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At my workplace (medium-sized software company), I am the sole developer responsible for a lot of code that consists of a collection of dozens of scripts (totals 400K lines of code) that has hundreds of internal stakeholders. If the code doesn't run, entire departments are basically unable to do their work. Furthermore, due to the nature of the code, it doesn't just run on its own, but needs continuous monitoring, e.g. to handle bugs or new use-cases that arise unexpectedly.

The code is in an old programming language, it is badly written, and it is impossible to know what's going on without months of debugging through it. This is how I learned it, and then the guy who wrote it stopped, and now it's just me.

So I consider myself "irreplaceable" at work. With that in mind, why is it then frowned upon that I use this irreplaceability as leverage to ask for a pay raise? And not just a small one either, I'm thinking at least 50 % --- how are they going to say no? They literally cannot fire me.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Apr 15 at 4:46
  • Does the software have 100 stakeholders you interact with or 100 users?
    – Helena
    Apr 17 at 7:36
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    For new readers: it is worth going through the chat to see the attitude from OP that give these strong worded answers. Apr 24 at 15:45

12 Answers 12

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So I consider myself "irreplaceable" at work.

Nobody is irreplaceable.

It may take time. It may take money. But everyone can be replaced.

The classic thought experiment is "What if this person was hit by a bus?" Few businesses would cease to exist if one person was suddenly gone.

Any company I have ever worked for could have a team of contractors in the next week to start working if necessary.

With that in mind, why is it then frowned upon that I use this irreplaceability as leverage to ask for a pay raise?

It's not frowned upon by everyone. And many folks use whatever leverage they feel they have when asking for a raise.

Some folks feel that pushing this "leverage" angle too aggressively is a signal to the company to quickly remove any undue dependence on this one person. That might mean finding a replacement, outsourcing the work, or changing the code so that others can do the work.

And not just a small one either, I'm thinking at least 50 % --- how are they going to say no?

They can say "No".

They literally cannot fire me.

There's one sure way to find out. You "call their bluff". Something like "I know you can't fire me, so give me [at least 50%] or I quit."

Perhaps you are right. Perhaps not.

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    A supporting anecdote... The COBOL programmers at a large financial firm thought they could hold the company hostage like the OP suggests. They won the battle to not be relocated out of a large urban area in a very expensive COL state. They lost the war and were all let go less than a year later. They had made it worth the cost for the company to modernize their system. It was actually a good thing for the company; not a great thing for the people who had to look for a new job in a not very popular area of expertise.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 14 at 14:05
  • @ColleenV I've seen similar things. Businesses have become wise to this move. 1) get someone in to keep the systems functioning, even if poorly. 2)Research 3) Use it as an excuse to upgrade the systems Apr 14 at 19:17
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    I get brought in pretty regularly to make irreplaceable people replaceable. If someone sits tight and makes good money to do boring work, the status quo will continue. But if someone demands a huge raise, that starts the calculation about how much consultant time it's worth buying to make them replaceable and prevent this situation from arising again (usually by rewriting or otherwise dramatically changing what you maintain.) It's a gamble, and if they plan to replace you, you will have no idea until someone invites you into their office and says "and close the door please." Apr 25 at 18:24
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    The concept of replaceability is a fool's errand. When I adopt a new team, if there are "irreplaceable" people on it, I replace them immediately. That doesn't necessarily mean firing them. It usually means moving them to a job position where their impact is minimal and the company has to figure out how to carry forward without them. It's extremely rare to find someone who is so irreplaceable that they bring a company down. (I've never heard of it) Apr 27 at 22:55
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    @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen It’s an anecdote about one company from more than a couple years ago, not a statistically sound analysis of the current global COBOL labor market.
    – ColleenV
    May 2 at 2:32
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Most of the existing answers seem to focus on whether or not you're irreplaceable (you're not) or whether this will work (well, maybe... for at least some definitions of "work").

But to answer the question at the core of this ("why is using irreplaceability as leverage frowned upon?"):

A good employer/employee business relationship is mutually beneficial. Blackmail is not mutually beneficial.

This works both ways. We all love to complain (and rightly so) about companies that treat their staff badly, because those staff may have no other choice. We would all (rightly) have very strong words to say about a company that said "you're working unpaid overtime this weekend - well, what else are you going to do, quit? We know you've got bills to pay and mouths to feed, so shut up and get back to work!". Some companies do this, yes. They are bad companies.

What you are proposing is the equivalent of that, but in the other direction. It is abusing a power imbalance for your benefit, knowing that it is harmful to the company. Some employees do this, yes. They are bad employees.

