Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I've automated my job? (stackexchange.com)
685 points by Ajedi32 207 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 522 comments

This question is a beautiful example of typical incentives workers feel and how screwed up they are. On HN people talk often enough about how if you have a worker who gets their job done in 30 hours instead of the company's usual 40-60 hours, you should give them 30-100% more responsibility, but much more rarely "and 30-100% more pay." Butt-in-the-chair hours are super important culturally and it's been that way for a while. Incentives are screwed up enough we're getting questions like this.

If you've ever thought "I'm done for the day, but I'm going to hang out a little longer to leave at a more respectable time," then you're feeling (and doing) the same kind of thing.

Adam Smith began his wealth of nations with a description of the division of labor and an essay on how this division leads to an increase in productivity. Specifically, he gives the example of a worker who's sole job it is to make pins, and who devises a way to make them by machine, while previously, each pin was hammered out by hand over a matter of minutes, the new machine makes them in seconds.

This division of labor is often cited as the thing that makes capitalism great.

This kind of optimization can be incentivized by way of piece work. Piece work is when workers are paid per piece rather than by the hour. Piece work is outlawed in the west. In the US, it was outlawed during the great depression when the minimum wage was instated. In Europe, I'm not sure when it was outlawed, but it is illegal here as well. In Asia and India, it is still legal. I feel that things like Uber, and Amazon's Mechanical Turk, are rejuvenations of the illegal piece work payment method.

Would it be unethical to apply AI to solve Mechanical Turk tasks?

I don't know if I think that piecework should be legal or illegal. The reasons for banning it were very compelling at the time.

Edit: spelling

everyone knows that quote but I doubt you've read WofN - about 1 paragraph later he says that this will drive the worker insane and may literally lead to the collapse of society:

"The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life... But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it."

I'll admit, that I didn't finish it. I got to the part where he starts going on and on about the proper price of things and the relationship to the price of gold, and "the torpor of my mind rendered me not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life." WoN is a LONG book!

But I did get past that paragraph, and it seems to have flown out the other ear.

I encourage you to read it. Pick up a copy (or get one of the many electronic versions), and go through it a bit at a time.

The book is well organised, though Smith is Very Wordy. Realise that he's building an argument, based on a great deal of observations, conversation, correspondece, lectures, and study. He's not a perfect guide, but he's a good and early one.

He's also been tremendously mis-cast by a great many others, and reading Smith in his own words is very often an antidote to that.

I'm working my way through various economic works, in a bit of a hop-scotch. There are a few good histories of thought -- The Worldly Philosophers, by Heilbronner, was popular in my uni days (1980s). Backhouse's The Ordinary Business of Life is more comprehensive, though exceedingly dry.

I found Arnold Toynbee (the elder), Lectures on the Industrial Revolution, to be fascinating. I'm going through a bit of John Stuart Mill (both he and his father wrote economics texts), and want to work through Marshall and Keynes. I have a sense that the state of economic theory around the turn of / early 20th century was important.

For more recent theory -- I'm pretty disappointed in economics (it was my major field of study) -- but suggest a mainstream textbook as at least an anchor. Steve Keen, Herman Daly, Nicholaus Georgescu-Roegen, W. Brian Arthur, and the chap at Oxford University I can't think of right now (Eric? Nick?) are interesting. Ah: Erick Beinhocker.




Please, don't go without read "Human Action" by Ludwig von Mises.

That sounds about the same as normal factory work if we're being honest, which is still around. Yes, it really does bore you to death. No, it doesn't make you incapable of thinking. Usually the people who take a crap job like that simply don't spend that much time on intellectual pursuits to begin with. What it does do is to drain you of all energy such that it's hard to get away from it to something more decent.

> Usually the people who take a crap job like that simply don't spend that much time on intellectual pursuits to begin with.

There are many who through circumstance or poor (or good?) choices ended up with the crap job but nevertheless pay attention to the larger world around them learn as much as they can. Maybe they studied history and are working in an Amazon warehouse. There is a lot of "squandered" intelligence and curiosity and unapplied ability in the non-knowledge-worker workforce.

I've worked this kind of job when I was younger - I think "a lot" is overstating it.

There may be some people above the level working those kind of jobs but most are not really what you would called untapped geniuses. These are folk you can't rely on pressing a few buttons in the correct sequence when the situation is life threatening. Guesstimate : a lot of them are sub 100 IQ.

Educated people working in professions which select related to IQ get surrounded by other high IQ people they forget what the other side of the bell curve looks like - despite the liberal blank slate fantasies all people don't have the same potential, a big % is genetic/predetermined and those people are much more likely to end up in the low income bracket (income and IQ are highly correlated, and heritability of IQ is significant, and things like parenting are not other then being potentially detrimental).

From what scientifically valid sources do you draw your conclusions.

They are super easy to find it shouldn't even be controversial if you search.

that'd be around half as a first order approximation.

I wouldn't be so quick to call it squandered potential. Sure, that person may have studied history and now works in Amazon. But perhaps some of the lessons they learned from their deep study at some point have a parallel to their job. Perhaps it comes up as a topic of conversation at work and is used to build a lasting friendship. What if that person, after studying history, decided that they didn't want to pursue a job in it.

I have a degree in computer networking that I've never used. Most of my job experience is working retail. While working retail, I've found time to put into doing software development as a hobby.

>What if that person, after studying history, decided that they didn't want to pursue a job in it.

They still would have not decided, if the food on the table thing wasn't pressing, that they should get a job on Amazon (warehouse) over it.

I only meant to speak about the people I know personally. You are correct that everyone was there due to having no other options. It takes a lot of energy to make other options for yourself and factory work is not conductive to that at all.

Of the people I knew who frequently read or studied things in their spare time, one quit to become a pharmacist and the other now works in IT last I heard. And then there's me.

I'm blue collar.

I program computers. I read books. I clean toilets, clean windows and presently am organizing myself to construct a house, everything from framing to finishing.

While at university I realized two things that caused me to drop out after three years of computers science.

1. I was never going to be paid very much (in the UK) for knowing what I did about computation, despite it being very difficult for a majority of the population and having a sunk cost, which was suspect to me.

2. My old summer cleaning job paid better than computer programming and I could 'level up' by buying my own equipment, hiring workers and pay myself at a much faster rate. I could also control my costs far more adeptly since I wouldn't have to live in a major metropolitan area with sky high rents/taxes.

All this I believe is indicative of the deep nature of Moravec's Paradox, probably the most important law nobody has heard of and that few programmers seem to understand.

I read books all the time, I love learning new things. I'm working through interesting old books on a kaleidoscope of topics.

Formal education for me was a complete and total waste of my time. It is a road to nowhere, just as the formal job market is. An actual intellectual behaves like Gwern or DredMorbius, not the hordes of semi-institutionalized people who actually inhabit today's universities.

I have decided to construct a house, a system really, that will enable my lifestyle to be extremely low cost so that I may recover my time and use it for what I will.

Don't get me wrong, I understand your point, it is true that on average blue collar workers are less bookish than white collar workers. However there exist 'traps' in both fields that consume people. For blue collar it might be the effort of exploring new things as Smith pointed out. For white collar it is much the same but in a different way. How many of your peers can build a house with their own hands? I don't think anybody looks at that Primitive Technology Guy and thinks "Gosh, what an unintellectual idiot".

tldr; Have a multifaceted model of reality and don't fall into cognitive traps.

Why do you think you couldn't get good salary as a developer in UK. Is IT market so low paid in there? I know at least one person who seems to be fine in there.

Yes, in comparison to the alternatives for somebody like the average programmer

Trigger Warning: Micro Essay coming up and one that may irk you. I understand that and accept my view is not the conventional one.

My view:

I have a negative view of the industry, but I think I can justify it. Don't read on unless you want to hear about the industry's failure modes. There are many positive things about our industry and people, but here I'm not going to focus on those.

With respect to the cost of living salaries are dismal. People who come to HN are likely to be in the top 1-10% of wages/capital in our sector because they are usually already upper middle class (did your parents buy a computer for you in the 80s-90s...?) so their experiences are likely not representative. Some subgroups like programmers in finance may make wildly more money than others although often at the cost of working twice as hard in hours than the average human being with the attendant burnout risk. Then there is a large subgroup of programmers making < 20k per year we don't talk about very much, often filled with people who merely had the bad luck to graduate after the credit crunch without a strong 'network'. They work long hours and are paid badly or work short hours and have little potential for advancement, often set against labour imported from other countries. One person I know who's done relatively well for himself has managed to do so by skipping from one industry with NDAs (preventing him from working in that sector X for Y years, effectively ever again) to another until he finally managed to land a good contract. This is what is sold to university students as the easy route. Sure doesn't look like it. Huge numbers of recruiters lusting for your talent, but poor pay all things considered, an intriguing paradox.

In Silicon Valley the salaries are partially high (relative to other cities) because the rents and taxes are also high. That is not a gain in of itself. Peter Thiel and Larry Page have made this point several times, although it usually falls on deaf ears because of Silicon Valley's glamour factor (reminiscent of actors in Los Angeles). The important thing is the take home pay. I do not think wages are especially high considering the rarity of the skills involved, even in Silicon Valley. I believe a good wage there should be about 150k. Crudely if your skill is actually rare then you should be able to command at least twice as much as the average industrial wage after taxes/rents and cost of living is subtracted. It is not this high, and that is partially because a wage cartel existed and likely still exists in Silicon Valley between all the major firms. This should not be controversial, it's publicly available information.

A good plumber, electrician or even a humble window cleaner with his own van can bring down just as much or more money than the majority of white collar jobs that most students enter from university today. That is a fact, obfuscated because those fields often contain foreign/welfare class labour who receive low wages i.e. the actual spread of wages is bifurcated, something which has been explained at length by Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution. There's a big pool of part-time poorly paid people (have no leverage because they can't afford insurance, tools, knowing the right people) and then a portion of the 'blue collar class' that are more like competent micro sized capitalists easily making > 70k even if it doesn't appear on the books. This is true across a wide spectrum of blue collar work, especially in the building trades.

Simple example: a typical cleaner makes just over 9 euros per hour, but I make 20-25 with flexible hours and will be making 35+ once my operation is set up correctly, making it easy to transition into being a business owner.

I can make > 40k per year with blue collar work with a cost of living that is about 10k per year, net gain of 30k. Most programmers I know who graduated since the Credit Crunch in England are not able to say the same thing.

Of course on HN one can wave a dozen programmers making 1 million dollars per year in my face, but the median and average are two very different things. I very much doubt the average programmer in San Francisco or London can afford to buy a house within five years of working and saving up - and that is something my grandparents or even parents could have easily done on blue collar wages in the past.

NDAs (underrated way of lowering wages!), Moravec's Paradox, location rents/taxes, Wage Cartels and Winner Take All Affects explain why 'going into STEM' and succeeding might be the worst decision you ever made as a 'smart person' unless you're getting stocks/options. I think most young people, most university students are getting mugged and most of them won't work that out for years.

The real TLDR here is "Don't compete with people like you", it might look and feel right but it is a bad notion, a Thielian observation and a right one.

I have not given up on computer science by the way, far from it. I think there's a bunch of not obvious ways blue collar insights into work can join with computation to provide value. I'm constantly reading relevant books and one day hope to open my own business that makes use of computers, that's why I'm here (and geek fellowship!).

I appreciate this essay and it's a really great read, but I'm not sure your estimate of the average programmer salary is spot on. You're likely right about SV: Wages there are high but costs likely end up eating most of it. But SV is not the only tech hub. I live in Denver, just graduated a year ago, and am currently making 75k USD with an additional 40k benefit package in the form of a benefit account and profit sharing plan. That's about average for the wages of my peers--many of whom came from one of the local 4 month long Java bootcamps rather than from a university.

I really like your TLDR. It perfectly captures that nagging feeling I get about this business whenever I fail an accursed tech interview. No amount of informed commentary about the craft will suffice when they want somebody who knows the difference between the STL's reserve() and resize() methods.

this is a ridiculous claim. I worked in London and with 5 years experience I was earning about 75k contracting, 10 years ago. And that was a pretty standard contract, nothing special. Your claim that I would have been better off with a blue collar job outside the capital is laughable.

There are so many variables involved that the reality is more fuzzy, and the concept certainly isn't 'laughable'.

Thank you for that. I really appreciate your candor.

Usually the people who take a crap job like that simply don't spend that much time on intellectual pursuits to begin with. What it does do is to drain you of all energy such that it's hard to get away from it to something more decent.

You have the key point, but backwards -- poverty and lack of opportunity are what causes the drain of energy, and taking the mindless job is the consequence.

Then, the mindless, exhausting job keeps you drained so future opportunities are unavailable to you. Then your impoverished children, bereft of hope, walk the same path, ad infinitum.

You're definitely right that they feed off of each other, but it's not all one way or the other. I've seen it go both ways in my circle of acquaintances.

Usually the people who take a crap job like that simply don't spend that much time on intellectual pursuits to begin with.

Well that's definitely not elitist...

You're right, it's most certainly not! I wish someone could tell us how it is "elitist" to point out that some people are "smart" and some aren't. Not every person can be nor desires to be an engineer/surgeon/attorney and that's totally okay, the world needs big dumb jocks too.

>You're right, it's most certainly not! I wish someone could tell us how it is "elitist" to point out that some people are "smart" and some aren't.

Well, for one it's a sign of a stupid person (who's also not paying attention) to believe that people working at lowly jobs aren't (or worse can't) be intelligent or follow intellectual pursuits.

Not sure here:

> Usually the people who take a crap job [...] don't spend that much time on intellectual pursuits to begin with.

He said that usually it is like that. Is that correct? It fits my experience but I don't know. But do you know it's wrong? I don't think so...

Now calling GP stupid, dropping the word "usually" and speculating he meant people working at lowly jobs can't be intelligent certainly is not a good deed in favor of your argument.

I wouldn't put anything into absolutes. I know one guy who left the factory floor to become a pharmacist and another who left for IT.

But on average, the people I knew had been in some minor trouble and needed something to put food on the table. And a factory job paid just barely enough more than average that they could support their family even though the work really sucked.

And boy did it suck. I honestly worry about them right now, knowing that it's been near 120F. I know just how pathetic a swamp cooler is in that weather, especially if they're working 12h shifts and often having 6 day weeks.

> I know one guy who left the factory floor to become a pharmacist and another who left for IT.

I spent the better part of my post-dropout early 20s doing work as "lowly" as shoveling literal horseshit as a general contractor's assistant while I spent my evenings learning the software business. Fast forward to 30 and I'm sitting here in my swanky coworking space in one of the most desirable parts of one of the most desirable cities in America, while working toward a director role at a very successful company in arguably the hottest industry in America. And what, I was some kind of stoner shit shoveler?

Ambitious hardworking people are still what drive innovation, so my advise to anyone looking to network is to keep those types close and not to get hung up so much on pedigree or what not.

I, too, noticed that what matters is how good you want to be, not how good you currently are.

Actually, i loved brooming on my familys farm. It has something meditative, you can philosophize way more with boring repetetive work.

It's not that. It's that not everyone who desires to be an engineer/surgeon/attorney has the resources or opportunities to do so. Some people are barely surviving as it is. Intellectual pursuits are a luxury for them.

Are they? In a world with libraries and vast amounts of knowledge in the palms of our hands?

My Pops never graduated college but he's one of my biggest inspirations because he goes out and builds things (well, stays in and builds thing I suppose). He started by building fiberglass boats and eventually ended up having a career as a graphic designer (a much less menial job than factory worker to be sure), but when he left work he'd use his time to persue crafts such as woodworking, photography, and these days even stained glass making.

These are of course slightly affluent crafts (although his tools are primarily purchased used and he frequently refinishes their edges or replaces their blades), but my question is, what percentage of people are persuing activities like these in their free time?

Unless of course your implication is that today the factory worker may not be as common as the two/three job clerk barely making ends meet with little to no _time_ for these persuits, and that perhaps the luxury status comes not from the monetary values required but from the less fungible resources of our lives.

In which case, yes, totally agree. But I also think there's something to be said for the people who don't primarily spend their free time scrolling through social media, watching television, and partying and instead perform small iterations frequently towards larger more rewarding goals. And I think that whether through nature or nurture or both, a lot of people just _don't_ do those things.

And then there's less affluent parts of the world where the luxurial aspect may actually be monetary, and places where it is temporally and monetarily luxurious as well.

> But I also think there's something to be said for the people who don't primarily spend their free time scrolling through social media, watching television, and partying and instead perform small iterations frequently towards larger more rewarding goals.

The thing is, I could spend what little energy I have post-job to do something "rewarding", such as for example developing little game prototypes, or I could spend it to enrich my life by reading books, going hiking, meeting friends, and yes, mindlessly reading HN or watching TV shows. I feel like pursuing a hobby would leave me tired and drained (not to mention frustrated at the minimal progress I'd be making), while the activities I listed rejuvenate me and allow me to stay sane.

Do you live in the US? Because where I'm from, our public libraries suck and not everyone has access to the internet. I agree that people with access to public libraries and the internet have no excuse. What I'm telling you is that a large number of people in other places of the world don't have access to even that.

A lot of people just don't get what's out there. You can basically take college classes for free these days, but it's up to figure things out.

Some people take that and become math prodigies or what have you. Whereas I know that I'm too often guilty of spending my time on entertainment.

Anecdotally, intellectual pursuits simply aren't of interest to them. Those interested in intellectual pursuits (aka nerds/geeks) are a minority of the population.

It's also the kind of thinking that leads to racism - because most people in highly paid jobs tend to be white. It's an extremely narrow, ignorant world view to think that people in factory jobs are less intelligent. Meritocracy and the American dream is generally only accessible to the affluent.

It's also an extremely narrow, ignorant view of ability/intelligence in general. I've never struggled with math or CS at any time in my life, cruised through college, but I find myself agonizing over the stark difference in social ability between myself and people who spend time doing more blue-collar stuff. As a developer, I've come to realize that my usefulness is bottlenecked mostly by my lack of social skills, and I feel as hopeless trying to learn that as I'd expect someone struggling with math might feel. If anything I'm getting worse.

The point is, intelligence is not one dimensional -- and it's possible to do well at some things and poorly at others. I wonder how much of that 'specialization' is innate vs. learned? If the blue-collared social savant had spent his formative years learning math instead?

It's a bit disingenuous to point out that a factory worker is bad at math when their circumstances likely caused them not to focus on it. Especially when they display abilities above your own in other areas...

It is possible to become a social savant if you apply yourself and practice. Most social skills are a handful of routines and checklists coupled with practice in real life situations.

You shouldn't label yourself 'bad at social' or 'bad at math' because it'll hold your confident to improve in check.

If you keep a notebook, deliberately put yourself into social settings and keep score it'll be intimidating but you'll improve.

I hope so. Part of the problem is I think I'm a slow thinker, so when talking on technical concepts, people have a tendency to blow by me when I need clarification on the things they said three sentences ago. And once I finally get clarification, I have to retrace through their entire thought process with the new context.

Hard to manage this type of conversation without being a jerk.

That's quite alright. I've had similar experiences in social and technical settings from both sides of that interaction.

What you refer to as 'slow thinking' is likely being thoroughly analytical. I know quite a few programmers like this. It's System 1 and System 2 all over again (book title: thinking fast and slow).

Thinking from 'Elon Musk's First Principals' isn't fast, it's just really important, like how a CPU register is intrinsically more constrained than a HD but the role is differently important. Knowing when to context switch from Sys1 to Sys2 takes practice, not that I'm an expert at that either.

I often find it easy to bedazzle and bamboozle people with knowledge (or more like streams of consciousnesses!), but it's sometimes not that I'm good, so much as that I'm not communicating simple ideas properly to them. Geeks are often very bad at communicating for that reason, and when in groups it gets worse because we can fall into competing by being semi-obscurantist. As the guy who runs the Sante Fe Insitute points out: "You made that look easy" is a statement about intelligence. I highly recommend you examine David Krakauer's idea on intelligence, ignorance and stupidity:


The fact of the matter is that when dealing with new knowledge nearly everybody is slow and this is covered up through a variety of tricks. People who are very socially adept are exactly like construction workers in the trades. They actually make about the same number of mistakes as the newbs, it is just that they recover from them faster because they know what to do next....

So I'd encourage you to notebook your interactions and keep a self made score. Sounds simple but could be immensely important for you. The important bit is "I screwed that one up", "what next?", because knowing the answer to that will solve for most circumstances.

Humans are not the top predator because we're faster or stronger, we're on top because we're the most adaptable. It might not feel like it all the time to you and I, but we're in possession of AI super intelligence like powers in our brains and it's just a case of harnessing them, giving them training data... :-)

Personally I know I'm bad at correlating names and faces, so I intend to keep a record of name to face data for the right contexts.

