Leanpub Podcast Interview With Erik Dietrich, Author of Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor
Erik Dietrich is the author of the Leanpub book Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Erik about his career, his book, the fascinating subject of the origins of corporate culture, including the modern job interivew, and at the end as usual we talk a little bit about his experience self-publishing as an author on Leanpub.
This interview was recorded on February 8, 2017.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I’m Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I’ll be interviewing Erik Dietrich. Erik is a programmer, consultant and blogger and the founder of DaedTech LLC. Where you can read his posts at DaedTech.com.
Erik is the author of the Leanpub book Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor. His book is focused on the history and ubiquity of our incumbent management and corporate culture, and how it is based on outdated models that are not appropriate for the kind of work done in software development — and also ultimately what a better future might look like.
In this interview, we’re going to talk about Erik’s professional interests, his background, his book, and at the very end, we’ll talk a little bit about his experience with self-publishing on Leanpub.
So, thank you Erik for being on the Leanpub Podcast.
Erik: Thanks for having me.
Len: Did I pronounce DaedTech correctly?
Erik: The jury’s out on that one, I suppose. The way I say it is “dead tech.” But it was originally named after the great figure of Daedalus, which some people pronounce “dade — a — lis.” So it’s kind of either way, I suppose.
Len: Cool name.
I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in programming, and the course of your career to this point, which is obviously very relevant to the subject of your book in the end.
Erik: Sure. As a kid, I had some exposure to, maybe not classic programming, but I remember programming my graphing calculator in high school, and as a very little kid, this IBM PCjr that I used to spend time hacking games with my dad on. So that got me interested in technology.
I always had an interest in technology. My high school didn’t have computer science, but going into a computer science degree appealed to me at that age. So, I applied to a computer science program, and went to school for that. That was what got me started. I went through the standard track, and then after school, had a programming career. I’ve been in and around that career path ever since.
Len: And you made a transition ultimately from working for corporations to being a consultant largely, now. And you were actually a CIO at one point?
Len: Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to make that change? I know it’s a big story.
Erik: My career followed the standard software development track. Programmer, senior programmer, and then I started having leadership responsibilities — team lead, tech lead, architect, those sorts of roles, and then eventually into management, and working as a CIO. I changed jobs a few times, and grabbed opportunities when they came.
I enjoyed different aspects of all of that, and in particular I liked the technology. But I found myself — and I talk a lot about this in the book — I describe it as being kind of continuously frustrated and restless in every role. I think I followed a lot of the software developer career arc, not necessarily because — I mean it felt like ambition to me at the time. I wanted to get ahead, I wanted to be the boss.
But in retrospect, I think a lot of it was that I didn’t want to be subject to things that I thought of as silly or ill-advised, or even sometimes unethical. They would come down from people above me, and I always thought, “If I get into more of a leadership role, I’ll call more of the shots. I won’t be exposed to this.” But I found that even as the CIO, there’s an ownership interest, there’s a CEO. There’s always stuff going on above you.
So eventually I thought that I would try my hand at being in business for myself. You hear a lot of people say that on your own, you don’t avoid having a boss, your boss just becomes your clients. And while that’s true, you have a bunch of them. So you’re spreading out the risk of being exposed to things you don’t like. Any given client that presents a problem to me, I can walk away without it being catastrophic. So that’s really where the decision originated from, in terms of my own personal take on the matter.
Len: You talk in the book about how this was actually a big change in your thinking — that when you were growing up, you had a kind of, reverence might not be the right word, but you had positive associations with corporations and working for them, and advancing within them.
Erik: I definitely did. I was an overachiever in school. I did well. And so I think growing up, and then early on in my corporate career, I viewed it as an extension of that. I wanted to get good grades, so to speak. Getting good marks at my performance review. Getting promotions, that kind of thing, felt like that same sort of achievement paradigm.
But I kind of went on to perceive that that was ultimately hollow. And then in retrospect, looking back on it, it strikes me as also a silly way for adult knowledge workers to interact with one another. So that attitude towards the corporation as the steward of my career, very much changed. I realized that was hollow, for lack of a better way to put it.
Len: There are quite a few reflections of that in your book, including the concept of “carnival cash.” I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about what you mean by carnival cash, and why people might be better off saying no to it?
Erik: I think at first — because I’ve been writing in my blog for a lot of years. From back in the days when I was working as a programmer — I think I first came up with that term when answering reader questions about, do I want to achieve seniority with a company? Is that a good thing to do? Or should I be moving around, job-hopping as it were? I remember contemplating that. I started to think about the things that you start to value at a company, that don’t actually have a whole lot of market worth.
So for instance, a good example of that might be a company parking space, or having your choice of the best cubicle to sit in. Something that from the outside, you view as borderline worthless. Like if you were to look at some company you weren’t familiar with, and all the people there were talking about how they got to sit in this certain cubicle if they did all the right things. You would look at them and feel bemusement and wonder why they were chasing that. But if you were there at that company, competing for that thing, you would start to disproportionately value that. “Hey, I was the one.” It’s part of the culture.
