8 mins

I have an overwhelming amount of responsibilities within my company and there’s no way for me to delegate or diversify efforts, let alone grow in my career. Can you help?

I have been a tech lead in a small startup for the past three years. Apart from myself, there’s one other software engineer in the team who works on a very specific part of our back-end systems. That leaves everything else i.e., the frontend, other back-end systems, databases, cloud infrastructure, and DevOps, under my management.

I am very stretched between these roles and areas of expertise, but we have not been able to hire new engineers due to slow growth. I report to the CEO and collaborate with two other members of management staff, so I know I should be leading on high-level technical decisions and direction, but I am so deep in the trenches of implementation that I have no bandwidth for anything else.

I am concerned that it is affecting my morale and career development. What steps could I take to improve my situation?

–– Frankie

Hi Frankie,

It’s tough to have so much to balance without a team (or even the promise of one). On top of the workload itself being heavy, the feeling of being responsible for so much can be stressful; I can definitely see why this is affecting your morale.

From your message, I’m understanding that you’re generally happy with this company, provided you can make a more focused impact, particularly in your areas of interest, at a more sustainable pace.

Here’s an approach that might help: first, get really clear on what you can uniquely do, or actively want to be doing. With that in mind and some business insight, prioritize what needs immediate action and how to tackle it. Finally, let’s explore some alternative ways to get help and manage your time and energy.

Start with the end in mind

This first step focuses on you, how you think of your career at the moment, and what you want of it next. It may feel counter-intuitive to dedicate time to this when there’s so much to do. However, it’s an important step in making this situation sustainable; it will show you what intrinsically motivates you right now and what you can uniquely contribute. This will help you separate what work you should hold on to, and what to seek help with. 

Here are some prompts that could be helpful to reflect on:

  • Since starting at this company, what have you enjoyed doing and what do you find yourself wishing would disappear from your to-do list?
  • What do you feel you are truly uniquely placed to contribute, and what’s not your biggest expertise?
  • What do you want to learn, grow into, and be exposed to? What isn’t a priority right now?

You say you know you “should” be leading on high-level decisions, and I’d ask you to reflect on that. Is this sentiment coming from you, or is it an external expectation? Ask your CEO for their thoughts as well, from the perspective of being both your manager and the head of the company. They may have additional insights on what kinds of decisions they want to see you more involved in.

Once you have clarified your end goal, you’ll start seeing ways to tackle your broader situation. With all the additional, contextual information you’ll be able to evaluate what parts of your current job you can hold on to, and what parts can be passed to someone else – or indeed no one at all. I know you mentioned there’s no space for new hires, so the usual delegating advice may not apply here. 

Prioritize differentiating, not just important work

The goal of this step is to build a clear idea of not only what’s important (I’d bet most of what you’re doing is), but differentiating work; i.e. work that directly connects to your company’s unique value proposition. You’re working with a limited currency here – your time – and the point of this exercise is to maximize its value.

Do a brain dump of all the tasks, projects, and other priorities you’re responsible for. Next to each, write a few words on:

  • Why that task or area is important to the company (for example, ships user value, builds infrastructure, or is a prerequisite for other work)
  • Timelines (if applicable)
  • If you uniquely can (or want to) do it
  • How you would define completion

This exercise should help you objectively prioritize your workload. You’re trying to gauge not only what is generally useful, but what actually drives forward the unique selling point of your company. I’d suggest doing this exercise in collaboration with someone who works closely with customers; someone from the management team might make for a good partner. Get as specific and tangible as you possibly can; you can go as far as assigning a dollar value on each entry in that list, as a proxy for the expected return on time invested.

You can then use this information to make decisions. Work that is not differentiating can be postponed or skipped indefinitely. If a project is a prerequisite for other projects, it might take priority. While urgency alone is not enough of a factor, tasks that are highly differentiating and urgent should be given top priority.

Once you have a list of action items that will make a tangible difference in the company’s success, you’re left with two categories of work: work that still needs doing, but can be completed by getting help from others or work that needs to be done by you, and that you’ll have to manage your time around.

One last point before we move on; this list will change with time. The system of questioning value and using it to choose where to spend time is arguably more important than the list itself.

Getting creative in finding people to help

Let’s now take a look at how you might be able to enlist additional help for tasks that must be done but don’t need your sole involvement. You mentioned you’re not able to hire right now; but restrictions like this, especially in the startup world, can bring up additional ideas. 

As much as possible, start collaborating closer with the other engineer. While I’m not clear on the details, the current split seems unbalanced. Collaboration might look like pairing more consistently or reviewing each other’s work. Ideally, this could facilitate a formal delegation of some of your tasks. But even if not, you'll begin to notice a division of the mental load you carry. If you feel solely accountable for everything this can contribute significantly to the pressure you’re experiencing, a reduction of this could lift some of the burden.

Could others in the company get into engineering? Is there space for a contractor to join, or perhaps you could consider licensing a product that already does some of what you’re thinking of building?

Time management is key 

Last but not least, let’s discuss how you might be able to organize your own time. Your to-do list is hopefully more curated now, but you’re still one person balancing multiple threads.

An approach worth trying out is focused sprints. This aims to achieve two goals at once: staying flexible as business goals evolve and maximizing your individual focus time so that you’re not overwhelmed by multitasking.

Pick a duration where you focus on a single outcome from your list of differentiating priorities for the business. Start with two weeks if in doubt. For that duration, give yourself a solitary focus and goal. Things will get in the way and it’s possible you’ll be pulled into other things, but to the best of your ability, make that item your big priority for that duration.

How to pick that single outcome won’t always be obvious. You’ll have to balance things a bit here. While it's tempting to constantly set up frameworks and enabling tools to expedite future development, taking this to an extreme can hinder how much you deliver. The opposite is also true; it can be easy to fall into “just build this one more thing” until you look back and you have to deal with an unmanageable spaghetti of a codebase. Realistically, you’ll find yourself balancing between the two; patterns and frameworks that can help future development for some periods, and user-facing development during others.

I want you to feel comfortable taking on conscious tech debt – meaning having an awareness of what benefit it “buys” you and what your plan is in paying it back. There will be corners that will be okay to cut at this stage if they allow the company to ship value sooner.

Try and invest in automation throughout, especially in automated testing and releasing. The more you can cut down on repetitive tasks and hunting down bugs, the more time and mental capacity you'll free up. A lot of the cloud infrastructure and DevOps pieces you’re responsible for could be replaced with a product that does the job just as well, saving you time from hands-on operations.

From unmanageable to sustainable

After completing these exercises you should have an audit of what’s important to the company and why, which areas you’re uniquely placed to drive, and some ideas on next steps. Bring this to the CEO, get their feedback on your thoughts, and work together to come up with a way forward that you feel good about. Set it to work and review frequently on two fronts: is it working for you? Is it working for the company? 

Keep striving for sprints of focus where you can; over time, you’ll have not only a baseline of good systems in place but also a tried-and-true framework to help you focus your bandwidth effectively.