Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: work

Yes, you should do what you love

When I mentioned seeking out people who are intrinsically motivated to work with a few weeks ago, my friend Jason commented with a link to Miya Tokumitsu’s essay In the Name of Love in Jacobin magazine. It has since been picked up by Slate. Here’s her take on “Do What You Love”:

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.

I agree that DWYL is not a valid policy prescription. If we could magically sort everyone so that they could earn a living wage pursuing the activity that they love most, we would not have a functioning society, much less a functioning economy. So we have to accept the reality that for many people, perhaps the large majority of people, a job is just a job.

Given that, we need labor policy that does not assume that work is its own reward. Work week regulations, paid vacations, parental leave, and other policies are all intended to provide respite to workers from exploitative employers. Minimum wage laws put some floor on how much you must pay workers, regardless of how much they love their jobs.

For those of us who are managers, it’s important not to exploit the fact that some people love their jobs and will work all the time if you let them. It’s important for people to keep a healthy schedule and take their vacation time, even if they would prefer not to. Not only is overwork unsustainable, but it creates a dynamic in which people who would prefer to maintain something resembling a balanced life wind up working too much because they’re afraid to fall behind in a perceived competition with their less restrained coworkers.

An enthusiastic manager who works 70 hours a week sends a message to even the least enthused person that working lots of hours is expected. This oblivious manager may just assume that everyone on the team is happy to work those hours, given that they’re doing so without even being asked.

As a matter of government or corporate policy, we’ve got to take these factors into account.

However, if I am talking to an individual, rather than talking policy, my advice will always to be to do what you love (or, do what you can’t not do) if you can get away with it. We spend at least 2,000 hours a year at work. If it’s up to me, I’ll spend that time doing work that I enjoy. I want other people to do work they enjoy as well. To the extent that I have influence over who I work with, I seek out people who also find joy and fulfillment in their day to day work.

It seems to me that a discussion of labor policy is ideally suited to analysis from behind John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. We should think about these matters from the perspective of someone who has no idea whether they will like their job or hate it, or whether it may be at a desk or in a coal mine or tomato field. At the same time, when you’re looking for a job, try to find one you’ll enjoy and find fulfilling, and be thankful if you manage to do so. It’s not that common.

What does it mean to be a senior engineer?

You should read John Alspaw’s essay, On Being A Senior Engineer, even if you don’t aspire to be a senior engineer. Maybe you already think of yourself as a senior engineer. Maybe you work in some completely unrelated field. What it’s really about is becoming a mature professional and not only mastering the skills of your field but passing them on to other colleagues in useful ways as well.

I recently read a post about the value provided by managers. I was not surprised to read that managers do add value, but I was a bit surprised at the means by which that value is added. I would have assumed that it was by keeping people happier, removing distractions that sap productivity, or helping to prioritize work. As it turns out, the actual value is in teaching people how to do their jobs better.

So as a manager, the best way to add value is to help people along their path to becoming senior engineers (if the people who report to you are engineers). As an engineer, you should be looking for opportunities to work for a manager who can teach you to be a better engineer. And perhaps most importantly, you don’t have to be a manager to help other people get better at their jobs, so you should helping other people get better as a key aspect of you’re job. This is one of the key points of John’s essay.

Anyway, you should be reading his post and not mine. It’s a road map to making the most of the incredible opportunity we have to work as engineers.

Willingness to travel

Here’s Matthew Yglesias explaining why many Senators are not experts on public policy:

Senators and members of congress have extremely time-consuming jobs, and the job is basically to fundraise, to travel a lot, and to hustle on behalf of the interests of donors and parochial local interests.

This is one of those everyday economics lessons that I think comes in handy in many phases of life. I used to work fairly regularly with people who were consultants for enterprise software companies. What I soon realized was that the core competency for these people was not software development skills or even product expertise but rather willingness to travel. Most of them just showed up and then spent most of their time asking people in the same office questions we could have asked them.

Working conditions for designers

Peter Merholz on the habit of overwork among designers:

One of the things I’ve seen among many in the design profession is a willingness to put up with crappy jobs. Jobs where their talent and labor is exploited (this is doubtless true in other fields, but I suspect it’s especially true in ours) . The thing that cheeses me off most is overwork. It’s not uncommon for services firms to have their staff work 50+ hour weeks. I wouldn’t mind that if people were compensated accordingly. But most are simply compensated for “full-time” — there’s no over time. The thing is, I know their employer is billing out every one of those extra hours to the client. Which means that person is bringing a LOT of money into the firm, and not seeing it herself.

He suggests that designers put up with this because they don’t understand the economics of the business, but I doubt that’s right. It doesn’t take a degree from the University of Chicago to know that generally the rate your agency bills your time at is usually much larger than your hourly rate if you divide your salary by the number of hours you work per year. Indeed, in many cases people fail to understand the more complex economics of agency work. You have to fit office rent, employee benefits, non-billable employees and all of the other costs of running a business into that gap between the salary of billable workers and the amount that’s being billed. Plus, no matter how efficiently an agency is run, nobody bills all of their time.

That said, I do think that any agency which has built its business model around paying people for a 40 hour week and then “encouraging” them to work 50 hours a week is poorly run and operating in an unethical fashion, and it’s incredibly common. I remember being told in an employee review at an agency job years ago that I was perceived as going home too early. I was already working more than 40 hours a week, but my boss always worked later than I did and expected the people who worked for him to do so as well. It was that sort of corporate culture that contributed most to people working lots of extra hours.

It’s also worth noting that this sort of practice is common in many industries, and it has little to do with prestige. Graduates of the best law firms in the country are worked extremely hard in their early years as associates, and the entire medical profession is built on the exploitation of residents at hospitals. Game companies are notorious for overworking and underpaying their employees, and they have the luxury of doing so because so many programmers are eager to work on games rather than business process automation or other less glamorous projects.

Ultimately it’s up to the employee to decide what they value. If you’d rather work 80 hours a week on the new edition of Starcraft than work 40 hours a week on a payroll application for the state government, that’s a perfectly valid choice. Or if you’re working 50 hours a week and picking up skills and experience you couldn’t get any other way, who’s to complain? In the end, your relationship with your employer is like any other — just be sure that it’s one that works for you and that you’re getting out of it what you put into it.

In any case, if you’re are a Web developer or Web designer in the Raleigh area and want to work at an agency that doesn’t exploit its employees (by rule or by convention), please send me an email.

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