The idea of carnival cash is this metaphor I created to say, it’s like when you go to a carnival — in the US anyway, this is sort of ubiquitous, I don’t know if it is in other countries or not — but at carnivals you go and do the games and the rides and stuff, and instead of just paying in cash, you have to get these tickets, this currency that’s only worth anything at the actual carnival. It’s really designed — cynically speaking, I think they sell the tickets in really strange numbers so you kind of have to buy an odd number of tickets, and you wind up stuck with these things at the end.
But the point is, it’s this insular currency. Once you leave the carnival, it’s completely useless. And so there’s a lot of that that’s built up in corporate cultures, in the corporate world. Things that you value there, and the company will actually reward you with, that don’t have any monetary value — maybe in lieu of promotions. So, “We’re not going to give you a 5% cost of living adjustment this year, but instead you can have this particular cubicle.”
Len: It’s funny, that reminds me, I used to work for a big company. Famously, there was only one office in the whole company, and that was for the CEO. Everyone else sat in open plan. But of course, working on the 30th floor of a building, the window seat is the best. So actually, the ranking that happens in all human environments started to happen by proximity to the window, which was an indication of seniority or favor. And being furthest from the door or the coffee machine, or things like that, that became a way of rewarding or punishing people, was moving the seats around.
Len: I think you say in your book that you not necessarily advocate, but you suggest that people might want to consider saying no. Are you saying, for example — to be direct about it, are you saying that if someone offers you the plaque for employee of the month, you should say, “No, I don’t value that.” Or, “Give me something else.”
Erik: So in part four of my book — I segment it: I talk about the corporate condition in part two, after an introduction, and then in part three, I go through the history of the corporation. And then part 4 — I talk about how to succeed in the corporate world such as it is. Part four is sort of an interesting thing, because I’m not actually advocating that people do that per se. It’s kind of buyer beware, like if you do these things, you can get ahead in the corporation. I’m not saying whether you should do that or not.
Part five is really where I go into more of the vision I see for the future of knowledge workers. I’m mentioning all that in the context to say that in part four, I advocate — if you want to get ahead, if you want to work your way up into the C suite — you don’t want to become known for accepting carnival cash in lieu of actual compensation. That’s not really a politically, savvy play. So what I would advocate, if that is your goal — it isn’t so much to turn it down outright, but to avoid situations where you’re presented with that sort of thing.
Because getting — and your experience there, sitting close to the window, is an acknowledgement that you’re playing and valuing that game, when what you really want to be doing is — like the CEO; he’s not participating in that. You want to find ways to position yourself like the people not participating in those games.
Len: That’s really interesting, and I’m looking forward to talking about your thoughts on the future.
One of the parts of your book that I liked the most was your narrative arc about the history of the corporation. I know it stretches back a couple of thousand years, and this podcast isn’t going to last for a couple of thousand hours, but if you could maybe give us a broad picture of that history of the corporation, so we can talk about your thoughts about the present and the future?
Erik: Actually at the time I started to write the book, I had already started to poke into the history of it a little bit. I let the research that I was doing guide that part — which I guess you would expect. But I was surprised by how much I found out, and I talked about the history of the corporation almost as a snowball rolling downhill and picking up more and more mass.
I wanted to paint, here’s where we are today, and here’s at each point in history where this got acquired. So I spent some chapters talking about how corporations have existed in a form that we might recognize since the 2000’s BC in certain cultures, and that they picked up things like — founder legacy was one of the earliest ones. So why would you incorporate, or why would you do something other than just trading wagon wheels, or whatever you were doing?
You would create something like that, maybe to pass onto your children. You’d want to be remembered. So that was an early acquisition of the corporate culture.
And then I talked through the middle ages, and through the industrial revolution, about how at different points in history, they became more and more recognizable, that they started to go beyond just simple mechanisms for trade, and they started to influence their surroundings, and the surrounding politics of the towns and countries that they were in. How they started to be about things that went beyond simple trade, and spanned large geographical considerations. And then, where the employer/employee relationship came from.
So it was really a very broad history. I tried to be comprehensive without getting too bogged down — I didn’t want to turn it into a history book per se. But I thought there was a lot of important information there to capture throughout the centuries — how we’ve gotten to this point.
Len: You make a really interesting point about how we take it for granted nowadays that the standard model of life involves being an employee. And that if one is not an employee in one’s life, that’s somehow a deviation from a standard. And that this idea — that the ubiquity of the concept of being an employee as the norm was partially developed as a result of the Second World War, when the United States needed to have this huge manufacturing effort go on.
Erik: One of the more interesting things I found was that some of the things that we take for granted as part of the corporate condition were both very arbitrary, and have not really been looked at overly critically. The job interview is a big one. The ubiquity of the employee, as a sort of condition of standard society, is not something that was always true.
