Making Yourself Redundant

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Can you imagine your company having a chief electricity officer? Seems ridiculous doesn’t it, but many large businesses did when electricity first started to power the industrial economy.

Electricity is such an integral part of our working life that it is impossible to imagine life without it. Companies just couldn’t operate without power, but it wasn’t always that way. Many business leaders failed to grasp the full potential of electricity after it was first introduced. Over a decade after introducing electricity, they were still building factories by water, despite no longer needing it to power their machinery. These business leaders needed help integrating the new technology into their thinking and that is where the chief electricity officer came in.

Grasping The Potential Of The Web

Although we may scoff at the foolish industrialists with their shortsighted vision, most companies are making exactly the same mistake today with the Web. They are failing to grasp the potential of the Web to revolutionize every aspect of their business. Instead, many have reduced the Web to a marketing tool.

What organizations need is the digital equivalent of a chief electricity officer. They need somebody who will champion digital across the organization until it is as ubiquitous as electricity in the modern work place. Many organizations require a digital evangelist sitting on the board (even if only in a non-executive and part-time capacity) so that digital is fully utilized. However, this should only a temporary requirement.

Our Role As Web Professionals Should Be Temporary

As I have already pointed out, we don’t need chief electricity officers anymore. Once electricity was fully integrated into the organizational processes and culture, their role became superfluous. The same should be true of us as Web professionals.

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The Web has much more potential than most of us tend to believe. All you need is to take a closer look. (Image credits: opensourceway2)

Whether part of an internal Web team or an external developer, our eventual aim should be to make our role redundant, once digital is a part of daily working life. Once that happens you would no longer need a digital team in the same way as we no longer need a chief electricity officer.

I am aware this may sound like a rather extreme position. It is hard to imagine a world where this is a reality, but I believe we may one day get there. Whether we do is not really the point. The point is that the way we perceive our job is so important and that at the moment the emphasis is slightly wrong.

We Shouldn’t Remain The Owners Of Digital

At the moment, most Web professionals see their job as executing some form of digital strategy. It falls to them to build, maintain and run digital assets from websites to mobile apps. Sometimes we facilitate the contribution of others through the use of a content management system, but ultimately we feel we should ‘own’ digital.

In fact, I have heard many argue that internal Web teams don’t have enough ownership over the Web (something I have written myself) and that external teams are seen as implementors rather than providing more of a leadership role. I have also heard many argue that organizations need a digital strategy and that digital teams should be more empowered within organizations.

All of these arguments I agree with, but feel that although true, they miss the point. Yes, right now we need a strong digital team. Yes, organizations should use external contractors as more than implementors and yes companies need to think about their strategy towards digital. However, these are all transitionary principles. They are merely stepping stones towards a greater aim, which is to make digital ubiquitous within the organization. In the end, we need a business strategy that includes digital, rather than a separate digital strategy.

Our Primary Role Is Knowledge Transfer

If we believe our objective is to make digital ubiquitous, then our primary role as Web professionals is knowledge transfer. It falls to us to teach those within the organizations with which we work, about the potential and power of digital. Ultimately is not our job to own digital or just to build digital assets. Our job is to teach others how to own digital and put in place the assets they need. In the short term this may involve us leading by example. We may need to set a strong digital direction and take ownership over digital as a chief electricity officer did, but eventually we will need to let go of the reins.

Furthermore, if we see our role as educators, facilitators and evangelists then we approach things with a different attitude. Its not about building our digital empire within an organization and wrestling control from the ignorant colleagues that “don’t get digital”. Equally as an external contract our aim is not to ensure a long term revenue stream from clients by making them reliant on our services. Instead it is about facilitating others through improving their understanding of digital.

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Digital strategy always requires focus on the essential — on what matters most. (Image credits: opensourceway4)

Don’t get me wrong. Many organizations need strong central leadership over digital and the Web team is the place for that. Equally, I have no problem with agencies who work in long-term partnership with clients if that is what is right for the client. However, ultimately we need to be willing to step aside when we have become a bottleneck and when the organization has reached a point when digital is deep rooted across the entire company.

Are You Building An Empire Or Facilitating Change?

It’s time for you to honestly ask yourself what your agenda is. Is it to help organizations facilitate their use of digital or are you more concerned with securing your own position? If it is the latter I would challenge you to think again. By facilitating others and focusing on knowledge transfer you will become the go-to person for innovation and the next big thing. Become so concerned with your own job and you will be the roadblock everybody has to work around to get things done.

