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Reblogged:"The System" vs. Your Life

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A tech blogger relates a few disturbing examples of people in his industry who seem to have lost ambition or are "shrugging" in a sort of blind rebellion, apparently against poor incentive structures at work.

We have: the guy who lets his company waste $100k/month, someone who toots his own horn about fixing his own buggy software, and someone who uses a backlog of pending bug fixes as a means of dodging development work:
Oh yeah, and all of these people store work credentials in plaintext and don't care about writing secure code. "A security breach isn't my problem and avoiding one doesn't get me anything."
The author is (properly) shocked by this mindset, which is alien to himself -- but he is also at an impasse about it.

He summarizes and reacts thus:
You don't get rewarded for being extra. You don't get any money when you save costs. You're going to get a raise below inflation. You're stupid for caring the way that you do. The business' downside risk is not yours, and it's profits are not yours either.
I'm not sure I can really come up with a good counter-argument to this, and maybe normal people are all the weird ones for not behaving like this. They're right in that the incentive structure to perform well.. is missing if you think about it. One person pointed out that the vulnerability I found internally granted me a bonus of $0, whereas if an external researcher found it they'd have been paid a bounty easily in the tens of thousands of dollars. They're right, and that does sting a little bit.
The author never comes up with a satisfactory answer, concluding that "t seems like the system says we should all store our passwords in plaintext too."

Most interesting to me is a suggestion for a remedy by Steve Levitt, author of Freakonomics, that he mentions before admitting he is out of ideas:
I think the real answer, the real answer [ ... ] this is going to sound weird or bad -- is to cajole or trick your employees into thinking that what they're doing is important.
Image by Arlington Research, via Unsplash, license.
Two things immediately come to my mind after reading this.

First, it is worth asking how typical this really is. If enough people thought and acted like this, nothing constructive would ever get done, and our society would eventually sort itself out at least to a degree or collapse under its own dead weight.

But this begs the question a little bit: Our society plainly has enough margin for error, injustice, and parasitism that there will always be some bosses who fail to recognize good employees, and there will always be people who get away with not really working.

Second, it is worth stepping back for a moment and asking: What does important mean, and why do you show up for work every day? And if someone is paying you to do something, doesn't the idea of having to trick you into regarding it as important seem a bit odd?

Is your own life not important? Are putting your best effort in -- and making sure you are properly rewarded for doing so -- not important? The employee who finds a problem that is costing his business significant money, leading to that problem being fixed should be self-motivated to do so for these reasons.

Will he directly profit every time? Not necessarily, but he indirectly profits, by helping the company whose income is keeping him alive. And if he isn't properly recognized in some way by management whose job includes fostering talent, it's on him to decide whether it's worth staying or finding a more deserving employer.

Our culture -- which transmits and is shaped by the (usually) vaguely-held philosophical ideas held by most people -- can account for lots of the problem. Two particularly dangerous such ideas are altruism, the idea that we all exist to serve others; and pragmatism, the idea that principles don't matter, and that we need only act expediently.

If your idea of important is tied up in self-sacrifice to some goal "greater than yourself," might you damn writing good code -- or cybersecurity -- or the financial health of your profit-seeking company as "unimportant?"

And if you can coast your way to a paycheck, and see doing so as expedient, why fuss yourself over consequences? It feels good now, and you've lulled yourself into thinking: This job is not important in the grand scheme of things anyway, so I'll lean back and collect my shekels.

It might "work" for a time, in the sense that your company won't collapse tomorrow, thrusting you into the world devoid of skills or confidence.

But by fostering your own dependence on the blindness and gullibility of others, you are betraying the most important thing there is, our increasingly corrupt "system" to the contrary -- the only life you will ever have.

What to do about this system is a post for another day and a decision for each person to make. But the one thing each of us can improve right now is also the one thing that can most positively impact our own lives: We can decide not to blindly do what "the system" incentivizes, and live like human beings can and should, instead.

-- CAV

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