I don't think that people in factory jobs are stupid, I think that the people I personally knew didn't spend much time on intellectual pursuits. There were a few notable exceptions and every single one of them left that kind of work.

The turnover rate is crazy--think double digit percentages per month. I can assure you that nobody stays very long on a production floor with no AC in a place with 120F summers if they can possibly avoid it.

"if we're being honest"

Can't I assume you always are?

How many people do you know who can honestly tell you they've never ever told even a harmless lie?

Do you want an honest answer? Or would a harmless lie be acceptable?

Two persons actually. Both have real visible problems lying or even saying something they are not 100% sure of. If uncertain they will tell you clearly how uncertain they are so you can assess how much weight to put on the statement.

I remember this quote as part of justification of education, as in that most poor labor can dumb the mind so there is a case for government educate the people.

I also found his entire take on education fantastic, including accusing Cambridge (or oxford?) that "they have even dropped their pretenses of teaching".

The problem with piece work (in an agricultural context, at least) is that is reveals a wide discrepancy in productivity between workers. The most productive workers are usually about 8x as productive as the average. Employers balk at the prospect of paying that much extra, so they create various kinds of mixed schemes that cap the worker's pay regardless of how much actual work they do. So the practical result of piece work is simply to punish below-average workers, without actually doing anything to incentivize above-average work.

Do you have a source for that 8x figure? I have heard the term tossed about in the context of engineering, but agriculture is a surprise!

When I picked blueberries as a summer job there certainly wasn't an 8x difference between workers. Perhaps between us and the you-pick people?

I've worked jobs with such a disparity. For a govt census job, the top two workers out of 20 visited 3x the dwellings per hour and had a ~4x success rate per dwelling compared to the average, so they were literally doing as much as the other 18 employees.

What were they doing differently? And why were the other workers not trained to do the same?

They've almost certainly been just nicer people who people liked to communicate better. Like, young pretty girls with pleasant voice. And they knew how to build right approach to people. That's it, and it can't be trained.

I do have a source, and I finally tracked it down:


I'd guess no matter the original context, once you're being 8x more effective than your colleagues, it's due to some kind of engineering. So in agriculture, your 8x hay mower is the one who's built himself a scythe instead of using a hand knife.

In that case, should he tell his employer he mechanized his work?

Why is it bad for the employer to get 8x as much out of some workers?

I think the point of the comment was: Nothing, as long as she's prepared to pay 8x as well, which she usually wasn't.

It's bad for the same reason all short-sighted goals are bad. You can't repeatedly institutionalize short term goals over long term goals without suffering long term failure.

Sometimes people produce less for reasons that are actually very important. This should be doubly clear in software, where "line of code" are not an accurate measure of successful work.

In both, the bullies end up with more stuff in their basket.

I don't understand the down votes and all these answers.

If I'm paying strictly for pieces produced (e.g. apples picked, widgets assembled) why would I balk at paying you for all of them if you're capable of 8X the average. I'm not losing anything.

Hell, I should be studying you to see how you're so efficient and apply that to my production (assuming you're not Superman hiding out).

Of course, that's not the same as cranking up the line speed at a dangerous job to crank out more widgets at the cost of more injuries.

Exactly - you pay more over a shorter period, or, in the case of a continuous widget assembly line, you pay fewer people more.

You SHOULD be but the reality of capital is that it is rarely willing to pay that much if it can help it.

It's not bad for the employer to get 8x as much out; it's bad for the employer to pay 8x as much, when they could pay (say) 3x as much and keep the other 5x as profit.

Doubly so if the easily measurable increase in quantity could be achieved at the expense of other qualities that are much more difficult to put in indisputable numbers.

That guy who closes tickets faster than anybody else at the company, but does so by crapping all over the code, he's being discussed all the time here on hacker news.

What is the source of the additional output?

To whom should that surplus flow? The labourer? Or the employer of that labourer?

Defend your answer.

Piecework (and Mechnical Turk!) probably makes more sense in an environment with Basic Income. That gives the employee a chance to decide if the effort is worth the $/piece without compromising on their health and welfare.

Yep. Basic income means we can do away with minimum wage. Now let's see how much poorly-regarded jobs (like janitorial) end up paying when the free market really does decide.

My prediction is "not that different from today, perhaps a little less". The chief skills required are reliability and work ethic. People getting UBI of $600-800/mo aren't going to see janitorial work as "beneath them".

It would probably increase the value of such work. If I get $600/mo I am going to want a lot more than that to work full time doing something messy. Anything that was previously paying below the basic income amount would have to increase the wage to get anyone to take it up. This is already an issue in countries with an actual welfare system, you can't really pay below the dole rate and expect anything other than illegal workers who are going to do the absolute minimum.

This isn't a downside of basic income, there is always a floor on the amount you can pay for labour. If you pay below what the market expects you are only going to get the truly inept to do it.

Basic income is financially impossible. Even retirement schemes are barely sustainable and constantly under pressure these days.

Financial impossibility is a strange thing. Is if physically impossible for just %20 of the population to work? We have so much amazing technology, we should be able to attain that. Why let money get in the way of what is physically possible? Its just paper. Its not even paper. Its an integer.

All right, why not give a billion dollars each tomorrow? It's just integers (OK, decimals) in bank accounts. Let's do that and solve our economic problems for good! /s

Monetary supply/demand is a tiny bit more complicated than that.

This is exactly what I tried to describe to a non-engineer, and failed.

Piecework is perfectly legal in the US: https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/industrialhomework

The fact that minumum wage/sick leave ect must be paid is relevant to this specific example, because it is very much unclear how these rules would be applied to the person working 2 hours a week on a job they have automated away. Is that a full time worker who should get mandatory health insurance or a part time worker? Does that status change over time as the automation improves?

> it is very much unclear how these rules would be applied to the person working 2 hours a week on a job they have automated away.

Is that an important question? Presumably that person is running their automation enough that they get more than minimum wage.

No it is not.

You are allowed to pay by the peice, but you must pay at least minimum wage, you must pay sick leave, you must pay health insurance, you cannot fire for unjust cause (at least in Europe). That marks the definitive end to piece work as we knew it in Adam Smith's time when a stranger could show up at the factory door and be paid by the piece for one day or one afternoon, something which really was even common in the era before the "Fair Labor Standards Act" was passed [1]. To quote from your linked article on the Act "All individually covered homework is subject to the FLSA's minimum wage, overtime, and recordkeeping requirements. Employers must provide workers with handbooks to record time, expenses, and pay information."

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piece_work#Minimum_wage

Setting a floor for piecework pay isn't the same as making it illegal. There's still payment according to widgets produced in all other cases. I agree that it does change some of the incentives for piecework, and perhaps you could argue that it's effectively prohibited, but piecework per se is nevertheless perfectly legal.

It is the basis for pay for most over-the-road truck drivers, who are paid by miles driven.

The point is that if you're receiving a minimum of the minimum wage, then by definition you're getting a wage. If you're getting a wage, then you're being paid per hour. If you're being paid per hour, then you're not being paid piecework and OP owes his/her employer another 38 hours per week.

If your piecework is enough to make more than 40 hours at the minimum wage, then you don't owe the employer anything because the calculation for your pay is now decoupled from the hours that you work.

Using those same arguments, working for wages is also illegal because of the same legal requirements for minimum wage, breaks, insurance, and whatnot.

Sounds to me like saying "Piecework is illegal" is oversimplified to the point of being false, if not highly misleading.

It was still legal in 2015 in the Netherlands: http://www.nu.nl/economie/4142545/inspectie-adviseert-minist... . Looking at the German Wikipedia ("Akkordlohn"), it is still legal in Germany in specific circumstances.

>Would it be unethical to apply AI to solve Mechanical Turk tasks?

Effectively AI doing QA work on data used to train other AIs, that would be amusing.

You might be interested in what this commentator on economics had to say about piecework:

"Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three. This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece; as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary.

"Almost every class of artificers is subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work. Ramuzzini, an eminent Italian physician, has written a particular book concerning such diseases. We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us; yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation, and the desire of greater gain, frequently prompted them to overwork themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour.

"Excessive application, during four days of the week, is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together is, in most men, naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force, or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes too of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, bring on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate, than to animate the application of many of their workmen.

"It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately, as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work."

-- Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776. Book 1, Chapter 8


Emphasis added.

It's an interesting argument, but is it based on empirical evidence, or merely supposition?

(More recently, you can observe a seeming correlation between the decline in hours worked and the increase in labor productivity in the US in the 20th century--and I think in the rest of the developed world--but I don't know if this is causal or not.)

Smith specifically cites a reference, Remuzzini, in the passage.

I've the hardcopy version by Edwin Cannan with his notes, that doesn't specifically indicate additional sources, and I'm not aware of any further scholarship on this.

If you read Smith, he generally writes from a mix of scholarship and experience, though generally doesn't cite his sources with the rigour you'd expect from a current academic text. That's somewhat disappointing. He does occasionally go well wide the mark -- his accounts of barter and recommendations to the American colonies to avoid industrialisation are among his more telling blunders. I recommend him as a) informative, b) highly misrepresented (most particularly by the Mont Pelerin / free-market fundamentalist / libertarian camp), and c) imperfect but useful.

Generally, Smith is a bit of a cipher: he ordered his unpublished correspondence and notes burned on his death, and there are relatively few biographies of him.

The one of which I'm aware that was near-contemporary, by Dugald Stewart written a few years after Smith's death, I've marked up and published as PDF and ePub, links available here:


Markdown: http://pastebin.com/LdKXpHdR

PDF: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6Q6JFf-mAJPY0tfaXlQWUNwLWc...

ePub: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6Q6JFf-mAJPdXgwcm1NbDhQdEE...

There's a great deal of highly ideological treatment of Smith, of course. I try to avoid that where possible.

Edwin Cannan and Francis Wrigley Hirst (ideological: free-market advocate) wrote biographies in the late 19th / early 20th century. I've not read them.

Emma Rothschild (of the famed banking family) has written some of the more sensible Smith scholarship I've seen: http://www.worldcat.org/title/economic-sentiments-adam-smith...

There's also a Cambridge Companion on Smith I suspect is worth looking at: http://www.worldcat.org/title/cambridge-companion-to-adam-sm...

Thanks. I'm always surprised at the thoroughness of some replies here.

BTW: Ello? I didn't realize that was still around. :)

Ello ... is doing poorly of late.

Interesting idea, but the long-standing bugs aren't being fixed, and recent directions are killing engagement.

Marvelous quote.

Adam Smith is truly liberal. I wish he didnt have the reputation of a ruthless capitalist intellectual.

> In Europe, I'm not sure when it was outlawed, but it is illegal here as well.

It wasn't in the UK ~20 years ago. I did agricultural piece-work as a summer job, and made way more than I would have done in a shop or fast-food restaurant (and got much more exercise and fresh air).

> Would it be unethical to apply AI to solve Mechanical Turk tasks?

The buyer pays for having a human in the loop, you claim to put a human in the loop but don't. Fraud, plain and simple.

Would it be unethical to sell "I can't believe it's not" as actual butter?

I did not realise piece rate was outlawed in so many places. In vineyard work in Australia, workers are often paid per vine or per bucket and it is labelled piece rate so it's not like it's a sneaky work around.

> Would it be unethical to apply AI to solve Mechanical Turk tasks?

Well, you'd have to use mechanical turk to train it, so maybe you should just ask the trained turk.

*piece work

Fixed, thanks

It would if you were explicitly told to do it without automation. Otherwise you're paid to do a job, and you did it, so all good.

Piecework is not illegal in the US. They may structure it in a particular manner so that it uses a loop hole in the law but I know of a number of companies that pay by the piece.

This particular case is weird in that they hired a programmer to do the job of a data entry person. It turns out that they -- accidentally -- made the right decision, because it's frankly stupid to pay someone for a month of work when you could spend a little up-front time automating it and eliminate the need for the job entirely.

So, honestly, I don't think it would be wrong for the company, if they knew about the automation, to let the OP go and have the analysts themselves run the script. As a company, I don't think you should be required to pay someone to do a job that isn't necessary, even if the worker himself made the job unnecessary. I mean, we wouldn't be having the same discussion here if the company had instead hired someone (perhaps even the OP) on contract specifically to automate the job, and that was it.

I hesitate to suggest that what the OP is doing is unethical. I think aspects of it aren't quite above board: deliberately inserting bugs/mistakes to hide that it's now automated is, IMO, crossing the line. And at the end of the day, the company thinks they are paying the guy to do one thing, which they believe takes a significant chunk of time, but that's not the case. If he wasn't remote, and had to come into the office every day, his deception would probably be quickly found out, so in essence he's abusing his remote-work arrangement.

But hey, you gotta eat, and 1:1 time with a child is a great thing. Employers naturally have the advantage of a power imbalance, and it sounds like this guy lives in an area where tech jobs aren't aplenty.

I think my advice would be: well, the deed is done. Don't tell your employer yet, but start using your copious amounts of free time to search for a new job that also allows remote work, even if it takes several months to find one. Once you find something, give notice, and tell the employer that, as a parting gift, you automated the job, and give them the automation tool. At that point it's up to them what they want to do: hire another data entry monkey, or use the tool. Either way, I doubt this job would last forever (automated or otherwise), and then you'd just be out on your ass without any professional growth on record to use to help you get a new, better one.

> And at the end of the day, the company thinks they are paying the guy to do one thing, which they believe takes a significant chunk of time, but that's not the case. If he wasn't remote, and had to come into the office every day, his deception would probably be quickly found out, so in essence he's abusing his remote-work arrangement.

Good litmus test to know if there is abuse is to reverse the role. Is it wrong for a company to charge market rate if they can produce order of magnitude cheaper than their competitors ?

Sure the employee-employer relationship is not the same as B2B and we don't know exactly the contract he signed, ... but if you, like me, are down that line of though you have already implicitly admitted that although it is clear the company is right but somehow it feels wrong for the employee ? Well in that case, the employee is right not to say anything. And to align with your advice, like the company above, use the opportunity to use the time to the most profitable fashion.

Good answer. If the employer is paying the employee to do a role, and that employee is doing nothing but fulfilling the role, the contract of employment has been met. There is an inherent imbalance of power in almost all employer-employee relationships, so chastising the employee for only doing the requirements of the job is unfair.

Since it's already on the onus of the employer to judge the performance of the employee, if they are unable to recognize that the employee is a high performer and has worked himself or herself out of the current role, that responsibility lies on the employer and the employer alone

Under the OP's current situation, if he/she is doing nothing but meeting the requirements of employment, he/she should expect nothing in the way of extra compensation but cost of living adjustments. In the same way, if that's the only requirements the employer sets, there should be no expectation to deliver anything further than what they have asked.

In a pure capitalist perspective, employment is nothing but an agreement between the employee and employer. If the employee meets those agreements, they are satisfying the market. Expecting anything more from the employee is not being a pure capitalist. You cannot have your cake and eat it too as an employer. You either subscribe to the idea of the market dictating supply and demand or you don't. If you find that the employee is gaming the system just like you are, there shouldn't be any judgement or hard feelings.

> I mean, we wouldn't be having the same discussion here if the company had instead hired someone (perhaps even the OP) on contract specifically to automate the job, and that was it.

A small fallacy to this idea: An automation contractor would have been paid differently (i.e. more, maybe even dramatically more) for the job, so it's not directly equivalent. The rates for semi-skilled data input labor vs creating a tool that will yield ongoing, long-term value are completely different, which is the real source of conflict here.

I would also add, I think it's relevant the employer never actually asked him to look into automating the process - And it's not even clear they would have wanted him to do it or to continue using it if they found out he is doing it.

He quite literally just did the work of an automation contractor at the rate of a data-entry person (Or even possibly for free if he did it after hours) without every being asked to do so, so in some ways I have a hard time 'feeling bad' for him in this respect. Before ever writing the program/scripts/etc. he could have told his manager he thought he could automate the process and propose being paid differently (And/or moving into another position or taking on other work once it is done). If they are/were actually interested in automating, they would have likely taken him up on the offer and paid him more or given him a different position, considering it still would have cost less to have him do it then to fire him and hire someone else. And if they didn't want it, then he doesn't do the work in the first place.

No, the company didn't make the right decision. They hired a programmer to do the work of a data-entry person.

If they hired that programmer to do the work of a programmer, the automation software would be work-for-hire, and would belong to the company. Since they hired the programmer to do different work, in the absence of an explicit agreement saying otherwise, the automation software belongs to OP, to use (and license) as they please.

If the company owned the software, they could keep OP for occasional maintenance work, even as the other analysts pack up their desk clutter. Since they don't, if they let OP go, OP can just license the software directly to all their analysts without further fear of being fired.

They can all play golf or racquetball or bowling or whatever during the 4.5 days of free time each week that OP can sell to them.

Most of the time, employers are savvy enough to write employment contracts which cover this eventuality and lay broad claim to all work products and require the employee to do any sort of work.

My guess is that most programmers are employed under contracts that give them no additional recourse if, for an extreme example, their employer decided that they should now spend their time on janitorial duties.

>My guess is that most programmers are employed under contracts that give them no additional recourse if, for an extreme example, their employer decided that they should now spend their time on janitorial duties.

That's a textbook case of constructive dismissal.

I'm laughing to myself right now. Employment contracts?! Most of the time, outside the utopian heaven that is Silicon Valley, tech pros are employed "at will", with no contract whatsoever, with several unilaterally signed "agreements", designed to intimidate the employee with legalisms and implied threat of lawsuits.

Nobody I know in the industry has a contract. We can all be fired at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all, and frequently have been. The one and only consequence we might face for not transferring rights to software that was not written at the behest of our employers is loss of employment. But we could face the same penalty for wearing cargo shorts or a tank top to the office one day.

If you write something worth more than your current job, go for it, buddy. The worst they can do is fire you. I have never seen even one of those accessory agreements that might meet the legal standard for a contract. I sign them because my employer tells me to sign them, and I don't want to be fired for insubordination.

I'd actually be fine doing janitorial work, if I still got the same pay. Because then I could delegate my assigned work to an actual janitor, earning janitor pay, and I could spend my free time looking for another job.

OK, that's splitting hairs; they are employment agreements, not employment contracts. Still a legal document, and they generally cover IP created by the employee and specify how IP created outside of company time is handled.

If you signed an agreement with an inventions clause, you invent something, and do not assign the patent to your employer, your employer has two options: fire you, or not fire you. They can't take your agreement to a judge and get an order assigning the patent to them.

That's because your lawyer would be able to point out all the ways in which the agreement was not a contract.

As we recently saw with the Zillow letter to McMansion Hell, a cease and desist letter is a legal document, but that does not necessarily mean that it has any inherent merit or correctness.

In order for a judge to be able to grant relief in case of a breach, the document has to meet all the criteria for a legally binding contract. If there's no contract, neither party has to do jack squat for the other.

There are exactly zero contracts existing between me and my current employer. We have an informal, unenforceable-in-a-court-of-law agreement that says I will do X and not do Y, and then the employer will pay me Z every two weeks. Any day of the week, I could show up to hear, "Our deal's off. Go away, and never come back." I'm not ecstatic about the arrangement, because there is a sizeable power imbalance between me and my employer, but I can't do anything to change that individually. But I do work and get paid for it.

All those agreements do is let me know that I shouldn't bother doing certain things, unless they would allow me to quit my job.

>Most of the time, outside the utopian heaven that is Silicon Valley, tech pros are employed "at will"

The contract I signed is one of at-will employment. I don't consider the terms mutually exclusive. I don't work in Silicon Valley (neither technically or conceptually) but even there I expect approximately everybody is at-will employed.

>unilaterally signed

IANAL but generally the employer needs your signature on the employment agreement/contract, otherwise IP assignment clauses and anything else in the document are not going to stand up in court.

>The worst they can do is fire you

Your employer can do considerably worse that just fire you. [1] [2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misha_Malyshev

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Aleynikov

Don't be silly. Work both jobs.

It's his tool, why give it away for free?

Well, I mean, generally, any tools you create on company time, with company resources, are assigned to the company, if you're an employee.

Only if the contract says so. And just because the contract says so doesn't mean it's morally correct, only that they managed to get you to sign it.

I don't know what the correct morality is here, but I know that a basic principle of morality is to use the same yardstick for everybody.

Companies, specially big consulting companies do something similar to their clients all the time when inflating projects and time, but, somehow, that just sound like business as usual.

Or are they just including indirect costs? The secretary doesn't work on the project, but she has to be paid. The consulting company also must allow for time/cost overruns. All these costs have to come out of the estimated costs, so including them is not only ethical, it is necessary to remain a viable business.

Practically speaking, how is he going to turn it around and sell it if he has no legal right to do so?

