The Two-Hour Programmer’s Workweek

What if you could spend only 2 hours per week on your job while getting a full time wage and benefits from your employer? Think about what you could accomplish with the free time, like get another degree, travel the world, pick up a few new hobbies, or launch a startup! That’s exactly what Tony Hsieh of Zappos did before eventually leaving Oracle.

I think I would choose to spend that time with my family. That is what one guy did when he automated most of his quasi-programming job using SQL scripts, posing an interesting ethical dilemma.

For most of us, I can guarantee you that all 40 hours* and then some are fully utilized. It may not always be the most productive work (and Stack Overflow is here to save the day when you need it), but it is work and it has to get done.

So are you employed based on your task or your time? Is time just a poor proxy for activity? If it were not for the fact that the poster derailed the question by sharing how he added bugs to avoid detection, this would have been a much more valuable and informative discussion. Yes, even though the work might be dull, being deceitful to avoid detection is flagrantly unethical.

However this gem from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations popped up on Hacker News:

“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.”

Let’s face it, there are many programming tasks that are dull as dirt. Lousy or unmotivated programmers will suffer through them. Skilled coders will hack a solution and automate the busy work. The great ones will leapfrog the problem and engineer an even better solution. Then what?

The very nature of software is to remove friction from the human experience. Thirty years ago, you needed a pay phone to call from the road, you searched for knowledge in an encyclopedia, and the telephone book was how you found businesses and people. Simple accounting changes would take weeks of effort. We did not see this as tedious though because our experience did not expose us to any better options.

Then software ate the world. Mobile phones made pay phones obsolete. The Internet upended the encyclopedia and phone directory industries. Dan Bricklin’s spreadsheet changed accounting from a weeks long effort to seconds and changed what it meant to be an accountant.

We are destined to automate work away, including our own. The two hour work week even for complex jobs may not be a punchline for much longer. The real question then is what is the nature of work when most of what we consider work is done by a program?

*For those readers not in the US, adjust the hours accordingly :)

Ethical to report a critical software bug; the project is due in three weeks

Well, since we were talking about bugs and all…


I work on the Stack Overflow Enterprise team and help companies solve the challenges of easily sharing tech knowledge internally through a private version of our Q&A technology and our community building implementation expertise.

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