The disconnect between work and reward has never felt greater

Posted by Elf Sternberg as Uncategorized

Seeing as it’s January, that means that we go through many accounting phases about what happened last year. Most of the ones we go through publicly are ones about how we spent our time: did we work out enough, write enough, study enough, love enough. Others we Americans tend to go through with a deep sense of reserve and privacy, mostly about money.

Last year I made what is, to me, an insane amount of money. Far more than I ever thought I’d be making in any given year. And it’s more than the year before that; in fact, it’s been steadily going up every year since the 2008 recession. Even after adjusting for inflation, I’m still making more per year than my father did, which I have to say is utterly mind-boggling, since he was a radiologist, a pioneer in nuclear medicine, and a real estate mogul all at the same time.

Yet, I’ve never felt the connection between work and reward feel more tenuous.

I’m currently in a large infrastructure position where, nominally, I was hired for my skills as a software developer, yet I now joke that I write code during the commute because they don’t let me write it at work. Instead, I manage configuration files. I worked on fleshing out a platforming initiative for a massive chunk of network monitoring software; that platform is now mature enough that the skills I initially brought to the table are no longer needed. The real skills I spent twenty years acquiring are now being allowed to decay while I fiddle around the edges of an impressively large but intellectually dull enterprise software product.

On the other hand, because it is a network monitoring tool that helps prevent enterprise-scale service failure, finacial loss, and outright fraud, there is an unbelievable amount of money sloshing around the sector, and my company has seen fit to reward me repeatedly with bonuses, raises, and stock options.

And yet, I know I don’t work nearly as hard as the average apple picker in the agricultural regions just east of where I live. I am not as ambitious or go-getter as many of my co-workers; I’m consciously on a daddy track and I’m not going to sacrifice my family’s time to my employer. I do my job, hopefully well, and go home at the end of the work day. The maturity and prosaic nature of the project, I confess, leaves me cold with desire to push the state-of-the-art. (This is the flipside of my time at IndieFlix or Spiral Genetics, where I worked like a dog and put in evenings because the project was flippin’ cool.)

I really don’t have ambition to “maximize shareholder value” except to the point that I’m currently a shareholder myself. I have an ambition to make the world a better place. Every job I’ve had of the first type paid excessively well; every job of the last type was inspiring and made me feel good about myself.

When I read about that weird Silicon Valley meme that “we work hard, so our rewards are commensurate with what we do,” I have to shake my head and wonder: really? Canada’s Micronutrient Initiative’s costs about $200 million, and has prevented almost 400 million cases of life-threatening birth defects in India, Canada, and North Africa; Candy Crush is worth $7.1 billion, and I doubt it’s developers actually work as hard as the people hauling sacks of iodine crystals through the third world’s back roads.

The disconnect between effort and reward has never been as stark or as absurd as it is today. My experience is a microcosm of that disconnect. I’m happy to do my job, and happy to get paid to do it, but I can’t help but feel that there’s something very off about the relationship between the two.

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January 2016
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