I'm pretty sure that's not true – in the UK at least, any work created during a course of employment belongs to the employer. There's nothing in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act that explicitly defines what 'course of employment' means but a court would certainly consider it valid were the works produced on company time using company equipment.

Yes, they may have rights to this script. But he probably doesn't owe them any documentation and certainly not training or maintenance. Depending on situation, he may still be able to get something from it and probably he should if they didn't want him to automate that and didn't pay him a real programmer's salary.

If you offer to automate something and the employer says "no, don't mess with our system; it works for us", then automating it behind their backs might not be a work for hire even though it's clearly work-related. This even sounds like the author was being treated more like an independent contractor than an employee.

That's not true in the US either.


Software is specifically exempted from that.

The default rule for what happens w/o a contract is different for each state. But many states say that a work, created during employment, that is within the scope of your work and on company time is company property. Note, this doesn't apply to contractors.

I can't think of a state where a program you create to automate your job, that you wrote on company time, wouldn't be the companies property. Of course an employment contract can easily modify the general rule.

For contractors the rule is the opposite. They retain IP by default.

OK, but if you have a job as a software developer you almost certainly signed such an agreement.

If you are hired as a software engineer, yes, the systems you develop as part of your job belong to the company.

If someone hires you to cut the grass, and you create a machine that does it (the "Yardba"(tm)), there's no reason that machine would belong to the employer - creating it was not a part of your job.

No, this depends entirely on your employment contract. (Though I do agree that presumably a groundskeeper would not have intellectual property clauses in their employment contract) I've worked for two companies and they had different clauses; one said something to the effect that they owned any IP in their business interest (regardless of whether it was created on company time or company equipment); the other was narrower and said that they owned IP created outside of work only if it was dependent on company confidential information.

because the ip belongs to the company because presumably he developed it during working hours using the company's resources.

Only if the contract says so. Since it wasn't a development job, there's a chance that clause isn't there.

This is not my understanding at all. In the USA employers own the work of their employees if that work is related to the employer's business which this clearly is.

No clause or contract is required for this to be the case. It's the default state. It might be different in other countries but I doubt it.

Employees have a "duty of loyalty". https://www.google.com/search?q=employee+duty+of+loyalty

That would seem to include things like this issue. It also includes not competing with your employer.

If that were the case, they wouldn't need those clauses inserted into contracts.

The idea of any kind of "duty of loyalty" is absolutely laughable in this day and age. Employers have long since rejected any sense of having loyalty to their employees.

Also, if you're going to link to something, at least link to the Wikipedia article on it. Linking to a Google search is pretty dickish.

Linking to google wasn't meant to be dickish. Wikipedia's article on the topic is sorely lacking and rather than pick some random law firm's blog I thought it was best to just link to google so people could easily read several different people's perspective on the topic.

here's one for California 2016


How is this his tool if he made it at work, on his employer's dime?

maybe he made it during his recreational / non working time ..

> Butt-in-the-chair hours are super important culturally and it's been that way for a while

it seems to me that this is directly related to the fact that many parts of management theory have been developed as part of a manufacturing industry instead of a service/"tinkering" industry.

With manufacturing, more hours directly correlates to more units produced and thus more value created.

This is not the case anymore thanks to a high degree in automation.

I think thst there is also a fundamental imbalance between people's general expectation of what's fair for a company to do, and what's fair for a person to do. After all, if a company had discovered a way to make, say, an expensive medication for almost nothing, would the company be expected to disclose their secret? Would a company be expected to announce to the world: "we can make this for almost nothing now, so were dropping the price to almost nothing!".

In the case of the OP, I think the company should have made it clear that employees wont be penelized for doing their job well. he would certainly deserve a bonus, and some extra vacation time, for directly contributing to making the company better. He shouldn't need to worry about loosing his job.

Honestly, if the employee expects to get screwed over by his bosses or the company, then I can see why he wouldn't disclose the programming and automation.

Maybe he can open up discussion by asking his manager what would happen if he could make his job, say, 10% faster or easier by automation. Just see where that goes and figure out the next step...

> I think thst there is also a fundamental imbalance between people's general expectation of what's fair for a company to do, and what's fair for a person to do. After all, if a company had discovered a way to make, say, an expensive medication for almost nothing, would the company be expected to disclose their secret? Would a company be expected to announce to the world: "we can make this for almost nothing now, so were dropping the price to almost nothing!".

I came here to say this. Corporations strive to maximize profits, are most often not transparent about how much it costs them to make what they sell, and often attempt to justify the high costs of their products with half-truths and/or outright lies. Why should employees be held (or hold themselves) to a higher standard?

If a customer (the company) purchases a service (employment in a certain role) from some entity (the employee) who provides that service, and said entity figures out a way to greatly increase their profits while the customer continues to pay the same price for the same service and is happy with the deal, what's the problem? That seems like a win-win to me.

>Would a company be expected to announce to the world: "we can make this for almost nothing now, so were dropping the price to almost nothing!".

There are many people all over reddit at least that think that yes, yes they should.

People don't need medication of their own free will, which is why >100% profit markups go from eye-rolling to genuinely upsetting.

True enough, and possibly that line of thinking is tentatively translated to automation by saying "well, you automated things, now you've got free time, stay in that chair and use it to automate more!" as if such automation were itself a manufactured good.

Obviously this is a false premise, as no software/automation/process is exactly the same as the previous one and you can't apply economies of scale to the end products, merely skill and experience, and with any luck reusability of some parts.

also, your market value just increased by a fairly large margin. So your wage in relation to your labour should be a lot more positive then doing manual labor.

It seems the greater question is, "What is the employer paying for?"

Economic theory suggests an employer pays for value created. After all, if an employee is generating less economic value than they're consuming, it makes sense to fire that person. But that's only true in a fantasy world where you can perfectly measure and compensate that kind of performance, like performing physics equations without air resistance or friction.

The reality is that calculating "value created" is extraordinarily difficult, so we tend to use "hours-of-butt-in-seat" because it's the closest proxy.

> It seems the greater question is, "What is the employer paying for?"

I would argue that in the US, at least in the CS/IT industry, the answer to this has been perverted into "all work you can be coerced into producing."

Viz lack of overtime, non-competes, right to all work product, non-set-hours, etc

It's almost like capital owners subconsciously realized that technology was likely to be the last place where skilled workers had leverage... and acted to tilt the rewards in their favor as much as possible...

non-competes aren't universal in the US at least. that said I am moving to a place where non competes DO exist (moving for grad school) and so I would much appreciate any advice and/or horror stories regarding how to manage them.

Imho, if you are asked to sign one then push back against it as hard as you can.

If you end up having to sign it, my problem is the power they give the employer, and the leverage that affords them to do frankly illegal things.

F.ex. my employer knows I'm covered by a non-compete. My employer also knows I'm being considered for a position at another firm. My employer calls the other firm and "reminds" them that its employees all sign non-compete agreements...

F.ex. I'm asking for a raise. My company knows I'm in dire financial straits and couldn't afford a year without income. The non-compete is broad enough to cover any employment in the field I'd have. They of course turn down my request because why would they worry about my leaving?

The chilling effect is that these same results can happen even if your company isn't enough of a dick to legally pursue its non-compete.

The mere threat of enforcement has therefore changed your behavior.

In another thread on the topic, I suggested getting a copy of the non-compete (or that one will not be used) as early in the hiring process as possible. If there is one, and you find the terms unreasonable (which to me is anything beyond "I promise not to work for a direct competitor on the same thing for 6 months"), I suggested putting a dollar amount over the presumably then negotiated salary.

E.g. "I think this non-compete is overly restrictive. Here are the things I would like changed. If this is important to you to be signed as-is, then I'll need salary x + y% instead of x."

Hey I never saw this. Thank you for saying this. I'll keep it in mind. This is good crystallization of some of my thoughts. I think if they do make it a pre-condition of employment I'll go over it with a VERY fine toothed comb with a good lawyer.

>The reality is calculating "value created" is extraordinarily difficult, so we use "hours-of-butt-in-seat" because it's the closest proxy.

Some would disagree on this, the Marxian school posits that the employer really is paying for "hours-of-butt-in-seat", technically, labour-time (note, this is not the same as labour, or the value created by the labour). As such, value of the products doesn't come into it at all, but rather only the minimum value required to keep the worker. What is this value equal to? The amount required to sustain the worker - i.e to cater to his survival, to ensure the continued flow of labour (viz. supporting the worker's family), to keep the employee coming to his job, and most importantly the reproduction of his labour-time commodity.

> As such, value of the products doesn't come into it at all, but rather only the minimum value required to keep the worker. What is this value equal to? The amount required to sustain the worker...

Partially. The employee is paid the minimum amount that the employer can pay, but (again in this fantasy no-air-resistance world) if an employee can produce x units of value for either employer a or employer b, they'll go with whichever will pay more, and both employer a and employer b profit while paying up to x-1 units of value in wages.

And thus, over long periods of time and disregarding practical realities, compensation approaches the point at which compensation = value created, despite employers attempting to pay the minimum possible.

How would that work in the case where the employers have the majority of the bargaining power? What motivation is there to keep pushing up the wage? It would seem to work if the employer is choosing only one potential candidate, but in reality employers have an almost constant supply of people who are able and willing to work for almost whatever the employer is asking for. Almost never will two employers go head to head to bid over a candidate.

This is precisely why labour unions exist, because the employer owns the means of production and the employee does not.

In theory there is never an infinite supply of employees, and at a certain point you run out of people that will work for $x.

In practice that's not a question that can be answered in one comment, and right now it depends on who you ask. In my mental model of the world that's where the perfect simulation starts to break down and run into real world constraints.

I mean - if we're talking zero-friction circular cows, then if the unemployment rate is over 0%, there are more employees. The unemployment rate is always well above zero.

But there may not be employees willing to take that job at That price with that skill set. The unemployment rate now is zero, but if I'm trying to hire a machine learning engineer for $10/hr I'd have a hard time.

>And thus, over long periods of time and disregarding practical realities, compensation approaches the point at which compensation = value created

Compensation is determined by supply and demand, not value created. It doesn't matter if every developer becomes 20% better at their jobs if the market is, at the same time, flooded with new developers. Wages will go down.

Value created (where measurable), puts a ceiling on compensation, not a floor.

I don't know which school of Marx's economics you went to but Marx argued entirely by value created. That is, the value of a worker's labour is the value that they should receive.

I do freelance development and I've found myself working in a loose collective of similar freelancers and small businesses. If one of us needs something from the others, it's done on a price-per-result basis rather than hours. This is working well for me, because it means I can quote based not only on my cost to supply, but also on the value I'm creating, and I can spend whatever time I feel is required to then create that value.

I've also come to the conclusion that (for me, at least) being paid per hour is hugely detrimental to my performance and my enjoyment of my work.

Closest, or easiest?

Fair point; it's likely some combination of the two. Unsurprisingly we tend to measure by things that are easy to measure.

There are examples of roles where outcomes are easier to measure, and those roles generally tend to be more directly connected to compensation.

As PG put it in http://paulgraham.com/wealth.html:

> To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.

> Measurement alone is not enough. An example of a job with measurement but not leverage is doing piecework in a sweatshop. Your performance is measured and you get paid accordingly, but you have no scope for decisions. The only decision you get to make is how fast you work, and that can probably only increase your earnings by a factor of two or three.

> It seems the greater question is, "What is the employer paying for?"

This agreement is typically unspoken upon initial employment, leaving many employees at a position to take a loss during the production of assets outside of the initial workload.

The most an employee can wish for in this position is merit.

I think it's also a beautiful example of how it is becoming paramount to distribute the gains of automation among all members of society.

UBI could be one way. Another way could be to teach programming together with math and reading comprehension as a basic skill, and replace all or most employees with hired guns, and the specifications for those hired guns are the work of consulting businesses (essentially what is already happening). Wages should then be completely based on work output, and minimum wage should be defined as what's possible for a trained human to input / process by hand with zero automation. Anyone can then go and either program bots and let them run or even buy bots from others that do the same work.

The problem comes in at the point where a business figures out that running these bots themselves is cheaper than hiring all the contractors to do it, so you still end up with a massive concentration of wealth at the top. One potential way to solve that in a socialistic manner is to tax computing power heavily and progressively and then distribute that tax income as a dynamically floating UBI - but that would just open up a massive black market for microchips, i.e. require a heavy handed government operation on the order of magnitude of the war on drugs. Any other ideas?

For me, this is merely an issue of the employee not having the right tool to sell to his employer.

In principle, the company is willing to pay for that problem to be solved, and the employee has the solution for it. All cards on the table, both parts might be able to find an even better arrangement (for example, for the nature of the work it might be better tax-wise to turn this into royalties, or to sell the software for a large amount of cash upfront, or whatever).

The real tragedy here is that neither side can find a solution that is optimal for both, given the circumstances, and both get into this charade.

Not to mention that other parts of the businesses could use his expertise of automation, which means that both the employee and the employer have economic value to create and thus value to split amongst themselves.

Moral be damned, until you can buy things at the grocery store with it.

> On HN people talk often enough about how if you have a worker who gets their job done in 30 hours instead of the company's usual 40-60 hours, you should give them 30-100% more responsibility, but much more rarely "and 30-100% more pay."

That's not my experience of HN, where people talk about how awesome they are and therefore how much more money they should be given. It's a minority viewpoint on HN that such a worker should be given more work but no extra remuneration.

> If you've ever thought "I'm done for the day, but I'm going to hang out a little longer to leave at a more respectable time," then you're feeling (and doing) the same kind of thing.

Not quite. First, this guy went out of his way to lie and insert extra bugs in his code to make it appear like manual labor. Second, this guy is doing it all the time, whereas normally people might only do this on occasion. You can argue about whether the latter is right or wrong, but there's quite a clear line between the two, making the former far more indefensible.

> First, this guy went out of his way to lie and insert extra bugs in his code to make it appear like manual labor. Second, this guy is doing it all the time

I don't see the difference. I've known people who intentionally work slowly or pretend to do manual labor when they've already got a process for automating it. They'll just goof around for a while and then run the automation.

Whether you're introducing bugs to fix yourself or pretending to work - the effect is the same.

Not as extreme in terms of time as this guy (more like doing a process that took 4 hours in 2 and pretending it took 4 hours).

Initially I felt it was unprofessional. I kind of still do. However, I also knew the management, and the behavior was consistent with the types of rewards management provided: The reward for this kind of increase in productivity was never financial, and was always "OK, now you can do even more work". One person's boost in productivity would raise the bar for the whole team - everyone felt punished. So as time went on, people would come up with process improvements and ensure the management did not know about them.

Why do I still feel it is unprofessional? Behaving like this is not why I became an engineer, where solving problems makes you regret you solve them. So I thought about it hard, and realized I should find a job that encourages and rewards improving productivity, and not uses it as an excuse to give more work.

Management almost always treat estimates as promises, and you get what you measure. If you automate and that reduces the best case time for a task, it might not improve the average case very much, and the worst case not at all.

That means the difference between the usual case and the worst case gets worse, and you'd be a fool to invite that sort of criticism from the management team more than twice.

Your smartest path is to do the task at or under the usual time and spend any remaining budget on improving the situation for next time. Only when you can draw down the worst case time (or frequency) should you set new expectations with the organization.

> I don't see the difference.

Really now? Are you sure it's not a case of you not wanting to see the difference?

> Whether you're introducing bugs to fix yourself or pretending to work - the effect is the same.

Being at work and not working is quite a far cry from actively lying that you did things that you didn't do, or from inserting defects in your code so that they pay you to remove them.

It's at least honest to screw around at work when your manager can observe that fact, and merely turn in the desired output on time. You could argue (rightly or wrongly) that the manager is supposed to be the one tracking your workload.

But it's dishonest (and frankly outrageous) to actively lie about what you're doing so that your manager can't track your workload, or to insert defects so that the company -- unaware of your deliberate sabotage -- pays you to fix the "accidental" mistake.

What kind of world do you live in where intentions and honesty don't matter, and only "effects" do?

Frankly, I'm finding what I'm reading from you and others here so outrageous that I'm nearing a loss for more words. I literally cannot remember the last time (i.e. I don't think there was one) I was this disappointed at HN users and ashamed of even being among them. It's disgusting.

>Being at work and not working is quite a far cry from actively lying that you did things that you didn't do, or from inserting defects in your code so that they pay you to remove them.

But that's almost exactly what my coworkers did: Lie. If the manager came by asking if the work was done, they'd say no even if it were done. Or they'd intentionally ensure they didn't have it done until near the deadline, which to me is the same as intentionally ensuring your work is not done by introducing defects.

>It's at least honest to screw around at work when your manager can observe that fact,

Who screws around work where their manager can observe it? These people would pretend to work. Which could mean having the Excel sheet open whenever the manager is nearby and do random work.

>Frankly, I'm finding what I'm reading from you and others here so outrageous that I'm nearing a loss for more words. I literally cannot remember the last time (i.e. I don't think there was one) I was this disappointed at HN users and ashamed of even being among them. It's disgusting.

I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are misreading people's comments. I could easily flip this around and say I'm disgusted that you think pretending to work is OK.

As I said, I still find the action unprofessional, and that's why I chose to leave. But I will point out that people who choose to stay and want to do well in the job should behave as the others are (pretend to work). If the employer is not fulfilling his moral/ethical duty, you shouldn't feel obligated to if you cannot leave.

> What kind of world do you live in where intentions and honesty don't matter, and only "effects" do?

Probably the business world. If we momentarily put aside the intentional insertion of mistakes which takes the ethical considerations to a whole new level, we're still left with an interesting ethical question of whether automation of your own job requires you to inform your employer of how you're doing your job.

That answer isn't so clear to me. You're hired to do a job, and you're doing it to the best of your ability. Do you consider that unethical?

> If we momentarily put aside the intentional insertion of mistakes which takes the ethical considerations to a whole new level, we're still left with an interesting ethical question of whether automation of your own job requires you to inform your employer of how you're doing your job. That answer isn't so clear to me. You're hired to do a job, and you're doing it to the best of your ability. Do you consider that unethical?

I'm not going to "momentarily put that aside". The active lying and sabotage of this case are extremely material facts of the entire discussion. The alternate circumstances you're asking about form an entirely different question that is worthy of a separate post and discussion, and I'm not going to get derailed trying to change the subject and address it here.

I imagine you're familiar with reasoned argument, similar to programming, where one starts with some generally agreed premises upon which one can build to ever more sophisticated conclusions. So again, do you have an opinion on the specific question I asked?

I really don't have an opinion on your hypothetical situation to present here. Nevertheless, you can still build your argument assuming one way or the other, if that's really what you're trying to do. People can question the assumptions if the need arises.

Why do you feel like this guy owes X company jack shit? Just like every other business in existence†, they'd drop him on his ass in a heartbeat if it helped their bottom line and you and I know it. This is business to them and it should be to him, too.

† Yes, some places at least act like they care. It doesn't matter if your dad's dad had or worked for a place that seemed to give a damn, that's not the point and you know it.

You don't understand the difference between honesty and dishonesty? This has nothing to do with who cares about people and who cares about money, it's a question of who is honest and who is dishonest.

I think the question of being employed and having a salary to survive on overrides trivial matters such as honesty.

“What kind of world do you live in where intentions and honesty don't matter, and only "effects" do?”

The world where, doing what this guy did, ignoring the intentional errors part, he would be just as likely to be fired as he would be to be rewarded for automating the process. In such a world, he is more ethically obligated to feed his family than he is to turn over a tool that would increase profits for a company that would terminate him.

I don't think there's an ethical consideration here; it's a transactional relationship, value delivered for wages paid. If the company could get the job done cheaper in a different manner, it would do it and dismiss the employee. Is that defensible? The employee is creating value for the company. They're holding up their end of the bargain.

Companies exploit employees all the time; if something made by an employee happens to be particularly valuable, it's not like the company gives the employee a big chunk of the profits. It's not like big hits can be manufactured on demand or incentivized by bonuses, so why would they let the employee keep some of the windfall?

I see it the same way. The employee is doing their job, albeit with software they wrote, but nonetheless it's getting done.

If I were this employee I'd spend my time at work contributing to open source software I cared about and that could help me with my career. Undoubtedly, as they already realized this, their job is going to be automated away from them so they need to keep themselves relevant.

The guy is actively and explicitly lying to get paid money that he otherwise likely would not, and yet you "don't think there's an ethical consideration here"? What has this world devolved into?

Communication isn't the value he's generating, and he's not causing harm through deception.

Companies employing me all my life have lied by omission to me, about my value to the company and how much more they benefit from my work over and above my salary. Is that ethical?

He is causing harm through deception. The bugs he produces as a ruse have to be checked for and repaired by other employees who might not need to check the output of a well tested automated solution at all.

So you feel that he is obligated to get himself fired, thus not being able to feed and support his family? What kind of ethics are those?

