Five Traps to Avoid When Working at Big Companies

https://mobile.twitter.com/arvanaghi/status/1504523654801022987

  1. Being someone’s lieutenant
  2. Developing expertise that only applies to that company
  3. Falling for perks
  4. Get raises, not readjustments (top end, 7% increase a year)
  5. Lack of recognition

h/t to Brandon Arvanaghi

I’d probably shorten this list to two items:

  1. Be good at doing something many companies and/or people need.
  2. Get recognized for being good by being paid for it, or do what you do for someone else.

You could reduce it further to the most important ability, at any job, is being able to walk out the door and easily find another. Any other situation is one based on exploitation, in one form or another.

A Boring Dystopia: Mouse Movers

““The pandemic has proved to be a catalyst to saying no to the ‘9-to-5’ schedule. The tables have turned in favor of the Worker,” Rodriguez told me. “They are in power today. They value work flexibility. They are ambitious. They value work-life balance and are not afraid of saying no to employers who don’t share those values. The Mouse Mover is a new tool in that shift—and we stand with the Knowledge Worker.” 

-Samantha Cole, “Workers Are Using ‘Mouse Movers’ So They Can Use the Bathroom in Peace.” Vice. December 8, 2021

Just to recap: the claim being made here is that being able to buy a mouse mover, which is a device that moves your mouse to simulate computer use, is a tool of worker empowerment. Maybe in a dystopia any resistance to digital Taylorism is empowerment. Needing a “mouse mover” isn’t empowerment. It’s a sign of your alienation.

Get a different job, if you can. If you can’t, don’t pretend to yourself that using tools like this are empowering. They aren’t. It’s a symptom you should seek some kind of real empowerment, such as the ability to decide to use the toilet whenever you want without someone wondering why you aren’t working. Or, to engage in true utopian thinking, find work where you have control over how and why you spend your time because making those kinds of decisions are valuable in the environment you work rather than merely being present to respond at a moment’s notice to your boss.

Communities vs. Transactions

My wife and I have different ways of looking at the world. It occurs to me today that the ambiguity of these two ways of looking at relationships is often exploited.

I think my wife’s understanding is typical. In her view, people do things for one another because they care about one another. Unless it is some extraordinary request, you don’t count the cost. If someone doesn’t care about you, or you them, then you are not obligated to do anything for them. In fact, it’s likely you won’t help them because you don’t have the feeling of reciprocity from them.

However, one problem with looking at the world in this way is that beyond a certain threshold, the community model moves into a transactional model. Someone asks for something beyond the normal level of reciprocity of the commons, and then you owe them something extraordinary in return. But, it’s tacit. This is never actually said because the transactional model is a different model of interaction, and it undermines the community model.

There are also some cases where there will never be anything in return. But, sometimes the obligation is created across generations, such as taking care of elderly parents with the hope that, one day, your children might take care of you in a similiar manner. These kinds of commitments gives community longevity, so they last beyond the current participants. But, again, there’s quite a bit of ambiguity, and in many cases, expectations won’t get met.

I start from a different place. I assume every interaction is transactional, and I try, to the degree possible, to be autonomous and self-sufficient. The last part is key.

In the transactional model, you’re in the world of commodities and commerce. While there are relationships built on commerce, they are not relationships of regard or community, they are relationships of convenience. The advantage of being autonomous and self-sufficent is you can live in a world of commerce and not have to count the cost, the same way that you live when you live in the community model, except it doesn’t matter whether people care about you or not.

Except, obviously, it does matter whether people care about you. The difference is that I don’t need that to be the basis for my day-to-day interactions with everyone. There is a small group of people that I interact with the expectations of community. But, outside of that small group, it’s the transactional model.

And, here’s why that’s important. When you go to a subreddit, like antiwork, and you see that a boss asks someone to come in on short notice and be a “team” player. That’s a community argument. But, does the boss care about you? Not at all. The relationship is transactional. Working this kind of ambiguity, given how many people subscribe to the community model, is a path for exploitation. It’s really that simple.

