Ultimate Subject Matter Expert Stops Being Superman

How would you feel if the work you had poured yourself into for years (maybe even decades) was going away?

It’s a classic scenario, and one that plays out in companies every day. An individual has supported a custom-built, or legacy, software application for years – maybe even decades. He or she may even be the only person left at the company who knows this system inside and out.

The day eventually arrives when that home-grown system has to be replaced. It’s inevitable, really, in the grand scheme of things. These aging systems become ridiculously expensive to maintain in the 21st century when turnkey applications are as readily available as superheroes action figures. The original software is the technology equivalent of a dinosaur.

If you are Henry, or Gladys who has supported System Gotham since, let’s say 1985, and you’re asked to help retire it in 2012 or 2013 . . . what do you do? How are you supposed to feel? You used to be Superman and now, kryptonite has been introduced.

Your manager may ask you to:

  • Work on the project team and share your knowledge to help with the conversion
  • Help test the new system to ensure it meets specifications
  • Monitor the two systems running in parallel
  • Perhaps even work on the team supporting the new system, so you can build more skills in the new technology platform, since your business knowledge would still remain relevant

But how you feel is:

  • Like you are losing a loved one
  • Like you have lost your identity
  • Like your self-worth has gone down the drain
  • Like you will never be important to the company again
  • Like you are sure, no matter what your manager tells you, that you will lose your job

You have spent the last 15 or 25 plus years:

  • On call on the weekends in case a batch does not load correctly
  • Getting calls while on vacation because when there is a problem, no one else still around understands the spaghetti code like you do
  • Trying to explain to (often much younger) managers over the years why the business requirements were different “back in the day” when the original system was designed

So what do you do now … especially if you are not ready (or able) to retire along with System Gotham?

Read, internalize and apply William Bridges’ book called Transitions. He describes what you are experiencing as “the long, dark hallway.” You are trying to find your way from “letting go” through “the neutral zone” and possibly, if you can make it, over to “a new beginning.”

His book will help show you how to do it. This phenomenon is very real. Ignore it at your own peril.

The key is figuring out what all you are losing. You can’t move on until you know what all you have to let go of. It may sound counter-intuitive, but to start new, the most important step is learning how to let go.

Betsy Winkler is a certified trainer in the Transition Management curriculum and a Partner at PeopleResults. She can be reached on Twitter at @BetsyWinkler1 and on email at bwinkler@www.people-results.com.