Advance Your Tech Career: Why make yourself replaceable, and how?

A few years ago, Seth Godin wrote this book called Linchpin. Among other things, the book suggests that you hoard relationships, knowledge, and context at your job so it’s impossible for the company to replace you.

People who read books like this presumably want to continue to grow, learn, and advance in their careers. In order to do those things, you’re much better off enabling other people to do everything you do.

A programmer might refer to this as deprecating yourself. It’s a critical leadership skill that you will need to build a tech team, rise through the ranks, or otherwise level up your tech career.

linchpin

Why make yourself replaceable?

  1. So you get new opportunities at work. If you are indispensable to your boss in your current role, you’re not getting promoted. Promoting you out of your current role puts the business at risk.
  2. So your absence is less felt when you want to go on vacation. If you’re the only one capable of fixing a certain problem, you will be contacted if that problem occurs while you are on vacation. And if you cannot or do not respond, your boss will remember that you put the business at risk. Knowing that your company has a backup plan in your absence gives you peace of mind.
  3. So you can learn from other people at work. When others understand the system as well as you do, then they can learn new things about it on their own and transfer that knowledge to you—which is more enjoyable than learning everything all by yourself.
  4. So you can build relationships with your coworkers. When you help your coworkers understand new things, you can make new friends at work. You can also leave colleagues with a good impression of you that they can send up the chain.

How do you make yourself replaceable?

So now you understand why it’s important for you to enable your coworkers to take your place. What steps can you take to make it happen?

  1. Pair with others on your team. For more information about enabling your pair to do the things that you do, see this post: Advanced Pair Programming: Enabling Your Pair. Or, take a look at this one: Dave Hoover on Developing Developers
  2. Delegate your tasks while you’re available for backup. Your team will default to asking you to do the things you have always done, even if someone else could theoretically do them. This is especially true if you can do the tasks faster or more easily than other people can do them. When these tasks come along, instead of knocking them out, delegate them to other team members—even when you’re available to do them. That way, if there’s a hiccup, you’re available to help—and next time, your teammates can do the tasks independently. Once you start doing this, you’ll find that your job becomes less focused on one task at a time and more focused on coaching and mentoring multiple team members at once.
  3. Document the answer each time someone asks you for help. Whether it’s credentials, a critical command, or something else, the things your team needs you to do represent tribal knowledge that is stored inside of you. You want to make a record of these things so that, the next time a team member needs them, they can refer to the record rather than wait on you.
  4. Take another team member to meetings with you. Like delegating your tasks, this practice is less efficient than going to the meetings yourself. But you want to make sure that others on your team have enough context to attend your regular meetings in your stead. While you’re in the meeting, introduce your teammate to the other attendees. Sit back and let your teammate handle the meeting participation as much as possible. Take your teammate aside after each meeting and answer any clarifying questions for them. Work together with them on completing any follow-up tasks from the meeting.
  5. Introduce your teammates to the people you depend on. Whether you have greater access to management and leadership or special relationships with IT support or data architects, you need to share these relationships with the others on your team. You can take your teammates on field trips around the building to meet the people they should contact in the event that they need something done. Or if one of your confidants comes to your desk, you can pull a teammate into the conversation at that time.

In Summary

By making yourself replaceable at your job, you open up opportunities for yourself to get promotions, take vacations, and work on new, exciting projects. The number one key to enabling other people on your team is to bring a team member along with you on tasks you previously did alone. It’s nice to have your team depend on you for things, but you need to transfer this context in order for your team to be able to operate without you. This extends to your duties as an individual contributor, your relationships with coworkers, and your contributions in meetings.

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