My Career Advice: Make Yourself Redundant

Early on in my professional life, I was given some fairly terrible career advice: make yourself indispensable.

For decades, this has been the Standard Operating Procedure for people in a variety of roles and industries, from the developer aiming to be the only one capable of maintaining his own code, to the Project Manager who insists that certain processes couldn't run without his oversight. Half a century ago, this kind of behaviour might have guaranteed one's lifelong employment. Today, it will harm their career. Worse still, the knock-on effect can undermine the company and even the industry.

I didn't take this advice, but it wasn't until a few years later that I realised why: all along, I'd been working with a different set of assumptions, and towards a different goal: to make myself redundant.

Edit: based on comments from the fine folk in the comments thread at Hacker News, I want to add this TL;DR: "Maybe what I'm advocating is that people should think about their role in the way that a consultant might". OK; enjoy the post.

My First Job

My first full-time job was working for Shell, at their research facility in the North of England. My main responsibility was to run a particular type of test to assess Shell's basic gasoline for its ability to clean your engine whilst you're using it. We would try different additives at different concentrations to improve the fuel. The test that I ran gave a relatively quick indication of the formulation's performance; the best candidates would be tested in a much more rigorous, expensive, time-consuming test.

The test setup I inherited could test four samples at a time, and took about 4.5 hours to run. I wasn't asked to improve the process, but my precocious 18-year-old self noticed a few things, including the fact that there was always a backlog of work and that making test more efficient wouldn't put me straight out of a job.

I pitched my ideas carefully: to the team that requested test runs, I offered the opportunity for faster turnaround. To the team that owned the test, I pitched that I could increase throughput and revenue. (Internal billing was a Big Deal at my campus, and presumably the rest of Shell as well.) Everyone was on board; my boss (let's call him 'Chris') offered to provide any necessary resources I needed. I didn't know what this meant.

I loved how simple the first proposed change was. I currently ran one test a day (it took ~4.5 hours, remember) so I asked if I could work more flexible hours. Working just a 9-hour instead of an 8-hour day, I was able to run two tests per day, and take every other Friday off. I had just improved my throughput from 10 tests every two weeks to 18 tests.

Pernis refinery, Netherlands
Fun Fact: Shell's refineries and industrial sites are an awesome place to work; but that's for another post.

Having experienced the buzz of excitement from my first process improvement I looked for more inefficiencies. There were a few changes that made my life easier - a quicker setup, improved results analysis, etc - which freed my time up to focus on other things, but I wanted another opportunity to make as big an impact as the flexi-time suggestion. I suggested to Chris (who, to his credit, was just letting me run with all of this) that we rebuild the test apparatus, so that it was twice the size, and could test twice as many samples per run. He told me to get a quote from engineering, which I did, and they told us it would cost something like £4000. I forget the exact number, but it was a huge amount to me. (I was earning about £10,000 at the time. I realise now that for a company with R&D budgets like Shell, this was not an amount to trouble over.) I assumed this would never happen, but - to my surprise - Chris said he had no objection, and that I should get it built. He put me in touch with a statistician who was able to help me check that both devices gave reliably similar results.

The personal benefits to me of the changes I instigated were worthwhile. It freed up time for me to work on 'more interesting' projects. I got to spend time & budget on personal development through training (Shell was excellent at providing resources to learn about things beyond our core activities). I was awarded a prize (with cash!) by the EDT, and was invited back to work for the company in the future.

What did not happen? I didn't lose my job. I wasn't asked to take on some menial role. I wasn't told to stop being so productive because I was making other people look bad.

In a large part, this is because the organization was supportive and championed this type of activity. I made my colleagues look good. Chris was an enlightened boss. I'd worked, in a small way, to make myself redundant, and had benefited from it. And now I was keen to do it again.

Radio

Next, I wanted to work in broadcasting. After university, I went to work for a small radio station. As a Production Assistant, I did some audio editing, a little research, and other 'get onto the bottom rung' tasks. In my first week, I designed a batch file to bulk- convert audio files, which saved me enough time to start recording a few voice overs and station idents.

One impressive opportunity came when our Managing Director (let's call him 'Simon') walked me through the process we used for calculating and paying royalties to content owners; the process was done once per quarter and required a week or two's worth of work from the PA plus a couple of days of time from an external consultant.

"A VBA macro could do this", I said. It took me about as long to write the program as it would to have just calculated the royalties - it saved no time. However, next quarter it saved weeks of time. And the quarter after. Even the external consultant didn't mind that she wasn't needed for this process; we used the same budget to hire her to do more interesting work instead. And the time it freed up for me? I began producing my own shows. It wasn't a huge station, but there I was, still 22 and producing national radio programs with tens of thousands of listeners - all because I saw an opportunity to write a VBA script.

