Don't Let Them Tell You What To Do

October 28th, 2021 —

4 Minute Read

Modern labor, as described by employers, is a paradox.

On the one hand, employers attempt to tell you that labor is a purely transactional interaction; you're on their time, and they get to tell you how to spend it. The product of your labor is not your concern. Leave your identity politics at home. If you're leaning, you could be cleaning. These hours have been bought, and no longer belong to you.

On the other, employers attempt to capitalize on your personality and intuition. There is an emphasis on growth in the workplace, and interviews don't measure only for current abilities, they predict how you may be a value-add to the culture of the workplace. Companies spend huge amounts of advertising budget attempting to prove to you that, yes, black people work at Amazon. That the workplace is a family. That the company's success is dependent on you, and therefore, you share in the company's success.

At the end of the day, neither is true. The work relationship in the extreme majority of workplaces is simple. You work there becuase you working there makes them more money than you not working there. Labor is the source of all value, and ironically, especially so in tech work. There are some values driven workplaces, and they are a wonderful compromise - but ultimately, if you clearly are not generating more money for the company than you are being paid, you will have a hard time working there for very long.

A theoretical view of tech is that it is a passive machine. That you build something somewhat analogous to a book that can print itself forever. And then, people buy that book, on a monthly recurring basis, until you have enough money to shoot yourself into space. The reality is that tech, like nearly every other thing humans create, degrades at a shocking speed, and requires a huge amount of labor just to keep functioning at a flat rate, to mention nothing of scaling or growing.

Labor touches everything in tech - the initial designs have downstream effects on the maintainability and scalability of a product, sales staff set expectations, preferences and intuition shape the product, and all of that work only puts you in a position in which bugfixes, oncall response, customer support, and directional leadership can have a chance of generating more income than they cost. If the staff of any website or app, simple or complex, walked away from it, it would cease to exist in a shockingly small period of time.

Folks who are early in their career can easily, as I did, believe that their job is to build a building that will stand forever, and that the value generated by these high-leverage actions will grow over time exponentially. But the reality is that exponential software growth is tightly coupled with exponential labor growth. Some of this is linked to application complexity, a topic for another post. There are outliers, but this trend is unavoidable.

What does this mean for the labor? It means that despite how much your employer may try to convince you that they know what is best for you, your peers, and the codebase, they always must weigh their ideas in this area against the equation of labor to value - so no mandate by an employer is made entirely in good faith, unless your sole goal at the company is to make your employer a lot more money than you make. I know few if any people who fit that description.

Tech workplaces (along with a growing number of other industries), despite needing to make money, have an interesting secondary effect of being wonderful places to grow your skills, because labor makes all the important decisions. I've certainly watched managers attempt to design software, but at the end of the day, every single decision that directly impacts the functionality of a product is made by someone working at an individual contributor level. This means that quality directly correlates with intuition - even the most hands-on micromanager cannot attempt to control every line of code you write. And as all software programmers know, every line makes a difference in maintainability, scalability, and functionality.

How does this effect your job? It means that if your company is being run correctly (which it likely isn't), you and your employer can form complimentary incentives: your employer wants you to cost less than you make them, and you want your intuition and decision making skills to be better (and worth more) than when you were hired. There is, however, a catch.

The catch is that to make your intuition and decision making skills improve, you have to use them. There are no pure problems in consumer software, everything you do must be both guided by computer science principles and an intuition and awareness of the problems you are solving at work.

Therefore, if you work from a list of JIRA tickets that you don't necessarily understand, if you execute against an OKR that you can't explain why it is important, or if you don't know why the thing you're doing is important to the company, you are being taken advantage of. You are generating more value than you are being paid, and you are not receiving any additional benefit (beyond your salary, which we've already shown, will only be paid to you if it is less than your value).

This type of abuse is both rampant and fairly easy to avoid. Simply, don't let anyone tell you what to do. If presented with a task, ask yourself: "do I agree with the goals of this task? Do I want to do this task? Does this task contribute to my growth and the success of the company?" If the answer is no, politely decline and ask for more information. It's possible you misunderstood the task and just need clarity, but more likely that you're the first person to ask this question about the task, and in doing so you will both improve your personal prospects, and contribute immense value to your employer.