The bullshit with this reply is that if you reverse it, should you dock employees pay who work at a less than average rate?

10% less than average you lower their wage by 10%?

Because this is how you would have to do it.

At the moment if you are good you will do better, if you are not so good you'll do worse but this cut throat I'm 30% better than average = exactly 30% more will hurt other workers.

Not a problem in the richer professions, a real issue for most though.

What about you work as a team and give a little to your fellow workers?

You have no idea how much I hate the people who are paid for 8 hours of 'butt in the chair' but they only show up for 6 and of course it's their code that breaks first and of course they've already gone home when the bug report comes in and of course the code is so obscure that one would have to ask them or else spend 5 additional hours on it.

Everyone's code breaks eventually. Even the people who spend 8, 10, or 12 hours in the chair. The solution is not to require that everyone spend 8 hours at work.

Rather, it's to require that the code be explained and discussed in code review. After that, there's an on-call team (which may or may not include the original developers of the code!) who handles the system in case of a breakage.

Butt in the chair time is completely irrelevant to this process.

Flip your premise around a bit: what kind of world do you live in where "obscure code" makes it to a production environment after hours?

Do you not do code reviews to ensure good quality?

Do you not test your releases before launch?

Do you not have a release strategy that allows you to launch code when people are in the office?

Why aren't you fixing that rather than blaming your coworkers?

I am fixing, but I am one person with one brain and two hands.

It's time to move on, kindred soul.

Sounds like you need unit tests. Or at least a rollback button, so the bug doesn't cause harm until you can dump the problem on that person's desk again next day.

When I was a student I took a work-from-home job manually generating HTML pages for an online furnishing shop. They somehow had a successful web presence but all sales were done by phone (early 2000s).

They wanted to pay me by the hour, but I negotiated paying by the page instead.

Of course, I automated the job. And surprisingly, at least to naïve me, they were annoyed that I automated it. Even though they got the same result for the same money, and we had explicitly agreed to do it by output, not by time.

I learned something that day, though I'm not sure what.

You learned that people value effort over results.

Here's a common situation from programming. A programmer, Steve, works long hours but writes sloppy code. Steve is often seen by management fixing critical issues in production, and 'saving the day'.

Eventually Steve, leaves to work at a bigger company and is replaced by a new programmer, Dave, who is more methodical. Dave eventually cleans up the code and gets it to run smoothly. The problems in production go away, and Dave can work at a leisurely pace.

Management will typically think to themselves: Dave is pretty good but that guy Steve was a real rockstar!

Humans are biased to like stories. The story of Steve slaying software dragons[1] is just way more compelling than the boring tale of Dave watching a machine smoothly do its work.

When that company hired you to work for them, a subtext of that arrangement is that you were both going to go on a quest together. I believe this to be a deeply embedded bias in human thinking, and that it explains part of why they were miffed.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey

I had surprising lessons in a stupid job where I cut half of the effort through scripting. Albeit it wasn't the boss, but the colleagues. Everybody complained about how dull the tasks were. I offered the script to people nearby, which they refused. Ok. A month later I ended giving this up to a lot of people, suddenly the first one who refused jumped on me angry asking why I didn't give it to him/her too.

People are .. people.

People are people indeed, which means people are not companies. The best interest of the person you work for might not (will almost never) be the same as the best interest of the company. Superiors want people who are working hard for them, because it makes them feel more important than half the people working 2 hours a week for them (even though the output is the same).

You're working for a person, not a company. If you forget this, then you might end up surprised.

> You learned that people value effort over results.

People still value results, but they expect the price of things to be vaguely related to the cost of materials + time + small profit margin.

And in an efficient competitive market, prices are related to costs. If there were 5 identical providers of "web page updates", then the maximum you can charge would end up close to how much of your time it takes to run the script, and the customer would get to keep the surplus value.

If you are in a position to get away with value-based pricing, then you have to be careful to keep your costs secret, because otherwise you make people irrationally angry about being ripped off.

So how much does adding drama to my work routine help my compensation rate?

True story (radically abbreviated and redacted):

One group, group A writes crap code. Another group, group B is meticulous and careful, constantly refactoring, using good testing and code review practices, taking care to design their software with forethought before ever committing code.

Group A's code is in a constant state of breakage. Group B's code always just works.

On the other hand, Group A is extremely vocal. Their manager makes sure to give updates at every meeting. Hosts (mandatory) all-nighter pizza parties to fix the crap they broke during the previous cycle. Large parts of the company are privy to the drama. "They're working so hard, really pulling their weight! So dedicated to the company!" Back slaps and high fives when things kind of, sort of, stop breaking. This is a constant, regular cycle. All the non-engineers think this is the hardest working group in the company. In a way they are. In that same way they are the stupidest group in the company.

Meanwhile Group B steadily builds good software quietly. No late nighters, engineers go home at reasonable hours, sometimes early. Same with managers.

Restructuring event. Cuts must be made. Who gets pink slips? The quiet ones. And their managers. Not the retards putting out unmaintainable crap day in and day out.

I feel that the manager of Team B has some responsibility in this story

You'd think so but (bad) managers never take the blame or responsibility for something unless it succeeds. That's been my experience at least.

But Team B were succeeding and he wasn't shouting about it to his superiors!

This is a signal of short-sighted incompetent management.

Sadly, it helps.

The guy in my former group who complained a lot and would push back to the management heavily was the one the manager respected the most.

The problem is: His complaints were often ridiculous and did not have merit - no one was fooled by them - not even the manager who usually ignored his complaints.

But his behavior (regardless of the content) was used unintentionally as a measure of how engaged the employee is and how much he cared about the work (complete BS - the employee was a good friend of mine and I knew him well).

This isn't just my view of the world. The manager essentially told me this.

Now of course, he was a pretty poor manager, but I do believe that unless a manager actively guards against these kinds of judgments, they will be the default.


The manager must know the work, otherwise he can't manage. Doesn't sound like the case.

In this case, the manager knew enough to know the person was spewing BS objections most of the time. He was actually an expert in the field and the discussions were often of a technical nature related to his expertise.

Although yes, it was a separate problem that he didn't know plenty of the operational "small" details which caused him to always underestimate project timelines.

What does TPS stand for in this context?

It's a reference to the movie Office Space. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy3rjQGc6lA

Actually I think it's a reference to one of the principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS):

A leader must understand the daily work in great detail so that he or she can be a best teacher of your company's philosophy. -- https://missiontps.blogspot.com/p/14-principles.html

That's different from the TPS reports of Office Space fame (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TPS_report).

Over promise, under deliver. Smart move. Certainly one that anyone in programming can relate to.

I think you must've meant, "under promise, over deliver"? At least that's what Scotty was suggesting.

Thats the lesson you learn in life . But anyone starting their career will have a tendency to under promise, over deliver. I did this for some time until my manager told me to literally to go slow and deliver quality work instead.

so true. that exact situation happens where i work. One department's managers prefer flailers who work long hours fixing their mistakes over folks who deliver a working product with little drama. I observe that the latter example is interpreted as 'obviously it was easy'.

> I learned something that day, though I'm not sure what.

You learned that, despite the fact that you negotiated to be paid by output rather than time, the pay that the company was comfortable with was actually based on their impression of the time it would take to build each page. If they had known you could automate it, they likely would have expected you to agree to a lower per-page fee.

I don't think you did anything wrong, but I don't blame them for being annoyed. Essentially you were a shrewd negotiator, and "won" that interaction, and _that_ was annoying.

But yeah, as a sibling said: don't tell people how the sausage is made. If it's clear up front they're paying for the sausage, and not for the time it takes you to make it, I'd say you're ethically in the clear.

True, I saw an efficiency and exploited it, so in a way I 'won'. And I was taking a bet myself, as I didn't know the precise details of the job before taking it and just how much I could automate it. But they didn't logically 'lose' anything, business-wise, they got exactly what they asked for.

I suppose what I learned is that it's humans who run a business, and humans aren't always logical and act based on feelings.

You learned about "value"

They had a difficult problem (from their perspective) and they saw you easily solve it. This changed the "value" of your work in their minds.


Dale Carnagie wrote that in order to be successful, try to make the other guy feel like he's a winner, even if you got the upper hand. I would have kept the amount of automation under wraps!

I think you 'winning' was exactly the reason they didn't particularly like it. In you agreeing to charge by page and not time, they very well may have thought they were having you. In the sense that they believed it to be a slow process and by you not charging per time they were getting a deal by possibly paying less if you were slow.

There are two and a half competing forces in companies.

The first is the pursuit of profit. The second is the maintenance of hierarchy and status.

(In more humane companies the half force is an explicit dedication to benign personal and social improvement of all participants. But let's ignore that for now.)

Many companies are willing to sacrifice profits in order to maintain hierarchy.

Aside from the bugs, which are questionable, the only "crime" in any of these stories is lèse-majesté - the narcissistic wounding of someone who considers themselves a superior in the implied hierarchy.

People with authoritarian tendencies tend to consider this a far more serious crime than petty theft.

Being more competent, better informed, and more efficient should be a positive attribute, not a social challenge. But it's incredibly hard to set up a corporate culture which is a genuine performant meritocracy where status depends entirely on competence and ability.

Most companies are a very long way from this ideal. Many have an explicitly feudal mindset, where innovation and competence in underlings is not only threatening, it's terrifying.

I think you learned not to tell people how the sausage is made.

This sums it up nicely.

Also, if it's easy and you've done it a million times, charge an inflated fixed price. If it's new territory, charge by the hour.

Edit: before I forget, if you let them know how it's done then you need to charge for the several times they won't come back again afterwards.

Bingo. Besides, people are scared by humans capable of doing tasks much faster than previously thought. When in doubt, sandbag!

See also: the scene in the film "Big" when grown-up Josh Baskin (Tom Hanks) gets the lecture from a Co-Worker (Jon Lovitz) to slow down his data entry as to not get everybody fired by going at a leisurely pace.

The weird thing is, this was a very small business who hit the jackpot of high Google ratings. They weren't a heaving bureaucratic business.

This reminds me one study that I've read sometime ago (sorry my google-fu is not good enough and I cannot find link to it) - when people call locksmith and get inexperienced technician that takes an hour to do the job they felt the charge was reasonable and justified. If they get experienced technician that does same job within 10 minutes, people feel ripped off when they pay same money as in the first case.

It wasn't a study; it was a guy who talked to a locksmith recounting their conversation.

What you learned, is if you develop the automation, do NOT tell others that you did. And in your case, you should have implemented a time-delay from page-generation to page-creation, to make it look like you did it.

Ive automated a portion of my job. It does require me having to type my OTP token, but I can build more and more with my private stack. It also means I can do less and still do more.

> I learned something that day, though I'm not sure what.

You learned that people get sour with jealousy and annoyed when you can produce the same output / unit of work, at a fraction of the time that it takes them?

It goes further than that. I offered to show them how to automate the job (it's not like I had a promising career making HTML pages to sell furniture) and they didn't take it because presumably it bruised their pride. Even though it was strongly in their interests.

> because presumably it bruised their pride. Even though it was strongly in their interests.

We all do that. For example, I'll hold onto a bad investment because selling it means admitting I screwed up. It's a tendency we all have to fight.

Not everyone has this bias. I think it comes down to how logically or emotionally driven the individual is.

> Not everyone has this bias.

Are you sure about that? As research in "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Kahneman shows, people exhibit the usual cognitive biases even while adamantly asserting they do not.

Did you check the cited research paper in that book, just to see that the experiments actually test for this, and the results actually match that claim?

It's bad but I found with Kahneman (and Taleb)'s books it really pays to check. The stories told in the books can sometimes be wild extrapolations of the actual research experiments.

For instance, did they test subjects' assertions for all of "the usual cognitive biases"? I doubt it. Or just one particular bias but extrapolated it holds for all of them, but on what basis? and is that relevant in the context of which you cite it now?

I urge you to actually go check. The outcome may surprise you. Tasty clever anecdotes with mildly counterintuitive experimental outcomes sell books.

Sometimes it is the most intelligent and logical people that have that bias the worst because they believe themselves immune to emotion.

They were annoyed at you because you exploited an information asymmetry between the two of you (which is how long the job would actually take).

And they didn't attempt to exploit an information asymmetry when hiring them?

I don't know, but I was just explaining why they're annoyed, not whether they should be annoyed.

They thought they were playing him, and got about when they learned that in fact he was the one playing them.

> I learned something that day, though I'm not sure what.

Get paid for your output, and not your time?

No, I knew that before, hence negotiating up-front. That's what caused my surprise.

Sibling comment by doingmyting seems like a valid contribution to me. Anyone know why it's dead?

Their comment history seems ok, too. Oddly, their dead comments are not chronologically contiguous.

People pay for perceived value. Emphasis on perceived.

there's that anecdote (apocryphal?) of Steinmetz at GE: [1] (grrr yes it looks like it is apocryphal [2]; I wish people were more honest and careful about where they get their information and what they do or don't know )


In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to General Electric's facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant -- not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.

Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.

After he departed, GE's engineers found a large "X" marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.

And indeed it did.

Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard of answer that his fee was $1000.

Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice.

They soon received it. It included two items:

1. Marking chalk "X" on side of generator: $1.

2. Knowing where to mark chalk "X": $999.

[1] http://news.mit.edu/1999/vestspeech

[2] http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/where.asp

Honestly, clients should have to pay more for the same amount of work done in less time.

I think the real question is whether this person is salaried or hourly.

If they're hourly, then yeah, billing 40 hours a week when you only did 2 is fraud. If salaried, I think it's okay.

Here's why: Individuals in the company will be good or bad, ethical or unethical. The company itself will (likely) be largely amoral and driven solely by a profit motive.

So when this person announces that he's automated himself out of a job, it sounds like it won't be a matter of 'great work, here's a cut of all the money you saved us and some more interesting work.' It'll likely be a matter of 'thanks, here's your contractually required severance.'

That is what it is, but if the company is allowed to be driven by profit motive, he should be too. It is within the best interests of his profit motive to continue with the automated work. For some reason when the person is an employee, it's no longer okay to be a sociopathic profit-motivated machine, we're actively disgusted by this type of behavior.

It seems like there should be a fairness principle in this situation when making a decision about things such as this that treats the employer and the employee as equals in a contractual obligation.

Yeah I spend half my day browsing Reddit on salary, but my work gets done and no one has ever said anything to me about it. And if they did, I'd probably just quit and get a job for a sane company.

I wouldn't say I thing about your browsing, but I would give you more work :)

What's the difference between jail and work?

In jail you're rewarded with time off for good behaviour.

At work you're rewarded with more work.

And more money if its a good employer/boss.

Why should the person who more efficiently does their work be punished with more work when others can do less and still get paid the same?

Something I've thought about is, how do you quantify work? What are the units of measure? Joules? JIRA tasks? Hours?

The problem is, that it's really hard to figure out. The only answer that seems to make sense is that work is measured in the same way that other kinds of value are measured: In dollars. The value of a dollar's worth of work is one dollar.

Or it could be measured according to the value added per unit of factor input, which in an efficient labor market, is equal to your salary. But we don't live in an efficient market, and nobody has a foolproof way to measure your work.

So your boss measures your work by the extent that you seem to be fully occupied. It's not a great measure, but is something that he can at least wrap his head around, and more or less keep track of.

TLDR: I don't have a good answer to this puzzle.

At my day job, my own productivity comes in bursts, and so I would also be in a predicament if my boss noticed that I was idle a lot of the time.

We already have a lot of very comprehensive understandings of what work is. It's labor that produces capital. The workers doing so should be owning that capital.

Hey, it's high-school again! :)

For some magical reason, I stopped being a disruptive student when I moved to a school where the approach was that if I finished my work I could read a book, rather than being given more work...

Ideally, a manager will see that you worked more efficiently and give you a raise in return for giving you more work.

It's not so much punishment, as the employer is trying to increase profit by maximizing their employee's throughput.

My point is: whats in it for the employee if that throughput increase takes more energy/effort on the employees part?

I usually hear that you get rewarded with more responsibility and such, but the increase in responsibility is rarely matched with a fair increase in compensation given that more responsibility usually means some combination of greater workload, more effort, longer hours, more stress.

I would see it this way: I would offer to give that person more responsibility and more and perhaps more complex work. He could decide to perform as before and keep browsing reddit but if they choose to take more work that's likely the best path upward in the organization. Eventually the one who chooses no. 2 gets a promotion and gets paid more.

I hear this argument often but I wonder in which percentage of cases the extra work actually translates into a net benefit for the employee. Promotions are linked to how you are perceived, and this is turn linked to factors that do not necessarily include the amount of work you put in.

I think extra work and productivity translating into reward is one of the best indicators that you are in a good company.

If you see work* as punishment, I wouldn't want you working for me anyway. Bye.

*assuming you're being paid a decent wage and we're not talking about work being done to extraordinarily tight deadlines for no reason, in unusually poor working conditions, or something like that.

You can't retain the best workers with that attitude. Most workers don't see work as punishment but the time it takes is an impediment to other aspects of their lives that generate more personal value that their job.

If you take a worker who operates efficiently to increase their own personal time and increase their workload without providing some offsetting "carrot." The worker has two rational responses in a liquid employment market:

1) Reduce their efficiency to median company levels and only use their efficiency "secretly." Congratulations, you've broken their spirit!

2) Find another job because they're an above average employee.

I would argue they 1) leads to lower performance over time due to its demoralising effect and stress.

It was a rhetorical question to make you think. In reality, if I finish my task, I take a new task from the task list.

My point is just that there's no real incentive to work more efficiently (eg by automating or by smartly planning ahead) and my employer is happy as long as I stay ahead of milestones and generally work well, and its somewhat demoralising knowing that there's an infinite stream of work and no matter how hard I push myself, this doesn't get smaller, I don't get to leave earlier etc. This can be especially frustrating when other people on my team who are being compensated roughly the same as me are not pushing as hard. Why should I?

(In case someone who knows me is reading: this isn't actually the case, I'm asking hypothetically for the sake of this discussion)

> That is what it is, but if the company is allowed to be driven by profit motive, he should be too. It is within the best interests of his profit motive to continue with the automated work. For some reason when the person is an employee, it's no longer okay to be a sociopathic profit-motivated machine, we're actively disgusted by this type of behavior.

This hits it on the head for me. If the company came across as open to improvement and would see the value of paying this person more to look at other processes and see what could be automated, then I'd consider that as an option, but it doesn't sound like that's the case.

> That is what it is, but if the company is allowed to be driven by profit motive, he should be too. It is within the best interests of his profit motive to continue with the automated work. For some reason when the person is an employee, it's no longer okay to be a sociopathic profit-motivated machine, we're actively disgusted by this type of behavior.

I can go along with this fairness argument, but you can hardly argue then that the one obvious solution must be "well, then everybody should get to act like a ruthless sociopathic profit-motivated machine".

Obviously the reverse would be a much better outcome for all.

The mistake is accepting companies behaviour like that.

I agree wholeheartedly. Modern corporate ethics are a travesty.

It wouldn't be that everyone should do this. It is that everyone engaging in business with a sociopathic entity is required to. Otherwise the sociopathic entity gains a snowballing economic incentive by exploiting the social norms of the non sociopaths.

Per example, you'll note, in a realistic situation there is no scenario where this person gives up his script and is compensated for even 20% of the value that has been created for the company.

I will note that I am a hypocrite, that is I'm not good at playing the profit maximizing machine role; few normal people are. I also don't believe it is particularly healthy to do so.

So the guy is acting ethically because tit for tat? Fuck no

I guess the question is: Why is the ethicalness of this action a consideration at all? It's an economic transaction.

If enter into an exclusive deal to sell the number of widgets I make in a month for a flat rate and then I make a widget machine that creates widgets is that unethical? I think most of us would agree it's just a business arrangement.

We might say that it is unethical to lie about them being hand-made or to introduce defects for the appearance that they are hand-made. I think that's the most compelling argument for his lack of ethics. But I think that's kind of tangential to the business concerns.

Thinking about it, if 'guy' were a company with a board of directors and shareholders he would be under a fiduciary responsibility to maximize his profits. He would be required because of his responsibility to his shareholders to undertake such actions.

What are the ethics of the people who he'd leave without employment? Not just him, but also the QA team. Presumably the impact of downsizing would be more than just this one gentleman now that he's given away the golden goose, so to speak...

The question is whether the business would respond ethically by paying fair compensation for the program the employee created. The answer is almost surely no, so it is ethical (in my book) to extract the compensation by force.

Probably not legal though.

It's not personal, it's just business. Your moral disgust has no purchase here.

Nature doesn't give a s* about ethics. You either eat, or be eaten. Ethics are human-invented hacks on nature, ones which (often times) are inefficient compared to letting nature run.

