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Do you have a pointless job? [video] (bbc.com)
61 points by happy-go-lucky 240 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

In my experience, the more money I've made, the less I actually do. When I was young and worked minimum wage jobs, the management squeezed every minute out of us. "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean," etc.

Now that I'm a mid-career software developer, I'm making my highest salary so far and I do maybe two hours of work a week, so I agree with the "more pointless the job, the higher the pay" comment. At least when I flipped burgers, people were being fed.

I feel people are being excessively cynical about this. The most valuable people often do a small amount of work but make very good decisions. Example: you can have a manager with clear, attainable goals and an excellent staff. Or you can have a manager with a poor team and changing goals. The latter manager may work harder but to less effect.

Sometimes people are really busy because they are doing a bad job.

You make a good point. It reminds me of the Legend of the Handyman's Invoice as described on Snopes:

Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the problem area. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him to send an invoice.

The bill arrived, for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it.

Tesla? I suppose there are a lot of variations out there, but the Charles Steinmetz and Henry Ford [0] one seems most plausible to me:

> Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.

[0] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/charles-proteus-steinm...

> I do maybe two hours of work a week

This is what bothers me the most... in those 2 hours, I somehow save the company 8 hours a week because somebody was doing by hand what I did in a few lines of code.

Is that "positive value"? Sure, I made the company more efficient, but what's this person doing now? Did I make their job "more pointless"? I mean, I can't see what I did as a bad thing per se but... I just don't know how it plays out in the end.

I feel like there's a huge piece of the "work" puzzle that's missing in our culture.

You are describing the paradox of our work as programmers: when we do our job well, we are automating away tasks so they don't have to be done by hand, so there isn't any more work to do.

When I was a consultant, I knew I was on track to provide positive value to a client when I was working myself out of a job by automating everything that I could and by writing thorough documentation so that the full-timers could easily maintain what I had left behind.

And no, I don't think you made that person's job more pointless: you made it more comfortable by eliminating waste. As the saying goes, "Machines should work; people should think."

When I was a contractor, some of the applications and scripts I wrote took hours of work per day off of people. I was actually thanked because now they actually had time to do their "real" job instead of a bunch of tedious data entry or whatever. So while you may be automating some jobs away, you may be freeing others.

Would you feel the same way if you were an engineer who designed, say, electric saws? Would you then be harming people who used to have to use hand saws?

Yeah, I spent a day writing a tool that saved 5-6 people 4 hours a day, every day. Copying data from one system to another by ctrl+c ctrl-tab ctrl+v over and over again.

Ha, I used to hear a similar phrase working in food service: "Meantime is clean time!"

I've looked at people's commit history at work and been astonished to see maybe 12 or so commits in the last year. They are maybe 4th or 5th year tenure with the company, but I guarantee pulling more than 200K. Think about that...

Another thing to look at is the person's overall role. Are they an IC? Or do they have other tasks? I have many fewer commits these days than I did a few years ago. Is that because I've become lazy?

Maybe, but that's not the whole explanation. The whole explanation includes job duties that now involve managing a team, performing analysis and leadership functions for several business areas, setting agency standards, and so on. None of those tasks appear as commits in the version control system but still are assigned tasks that take up time.

When I am working on code I often still don't have the commit. A team member may come to me, "I have a question, I'm stuck on this part..." Then together we will investigate and discover a way forward. I'll then leave it to them to complete and commit it. Their name is the only name on the commit, but did I add any value? I hope so!

This is a very good point. At my last company, my title was Staff Software Engineer. However, because of my seniority, by design, I was expected to spend only about 20% of the time actually producing code. The rest of the time was expected to be mentoring others, doing code and design reviews, writing documentation, collaborating with other departments, etc.

The end result was that the more responsibility I had, the less code I wrote.

Are those 12 or so commits making or saving your company more than $200K per year? Or is it fair to say your highly paid colleagues are dead weight?

I believe I am dead weight at my company.

I am sure you are important to make one of your superiors look like she has a large and important team. You can take pride in that at least!

Ahh but are you going to plenty of meetings? I think that's all that really counts.

No, I do not attend any meetings.

Hah, I'm in a similar situation. When the business side of the firm isn't giving us new feature requests or there's no new bugs found I'm basically twiddling my fingers reading over the code base (at least parts I'm utterly unfamiliar with) or learning some new library that might be useful in the future.

I'm also a dev, and I'm pretty sure I'd get fired really fast if I only did 2 hours of work a day.

How many of us are coding projects that will never ship!?

Édit: bonus. How many have never shipped anything during their career?

Agree with this! When I worked at Disney I was blown away to meet very talented people who had been their for seven years and never worked on a game that was released to the public.

But there is a utility in this. We work on software, in which a small team can create a thing that has utility for millions of people for years. With that potential upside, it makes sense to spend the resources on a project even when the odds are less than 50/50 that you will meet the success criteria.

Another bonus: how many have shipped a project that remain unused?

It's not uncommon that we get responses back from people we email about support renewals after the first year that indicate the software was never installed, and everyone who knew about it is no longer at the company.

I assume people must be buying stuff to use up excess budget at the end of fiscal years.

