The Art To And Power Of Saying No

Dear new developer,

There’s an art to saying no. And there’s power in doing so.

I worked on a project that was creating a Yahoo clone early in my career. The lead developer got sick. I said “yes, I can help.” I jumped in and helped out, a lot. I ended up working 96 hours in a single week. The site launched. I was thanked by my company with … a t-shirt and six-pack of beer.

I have learned since then how to say no.

The art is in saying no without being a jerk, and to making sure that everyone realizes that they are all on the same team. My best advice for that is to flip things around and say “yes, but.” “Yes, I’m happy to shift to working on task B, but should I finish task A first.” “Yes, I can help you with the release, but Jane is waiting on this feature.” This makes it clear that you are happy to help, but have other obligations as well.

After you describe the two options, ask for prioritization. Especially as a new developer, you simply don’t have the bigger picture. Maybe task B is blocking three other developers from making forward progress. Maybe that release is really important because of a bug fix that needs to go out before the launch of a new product. I have never once been dinged when I asked for prioritization. It shows that you care about working on important things, are aware that there is a bigger picture, and are flexible.

However, be aware that as soon as you juxtapose two tasks that both need to get done, you will be asked to estimate those tasks. Practice that, as it is a skill you’ll need as a software developer.

The power of saying no is in protecting your time. You only have one life to live (#yolo). When you have a salaried job, there’s very little downside to your company in trying to take more hours. Even if they are really nice people, you are the person responsible for establishing and protecting your boundaries.If you say yes all the time, you may end up working a lot of hours.

The other issue is that it feels good to work, especially as a new developer. “Look, I’m getting stuff done.” “I’m building cool stuff.” But the point of life is to live, not just to work. As I look back over my career, I’m proud of what I’ve built, but a lot of what I’ve built is gone. Don’t let a company suck you in and not learn to live a life.

Learn to say no.

Sincerely,

Dan

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