If he was a company providing a service this wouldn't even be a subject for discussion. It would be a non-issue. Also he's been pretty much instructed by the company not to rock the boat. It seems pretty clear they really don't care as long as the work gets done.

I've known plenty of sysadmins that have significantly automated most of their work and mainly just monitor and maintain, good for them. Nobody ever criticised them for this, in fact it's good practice. Finally he's not really being paid for hours worked. If it took him every hour of that time the first few months,but then he got better at it and later it took 30 hours instead of 40 nobody would care. In fact I'm sure the company fully expects something like that to happen, again they just don't care.

He should stop introducing errors though.

> He should stop introducing errors though.

Then the QA team would stop paying attention and if he ever introduced a bug it would be much much worse.

Seems to me that in this case it serves a "test your backups" function.

That's probably the best argument against everyone else saying that it's fraud.

Like his own personal chaos monkey.

That's a better metaphor than my backup one was. Thank you!

This might be true, but it is not the best solution. Seperation of duties should be in place here.


As sysadmin, 90% of my job is automated. I am available 24/7 if anything goes wrong. But then OTH, I can run errands, watch movies, play video games at work. This is true for almost every sysadmin I know.

My bosses know this, they don't care as long as I am available when needed. Also they prefer that we as sysadmins don't advertise our free time to the rest of company.

There are two ethical lines the poster may have crossed.

> I even insert a few bugs here and there to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.

As a few others in the original post pointed out, this seems to be the biggest issue. He is intentionally misleading his employer as to the nature of the work he is doing. The automation itself isn't immediately unethical, but the intentional misdirection could be.

The second issue depends on whether he is paid for his time or to fulfill his job duties. In the case he is being paid to fulfill his job duties, he is doing the job he was hired to do adequately, he is meeting the deadlines expected of him by his employer, at the price he negotiated when he was hired. However, if he is being paid for time, it seems clearly unethical to bill the company for 38 more hours than he worked.

When he was doing the same work by hand he was producing data with errors in it. All he's done is achieve the same error rate he had before. I don't see why the fact he could trivially reduce the errors to 0 is relevant when from the employer's point of view the exact same result is being produced.

It seems hard to claim making a mistake and deliberate sabotage are the same.

The product being bought and sold is the same, by objective measure; and that's what counts in a business transaction, rather than a personal relationship.

So if -for example- you knew the details of fabrication of your car: you consider that you'd still buy a car with a chassis that was deliberately weakened by an employee, instead of just buying a car with an -unknowingly- faulty chassis?

Why would you accept something that, if not tampered, would be better than the alternative? When there's bad intentions or tampering, you'll have a result that is broken to some degree for sure. If everyone does their jobs as good as they can, you'll only face a chance of something being broken. You can always improve over mistakes, not so much over bad intentions.

Isn't this close to how computer proccessors are sold?

I never checked this, but I always thought that slower CPUs are just CPUs with some 'production faults' in it. Basically, the manufacturer always tried to make 300mhz CPUs, but sometimes they didn't reach that speed so they sold them as 233mhz, 166mhz.

Now I was under the impression that most people didn't know this, so most people were buying CPUs which were just designed to be slow, but in fact they were accidentally slower.

This is exactly your car example, and there is nothing unethical about it -- either way.

I still don't see the analogy. The lower quality was not intentional and, what's more, they clearly labeled it as an inferior product. This seems more akin to designing a processor so that it will fail just out of its warranty period and you need to buy a new one, but not mentioning that to anyone.

Your car example is flawed. If I knew that a given car has a defect, I simply wouldn't buy it, period, regardless of how and why the defect was introduced.

Because it shows willful deception. In a court of law, this would likely be a significant point in the case.

Could using printed fonts that look like hand-writing to advertise count as willful deception?

You're trying to trick the consumer into thinking a human made the sign (and by extension the product as well), which was actually made my machines.

I don't see a difference. When I buy a product, there is no disclosure of the manufacturing process.

I could only see a good lawyer losing this case if OP signed a contract that explicitly stated the process in which his work must be produced.

In your scenario, I don't see a correlation with the facts you presented vs the previous example. In the previous example, they provided evidence of a potential (IANAL or a judge or on a jury for the case, thus potential) crime, I merely stated that I believed the willful deception would likely be a significant point in the case. Without knowing the "case" in your example, I can't know if the font used would be significant or not.

What law would he be breaking?

Probably either fraud or breach of contract if it came to a court

Depends on if the errors are material to the value produced. Like let's say I produce a report in an automatic way but have all the page number misaligned and occasionally insert incorrect punctuation then that does reduce the value of the report.

It would be a tort.

Furthermore, because there is significant financial gain in the deception, the actions taken would almost certainly meet the legal requirement for fraud in a modern jurisdiction.

I don't think it's ethical, but it's not legally fraud. Fraud requires, among other things, a misstatement (or an omission of some fact the party is bound to disclose) that is material, and that the other party actually relied on and which reliance proximately caused the other party harm.

He's not under any legal duty to disclose to his employer how he does the work. The original post suggests that he might have misstated when he completed each batch of work (though, even there, he could have phrased it in a way that simply omitted that information). And the incorrect entries might count as misstatements. But neither of those facts is likely material. And even if they are, there's no harm to the employer arising out of those misstatements. The harm has to be traceable in some more or less direct fashion to the material misstatement. Any misstatement about when the author did the work, or the errors the author introduced did not cause the employer any harm. Any harm that occurred to the employer--say, paying the author for a job that was automated--arose from the employer not knowing about the automation, not from a false statement the author made. Finally, even if the author flat out said "I'm doing this by hand, not using a script," it's not clear any causation would be sufficiently direct. The scenario in which the company saves money by firing the author is a speculative outcome, not a certain one.

Assuming they are salaried not paid hourly, they seem to being doing the job asked at the agreed upon rate, not sure how it is fraud. That said, just because it might be legal doesn't mean it is ethical. Personally I'd tell the boss "I've gotten this task down to where I have some spare time, what else could I do" and try to get some more work to do.

> Assuming they are salaried not paid hourly, they seem to being doing the job asked at the agreed upon rate, not sure how it is fraud.

I'm not sure I've ever had a job that outlined my specific duties in the contract. It usually says that I am to work X hours a week.

Yup; and the company is making a bet that you produce more than you cost. Sometimes employees generate a lot more value than they cost; the company usually keeps most of the winnings there, and only gives you enough to stop you going somewhere else. That is, the competitive pressure on employee wages is much higher than the competitive forces within most companies that control whether they get to keep the windfalls from particularly efficient employees.

I can't really call it "significant financial gain" considering the likely outcome of telling their employer is that they get fired. Keeping your existing job doesn't fall under "significant financial gain" to me.

Yes, that's the crux of the matter. Is his arrangement for time, or for the results?

I graduated in the recession without any real skills or an applicable / usable degree (lib arts in a language I could barely speak).

The first job I got after college was for data entry where I was expected to go to an email inbox which received some automated messages with some strings in them and to copy these strings and paste them into an Excel spreadsheet.

I was expected to do this for ~6 hours a day every day. Sitting there, copying and pasting strings from some email. Then this spreadsheet would be forwarded to my boss who would forward it to some other people (I don't remember who these people were, probably for auditing of some kind).

After a couple of weeks of this I really started to hate it. I had taken a class on spreadsheets when I was a kid and knew that there was a way to automate it all, so I did a couple of Google searches and figured out a way to copy all of these numbers automatically. It was done using some VB script IIRC and some spreadsheet formulas.

I stupidly told my boss. So now he had me doing other stupid and mind-numbing work for those 6 hours I would have been copying and pasting strings from the emails (like manually burning hundreds of CDs one after the other with Windows XP and a CD-burner which only worked half of the time).

I quit a week or two later, but learned a valuable lesson. Don't tell your boss. Side note: this is how I became interested in pursuing programming as a profession.

It would be great if there was a means for people to sell technology like this to their employers, for those rare cases where someone goes above and beyond the expected solution. In reality employers don't care because they own your output regardless so why do they need you?

I think you're being a little too humble. You obviously had the insight to learn how to automate your job and that it's actually possible.

There are many college grads who would just keep quietly copy pasting strings from emails for 6 hours/day.

Incidentally, my first job also required some VB scripting, but the management was actually smart enough to recognize that it was needed and that manual data entry was unsustainable.

> It would be great if there was a means for people to sell technology like this to their employers.

There is, you can quit and offer to build/sell/license the solution to your previous employer. Of course this would mean incurring (potentially) substantial risk, that you might lose your salary, they might not be interested, they might sue you, etc.

you could have just went to competitors and sold what you had to them. Then quit and sold it to your boss as well. Once the competitors have it, your company has it to have.

This may be going against the grain, but I think the real question the OP needs to ask is whether he really cares whether what he's doing is ethical or not.

Evaluating decisions like this really comes down to understanding your values and owning them.

Values are the measuring sticks by which people quantify success in life. Whether or not we realize it, we constantly measure our actions against our values, and how we 'measure up' determines our self-worth.

In this specific example, there are two conflicting values: integrity and family. They are in direct conflict, which is putting the OP in a stressful situation -- acting in the most honest way here will lead to a worse life for the OP's family. Creating the best life for his family requires that he must lie.

So, the OP needs to ask himself: Do I value integrity? Do I value my family? If I value both, which do I value more?

Personally, I don't think there's really a right or wrong answer to these questions. There's no intrinsic value in the universe -- but assigning value is part of the human condition and we feel fulfilled when we lead a life of purpose (however arbitrary). When faced with difficult decisions like this, it's important to be aware of what your values are. The 'right' decision for you will be apparent.

You raise a good point, i.e. "do you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?"

> Do I value integrity? Do I value my family? If I value both, which do I value more?

To make that choice you need to quantify exactly how 'bad' something is though, otherwise you can't determine which you value more.

It's like comparing stealing a loaf of bread vs. killing a man and stealing his money for your family; you'd need to quantify how "bad" each is, to determine that for ex. killing is worse than letting my family starve.

So how 'bad' is automating your job, is it even 'bad' at all?

I did not expect to see so much contention about this. A company is paying him to do a job, and he is doing that job. Is the problem that he isn't miserable? This baffles me.

Well, the question was whether it was unethical, and the ethics to me seem pretty clear. He is lying to the company about what he's doing and when he's doing it. He also had an agreement with the company to work 40 hours for wages, which he has clearly broken. Neither of those things are ethical in any way shape or form.

However resolving this in a just way is now extremely difficult (this is mostly his own fault but still). The way I see it he (morally) still retains the rights to the code, since the company didn't pay him to write it. However the company has also been wronged because he has lied to them and broken his contract. The question now is if the value of his code is enough to compensate the wrong he did to the company, and if so by how much. That's not an easy question to answer, hence the discussion.

>SO post: The system is really old - and although I was hired as a programmer, my job is pretty much glorified data entry

To me, this is justification to not tell them about it. Programmers are almost always distinct jobs from data entry. That he is only being given this task is harmful to his career as a programmer. Take any discussion about interviewing or careers from here, and all of the discussion about bad programmers repeating 1 year of work over 10 years, and it's pretty obvious this is a weak position to grow in.

Imagine this programmer was applying to a company from here, telling them his only task he was ever given was spreadsheet data entry. And he automated it. It's good, but not when it's the only thing you've done.

That was my first take as well, but it can be easy to overlook this part of the original post: "I even insert a few bugs here and there to make it look like it’s been generated by a human."

The fact that he is engaging in deception to make it look like he's still doing it manually rubs a lot of people, myself included, the wrong way. You could also argue that by introducing bugs, he's intentionally degrading the end product.

He's willfully deceiving his employer by inserting bugs and lying about his status on a weekly basis. We can debate hours v results, but I can't ignore that bit.

Developer problems.

Very real ones though.

What's wrong with us workers? Do you think the Apple executes have some secret message board where they ask questions like: "Is it unethical for us to sell iPhones for $800 when they only cost $20 to produce?" Capitalism is what it is, you play the game and shouldn't feel bad the (few!) times you win.

> Is it unethical for us to sell iPhones for $800 when they only cost $20 to produce?

If you're going to make an argument, why make a strawman?

My $1000 iPhone 7+ costs roughly $220 in materials. [1]

Apple's stated gross margins are 39%, and last quarter was a net profit of $17.9b on revenue of $78.4b [2], so that's 22% net profit. So overheads are somewhere around 17%.

To sum up where your $1000 on an iPhone goes:

  $220 components
  $390 other cost of goods: assembly, transport, packaging, blah, blah.
  $170 overheads
  $220 net profit 
I'm more than happy to allow Apple $220 of profit on my iPhone. You may not, but let's debate that rather than a ridiculous claim that they're only $20 to produce.

[1] https://9to5mac.com/2016/09/20/649-iphone-7-estimated-to-cos... [2] https://www.macrumors.com/2017/01/31/q1-2017-results/

> I'm more than happy to allow Apple $220 of profit on my iPhone. You may not, but let's debate that rather than a ridiculous claim that they're only $20 to produce.

Huh? Your extensive nit-picking doesn't refute the parent's point or even relate to it in a meaningful way.

The point of his comment had nothing to do with the actual cost of an iPhone. It was just to make a point that iPhones as an example make a strong profit margin.

You called the previous poster's exaggerated example a strawman, then made an inappropriately detailed response to an argument that wasn't being made in the first place.

disagree. its better to consider the ethical implications, and adjust your behavior accordingly. just because other people are ok making money unethically doesn't mean you should give yourself a pass. i get that there is an asymmetry between some companies and their employees though.

I think you missed the point a bit. A company isn't people. The company the author works for will not feel remorse (it's not a person) when it'll squeeze every last cent out of a customer to maximize profits. I don't see why the employee should feel bad when it maximizes it's "profit margin" in relation to such entity.

But I don't think it is unethical for Apple executes to overcharge for iPhones (my example was numerically wrong though, as photojosh points out). People are happy with iPhones so they buy them, just as this company is happy with the work the employee is performing.

This ethical question seems bizarre in a world where large blocks of the economy rely on effective misrepresentation or information asymmetry (advertising, etc.) and wealth itself is concentrated in the hands of a few. Those are stereotypical and cliché statements to make but I don't think that makes them less relevant.

As far as I am concerned, this person can provide for his family, and has given the company the results they want. I don't see how it's a problem.

The "late-stage" power imbalance in favor of companies does provide interesting ethical arguments in my opinion.

Well that's the point. The society is trained to think that if something can be automated, the people laid off can starve.

Most of people discussing ethics in this example, are oblivious to this filter through which they are viewing reality.

You should tell the company. There's probably a $20 gift card in it for you.


Thanks for that article!

Whenever I see this kind of thing come up I think of the chicken nuggets scene from The Wire.

tl;dr Just code to the spec, and leave your creativity for your own time.


Let's not forget, that £10 give card, unless he can buy things at cost price as an employee, they are even making some money back off it.

The way I see it, this is the employer's problem. In a good company, what benefits the company, also benefits the employee. In this case the employee and the company have different incentives, and the company does not care enough to solve the problem of incentives.

There are many, easy ways the employer could solve this problem so that both parties benefit. The employee does not have the same ability to pursue mutually beneficial solutions, and is acting like a normal profit-seeking business would.

It is the employer's problem, there is also the matter of the competency of the line manager.

Have you ever been asked to implement a feature with the first question being 'how long will it take?' for you to pluck a figure out of the air?

In these scenarios a voice inside my head wants to ask 'well, you are the manager, aren't managers supposed to know these things?'

There is an aspect of this going on here. The manager should have some idea of what is involved in the task and have an idea as to how best to solve the task.

Once upon a time I learned a lesson about lying from The Simpsons:

Homer: Marge, it takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen.

There is an aspect of that to this situation. I also am not too sure that the deliberate errors are the wrong thing to do. With my coding errors I often jest that these are 'deliberate mistakes' there to just see if anyone is paying attention. I have also joked before now that there is 'one deliberate mistake' in there to check that people are doing the testing properly.

In a fake-news world where people can be economical with the truth the OP has the option to weasel out of the deception that way.

So how to rescue the situation in such a way that everyone wins?

Maybe the OP can taper down the deliberate errors to make the work perfect. If there is also a claimed drop in 'time taken' to do this and some vague talk of 'macros' used to 'double check the work' then a slightly more honest bargain can be struck where it is acknowledged that some initiative has been taken to do things better is rewarded and not punished.

For the line manager this can be a definite win with nobody apparently played as a fool.

> With my coding errors I often jest that these are 'deliberate mistakes' there to just see if anyone is paying attention. I have also joked before now that there is 'one deliberate mistake' in there to check that people are doing the testing properly.

If I was your manager, I'd have an issue with this. Testers are there to methodically work through the code, acceptance test, and so on.

Not to play "find the possibly invisible needle in the haystack that the dev claims exists as his way of showing they're doing their job right". That's called a wild goose chase.

This is definitely in jest and is most likely to be when I am providing a tutorial or at an early requirements gathering stage of a task, i.e. definitely development code or numbers scribbled on a napkin. I know humour is verboten at times on HN, but in some situations, e.g. say you have forgotten to close a tag in some plain HTML and the whole page goes table shaped, then you can lighten the mood and engage with people that bit more by feigning 'deliberate mistakes'.

With people that are not versed in how to test in a proper disciplined manner with some methodology to it there are occasions when you need them to focus more than they otherwise might. This could be important documentation rather than code. In these circumstances you can include a 'deliberate mistake' and set them the task to spot it. So long as you point out the answer if they don't spot it then all is good. This is harmless and is a good way of achieving the primary objective of getting your work double-checked outside of a formal testing environment.

This is a bit like the legendary M+M's in the rider that bands have. If the venue gets the M+Ms right then there is a good chance they will have got the other requirements of safety, etc. correct.

> In these scenarios a voice inside my head wants to ask 'well, you are the manager, aren't managers supposed to know these things?'

That's a double edged sword. What would you think of a manager saying: you're on this task, it's going to take you 2 days? It's not better in my experience.

Well no it's not better but I once had a manager that would reply with "It doesn't take that long" to every estimate I made. Even though he had no idea how to do it himself or could even list the risks involved in such a request. Clearly that manager was not a good one.

Wouldn't it be easier if estimates are treated as such and everybody gets treated like a professional? Needless to say, I could only stomach 6 months in that work place.

What is considered ethical or unethical always depends on who you ask.

Ask most slave owners a few hundred years ago if it was ethical to whip slaves (or even own slaves, for that matter) and you'll get one answer, but quite a different answer from the slaves themselves.

You'll get different answers to this question whether you ask it of employers or employees, capitalists, socialists, or communists, people who feel exploited or the exploiters themselves, and so on.

I'm not sure how much one could make out of such a survey other than on controversial issues there are great differences of opinion.

You're right that ethical axioms are subjective. But most arguments tend to center around the application of those axioms . I often find that people are in complete agreement in their axioms, but come to different conclusions in real world scenarios - due to flaws in their reasoning or refusal to consistently apply their own reasoning for personal reasons (I know this is wrong, but I really want to do it).

>due to flaws in their reasoning or refusal to consistently apply their own reasoning for personal reasons

That's not the entirety of it. The problem is that these ethical problems exist within a certain societal framework, and that framework is made of multiple overlapping assumptions, habits, traditions, and expectations, some of them contradictory. Two people's axioms might be identical, but they may come to two opposite conclusions over whether these identical axioms apply to a given situation based on how they each subjectively weight the assorted related circumstances. They'll BOTH claim that the other's bad conclusion is due to "flaws in their reasoning", and can still both have perfect internally consistent reasoning for their own conclusion. Ethics isn't physics. There often ISN'T a right or wrong answer, only a variation in assumptions.

I know that's not the entirety of it. But it accounts for far, far more ethical disagreements than people are willing to admit. I've had a lot of discussions with people around ethics and the use of logical fallacies really can't be understated.

> I often find that people are in complete agreement in their axioms, but come to different conclusions in real world scenarios - due to flaws in their reasoning or refusal to consistently apply their own reasoning for personal reasons

… or, less cynically, because there's no reason to expect informal, philosophical reasoning from not-necessarily-consistent axioms always to lead to the same result?

Maybe so, but I don't think that accurately describes the groups the parent post listed.

It doesn't. Which is exactly why I brought it up. I don't think that the groups that the parent mentioned necessarily cover the variety of opinions that we're talking about in this specific case. I don't think foundational differences in ethics fully account for the disagreement that we're seeing here.

You get to spend more time with your son. In a country with a terrible maternity and paternity leave policy, it's morally right to do whatever possible to spend more time with one's children. You are doing a great service to the country, as your child will turn out to be a more mentally healthy adult. Just for that reason (besides that you are providing value to your employer), keep going!

> In a country with a terrible maternity and paternity leave policy, it's morally right to do whatever possible ...

