A Computer Science Professor from Harvard who had recently gotten tenure was working a sabbatical at Google when he decided to stay on full time at Google and leave his academic position. He writes a somewhat tongue in cheek comparison of his day over at his blog. What’s this have to do with plumbers? I’m getting there. And Mario is a plumber for those of you not up on your video game history.
Computer Scientist David Lemire responds with a post about why you might not like your job but people envy it in his post citing famous cases like the guy with the PhD in Philosophy who left his job to go start his own shop. Lemire seems to think the disparity is in the day-to-day coding as compared to big picture meetings, mentoring and grant writing at Harvard.
However, I think this misses the mark. The former Harvard Professor is probably in the honeymoon stage at his new gig. And it can be extremely satisfying to have a direct hand in what you do. To see your own designs and drawings go to production rather than directing the work of others. But it can also be dissatisfying to be stuck in the trenches with little control of the big picture. I once asked a manager whether he liked having all the responsibility of being at the higher end as opposed to before when he had been a lead and had more of say in the technical day to day. He told me he loved being a manager because instead of having four or five projects to do he had a hundred that were going on and he could choose the four or five that he wanted to have a direct hand in.
I suspect the love of the day to day coding will wear off at some point, or if it does not the corporate law of entropy and meetings will mean the longer he sticks around he’ll risk either becoming irrelevant, ignored and not respected or find he is involved with project planning and bigger picture tasks. Some level of them is, in my opinion, a necessary evil once you start having more than two people collaborating on a project. And sometimes they are really inspiring and can spark innovation you wouldn’t get on your own.
Now for my tangential complaint. In Lemire’s response to the professor he complains about manual labor typically paying worse than professional or information based jobs. He cites plumbers as being the exception, and this is not the first educated person who I’ve heard complain so. In all likelihood, your plumber is paid as a contractor by the company he works for. The hourly rate you pay him includes excess that goes to cover things like upkeep on his truck and his basic tools and equipment. What he takes home he then has to take taxes out himself and pay contractor wages. If we all saw the full effect of what our employers had to pay to keep us we’d likely see something much larger than even our pre-tax gross pay. And if the pay was worth it to become a plumber, we’d all leave our jobs and become plumbers. The barrier to entry for plumbing is certainly much lower than that of a PhD or even a BS.
But Lemire hits the nail on the head with people envying certain jobs without really understanding in all cases the drawbacks. That we often desire social status or perceived importance without realizing the consequences. There are many things that make us happy at work and it’s not always the things we think it will be.
So what about you, dear reader, do you prefer the day to day hands on or the bigger picture stuff? Have you ever been surprised by something you thought you’d enjoy at work that it turns out you didn’t?