God, that's depressing.

At my first startup, we sold exactly one license of our software. A famous news channel bought it for $120,000, the VP responsible for the purchase left for a new job a few months later, and our product was never installed nor used.

Wow, this hits close to home. I have shipped exactly 1 feature that has helped anyone, and it's only helped a few 10s of thousands of people. And the product which uses the feature is probably going to shut down soon.

Speaking as a dev of 8 years who has shipped a fair amount, that... sounds like a cool accomplishment. My work has been integral to the professional lives of like, 40 people - extremely small scale applications for scientific endeavors, mostly. I'm pretty proud of it. I'd be really proud of building something that helped ~20k people.

If it makes you feel better this feature was an enhancement to an in-app messaging system. So like, they could have just used email.

Yeah, solidly 80-90% of my time working has never really led to anything like enough benefit to anyone to justify it. Much of it's never benefitted anyone at all. There's a ton of stupid money in software right now. Enough to waste tons of our time on 9 things that don't work for the 1 that does.

Doesn't make it feel good to be a part of such an impersonal and abstract process, especially when software's already kinda impersonal and abstract on the best days.

10s of thousands is great, and much more than many developers will experience. A lot of developers (outside of tech companies especially) create software for "internal" or corporate use, often by one division. The various projects I supervise/work on have between 10 and 100 users. The total user count for all my projects together is less than 1000.

On the other hand, there's a good segment of those users who basically "live" (w.r.t work) in the software; every time I walk by the customer users area I see it front and center on their screens, which is a good feeling.

My job is to shut down deprecated products, does that count? (It is a lot harder than it sounds)

I had a CEO once tell us the story of previous work in the pet food industry. They had a food product that had low sales and they wanted to discontinue the product. He did what seemed obvious and raised the price. Sales went up. Customer surveys indicated they thought it was a premium product.

The very first anecdote (IIRC) in Cialdini's Influence is about exactly that effect. Seems to happen most when people don't have a good way to evaluate product quality (which is most of the time, really—consumers with the time and information access to be well-informed about more than a tiny fraction of what they buy is a first-week-of-Econ-101 fiction, like physics' "spherical pig" but even less connected to reality)

I would think the obvious thing is to stop shipping the product, isn't it?

If you'd be willing to share, I'd love to read some high level bullets about your work.

Seconded, I'd love to read a write-up on what that job is like.

Bonus+: or will ship projects that are pointless.

I'm not sure that's the metric that motivates me: better to work heroically on an ambitious project which ultimately fails than to add tiny features to something popular-but-mediocre.

My job is completely pointless; my company will make money no matter what I do. I (and I imagine most other people in general) do their best to normalize this in the name of having a stable life. Doing something meaningful is hard, harder than most people would want to deal with. Or at least that's the case for me.

I've found meaningful work in contributing to two volunteer projects for fan-games*. It's nice knowing the code I write gets used directly by the thousands of people who go on the MMO/the people who download the demos of the other (non MMO) game. If you're not involved in anything like that then just general open source contribution can also work.

Finding equally meaningful employment would probably be pretty hard though, and from what I've heard of the game dev industry, that route wouldn't likely be worth it.

>The more pointless the job, the higher the pay

This doesn't mean that the higher the pay the more pointless the job, even though that's what they imply at the end

I checked my payslip - all is good, I am not pointless, yet!

However, there is a closely related topic: bullsh1tting!


P.S. my favourite scene from the video is the guy rolling his head up and down the keyboard answering emails. Must try it.

All jobs are basically pointless except for agricultural jobs, which is all we need to survive.

construction, textiles, carpentry, blacksmithing, at minimum there's a lot of other labor intensive jobs that are essential to civilized life.

then there's all the necessary jobs that exist because humans living in hives creates many challenges of its own. police, fire fighters, medical jobs, lawyers and judges, legislators, etc. are all necessary functions for city-dwelling.

you might be noticing that most of these jobs are not things that have a whole lot of venture funded software companies working on. no, most of our venture funded software is fairly trivial and unimportant stuff in the grand scheme of things.

for example, I just manage servers and shit for a company that, on a fundamental level, is a hunger merchant. our product is hunger. we make people want to consume more. it's certainly not a necessary thing. in fact, it is probably harmful at least a little bit. there are worse things but what we do isn't really a good thing, at least not in any obvious way.

so yeah, not all jobs are pointless. but a lot of software jobs are.

Protection from starvation is indeed our basic need, but according to Maslov's theory we have other needs as well. On the other hand, a field such as marketing exist only to extend your share of the market at the cost of others (and to defend against others who try to do the same to you). It's a zero sum game without any benefit to the society.

>Maslov's theory we have other needs as well

So you think every hunter-gatherer is extremely unhappy?

On the contrary, I think they might be happier than many people in developed countries. When you look at the Maslov's hierarchy, they get less security and safety but might be getting more of the higher needs (intimate relationships and friends, sense of belonging, feeling of accomplishment/mastery).

Is there a way to download the video? I found some copy on YT but with bad english subtitles.

youtube-dl seems to work


saveclipbro... or anything like it.

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