Plumber Envy

Plumber Envy

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 corporateĀ  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?


I think there’s a couple things going on. Welsh may be in the honeymoon stage, but he’s also at Google. He probably gets to direct a reasonable chunk of his own work, if my perception of how things work there is accurate. This is a lot different than working as a software lackey for a large company that takes little input from their employees.

I think that if Lemire is off the mark, it is because he may have oversimplified the reasons. Welsh also states there issues of getting funding (the bane of every researcher’s existence). The stress of a professorship is probably on par with the fact that your research may or may not be useful to someone down the line as a reason for leaving.

Welsh had me at “free yummy food”. It’s one of those little perks that I truly enjoy at FluxCorp. But as far as the work day goes, mine resembles Welsh’s professor life more than his Google life.

Cherish- agreed, Google is probably pretty far up there in job environments.

And yes its interesting how many industry/government jobs might be more like the academic world than he perceives Google to be.

This was a great post. I admit to being happier with the day to day stuff, but it is nice to take a breath and realize the big-picture stuff is coming into play. However, I wouldn’t mind working at google. They seem to want to spend their money making sure employees never want to leave.

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