmack Jul 19 '17 at 22:43
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    Ah, sorry - I missed that sentence in the question... Perhaps you could pare your post down a bit? – HorusKol Jul 19 '17 at 23:31
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    @jcmack We are at an early stage and everything changes quite often so writing good documentation - let alone maintaining it - has proven more time consuming than anything else. But I get your point: documentation would certainly decrease the ammount of questions. The thing that I find hard is that when faced with a problem, I usually don't ask anyone and look for the answer myself. This is how I learnt. I have a hard time keeping in mind that not everybody likes to do that. – ereOn Jul 20 '17 at 11:34
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Work in a different location. Book a meeting room if you have to.

Put time on your calendar that is "do not disturb." If you have to sign out of IM, do so.

Setup office hours, with the explicit purpose of being an open time for people to ask you questions.

Encourage your teams to ask each other, first. Setup internal documentation (we have a team that adds EVERY question they get to internal docs).

Today, one of the senior member of my team (one which wanted my tech lead position but didn't get it - if that matters) kept asking me silly questions about Go - a "new" langage that we recently introduced. All the answers were found in the tutorial/documentation I pointed to him several times.

Always ask people like this "what have you tried?" and "what problems are you facing in your current implementation?" and if the answer is "I haven't tried anything" or "none" then encourage by not answering them until they have something.

The problem is that it's normally easier to give them the answer than teach them to answer. It takes a bit of effort to help people be self sufficient, unfortunately.

If none of the above works, talk with your managers and their dev managers (if these 40 do not report to you) about this issue. Ask them to help prioritize your time - explaining you can continue helping their juniors or doing work, but not 100% of both.

Also, it sounds like your manager deflected it and the way that you phrased it makes me believe your manager didn't understand how detrimental this is to you. I would revisit that conversation again to stress the impact on your daily job.

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    Do you think there's a professional and effective way to put up a physical "DO NOT DISTURB" sign in the office/cube? I think in some cases it may make people more likely to stop and comment on it, which is the opposite of what you want. – David K Jul 20 '17 at 12:33
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How about setting some office hours and some no-disturb hours? Start with "you can ask me questions in odd hours (9, 11, 1, 3) and not in even ones (10, noon, 2, 4.) Now you will have 4 individual undisturbed hours each day, yet no-one will wait more than an hour for their answer. Some may go solve it themselves in that time.

During your "even hours" sign out of slack, close your email client, and turn off your phone. But be sure to be available when the odd hour comes. If you open your mail/slack/whatever client and see people have asked you a question asynchronously (so they didn't interrupt you) reward them by answering those questions first. If people come to you in person during no-disturb hours, tell them you can help them at [the specific time eg 11am.] Encourage them to check the wiki or wherever else you think (off the top of your head) the answer will be. Now you're not saying "I can't help you based on your specific question and the persuasion you used on me," you're saying "I can't help you now and it's a blanket rule so don't argue." You would be surprised how much happier people will be.

(How do I know this? I used to be extremely responsive and when I got sick I couldn't be. Nobody knew I was sick, yet when I would say "I can't look at this until tomorrow" I did not get anywhere near the pushback I expected.)

If that's enough, keep it up. If it's not enough, you could drop an hour from the morning or the afternoon, or even both.

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This is the difference between a senior developer, and a technical team lead. As technical team lead, your job is to ensure that technical work gets done and gets done in a suitable manner (i.e. suitable quality, etc). If your leadership responsibilities are getting in the way of your development responsibilities, you need to delegate those to your team.

On the flip side, part of job is ensuring the efficiency of your team. If your team is relying this heavily on you to answer questions, it's not going to be efficient. As other answers have stated, you should also look at strategies you can use to mitigate the volume of questions coming at you:

  • Encourage a culture of figuring things out
  • Encourage a culture of asking peers before asking you
  • Encourage documentation
  • You are absolutely right in the description of the role and the responsibilities. I actually delegated a lot of my development responsibilties (and this was incredibly hard to do). It's just that I'm the team expert in some rather crucial fields (security, networking) and we have close deadlines so the "easy" choice was made to put those related development tasks on my plate... because "noone else could do it in the time frame we have" (their words, not mine). – ereOn Jul 20 '17 at 11:40
  • It might be a good idea to try to pass that knowledge on to some other developers on your team... No one should be the only person who can do some business critical task. Others should always be able to at least do a passable job. – Maybe_Factor Jul 21 '17 at 1:34
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First, what you call "the zone" is a well known reality, usually called "flow." There's a lot of good research on this; it's a field called interruption science (no surprise!) For work involving "flow", any interruption more than a few seconds can easily cost 10-20 minutes for restoring flow. This isn't just about coworkers; it's also impacted by smart phone notifications, etc!

