Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Wounded Workforce

I've been debating whether or not to write this for some time. Its hugely controversial. I've finally made the decision to finish/publish this piece due to the amount of feedback I get from the other developers around me.

The Promise

The great promise of technology is that it is self-reinforcing. Every technological advancement, is in theory, supposed to allow us to make the next great advancement with ever increasing speed. This applies in so much as their is 0 friction to advancing and applying each new level of technology. But we all know there is friction and it comes in the form of monetary spend, profit, and availability of resources. Since technology in different areas increases at different rates, there are also stalls. A prime example rampant in the tech industry today is the relatively slow increase in battery technology relative to the rapid advances in computing and display that want to take advantage of more power and longer battery lives.

So barring the technological impediments itself, what is stopping us from realizing the promise?

The Balance

Companies try to balance revenue, profit and overhead. Equipment spend is an example of overhead. So is a morale budget. As is your payroll and employee related expenses. Staring at these on paper you'd think that they directly impact your profit and that lowering these overheads would increase your profit. The correlation here is not quite as direct as that. Without these overheads you likely wouldn't have any revenue and thus eliminating overheads can also reduce the profits. So companies break all of these down into variable and fixed categories, generally putting a big fat "fixed" on the equipment, morale, and payroll and call it a day. When times get tough, they can cinch the waistband and after some periods of improvement they can start to relax it again, though rarely does one give back operations overhead once one has learned to deal without it.

While I ran a small company of my ow for many years, I have no real expertise in how to achieve this balance. If anything, my experience running my own company forced me to spend a large amount of my overhead on enabling technologies. To the extent, a much larger portion of my budget went into technology spend than any company would ever consider. So how is the balance impacting my ability to do my job and how are we wounding our own workforce?

The Wounded Workforce

Employees use company provided technology such as laptops, desktop machines, cell phones, pagers, tablets and A/V equipment to create new products and technology that in turn create revenue. During the process of this creation we often build up some debt (longer builds, bigger/more complex Excel Spreadsheets, more data in the database) in whatever we are working on. We also observe a general depreciation in the function and value of the equipment being used. Basically, once there is a spend on technology, an employee will tend to see a direct improvement in their ability to do their jobs.

There is an upper limit in the employees own ability to realize that improvement (if a user is not currently exceeding the limitations of their devices, a new device with fewer limitations won't help).

Then over time, due to wear and tear on the equipment itself and changes in the processes and work environment the productivity will slowly drop.

So far this all sounds great, so what is the problem? Well, the promise stated that technology would improve at an ever more rapid rate and new types of disruptive technologies would increase that even further. We are there and we are experiencing this state directly. Company spends are fixed and they are based on long period refresh rates. Improvements in technologies such as solid state drives or the yearly Intel refresh on processors revolutionize the consumer industry over the course of a couple of years while leaving the companies on their older hardware for upwards of 5. Let me provide some direct examples.

  • Building Software - OS reboot times, IDE load times, and source build times are all dramatically improved by SSDs. New companies and start-ups began with that technology. Most business class machines offer the smallest possible SSD's (128-160GB) for the system drive only at hugely inflated prices.
  • Visual Workflow - 24" monitors hit an under $300 budget price about 6 years ago. Larger monitors in the 27" range and 30" ranges are starting to see those prices. Yet I still see a lot of installations of much smaller monitors. Healthcare is a great example here, because they consistently have UIs which exceed the under 20" low resolution screens they have available. Weight is not the factor since the new monitors are lower power and lower weight even at increased sizes.
  • CPU Workloads - So what about that one guy in the office with the million line Excel sheet that takes 4 minutes to open? Every year new opportunities come out to make his or her life easier with a new machine. Potentially sacrificing raw speed for more cores, or whatever it might be that will make that workflow better. Going back to building software, in a large build, it is parallelism that needs improvement, not raw single core throughput. So getting an 8 core machine at 2.6ghz might trounce the standard 4 core 3.6ghz machine that the company tends to buy.
So now we've homogenized the entire spend to get every employee a "good enough" machine. Probably not the best machine for them, but the best machine we can find, within budget for a multitude of given workflows. Workflows that include job roles as disparate as IT worker, Accountant, Software Engineer, Product Manager, ... You get the point. Each of these users has dramatically different requirements and very rarely gets a choice or say in how to fulfill those requirements.

Unless you work in a start-up, or your company has progressively discovered the idea that your productivity matters and that their hardware spend on you is a multiplier for productivity and revenue, then you are likely working with out of date equipment.


So you are working on out of date machines, its costing your company, and its costing you even more. After all, you were at work for an extra hour working through the fact that your machine is holding you back from getting your job done. But its okay because EVERYONE is being EQUALLY CRIPPLED. And that is how we rationalize it.

But don't rationalize it. Let's do a simple calculation instead. Let's imagine that you are build constrained. Note I'm using this example because I was build constrained. So, I first looked at the build itself and at the cost of 2 weeks of my life I made it better, by about 10%, for everyone. So not bad. But then I took another step and I bought myself SSD's, at a cost of a few hundred bucks. My build speeds just about doubled. While I won't decry my improvement efforts, I have to point out, that probably cost the company a lot of money for me to spend my time on that. A lot of missed opportunity in other things I could have been fixing. Also note, the SSD got me way more win. So I would have had to spend many more weeks on a potentially impossible task to get the same results.

So I put in say $500 to make myself more effective. I wasn't equally crippled anymore. And so I'm pretty certain my improved productivity made me back the $500 and then some. But I have a long history of doing this. I started with monitors, gigantic 30" monitors and that was the start. I still use them, even after nearly 8 years so it was a good buy. I also drop in memory, graphics cards, and I'm on the boat as to whether or not I should be an actual build machine from scratch. Why? Because I want to get more done. I want to produce more amazing things. The technology that I work on every single day can make that happen and I want to use it to a multiplying effect.

And this is why many companies are embracing BYOD. The benefits are seemingly obvious. Think about the fact that you bought your own cell phone and your own plan and then you connected it to your work email account. How much productivity do you generate for your company there? I'm betting quite a bit, but yet you are willing to pay for that because you also get to leave work when you want and go in less at odd times of the night to resolve issues. Its become easier. I think cell phones were the big kick in the pants for BYOD, since the benefits of your own device always available to you and catered to you are most obvious there.

For machines it is less so since it tends to be a largish spend. A couple of thousand dollars. And there is an issue when you leave the company of who owns that stuff and what you should do with information on the hard drives etc... That is an ethics problem though, and employees should be prepared to wipe their machines if they are using it for work. As a technology problem, your company spends a meager amount getting you a "decent" machine and the reality is if you tossed in just a few hundred bucks more you could have an "awesome" machine. I want my machine(s) to be awesome. And if I already have one that I bought from my previous job, I'll just use it.

I really do hope that more individuals realize their full potential and look at machine spend out of their own pocket as an improvement to them rather than a failing of their company. Further I hope more companies start to offer more than the standard options. I for one would love to be provided a BYOD plan with full transparency around my allotment. It would at least alleviate the potential of me complaining about my crappy machine, because, well I bought it myself...

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