That is why this approach is frowned upon.

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    Good answer. Sometimes people are actually irreplaceable. Or at least, replaceable at significant cost. This answer actually correctly identifies the issue. Nobody likes having a gun to their head. Apr 26 at 2:04
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    This is the most accurate answer one can give in regards to this topic.
    – Squary94
    Apr 27 at 14:25
  • Being an "irreplaceable" employee means that you're a dependency in the system. Being "irreplaceable" and using it to push the company into doing things that are more difficult or expensive than they'd prefer means you're now a high-risk dependency, because every day you're still working there, there's a risk that you might do something that costs them even more, like demanding another raise or more days off. Companies like to reduce risk. If you are the risk, then you can guarantee the company is looking for ways to replace you. Apr 28 at 14:26
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    This is the best answer not only to the question as asked but to OP's attitude as shown in the comments. The simplest statement of the reason is: Because it's negotiating in bad faith. It's saying "I've got you over a barrel." That can't possibly lead to good relations and will instead (as ColleenV's anecdote showed) lead to the company getting out of that bind, by any means possible, if they're smart. May 5 at 10:24
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As was indicated several times in the comments, you are not irreplaceable. Nobody is.

If you genuinely believe this - especially in technology - you are in for a very harsh wake-up call when reality comes to visit.

That being said, to address each of your points:

At my workplace (medium-sized software company), I am the sole developer responsible for a lot of code that consists of a collection of dozens of scripts (totals 400K lines of code) that has hundreds of internal stakeholders.

Potentially indicative of a mistake in headcount planning. Also potentially indicative that this project is not as important as you think it is.

Either way, a competent developer can generally take over a code base, figure it out, and perform their job. That's why they get paid to do it. It's also how you kept the job in the first place.

If the code doesn't run, entire departments are basically unable to do their work. Furthermore, due to the nature of the code, it doesn't just run on its own, but needs continuous monitoring, e.g. to handle bugs or new use-cases that arise unexpectedly.

This seems like a good thing to you? It isn't.

By your own admission, you're the sole developer on a bug-filled, unstable code base, for a seemingly mission critical application. Your manager should be looking to replace you: with someone who can stabilize the platform.

The code is in an old programming language, it is badly written, and it is impossible to know what's going on without months of debugging through it. This is how I learned it, and then the guy who wrote it stopped, and now it's just me.

Welcome to software engineering. Anyone who works in a government organization, investment bank, or any number of other industries with long-tail development processes, has dealt with this, and knows how to handle this kind of tech debt.

"Old programming language" is a fairly vague statement, but this typically translates to "plenty of experienced developers out there".

So I consider myself "irreplaceable" at work. With that in mind, why is it then frowned upon that I use this irreplaceability as leverage to ask for a pay raise? And not just a small one either, I'm thinking at least 50 % --- how are they going to say no? They literally cannot fire me.

It's frowned upon because it's an incorrect presumption. You manage a bug-filled code base built on an old language, for a seemingly mission critical application. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of more experienced developers waiting to take this job from you.

If you genuinely believe you can succeed: try it. Then come back here and tell us how long it took you to find another job.

As an aside: your attitude in the comments illustrates another reason your company may want to get rid of you. People who believe themselves to be irreplaceable, often act like it.

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    Well, a competent developer would be wringing all the bugs out and making the 'scripts' bullet proof. And might also know about possible civil and criminal penalties for trying to extort businesses.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 13 at 21:54
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    @JonCuster - Agreed. A competent developer might also say, 'Oh, this code base is 20+ years old, built on [ancient language that takes a long development cycle]. Maybe we should start modernizing'. Plenty of things for a competent developer to do about this situation.
    – darkside
    Apr 13 at 21:57
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    @darkside - and that competent developer should be worth a raise, because they are trying to make things better, make themselves less irreplaceable. Apr 13 at 23:13
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    Reading it again, I have to laugh at the developer at a 'medium-sized software company' who thinks they are irreplaceable. I don't think it would take long for them to round up a few folks and fix the systems properly.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 14 at 23:04
  • @JonCuster I hadn't even noticed that part. If it's a software company, it will probably take less than a day to assemble a team of people to make sure OP is not irreplaceable anymore. Suddenly, OP will be replaceable and have a huge target on their back for their attempt to extort the company.
    – Dnomyar96
    Apr 26 at 7:18
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Being the only one who can currently maintain some software should give you job security for some time. It often has the problem that you are regarded as lower value than peopl creating exciting new software - and it’s totally fine to say if that happens you should get the same raises as others, and you should be compensated properly for being the one who volunteers to be stuck in a dead end job. That is not exploiting being irreplaceable.

