How to Prepare for When Key Information Technology Persons Leave

Succession Planning

It is possible for Information Technology professions to find themselves at career crossroads while employed at organizations that do not have a succession plan in place.  It is also possible that health or personal reasons may prevent a key employee from performing.  Even so, is it shocking to find that some employers do not have a succession plan?  I would say ‘no’ to that question. Most organizations simply do not plan for the day when a key employee moves on; they are concerned with other things like growing the business.  It is interesting to consider why this is the case. Perhaps one reason is because most managers are not rewarded for creating and following a succession plan.  And perhaps it is a conversation that is uncomfortable to have with executives. Given all the pay and perks that are tied to growing revenue or growing some part of the business; executives are not likely to see succession planing discussions as meaningful.  So middle managers may be left to simply praying that the departure of a key employee can be overcome via traditional means like relying on Human Resources to find a suitable replacement.

Who are Key persons?


This blog frequently references databases and the persons who create and manage them. Database developers, database administrators and system administrators in particular are the key persons in an organizations IT hierarchy that enable a system to run and serve its users.  The customers of a system are its users; they come to expect no service interruption.  Without the key persons in place to maintain and grow a system through its software development life cycle, a system cannot be maintained for any length of time.  In particular, database developers, are among those that will intimately know a system and can read and understand the source code, the relational diagrams, and the system requirements better than anyone else. Frequently when one of these key persons ends their employment, there is just cause for some sense of panic.

Managing the Inevitable Loss of key IT Staff

What are some suggestions to improve your ability to recover when a key person leaves your employment?

Identify mitigation steps to lessen the impact of when a key employee leaves. Such as

  1. Cross training – individuals need to be identified who can step in as needed. They must be cross trained.  How best to implement this: it should be publicized as policy as part of normal continuity of operations planning. In fact, having a CONTINUITY OF OPERATIONS PLAN means your organization is thinking proactively of what might cause disruption and what to be done to mitigate it or manage it if it happens.
  2. Documentation   – developing good documentation is frequently considered a chore but it is necessary to blunt the effects of a departure of a key individual. Again, it is not shocking to see most organizations lack up to date documentation on their IT assets.  But good organizations will identify that having documentation on hand is helpful when trying to debug key systems when the maintainer of the system moves on.  Is source code well commented? Are production systems adequately described in terms of the required operating parameters?  Some things to look for in good documentation: diagrams showing data flows, lists of hardware and software, mention of servers and file shares, mention of database names and locations as well as connection methods. Careful descriptions of all configuration settings related to connecting a system to a database and how to enable users to access the program should also be well documented.
  3. Tools and services – identify tools or services that can assist an organization in keeping a system operational when key staff are gone.  For databases, consider tools to ease backup and restore operations if you need them. Also consider alternative sources of IT expertise. These can be in-house or out of house experts. For example contractor or temporary IT employment agencies may have expertise in systems similar to your own.  Arranging with key services like this is a lot like purchasing insurance, you are making it easier to maintain your system in the event of losing a key employee.
  4. Technical Support or Service Level Agreements:  can your organization obtain service agreements with vendors that can contractually agree to maintain your system or some part of it?  For example, even if your software is developed in-house, you can maintain your servers with technical support agreements from a vendor. This at least covers the operating system and hardware on the server.
  5. Enforced annual vacations – by forcing an organization’s key person to take a vacation you also force cross training and also force a kind of succession plan to be followed. Cross training, documentation and other actions precede the vacation (as they should) and the experience should enable an organization to better face any employment change of the key employee.