Even after 20 years of the Web, we are still at the beginning of a transformation from an industrial to digital economy. Adapting to this change is a huge undertaking for most organizations and we can either be facilitators of that change or we can isolate ourselves as some kind of digital elite.

I know which I choose. What about you?

Editor’s Note: Paul Boag is writing a new Smashing book on “Digital Adaptation” with guidelines for adapting a business for the digital economy. Coming out in March 2014. If you like, you can subscribe for email updates5 to be among the first ones to know!

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Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the web design agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design, Digital Adaptation and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the Web Designers Depot. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning Web design podcast boagworld.

  1. 1

    I certainly strive to make systems which allow the people in my business to take control over running the system. Some people will never “get it” and understand the rules on how you should manage data properly, etc. From my point of view, being a bottleneck just makes people dislike you for holding them back – so I design systems that give people control over the bits they want. It makes my life easier.

    “If you make yourself indispensible, then you’ll never get promoted”

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  2. 2

    As one of my customers said after I offered to teach him how to fix a problem, “I don’t make money when I am f-ing with this stuff.”

    Take for example when PhotoShop or PageMaker were released. The general attitude was that buying those products would remove the need for graphic artists. For each amateur that could competently use them, there were hundreds more that couldn’t. In the print industry we called these results “ransom notes”.

    So while a CMS makes it easier to hand off a site to a client, the creation of a quality site is still going to be in the hands of a pro.

    And while we don’t have “Chief Electricity Officers” anymore, we have “Chief Technology Officers” which perform the exact same job. They figure out how to integrate new tech into company.

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  3. 3

    Paul, are you saying we should focus on sharing the digital strategy load or the “whole enchilada?” I am a graphic designer at a firm that focuses on print, and I can’t imagine any of my colleagues wanting to build code an entire website. I’ve tried to get them interested in just learning basic HTML, but so far, no one’s biting. I could, however, picture a world in which they are involved in IA and UX. The hard part is getting them excited about it.

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    • 4

      @Ryan Boone — You are at least interested in understanding the non-print aspect design. And that is something you could be an evangelist for. I’m a developer and am constantly working with designers and art-directors (most of whom seem to come from a primarily print background) trying to help them understand the limitations and features of the browser(s). I try to explain to them how the limitations of the browsers, platforms and devices sometimes dictate the design choices they might make. I also try explaining that they are designing a container, into which content will be placed. Unfortunately, we don’t know the amount of content as it can, and most probably will, keep changing.

      My experience is that designers coming from a print background are used to controlling the space and all aspects of the design. Designing for digital content consumption is different: we don’t know the size of the content or platform or device on which it appears. My experience is that many designers are having trouble accepting that they have to design in new ways.

      Previous to adaptive and responsive design, we had to worry primarily about vertical flexibility. Now, the flexibility door has been thrown wide open: vertical and horizontal flexibility; content areas might move around, or change size, or disappear based on how they are presented; or content areas might be interacted with. The possibilities are expanding even as we speak.

      One time, I was talking to a designer about her design for an HTML email. The design elements were intertwined in such a way, that if the text in any one of the areas changed length or font size, the design would be thrown off. I tried to explain this to her, but in her mind, the design was set. Her design was based on the amount of content initially given by the client. And we all know that we can always trust when we are told that this is the “final final” copy change [end sarcasm]. On top of that, I tried to explain to her that there are many web mail clients, desktop mail clients, mobile mail clients, and different versions of each of these on more than one platform, each of which could change the way the text ends up being laid out. But she just couldn’t seem to accept that the limitations of the technology had the potential to effect her design choices.

      Use this as your opportunity to be a digital design evangelist.

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  4. 5

    I give it five stars.
    Please send it to all CEO and to all members of parliament in EU.
    They need to read the article.

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  5. 6

    I agree with the article and with the comments so far.

    I think people should be more interested in Digital and knowledge should be shared… Now how to do it, I am still not sure!
    Can anyone share some good techniques/ideas? (I am currently trying to get my company excited about prototyping from the very start of any project…)

    Also, I believe making yourself redundant is what any good Manager of any team should aspire to. This means you have done a good job with your team (they know what to do and how to do it, without you micromanaging them, which usually irritates people), and you can focus more on strategy development or next steps for the company/product/technology — that is my dream!