Exploiting the situation is different. If you ask for a salary that is a lot higher than one you would get elsewhere. You can be replaced. Your scripts won’t stop working overnight - if they do, because of anything you have done, people have gone to court and even to jail for that. The company would likely hire an excellent developer, you hand over all the scripts to them, they check that the scripts you gave them are the ones running in production, and over a year they take ownership of everything.

So what you do: You do NOT mention whatsoever that you are irreplaceable. You DO mention that your job is a dead end job and that you need to be compensated for that instead of looking for positions that have more of a future for you. If someone figures out “if this guy leaves we have a problem, make sure he stays”, good for you.

But your last sentence “They literally cannot fire me”, you couldn’t possibly be wronger.

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From OP comments now in chat:

If a company is dumb enough to start finding my replacement while I'm there, I can just mess up their code. So, yeah, good luck with that... Sabotage? Who said sabotage? I'm just talking about accidents and mishaps. I would never sabotage anything. Scout's honour.

An employee making ultimatums from the irreplaceability angle marks them as the type of person who's likely to otherwise hold the company hostage and/or sabotage resources. Regardless of whether the OP would or not, that's the perception, because there are a positive number of cases where that has indeed happened. And that's an existential threat to a company, which prioritizes the employee as someone they should get rid of ASAP, no matter what.

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    I hadn’t read that comment. Boy, what a way to destroy your life. Because that action means jail and being in debt for the rest of your life. Reminds me of Hans Reiser, creator of ReiserFS, who thought he could get away with murder (literally) and found he wasn’t as clever as he thought.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 25 at 22:18
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There is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking advantage of a short term situation to make more money. Companies do it when they can.

It's frowned upon because it means more expenditure and effort for the company.

In the long run no one is irreplaceable. But it can happen short term. If you take advantage of it make sure you're aware that it's unlikely to be a permanent state of affairs. I have seen it done and done it myself, but the companies first recourse is to start making you replaceable as it's bad practice to have a bus factor of one. ie. if you get hit by a bus tomorrow what will the company do?

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    Management wants to pay workers as little as possible. Anytime workers get leverage to get over market rate, management starts to look for ways to restructure the work to need less of them or to get rid of the leverage. Thus, factories are moved to cheaper states or cheaper countries. Unions are busted. Robots are brought in. Automatic drivers are built for trucks.
    – David R
    Apr 14 at 14:37
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Irreplaceable to whom?

You may be irreplaceable to the current management, but what if the bankers shut the whole thing down and arrange to transfer the work to the spare firm they also bankroll?

Also, do the current management already know and accept that you are irreplaceable? They aren't going to meet the demands of anyone they don't know is irreplaceable, even if you know you are.

It's very unlikely they would have allowed you to become utterly irreplaceable if they knew you were such, so your first challenge would be to convince them of your irreplaceability. Out of ignorance they may not believe you, or may call you on your play, thinking you are bluffing.

If they are successfully convinced, then this may cause general alarm on their part, especially if they imagine events befalling that can't be solved simply by meeting your demands, such as if you perish suddenly.

And their immediate concern is likely to be to reduce their dependency on you, not just so that they are not hostage to your demands, but so they are not hostage to circumstances either and can assure continuity and resilience of the operation to a basic degree.

To this end, they are likely to introduce another expert into the firm to assess the condition of the code and give an opinion about it all. That will mean they have a copy of the code, and it will also mean you are put on the spot to explain it to someone to a sufficient degree that they accept you can't be replaced - in doing so, giving that person a good head start on replacing you.

Also, if the wage premium you eventually seek is extreme (that is, relative to the rate typically commanded by those doing similar work), once extended over a period of time, and especially once mixed in with any further costs you may impose in bargaining or seeking to protect an extortionate bargaining position, that might buy a considerable amount of world-expert labour to solve their coding problems or to reorganise their operation to eliminate the need for the code.

They are only likely to bear extreme wage premiums over the short-term, and only if they are convinced that you are cooperating to unwind the leverage that has required them to pay that premium.

I'd really think twice about this extortion plot. If you have a grievance for other reasons, then simply leaving will probably impose the greatest possible penalty upon them.

Otherwise, if it is simply a cunning plan to increase your wages dramatically, then your days working there will likely be numbered once you execute this plot, if indeed they retain you at all.

There's also a real risk you will commit criminal offences or incur financial liabilities in the process.

