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“Keeping up” should not be an extracurricular activity.

My first few jobs in web development had a lot of free time because the industry was so new. I kept plenty busy, but a large part of each workday was actually spent tinkering, reading about new techniques and new technology — even practicing on personal projects that were never intended to see any profit. They were just there for me to try out things I was learning before I actually needed to use them. This headroom was not traditionally productive in the typical MBA sense, but it meant that when new questions or new projects arose I could respond pretty quickly.

It helped, of course, that I was single and without children. I could spend evenings and weekends on personal projects if I wanted to, and I did.

Then one day the consulting firm I worked for was sold to a much larger consulting firm, and that was my first taste of companies valuing being “busy” instead of being productive. I watched my colleagues from my old firm get penalized for working only eight hour days while their own developer put in twelve to fourteen hours.

His actual output was pretty terrible because he didn’t have any of the foundational skills and was learning basic HTML on the job, but he got a bonus and an official commendation for his dedication to work and the rest of us were threatened with termination if we didn’t step up.

I quit that job shortly thereafter, fortunately on my own terms. And my next few jobs were a lot better about valuing research as well as development.

Then I took work at another consulting company, and things were a bit different. First, I had a lot of expertise, so I could solve a lot of problems very rapidly. I was also married and had a new infant son, both people I liked and wanted to spend time with instead of poking at a computer constantly.

My learning time shrank considerably, but that was OK — I didn’t need that much of it. I had a large store of useful knowledge, so when (for example) this firm started building web sites using Wordpress and Drupal, I could pull from my several years experience with personal blog projects and put that to work immediately.

Over time, though, even those smaller amounts of time got more pinched, especially as productivity-thinking gradually took over the company. We stopped talking quite so much about solving people’s problems or innovating solutions and spent much of our days struggling to meet basic requirements. Strategy seemed mostly relegated to time-keeping and labor allocation.

I was still learning, of course. You can’t work in this field without learning. But my pace had dropped precipitously, and I fell more and more behind. Every year I felt I became less employable; every year I also suspected I was of less use to the company. For the most part I was solving yesterday’s problems with yesterday’s solutions, and wasn’t much use for today’s.

When productivity becomes the focus of a development team, this is pretty much inevitable. When the focus becomes almost exclusively billable time, burndown charts, or “velocity” the education and experimentation work seems pretty risky; it’s a lot of time involved that doesn’t improve any of those statistics directly and certainly isn’t guaranteed an instant cash payout.

This is probably why so many startups feel like dynamic, exciting places to work. A funded project that’s not expected to make money immediately has plenty of room to try things out. But once the business IPOs and investors expect constantly increasing returns each quarter, productivity thinking takes over and people end up chasing metrics instead of engaging in play that generates new ideas.

This is bad for employees, who see their development slow down if not getting entirely stuck. But it is also bad for employers. If you want innovation but don’t want to pay for it, you have to hire outside people with new ideas. Consultants, perhaps, but also well-established senior-level folks who can “hit the ground running.”

Fortunately my next job after this gave me a lot more time to explore and learn. I feel like I’ve caught up. More than that — I actually enjoy my work again. Research, exploration, and learning new things are where I find joy. This is why an academic career once seemed so attractive. Using that knowledge is also fun, of course. Learning things without purpose ultimately feels empty. But if the company is focused on doing as quickly as possible and has not left significant room for thinking, they drain the value out of their current employees just as surely as private equity vampires drain established brands.

So, some recommendations:

  • If you have a business, make sure you can make money even if your employees have a lot of headroom. A workforce that is working constantly at capacity can’t take on additional work. They also don’t have much time for creative thinking, problem-solving, or learning.
  • If you are an employee, don’t let companies drain your value by taking away your ability to think about problems. Work at a sustainable pace. If you feel yourself falling behind year-over-year because you are working at or above your capacity, maybe find a new job.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your own advancement isn’t worth investing in. Your employer should. But if they don’t, you need to find time and resources to do it yourself.