I forget when exactly peak employment occurred, but it’s pretty recently. There were times throughout history where being an employee was not at all common, especially pre-dating the industrial revolution.
But there’s an interesting thing that happened around the time of World War II for the US, which is one of the things — and this is probably not common in other countries, as far as I know — but in the US, it’s very standard for your health insurance to be tied up through your employer. One of the biggest deterrents to a lot of people I know going off on their own is, “Oh, I’ll lose my health insurance that my company provides for me.”
That actually was kind of a random hack to get around some legislation. They froze wages during World War II, in response to demand for the manufacturing, and all the effort that was going on during the war.
To get around that, to sweeten the pot when they were hiring, some companies started to toss in random perks, one of which was employer-provided health insurance. And that just kind of froze in place. It’s a great example of how ingrained in our lives being an employee has become.
If you want to look at going off on your own, there’s all these things. Having dealt with it, I can speak to this a lot. It’s a hassle to take care of your own insurance, your own retirement savings — things like this. That wasn’t always the case, it’s just what’s evolved.
Len: That reminds me, at a Canadian university, I once met a professor who’d just moved from the States to teach there, and she remarked that there was this lack of an edge to her Canadian students, that was definitely there. She’d taken it for granted in her American students.
She actually made that connection between the need to pay for health care, and that edge that she saw, the competitiveness that she saw in her American students. This is one of these things you do have to worry about as an ongoing concern in the United States, that you don’t in Canada — is being able to pay [for health care], and that often means having a job. So the incentives to perform in a way that pleases your superiors have this existential aspect to them in that kind of environment.
You talk about something I hadn’t heard about before, the Gervais Principle, which is both funny and scary. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that?
Erik: That comes from a blog called Ribbonfarm. I read about that years ago, and incorporated it into my own thinking. It was very informative and formative at the same time for me, regarding the way I thought about office politics in the corporation.
It’s a theory of management based on the sitcom The Office. It does this fascinating thing, where it takes this relatively lighthearted sitcom, and lays out this foundation theory of how managers interact. And it builds on the Dilbert principle.
Dilbert says that basically you promote people that are incompetent into management, so that they can’t do any damage. And the guy who writes all this, he uses The Office as an example. He says, “No you don’t — executives are too smart for that, they’re not going to promote incompetent people into positions, just to keep them from doing damage at the line level.” They promote people into positions as part of strategic politics. They’ll promote people to take falls, if you will.
Especially as I’m saying it here, if you’re listening to this — this sounds like phenomenally cynical. It is. But it’s also very persuasive, if you go and actually read through it. It talks about how, for instance, to bring it somewhere a little more tangible, if you’re an executive and the organization has a program that you’re overseeing, and you have jockeyed for, let’s say, doing it a different way, for instance. But you’re overruled. And you see that you’re on a failure course. What you might see someone do is promote a lower-level manager into a mid-level manager role, to assume responsibility for this program that you know will probably fail. This is essentially a sacrificial lamb.
What the Gervais Principle is saying is that, that is actually the way that you see a lot of promotions happen in the corporate world. What it does is it takes this pyramid shape of the corporation, and it divides it into three parts.
At the top you have what he calls sociopaths, in the middle you have clueless, and at the bottom, you have the losers. Those are very loaded terms, but the Gervais Principle talks about how middle management is the clueless layer for that reason. They get promoted for reasons that they don’t fully understand, and then they assume it was because they played the game well.
Len: You also invoked this interesting concept of the people in the middle being positioned there as buffers, and I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about that?
Erik: That’s another thing I draw from the Gervais Principle, and I expand on a bit. Actually in my own book, I give these folks different terms. Instead of losers, clueless and sociopaths, I call them pragmatists, idealists, and opportunists — because my book is a little bit less cynical in where we are and where we should go. I want to appeal to people instead of alienating them.
The idea of the buffer is that at the top, you have this ownership culture. And at the bottom, the people that I call pragmatists, are members of the wage culture. And so the pyramid-shaped corporation is essentially designed fairly transparently on the idea that people that take risk — the opportunists at the top — capitalize on a whole ton of surplus value, generated by the people at the bottom.
So, I’m going to take a bunch of risks, I’m going to start a corporation. I’m going to pay you $25 an hour. And no matter how many billions of dollars I might make, that’s all you’re ever going to get.
The idea of this middle layer as a buffer, is that if you just had the bottom and top layer, you’d have a lot of resentment. So you get this middle layer full of true believers in the corporate culture, that are going to stay and work long hours, even though it’s not really economically in their best interest to do so.
They’ll stay there, work these really long hours, get these nominal promotions. But they become these cheerleaders, these idealists or clueless — in the middle. They serve as a buffer where, the people at the bottom, that might resent the company — it’s hard to resent somebody that’s there, working 60 hours alongside them and talking about how great the company is. You might not love that, but it’s hard to view them as bloodthirsty opportunists.
