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As a programmer or system administrator, you could either strive to have your fingers in every system or to isolate yourself as much as possible to become an easily-substituted cog. Advantages of the latter include being able to take vacations and not being on call, while the former means that you'd always have something to do and be very difficult to fire.

Aiming for either extreme would require a conscious effort. Except for the obvious ethical considerations, what should one strive for?

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If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted. The only reason I can see for wanting to become "unfirable" is if you have a reason to worry about being fired - which is either because of poor management (meaning you don't want to work there anyway), or just that your work isn't up to scratch. –  Anon. Feb 16 '11 at 23:56
No one is indispensable. It's just a matter of how much it would cost to replace them. –  ChrisF Feb 18 '11 at 15:07
The graveyards are full of indispensable men. –  PeterAllenWebb Jun 29 '11 at 18:31
@Peter: By "indispensable", I mean "practically indispensable". There's certainly the question of a spectrum here, from "very cheap to replace" to "very expensive to replace". –  user15608 Jun 29 '11 at 20:30
If a programmer is indispensable, get rid of him as soon as possible - Weinberg 1971 –  Tom Squires Oct 18 '11 at 12:11

14 Answers 14

up vote 22 down vote accepted

I aim for systems to be autonomous. Otherwise, just when I'm really in the middle of something some system I need my fingers in will demand my attention. That's unnecessary stress and takes away time from building new things, which I enjoy far more than keeping my fingers in everything.

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I personally believe that it is better to polish one skills to be easily re-employable than to dig deep into the workings of one particular organization in order to become unfirable.

Jobs come and go, so to it that you represent value to many employers out there.

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Digging deep doesn't make it difficult to change employer, it just makes it hurt more for your current one when you do. Making an effort to be unfirable would, but so would making an effort to be easily replacable. –  user15608 Feb 16 '11 at 23:41
+1. Being indispensable doesn't help if the company tanks - but being re-employable, will help. –  Cyclops Feb 18 '11 at 16:48

Definitely don't try to be indispensable. Furthermore if you're a manager and notice that a programmer is trying to become indispensable, fire that person immediately.

I ran across the advice about firing would-be indispensable programmers in The Psychology of Computer Programming. The silver edition printed the original book, and then chapter by chapter comments on the original. About that part Gerald Weinberg commented, that he had received more thanks for this piece of advice than any other advice he had ever given.

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+1 for the advice to managers –  Stephen C Feb 18 '11 at 15:10
Managers: jeez! Talk to them first, and figure out if you can convince them to forgo the path to supposed indispensability. Maybe the employee's just nervous. –  Alex Feinman Feb 18 '11 at 17:29
@alex-feinman: I am just repeating what was said. Certainly a warning is appropriate. But based on my experience, it is hard to dissuade people who like trying to create private fiefdoms from trying to create private fiefdoms. And it is cheaper to solve that problem before they have had long enough to build large private fiefdoms. So it seems wise to escalate fairly quickly. –  btilly Feb 18 '11 at 21:03
Maybe revise the advice: if a programmer is trying to become indispensable, promote them to management immediately. :-) –  Guy Sirton Oct 18 '11 at 5:05

You should NOT be Indispensable. What if all your coworkers decided to become Indispensable too! Then what! You have an disastrous non-function team. And you will hate your job and all your co-workers.

You the Indispensable Guy is the Guy every hates, the Information hoarder!.

You the Indispensable Guy is lousy coder, sure you think you are the best so you can do everything yourself, But if you are so great why are you so worried about being replaced?!

Your Approach should be that you provide your employer with the best value for your salary, that means not only having top notch skills, but helping every one on the team become more productive as well. If your employer decides to fire you.. there will be another one who sees the value you bring and want you.

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Please don't bring the ethics and Kantian arguments up :) Remember that if you, on the other hand, were too easy to replace, the company would do so as soon as they found someone better and cheaper. I think it's safe to say that very few want to maximize everyone's happiness at any cost for themselves, especially when it comes to the happiness of a huge corporation. –  user15608 Feb 16 '11 at 23:52
@Tim, that's not necessarily true. Good companies think long term, and value good employees as their greatest asset. And they are also aware of the hidden cost of replacing an employee. Of course, a bad employee is not safe anyway. –  Péter Török Feb 17 '11 at 10:48
@Tim: We'd all be happier if everybody paid some thought to maximizing other people's happiness; it's also worth remembering that corporations aren't human, and don't have feelings, and therefore can't be happy or sad. That said, if you're good at your job, the company isn't likely to find somebody better and cheaper. –  David Thornley Feb 18 '11 at 14:55

Read Seth Godin's Linchpin.

Become indenspensable not because you hoard knowledge about the system, but because you're brilliant in making it better for everyone (customers and developers, of both the existing and potential category.)

(I've read it myself, incidentally just the month after I decided to stop muttering for myself and just start to the best job I can. :-)

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I think you do yourself and your organization a disservice by being indispensable. You also do yourself a disservice by aiming to be an easily replaced cog in wheel.

Strive to be the best at what you are doing. Try to understanding how it fits in the larger picture. Be generous in sharing your skills and knowledge. You will be missed when absent, but won't be a significant issue for you or your organization.

If possible, try to cross-train at least one other person to do your critical task. This may be difficult if there is noone in the organization interested in doing so. It is in the organization's best interest to assist you. At least document these task well enough that someone else can do them if necessary.

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For some people I don't think there is a choice here. There are people that just don't have the skills or patience to work all over the stack and/or on many different problems at one time. There are also people out there that really don't internalize a problem well until they have wrestled it themselves or don't have the patience to code around an issue they know they could solve in another tier or application.