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    • 7

      Hi Gisella,

      I am like you, very much into prototyping. On many projects I begin right from the start. Doing this will always result in one or more of the following:

      - Prototyping will stimulate your brain and unleash a plethora of new ideas one could never have thought of when just talking about the subject
      - Customers tend to “not understand” what you are talking about. On seeing a prototype, many times the whole idea is crystal clear in an instant
      - Prototyping unabstracts the project for you and your team, making it easier to go forward

      The downside often is that there is no official time for prototyping. Therefore, I’ve just started. I’ve taken every free half hour I had, even overtime, to build prototypes. Sometimes even a half hour of creating something can lift the whole team and spirit to a higher level. Nowadays, in most cases there will be official time to “finish the prototype” ;-)

      So, my long-story-tip: Just start. Go do it! It’s great fun, so nothing’s lost. And you’ll find that in an increasing amount of cases you’ll get the time.

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  6. 8

    Amazing article! I’ve just talked about something similar to this today with a friend of mine. A must reading for all web professionals.

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  7. 9

    The analogy of chief electricity officer is a bad one. Electricity is energy, and the web is about data. Energy is a basic utility that requires virtually no human manipulation in order to provide its basic function; lighting spaces, powering equipment, etc. The hardware that is used to run the web requires little human interaction to run, but creating and managing the software that holds and displays that information is deeply reliant on skilled labor namely web developers, UX designers, and so on – and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

    I agree with the point about trying to make ourselves redundant, however. If we can train people as well as set up systems to be maintained more easily, we should. It improves our value if we can, and ultimately our worth.

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    • 10

      I’ll agree that the analogy is bad, but I bet I can find thousands of electricians that would disagree with “no human manipulation”. It’s like saying computers take little human manipulation to function. These things aren’t trees.

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    • 11

      I don’t think this analogy is a bad one and either is electricity just there. Yeah it maybe feels like that but I guess just because we got used to it over the years. If you take a look at the youth today a massive part of it is growing up with the internet at their fingertips and with a smartphone in their hands. They know how to write e-mails and create a social profile even before they have something essential like a job.
      And I think if you take a look at the rapidly changing world we’re living in right now we have to change the thinking about the potential of the web in the heads of the business leaders. We as web professionals and our whole community are the best example for sharing, caring and teaching each other. We’re doing an excellent job within our community. The next step should (imho must) be taking that knowledge to the outside and inside the heads of the non web professionals.

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  8. 12

    I am not sure this is good analogy. Most companies have more than just CMS systems and CMS systems needs to be updated there are also legacy systems that needs to be integrated, databases, plus new development. The web always changing. I don’t see how web developers can be redundant. It’s good idea to teach people how to use systems and make sure they understand it.

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  9. 13

    I’m kind of with Taylor, the analogy doesn’t really hold up. While i agree with the general principle of the article of bringing people up along with us, but i think its a misnomer to think that becoming redundant as an end goal. It’s like saying “well everyone has had digital integrated into their daily work life, time to step back and let them take over.” Imagine how quickly things would either:
    1) turn into complete chaos as people who “think” they know what they’re doing suddenly have command over the curated system you’ve built.
    2) stagnate because no one is actively finding new solutions, because everyone is content with the systems in place.

    If our role is to bring everyone else up with us and educate them, we’re not Chief Electricity Officers, we’re the first wave of explorers venturing into the digital jungle. Our job is to cut out the unnecessary in digital and make the path for others to easily follow behind. While we’re busy clearing a path, everyone else (early adopters, tech-minded, and eventually layman) will follow behind. As more people are actively engaging in digital it’ll progressively start making the path wider and wider until it’s a highway where everyone can travel safely. As more join us in the clear cutting we’ll have more thoughtful and nuanced diversification of ideas of what digital work/life can be. Where an idea might not become a main highway, but it’ll become a safe thoroughfare that might be the right solution to a unique situation.

    We shouldn’t be aiming to be redundant, we should be aim to be trail blazers. If by some means we reach that total integration tipping point, we shouldn’t step aside because we’ve made ourselves redundant, we need to head back and start inspecting those main highway we help route and see if they still hold water. If they don’t we need out figure out they can again.

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  10. 15

    I’m undecided about this article. While I agree with some points made, I just think the web is still too young for us to put ourselves in a position where we can hand over a project and agree that our role shall be redundant going forward with it. With constantly evolving techniques, practices and platforms it’s a long way off.

