How Valuable Are You?

A long time ago, I learned some great criteria for taking or keeping any job.  I mean, like, a long time ago.  Like, before Google.

Here they are, in random order – apply your own prioritization:

  • Will you be successful? That is, will you deliver projects, make money, become famous, get the girl, whatever it is that you want.
  • Will you learn something new?  Might be technical, might not.
  • Will you be valued?  Will the people you’re working with (and for) be capable of understanding your contributions?  Will they appreciate your contributions?

For me, the third bullet has always been the toughest to find or keep.  Maybe that’s why it is my most important criteria.  Or, maybe it was already my most important, and I just noticed how much trouble finding it could be.

So, how do people make themselves valuable?  I’ve seen two basic approaches in the twenty or so years I’ve been doing this.

The Wrong Way – What You Keep to Yourself

Historically, people make themselves valuable (and/or powerful) by becoming the choke point for information, or approval, or funding, or whatever.  When only one person in your organization is allowed to touch the requirements (or the database, or whatever), you may be dealing with someone who measures their value this way.

“I take the requirements documents from the customers and bring them to the developers”

He may have people skills, dammit, but he’s not helping the team – he’s making sure that they can’t get along without him.  Or so he thinks.

As a manager, I can tell you that my biggest HR risks are always the people who bottleneck knowledge, process, money, whatever.  If they get hit by a bus, decide they want a big raise, or take an extended vacation, we’re hosed.  They have knowledge, skills or connections that we can’t easily reproduce.  So as the person who’s responsible when bad things happen, I’m going to actively pursue this person’s secrets, and make sure they’re backed up somewhere, by someone.

If it sounds like a bad situation for the team, it is.  But it’s actually just as bad for the person, in most cases.  Ten years ago, I started a new job as a team leader.  The biggest complaint from the team was that they were each chained to a given project.  They were the only person on the project, they carried all of the knowledge, the relationship, and the responsibility.  They couldn’t move on, they couldn’t learn anything new.  They were just stuck.  For most people, this does not feel like success.

A year later, we had standardized our process, the documents we used, even much of the code templates.  People were able to move from one project to another.  They were even able to talk to each other about different projects using common terms.  There were a few people who didn’t like this change, even though they had complained about lack of mobility.  Those folks still hadn’t adjusted their way of measuring their own value.

The Right Way – What You Give Away

Plenty of good engineers are collaborative by nature – that is, they enjoy sharing their knowledge and getting some of yours in return.  And while it’s certainly a more friendly way to work together, it’s also more productive, more robust and more resilient, especially in the face of team or project changes.  But believe it or not, giving away what you know actually makes you more valuable as well.  Think about how valuable Stack Overflow is today, and you’ll see that it’s true.  Compare SO and its success against ExpertsExchange, which largely hides answers behind a paywall.  EE might make some money, but SO rules the world.

Being an “open knowledge” kind of person is also the best defense against Competence Debt and other creeping forms of team decay.  So as a team member I like the approach, but as a manager I demand it.


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