My first suggestion is to work with your manager to increase overall team awareness of the importance of flow -- if nobody can achieve flow, very little gets done.

Next: the key to success is whole team cooperation to manage interruptions. There are many ways to do this but one good way is to set a time limit on how long workers will stay in the zone before checking for notices... eg check on the hour every hour. This can be done with a small whiteboard just outside your cubicle; an IM system; whatever.

It may sound initially backwards to some (but I'm sure YOU understand)... when the team is under more pressure to pull in a schedule, you need to decrease the interruptions. YES, that means someone who needs help may have to wait longer.

Obviously there are a number of disciplines in this... but it all begins with: 1) Management buy-in. If your boss doesn't believe this is an important issue, you and the rest of the team suffer. But once management understands, it can get a whole lot better very quickly. 2) Whole team understanding, including some training for new people on entry into the team. 3) Whole team cooperation, with respect for others.

To be clear, the discipline involved in maintaining flow can feel overwhelming, particularly if the team was previously very "loose." It takes practice, requires grace -- friendly forgiveness -- when people forget, at least the first time or two. But abusers do need to be dealt with. Nobody gets a pass.

What about emergencies? Is it REALLY an emergency? (As my first boss used to say, "Pete, I'm not asking about XYZ as if your job was on the line. How about if the house you don't yet own is at risk? :-D " )

One last note: a good attitude is important for everyone of course. One great perspective, particularly for a team lead: staying aware of the overall picture, and asking yourself "what can I do to make the whole team more successful?" Think of job success not just in terms of your own performance, but the whole team. That will take you far. Everybody on the team can do this of course.

In that regard, the "help them grow" part... yes important. But in some ways that time investment takes away from productive time for everybody. We want it, but not threaded throughout the work day. There are many strategies for this, including Lunch & Learn talks, allocating a certain amount of time for mentoring, etc.

Be proactive: make a shared doc/wiki/forum where people can suggest topics (relevant to work) they want to learn more about... and perhaps encourage others to pipe up and offer to help teach, if they have expertise! As a tech lead, you can make it your goal to help guide that process, and develop team understanding of who has what expertise. That's a wonderful leverage of your time and expertise.

The hardest part of meeting needs, even when there are plenty of resources available (people, etc) is the broker role. As a tech lead presumably you have the expertise to be a good broker -- a connector. That can be far more effective than answering the questions yourself! :-D

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  • How about an FAQ?
  • Fixed Q/A sessions?
  • "Silent Hours" where you cannot be disturbed for anything below high emergency?
  • Designate a second-in-command for answering questions?

Note: Your snapping was quite appropriate for the rudeness of that person. Although a more objective response could be: "I am afraid my time resources are limited and need to be balanced across the team. Please do use them with respect of the needs of others in mind." (You do not have to emphasise that you are, as much as others, part of those utilising these time resources, although that goes without saying).

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I had a colleague who blocked interruptions at her desk with the help of some police "crime scene" tape, which she would string accross the entrance to her cube when she absolutely didn't want to be disturbed. Woe be to those who tried to cross the tape to interrupt her ;) I only saw one person attempt it and it was not pretty.

Of course you don't need to be quite so antisocial with your signals, and as a lead, it does behoove you to be a bit more diplomatic about interruptions. So I can imagine a stop light on your desk - green when you are free for discussions, yellow when the interruption had better be very, very important, and red when any interruption is a no go.

An email to your team explaining the signal system and need to block out some uninterrupted time will help everyone understand how it works.

When you need time, set the signal to red, put on your headphones, and if someone shows up at your desk, point at the light (or whatever sign/symbol you decide to use) and ignore them.

Alternately, you might use a "I'll be back at: " paper clock, which shows the time when you will be available for discussions again.

The idea is to implement a visual cue to avoid getting into discussions about your availability at all, as this alone will drag you out of "the zone". Once this is established, if people can't respect your signals, I think you are perfectly justified if you are a bit rude to them.

I also like the idea of implementing office hours, but "do not disturb" hours might be more effective, especially if you can keep time slots blocked out consistently every day. Then you can notify everyone "I am not available from 1:00 to 4:00 every day until further notice, but please don't hesitate to contact me outside of those hours, as I still want to help!" or so.

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