Personally, I think that the developers that have an extremely isolated view of their piece of the puzzle do everyone a disservice by not paying enough attention to what is/can be done in the related pieces to fully realize the most efficient solution. Some people go the other way to an extreme, but the fact that they become un-fire-able is a deficiency in the organization either in keeping enough notes and backups or in not hiring enough people to keep the highly skilled people with some peers that could step in when the proverbial bus comes along.

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I suppose there is some point where there is some point at which you can do your job best by, as you say, having a good enough picture of the whole puzzle. I'm also wondering to which side of this point one should lean. –  user15608 Feb 16 '11 at 23:43
Personally, from what I have observed it is more a personality aspect than a conscious choice. Most people are on one side of that line or another in their heads because of the way they think and trying to work efficiently and be happy about it very far on the other side of the line just does not work very well. –  Bill Feb 16 '11 at 23:52

I don't think you should strive to be either "indispensable" or an "easily replaceable cog". Both of these directions are byproducts of different kinds of behavior, but neither should be the goal. What you should actually be trying to do is learn as much about your business domain and the technical stacks in which you work, and apply that knowledge to do the best job you can, while constantly improving both yourself and the product you're working on. If you're the only person in your organization doing this, then you might reach a point where you are "indispensable" to the organization for a time. This is ok, but only for a time. At that point your goal should shift into transferring your knowledge to others (if you haven't been doing that already), documenting what you know into places that others can easily reference, or training the next generation on "how to learn" and to do what you have done. Once you do these things, you will no longer be "indispensable".

On the other hand, if everyone in your organization already behaves this way, constantly learning, constantly striving to do better, you may find yourself a "replaceable cog". That's fine too, everyone is replaceable at this organization, information is well-known and well-documented, and you probably have an excellent management team. In this organization, the trick is to find a way to stand out by taking on a project no one wants, turning around a terrible or cumbersome business process, or taking a risk on something your peers are dubious of, but if successful could bring in new revenue, etc.

If your goal is simply to be able to take vacations and not be called after-hours, it sounds like you are already a "replaceable cog".

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Definitely aim to leave a clean table every day that a new colleague could pick up reasonably quickly. It's the right thing to do both for you - as you are free to pursue new ways without burdening responsibilities - and the employer, in case something tragic happens to you.

However, investing in this is as much the employer's responsibility, as it is the employee's. Properly documenting stuff and developing emergency plans if you're not available is a lot of work, and the employer needs to recognize the enormous value in this and allow for the time to do it.

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Either case you're never totally safe from being fired. Generally indispensable employees are better-paid, so consider the possibility that your company in a budget cut-off could fire this indispensable personnel and hire more affordable easily-substituted cogs.

By other side if you're indispensable and you quit there are more chances that you get excellent recommendations from your former bosses for being an outstanding employee.

So I'd rather being an indispensable one. Worst case scenario is getting fired for being more expensive. Getting interrupted during vacations is quite a bearable downside.

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It feels counter-intuitive that important employees would be the first to go because they cost more. –  user15608 Feb 18 '11 at 8:26
@Tim, but I have seen it happen repeatedly. I had a friend who got laid off after 15 years at a company, turned out they laid off everyone with over ten years there as too expensive. The bean counters who make these decisions don't know (and don't care to know) how valuable an employee you are they only know how expensive you are. –  HLGEM Feb 18 '11 at 14:57
@HLGEM Ouch! Sounds like incompetent managers to me. (Or perhaps the managers were just trying to become indispensable.) –  user15608 Feb 18 '11 at 15:41

If you are indispensable, how do you aim to be promoted?
What if a great opportunity arose within the company? People might even strive to hide it from you to keep you from leaving your position!

So yeah, even from a purely egotistical position, it's still negative to be indispensable.
I strive to be somewhere in between: A hard worker they could replace if they wanted, but one they want to keep around because I am useful, punctual, honest and innovative.

Also, why strain yourself to reach the unobtainable? We're all replaceable in the end, and I firmly believe this to be a good thing.

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The goal should be to write code that can be managed and enhanced by someone else without too much difficulty or your direct involvment. Not only does this free you up to take a vacation, but allows you to create something new. Other than helping create a great company that will attract other great programmers, I don't know what one can do to be replaced to write the next great app. Many musical groups replace singers and musicians, but few ever replace song writers.

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Well, Elton John did once try to go it alone without Bernie Taupin. That didn't last long :-/ –  Mawg Apr 14 at 8:43

I've alawys striven to learn as much as I can about the work environment and application and business domain, not to become indepensible but to be able to do my job more easily and better. I also always strive to pass that hard-gained knowldge on to others. No one in an organization is indispensible, so don't strive for that. Strive to be the best you can be at what you do which may mean going the extra mile. But it doesn't mean you have to give up weekends and holidays and vacations. If you have done your job well, you have prepared someone else to take over when you are sick or out of the office for any other reason. Your work is checked in to source control and others know where it is, others have code reviewed your work and are familiar with it, others know how to troublshoot if there is a problem. Professionals don't hoard information in order to be indispenable; they do work to be considered expert in their field.

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You should strive to become indispensable by making yourself dispensable.

If your work is so good that anyone can work on it and improve it, then your dispensable. However, you create so much value for your employer that he would be stupid to let you go. If, on the other hand, you aim to make yourself indispensable by developing nightmarish solutions, you will be replaceable by a more skillful programmer and you will hate your job.

In the unlikely case that your employer doesn't want you anymore because you put yourself out of work, you will most likely be able to find a better job in no time.

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