We Don’t Need Another (Company) Hero

In most of my posts, I discuss UX in the context of end users. Because we ultimately make our money by having end users hopefully turn into paying customers. It’s a necessary evil. To quote Randall in Clerks, “This job would be great if it wasn’t for all the (expletive) customers.”

But one thing that does not get discussed is what happens in UX teams behind the scenes. I addressed this a bit in this post, but wanted to address a bigger issue that’s not limited to UX teams.

Many companies, departments and work teams, have their designated “heroes”, those people who have very specialized skills that no one else has, seem to know how everything everywhere works, and know where all the proverbial bodies are buried. (If you work in a graveyard, those people might literally know where the bodies are buried).

You may not think too much about it because those people are always there. Always dependable. Always there to save the day. Maybe you ARE one of these people. You love helping people. You love being Mighty Mouse and saving the day. You love having job security.

Having or being the designated company hero is dangerous for two main reasons.

People leave – voluntarily or not. When I worked at Netscape at the height of the dot.com boom in the late 1990s, there were a lot of employees who were there from the beginning — when Netscape was just a glimmer in Marc Andreesen’s eyes. When these employees realized that their stocks were worth enough that they could retire at 30, many did. This became known as “Calling in rich.” Ah, those were the days.

This left the remaining staff (the ones like me who joined too late to cash out) to attempt to pick up the pieces. Some of those who left created documentation; others didn’t. Even if there was documentation, it would take the remaining staff awhile to get up to speed. That lost time was never recovered.

While they might not call in rich, your heroes might find another job, especially if they don’t feel appreciated or appropriately compensated. They might get sick or a family member might get sick. Or they go on well-needed vacations. Employees, even company heroes, are human.

If you are the company hero, you might think that playing your cards so close to your chest spells job security. The harsh reality is any number of factors can play into someone losing their job, besides incompetence, insubordination, or redundancy. Politics and just plain numbers can lead to layoffs. No one is immune to the ax.

So do you give up? Live your life in fear? Of course not because…

People burn out. I’ve worked with many company heroes over the years. I tend to become friendly with them, not to brown-nose them, but to learn from them. But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of them had hundreds of hours of PTO stockpiled. I asked them how that’s even possible. First, one needs to be at a company a long time. Second, one doesn’t go on vacation or call in sick — at least not for any extended period.

This person was in charge of a very specific and important area in which they were the only one trained. They dreaded going on vacation because they felt like the preparation it took before vacation, and the amount of catching up they had to do after vacation was more stressful than staying at work. Besides, even if they went on vacation, they would inevitably get called (or back in the day, paged) by work at some point anyway.

Fortunately, this person had a talk with their supervisor who realized how impractical and dangerous this was to the department and this individual, and ultimately trained others in that area.

In our UX team, we’ve started cross-training our team members on different disciplines and areas of our web site. This way, not only do we increase our skillset, but when any one of us goes on vacation or gets sick, we don’t have to worry about work coming to a standstill, and returning to an insurmountable pile of work. We’ve also started creating and updating our documentation, so our “bodies” aren’t so buried anymore.

Specializing v. “Jack of All Trades”

So this begs the question that often comes up among web designers and developers, especially newbies: Is it best to specialize or generalize? That’s a tough question to answer, as much of that depends on your individual personality. Some people prefer to focus on a single discipline and master it thoroughly. Others like to dabble a little bit in as many disciplines as possible to gain an overall understanding.

In our group, we have our “subject matter experts” who are the ones who specialize in certain disciplines or areas, but other team members have enough working knowledge that they can pick up the ball if needed.

This way, we’re all heroes.