Perhaps obviously, the code was horrible (after all, it was VBA!), but it did the job, and I was free to pursue more ways in which to make myself redundant. I wrote a few lines of bash that removed the necessity for anyone to cover the morning shift (since the only task required was to log on to an FTP server and download a file), I bought a £20 piece of software that did lots of tiresome bulk processing for me, and I persuaded my boss to let me get a new PC (again, a huge expense in my mind) that converted audio about 5-10 times as fast as the p.o.s. I had been using so far.

Studio 1 at Unique Facilities
Working in broadcasting is also awesome.
(Image is from UBC Media - talk to them if you need studio space, audio production, etc.)

I freed up enough time to end up presenting my own shows, sitting on pitch planning sessions for BBC programming and contributing to the group's 'future technologies' team.

Did I have a great boss? Yes, absolutely - and his boss (the CEO) was very supportive as well. There were a couple of people like me, and I was pleased to see how they were moved up as they deserved it.

Interestingly, throughout the company as a whole, there were plenty of people working to make themselves 'indispensable'. At best, their careers had stalled. At worst, they were the cause of some of the company's most fundamental problems. Had they instead worked to make themselves redundant, I have no doubt they would have been twice as happy.

Do it.

How you 'make yourself redundant' depends very much on your industry, your role, your responsibilities, etc.

However, I'd offer a few general pieces of advice:

  • tell your boss what you're up to ("I'd like to eliminate this aspect of my role by doing xyz")
  • figure out who might not be happy about what you're up to, and use it as an opportunity to get them on your side
  • tell your boss what you want to do with the time you free up, and make sure you all talk honestly about what the options are
  • most tools (software, computers, gasoline testing apparatus) aren't that expensive in the scheme of things (even if it costs a multiple of your monthly salary) - and accountants know good ways to amortize that stuff over a period of 2-5 years, so it doesn't really cost that much.

With this mindset throughout my professional life so far, I've probably ended up being underpaid for the work I was actually doing, but that work has always been more interesting and more complex than what my 'business card' implied, and I've loved every minute of it.

Epilogue

The anecdotes above are ancient history. For 3 years now I've been working for Distilled. Though I came in (like almost everyone else there) on the bottom rung, I now run an office and a team of 13. I'm in a similar role to Chris and Simon: the middle-managers who I looked up to, and who helped me realise my endeavours. (Except that I'm younger, less experienced, and have more hair than the two of them put together.)

I'm not convinced that this strategy is equally applicable as you work your way up the 'corporate ladder'. But I do believe it is now my turn to help my most junior employees make themselves redundant and get promoted in the process. Give it a couple of years, and I'll write about how the process goes from this side of the table.

Submitted by Jon (not verified) on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 12:19.

Nice one Rob, being redundant and getting s&%t done has always been big for me. Just like you, I probably do way more things for my client in the background than what my title saids. thanks for sharing!
Cheers!

Submitted by Stacy (not verified) on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 12:19.

Really good thoughts, Rob. If improving the business operations and saving the company time and money makes one redundant, then let’s all become as redundant as possible. As you pointed out so well, it frees up our time and talents to work on other things and move the organization forward.

Submitted by Winston (not verified) on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 17:08.

Hi,

I'm a Production Assistant at a TV Station. So I really enjoy the story about the radio station.
My job here, is to get TV spot off of, FTP servers, and cut them to length and then upload them, onto a playback server, I also manage a database of all the spot we have and which one's are on the server, and airing.

I have been doing web development as a hobbie and as part of work for 5 years now.
I put together the streaming video system for Kiem-tv.com.
And a automated video up-loader for the news department.

Really enjoy what you had to say about be Redundant in a job, that how I like to work at job, sound like it can be really good thing.

Have a good holiday, all.

Submitted by DJ (not verified) on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 17:23.

Man I agree 100% and have always worked to empower those who own the various processes I have worked on - among other things this means building tools that those who run the processes can use to view and tune what it is they do - I believe that I have failed in my work if I become indispensable.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 21:53.

Different strokes / different folks.

I did not plan on becoming redundant just this quickly however my body had first dibs on the progress in that direction. Along the way toward my goal I was learning other skills and stock taking, time managing, as well as skills analysis. Now here I am prematurely doing something I love while the healing takes place.

I make this comment to advise you while making yourself redundant look after the home front first.... after all without that front organised there is grave danger that you will be left in a muddle.

Luck be with you all.

