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I work in a medium sized company that provides certain services to American municipal governments. A large part of our product is software which manages some of these services which we sell to the governments (allowing them to use their own staff).

My boss famously never took a day off and he handled all the various devops, on-call, and maintenance of old systems. Like most developer groups, we have high turnover and nobody besides my boss has been here more than two years. If it was an ancient system using Ant (some Java build tool) he did it. He was willing to do all the stuff nobody wanted to do while leaving the fun job of writing virgin code for new projects to us.

However, he abruptly announced a few days ago that he is leaving as they wouldn’t even raise his pay to the top of the pay band as ifs “for external hires only.” A massive transition effort has been initiated (dozens from customer service to IT to dev are involved in a full time basis) to try and document everything before he leaves.

Problem is, nobody even knows the technologies used. We have FORTRAN code. Nobody here knows that. I’ve been assigned to document five systems I have never even heard of, which is basically just collecting passwords and SVN repo names as I am not primarily a Java dev.

Today, he took a day off for the first time in years, as I suspect he no longer cares. The prod database goes down and nobody has a clue how to fix it. We had to place a very expensive call to a database services provider for advice.

They are now talking about vast changes ranging from moving some of us to dedicated maintenance devs and instituting on-call.

Basically, what typically happens when a bus factor 1 event occurs? Are we in for a period of substantial pain and frustration? As I’m inclined to join my boss in leaving to avoid that.

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    Yes, it's time to leave (as soon you find yourself another job, not before). Even if you're able to handle all the chaos and survive this, you know that your work as an internal employee won't ever be as valued as a new hire coming off the street. Also, if you ever become a manager, now you know that someone not taking time off is a potential red flag for a bus-factor-of-one. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 16 '19 at 2:15
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    Leave - if you use fortran it means that any 1st years physic student will be hired (because they use fortran 77) and given higher than you (as external hires have already higher bar) while company don't think it should be important to teach any of the existing employees or hire someone who know it before the meltdown. – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 16 '19 at 17:58
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    If a company pays new hires better than existing staff they are sending a very clear signal, right from the head of HR – Gaius Nov 16 '19 at 22:02
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    How was he as a boss? Where is he going? Can you go with him? – Pete B. Nov 18 '19 at 15:48
  • The question asks us to make a prediction of the future about people we don't know and a company whose management, practices, and so on, we don't know either. The person here best qualified to make a prediction of the future is you, so if you don't know, how should we? – Eric Lippert Nov 18 '19 at 18:34
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It sounds like your tech department is in a bad situation. That doesn't necessarily mean you are in the bad situation.

In my answer I am making the assumption that you are a developer and you have some knowledge about the systems involved but not as much as the person who is leaving. I am also assuming that the company can recover from this:

Now someone in management messed up and let it happen that it allowed that there is a top guy with high bus factor and this top guy wasn't taken care of very well. Things will likely go bad before they get better and when things go bad there often is blame flying around like shrapnel.

On the other hand the remaining tech people are more needed by the company than they have ever been (whether management realizes it or not). Everyone who knows at least a little bit about the existing systems is important now. And maybe HR and management realize now, that important people can leave if they are unhappy.

You have a lot of opportunity to shine in this situation. You can be the person who saves the day. It doesn't hurt to be prepared for the worst, and maybe start sending out applications, but it also doesn't hurt to try to see how well you can do in a post-buskill situation. Even if you end up leaving, this is some experience you might not easily get again.

Basically, what typically happens when a bus factor 1 event occurs? Are we in for a period of substantial pain and frustration? As I’m inclined to join my boss in leaving to avoid that.

Here is what you can do:

When your management asks you to work on systems you don't know, accept the task but make sure to manage their expectations: "Yes Boss, I do what I can to help out, but in the case of system C, I will probably not give you a lot of details of the internals. I am not a Fortran person."

Then within your area of expertise estimate the damage done and future risk. E.g, "System A is really critical, but we already have X and Y who seem to know enough about. System B is important, and I know it well enough to keep it at least running. System C nobody knows about, but if it goes down it only impacts same rarely used parts of the intranet. System D is high risk of going down, and nobody knows it."

You can do that for yourself, or share it with your management, who might be blind to what is going, if the guy who is leaving also was the their eyes and ears.

Now that you know the risks, what do you need to safe it? Your most important service runs on Java and nobody knows Java? Find an external 5 day training that teaches Java and includes Ant and propose to your managers: "Hey system D is really critical, nobody knows it and nobody knows Java and Ant well enough. I could take care of it, but I need these trainings.

