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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Does Everyone Steal From Work?

Yesterday was one of those typical days at work. I got in around 9:30 and checked my email and calendar to make sure I was not missing any meetings or anything like that. Then, I checked my voicemail to ensure that there were no problems that required my attention.

Before I go further, I have to explain what it is I do at work. I work in research and development. I don't develop physical products or work in a laboratory. I develop mathematical models. There is a field that combines mathematics and engineering together, called Operations Research. That is my field of work. What we Operations Researchers do is come up with mathematical models of real-world problems and try to optimize the outcomes. Common areas where you find the work of Operations Researchers is in scheduling, supply chain management, etc.

In my job, I have produced a few dozen mathematical models over time that are all deployed in production. These models are used by different departments of my company to do their daily jobs. There are models used in scheduling, managing the operations of the company, and so on. These models, once they are deployed in production have an information technology component to them (things like database interfaces, GUI's etc.) which is managed and supported by the company's IT department. Then there is the actual decision-support/modeling component which is my department's responsibility. At one time, our department had its own internal IT resources so that we did not have to depend on our company's IT department for this. Our company's IT department has a well-deserved reputation for being incompetent and useless, but that is another discussion for another day.

So, when I say I checked my email and voicemail to check for problems, what I mean is that I was checking to make sure that none of these deployed models have developed any model-related problems that require my attention. If their GUI crashes, or their database gets corrupted, that is not my problem (I don't have any expertise in those areas, I did not develop or implement those parts, and my department is not responsible for those parts of the models). But if the model develops some kind of mathematical problem (the model complains that the data is incompatible with the modeling in some way or something like that), then I do have the expertise to diagnose and correct the problem, so it is the responsibility of me, or my department collectively.

Yesterday is typical of many other days. No problems. What is not typical most other days, but is becoming more and more typical is that I had pretty much nothing else to work on. Previously, we used to have a steady stream of projects to work on. Mathematical models being developed continuously, ongoing research into multiple other models, meetings with users to go over requirements, and to make sure we understand the problem we are trying to solve, meetings with users to go over prototype model results, etc. In addition, we put together documentation on the models, presentations for senior management to understand what we contribute to the company (so that we can keep our jobs), etc.

That kind of work still happens in the department. But such work seems to have stopped for a small subset of us, including me. We have grand plans for a new model we want to work on for a particular department of our company. The models we have deployed in this area are old and crappy, and need replacement badly. But we have not yet been given the go-ahead to start working on this model. There is a lot of politics involved, including a person in our IT department who wants to take our department out of the loop and buy a solution from an outside vendor of such models. This, by itself, is not bad. Our managers always tell us that we are not competing against such vendors. We are there to get the best solutions for our company regardless of whether the solution comes from us or from outside. We are facilitators to getting our company the best models and decisions support tools that are available anywhere.

The problem is that this person in IT wants us to not even be involved in the evaluation process for selecting a vendor-provided solution. Which is a little out of line since nobody else in the company is qualified to evaluate these products. In fact, vendors make a lot of money selling these systems to a lot of companies like mine by pulling the wool over their eyes, because most companies don't invest the time and money required to set up a qualified department of technophiles like my colleagues and me.

The even bigger problem is that this person in IT came over to our company from a vendor who has been trying to get their foot in the door at our company for a while now. This company's product has been bought by a few of our competitors and we have actually gone and visited these companies to evaluate how they use the product, what its real features and limitations are, etc. (to hear this vendor talk about its own product, you would be convinced that it can not only end world hunger, but also halt climate change and resolve all world conflicts). We have always come away with the impression that this product is nothing but glorified snake-oil. We are convinced that this IT person left the vendor and came over here specifically so that he could convince my company to buy his former employer's product. Essentially, he is a shameless trojan horse.

Because of all this politics, our project is stuck in limbo. All we have left to do is maitaining our existing models, and that just isn't enough to keep me occupied for more than a couple of hours a week at most. So, as it typical of many days nowadays, after I checked my email and voicemail, I pretty much had the whole day to myself. And I took advantage of that by working on my blog for a long time. I took a long lunch with a bunch of friends, then worked on my blog some more. In the past few weeks, I have taken advantage of this downtime by working on my ebook catalog also. Then I took off from work about 8 hours after I had come in. In short, I added pretty much no value to my company yesterday.

Essentially, yesterday, I got paid about $400 by my company for doing nothing. Am I stealing money from work? Obviously, I am not stealing cash from someone's wallet or doing anything illegal or surreptitious to get at the money. But it still feels like I am stealing money because I am getting paid to do nothing.

Now, I am not saying I feel overly guilty about it. After all, my idleness is not by my choice though I am getting to enjoy it. And I have produced enough models with enough benefits for my company that they could pay me 10 times what I get right now for the next 20 years and still have savings left over. I am certainly not feeling guilty enough to rock the boat so that somebody decides to get me out of their hair by assigning me to some project that requires lots of work. I will be quite honest and admit that I am not a big fan of work in general, so I am happy the way things are right now. And I know that things will eventually change and I will be spending 10-hour days at work with no time to even take a breath. So, maybe I shouldn't even think of this in terms of undeserved pay, but as compensation for the hours of overtime I have put in earlier, and will probably put in later during the rest of my career.

All this brings to mind an interesting book I read recently whose title escapes me at the moment. One of the interesting chapters in this book is about how people are more comfortable taking stuff that does not strictly belong to them if it is not cash. But people are very uncomfortable taking cash that does not belong to them. It cited surveys where people professed absolutely no guilt about taking home large quantities of office supplies like pens, pencils and sticky tape for personal use. Those same people would not take even a quarter if they had access to a stash of money that was used by their employer to buy the same office supplies. People cheated on exams when they were paid prizes that were not cash, but the cheating was significantly reduced if the prize was cash. Very interesting research.

I guess it is a good thing I don't have to fill out any forms with a listing of what I accomplished each hour to get paid in cash every hour or even every day. Would I have been able to invent enough fictitious busy-work to justify getting paid for a full 8 hours yesterday? Are cases like mine the justification for why companies insist on employees filling out timesheets, at least on a weekly basis? Do such employees invent work for themselves so that they will have something to fill out on their timesheets? Do employees at companies that don't require timesheets end up stealing money like me?

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