Four Hours of Work

“The real lesson – or one of them – is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximise your time” or “optimise your day”, in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer…

…The other, arguably more important lesson isn’t so much a time management tactic as an internal psychological move: to give up demanding more of yourself than three or four hours of daily high-quality mental work. That’s an emphasis that gets missed, I think, in the current conversation about overwork and post-pandemic burnout. Yes, it’s true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours. But it’s also true that we’re increasingly the kind of people who don’t want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don’t feel we’re being productive. The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run. “

-Oliver Burkeman, “The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done.” OliverBurkeman.com. April 3, 2021.

Policy of Poverty

“The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response…

…I suspect the real political problem for a guaranteed income isn’t the costs, but the benefits. A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest…But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery.” 

-Ezra Klein, “What the Rich Don’t Want to Admit About the Poor.” The New York Times. June 13, 2021.

Play Your Own Game

1. Judge less.

At least half the people doing things with money that you disagree with are playing a different game than you are. You probably look just as crazy in their eyes.

2. Figure out what game you’re playing, then play it (and only it).

So few investors do this. Maybe they have a vague idea of their game, but they haven’t clearly defined it. And when they don’t know what game they’re playing, they’re at risk of taking their cues and advice from people playing different games, which can lead to risks they didn’t intend and outcomes they didn’t imagine.

-Morgan Housel, “Play Your Own Game.” Collaborative Fund. May 13, 2021

And What Do You Do? I Live Here.

“A monk walking through the woods came across a couple strolling and answered their greetings. ‘And what do you do?’ the woman asked. The monk replied, ‘I don’t do anything. I live here.” She insisted. So did he. She thought of life in terms of what one does for a living, but the monk did not. He insisted that he did nothing, he only lived here. She was vexed…

…Is a person only a machine to make money? Is being a parent, a spouse, summed up in what a person does for a living? Is it how much you bring home that makes you what you are? If it is, many a wife and mother has little value, for in terms of economics she may be more like us monks, performing useful and necessary tasks and services. But there is no money in any of it…

…For granted having no income, no job, is a most dreadful worry, it is not the end of everything. Not the loss of humanity, identity, personhood. For trial, trouble, sickness and affliction and death are with us today as they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow. Characteristic of life anywhere. Any time. Only in some times more than others.”

-Matthew Kelty, “Every Reason to Be Merry,” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publicans, 1996.

Upon re-reading The Call of Wild Geese, this passage felt especially relevant in the middle of a pandemic. Who are we if we cannot go into the office? If we are not earning an income? If we are isolating and socializing through screens? Do we have value apart from this life we have constructed? Obviously, we do. The question is: why is this even a question? The answer is that our culture is busy reducing people into categories: type of job, ethicity, religious belief, down the line. None of these things is who any of us are. Yet, the provide a shortcut, just enough to process and move on with our lives and ideas, let’s not have too much disruption please.

Weekly Review

“Every Friday afternoon, I’d send my boss a short email with three categories:

* The work I had completed that week

* What I was working on, including any deadlines that may have shifted or obstacles I’d encountered

* What I was waiting on—that is, tasks that I’d completed, but require sign-off from my boss or contributions from someone else

Over the years, I refined the practice. I used a timer to ensure that the weekly update would not take longer than 15 minutes to write. I used a simple template where I could pop in information, so as to expedite the process.

-Khe Hy, “The 15-minute weekly habit that eased my work anxiety and made my boss trust me more.Quartz. April 20, 2017.

Not just a good idea for your boss either. I used to find using a template for a weekly review helpful to hold myself accountable as well.

Meritocracy, Intelligence & Education

“…we need to dismantle meritocracy.

DeBoer is skeptical of “equality of opportunity”. Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you’ll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent…

…One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it’s also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we’re finally left with what really determines your value as a human being – how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid’s achievements in math, science, etc, “and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, ‘This one, he is maybe not so smart.'” DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn’t have thought twice if she’d dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence – isn’t this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. 

-Scott Alexander, “Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
.” Astral Codex Ten. February 17, 2021.

There’s a lot going on in this review. I’d highlight that Fredrik’s DeBoer’s blog has an RSS feed, which you can add to your RSS reader. I’m looking forward to reading more of his commentary.

Open Question: Is education an unqualified good?

I recently had an online discussion with someone who, in broad strokes, seems to agree with the above position, i.e., if we only had enough education, we would solve much of society’s problems. I think this is a standard U.S. liberal stance, which positions educational attainment as the means for advancement into the middle class.