Submitted by van Geir (not verified) on Tue, 12/20/2011 - 22:41.

Yep! Doing a job and keeping a job are two totally different skills, and people good at one are usually bad at the other.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 05:13.

Yep! Doing a job and keeping a job are two totally different skills, and people good at one are usually bad at the other.

What ? Those are two different skills, yes, but your assertion shocks me. Often the best way to keep your job is to be good at that job. I can't imagine a situation where you were doing a good job, you were fired, but could have stayed if you worried more about job security and neglected your work.

Submitted by Gianni (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 01:21.

Hi Rob, I enjoyed your post very much, in fact I recently posted a similar one on my blog "How to make yourself redundant" http://bit.ly/rWuj8o. I think the key is to be honest with oneself and understand that whenever we are not adding value, it means it's time to move on. It takes a lot of self confidence, and guts, and people can misunderstand and be brutal. But it's worth it. Keep up the good work! Gianni

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 02:24.

Wow you really love the rat race

Submitted by Richard Westenra (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 04:02.

Interesting point, well made.

Submitted by BrainiacV (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 07:58.

I remember reading some management advice book and one section said that if you discovered an "indispensable" employee, you should immediately fire them. Your organization could not afford to be potentially held hostage by such a person.

But I can identify with your stories of creating efficient processes. I worked at one place where they shipped systems made of multiple components, each with serial numbers that had to be recorded on to a shipping manifest sheet. Each sheet was photocopied so one could go in the box and the other kept for records. This used to be an "all hands" process that had us struggling to get the shipments ready before the UPS man would show up. If he arrived before we were done, the tactic was to entice him into the break room for a cup of coffee while we redoubled our efforts to get the packing done. After observing this madhouse, I asked why we didn't prepack the boxes, noting the serial numbers on the outside. Management pooh-poohed the notion because they'd have to reopen the boxes to insert the manifest sheet. I suggested getting those adhesive blister packs to put the manifest into and slap on the outside of the box. Management was still skeptical. It wasn't until I made a visit to an office supply store and picked up some blister packs and demonstrated the method that they finally decided to give it a try. Afterwards the job became a sedate one person job.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 08:13.

I have to say this is a philosophy i have always lived by. As a result i have been made redundant 5-6 times in the last 3-4 years.

BALANCE is the key. The problem is that once i build the system employers find that they often want a different skillset to maintain it - or want to progress the skillsets of existing employees and as i am often the last in i am also the first out.

Dangerous advice even if i totally agree wit the philosophy behind it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 09:46.

Shell at Carrington?

I work at Carrington business park and get to see that aweful site everyday :-)

Submitted by AnonymousKen (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 10:30.

This has always been my philosophy as well. I got a special kick out of your VBA project, as that is how I became a software developer...starting with what I called "self-defense" projects in VBA. I was on salary, and the tasks I was automating were daily chores, or at least several times a week, so I never told my boss...I just kept getting more and more work done and not staying late so often. There was so much work to be done, I didn't have to ask, or even look very hard to find things to do with my "spare" time whenever I automated some new task.
A person who can make his or herself redundant IS an indispensable resource!

Submitted by Xavier (not verified) on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 11:32.

Excellent post. I've always done things this way. In my mind if I make myself replaceable (for good reasons) then it means that I did my job right and can move to other more important stuff.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/22/2011 - 14:43.

I agree that Automating away the drudgery of your job is the only way to go - I don't understand why people keep on doing tedious stuff that they can optimise or automate out of their lives. But that isn't really making yourself redundant - it's allowing you to focus your time and expertise on more important challenges, and in fact makes you utterly indispensable: Using your automation skills you are making processes more efficient (where less valuable employees would drudge on) and you are then able to achieve far more than your replacement ever could. In addition, automation often puts in place mechanisms that nobody else knows hw to maintain, so if the company wants to continue using them, they need you to keep them running.

So you're not redundant - you're indispensable. But smart about it.

Making yourself redundant would be automating your job until the company has nothing you can do. And then you would lose your job.

Submitted by Jacob Share (not verified) on Sun, 12/25/2011 - 03:16.

As someone who has held management positions at a few e-commerce companies, I can absolutely vouch for this advice, which I used to give to my own team. Company employees who were indispensable were hated whenever they went on vacation or took a sick day, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, employees who improved productivity and made work easier for others were exactly the kind of employees that everyone wanted around.

There is one caveat: only good managers will promote self-redundant employees. As the article points out, bad managers will see them as making everyone else look bad. Which is fine- since that will motivate the good, self-redundant employee to leave and hopefully end up at another company that has a good manager who will appreciate them.

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