I was recently told about a project at a company which involved cleaning up a dataset which consisted of around 100M individual entries - the reason the cleaning is required is that, due to various absolutely fucking dumb decisions, a massive proportion of the dataset were duplicate values. Products were appearing multiple times, for example, and we didn't know which entry was the "real" product.
The person telling me this was trying to illustrate something about corporate dysfunction. He informs me that millions of dollars were spent and more than a year of time. Then he asks the question deployed worldwide when someone is absolutely sure that they're going to blow your mind.
"How many records do you think they deleted?"
He sits back and waits for the answer. At this point, I have two options. One, assume he's underrated my cynicism, and pick a higher number so that his narrative flow isn't broken. Two, do what my terrible instincts always tell me to do, and pick an absurdly low number so he's forced to revise upwards.
I should do one as an agreeable conversation partner, but I do two because I am a bastard.
"They deleted... 5,000 records."
His grin widens - he knows what I just tried to do, and I realize that I have grossly miscalculated.
"Zero. The only outcome from the project was a recommendation to start another project."
After some spluttering, I ask, already knowing the answer.
"Was anyone fired?"
Skin In The Game
The places I've worked have all agonized over the amount of money it costs to hire a single new staff member, and then they'll thoughtlessly sink ten times that number into a project that literally produced nothing and no one seems to be held accountable for this. I suspect that at the level where judgement happens, the information has been packaged such that none of the fund-providers are aware that we're just setting their money alight constantly.
In fact, that isn't even the thing that baffles me. Wasting money is going to happen on individual projects, because it isn't really a waste. That's the cost of doing business. Some things work and other things don't.
No, what's baffling is that nothing ever works at these places. The same morons make the same stupid mistakes over and over. Projects start and the vast majority of the time, anyone with a half ounce of savvy has already realized it is already doomed, doomed, doomed.
Nothing works but the money still flows in. If the same people had their Netflix subscriptions cease working for a month, they'd be screaming bloody murder at the injustice they've been dealt, but they'll happily sit in conference rooms and applaud each other's absolutely inane initiatives like seals that someone didn't have the heart to finish clubbing, then produce PowerPoints talking about how the project was an "overall" success.
Nassim Taleb has written that this is the natural consequence of not having any real skin in the game. I.e, they aren't going to personally lose anything when their projects don't work out, and they're sufficiently protected by labor laws and sheer distance to clear outcomes that they aren't going to be fired. And that's that. Some institutions have simply become so large that they can no longer identify where they're bleeding. We frequently can't tell how many people we have employed, and this seems to not be some sin related to how uniquely incompetent we are, but some inexorable informational decay that happens when any operation becomes this complex.
To the extent that the organization survives and thrives, it is because the core business is so immensely profitable that it produces enough money to keep everyone gainfully employed despite their near-zero productivity. Many of these people are actually hard workers, but have been hired into roles that have no chance of really doing anything for our bottom line.
Of course, that core business requires some activities to be done to... if not a high level, at least a level consistent with receiving ongoing business. For reasons I haven't yet worked out to my satisfaction, the people actually doing the work that produces our lifeblood seem to be paid the least, and the absolutely disposable managers, usually with no understanding of what would benefit the business, are showered in money.
There is no reason to innovate successfully, because to fail in an interesting way is to invite questions about why you tried to succeed (but still failed) instead of sticking to the socially constructed reality that the old way works (when it, historically, guarantees failure).
Against incentives such as these, there is no defense. A reader suggested I look into the concepts of Exit and Voice, and I did so. My conclusion: within the average large organization, giving Voice to your grievances accomplishes very little because you require some high percentage of collaborators to affect change, and the effect of having even a few people that don't get it stifles most efforts.
So you are largely left with Exit, unless you actually do want to spend ten years of your life painstakingly crafting change wherever you work. Which, to be clear, is totally respectable assuming it is actually aligned with your values. I could become deeply invested in improving a process over ten years that improves the survival rate of cancer patients by some tiny amount. I am incapable on a spiritual level of making the duplicate values actually disappear when the organization seems perfectly capable of blundering along with them there.
I've seen a few different Exits.
A senior engineer at Amazon (in the U.S, so he's a bajillionaire) told me that work is totally pointless and the industry is fucked, so you should slam the dollar slider all the way to the right and then Exit the rat race.
A team lead from an organization that does lifesaving work, though burdened by a large mass of absolute morons in charge, decided to Exit the private sector to try and do something meaningful, and if it doesn't work soon, he's Exiting again to accrue massive amounts of money then retire.
I've got a friend that decided to Exit academia (because it's, in the words of Patrick McKenzie, totally FUBAR'd) who now does whatever minimum amount of work is required to support his habit of rock climbing every day. As I write that, I realize he's Exited capitalism to whatever degree that's possible, and damn the long-term consequences for his retirement fund.
One of the youngest publicly listed CEOs in the country told me that his career started when he had to Exit from being non-self-employed because he was fired from his first three jobs due to being super fucking bad at caring about office stuff.
And of course, some people don't need to Exit. I spoke to some clinical psychologists recently that mentioned they'd keep doing their work a few days a week even if they were unpaid. These people provoked a lot of thought from me, because they really gun down the oft-repeated idea that "work is always meaningless, why are you being stupid and looking for anything there?". In fact, it seems very depressing to me how easy it is to find people repeating this. It probably isn't exactly crab bucket but it feels similar.
Skin Me Alive
After some soul searching, many conversations, and much reading, I recently decided to Exit into running my own company with a few friends. Relax, I'm never going to mention it by name or link to it from here. I consider writing here sacrosanct - which is why I'm on this weirdo platform with no ads and the crudest analytics imaginable. But I'll do my best to write about what it feels like to actually have some skin in the game, and whether things are going well or not.
But the reason I wrote all of the above is this:
Over the past few weeks, I've technically lost a spectacular sum of money. I'm not a bad software engineer, and I get paid accordingly. Working part time to make space to run a bootstrapped company (read: I haven't taken investor money though I could probably raise it easily).
Not working full time means I lose a lot of money every week.
But I've written some of the only code since I started my career that I'm actually proud of. I set up our team's infrastructure in a way that seems sensible given our size. We make decisions as a group, but there's no one in my group that I don't respect immensely despite our disagreements. No one is telling me to do things that I know are stupid. The only KPI are those imposed by reality: "are we iterating quickly enough for our own comfort?" and "are we earning any money?". I keep fairly steady office hours and have to do a whole bunch of things I don't like, like talking to accountants, reading about sales, making cold calls, and so on.
This lifestyle might only be enabled by the fact that I'm still a part time leech, which I'm not particularly proud of, but... well, I'm much happier anyway. At least the office work is for a reason other than stacking money higher and higher. I can't imagine going back to five days a week of mind-numbing drudgery and meetings. Something might actually happen doing this type of work, even if that thing is total failure that I face consequences for. I think about the people I knew that didn't live to old age, and I feel that life isn't long enough to do things that I'm not happy doing.
Being skinned alive doesn't feel bad so far.
This is down here because I love getting reader email, and don't get otherwise. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org