If they double your wage immediately whilst taking away all your security passes and sending a team in to interrogate you about all aspects of the code (which will continue indefinitely until they don't need you), and on the other hand threaten to cancel your entry on this month's payroll and immediately start chasing your assets if you don't comply with your employment contract in the short-term, are you really in a position to repel their force, or will the boot suddenly be on the other foot?

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  • It also seems that if OP makes X, paying OP 2X is much more difficult to justify to the higher ups than paying 3X to a contractor or 5X to a consultancy.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 25 at 22:13
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    @gnasher729, indeed, although if we assume that the reason it is difficult to justify to the higher ups is because higher ups don't like being told they're being blackmailed any more so than those at any other level, then what we are really saying is that all levels of the company are hostile to blackmail, and it is much "easier", in terms of willingness of the company to allocate funds, to pay lots of money to defeat a blackmailer, than it is to pay a blackmailer lots of money.
    – Steve
    Apr 26 at 11:50
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BATNA

Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. You need to understand what this means before you make demands of your employers, in this case and in others. The company's BATNA to not giving you a raise may be having to hire a team of contractors to manage the code you manage today. Your BATNA will be finding another job, for which your experience is in old unstable code maintenance and for which you're unlikely to get a glowing reference from your current bosses.

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There are several different types of "irreplaceability". There's inherent irreplaceability, where you have skills that are difficult to find. There's circumstantial irreplaceability, where a confluence of forces have made you particularly difficult to replace. There's also reliance irreplaceability, where the company has designed their processes around you, and would be damaged if you left.

When it comes to using irreplaceability as leverage, reliance irreplaceability is the most frowned upon. In this type of irreplaceability, you aren't inherently special, the company has simply allowed themselves to rely on you because they trust you, and leveraging that situation is violating that trust. Imagine you hire a wedding photographer and negotiate a fee, and the wedding photographer shows up the day of your wedding and says "Your wedding is starting in an hour. There's no way you're going to be able to book another photographer on this short of a notice, so I'm going to use that to negotiate a higher fee." Our society is based on trust, including trust that we can have the efficiency of labor specialization without specialists engaging in brinkmanship.

Using circumstantial irreplaceability isn't as bad, but it can still come off as exploitative, as you're benefitting from the misfortune of others. And besides the ethical issues, there's the practical issue that once the particular circumstances that made you irreplaceable are alleviated, the company may decide not only that you can be replaced, but you should.

Inherent irreplaceability, on the other hand, is fair game for charging a premium. There is a limit to how much premium you can charge before it starts looking exploitative; it helps if your skills are useful in the job market at large and you're therefore giving up a large paycheck somewhere else, rather than taking advantage of a niche need. There's also the issue of, if you think your skills are so valuable, why you accepted the lower salary to begin with. This sort of irreplaceability is best used when starting a new position or when there's relevant changes, such as an increase in workload.

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I think there is nothing morally or strategically wrong with using the fact that you impossibly/hard to replace, as leverage. Companies with none or few competitors also jack up their prices, so why shouldn't you? However there are obviously good ways and bad ways to phrase such leverage. Bad would be saying something like "Pay me more or I leave and the company will be down the drain soon". A better way to start would be something like "I am the main responsible for all essential software within this company so I think should be paid more". Only if the latter doesn't work you might consider resorting to more blunt demands and be prepared for the possible consequences others have outlined.

As a side note I agree with others that nobody is irreplaceable. But I do think you actually have (quite) some leverage in your situation.

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  • Some people are indeed irreplaceable depending on the circumstances. May 5 at 11:32
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After reading the other answers I am going to play devil's advocate and give you a slightly different perspective.

It depends.

Where are you based ? How does the market for hiring developers looks like in your area ? How appealing is this "old" programming language to developers proficient in this language (in fact, what language is it ?) Essentially, what is your competition...

Then, don't assume your employer is going to make rational choices when you are going to negotiate your salary. They may have ignored or misunderstood the problem until now, and they may repeat the same mistakes again.

You may find out that while you are not irreplaceable, it may be difficult to replace you.

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    The key thing here is not assuming the company is going to be rational. Even if the OP is really right and somehow losing him tanks the company, the people running the company may still fire him. If the company is that poorly run that they've already made such bad decisions with their software, why wouldn't they make another bad decision?
    – DaveG
    May 2 at 22:32
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Companies will rather spend 10 million to ensure you are easily replaceable, than give you 10 thousand and keep you hard to replace.

It's not about money, it's about power.

Even if you're very hard to replace right now, and make use of this power over the company, they will do everything in their power to make you replaceable as soon as possible, sparing no expense. And then they will replace you.

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