Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Types of employees

For a long time my own definition (everyone's got their own...) of a senior software engineer as distinguished from a non-senior software engineer is that the senior can articulate how what they work on directly impacts business value. Many non-seniors will be perfectly happy to spend their jobs taking items off a queue someone else prioritizes, working on them, and completing them, without ever caring about anything other than the problem in front of them. And if they're really excellent problem solvers, they should definitely be promoted and paid well, but they might not fit my arbitrary definition of 'senior'. Implicit in my definition is a capacity to be independent that this hypothetical problem solver doesn't seem to have, or at least it hasn't manifested itself through desire to control what one works on more directly.

Agile methodologies try to make us all equivalent cogs. So while I don't really like practicing (and many so-called 'agile' groups at work don't either) making sure story titles follow the naming convention of "As a [persona], I want [desire] so that [business value] is achieved" I do see the inherent value of it and the direct focus on what a company exists for: creating value so that customers can be delighted.

This line of thinking made me consider another aspect of the work place which is that some employees can be Typed differently than others, even if they supposedly fill the same titles and on-paper roles. There are probably more types but the two big ones I noticed were Costs and Assets.

An Asset employee is one who generates an equivalent or greater amount of value to their company each year than the amount they cost to employ. In other words their net-value to the company year after year is >= $0.

A Cost employee is the opposite. The value they generate to the company is minimal, and the net-value of keeping them around is actually a cost since it comes out at < $0.

The kicker is that there's nothing wrong with being a Cost type. Ultimately a company will only employ someone if they think it's worthwhile to do so, so what reasons might a company have to pay a cost year after year? Quite a lot actually. Just like a company has to pay to keep the lights on, electricity is a Cost, so too must a software company pay a certain number of its engineers just to keep the software running, let alone improving it for better market positioning. Like supplying your employees with a building to work in, which is a pure cost of doing business, some employees themselves are just costs of doing business.

There is a danger to being a Cost type in that you'll be part of the set of people first looked at if the company starts coming up on hard times, because it'll be obvious that you're a Cost. A billion dollar company with a tiny amount of profit is in danger if the explanation for that lack of profit isn't aggressive self-reinvestment to grow. At my company, I was surprised to learn that 50% of our revenue goes to salaries, but in retrospect since we're a sales and marketing company perhaps it's not unusual and perhaps at other such places it's even higher? Nevertheless, that's huge. If a billion dollar revenue company did the math and found out that a huge $600m part of itself has since the inception of life either barely eeked out a profit or is actually a net-loss, they would be willing to consider amputation. There goes a lot of overall revenue, but not really any profit, and probably a significant amount of the overall cost company-wide has been wiped out by not having to pay the salaries of the people involved with that product anymore. With a renewed focus on what matters they can maybe turn things around.

So while it's perfectly fine and normal for someone to be paid $100,000 per year to maintain some web crap in a relatively low stress and low requisite smarts position, the job can vanish like that if the company decides it doesn't need that thing maintained anymore. If you're in such a role, watch out, but enjoy it while you can. There should be no guilt over the salary, it's just your share in the cost of the thing. Even if it's truly trivial stuff and doesn't make you crazy like trimming Satan's nether regions does, understand that the company is paying you that much because the alternative is having no one to maintain their thing and the thing falls over. If the thing falls over, the company gets $0 from it. If it stays standing and doesn't change at all, they're getting billions.

It's worth going on about this a bit more. Your large-by-comparison salary is actually a tiny cost in the overall value of the thing you're keeping going. At least, if it's not, then you'll be out of a job. So in the spirit of collectivizing our profession without going full-union, demand more salary in general, regardless of how easy the work is. Our profession built these billion dollar profit systems, even if it's always certain individuals who can claim a bigger share of it. But perhaps the biggest shareholders are in the open source community and doing their work because they're part of the 2% of the population that really likes computers in a geeky way, not (purely) for profit. Linus is not a trillionaire but if he could extract money from everyone who has benefited from the kernel he probably would be. And a lot of other mega-rich kernel developers. Then all the GNU folks, BSD people, Apache people, individual projects like ImageMagick, people in academia... etc. If you're going to feel ashamed of your salary, at least feel it in comparison to the $0 salary received by so many writers of open source that is used by proprietary companies to make millions without giving anything back except sometimes recognition/acknowledgment of use. Don't feel it in comparison to your Uber driver.

People are adaptive and may serve as a Cost or Asset type at different points, even for the same company, and even switch in any given year. I think it's better to be an Asset, but beware of underpayment in that case. If you're a Cost who's just finally becoming an Asset, but becoming an Asset in a huge way by e.g. saving / earning the company millions despite their salary being a comparatively small $300k, then really you need to consider a startup where you can be the direct beneficiary of that millions instead of your boss's boss's boss's boss's boss.

Posted on 2017-08-19 by Jach

Tags: work


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