Len: It reminded me, when I read about it, of something I heard that was saying something different about the concept of a buffer, just very indirectly. It was an interview by Ezra Klein of J.D. Vance, whom you may have heard of. He’s the author of a book that has become popular in the last year or so, or two maybe now, called Hillbilly Elegy
Erik: I think I have heard that.
Len: What happened was, with the rise of Trumpian populism, there arose this interest, particularly in what Trumpian populists themselves would call the “liberal elite” in the media, to think about, well, who are these people, and what are they like? And so this guy had written this book about what it had been like for him to grow up amongst what is now colloquially referred to as the kind of “white working class,” or even below that — people really struggling every day with all kinds of problems.
And Ezra Klein asked him — so one of the things that has surprised people like me about what’s happened with Trump, is that he’s appointed this cabinet that’s full of billionaires. He is, himself, purported to be a billionaire. Why don’t the people at the bottom resent people like that? And he said something along the lines of, “What you need to understand is that they don’t care about the CEO living in the gated community 50 miles away. They care about the guy one or two levels above them that they interact with all the time, who has the power to order them around and fire them.”
So I thought, it was interesting — like a sort of opposite concept of the buffer, from the way you’re describing it, which is that you put them in between you and the people at the bottom, so that they can resent the person immediately above them, rather than the person at the top. So that they can take the heat.
Erik: There are very complex dynamics I think that exist there. But certainly I see that as being a part of it. Taking the heat.
For instance, I’ve seen at a lot of organizations, especially places I worked — but then, spending the last several years as a consultant, I see a lot of companies. And one of the best examples, I think of maybe idealism in it’s purest form is, if you look at a group of people that are line-level employees, and you give them a certain amount of latitude I guess, to claim and stake out leadership-ish territories, they would be perceived as going the extra mile to get ahead. One of the things people will really gravitate towards, is to try to insinuate themselves in a communication bottleneck kind of role.
So let’s say that I were a member of a five-person software development team, and there was no formal heirachy among us. What I might try to do is get in on all the meetings with management, and create a situation where management told me something, and I would go and tell the rest of the team that something. So I’d become that point of communication, because that sort of simulates leadership, I guess in the organization.
But if that actually gets formalized, if I’m an opportunist at the top — well, if an opportunist, sorry giving myself two different roles in this narrative — I’m still the leader, like say the opportunist at the top is someone else. And he looks at this, and thinks, “Well that’s great. I was going to have to tell all these people that I’m going to have them come in and work on the weekend. But I’ll just have this idealist do it instead.
So there are these interesting dynamics that emerge, in which that buffer — it’s really a form of the carnival cash, I might say. The ability to control a message, if you will?
Len: One of the really interesting things about the book and this discussion is how much — this has already come up — but how much there are things we take for granted, like the kind of structures that are implicit in the story that you describe. In the book you talk about how a shift happened at the end of the 19th, at the beginning of the 20th century — guided by someone named Frederick Taylor, who proposed the idea of an organization consisting of owners, non-owning, but educated managers, and you say, “beast-like laborers.” It’s interesting, because you make the point that he’s associated with the idea of it being in the corporation’s interest to improve worker conditions, but that didn’t mean that because he had a great love for workers.
Erik: I actually talk about this a lot, both in the book and in general. Frederick Taylor’s an interesting guy, and I have a very nuanced take on him.
In the late 1890s, early 1900s, he had this principle of scientific management. It was actually pretty fascinating. It was applying the scientific method to manufacturing. Nobody had really thought to do this before.
During the industrial revolution, you had the owners, and then you had the workers, and maybe there were foremen. And what the foremen would do by way of “management” is make sure everybody got to the factory on time, and didn’t leave early, and didn’t goldbrick while they were there. Cracking the whip, so to speak.
Taylor came along and started to run experiments, and tried to reason about how to get the most out of the workers. What he came to realize was that doing things like giving them breaks, or having them work shorter hours in certain contexts, or even things like improving the lighting where they were, changing how they held their shovels as they were digging, all of these — when he ran experiments — would improve their productivity.
And so he looked at this in a very dispassionate sense, and said, “Giving people rest breaks actually works.” It’s better. That seems humanitarian, but his goal was really in the end just effectiveness. What he advocated was that you had these beast-like — And he actually literally described the people that would work on the line this way, as beast-like — you have these beast-like people, and you need this layer of other people that figure out how to manipulate them into giving the best performance.
That was the precursor, I would think, of Industrial engineering. I think a lot of the problems that we have in the modern knowledge work economy is that we still we approach knowledge workers as line-level people. That there needed to be this layer above them that figures out if they’re programmers or engineers or whatever, figures out how to get these laboring engineer software developer beasts to actually produce something useful.
