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The standards of the assembly line

Tom Evslin tells a story on Fractals of Change that illustrates exactly why we need to throw over our quaint, industrial-era notions of what constitutes work (aka labor, aka toil). Here’s his take on why a great programmer is worth fifty good ones:

I was consulting to a development manager at a tech company. He told me that the CEO, his boss, wouldn’t give him the salary and option freedom he needed to close a great programmer he’d found. Salary would have been 20% above what he had approval to offer; and, thanks to the new accounting standards for stock options, he didn’t have the authority to offer options. He lost the potential new hire and had to settle for someone merely “good”. Ironic thing is that he had several open positions so, once he gets through hiring several people, he’ll end up paying more in the aggregate than he would have paid for the superstar – and probably won’t get as much productivity.

Why do we persist in evaluating productivity as if the only model for productivity is the assembly line? In particular, creative work of any kind is anything but incremental; it is in fact inherently exponential. If Einstein could accomplish a civilization’s worth of ‘work’ in a single calendar year (1905, while he was ‘working,’ incidentally, as a patent examiner), why don’t we recognize the folly of measuring human endeavor by counting man hours?

‘Human resources’ is an unfortnuate misnomer, containing the implication that humans are to be mined or exploited like other natural resources. What humans are is entrepreneurs, wealth-creation machines designed to create capital. It is about time that companies with the means to ‘fund’ human effort figured this out. If more employees were treated like capitalists, the world would be a better place to work in.

18 comments to The standards of the assembly line

  • Nick M

    If you think “Einstein 1905” was good vintage, how about “Newton 1666”.

  • I have been bitching about the ‘human’resources’ tag for years. It is a dehumanizing term as you imply. Or, as Number 6 would say: ‘I am NOT a number!’.

    I am still on the lookout for a company that calls that function ‘personell’. This in the hope that it would lead to a company that treats people as people, rather than as plug and play meat-robots.

  • rosignol

    ‘Human resources’ is an unfortnuate misnomer,

    They call us that because they can’t get away with calling us ‘human assets’.

  • ernest young

    Surely a company that valued it’s personel as ‘assets’, is the one to go for.

    When you consider the time and effort in recruiting and leading a good team, how else should they be described? …

    The opposite of an asset is, of course, a liability, and who would employ one of those? – it might be ok for government, but not in the private sector…

  • ian

    What this demonstrates is of course that bureaucracy and regulation is as much a function of size as ownership. Despite what so many people here like to think, it isn’t limited to government. Try making an insurance claim…

  • Ian, it is a mistake to think ‘people here’ have a single view but I for one regard the mindset in some companies as much the same as in government.

    The BIG difference is that with a government, the consequences are much harder to mitigate: it is much easier to find a new insurance company to deal with than it is to find a new government if you are dis-satisfied. Moreover, a company is rarely in the position of forcing you to do business with them whereas a government does that all the time.

  • ian

    Perry – I’m aware of the diversity of views here – that is why I said “some people”.

  • ian

    …plus of course once you are in the postition of making a claim its a bit late to change companies.

  • Mr. Business is Business

    I fail to see the issue at hand here.

    It’s the employer’s prerogative on what skills he selects a candidate to work for him. There is no violation as such as presented here. So it may not be the wisest decision. Tough. It’s his lost, and perhaps he’s far more interested in output than simple “potential” innovations.

    This should just be a clear sign that the candidate in question would be wasting his time there and is perhaps a better idealist. Not that idealism accounts for much.

  • Why would anyone who could recognize and make use of groundbreaking geniuses be working for a company, other than his own?

  • There is a dynamic tension between in management between the need to treat it is a kind of engineering with concrete metrics and the need to recognize it is an art which can be difficult to explain. Both views are needed but in most situations if one overwhelms the other disaster strikes.

    Small businesses, especially the highly entrepreneurial, operate in the artistic mode with managers making rapid largely intuitive decisions. As the organization grows however the metric types take over both because metrics are needed to manage larger organizations and because large organizations are more accountable to others and must use those metrics to account for how they are spending other-people’s-money.

    Large tech firms often employ a kind of mixed system by isolating R&D groups in their own little bubble of artistic management while production and support are metric based. I think a lot of software companies choke when they can make the jump from artistic to metric management without losing their dynamic edge.

  • Another thought:

    In the modern legal climate, it is also difficult to pay different people differently for the same classification of work, even if one individual is much more productive than another. It is especially difficult if the criteria for productivity is highly subjective as would be the case for a programmer.

  • pete

    I too hate the ludicrous ‘human resources’ tag. Am I just a human resource of the company, just as a stapler or a computer is a non-human one, or does the company employ animals or aliens too? I have mentioned how I feel to several ‘HR’ people over the years and they are baffled by my attitude. They quite like the it, I suspect because it sounds snappy and modern to them and of course it provides a good reason for that old bureaucratic standby, the departmental change of name accompanied by exciting new job titles.

  • I think the term “Personnel” fell out of favour after Dirty Harry said what we had all been thinking.

  • Kim du Toit

    Ooooh Hillary you’ve touched on one of my pet peeves.

    I knew my life in Corporate America was going to be short-lived when a Personnel weenie (I refuse point-blank to call them HR) stood up and started blathering about “head count”.

    I told him, in front of everyone in the meeting, that there was no such thing as “head count”: there were living, breathing individuals with careers, hopes, aspirations and familes; and that if he ever referred to people as “head count” again in my presence, I’d smash his fucking face in.

    Afterwards, my boss took me aside and said that I should never anger “HR” because they had the power to make my life miserable.

    So I quit two weeks later and went to work for a successful company which had never laid off a single person in its history, who paid top dollar and demanded talent and hard work, and I never looked back.

    The first company is now a tenth of their size when I left them.

  • Vermont Neighbor

    Human Resources sounds cold and clinical. The only way to warm it up is to think in terms of, I bring my resources to you.

    To answer one of the questions above, I think people may be entrepreneurial for a company in hopes of securing stability, a promotion and a future. From experience, I brought entrepreneurial-style results to one company with managers who simply plucked off my efforts for their own benefit, made it a point to not acknowledge my specific contributions, and thus, worked effectively to keep me at their prescribed level… while benefiting within the community from my carefully crafted plans. A bitter lesson it was.

    Entrepreneurs will do best from their own desk; partners and clients are the relationships to develop. Don’t waste valuable effort on a self-serving group of tightly closed managers.

  • Uain

    Amen Vermont Neighbor!

    In response to Hillary’s post, I seem to recall larger companies putting limits on what people can be offered after the Bendix/ Mary Cunningham fiasco of the 1980’s. In this case, a 28 yrs old red headed knock out with an MBA curried the fancy of the then CEO of Bendix. In, if I recall, 8 months she was promoted from a low level munchkin to Vice President with an office next to the CEO.
    After the subsequent bruhaha, they both resigned and later married (can’t recall if he divorced his wife before or after he met Miss Cunningham). Net is I think that guide lines are meant to limit discretion of hiring managers to protect from a costly mistake.

  • This is what I was talking about. The company I used to work for treated me like a resource, part of a head count, a peice of self propelling capital and I hated it, one of the main reasons I left. What the department is called is not relevant, its the attitude of said department. My former employer’s was personnel but the attitude was one of resource management. Everyone who works for them is referred to as a “colleague” which irritated me immensely because we were not treated as such. I would much rather be an asset than a resource and an employee than a colleague if I have to be either. The only reason alot of companies employ people at all is because they’re cheaper than robots and don’t need upgraded every six months.