    Plus, a company MD or CEO will rarely listen to a digital professional and will always push to get what they want from a web project, which is usually not what the customer wants when they hit a company’s website. It’s rare that I’ll put a live screen shot on my portfolio because once a site is handed over, a client will be quick to use the CMS to destroy it by overloading it with marketing content.

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  11. 16

    “most companies [...] have reduced the Web to a marketing tool.”

    No they haven’t. They used internet marketing agencies like mine, and I told them to do it. It’s all because of me.

    You’re welcome.

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  12. 18

    I build WordPress sites and wasted hours and hours with clients trying to get them, not only to use digital marketing and improve their engagement with customers, but to try to get them to see the actual value of the internet. I do agree with the concept of needing to make ourselves redundant or we simply become the marketing and digital support arm of each and every client. The problem is clients are a massively varied bunch ranging from people who simply do not want to take control of their digital presence for many reasons (too scared, not confident, can’t be bothered) or they do get it but it overwhelms them. Readers of Smashing Magazine get Mailchimp and Google Places and WordPress and so on but for most clients it’s still a huge jump into the dark. I deal with small businesses and social enterprise and find the best way forward is to act as a teacher. Three years ago people just looked bewildered at the mention of WordPress but now many people have heard of it.

    As Chris [puts it

    While we’re busy clearing a path, everyone else (early adopters, tech-minded, and eventually layman) will follow behind. As more people are actively engaging in digital it’ll progressively start making the path wider and wider until it’s a highway where everyone can travel safely.

    My experience from many years is that as more people “get it” (it being the value of the internet) those of us that don’t try and screw every penny from a client but act as a guide will get the most new business. The days of agencies charging £7k for a rebranded $50 themeforest theme (as I have witnessed on a number of occassions) will be a dim and distant memory.

    Also it’s a generational thing. I find younger businesses are much more approachable and web savvy. Our job is to evolve.

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  13. 19

    Having read this, I find myself surprised that companies don’t still have a Chief Electricity Officer: you might think (correctly) that the average person is illiterate when it comes to technology, but you’d be amazed to learn that the same is true when it comes to electricity. If you don’t believe me, perform the following experiment.
    1. Take a couple of inches of insulated wire. Strip the ends.

    2. Get yourself a coin – something the size of a quarter, or in England, a 50p.

    3. Bend the wire into a U shape, and hold it on top of the coin with your thumb.

    4. Go around asking people to touch the ends of the wire together.

    90% of the people you ask will either refuse point blank, or will do so incredibly hesitantly and nervously. To ensure that there’s no assumption about hidden components, make it very clear to the people beforehand that the only things involved are a piece of wire and a coin.

    5. Perform the same experiment, but this time, instead of using a piece of wire with plastic on it, use a paperclip or something like that. Nobody will hesitate at all.

    I’ve found that it’s the insulation on the wire that puts them off: to them, it somehow makes the wire itself all electricityish or something… but it’s astounding. I’ve seen programmers refuse to touch the ends of the wire together… mind you, they weren’t very good programmers!!

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  14. 20

    ” In the end, we need a business strategy that includes digital, rather than a separate digital strategy.”

    Tell the HR departments to stop siloing internally and MAYBE that will happen in a dozen years.

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  15. 21

    1. I could read this article as “the case for professional suicide”
    2. I could read this article as a part of the “let’s get rid of the programmers” conspiracy

    Mr. Paul Boag, your dream will come true, rest assured. When artificial intelligence will run everybody’s virtual lives while they stay connected to a computer that “transfers knowledge” 24/7. Where there will be no “chief whatever officers” and whatever you can name it will be ubiquitous. Hopefully I will not get to be part of that world. The wonderful, brave new world.

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  16. 22

    I’m not sure the analogy of “Chief electricity officer” works in the context of digital, most specifically, creativity.

    I’m also not convinced that as digital professionals, we will make the role ‘redundant’.
    *we* individually may eventually become redundant or move into a different field, but other digital professionals will be running with whatever the next ‘big thing’ is.

    I don’t expect a car mechanic to impart their knowledge onto me so I can fix my car and make their job redundant – heck, I don’t want to fix my own car, anymore than the accountant in my company wants to create a web page, or formulate a digital strategy.

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  17. 23

    It’s very rare to read something like this, and realize “this guy really get’s it”. Being ahead of your time is hard, and your insight is invaluable. If only this message were easier to sell internally and externally.

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  18. 24

    A nice idea – I would have found it even more useful to include some action points on HOW to get senior management to take notice, but I guess that’s why you want us to buy the book ;)

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