Len: There’s a lot to unpack there. One of the things that’s really interesting about what you describe about what Taylor did, was that he proposed that the very qualities that made someone capable of productively doing the labor, prevented them from being able to understand management and what it meant to manage a business. And so this created — and the managers themselves did not possess the characteristics required to be a good laborer. And so you get this distinction between people who do work, and people who have an abstract ability to manage that can be applied to any kind of work.
Erik: Absolutely. I think anybody listening would recognize that the sort of caste system in the workplace obviously still exists to this day — that being a manager comes with more status, more money, more everything, than being a line-level worker, in whatever line of work that you’re in.
Len: One observation I’ve made watching certain types of corporate cultures is the — and this goes to the question of, why in particular is software development knowledge work still often treated as grunt labor — is the negativity that comes from being associated with typing.
I know it sounds like a very particular observation. But when you see ambitious executive types, they will rarely permit themselves to be seen typing, which is one of the reasons they love Blackberries and smartphones so much, and tablets even. I’ve heard this stated explicitly.
There’s actually an interesting historical gender component to it, where people associated typing with women’s work, and so not only was typing seen as doing the work, something which if you were an aspiring executive, you should never be seen to be doing, because for these deep reasons, they think that if you’re even capable of doing that, it means you can’t do the kind of work you’re aiming to do.
But also there was an element of sexism in it, and that — ironically, given the gender imbalance in software development — there is nonetheless this association of that kind of work with something that’s not very robust.
Erik: That’s really interesting. I’ve actually never heard that. But it very much lines up with everything that I’ve read. I can certainly see it.
And as I think about it, yeah — you wouldn’t really picture somebody in the C suite as sitting down to a typewriter. I could even see people, especially maybe of the baby boomers’ generation, taking pride in hunting and pecking on the occasion that they needed to type.
Len: Definitely. It’s a version of the way — I call it “the myth of incompatible talents.” So, you can not only get someone who thinks that someone who’s good at art must be bad at math, but you can also get the perversion of it, which is the person who thinks that because they’re bad at math, they’re an artist. That’s somehow proof that they possess the opposite quality.
Erik: That’s interesting, because I don’t talk about this all in the book, but in general, it’s something I’ve blogged about, that I’ve thought of.
If you take like a role playing game, where you get a certain amount of points that you get to allocate to people’s attributes, or what have you, there’s this sort of — in the software industry at times, it seems almost like the sandbagging of your own social skills, because that creates the illusion, like, “If I’m really bad at interacting with people socially, I must be really good at programming.”
And so I think I’ve seen instances where people almost embrace social awkwardness as some kind of proof that they must be good at — extremely, I guess it’s left-brained, I can’t keep them straight, but the one that’s associated with math. So,”If I’m really bad at social, I must be good at math.”
Len: We could go on about this forever, but another example might be — and this is something I find very interesting to think about, and this is particularly true in American culture — the association of the skills and qualities required to be good at organized professional sports, with the skills and qualities required to succeed in business.
And so basically people telegraph that they’re very good at sports, in order to telegraph that they’re very good at business, or something like that. And then you want to keep people’s perceptions of your identity focused on that, rather than on things that are associated with not being good at business, for example.
One thing you talk about, to get specific, is the delivery trap. I think this is related partly to what you’re saying about the knowledge worker being treated as a grunt. I was wondering if you can explain a little bit about what the delivery trap is?
Erik: In part four of the book, where I’m kind of explaining, if you want to work your way into the C suite of a pyramid-shaped corporation, one of the things — and this is going to be depressing if you make your living as a software developer — but one of the things you really want to stop doing is writing software. That is generally, organizationally speaking, a low-status endeavor. There are some overtones there in what we’re talking about, about typing, that certainly feeds into this.
One of the things that happens is that when you get into Frederick Taylor’s management layer of the organization, that’s going to be populated by the people I describe as both idealists and opportunists that are working their way up to the top. When you get in there, you don’t have direct output any longer.
So if you’re a software developer — and I’m not advocating in any way that software developers be measured this way — but you could measure a software developer by output: certain amount of lines of code, certain amount of features delivered.
When you get into management, you can only be measured indirectly. Your value to the organization becomes extremely hard to ascertain. Even if you are presiding over a group, or something goes badly wrong — you have narrative at your disposal. “Oh yes, we did badly but I didn’t hire these people, and they failed.”
I’m not saying that that’s property of a good leader by any stretch. But that’s a card that you have at your disposal. You’re able to control your own ascension through the company via narrative. And that actually feeds too into what we were talking about earlier, in terms of why a person in a management role might over-promote somebody to take a fall, to control the narrative.
So that’s a bit of a digression, but the reason I mention it, and the context of the delivery trap, is that, if you want to ascend in the organization, you need to get out of situations where your input and output is very easy to measure, and get into situations where you have narrative control. So the first thing you need to do is stop getting measured by very concrete, easily manipulated things. That’s what I call the delivery trap.
