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Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I've automated my job? (stackexchange.com)
685 points by Ajedi32 on June 28, 2017 | 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.


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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_for_hire


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

http://blogs.orrick.com/trade-secrets-watch/2016/01/19/the-d...


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.


> 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?


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."


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.


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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pi7h6nmkvAM

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.


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.


"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".


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.

http://www.worldcat.org/title/worldly-philosophers/oclc/9894...

http://www.worldcat.org/title/ordinary-business-of-life-a-hi...

https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/experts/ebeinhocker


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


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:

https://nature.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7research/7calag...


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

https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Wealth_of_Nations/Book_...

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:

https://ello.co/dredmorbius/post/lhw2eq4qmnnwxijlcrfyba

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.


> 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.


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.


TPS

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.


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.


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.

http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/where.asp


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!


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.

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