This seems like quite a slippery slope. Who gets to decide what counts as an acceptable maternity/paternity leave policy? And surely you don't mean it's morally right to do literally whatever possible. Suppose I show up at my boss' house at night with a gun and tell her than unless she keeps paying me full wages as I spend all my time with my family, I'll shoot her. Is that okay? (I hope not!)

Stretching it a little bit here are you, now?

The guy figured out how to automate his job when no one else before him did it. Let the small guy get the fruit once in awhile. What do you think they will do if he tells them? As he said, they will just take the software and get rid of him. They won't even ask themselves if it is morally right or wrong. I say keep the good work and spend the time with your son. I wish I could automate my job that way and scratch my balls the whole day, even at the office...

I wasn't trying to make any comment about the job-automation situation; for what it's worth, I find arguments both ways to be very persuasive.

Rather, I was commenting that the moral system in the grandparent comment of essentially "decide what values are important to you, and if your country's laws don't align well enough, feel free to break those laws" is quite an eyebrow-raiser.

Do you disagree?

> "decide what values are important to you, and if your country's laws don't align well enough, feel free to break those laws" is quite an eyebrow-raiser. Do you disagree?

This is itself a moral judgement and the answer has been debated since the invention of law :) Some might argue that obeying an unjust law is morally wrong (i.e. civil disobedience).

I don't see a problem with that, as long as you understand that you will almost certainly need to face state imposed consequences when you break the laws.

It's horrifying to see people questioning the morality of their perfectly legal and adequate method to collecting a paycheck. Their employer has 0% loyalty to them. Their employer would stab them in the throat for 50 cents. And here is the employee asking if his sweet arrangement is ethical.

That's how hard Americans have been brainwashed into the idea of corporations and business as "Good" -- that a man is asking whether spending 38 extra hours a week with his son is built on an "unethical" foundation.

> Their employer has 0% loyalty to them. Their employer would stab them in the throat for 50 cents.

You don't know that. The fact that he's asking this question means he thinks they have more than 0% loyalty. If you knew they had zero loyalty and would fire you upon disclosure of the automation you wouldn't concern yourself with ethics.

I see what you are saying but it's still bad faith from my perspective. If you automate part of your job you should celebrate that and figure out somewhere else to add value. He's being paid a full time wage to provide technical expertise as a professional. To withhold that expertise they are paying for is unethical in my opinion. He's taking advantage of the company's lack of knowledge in the space and also taking advantage of "working" remotely.

However, if I was him, I'd try to figure out if I could fire up an LLC and license the script back to the company for maybe $1-2k/mo and then go do the same thing for other similar businesses. He could potentially make more, come clean, and still get to his goal of spending more time with the family based on his mailbox money.

So he could move to full time contractor (so he can write off his home office or whatever). "Write" the script. Inform the company that he automated it and would like to license it to them. Even that is somewhat unethical because the company should own the script, but at least he can move on and get rewarded for his initiative.

Neither he nor the company would be better off if he were still doing it manually.

I don't know whether I think it's ethical or not overall, but it's at least a more optimal situation than if he had continued spending 8 hours a day updating spreadsheets by hand.

He's doing a better job than he was before, for the same price, and he gets more free time. Everyone's a winner. Admittedly, he is a winner by quite a bit more than they are, but he would have been perfectly within his rights to continue doing the work manually. Then they'd be paying the same price as they are paying now but getting work with more mistakes in it. Why would they want that?

> free time

The employer is paying for that time, so... he should be doing something for the company.

Ideally, he'd tell them of his accomplishment and get a raise and a job helping other people automate their jobs, or something like that.

No. He is working remotely and the employer is paying for getting the job done.

There is no way of something ideally happening in this case.

The amount of taking the higher moral ground on Stack and here (in only a few minutes) is laughable. He is a single parent trying to get things working for him and his son. He is even questioning himself about this. This puts him into 5% of the honest population. I am old enough to know that internet warriors of higher moral in real life are mostly, I say mostly scumbags who would do much worse than this guy.

>> No. He is working remotely and the employer is paying for getting the job done.

To me, the test of whether he is being paid for results or time is whether he is paid more if the work required more than the 40 hours.

Agreed. Assuming he's salaried and not hourly there's no argument in my mind that he should feel required to tell them. If he's hourly I'd say it might be a gray area.

> If he's hourly I'd say it might be a gray area

If you're on contract to work X hours and you're doing 20% of that, it's a "gray area"?

That really depends. I've seen a lot of contract engagements where part of "the work" is just being there (or available) during standard business hours (e.g., 40h) regardless of whether you're doing anything. So depending on the situation, it is a "gray area".

> Ideally, he'd tell them of his accomplishment and get a raise and a job helping other people

realistically he'll get fired because they don't need him anymore. his wages are booked as profit and distributed among shareholders ,-)

Well than he should get payed more for being so productive and just bill the two hours for the same amount.

Initiating this however would include involuntary, unpaid consultancy about what part of the company can be automated.

Is it unethical to keep a chair warm when my boss didn't give me new tasks to do?

For other areas of life (immigration), I need to get more years of continuous relevant work experience.

I come to an office every day, but my boss just doesn't have enough to keep me busy. My job title is "Project Engineer", which is vague enough to cover everything from DLL debugging to Node.JS programming to network monitoring to evaluating Advanced Planning systems. The latest task is to do some online course in machine learning, even though he didn't specify how the company will need it.

On bad days, I feel useless. But I reconcile the situation to myself by saying it's basically a "basic income" (the salary is not high; the minimum that people on my visa can have). I could think about changing after I have the years of work experience, but years just come with patience, not with productivity. I feel like my situation isn't "fair" because my friends are so much more stressed, but I need the years, not the results.

I also do a lot of side projects and post them online (e.g. learning Chinese - http://pingtype.github.io ), but my contract and visa specifically state that I can't have any other paid work. So all my projects must be free and open source.

If the author of the automation scripts wants to comfort his conscience, I suggest reading more about Basic Income theories.

Once, long ago, I did two weeks' worth of work for a multi-person team in about a day, thanks to a little sed/awk magic. The work would have gotten done a lot faster if I didn't have to deal with the completely shitty X-over-dialup remote access setup they forced me to use. The project manager was actually upset with me because now we couldn't bill the client for 80x5 hours worth of work or whatever it was. Needless to say, I quit that job the following week. It's one thing to have a little downtime now and then to recharge oneself. It's quite worse to be bored because there's nothing fun/interesting/useful to do.

Thats pretty ridiculous. Any business that punishes innovation isn't long for this world. If the PM was really that concerned about billable hours i'm sure he could have found something. Heck maybe you shoulda recommended disabling copy & paste on all dev computers in order to increase profit by 30%

Just a couple of weeks back, one of my colleagues worked an extra 25 or so hours, but wasn't paid for the full amount. He went and had a chat with his boss on Monday, demanding to be correctly paid.

The office door was shut, and when I saw him an hour later, he told me he had decided to not worry about the money "for various reasons." He's still expected (required) to work all overtime, it's billable, he's just not going to be paid for anything beyond the standard 40 hours.

This is pretty common to me. I worked a job where I wasn't at work at night, but was responsible for doing network maintenance on servers late at night when the business wasn't functioning. My boss made sure I billed those hours, but I never got paid for them. At the time I was just happy to have a job learning so much, but man, how terrible of a boss.

This type of behavior is a warning sign that this business will eventually end up doing a lot of corrupt things in my opinion.

I love questions like this, especially when the person replies to the reactions. I'm less interested in the answers as I am to the question, "Why did you post the question?" There are lots of people saying that they think it is unethical, and the OP has taken time to respond to these reactions with a rationalisation.

In other words, the OP feels guilty and is seeking permission to continue with the course they have already chosen. They feel they won't get it from their employer, so they feel the need to find the permission from random strangers on the internet.

I've done a lot of process improvement in my career and this is always the trickiest bit. People make decisions and build elaborate walls to protect them. Exposing the decision does nothing to remove the walls -- it only prompts the builder to design even more elaborate walls. It pays to be sensitive to this!

Recently, I paid two guys $150 to cary 4 tonnes of gravel up some stairs into my garden and level it. I figured it was a days work for the two of them, and that the price as reasonable. But then, they ran the whole time, and did it in half the time I had estimated for the job. And emotionally, I felt really ripped off, because I was paying twice the going rate for workers in my country. But WHY SHOULD I FEEL RIPPED OFF???? It is wrong to feel ripped off in such a situation. Their doing it quickly saved me time and stress as well.

A company automating jobs and firing people is called progress. A person automating his job without being fired is sustainable progress.

If you can trust the company to act in an ethical manner rather than a purely profit-seeking manner, there should be no problem in telling them you have automated your own job out of existence.

They pat you on the back, license the software from you for 0.5x your former salary every year, move the folks that formerly did that same work to other projects, and put you on retainer to update the program if it ever needs it. Then they offer you different work, to see if you can work more magic.

That said, I would only trust one of the companies that I have ever worked with to do that. The rest would screw me over good and hard, giving one excuse or another.

By the Hillel principle ("If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?") you have to consider the impact on yourself as well as upon others. Will the company fire me? Will it keep me and fire my co-workers, since I can do all of their work for a week in a single day? Will it pay me more to do so? Do I have a duty to act in the company's best interest if that conflicts with my own? What if it is best for myself and the company, but ruinous for innocent bystanders?

Clearly, if this is a typical US company, the ethical course of action is to not inform the employer. This is an unfortunate loss for the economy as a whole, but it is the only appropriate response to the modal behavior of business management. Maybe also file a patent on the method of automation, if able.

I worked in data entry at a large hospital in the late 90s. I automated my data entry of reports someone was printing from Excel and that I was entering it into another system.

My boss walked by one day and I was reading the Monstrous Compendium and she asked "what are you doing?" To which I responded, "uh reading the Monsterous Compendium"... then explained I automated my data entry by having the people upstairs because bring down floppies with spreadsheets on them instead of printing the reports "to save paper".

Curiously I didn't sign any paperwork when I started regarding intellectual property and I'd written the app on my computer at home... sooooo, I got a bonus and a promotion to the IT department!

They fired the rest of the data entry team :(

This case is a microcosm of a fundamental tension. Namely: how should we divide the pie between capital and labor, if baking the biggest pie requires devaluing labor? There are explicitly positive and normative components to that question. Positive analysis can’t resolve normative questions, and vice versa.

Personally, I’m not interested in questions such as whether the OP has been dishonest, or what the status-quo legal regime would prescribe. I am interested in the underlying economic reality. The OP has developed a technology with real and quantifiable value. He created wealth. So: who should keep it?

At the macro level, I think it’s pretty clear that the existing economic and legal regime would have these gains accrue to capital owners. After all, markets (when they function) do a good job of allocating resources according to value signals. But that's just a default allocation; that doesn't tell us "who should keep it".

It unethical to deliberately introduce errors. If you have broad discretion about how you do the job, it may not be unethical not to actively call your employer's attention to your automation, though (but for the deliberate introduction of errors) it should, with a reasonable employer, be beneficial to do so.

This reminds me of this joke https://www.buzzmaven.com/2014/01/old-engineer-hammer-2.html :

The Graybeard engineer retired and a few weeks later the Big Machine broke down, which was essential to the company’s revenue. The Manager couldn’t get the machine to work again so the company called in Graybeard as an independent consultant.

Graybeard agrees. He walks into the factory, takes a look at the Big Machine, grabs a sledge hammer, and whacks the machine once whereupon the machine starts right up. Graybeard leaves and the company is making money again. The next day Manager receives a bill from Graybeard for $5,000. Manager is furious at the price and refuses to pay. Graybeard assures him that it’s a fair price. Manager retorts that if it’s a fair price Graybeard won’t mind itemizing the bill. Graybeard agrees that this is a fair request and complies.

The new, itemized bill reads….

Hammer: $5

Knowing where to hit the machine with hammer: $4995

I think the problem is actually deeper than whether or not it's ethical, but rather the structure in which we place people gives them more incentive to hide their improvements rather than expose it and help the company flourish. Why should OP ever reveal it to his boss? Ethics? What do those matter on the bottom line for them? He could be fired or disciplined. His experience might be positive, but judging from the comments and how people are reacting to it, I wouldn't be very sure of that.

In this case, I think a positive of some sort to give the employee a reason to reveal this automation. People shouldn't be afraid to tinker and learn in the face of punishment.

There's nothing unethical with this situation as the poster describes it. Is it unethical for you not to tell prospective buyers of your house what other offers you've received? Is it unethical for you not to tell the other side of a legal trial what character, logical, and emotional arguments you intend to use to sway the jurors?

No, some relationships have an inherently adversarial zero-sum component, and maintaining informational asymmetry could only be unethical if the other party will bind him or herself equally to not taking advantage of your sharing it. And speaking realistically, there isn't a snowball's chance in hell a middle manager of a large company with legacy systems would not fire this guy if this information got out and he were told to directly or was generally pressured to keep down department costs.

I'd say, get rid of the intentional errors. If anyone asks, it's just because they became so good at their jobs that the work is now spotless. Which, frankly, it's the truth: business requirements were discovered in such detail that automation could be performed.

I don't think it is stealing. In fact, they are getting exactly what they asked for – the job is getting done. The fact that it is taking less work (but it is still taking some work, he still needs to do clean up before running the automation) should be irrelevant if it is his only task.

This is assuming there are no specific instructions on how the work should be performed.

If it were a silicon valley-type company, then it is possible that this contribution would be properly recognized and the employee offered another position due to the demonstrated skills. From the looks of it, it's unlikely to happen.

So here are the choices:

Not disclosing, and getting into philosophical arguments on whether or not they are being overpaid. Depending on the complexity, this is the kind of thing that consulting companies thrive on and charge big bucks for. So, in fact, they may even be UNDERpaid, if this is eventually disclosed and becomes company property (maybe when they decide to leave the company?).

Disclosing, will force some tough conversations to happen. They will probably want the software, which they are entitled to, as it was done on company's time. And, once they have it, there's nothing preventing them from firing the person.

And, to be fair, companies do that sort of stuff all the time. They may start doing things manually for customers, figure out some monetary value they should charge to cover costs, plus profit. Eventually things get automated. Do they reduce their prices? Of course they don't. Cost optimization and the like.

EDIT: typo (also, using gender-neutral pronouns is tough)

five years ago, I had an entry level overnight noc position at a big company, and within 6 months I had scripted almost everything and was watching Netflix most of the night and didn't make any particular effort to hide that I had nothing to do.

I got rewarded for it with a promotion, and then I did the same thing and got another promotion, and another. I'm making more than twice was I was making before and now my job is telling other people how to automate their jobs away.

I keep scripting annoying tasks because I'm lazy and get rewarded for it with more annoying tasks and more money.

If he had just told his boss, and put what he did on his resume, I'm sure he'd be making more money today and have more interesting work than he would have if he hadn't lied.

But he's valuing his time with his son not the money earned. He's getting 38 hours a week vacation time, that might be worth much more than double or even triple his pay.

He was not paid fot making that software so it is his/hers. If he/she did it on his own time in my mind he is the owner of the code not the company. Sell the license to use to other companies. Yearly or monthly license to use just like for example Adobe does?

Ethical behavior generally requires honesty and forthrightness. If you are only concerned about your own ethical behavior, you should tell them. Keeping it a secret is effectively lying.

If you want to do some ethical calculus, you can probably quite easily determine that your employer (or the general economic system) is less ethical than you keeping this a secret, which may give you some "ethical leeway" when dealing with them.

Furthermore, you could determine that your employer is likely to behave unethically towards you if you told them, in which case you may be able to determine that keeping it a secret is a net-positive ethically speaking.

But yes, it is unethical to lie to your employer about how you're doing your job.

Ethical behavior generally requires honesty and forthrightness. If you are only concerned about your own ethical behavior, you should tell them. Keeping it a secret is effectively lying.

Why? Virtually all companies keep secrets both from their employees as well as their clients. In fact, these are even protected by force of law. Why is it dishonest for the employee to act towards the company in the same way? Isn't that a double standard?

I addressed this pretty directly in my second paragraph. Some people are interested in behaving ethically even in the face of unethical behavior. It is absolutely a double standard, but one that a person willingly applies to themselves.

No, it's not a matter of "they're unethical, so I can be too"; I don't see why keeping a secret is necessarily unethical in the first place. Are trade secrets unethical?

Keeping a secret is not necessarily unethical, deception is (with the same caveats as above). For instance, your employer isn't ethically obligated to tell you how much money your co-workers make. However, if they do tell you, they are ethically obligated to tell you the truth.

In this case, the author has told the employer that they are doing this work in a certain way. They are continuing to lie about it in ongoing way by intentionally including mistakes to make it look as if they did it by hand. This is unethical deception.

If the author truly believed that the employer didn't care, then keeping it a secret would not be unethical. But clearly this is not the case.

People here seem to be generally in favour of the OP, unlike the top-contributors on stackexchange. I too think that employers "naturally have the advantage of a power imbalance" (by keinos) and in my opinion they often take that advantage.

As OP I would think about two options in that situation - although I'm not sure if I can judge that well, since I don't have a child. In both cases though I would stop faking bugs. 1) Once OP stops pretending to work a full time job the employer might be smart enough to realize that said OP has more capacities and thus might provide him with more work. From my point of view it's not the employees fault that the employer does not know what's going on with the capacities. They don't give you enough work, why should you pretend to work? 2) OP could be pro-active and inform employer of his increasing capacities. Maybe they provide OP with new work.

It might be that the employer requests the automation-tool later on, but maybe it could be that the employer overlooks the free capacity aswell.

All software rots: If they had the ability to run the script this engineer built, there is a high chance the same folks would've noticed the automatability of the job.

IOW - I don't understand how the user thinks this will be taken away from him though. It would seem he is a core part to the execution of said script considering he has to adapt it to new data rules etc. once in a while.

IMO - The fact that he is spending 2 hours and billing 40 is deception though: I mean, in an ideal world, the company would totally notice if they estimated an assembly line to produce X items in Y hours and it actually ends up producing 2x items.

Now whether you can engage in said deception, whether everyone else is directly/indirectly doing it, your family situation etc. all lie in the zone of subjectiveness. You just gotta trust your gut and go with it. But one thing is sure though: You get caught, you are getting a reaction - fired/possibly worse. The hr/human ego is far too fragile to let this go in 99.9% cases.

As software developers we implement change which often mean others lose their job. I've worked myself out of more jobs than I care to remember, automating ruthlessly, fixing even when it meant I was redundant as a result. To not do so would make me guilty about all those systems I wrote which made others redundant. That's really what I.T. was for years ago. Was a time I was like some horrible spectre. If you saw me that meant yo' ass. Once I interviewed some users about some task they were meant to be rekeying, they hadn't done it for months as the old requirement had gone. I followed it back to the person who was sending the first part, a nice little old lady and told her gleefully she didn't need to do that onerous first collection task anymore, whereupon she informed me that it was literally all she did. I just left.

I think that's just about the right thing to do, the changing job market and availability of work is a governance issue, trying to tie technological progress to governance is like tying a brick to a unicorn, the results undesirable at best. One of my big pain points is unemployment, I was taught that the last thing a economic entity wants in a capitalist environment is a scarcity of labour that might drive up the cost of production, therefore my government, and many others, have in their remit a less than 100% employment strategy, the unemployment of X% is financially of benefit to GDP, it seems overly cruel that we punish the unemployed with a low salary, they are a crucial part of the machine that is supposed to care for all.

How is this the smallest bit unethical?

The person is paid to do a job and that job is done, and seemingly well. End of discussion.

If he's paid based on task completion then no ethical violation. However, if he is paid based on hours worked then there is a grey area of whether he is actually working.

An alternative take: is paying based on hours work ethical? I know that it's widespread, but in this case, it seems that if your answer depends so significantly on a thing that is of such a little relevance to the actual processes at hand (i.e. what gets done and who benefits), I can't help but wonder whether this is because the premise is just wrong.

Oh no doubt the premise is screwed up. Hours worked doesnt factor in a workers effort level and motivation. I think companies will find out sooner or later that people are most innovative when they are free to be themselves.

It says "full time job" hired as a "programmer" which to me at least, makes an hourly wage unlikely.

I'm a salaried contractor for the Military and yet everyday I have to fill out a timecard. Even though I can come and go as I please, I am still required to fulfill those hours of work regardless of how long it actually takes me. Any sort of government work is going to require timecards.

If you're a salaried employee assigned a task, you fulfill the task, and are available to respond to requests during business hours, there's no ethical issue here.

If you're hourly and you are spending 3 hours a week and billing for 40, you're in bad ethical place in my mind.

If you're a salaried employee, you effectively have a standing contract where you're billing for 40.

Not unless you have a contract that states otherwise.