When I talk about how to escape that — if you really want to move up in the organization, you start to do things like angle your way into project management, instead writing code. Find a way that you’re evaluating and supervising and doing stuff like that, and try to get more and more of your responsibility to be doing stuff like that. You want to look more like a manager, and less like a worker.
I just wince as I’m saying all this. Because this is what I mean, my advice in part four, it’s not exactly advice. I don’t like that state of affairs. But it’s undeniably effective for getting ahead, if you want to work your way into the C suite.
Len: It’s actually a distinction that I think is sometimes hard to get across, but an explanation is not necessarily the same thing as an endorsement.
Len: On the subject of measurement — and this came up earlier — you talk in the book about the origin of the modern job interview, and it’s hilarious what you say. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, and a little bit about Google’s efforts to actually measure the result of intake strategies.
Erik: The job interview is a topic that I have a long and uncomfortable history with it. I mean, I’ve always thought of it as a silly thing in a lot of ways. You come in, and people ask you these strange questions. But I also have never really historically known what a great alternative is to it.
Over the years, I’ve explored maybe some of that, but, when I was writing this book, when I was really trying to figure out what’s a good future for knowledge workers, one of the obvious things to consider is — how do we find and hire people? How do we interact with one another?
In order to approach that, I sat down, and I started to do some research in earnest. “How did we get started doing this job interview thing in the first place? Where did it come from, and what has the evolution been over the years?”
And what I found was really striking and depressing. It was basically that there is really no such thing as the job interview, until I think it was the 1920s — I’d have to go back and look specifically, I don’t remember the exact year. But what happened was basically, this didn’t exist, and an aging Thomas Edison decided that he was tired of people being hired into his company that didn’t have a knowledge of trivia that he could share.
So he rolled out this thing where a questionnaire was administered to all inbound applicants, where they were basically given a trivia test. And that became standard procedure. And then as management fads are wont to do, everybody saw that Edison was doing it, and they started adopting it.
So there was this free form trivia set of questions administered to applicants. And that’s really basically it, that’s the entire history of the job interview. It started as that, and it hasn’t evolved. That was pretty amazing. I mean it’s not to say that there aren’t different questions that get asked or whatever. But it was adopted.
It didn’t particularly work. In fact, his original screening process would’ve eliminated Albert Einstein. And even though it was never really demonstrated to be effective, it was just adopted, and then it solidified in the corporate world and was never really revisited. It’s what we do to this day.
Except for — you asked about Google. As best I can tell, they’re one of the only organizations that’s actually taken a critical look at this. A lot of the reading I did was from things written by their now former head of HR, Laszlo Bock. He had talked about discovering that the traditional way of doing interviews — the sort of undirected, random Q&A — is basically no more effective than asking people for references.
Google has done interesting things. At one time, they sent a bunch of candidates through their process, half of which made it, and were hired, and the other half, they decided to pass on.
But then, I guess because they’re big enough, and they can afford to do this, they just hired those people they had passed on anyway, and they monitored the performance of both groups through the company, and found that there was basically no difference. So this interview process between these two buckets of candidates had absolutely no bearing on their future performance in the job. It was essentially a useless activity.
I spent a good bit of time in the book kind of considering the question of interviews, and how did we get to this sort of silly position, and what does it mean? That’s something I talk about and think about a lot in general too.
Len: You have a great line in your book, just to segue, when it comes to — the segue would be, I guess, the evaluation of how much people are really doing. How much work they’re really doing. And you have a great line where you talk about how going remote exposes just how little work is involved in the average corporate work day. And then you talk about the cult of hours, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?
Erik: This is something I’ve experienced. When you go to work, if you work in a corporate office, I think a certain kind of Protestant work ethic happens, where you go to work, and you don’t really enjoy it — ergo, anything you’re doing there must be work. Whether you’re at your desk writing software, or you’re an Outlook manager, email, or you’re in the cafeteria chatting — all of that is construed as work, because you are physically in that space.
One thing that I encountered, when I started to do more consulting and do a lot more remote activities, was this jarring ability — if you were at home, without distractions — to accomplish what you would’ve otherwise spent eight hours doing, in maybe an hour or two. I experienced that first hand.
It’s the cult of hours, the idea that the best way for us to measure people’s contributions to an organization, is by measuring how much time they spend physically present. It’s actually a terrible measure of value. But it’s kind of the only one, especially in large corporations, that we really have at our disposal.
Because, if you think about it — what I was talking about with this layer of middle management, where they are evaluated on the basis of narrative — if you take a corporation of 5,000 people and pick out some random middle manager, how do you possibly evaluate what that person’s bottom line contribution is to the organization? Its borderline impossible.
And so we grab this proxy, like, how much are you present? How into the company are you? We start measuring things like that instead, as a way to evaluate their performance, because we don’t really know how to measure their bottom line contributions.
