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What do you do when the person you’re helping is your senior, do you continue to help them? I've seen this happen at a previous job. A senior developer lost touch and was having trouble with the basics. He'd got lazy over years and was accustomed to loading work on the juniors. Restructuring meant that senior now had to work hard for the money. What do you do? Help or expect more from them.

EDIT: Myself and the other seniors did help and the juniors. But the senior developer was accustom to delegating and many felt the senior developer in question just was trying to get others do their work. I was asking the question in reference to reading: When do you not give help to less experienced programmers? Basically when should you draw a line in the sand.

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Unless it is actually bad for the company, why else would you not help someone else? –  Edgar Gonzalez May 6 '11 at 21:50

8 Answers 8

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think I see a bit of a different side to this story. Of course, teamwork is great, and you want team that helps each other out frequently.

However, imagine how the juniors probably feel. Not only are they pulled away from their work to do someone else's who does not even seem particularly enthusiastic about learning, the person they are carrying along makes a boat load more money than them! I've been in this situation with someone who made three times as much and had no idea what an object is, and we are a C#.Net shop. (He came on with a very specialized skill set, and now that technology has not been used for about a year and a half).

A senior developer should have no trouble keeping up with a junior, provided they are given reasonable amounts of time to learn new technology. It lowers morale for everyone on the team when this is tolerated. I'm not saying fire them, but certainly give them an appropriate title. Juniors are cheated when they do not have the opportunity to be mentored by programmers with more wisdom and experience.

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A company is a team, a job is a teamwork. You should always help people in your team.

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Jonas, the problem is that sometimes helping someone ends up having negative value to the company. If someone is producing negative value, then they should be moved to a different position that fits their skills, or no longer employed with the company. Too much effort spent helping them can mask the fact that they are a negative producer. –  Cercerilla Apr 14 '11 at 14:09
@CodeninjaTim: Yes, moving people with different skills to other positions may also be a way to help them and the team. Of course, you shouldn't work in place of the seniors, but you should help them if they need it. –  Jonas Apr 14 '11 at 14:19
This is one of the point's I was trying to raise, what is acceptable. –  Nickz Apr 15 '11 at 1:57

It would be good to know the other person's story as well, because from the senior's point of view the scenario may look completely different.

How do you know (s)he hasn't got heaps of other stuff to do besides what (s)he "loaded to the juniors"?

In general, in a well functioning team the foremost is the team's success. The team can only be successful together, if all members pull in the same direction. If one member has temporary difficulties, it is just natural that others should help him/her out - regardless of who is junior or senior. However, if a member is seen by others (that is, the majority of the team, not just a single member!) as not pulling his/her weight, the others should talk with him/her - first gently, but eventually, if nothing else helps, they may even decide to remove him/her from the team. Even a single person can seriously break down team morale and thus destroy team bonding.

Note that the above is true for well functioning teams only. In a well functioning team, communication is open and honest, and the situations and problems are clear and erasy to define. OTOH in a team which is not functioning, anything goes. Possibly lots of "politics", rivalisation between team members etc. which completely blurs the picture of who is "right" and who is "wrong" in any given case.

Since we don't know any details about your team, we can't know how your team is functioning, thus I can give you only such general advice.

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Some people are highly talented at getting others to do their work for them. Some people, especially with senior in their title, are highly talented at deciding what should be done and in what order, and in that capacity will ask you to write some code. You often can't tell the difference unless you witnessed the work being assigned to the senior.

If you have some sort of daily standup thing where "we all" agree that Bill will write the new monthly trajectory report for the Whatever system, and you spend all afternoon in Bill's office helping with the query, the layout, and figuring out why it looks weird when you export to PDF, perhaps you're carrying Bill. If there are no all-hands meetings or public list of work items or kanban board or whatever, and Bill asks you to write the new monthly trajectory report, you might be carrying him or he might be managing the project and giving you the work he knows you can do.

Please, as an employer, I beg you: if you think you are carrying someone have a short conversation with your mutual boss. Something like this. "I don't want to be a tattle tale or a complainer. I just would not like to see you spending payroll on someone who only makes others do the work you assign him. This week Bill has put an extra 10 hours of work on me that I think was assigned to him. And I'm sorry for gossiping but when I mentioned it to someone else it turns out I'm not the only one. Perhaps you could look into it? If Bill is supposed to be assigning work to us I don't mind, but I'd like it in the standups (or as assigned work items, or whatever makes it public) so we can all agree on priorities."

Why do I beg you? Because of the times (yes, plural) when my firm was running flatout with everyone super busy, and then I fired someone, and then suddenly everyone met their deadlines. It's really time consuming to carry someone and it lowers your productivity compared to just doing it. So I was basically taking money from my children's mouths and handing it to someone who not only gave me nothing back, but slowed everyone else down. And everyone else had helped that happen. After the first time we had an all-hands about it. A little temporary carrying while someone goes throug a rough patch is kind and right. But after a month, you're just helping that person steal a paycheque from me. And I bet you don't even like doing it. So don't. (But word the conversation carefully in case you aren't actually carrying them after all.)

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There is a secret, being a Senior is not just about having done this for many years its about being a pro. (OK this may be a form of the No True Scotsman pattern).

That being said I've been getting a lot of feedback from a guy who is 8 years younger then me here, and it has been great! We make each other look good.

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As Péter Török says - it's hard to comment on specific cases because we only have one side of the story. However, the basic problem you are describing is something that definitely does happen.

What I've seen happen is that a senior person can become a higher level manager's pet - simply due to being around in the company for a long time and getting close to people. This can sometimes lead to a mentality where they act like a delegator (even when they don't actually have team lead or managerial responsibilities) and get lazy with doing actual work.

How to deal with this? I don't know. It's one of those grey area workplace politics things which really depends on the situation. And again, like all interpersonal clashes - it's extremely hard to get an accurate story when hearing only one side, so I really can't say much about any specific case - except that it can happen, and that being senior does not automatically equal "right" - abuse of power is a pretty normal human trait.

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I agree I just wanted to open a discuss and ask what others would do in this situation. I appreciate everyones comments. –  Nickz Apr 15 '11 at 0:48

Senior developers often have tacit or even explicit management approval to do that sort of delegation. The way I would handle it would be telling my manager, "[Senior] asked me to take a look at this, and I was wondering how that should fit in with my other priorities." If it wasn't okay for him to do that, you'll find out. If it was okay, you got your answer without sounding accusatory, you know it doesn't fall under "doing the other guy's work," and your manager is aware of how you're spending your time. If it takes any significant amount of time, you should also include it in your status report or whatever your company uses.

Keep in mind that senior developers often deal with a lot of "reverse delegation." When a coworker gets stuck on a high priority problem, senior developers are the ones who get pulled off their assigned tasks to help, and it's not like people go to his manager and ask him to assign the senior developer to help debug their issue for an afternoon. I estimate I probably have half the amount of uninterrupted programming time per week compared to 10 years ago.

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If I am reading into your question, I think the real problem is this guy has not kept up for years for whatever reason, and is dragging your team down with his lack of productivity. If that is the case and you are not management or are able to make decisions about working with him or not, then you are obligated to help him as much as possible, especially if he is on your team or project asking for help.

Just remember to COMMUNICATE with him, with management, and with other people on the team. Spend the time to write lengthy explanations for trivial questions if needed, but copy your supervisor on the emails as well. Don't bad mouth him, just give a fair, professional assessment of what is going on. If questions come up about lack of productivity then you have something to point to. If the situation does not improve or change and if you have decent management they will deal with it.

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