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I work in the analytics function of a company, which has just started. The sales team until now were making their own reports from their data. Having some experience in the analytics domain I have a good command over the tools and a relatively better understanding of things.

Recently, people have been coming to me to get their stuff done. After I send them their reports, most people start asking me how I did what I did and I have to explain to them my techniques and quick hacks. I am worried that I might be "revealing my trade secrets" and once they start understanding everything, they perhaps won't be needing me anymore. I will probably just become an unnecessary cost for the company with no value addition.

I am not saying what I do is rocket science but it honestly took some effort to gain whatever I know, and most of it, was not taught to me by anyone. I want to tell them to not ask me about my work, and if they want, I'd be happy to do their work for them.

How do I navigate this situation? What is the right way to let people subtly know that I won't be revealing how I am doing my work? Is this even the right thinking or am I just being silly? I am just an employee (1 of the millions) in the company (an associate), not even in the middle management, so it's not like I am a highly valuable asset in the company.

What do I tell any person if they ask me how I did whatever I did?

Edit: Like someone said, this question is related but not a duplicate. I think it has very useful insights

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    Given that this is sales reporting, I think that the term you are after is Competitive Advantage and not Trade Secrets. But this is moot if you all work for the same company. – Peter M Aug 7 '18 at 18:29
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    Downvoters: I don't think we should downvote the question just because the premise is wrong. This is a good question for the site because this "flawed thinking" is unfortunately common, and there are good responses below. I'd hate to see this question dropped. Please consider removing your downvote. – Wesley Long Aug 7 '18 at 19:50
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    Are you an employee or a contractor? you appear to be asking this like you're an employee, but your attitude is more like a contractor. Thus, I'm unsure of your status. – Makyen Aug 8 '18 at 3:15
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    One small note: I was thrown off by the term "trade secrets." You explained yourself well enough that I eventually did figure out what you are talking about, but "trade secret" is actually a legal concept like trademarks and patents, and there are very specific steps one must take when working with those. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Aug 8 '18 at 6:00
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    “Trade secrets” is a very specific legal term, which would apply to your company’s business, not to you doing your job. So your title is misleading. – gnasher729 Aug 8 '18 at 8:08
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What do I tell any person if they ask me how I did whatever I did?

You show them what you did. Ideally, you teach them how to do it without you.

When you do that, you'll build a great reputation as someone to go to for help.

Rather than diluting your value to the company, you're actually increasing it.

Companies value team players who help everyone get the job done.

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    +1 for "Companies value team players who help everyone get the job done". This is really important for companies – Roimer Aug 7 '18 at 21:10
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    Also, if there are more people who can do your current responsibilities, you will be free to work on different and more advanced responsibilities, i.e. get promoted. – John Wu Aug 7 '18 at 21:56
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    Sadly, the companies that value team players may not be the companies one works for. So, while true in general, sharing might kill your current job. But you'd be well advised to quit there, anyway, if that were the case. – I'm with Monica Aug 8 '18 at 7:08
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    And also they will learn how to do this task anyway. – talex Aug 8 '18 at 8:09
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    I saw another answer somewhere (I think it was workplace, may have been IPS) where the person answering said something like "The harder I worked to make myself disposable, the more the company wanted me". – Scoots Aug 8 '18 at 12:00
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Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead - Benjamin Franklin

It sounds like your "customers" asking for the information obtained from your data processing are primarily asking the kinds of questions that assure them that the results are correct.

Part of delivering value to your customers, internal and external, is some justification (proof?) that the requested work / functionality was delivered. In your case, you handle this with education. It's not clear to me that education is the only approach; but, as you picked it, it seems to be a sensible one for your scenario.

As far as revealing your trade secrets, and thus making yourself less valuable over time, people who hoard secrets in companies are first on my list for replacement. They look just like people who hide their ignorance behind silence, and they foster environments where people can't validate their work.

Meanwhile, the person who can explain all of the details is gold. I often just want to know the right thing was done, and even knowing how it was done doesn't give me the time to do the work myself (or the expertise to do it correctly). Demonstrating that you know something in extreme detail, and are willing to share it, advertises yourself as a valuable resource in both having solved this problem, and all of the similar problems like it in the future.

