One man's secret: Learn to program, stretch your ethics, and work for a clueless company.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 11, 2012

5 Min Read

If you discovered a way to do your job so efficiently that you could earn four times your base salary in bonuses while working only one day in five, would you tell your employer?

In a post on Reddit earlier this week, a man from the Netherlands claims to come up with a way to automate his payment processing job using a game programming framework called GameMaker and C++. For the past four years, he says, he has been collecting about 90% of the bonus share offered by his company. That has amounted to 160,000 euros each year, for the past four years, on top of his 42,000 euro salary, or almost $260,000 total annually. Neither his employer, nor his bonus-deprived colleagues, are aware of this.

The question the young man asked Reddit is whether the online community considered him to be "a scumbag" because he had automated a job he had been contracted to do manually.

I sent a message via Reddit to the person posting in an effort to verify his identity and his claim. He provided his first name and asked not to be named. He declined to offer the details necessary to corroborate his story. He also declined to speak on the phone, citing his poor spoken English. His written English is pretty good.

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So for the sake of this column, let's call him "K" in honor of Franz Kafka, for lack of a better pseudonym. It is of course possible that K's tale is concocted. The folks behind GameMaker, Yo Yo Games, could have fabricated the whole thing as a form of stealth marketing, though spokesperson for the company insists that's not the case.

K provided enough information in his correspondence that I find his account plausible. For example, he sent me a block of code from his automation program. While this snippet is not the complete program, it looks like it supports interaction with PDFs and spreadsheets in an automated workflow.

I find K's story interesting because the issue of workplace automation is likely to become relevant for more and more occupations. As Douglas Rushkoff wrote last year, "New technologies are wreaking havoc on employment figures--from EZpasses ousting toll collectors to Google-controlled self-driving automobiles rendering taxicab drivers obsolete. Every new computer program is basically doing some task that a person used to do. But the computer usually does it faster, more accurately, for less money, and without any health insurance costs."

Every knowledge worker should be considering the possibility that computers soon may be able to do his or her job at a lower cost, if not better. That includes journalists.

K says he works for a French company that processes cell phone bills, ISP bills, water bills, and paychecks, among other things. The bills are presented as PDF files. Using Game Maker, some free code libraries available online, and some code he wrote himself, he says, he has been able to automate the business process that his colleagues still do manually. His code allows him to interact with icons on screen and to convert display text into text stored in variables for programmatic processing.

K says that his work script allows him to do a week's work in eight hours. He says he fills the rest of his week playing games on his phone and reading websites like Reddit. He expressed reluctance to reveal what he has done for fear of angering his co-workers.

Professor Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, chuckled upon hearing K's tale. "If the company is not aware of something like that, shame on the company," he said in a phone interview. "A company should be able to detect when an employee has automated some process."

The company in question appears to have tried to exercise some control over its systems: K says he has to use a VPN to escape his company's firewall and access external websites.

In any event, Hanson is not giving K a pass on the ethics of his scheme. "The individual employee owes the company some information about the way he or she is performing a task," he said. "It was easier in a world where everyone sat at adjoining desks and the boss was able to see you working. But even in the virtual world, you still owe your employer some information about the process of work."

Collecting most of the company bonus pool because you've found a way to change the nature of your work, Hanson said, seems like taking advantage of the organization.

Indeed, from legal perspective, K's actions are hard to defend. "If you had invented a new process for doing the work with increased reliability, the company would presumably own that new process and would have the opportunity to share that innovation," Hanson said.

One could argue that companies withhold information from their employees all the time, so why shouldn't employees do the same?

But Hanson says that such rationalizations do not excuse dishonesty. "The right strategy [when a company is treating you unfairly] is to walk away," he said. "If there's injustice, quit. You want to encourage the company to do the right thing."

But if doing the right thing--being honest--will eliminate jobs, is that still the right thing in a time of high unemployment? In the European Union, unemployment presently averages about 10%.

And when so many companies have made ethically questionable decisions in recent years with barely a word from regulators--see JPMorgan's $2 billion loss as a recent example--it seems like a bit of a double standard to condemn a worker who conceals his secret for productivity while executives receive little more than tongue lashings for saddling taxpayers with the cost of their recklessness.

In the best of all possible worlds, K's employer would have a program that rewarded employees for automating their jobs. It would guarantee promotion and continued employment to those able to make their roles obsolete and improve corporate productivity.

But not all of us live in the best of all possible worlds.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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