A salary definitionally is a fixed periodic rate paid for tasks performed for exempt employees. Piece-work, whether that be hours worked or output produced is metered.

If you were a company, no one would bat an eye, they'd say your employer is free to scour the market for the best options, they found you and are happy. I think many companies provide services that are easily automated and customers don't realize how little human labor is actually involved.

You could offer something like: "Hey, I can rewrite the entire system, make it completely automated. This will cost you ((time_it_takes_find_good_job + some)*your monthly pay). After that I'll be gone. hat you already did the work doesn't really matter imo and you leave your boss better of, and hopefully yourself too.

I had pretty much automated a past job and when I quit to try to become a software engineer, they asked me for advice for hiring my replacement (what they should be looking for, etc.). I told them not to hire anyone and that I had hardly been doing anything for months. They hired someone to replace me anyway.

Management have incentives to do this, more staff means more prestige and usually more pay.

The only ethics in business are those enforced by the state. Is it unethical for the state to ask a salaried employee to work more hours? No, it isn't, so I see no difference here. The exact same principle applies equally in both cases. Hours are meaningless if he's salaried. I think it'd actually be unethical to himself if he told on himself to his employer. Our first ethical duty, after all, is to ourselves.

I'm surprised nobody has suggested he takes a second remote job. He's looking to send his kids to college after all.

I don't see the problem with doing your job super efficiently. Adding bugs is just "a duck", not a real productivity loss.

I don't see how you can claim the company wants hours rather than work done.

Moonlighting is often against company's policy because there is a legal concept which applies to all employees called the “duty of loyalty.” Because legally employees are “agents” of their employer, they are required to act in the best interests of the employer during their employment

It might be against some contract he's signed, which would make it illegal.

Aside from that I'm not sure I buy this "duty of loyalty" idea. What social purpose does it serve? Sounds like something that's common because at some point it became normal to be able to get people to agree to it. After all, most people in history could not work remotely.

There's also plenty of other professions where you can work for several people at once, for instance you can be a columnist and do prep work that's useful for more than one column.

What I don't like is this idea that he's being paid for his time, not his product. It seems pretty clear cut he's being paid to maintain this legacy system. He's doing it. If something happens, he should be available, but otherwise he should be able to do whatever he wants, including other work.

Yes I totally agree. Too many corporations view their employees as boarderline indentured servants and it's from that sense of ownership where the need to control ones time originates. Time is after all the most valuable thing we have.

It's the only thing we have.

I'm pretty sure that billing two companies for the same time is the difference between unethical and highly illegal.

And yet, doing that as a company is only good business. (Like developing really similar apps to two different clients.)

That's exactly what I would suggest.

Reading this, it felt pretty strongly like the person wasn't asking for genuine input as much as they were asking for permission from strangers. He defends the "don't tell" side of the options with a fervor that strongly suggests he's already made up his mind but needs peer approval to assuage his guilt.

I can't blame the guy. I've lived in areas where tech jobs are thin on the ground. But what I would do if I were him would be to start looking, and try to find a new job as quickly as possible so as to minimize the amount of time in this state. I can understand a fear that it may take a while to find a new job - and if he has that fear, he should start looking now instead of assuming that coasting like this is okay.

OP asks "is it unethical?" in his question and proceeds to ignore the ethical issues raised by commenters. Sounds like he was just looking for validation to keep doing what he's doing. I would concur with the person that labeled it more humblebrag than question.

I think the discussion ignores the labor law regarding salary employees. At least in New York, a salaried employee must be paid in full for any day he works any part of, at least that's my understanding. In general, the law tends towards the position that salaried employees who are except from overtime are also except from being docked pay for missing an hour of work on any given week. (Although I believe the employer can take it out of your vacation time etc)

So, at least from a legal standpoint (IANAL) my understanding is as long as the poster takes even five minutes a day to verify his work, he is performing his duties as a salaried employee. It is up to the employer to determine if he is worth his salary or not.

Just for fun let's flip this around: Is it ethical to keep doing the job manually if you know how to automate it and not tell your employer?

Are they paying for it to be automated? Further, is it ethical to automate yourself out of a job, and not be able to support your family?

I don't see much of a problem.

You are paid to do a task. Is the task getting done, and at the expected quality level? That is what matters, is it not?

Aside from that, if you can automate your job, you could likely create a service or product to sell that automation to that employer...

Is capitalism ethical though? Isn't every employee an exploited person?

“What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” - Bertolt Brecht

Tu quoque isn't a valid argument. More importantly it implies you actually do think his behaviour is unethical.

It's basically the "robbing a thief" argument - it's not stealing, because the loot wasn't theirs in the first place.

I genuinely don't understand - how is an agreement for payment of services rendered exploitation? Value is generated for both parties of that exchange.

I'm just guessing but there is a legal concept call "duty of loyalty". https://www.google.com/search?q=employee+duty+of+loyalty

The short version of which is the duty of loyalty requires that an employee refrain from behaving in a manner that would be contrary to his employer’s interests. That probably means what he's doing isn't okay but of course laws are different in every area and IANAL.

It's would be arguably different if he was a contractor I'm guessing.

Acting out of "duty of loyalty" seems fine as long as the employer acts reciprocally out of "duty of loyalty" to the employee.

Does it really matter if it's ethical or not? I mean, we're not talking about the ethics of, say, killing a tyrannical despot or allowing a terminal sufferer to commit assisted suicide. If it were me, I'd keep on collecting that paycheck while picking up a second job and double my pay. Again, is it ethical? No. But who cares? This person's mom is right, he has a free lottery ticket. Keep cashing it in. You can keep your ethics while I laugh my way to the bank. Just don't get caught :)

No, you signed a contract to help your employer accomplish their mission or goals. Your contract does not include the revelation of how you get your job done. If you can get it done my automating tasks, that is perfect. No companies has been ever created to employ people. The mission of a company is to raise fund and make profit for it to survive and strive. No individual is indispensable. Even the CEO gets fired if she is hurting the company in any way or fashion. What is important is to invest the time you save into what is important to you like family -taking care of kids or parents, doing errands where there is no traffic, doing chores, volunteering with other organization...What is even interesting and important is to spin out an application or a company out your skills to guarantee to get additional income with your spare time and build assets with the additional income for your family. You are working for yourself in the confinements of your employer systems. The unethical matter will be lying about your process when someone asks you how you do your job or there is a company or code or rule that spells out "Do not automate your tasks or job." Introducing bugs to deceive is unethical. Introducing bugs to test the resilience or the reliability of your scripts is highly desired.

Do you know how John Oliver's "cool" remark, when he's being sarcastic? That pretty much describes every single response I got when I told my superiors I automated (a part of) my job.

I don't expect them to pop a champagne, but they could say something along the lines "this is interesting, what else could we automate?", but it's usually more like "cool, here's more work".

It doesn't deter me from telling them in the future. Maybe someone will appreciate it one day. Maybe not.

One thing to realize is that at the higher levels, it's accepted that salary is basically a retainer. It's payment for the option to ask for work but not an obligation. This is truer the more "creative" or "strategic" your job is. It is known that specific tools need to be used in specific ways at specific times.

However work culture is so ingrained that things devolve into chaos if this is openly said. Games are created so that everyone has something to do mainly so everyone feels equally important.

The behavior itself is OK as long as the game isn't threatened. As long as you aren't actively destroying something anyone above you has created and can produce when called upon, do what you want.

In practice this may mean appearing to do nothing all day but this being OK because you give a script automating seminar every 2 weeks. Or maybe changing work spaces every now and then so when missing you have the benefit of the doubt.

If your level in the org is so low though that you have 5 managers above you all believing in the 12hr work day scheme then you are very limited and will most likely be punished. In most software orgs though this isn't an issue as the "new" culture around thinking work is more accepted.

In my point of view, no it's not.

Your employer's organisation's sole purpose is to make a profit for its shareholders. Unless you are either one of the shareholders or will be paid more for increased production you have no incentive to produce more.

Bar your personal relationships of course, if your boss is a great person and you feel like doing them a favour then that's an incentive.

If you believe you could be paid more for increased production, via a raise or promotion, discuss this with your boss in the form of:

"I have an idea, which I need to spend X hours working on and I'm fairly certain I can get it to work and it would provide Y% more productivity. If I do raise my productivity by Y% what would this mean to me?"

If they state something attractive as the outcome, get it in writing. I interpret this as basically the company paying you for your IP, specially if your automation can be replicated to other employees.

Now if your sole job is automating stuff / increasing productivity at the organisation... then that's a whole other story.

Just remember that if YOU automated your job, the organisation could ALSO do it and not need you anymore - so maybe use the extra time to find a job not easily automated.

An appropriate comic from Poorly Drawn Lines:


"Welcome to work. You'll spend your time here in two ways: overwhelmed and underwhelmed."

"Is there a third option?"

"Well, there's 'whelmed'. But I'm not sure if that's a word. So no."

I have mixed feelings about the post and what I would do.

1. In my current situation, having a wife that has a job with pretty good family health insurance, living in an area (not SV) that has a great job market, and with in demand skills, my first thought is that I would look for another job and explain that I automated myself out of job. That would be like saying I was laid off from Netflix because they didn't need me anymore after I lead the transition from hosting servers on prem to AWS.

2. But he isn't in that position. He needs to work from home to stay with his kid and according to him

Most likely they can walk out of their silicon valley office and shout “I want a job” and get 3 offers to start the next day. Unfortunately, there are places in the country that just aren’t like that. I’m not trying to have a go, I’m just saying that the situation absolutely does matter.

If I were in that position would I voluntarily tell them I've automated the whole thing? I'm not sure. Hopefully I would not intentionally add bugs. I would definitely be using the time to study and keep my skills up to date.

Using a throwaway because people are going to throw a hissy fit.

Dude, you have family and your _ONLY_ responsibility is towards them. Period. How is this even a question? Get paid, during your "working time" learn something extra and increase your earning potential. You're in a very unique advantageous position, seize the opportunity.

You're doing your job, you don't have to be some schmuck too.

He should approach management and offer to automate this process for a lump sum of x-years pay. If they plan on using this method for 5 years then offer 4 years of salary for this tool.

Everyone wins. They save a years salary and don't have to deal with data entry errors. He wins because he is paid and can continue to earn more.

This is an example of automation and capitalism revealing their best features.

Except that under most contracts, the company already owns the code currently used to automate the job.

You don't sell them that code. You sign an agreement and write new code.

I have worked at enough places where "appearing busy" is rewarded far more than being efficient and truly productive. This seems to be where we're headed as a middle management society and it sucks. Ethical behavior would mean doing whatever you can to reduce such perverse incentives (venturing a guess that means keep your mouth shut in this case).

If he's getting paid for the result, then it's fine but most probably they pay him based on the hours that he works and he fakes it in order to get full wage. That's not ethical as stealing is unacceptable and even if your children are starving.

I would probably tell my employer that I wrote the software during weekends and it's done last week (Since I would probably get fired if I tell them the truth and I will live with the unethical side of this), and it also avoids the human verification which means for them to just get rid of the verification. I would start a company with the the software that I built and offer them monthly based subcription fee to get their work done. You will still getting paid and you cana also sell the software to similar companies.

If he doesn't want to deal with starting company instead spend time with his children, then he can find a business partner that can do the things other than product.

You say he's being unethical and 'stealing', yet then you say in his position you'd lie to your employer and claim you developed the code on weekends instead of on company time in order to charge the employer a monthly subscription fee and also sell it to potential competitors. Really?

It's unethical because he puts some errors to make the work look like human work and he also reports his employer 40 hours instead of 2 hours which is not acceptable.

On the other hand, he doesn't want to lose his job and even gave the example of "starving children" so it looks like he's stuck with it.

If he developed the software during the working hours and used the company resources while developing it but still tries to own the software and selling it to his employer, it's also unethical but I already told that "I would live with this lie" because his employer never asked his to automate the job, he did it himself. By selling the software, he can even save their money by avoiding the verification and also will have to lie once and then he can relax himself. So it's a grey area for him and probably better than trying to legitimate himself or losing his job.

The poster there is referring to current state of things being automated. He is the expert of that particular system. If there are changes upstream, his automation will fail and if he isn't there, then what?

When upper management changes and someone would like to change the system or business process it supports they will need him.

Like others have said, there's unethical deception involved in inserting arbitrary errors - especially to make it "look like it’s been generated by a human".

But my feeling is that in addition to paying the OP to "do a job" the company is also paying him/her (him from now on) to "be on call". Yes, they want X results but they also are paying a salary so that they can tap him whenever they need to. This aspect of the job is referred to when he says there "might be amendments to the spec and corresponding though email".

To some companies (especially those with very little other in-house expertise) having "the computer guy" on call to handle all of that mysterious stuff is worth a great deal of money. The company could consider it their insurance against catastrophe.

Nevertheless I would say the OP should come clean at the next performance review.

As business graduate who is not a coder, but interested in this discussion.

I believe your own moral compass will guide you, if you feel it is unethical, it most likely is.

However, I wouldn't just go back to how you did it before. I would proposition your boss about the possibility of making your job automated and how much he would pay of such a thing. Whatever you do, don't tell him that you have already done it.

Say that you might be able to do it,if the figure appeals to you. If the figure does not, keep going as you are going until they find out is my advice. Because if you have created it during work time, you have pretty much fired yourself anyway.

Have you done it with work computers during work hours? If you have, then what you have done already belongs to your company and thus your boss and they can sue you for not handing it over to them.

So far (10 years) these rules have always worked out for me in the long run:

1) Your loyalty belongs to your company. Always do what is best for your company.

2) Always share your knowledge freely.

3) Never strategize in order to "secure your job".

4) Always pick the project or job where you will learn the most (grow the most as a person).

I would guess 90% of people I have met ignore this and start strategizing at some point. They seem to always lose in the long run.

"The company treated me wrong, so why should I work as efficient as I can?"

"I can't teach him EVERYTHING or my job won't be as important/secure any more."

"I will pick this project, because I have done something similiar already, so it will be easy work."

When sticking to 1-4, relevant people will notice eventually and your trajectory will go up.

When ignoring points 1-4, relevant people will lose respect for you. And even worse, you will lose respect for yourself.

This is just my opinion or my experience so far.

No offense, but 1. sounds like slave capitalism 101.

It's not slavery: you are free to quit your job and work for another company, or start your own business. But if you DECIDE to work for a company and take the thousand(s) of dollars each month so that you can live a comfortable life, then you owe them your loyality.

I wonder if you would agree with your statement on loyalty if the roles are reversed:

"If the company DECIDES to hire you and use thousands of hours of your life each year so that the company can enjoy a profit, the company owes you its loyalty."

Rare is the company whose leadership feels that any meaningful loyalty is owed to employees.

Edit: I want to add that your 4 guidelines are wonderful if you work for genuinely good, moral people who want to "do the right thing" and who have the luxury of setting such priorities. But caution is necessary. Far too many employees devote decades to a company only to find when they're ill or older that loyalty was a one-way street.

I agree with your reversed statement. The company needs to be loyal to it's employees too.

But in my opinion, some principles should not depend on how the other side acts:

"If my company is not loyal to me, it's my right to deceive them as well."

-> No, I will stick to my principles. I might bring it up to management. I might quit. But I won't act destructively because the other side does.

Otherwise it's a downwards spiral: you will meet many toxic people in your life. If you lower your standards everytime you do, at some point you will be one of them.

Right, look, This guy is doing everything that is being asked of him for the price agreed. None of the more wonky ethics of the situation change that, and I don't subscribe to the belief that he owes the company anything more then his fair-priced labor.

The only thing he is doing wrong is under-utilizing his own talents and potential productivity, for which the optimal solution is for him to find a better job. As he seems to indicate that the current options are to stay working 1-2 hours of work or be highly to be unemployed, I believe he seek to preserve his employment in future actions he may take regarding disclosure, and wait for a better opportunity to present itself.

If it's ultimately a choice between providing for him and his son and not, its pretty much no choice at all, ethics be damned. I know which outcome I would prefer.

In terms of feeling uncomfortable with it ethically, but also being concerned about finding another job, couldn't the OP just dedicate some of the free time to finding another job that allows him to continue to live the remote lifestyle he desired when he took the job, then let his current company know that he's created software to do the job he was hired to do and has been testing it over the past X months to iron out the bugs? Then he could give them the option of just keeping the software and not him (without anyone employed who can fix any bugs that might arise in the future) or allow him to continue on in the current arrangement (perhaps negotiating a lower compensation figure in exchange for him running everything in just an hour or two a week and then supplementing that with the new job)?

Is don't believe this is an "ethics" problem. No reason for existential angst.

This is a practical problem. What do you want from the company long term? How do you want to spend your days?

Consider the longer term. What happens if they find out you automated something and didn't tell but rather milked it? Do you even care about what their reaction might be? Is this company at all important in your future? (there aren't "right" and "wrong" answers to this, depends on what your goals are).

How do you see this ending? How can you make maximum advantage out of the situation while preserving what you want out of the company (including possibly continued employment).

As far as I'm aware Moses didn't say anything about these types of situations so you are on your own. But don't be a short term thinker.

I did exactly the same thing in a data entry job, after the 2001 internet bubble burst.

Semi-Automated a highly repetitive job that took 5 minutes per document to process, down to under 1.

Once we changed jobs, I went to the IT department, they were not happy with people outside their department automating things and had a similar project already.

In the end, a year later my manager was replaced by another that was his ex-wife and suddenly the fact I was wearing trainers to work was an excuse to let me go (though a lot of data entry people did).

It may or may not have been down to the fact, that with my automation, her department would potentially be 1/5th of its size.

That company no longer has their large offices in the town I was in, with inefficient manual processes involving lots of paper.

The good thing that came out of it, was pushing me towards software development.

They want x amount of data processed, and are willing to give $y to do it. If the OP has found a way to offer x at a much lower price than estimated, good for him.

People make shitty deals all the time, he is under no obligation to tell tell them to fix it. The relationship is contractual and nothing more.

This describes my first job. We ended up automated everything and I ended up getting hired as a programmer.

I'm surprised nobody suggested going back to doing it manually. If he can live with the moral compromise of what he's already done, he can eliminate any concern on a going-forward basis simply by deleting his script and doing things the old-fashioned way.

In my opinion, something is wrong with your value set when you're actively destroying productivity solely to seek alignment with your personal values.

It's like the old Milton Friedman story told by Stephen Moore:

'At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”'

Cool story, but did Milton Friedman genuinely do in his head the optimization between the social benefit of the jobs program and the infrastructure benefit of the new canal?

The script is presumably company property at this time, even though they don't know about it, so destroying it would be akin to destroying company property.

From a legal standpoint the company owns the automation. You need to tell them. They pay for your time and the IP you create.

An enlightened company would entertain your offer to deliver the same value as a fee for service at a discount to them. (You would incorporate)

Yeah, I don't see the employee's ethical issue. He was hired as a programmer. While at the company, using the company's computers, as a hired programmer, he wrote a program. The company owns the work product. Either he lies to his employer about what he's done (which would be almost certainly violating the employment agreement, because he's now using company property -- the program -- without permission and for his exclusive benefit), or he truthfully reports his work status (which is what the employment agreement surely calls for). End of story.

The company, on the other hand, does have an ethical issue. It'd be totally legal to do exactly what OP fears: say thank you for the automation and fire him. But would that be right?

I think the practical thing to do is for them to assume that this won't last forever and start using some of that spare time to improve their employment prospects, i.e. looking for another job that isn't in danger of evaporating if anyone looks at it.

I wouldn't tell the employer. I'm guessing they don't care about you and they will take your idea, use it, maybe get rid of you without any compensation for creating the automation.

The job you've been hired for is being completed by a tool you made, and you're getting paid. Maybe look for something more appropriate to your skill set like another post suggested.

Oh and if you're feeling guilty you can read this story about Alcatel stealing IP and forcing a guy to work like a slave.


If he had a boss, reselling his work, and making those margins instead of him, he would not have this ethical dilemma. Somehow the ethical aspect of work disappears when there is even the slightest layer of sales above it

If you believe in the Gervais Principle,


then OP is a "loser", and most answers divide into "losers" ("coming clean will be worse, so just keep doing the bare minimum") or "clueless" ("it is unethical to mislead your corporate masters"). I'd like to see what's the "sociopath" answer.

Show incompetence in the testers and get them fired.

My recommendation would be to ask a lawyer if the employer has the rights to the software he wrote to automate his job. Depending on the answer, either offer the software or offer to write the software as a negotiated one-time purchase.

To find a basis for the negotiating, consider the salary for the foreseeable future and present-value that income.

The result would most likely be a happy employer, and an ex-employee with a lot of money in the bank who is now free to find any other job or move wherever he/she wants. Maybe even with the same employer.

Seriously... Op could quit his job, then go tell his employer he'll maintain the system for a fixed monthly subscription.