You're positioning yourself as a gate-keeper. The sole authority to get the work in your little kingdom done. That's petty, and corporations know how to pry that information from your fingertips despite your actions to keep it private. As you're paid for the work you produce, withholding that from the company inappropriately is unjust.

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    Good point that data validation is important. By someone asking how the data is drawn, they can better explain if what they're seeing is valid. By masking or concealing, you potentially put yourself in the position of being fired, exactly what you fear. – Dan Aug 7 '18 at 19:24
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    +1 "people who hoard secrets in companies are first on my list for replacement" – Hoàng Long Aug 8 '18 at 10:34
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Is this even the right thinking or am I just being silly?

The latter.

If it's true that

I am not saying what I do is rocket science but it honestly took some effort to gain whatever I know, and most of it, was not taught to me by anyone.

then your refusing to share your methods won't really protect you, and describing methods by example often isn't likely to make you obsolete anyways. This is especially the case if we're talking about things that might be on, say, StackExchange as questions and answers.

Your performance review will probably go better if you can say "I introduced new reporting approach [X], which is now used across all departments" than if the company gets 1/100th as many good reports and you maintain your "secrets". Your role in the company is likely not what you seem to be imagining-- you are there to help the company function well moreso than to provide exactly [X] unique service.

Being desperate to maintain a high bus factor (or lottery factor, as seems to be getting more popular), especially if your department and role is fairly new, really detracts from the value that you are offering. It's petty, it will be noticed, and it will not be appreciated by your coworkers or superiors.

There could be exceptions to this, like if you brought in specialized knowledge of algorithms you yourself developed and are literally not available anywhere else and could legitimately be considered a trade secret. Being good at PowerBI or Tableau, or knowing basic statistics, do not meet this standard.

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The answer is simple: keep your trade secrets if you want to keep doing the same job for the rest of your life. Share them if you want to move on to new and exciting things.

The key is flexibility. If your job is brittle enough that sharing your tricks could make you lose your job, then it's also brittle enough that the natural flow of businesses will eventually make it obsolete. 20 years ago, having a programmer that knew FORTRAN was important, and you could keep a job by knowing a few secrets. Nowdays, a large portion of the computing world has moved on to different languages. You can still make a living knowing tips and tricks of FORTRAN in some industries (FAA and nuclear weapons simulations come to mind), but many of those FORTRAN jobs simply dried up.

You want your job to be able to grow with the times. But if you hold your company over a barrel by keeping your tricks secret, they'll end up holding you over a barrel by making you continue to do the same old tasks, even when you can see the writing on the wall that says they're dead end tasks with no opportunity for career advancement.

Indeed, if you look at the advancement paths in many companies, you do have to start doing different kinds of work as you advance. A manager isn't just a programmer that's added some people tasks to his plate. Managers who were promoted from programming positions tend to have to give up some of that programming time in order to spend more time managing. It is famously said that if you want to move up the corporate ladder, the most important thing to do is train someone to do your old job.

There are indeed corporations out there that will drain you dry and then leave you by the curb. However, for the most part this is not how things work. That process gets costly when you consider what has to be done to hire the next unsuspecting fool to drain dry. Most companies are built around structures which recognize the need to provide you advancement opportunities with the specific intent of avoiding this drain-and-dump mentality.

  • You are probably right that there are fewer FORTRAN jobs than there used to be, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were just as many Fortran(†) jobs as there have ever been - it's just that C/Javascript/Python jobs now vastly outnumber them. † All-caps is FORTRAN-IV and earlier. From Fortran-77 onwards it is title-case. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Aug 8 '18 at 13:03
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A number of people have already addressed the "trade secrets" aspect, but I want to point out another aspect of this, which is that it's worth taking some time to understand what the sales team is really asking from you.