Len: There’s a really interesting element of that, which is also — you talk about the sort of shock one experiences oneself — but the idea of self-perception around how hardworking one perceives oneself to be. It reminded me of a friend of mine who commutes into Manhattan every day. But he his job starts at like 4 AM. So, he drives in from Long Island, and it takes, I don’t know, 45 minutes in the morning. But when his job ends at like two in the afternoon or something like that, it takes like four hours for him to drive home.
And I can imagine, at the end of the day, he’s totally exhausted, and feels like he worked a 16 hour day. And it did take up that much time, and it was all work related. But how much of it actually was directly concerning the job that he’s paid to do? It was like half.
It is a really interesting thing to think about when you start to put together how much unpleasantness is a substitute for work.
Erik: Yeah. I have endured all this stuff: I didn’t enjoy it, I must have been working. I wouldn’t say that there’s really anybody that sits down and thinks that. But it’s kind of a question of how you feel. You come home exhausted at the end of the day, and even if maybe you didn’t write a bunch of code or make a bunch of sales calls or whatever it may be, you still showed up. Maybe a little under the weather, and you were tired and people were hassling you. So you feel like you worked hard.
It gets interesting when you go and work remote, or when you do things that I’ve done as a consultant, like experiment with different billing models, where you start to accomplish the same thing you would’ve accomplished, and realized how much less time it takes you, because you’re not distracted.
Or maybe it’s, well, some variant of being exposed to the difference. You’re remarking, “Wow, I’m finished with this by nine in the morning, because I didn’t have my usual conversation near the coffee machine with people.” Where you just see that striking difference.
Len: I remember my first experience in an office job, and just watching the people around me, and realizing that there were entire sections that kind of showed up as late as they could get away with, say 20 minutes late, then chatted and got coffee and went through that routine. Then checked email. And by that time, it’s lunch. And then you do that for as long as you can get away with. And then you come back and have a little chat, and then get a coffee, and then maybe do an hour or two of work in the afternoon. And then it’s time to go home.
Erik: Yeah, and if someone throws some kind of pointless status meeting on your calendar, that’s for instance a great excuse. You get back to your desk from getting coffee, and there’s only 20 minutes till the status meeting. What are you really going to do between now and then? So you just hop on Facebook or something.
Len: And then, at the end of the day, because you’ve gone through the routine of getting up, getting dressed, going to work — sort of punching the clock, getting through that commute and all the unpleasantness that often involves — which is also something I think people tend to discount in their own lives — and then, going through so many motions, you get back at the end of the day, and you feel like you’ve worked hard. And it has been a hard day, but not necessarily all that much got done.
Erik: You might look back and think if you loafed a bit, like, “I stood around the coffee machine a little too long.” Or, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have spent some time on Facebook. This wasn’t my most productive day.” But you don’t tend, as an employee generally, to look back and try to quantify — how much was I actually contributing to the company, and how much of this was waste? It’s just a subjective take that you have. And being at home, and actually billing by the hour, being a free agent — you are confronted with that almost right away.
Len: Moving on actually to — so I got to the final page of your book, and it’s the beginning of a new part that does not exist yet. It’s part five — “Where We Go from Here” — and I was really interested to hear your thoughts on that. [Note: part five of the book has been published since this interview, and the book is now 100% complete — eds.]
Erik: So I’ve actually written part five, it’s done. I’ve interviewed some people for it. And before I publish it to the folks that have bought the book, I want to get their take. So I have talked in there a lot, and I’m trying to think of how I might summarize part five.
I talk about the idea of a software developer opportunist, and I start to lay out what I think might be some principles of how software developers work. So I’m trying to think of the most salient points that I can cover relatively briefly.
I think perhaps it all starts from this: that I encourage software developers to stop thinking in terms of code and skills, and to start thinking of themselves in terms of trade. I draw a lot of comparisons between software developers and both lawyers and doctors, which might sound strange at first, but those are professions, more interestingly, those are professions that pre-dated the industrial revolution and the Taylor model of how to organize companies.
Software developers were born into that model. But these other professions have interacted with it as a service provider. And so a lot of it is, how do we as software developers move towards that? I think one of the big things is to stop thinking about your skills as being a Java developer, whatever, and start to think of yourself as an automation professional that trades in efficiency.
And so, yes, sometimes that involves writing software, but sometimes it involves going into a company and looking at what they’re doing, and realizing that they could purchase some existing tool to make this easier. Or just change how they’re doing things.
But ultimately, what we’re going to be doing in the future is trading in automation and efficiency. If you think of lawyers, they would pitch themselves by saying, “We defend your rights.” And doctors say, “We take care of your health.” The software professional, automation professional, would say, “We save you time.”
Len: That’s really interesting. On the subject of automation, what are your thoughts? It’s a big topic that lots of people are talking about right now, and I was wondering what your thoughts are about that, and the future of labor?
Erik: I think of it in terms of the future of the software developer’s labor. That’s mainly what part five frames out.
