The 4-Step Plan To Make Yourself Invaluable at Work

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As with advice from anyone else, I cannot guarantee that this four-step plan will make your job invincible. Ultimately, the outcome of your career is up to you, your employers, your industry, and the economy. You are only ever able to control yourself, one of many components that collectively comprise life’s massive jigsaw puzzle.

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However, it is essential to recognize that you are a central component of this metaphorical puzzle. Therefore, I urge you not to downplay your role or ability to influence the outcome of your job.

That leaves us with the plan. Here are the four key things that you can do to make yourself highly valuable to your employer.

Every company and every project has knowledge gaps. Smaller companies and projects have smaller holes, and those gaps will grow proportionally with larger projects.

How do you find knowledge gaps?

  • Look for known unknowns. In what areas is your project knowingly treading on thin ice, and can you address those weaknesses? These gaps often stem from a lack of knowledge or a lack of time to handle them properly.
  • Face new demands head-on. Is your team’s expertise focused on the web? Were you asked to pivot your skills to include mobile? Embrace this change.
  • Look for unknown unknowns. The best way you can do this is to read. Read a lot related to your line of work. Medium.com and GitHub are great places to see how your fellow peers in the software industry face and address relevant problems. Sometimes, you’ll find an elegant solution to an issue you’ve experienced or witness a discussion around a new way of doing something. By doing this, you’ve just identified a previous unknown.

How do you know if this gap is meaningful?

  • Does it provide measurable value? Knowing how to optimize your app’s startup time by another 30 ms is likely never to get noticed, no matter how clever your solution is. However, if your colleagues can apply that change throughout your project, you bet it provides value. Even if customers don’t ever praise your improved performance, it may get them to stop complaining.
  • Does it improve how your team works? The adage “work smarter, not harder” is a great message to keep in mind. Does your contribution reduce the effort required to build or test an aspect of your project? If so, you just improved your team’s throughput.
  • How encompassing is it? If you understand how one particular aspect of your program works very well, it’s unlikely that your knowledge will port to other aspects of your project. However, if you understand the login screen very well because you implemented the authentication, that knowledge is something that will span much of the project and prove itself more generally meaningful.

To make your contribution stand out, you will need to be the first to address it. Filling meaningful gaps only matters if you do it first. Once that hole is filled, there is likely no going back to refill it, and that person has already set the trend regarding how the team will handle it in the future.

This idea isn’t a power move. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of reality. There are plenty of issues to address in any given project. So, if someone else comes up with a solution to a problem before you, thank them for their contribution and move onto the next gap.

Most companies call people who fit this description subject matter experts or SMEs. This step is perhaps the least measurable of all but is the most important. If you don’t find a problem and start to tackle it first, maybe you can be the one to learn it best.

What can use you use to consider yourself the “best” on a particular topic?

  • Do you have a greater breadth or depth of knowledge than other members with a similar skill set?
  • Have you been working on it longer than others and thus have the advantage of history?
  • Can you say that your tribal knowledge — the minor aspects of your team’s working patterns or commonly agreed upon conventions that no one has bothered to write down — is more expansive than others?
  • Are you able to incorporate outside knowledge into your day job? For example, if you are a mobile app developer at your current job, and your previous job or side hustle was doing the same thing, you are set to excel in that area where you have the advantage of time.

These are some questions you can ask yourself as you work toward the path of an SME. This isn’t a list of you vs. them, intended to pit you against your colleagues. It provides an opportunity to show you where your strengths lie and how you can assist your team in their knowledge gaps.

Visibility at work can get a bit of a bad rap. Being too vocal can be seen as annoying at best and self-conceited at worst. I’m not talking about needing to sell yourself or show off why you are the best at what you do. I’m cautioning against the inverse.

The stereotypical engineer or programmer who works in a corner and never talks to anyone could be an SME, but no one would know (or want to know) if that person doesn’t make an effort to integrate and be available.

What are some ways to become visible and show your strengths?

  • Offer to help someone who is struggling in an area you know well.
  • Volunteer to take some of the difficult work in line with your expertise. You’ll probably be able to do it better and faster than others.
  • Hold lunch and learn sessions to prove your experience and spread knowledge.
  • Set the trend with a new way of doing something. Did you spot something that is not a best practice in the code? Correct it and share your improvement.

In essence, if you are holding onto your expertise for your own self-gratification, it will never work. Knowledge is only useful when it is shared freely with your team. The inverse can often prove itself as harmful.

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