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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week

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

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.

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User Rank: Ninja
5/15/2012 | 8:35:11 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
Fascinating. It's another example of how dangerous disengaged employees are. I mean, ethics aside, an enthusiastic and committed employee would IMMEDIATELY run to his or her manager with something like this to share it, followed by a public recognition, bonus (no matter how large or small), and a call to arms to automate MORE. And, the corporation would respond, not by laying folks off, but by re-allocating personnel to solve actual business problems or apply innovation that would give it even more of a competitive edge. I will guarantee sight-unseen that this guy works in a relatively toxic corporate culture. What a wake up call for those of us that manage technologists.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/15/2012 | 5:36:14 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
I agree with RobertMcI ... walking away from an unethical situation preserves my own personal integrity, but it doesn't give the company an incentive to do the right thing. With high unemployment, my company views me as disposable, and quickly replaceable.

I also agree with the other commenters ... K's supervisor should have noticed something by now. The disparity in productivity is just too great, and the amount of bonuses too large for someone not to connect the dots.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/14/2012 | 10:44:26 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
It seems from the comments that the company is presumed to be honest. I don't think that's a given.

First, let's ask, "why would the company care what's going on?" They can point at K and say to the rest of the workers, "You guys aren't working hard enough."

In the meantime, they could be studying the situation. It might be they want to "steal" K's process and kick K to the curb.

Or if they are truely clueless and don't notice one guy is blowing everyone else out of the water..., their time will come. Someone in the market will eat their lunch.

It is clear K is violating the use policy with his VPN action. Might he also be leaking sensitive data to these external websites?

I also agree that K's approach shouldn't be assumed to be infalable.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/14/2012 | 7:51:37 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
IMO - The whole point of a bonus program is to provide employees incentive to perform - which is working in this case. Now it's on the company to look at the highest performers to see if they can use the techniques to make the other workers more productive. It's the company's responsibility to do this. If the productive worker refuses to share his technique, that's a whole different problem.

User Rank: Apprentice
5/14/2012 | 7:30:32 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
Normally if you invent processes as part of your paid employment, those processes are owned by your employer - not you - at least that is my understanding in the EU. K is either a liar or simply ethically challenged as anybody smart enough to do what he claims would be rapidly promoted by his company, or would simply go to work for a company which appreciated their work.

The other possibility is sad - that K is simply lazy, and despite some obvious talent (in assembling the solution, even if he engineered little himself) is simply afraid that if he admits what he has done then he will be expected to work the remaining days of the week.

Industries throughout the world have gone through changes which made their workforce obsolete or at least forever changed - K needs to realize that simply 'taking' from a system which clearly can be largely automated is simply delaying the inevitable day when he is not needed!
User Rank: Apprentice
5/12/2012 | 7:08:36 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
I'm having a hard time seeing how walking away from an unjust situations is considered ethical. In such cases the company just finds another worker more than willing to put up with the injustice.

I think "K" is brilliant. Don't we all do that to a certain extent in all of our jobs - find a better more time efficient way of doing things. Besides if he shows the company they may promote him and give him more responsibility and then what would happen to his gaming scores? :-)
User Rank: Apprentice
5/12/2012 | 12:55:16 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
Completely automating everything can lead to job loss however increase the need for people to become educated in the field of robotics and or anything else that is involved with the automation. If this guy worked for me he would get a pat on the back. Keep up the excellent work.
User Rank: Strategist
5/11/2012 | 11:52:22 PM
re: Automate Your Way To One-Day Work Week
It seems to me automating repetitive work, coming up with IT solutions, and the reduction of staff is what CIOs and technology have been seeking to do for years. His coming forward may disappoint some of these CIO/CTO/Business Analysts that are pulling down big money, but he may also find a method to market his discovery and make more than the bonuses if it turns out to be a sound, validated process (it may be making errors noone has yet identified or bad calculations). The fact he is taking the lion's share of bonuses with production far superior to his workmates should have raised flags to management to find out exactly how (desiring to transfer the knowledge to the others if it is process related). One employee once increased his salary by playing online poker but senior management held him up a brave, chance taker personality they needed more of.

With regard to the ethics question, toward his colleagues noone apparently has limited how they do their work so I see no violation toward them. Toward his employer, he was hired to do a job which he is doing and they seem less than interested in how he is achieving such performance (there are more than one may think out there that are afraid to ask the question for fear of the answer). I would like to say this would seem uncommon, but I have seen it in Europe and in large US corporations and the conduct does not seem that odd. If this has been going on for years, he may have good reason to fear a vendictive company response if they feel they've been taken all this time or lost productivity across the board.
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