Don't wait for management to tell you what to do, tell them what needs to be done. "I need this training. I need an intern to take this other task from me. We should replace service C with an off-the-shelf product. We need to accept fewer contracts for the next quarter. Raise my salary by 20% so that I can commit for another 2 years in the company" etc.

Focus on managing the biggest risks first, after that start making sure that the bus doesn't hit again.

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This is a perfect opportunity to a) get a raise and b) find out how quickly your management learns.

  • Do your best to take over the knowledge and job of your boss.
  • In the process of doing so, ask your manager for a raise - to the wage level your boss wanted or very little below that.
  • If they accept, you got a nice raise and you know that management can learn quickly and adapt to problems.
  • If they reject, you start looking for another job and help them learn. Unless they really really convince you that they have an alternative plan where they replace your boss and make sure the work load is fairly distributed. Be doubtful!

Know that if you are successful in getting a raise and taking over much of your boss' responsibility, there will be a stressful time coming. But that would be coming either way. Once everything settled down a bit, you need to distribute the work load amongst the team a bit better than before obviously. This would mean you need to step up, do a bit managerial work unless you get the proper support and it would certainly be a challenge.

Disclaimer: This is obviously a gamble and may not be for you! But it is clear that your department will see some stressful times either way. How long they are will also depend on how good your management is. So far that doesn't look too good without involvement by someone from the team.

And obviously, if you really need this job, there is always the alternative to keep your head down, do your job well, but don't overinvest yourself and let the management problems be problems of management.

  • If HR didn’t give the boss the raise, why would they give this guy one or are you assuming that they have learnt something? I wonder if the costs of fixing the first error exceed the cost of a raise for the boss.... – Solar Mike Nov 17 '19 at 4:54
  • @SolarMike Because now management has to deal with the mess they might not have been aware of before and it will only increase once more people from the team leave. So there is more pressure on them to keep the people that have that special knowledge. If HR and management are separate this could push pressure on management to adjust the payment level guidelines. – Frank Hopkins Nov 17 '19 at 13:36
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    @SolarMike The company used the strategy to get everything done cheaply by not paying experienced employees good salaries. They obviously thought that was a good strategy. Now they got smacked right in the face by the "boss" leaving, demonstrating very visibly that their strategy was awfully bad. – gnasher729 Nov 17 '19 at 15:00
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It certainly sounds like it's going to get worse before it gets better.

The issues you've described are at least partially your boss' fault, I hope you're aware of that.

That being said, are you compensated well enough to weather the oncoming crap storm? If so, you may want to stick it out and see what happens. Things may be bad in the short term but they may get markedly better in the long term, as long as the right people recognize the issues and resolve to resolve them.

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    Disagree, it iis the managers above the level of the boss who are guilty of allowing a bus of level 1... they should have recognised this long ago and planned to deal with it. Now they have to find a solution... like the external provider... $$$$$ :) – Solar Mike Nov 16 '19 at 5:58
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    @SolarMike: I think the "at least partially" covers that adequately, without getting dragged into a blame game based on limited information in the question. Either way the more senior managers who are staying will be the ones to have to take responsibility for the outcome. – Neil Slater Nov 16 '19 at 8:22
  • I agree, it's not your problem, works work, there may soon be multiple avenues for advancement for someone who can handle it. – Kilisi Nov 16 '19 at 8:28
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    @SolarMike I said that the manager is at least partially to blame. Certainly you don't hold him blameless in this? Lack of knowledge sharing, lack of documentation, etc. He certainly carries some of the responsibility and some of the blame for that. – joeqwerty Nov 16 '19 at 16:09
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    Well, it seems that there is a second issue at the company: current employees seems to be not valued. There are 2 things that suggest it: the response that boss was given when requested the raise and the sad fact there is nobody in the department who was for more than two years. As part of the fallout of this mess would be this issue recognized and dealt or not? If not then it's possibly a good time to pack up and go. – AlexanderM Nov 17 '19 at 4:37
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That depends a bit on how you feel about the company and your career there: Every challenge is also an opportunity to rise to the occasion.

For me, I would want to understand how the company handles this. Obviously the senior leadership screwed up badly by allowing a bus event to happen and, and more importantly, by being vulnerable to a bus event in the first place. There are two ways to react to this:

  1. Accept the mistake & take responsibility: learn from the situation and restructure in a way that incorporates the learning and prevents this from ever happening again.
  2. Blaming and flailing: random actions, short term fixes, blindly chasing the emergency of the day, talking badly about the person who left.

Have a talk with your senior leadership. Ask about how they want to deal with the situation going forward and what role you could play. If the words "Sorry, we screwed up and we are committed to build a better company" are absent from the conversion, I'd walk. If the leaders don't take responsibility, they are not mature enough to lead a company like yours and the next disaster is just waiting to happen.

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