Education is the great lie of U.S. liberal politics. Lest you think I’m a conservative trying to own the libs, let me first talk about the great lie of U.S. conservative politics in order to draw parallels.

The great lie of U.S. conservative politics is that you can have a global war-fighting capability and small government. The U.S. conservative lie is easy to grasp. There’s obviously a tension between government size and the ability to fight any war, much less a capability that involves nearly a thousand foreign military bases and nearly a trillion dollars of military spending every year, more if we include the debt servicing for past wars.

But, how is education like war? Isn’t education an unqualified good? The similarity is that just as small government caps one’s ability to fight wars, there is a demand limit on education. Most education is vocational instruction. People go to school in order to get a credential that gives them a better chance of getting a job. The education is, in large part, a secondary effect to the real demand for better employment opportunities.

It’s also possible to juice this demand. For example, I know of one university, and I imagine it is a feature of most universities, where jobs that used to employ people straight out of high school now require a university degree. The university, by implementing this requirement, increases demand for its product. But, does being an administrative assistant in the university organization really require this level of training? Does one need a Bachelor’s degree in communication, business, English, etc. in order to answer the telephone, write a Word document or navigate an Excel spreadsheet? Aren’t these skills acquired in the high school curriculum these days (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?

And you can see this happening at a broader scale as university administration has become professionalized. Instead of professors running university business in addition to their teaching, professors teach and the university business has been outsourced to administrators.

And, it’s not just universities. The same phenomena is happening across industries. It’s true of every level of government. It’s true of most industries, but particularly those that are tied closely to government. Look through the top industries by GDP in the United States: healthcare, durable goods manufacturing, food & travel, retail, etc. Almost everywhere you look, advancement implies management.

So, people go to school to learn a vocation. You get in the door, and then, in order to advance, no matter what industry you are in, you need to get into management. Leaving us to wonder, what exactly is vocational education for? Further, how large is the real need for managers, as opposed to front-line workers?

If you think it through, it is obviously a con, no different in its contradictions than talking about small government and global war. Management, by definition, has to be small. So, no amount of education is going to improve the lot of people getting educated to qualify for those relatively few positions. The only way that education works is if there are paths of advancement that actually require an education and aren’t management.

For example, if Dragon Naturally Speaking has taken over all the transcriptionist jobs, if Level 5 artificial intelligence has taken over from the teamsters, if 3D printing technologies have reduced the number of people working at construction sites, if fast food can become a largely automated process, etc., what will become of those people doing those jobs?

The most likely outcome is that there will be a compression of people into low skill jobs, driving down wages for everyone. There will be some people that will move into positions of managing machines. Someone will have to check on the artificial intelligence drivers, to make sure the results are as intended and to intervene when it starts to become very Sorcerer’s apprentice. But, the net is less jobs for people and more jobs for machines.

And, this is where the education argument starts to look plausible. People can be trained and are needed to supervise and inspecting the work of machines. In some ways, we are already preparing for that world, where people in low skill jobs are treated as if they are machines. For example, see some of the discussion about the conditions in Amazon warehouses and how that is breathing new life into the labor movement.

But, in the end, there is limited demand for education. Most people go through the process of getting an education credential for the vocational dividends that pays. But, it is clear that the university model and the push for education doesn’t deliver on its promise. And, when people are sitting on a mountain of debt and cannot find work, are they going to sell the educational dream to their children?

Another detail worth consideration, did the COVID-19 pandemic finally show that the promise of MOOCs are not something that can be delivered using the university model and university price points? At the very least, the focus on education and how it is delivered needs to be completely rethought. And, as DeBoer points to a deeper problem, our society’s focus on intelligence and expanding it through education is a fundamentally flawed project, as bad as small government and global war-fighting.

Job Descriptions

A good job description has the following:

  • A clear, concise summary of what the company does
  • A clear, concise summary of what you would be doing in this job
  • Clear, reasonable qualifications for the position / work
  • Clear, reasonable responsibilities listed for the position
  • No mentions of traits or qualifications that are not concrete (e.g. sense of humor, perseverance, determination…)

A bad job description doesn’t have the above.

“Don’t settle for bad jobs.”

Michael Vinh Xuan Thanh, “How to Spot Toxic Software Jobs From Their Descriptions.” Medium. August 28, 2019.