How to be dispensable, and why you should document and automate yourself out of a job

My out-of-office message links to wikis where people can get self-service information, and backup contacts in case people have other questions. I’ve helped the three teams I’m working with learn more about using the Idea Lab tools I built. I can take my two-week vacation without worrying that projects will be delayed. Heck, I can get hit by a bus and things will still be okay at work. (Although I’ll try not to be hit by a bus.)

Making myself dispensable is paying off.

It’s good to make yourself dispensable. It’s even better when you don’t have to do the mad scramble for documents and tools the week before you leave. I’ve been documenting and automating my work from the beginning.

In a recent presentation to a defense client, I talked about how to develop the habit of sharing. During the discussion, one of the participants asked how that related to job security.

I mentioned a good book on how to be indispensable: Linchpin, by Seth Godin.

But it’s much better to be dispensable and invaluable. Indispensable people are a big risk. Whether they’re indispensable for good reasons (always knows the right thing to do) or bad reasons (hoards knowledge so that no one else can solve that problem), they can derail your project or your organization. People become dependent on them. And then when something happens—vacation, lottery, promotion, sickness, death—the team stumbles. Something always happens.

On the other hand, invaluable people help their teams grow along with them. They make themselves obsolete by coaching successors, delegating tasks to help people learn. They eliminate waste and automate processes to save time. They share what they know. They teach themselves out of a job. The interesting thing that happens to invaluable people is that in the process of spreading their capabilities to the team, they create new opportunities. They get rid of part of their job so that they can take on new challenges. Indispensable people can’t be promoted without disruption. Invaluable people can be promoted, and everyone grows underneath them.

You might be harder to fire if you’re the only one who knows the secret recipe, but wouldn’t you rather be the person people want to work with because you can solve new challenges? The first might save you during a round of layoffs, but the second will help you grow no matter where you are.

So, how can you be dispensable and invaluable?

Document with your successor in mind. Write instructions. Organize resources. Make it easy to turn your projects over so that you can take an even better opportunity if it comes along. Document, document, document. Push the knowledge out so that you’re not the only expert. This will help you and your team work more effectively, and it will reduce the work too.

Automate, automate, automate. If you can automate the repetitive or error-prone parts of your work, you’ll rock, and you’ll help your team rock too. If you don’t know how to program, you might consider learning how to – whether it’s Microsoft Excel wizardry or Perl geekery. Save time. Cut out the boring parts. Make your work easier.

If you do this well, you will work yourself out of at least the bottom 10% of your job each year… and you’ll open up at least 20% in productivity and new opportunities–not to mention the multiplying effect that you’ll have on your team and your organization.

Be dispensable. Be invaluable. Make stuff happen.

Cate Huston has a great post about this, too. Check hers out!

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  • http://www.trajano.net/ Archimedes Trajano

    Good to see someone else with the same opinion as me on this. It feels like watching Sheldon in Big Bang Theory. :D

    Automation is good for the most part, but I find that keeping the automation to myself but having the step by steps documented with standardized tools is better. The problem with automation is the difficulty in setting up the same environment on your successors (though you can document how to set things up). There is also a good chance that maintenance of the automation would fall back on you rather than your successors who would usually be using it, rather than touching the implementation.

    To get around this, you should have a richer standard toolset. When I try to set up development environments that are Eclipse based, I try to put in as much as possible into the version control, including the IDE and the plugins I would use.

    I would also configure project level Java settings such as organize imports, code cleanup on save. This saves me a great deal of problems when looking at other people’s code because on save the code is formatted with the same consistency as everything else.

    I also have plugins for checkstyle, findbugs (just REdiscovered this, for future stuff ), EclEmma for code coverage.

    In the end all the developers setup guide would be how to install version control, install the “non-free” stuff, and run a batch file to start up the command line with the environment already set.

    If you have your development team in that set up, you can easily deploy automation because the tools are generally inside your version control system already so no additional setup hopefully.

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Ah! Have you considered creating a virtual image with everything set up? That might be the next step. We’ve used this approach with success. =)

  • http://www.trajano.net/ Archimedes Trajano

    I have, then we have this thing called Windows Licensing Issues. However, it is a good idea if your developers can use all FOSS for their development. Remember, not every customer is willing to pay for that extra software.

  • http://sprdnn.blogspot.com/ Jean-Baptiste Carré

    Hi Sacha,

    Thanks for this interesting note! It influenced my thoughts and I’m changing my work as a consequence. My answer to your post: http://sprdnn.blogspot.com/2010/09/being-dispensable.html

    Best!

  • jimmzy

    This is truly dumb. In a world where corporations marginalize employees, hastening marginalization just doesn’t make sense. I agree that knowledge-sharing and documentation is good, but taken to far it can be your own undoing and loss of job.

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      It’s been working out well for me so far. The skills and network I’ve built by sharing as much as possible have led to all sorts of opportunities! =)

      • Chris

        and it will, only for so long. Keep up the good work, Sacha!

        • http://sachachua.com sachac

          Could be. =) I’m encouraged by the fact that other people much further down the road seem to be doing just fine with similar philosophies, and that some research (as mentioned in Give and Take – http://www.giveandtake.com/Home/Book) shows that givers can do pretty well. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, and I think this one’s worth experimenting with. Thanks for the encouragement and the different perspective!

  • Chris

    This, and I absolutely despise using this phrase…but, seems a little green to me. That is not a bad thing. In fact, that is probably one of the best things you can be. The truth is, if you look at the top of the company you are working for, most senior management is wise to automation and have a preconceived notion as to why employees implement it. When push comes to shove, the employee never wins. Life is a catch .22, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Personally I would keep documentation to myself, and still be sure I looked beat up each and every day I pass the powers that be. If I am brought into a conference room I probably wouldn’t say anything and just accept que sera.

    • http://sachachua.com sachac

      Quite possibly. It’s amusing to note that I wrote this as an employee four years ago, had tons of fun in the corporate world, and then saved up enough to start my own experiment with an unconventional career. Now I’m documenting and delegating even more, and that seems to be working out just fine too. I do some consulting as well, and I apply the same strategy there (don’t hold anything back; document and automate; create far more value than I capture). Works out well for me and the client, so I’m continuing with the strategy. =)

      Still, other people have different needs and inclinations, so go with whatever works for you!