I don't think it's likely that individual salespeople are asking for your secrets because they want to eliminate your job. There are likely other reasons they might be asking this question, and addressing them has the opportunity to make you more valuable:

  • They might want services/information that you're not providing and are interested in ways to do it for themselves, because they don't like asking you repeatedly. If they're used to making their own reports, coming to you all the time might feel like a burden. For example, they might want weekly sales reports. You could work with them to understand these needs and fulfill them, such as creating a self-service system so they can access specific types of data on demand or a process for requesting custom reports that's fast and efficient.
  • Perhaps, as Edwin Buck suggests, they're unsure of the accuracy of the reports. You could propose a meeting to go over them, demonstrate their accuracy, and answer any questions.
  • They might be curious how you achieved something they don't know how to do. You could hold a session (maybe a lunchtime brownbag, which many companies use for cross-department knowledge sharing events) to show them. You could summarize the process, maybe highlight one or two of your tricks to show the effort you've put into it, and then solicit feedback on how else you can help them.

In all of these cases, the questions are coming not because they want to replace you, but because your new role has supplanted their existing process and some of the implications of that still need to be worked out. I'd take it as a sign that there's more you can do to improve your work with these teams and be of service.

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    Coming to OP all the time might not just be seen as a burden on the asker - people might think that asking OP to do the work repeatedly is a waste if his time/talent. This is especially true if people are aware that several other teams/individuals are also coming to you: being the innovator who designs new processes that anyone can learn is more valuable to the company than being a lowly cog who just churns out reports that other people ask for. – Chronocidal Aug 8 '18 at 8:04
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This may depend on the culture, but I don't believe that I am entitled to "keeping trade secrets" from others in my company. As an employee I am expected to be a team player, and protecting knowledge from others goes against this spirit.

If you want to be paid for results and keep knowledge for yourself, then you should probably become an external contractor instead of an employee.

That said, you may certainly tell the sales team that education is not a part of your job description and they need to get your bosses approval for allocation of your time. You might even find an ally in your boss, if they are also concerned about their department's value for the company. However, if the boss does approve, it's teach or quit.

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to them and once they start understanding everything, they perhaps won't be needing me anymore, I will probably just become an unnecessary cost for the company with no value addition.

It seems that you want:

  • to stay in the same position with the same skill set for a long time
  • avoid competition

With sharing and making your colleagues more stronger and efficient, you would improve too. Later you would get insights from them. And this would lead to more effective company. Employees who do not share information, cost a lot for companies.

Even you would be replaced, good reputation would help to get another position. Junior employees become senior and may recommend you later.

  • Thank you for writing the answer. How can I be sure that those colleagues would return the favor and not steal my idea and use it for their own good ? I can't accept that these kinds of people don't exist. Are there any tell-tale signs to detect these people, so I would be wary of them in the future? – Jony Agarwal Aug 8 '18 at 15:21
  • You can't be sure. People are doing a lot of things in life just to get an opportunity, not get something guaranteed (for example, go to university but it does not mean that they will get job). However, if you feel that you are working in a toxic environment where you can't share information, you should consider changing job. – Justas Aug 8 '18 at 15:40
  • What can you lose if you will share the secret ideas? – Justas Aug 8 '18 at 15:42
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While I can't comment on your specific situation, what I can say based on experience is that people who try to keep their job through concealing information tend to be the first to go.

I had this individual who was a DBA and he would often mask or conceal scripts. Often times using compilers for text based scripts to prevent anyone from editing it. He would often execute scripts by one language that does pieces of one thing, then executes another language script to get the other half. It was quite impressive but it was very clear he was protecting his job. He was first to be let go of in the round of lay offs.

Point is hiding information is a bad idea. In your field, you are about validating data as much as providing reports. By hiding how you did it, it raises red flags with people who might be concerned about the validity of the data. You are the new guy, who isn't middle management, seem to be the only one capable of getting the data but cannot explain how the data is obtained. Who do you think is going to get fired in such a case? Especially if the data turns out invalid and cost the company a large sum of money because they acted on the wrong data?

My advice is that you should share how you got the data. At that point, you'll become the go to guy to figure out complicated data gathering that no one else can figure out. They'll eventually get to the point where someone in a meeting says, "I can't figure this out" and someone will say, "Okay, you better get with OP, he'll figure this out."

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