One of the main predictions that I have, and that I frankly like, is I think that you’re going to see software developers start to move out of large firms in general, and specifically large firms like banks and stuff, that don’t — software isn’t their product. And at a firm like that, all your developers are typically going to be cost centers. And so I see an exodus from firms like that, and I see software developers, or automation professionals, starting to form their own firms.
In terms of what all that’s going to mean for the world at large, is I think that you’re going to see over the next 20 years, more or less the elimination of everything that’s not a knowledge worker position. You won’t really have humans performing labor anymore.
So if I get out my crystal ball and look into the future, I think more and more people will in some way or another, be involved in — if not automation directly, positions that require human thought and judgement.
Len: And assuming not everybody’s going to want to be a knowledge worker in the future, what do you think people like that are going to do, and how should we, as societies adapt to that future, or prepare for it?
Erik: It’s not something I really addressed in the book, and it’s something that’s a convenient topic for me to sort of ignore. Because, early in my career as a software developer, I can remember going around and installing software that I was responsible for. I was the lead on, and knowing that some of the folks at these factories in places we’re going to — I always hoped that they would find other sort of less data-entry-ish jobs in the company.
But you had to know that some of those positions are getting eliminated. So it’s at times hard to think about that. Like, if you’ve got people that want to do manual labor, certain types of jobs — to see those going away, so it’s easy for me not to think about it, if confronted with it.
I do wonder if we’ll approach a point where we have to stop thinking of nine-to-five type of work as essential. Without getting into the politics of such a thing, you see countries talk about a guaranteed basic income. Do we hit a point where it doesn’t make sense, because so much of the world is automated, for work to be the default condition?
That’s a long ways into the future, I think. But that might be the default state, where we’ve essentially automated the basic subsistence means of humanity. And what we do from there is more speculative or less essential.
Len: One of the things I really liked about your book, was the way you deliberately approached — as we spoke about at the beginning of this podcast — things that people take for granted as natural conditions, and demonstrate, as all good histories do, that they’re inventions. When one starts thinking about things that way, it makes it easier to contemplate change, however difficult it might be to see how this is all going to end well.
Speaking of endings, I think we might be close to the end of the podcast, but I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about being a self-published author.
My first question is, why did you choose Leanpub as the platform for this book?
Erik: I have a couple of books that [I published through] a friend of mine with a small business, who converts series’ of blog posts into books. So I had never really set out to write a full-length book. But a lot of my readership wanted that. And I had ideas. There were a lot of people that wanted to see that. And so I thought it would be a nice, natural way to interact with them and get feedback as I went.
And it also, I think — if I’m examining my own subconscious — it brought me kind of to this bridge point between what I was comfortable with, which is writing blog posts, and writing a book, wherein I would make some amount of progress, and then publish it, and people would get to see it, rather than a Big Bang, all-at-once type of deal.
Len: And how have you been managing that interaction with your readers?
Erik: At first I started out doing some pretty frequent publications, and at first I got feedback doing that. But the feedback trickled off, and I worried that they were getting fatigue. So I started to, maybe once a month or something, publish a new version. And then in the last two parts of the book, I think — part four I did one publish when I was half way done, and then published the finished part. And then with part five, I’m just going to publish the whole thing here, actually in a week.
So I tapered off some. I think maybe I get the sense that people are, at this point, sort of waiting for the book to be finished. Early on, more people were giving feedback, and I took that, and genuinely incorporated it.
Len: And were you soliciting feedback via email?
Erik: I was relying on the Leanpub email distribution feature. So in essence, I would put a message in whenever I was going to publish a new version of the book, and ask people to give it a read, and say, “This is where I left off. Here’s what’s new, what do you think?” That was the primary feedback mechanism. And then sometimes I would make mentions on social media or on my blog of what I was doing.
Len: My last question is — if there was a feature we could build for you, that you can think of, what might that be, that would’ve made your experience better? Or would make your future using Leanpub better?
Erik: Well this might even exist — I’m just thinking in terms of, I don’t know if it would be a feature exactly — how to know where to go next. Like, publishing the book on Amazon? Or do I make physical copies, or what do I do, at the end of actually writing the draft? I don’t have a lot of great sense of marketing outside the platform of Leanpub.
In terms of actual day-to-day usage features, I don’t know. I’m pretty comfortable with the Markdown syntax, so writing it has been great. I really love how easy it is to hit publish or preview, and see what it looks like. That’s been wonderful.
My wife doing the editing, because she’s a professional editor, she might like a WYSIWYG kind of thing to make the editing easier.
Len: Thanks, thanks very much for that. I’ve long been writing a blog post that is called something like, “How to write and publish a book on Leanpub,” and having a section of next steps once a book is complete, is a really good idea, and it’s something I’ll think about adding to that.
I wanted to say, thanks very much Erik, this was a really fun interview — thanks for being on the Leanpub Podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.
Erik: Happy to do it, and I really appreciate you having me. It’s been fun.