They'll have less headcount and op will be free to pursue other activities.

> and op will be free to pursue other activities.

Nope. I think op has evaluated this angle and here's what he says in his post.

> Although I get the feeling there’s a specific audience at Stackoverflow, mainly the type of people who I imagine can not appreciate living in a place where jobs aren’t aplenty. Most likely they can walk out of their silicon valley office and shout “I want a job” and get 3 offers to start the next day. Unfortunately, there are places in the country that just aren’t like that.


> If I could get another job, of course I would. But the fact is, it would not be that easy. And as mentioned, I work remotely..

Just because it's not easy to get another job, it doesn't mean it's not possible. He works 1-2 hours a week and has a ton of time on his hands! That's plenty of time to start looking for a new job (without quitting the current one), while still leaving plenty of time to spend with his son. Since he has specific requirements about the job (remote, work from home, etc.), it will almost certainly take longer than "usual" to find a new job, but that's fine... he has the time. After finding a new job, give notice, and give them the automation tool, and that's that.

The issue I find more important here is that this guy isn't growing professionally where he his now. If this do-nothing job would be guaranteed to be around for the rest of his life, maybe that'd be ok. But it won't be. Maybe the company fails. Maybe this division gets sacked. Maybe at some point they do decide to finally overhaul this system, and his job ends up no longer being required anyway. Maybe at some point he slips somehow, and they figure out how little he's working, get mad, and fire him.

After that, what then? Then he has no job, and no significant things on his resume for several years that will help him get a new one. I think this was a nice train to ride for a while, but it's time to start looking for a more sustainable one.

I'm surprised this thinking isn't more prevalent. When I have lots of free time at work with few interesting problems I know it's time to find a new job.

I agree with the guy in that I'd like to have more time with my family, but I can't imagine effectively not working and growing at all. He seems in the ideal position to search for a dream job. What he has is not a dream job.

It seems that he gets paid full time, but due to his ingenuity, gets to spend most of it with his family. If that's not a dream job, what is?

Well, if he's not making any progress career-wise it's a dead-end job. Personally, I'd love to scale back to like 20 hours a week and spend more time with family, but in those 20 hours I'm working I'd want to keep growing. Chances are that the job he has will end before retirement. I would want to be prepared for that eventuality.

As a follow-up to this question, imagine a job where a significant portion of time is spent waiting on a computer (rendering animations, code compiling, etc).

Two contractors are hired, one with a modern laptop and the other with a 10 year old machine. The older machine takes at least twice as long to process the work.

Is it A) ethical to bill for time spent waiting for the machine to process and B) ethical to use the older machine? Assume the contractor using the older machine is using the best equipment currently available to them.

In business this is called innovation.

If a business found such an internal optimization would it tell its customers what a killing its making or keep the profit and grow the business?

Telling the boss is peasant thinking.

I understand that the company told him to not mess with the system, but why not show them that you found a way to automate the process without admitting that he's been using it for a long time.

Maybe I'm too optimistic or naive but after successfully showing them that it works and saves time the conversation could move on to optimizing other tasks and problems the company surely encounters. Instead of letting the guy go I could easily see how they find additional value in him in other areas.

It feels as though everyone is focusing too much on the specifics and not considering that there might be a bigger picture. If this person has a spouse to support, kids to feed and cloth and a mortgage to pay then the also have an ethical responsibility to not risk their income by coming clean. Even if it's just themselves there is an ethical responsibility to provide for themselves.

I think it's probably unethical behavior, but probably for entirely ethical reasons.

Of course don't tell them. It is always stupid to leave the money on the table. You win nothing by telling in any case. They will fire you, they will own your app because after all you are a programmer and you coded it while on the job so it belongs to them anyway, and others in that company will hate you because you hacked through shit they had to do manually for years. And they will even think that you have scammed them after all that, anyway.

Ethical or not, I'd be more concerned about what I'd do if the current job ended, regardless of why it ended. What do you tell the company you're interviewing with about what you did at your last job? And I don't mean discussing this with them, I mean what do you say about the projects you worked on over the past n years when there's only this one automation?

If you are paid according to time and material, you could be sailing in bad legal waters. Ask an attorney about fraudulent billing.

If you are paid like an FTE, As long as your employer is satisfied with your level of productivity, then it really does not matter how long it took you to produce results.

Nevertheless, it's shady to insert bugs into your products. My work is my pride is what matters in the end.

I know this is an ethical question, but I wonder, would it be possible to have him license the script to the company for some annual fee and then offer the company a support contract as well in case new quirks are found that need to be updated? Combined license + support contract cost == his current salary. Or does the automated script he created already belong to the company?

No. You're performing the job you are paid to do. You could hint that you could handle more work if you think it would benifit you, but how you perform your job, as long as the end result is the same, is not something you want to "bore your busy employer" with.

Especially not if it means saying "You could do this without me now"

Wow. How can anyone be confused about this? This is clear cut. The stackexchange answers are correct and this HN thread is filled with really unethical, almost childish advice. What the guy is doing is basically fraud. The employer expects him to do efficient work. If he can automate it, that automation is owned by his employer.

He is doing efficient work. It is so much efficient than working by hand.

Why automation will be owned by his employer ? Just why ?

They hired a "computer guy" for "data entry". The computer guy develops a system to facilitate data entry, which is exactly what he was hired to do.

It's not like he developed a cool iPhone game in his spare time, unrelated to his job. The work was directly job related.

Yes, and as you said, the work was directly job related, he developed a tool to make his work more efficient. Then he didn't tell about the tool to his employer. Obviously he should have.

They pay for his time. He should have disclosed that he can now perform the work much faster so that they can use his time for other stuff.

Why is this so hard to accept?

Quit! Start your own company that sells your job as a service.

If you do it right your current boss can be your first customer.

There was a very similar story a while ago on HN: "Kid Automates Work, Is Fired, Hired Back, Automates Business " https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4167186

History repeating itself?

it's simple - how long do you plan to stay with this company? 3 years? so ask 3 years salary for your program or better even more for additional support and updates

if they don't seem interested in this just keep doing what you are doing

it's same like comparing performance of employees, some smarter of us learn workarounds to make our work more efficient, is it mandatory for us to share our findings? what would be my motivation to share unless i will get significant bonus or share on company profit gained through higher productivity?

now if you just started and you are in your 20s i can see how you still have naive idealistic attitude and let yourself abuse and help company to fire people including you, if your are older you are less prone to this bullshit

I think the only unethical thing is holding back on the results. It's great to automate tasks and the company doesn't need to know about it unless it is explicitly stated. But your obligation is to deliver high quality results as fast as you can.

I counter with another question. Is it ethical for a company to pay you the same to do more work? If you tell them you have automated your job, I guarantee that the reaction will be to give you more work. You will not get more free time or more pay.

This is why I like the new innovation-project type in EU where you are both allowed to work for the company and sell a project to them at the same time. The problem here is how you could sell them the system, if you are allowed in US?

Interesting question here to me is how to align incentives in a manner that works out best for both, the employer and the employee. Automate your job and then move on to higher level problems, rinse and repeat. Profit share?

I can't help but think the ironic day will come where someone in the organization will get the idea to automate his job and bring someone in to do it, and that's how he'll finally be let go.

This is a wonderful thread for all the employers out there that want to see how ethical the people applying for their jobs are. If they have a HN account, just read the comments here.

They haven't just automated the job - they've deliberately inserted errors to make it look like a human made them. That's a big step over the line into fraudulent behavior.

"Fraud" is a _really_ strong word.

Intention matters greatly in situations where someone is doing something which may be interpreted as duplicitous.

This is someone who is in a situation that not many people have experienced. He has the integrity to think out loud about his actions and bring them into question for himself and others.

I think he should come clean about the automation to his employer (he doesn't have to say its been going on for 6 months, of course). Unless the employer is a total ghoul, it is unlikely that this would get him into trouble.

If the story is true, the guy is NOT a fraudster. There are vastly more unethical things to worry about than a clever guy who puts VBA macros to good use.

The employer can choose to fire them, not because they are in trouble, but because they are no longer needed. I'm surprised you don't think that is likely.

I would bet most companies are interested in reducing "waste" by not hiring people no longer needed. The way the OP talks about the company, it seems like they have no need for actual developers.

Sure, the validators that were checking his work could easily be canned. Mr VBA-Wizard, however, might be put to work doing other "magic" in the organization.

The OP already addressed this: "This isn’t like a company with tons of IT work - they have a legacy system where they keep all their customer data since forever, and they just need someone to maintain it." The OP believes that there won't be other work for him if his current job becomes unnecessary.

> "Fraud" is a _really_ strong word.

It's also the correct word; he is seeking to obtain value from another party by material misrepresentation of the facts.

> I think he should come clean about the automation to his employer (he doesn't have to say its been going on for 6 months, of course). Unless the employer is a total ghoul, it is unlikely that this would get him into trouble.

Well, without the intentional introduction of errors, I would agree with you. With that, I think lots of employers would say “Good job on the automation, but you are terminated, for cause, for the deliberate sabotage.”

> If the story is true, the guy is NOT a fraudster.

If the story is true, the guy chose to become a fraudster as a precaution against the risk that the automation might not be appreciated.

I agree, for the most part, but what other reason or intent would you have in inserting deliberate errors than to be duplicitous or fraudulent? His best bet would have just been to let the script do its thing for as long as he could until he was asked about it. Chances are he never would have been asked and would have been commended for his accuracy. Now, though, he's totally on the hook for fraud if this ever comes out.

The purpose of the deliberate errors is to avoid (or delay) having the discussion about the automation. He is not "on the hook" for fraud unless he acts like he's in a sit-com and blurts out that this has been going on for 6-months.

He could just say: "...hey, I've been working on automating this task, I think I got it working now."

If you're "not 'on the hook' for fraud" only because you haven't shared material facts ("this has been going on for 6-months"), you're committing fraud.

Let's separate out the two things here.

One is the deliberate insertion of errors. He should stop doing that. That's not cool. (I wouldn't label it as "fraud" though.) If the employer found out about that, they'd be well within their rights (legally, ethically, whatever) to fire him over that point alone. However, it doesn't sound like the intentional errors are any more than what would naturally occur if he hadn't automated the system, so the end result is unchanged, so while I won't give him a pass on it, I also can't demonize him for it.

The other is having built an automation tool without telling his employer, drastically reducing the amount of time it takes to do his work, and then not having other work to take on to fill his time.

To me, at the heart of it is whether he's being paid for his time, or if he's being paid to get a specific job done. It sounds like it's the latter (and I would say that's the case in any salaried position), so while the company might be annoyed/pissed that their estimate of the time needed was way off, that's really their problem, not the OP's.

We wouldn't be having the same discussion if he didn't automate, but just got more efficient at the job because he'd done it for a while. So say initially he had to work 40 hours a week to get it done, but after 6 months on the job he was able to drop that down to 35 hours a week due to familiarity with the work. Why is it ok to work 5 hours less but not 38 hours less, while still getting the same job done?

Fraud, though? No. The only way it would be actual fraud is if he were getting paid hourly, and he was marking up a time sheet with 40 hours when he really only works 1-2. But it doesn't sound like that's the case here.

I agree with you wholeheartedly on point #2 but am completely in disagreement over point #1. It's definitely fraud because he's manually inserting the errors specifically to deceive and give the illusion that he's doing something he's not. Whether the job is automated or not doesn't really matter. To your point, he could just have gotten so good that there aren't any errors anymore after 6 months and no one would bat an eye. To deliberately insert errors that don't exist simply so that he can give the appearance of not doing something is intentional fraud.

He has NO REQUIREMENT to volunteer so-called "material facts" unless he's in a courtroom.

They hired him to do a job. He's doing the job. But because of a lack of trust, he isn't telling them that a little devil in the form of a VBA macro is helping him immensely.

The more I think about it the more I align with the OP clamming up and enjoying the ride until he finds something better-- or perhaps until he develops enough trust to be able to reveal the automation.

The biggest hazard, aside from loose-lips, is that the company could hire a 22-year-old business analyst who might quickly report back that Excel can do a few more things than they thought. Then the 22-year-old will look like a genius and the OP will look like a blockhead.

They inserted errors in the first "drafts" submitted, not the final result to be submitted. I feel like that makes a difference.

There is some manipulation going on, but there seems to be a difference between submitting a code review with bugs inserted on purpose, and shipping code with bugs inserted on purpose.

Agreed. A better "grey area" solution to this dilemma would be to keep the data pure, spend some free time on the resume and some new job interviews, and at the right time show the employer the cool new script you made for them.

But it still contains less errors than if he had done it manually, as they think he does.

Intent matters (in ethical considerations, anyway). Intentionally making mistakes to conceal your automation is on a completely different level than unintentional mistakes made when doing the work (either manually or through automation).

Agreed. If fraud = unethical, then that's what this is.

Companies treat us so unethically why are we so gracious to them?

Willfully putting bugs in code is ridiculous - that alone would be grounds for firing. The OPs concern about ethics has made his actions unethical that would otherwise not be.

Whether you answer "yes" or "no" to this question basically amounts to whether you're an entrepreneur or an employee at heart.

I'm only half kidding.

Congratulations. You are supporting yourself on a monopoly rent. Don't be a fool and give it away for nothing. You've already said too much.

I'd argue everything they're doing could be portrayed as ethical in some context.

If they aren't actively looking to replace the job they feel the need to fraudulently accomplish, I'd argue that's the unethical component. I don't think they mentioned anything about looking for more work.

It's one thing to be in a situation where the only options you can perceive as valid are fraudulent ones. It's another thing to choose to stay in it instead of choosing to extract yourself.

The best solution is to become a contractor with this employer, and charge a flat rate per result or per week/month.

I wonder, if OP told the company about his script and the company demands the script is he forced to give it to them?

My question is - will he ever tell the employer about the program? Even after the point of employment.

So you mean "Is it ethical for me to tell my employer I've automated my job?"

Having a employer - employee relationship is already considered unethical by socialists.

similarly, on a larger scale, one could ask whether deep learning is unethical for automating millions of jobs (if not yet, certainly in the future).

There's no universally accepted "right" answer to questions of ethics. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normative_ethics#Normative_eth... for some approaches.

I'll provide a few perspectives.

Act consequentialist ("hardcore"): Is the world as a whole better or worse off after you take that action? Probably better off. By taking that action, there'll be less money in your companies pockets. That money may trickle down a bit to Average Joes, but probably will go mainly to rich people who don't need it. On the other hand, you'll have more free time, you'll be happier, and your child will get to spend more time with your son.

Rule consequentialist: Evaluating the costs and benefits of this particular action is error prone, so you're better off just following a good rule of thumb. In this case, I think a good rule of thumb is to oblige by your contract. Your contract as a full time salaried employee is to, basically, give us your time for 40 hours a week and work reasonably hard. If your contract was some sort of fixed price freelance gig, then things would be different, but by signing the contract you did, you gave them your word that you would work reasonably hard for 40 hours a week, and keeping your word is a good rule of thumb.

Rule consequentialist: Evaluating the costs and benefits of this particular action is error prone, so you're better off just following a good rule of thumb. In this case, I think a good rule of thumb is to be honest, and tell your boss.

Deontologist: You have a _duty_ to follow your contract. You should do it _because it's your duty_, not because you think it'll lead to good consequences.

Deontologist: You have a _duty_ to be honest.

Deontologist: You have a _duty_ to be the best possible father you can be, no matter what it takes.

Virtue ethicist: You should follow your contract, because doing so is sticking to your word, and sticking to your word is virtuous. You shouldn't be sticking to your word because you think following that rule-of-thumb will lead to good consequences, you should be doing it simply because it's virtuous.

Virtue ethicist: You should do what is best for your son, because being a good father is virtuous.

Personally, I believe in consequentialism, and I believe that you can use your judgement to decide whether or not to use act or rule consequentialism, based on whether you think you have a decent grasp of the trade offs. If you don't have a good grasp of the trade offs, you can expect a rule-of-thumb to do a better job than your attempted analysis, and should go with the rule-of-thumb. Otherwise, go with the results of your analysis.

In this situation, it seems to me that the trade offs are relatively clear, and that you could go ahead and keep it to yourself. But I wouldn't blame someone for taking the position that the trade offs aren't actually too clear, and it'd be better to fall back on a "be honest" rule-of-thumb.

Note: I expect that if you told them, they would take the program, and either a) use it and fire you, or b) maybe keep you around as a contracter or something to add to the program. You wrote the program during work hours, on a work computer, presumably. So legally, it is there intellectual property. Assuming you don't have some atypical clause in your contract.

Nah, it's fine.

How ethical is it to tell your boss and then lose all that time with your son. What ethics do you care more about? Making sure your boss gets all the time he thinks he's paying for out of you? Or your son getting as much time as you can give him? Are you more loyal to your boss than your son? If your ethics are driving you to cuck-out and screw yourself, it's time to delete your "ethics" and install new ethics. There is such a thing as fear of success, I'm hoping you don't have that fear.

Considering that they're just as likely to fire you as they are to promote you, I would say it's perfectly ethical to not tell them.

If the author is an employee, it's pretty clearly unethical to withhold information from the company. The real question is not whether or not it's unethical, but whether the author is okay with behaving unethically.

note: before posting I realized logfromblammo said what I'm trying to say and more much shorter and better: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14657981 but now that I already rambled so much I don't want to just throw it away either, so here goes nothing.

> Is this the kind of example you want to set for your son?

Yes. I can nearly touch the very smart and decent person behind that post (which I didn't fully read because you bolded this and I had to get my opinion out before reading on :P)

Use a lot of your time on that son, and some of it on helping people here and there who don't have much time. Spend little money and lots of time! You can answer your son's questions, you can play with him.. don't sacrifice that luxury light-heartedly. Don't spend that penny without turning it over lots, it's the first of that nature you got, and many people don't even know a person who had one.

Of course, as others said, also learn interesting things and keep your eyes peeled for a job that would have meaning to you you can be 100% straight about to everyone involved. But I assume you're already doing that anyway.

This stroke of luck might not last forever, but it is a stroke of luck IMHO, from the sound and content of your post I'd say a nice thing happened to a nice person who put in the work to deserve it. Nothing unethical I can see about it. If they want it automated, they can hire a programmer. Wanting to have it automated by someone for data-entry wages, now that's unethical. So if you want ethics, calculate a generously low programmer salary for 6 months, then coast along some more until they paid you this much.

One thing I'm sure, suffering 40 hours a week when there is no need is kind of the worst example you could set for your son. IMO, of course. His father at least for a moment is free from bondage, but also free from delusions that often come with "aristocracy" (for lack of a better word, I just mean most people who "live the easy life" pay with it dearly in ways they don't even register). That's as rare as it is beautiful. Take the advice of anyone who never tasted this with a grain of salt. Especially if you use free time to seek out things you can do or create that are interesting to you -- I don't believe in relaxation or entertainment that much, I love being focused and busy, but I believe in autonomy and voluntary cooperation.

Everybody should... well, okay, 2 hours a month wouldn't be enough by a long shot, but I do believe life work life and starvation levels for all people on Earth could and should be compatible with a dignified, strong personality. But we're really programmed to not even want that, to not even recognize that as the minimum responsible adults should settle for, but rather belittle it as utopian. Yeah it's a hard problem, but it doesn't get easier by working on unrelated gimmicks instead.

As you said yourself, the company already gets the end result out of you what it wanted out of you for that money. Now they get the bonus of you improving yourself and the world and spending more time with your son than you otherwise could. At least on a human level, anyone who doesn't see this as an added bonus to be happy about is petty. This makes the world much better than you saving the company a job would, which often is just pissing down the drain. You didn't get this job with the intent of automating it, and you probably started trying that without even knowing if it would work, because you like coding. And then you knew that they wouldn't just say "good on you, enjoy the time with your son". I know I'm trying a bit hard here, but if you squint you might say you have to "lie" to get them to "do the right thing".

> You cannot strengthen one by weakening another; and you cannot add to the stature of a dwarf by cutting off the leg of a giant.

-- Benjamin Franklin Fairless

This is true. And yet, if you would let them, they would do it. To be fair, I know none of the people involved, but for a general "they" this is too often true. And nothing would be gained, only something would be lost, and you would have lost the most.

I say you got lucky, it's yours. Use a lot of it selflessly, but use it! Maybe ask a lawyer for advice, don't be reckless of course. But if your only danger to this is your conscience being infected with the general pathology of society, rectify that. Fuck survivor guilt, you know? Good for everyone who gets as far away from the prison system (in the sense of System of a Down) as they can. Don't leave us in the ditch, but never get dragged back in either.

Workplace.stackexchange.com makes me cringe. It seems every post is written by socially challenged people with absolutely no social awareness or confidence. I had to stop subscribing to it.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact