Category Archives: Work


What I am going to be talking about here is freedom. Not in the sense of Preserving Our Liberties and Fighting The Great Government Conspiracies, but the things that really impact our personal lives.

Not that government encroachment on our traditional liberty isn’t a worrying trend, and I may touch on it now and then, but for the most part family, careers, and our personal decisions have a much greater impact on what we can and can’t do. Not even the most repressive totalitarian government is going to lock down your life like a new baby will. It’s not unusual now for people to spend more hours working than sleeping, which doesn’t leave much time for anything but work, getting ready for work, getting to and from work, and sleeping. And if you’re working and have a new baby, may God have mercy on your soul.

How do you balance the obligations of friends, family, and work, and still find time for yourself? Have you ever seen a year go by and realized at the end of it that you didn’t reach any of the goals you had set yourself? These are important questions to me, and I think to other people as well. For over a year now I’ve been trying to balance the demands of my consulting business with my own desire to spend as much time as possible with my son, not always with great success. I don’t claim to have any special wisdom, but I’ve learned a few things in that time and I hope to learn more in the future.

This blog is something of an experiment. I’m going to ramble here as I have time and something to say, and I hope that some people may find what I have to say useful. I don’t have comments enabled here, for various reasons, but anyone is free to email me at I may quote you in a future post, so if you don’t want that be sure to say so in your email. I hope to hear from someone other than spammers.

The Incredible Shrinking Wage

I’m going to be referring now and then to how much time you have to work in order to pay for this or that. When looking at your rate of pay for the purpose of these calculations (or any similar figuring you might be doing on your own) don’t simply use your official rate of pay (or if you’re salaried don’t just convert it to an hourly wage based on a 40 hour week).

To find out how much you’re really making for each hour you work, first you want to look at what you’re actually taking home. Look at the net salary on your paycheck. The amount that actually gets deposited into the bank. Add any 401k deductions. That’s how much you’re really making. (If you’re really picky you can figure in the value of your benefits package, if any, but we’re trying to keep things simple here. This is a rule of thumb, not an income tax filing.)

Now, count up how many hours you actually spent working, or at work, or on your way to and from work, in that pay period. If you’re a full time employee that number is almost certainly going to be much more than a 40 hour week. You might be surprised how many hours it is.

Now, divide your real take-home pay by the real number of hours. That’s your real wage per hour, and the number you should use when calculating how many hours you’ll have to work to pay for something.

Who Will You Be When You Grow Up?

It has been nearly 18 months now since my son was born and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.

I know what I am. I’m a dad. No job, no career, will ever be more important than that. Unfortunately, while very rewarding in its way, the pay isn’t very good and the bills still have to be paid. For a year and a half now I have been juggling, trying to spend as much time as possible at home, with my family, while still making enough to support us. The results, so far, have been mixed.

I’m self-employed, so to a certain extent I get to set my own schedule. If I don’t have anything scheduled for a given day I can stay home, and Nathaniel is delighted to have Daddy around all day. On the other hand, sometimes I get called out to work on a Saturday afternoon and I feel a certain resentment at missing that precious family time, but I do it because I can’t pay the bills with baby pictures, no matter how cute they are.

I’m luckier than most fathers, who may have to leave the house at 7:00am or earlier, and may not get home till 8pm or even later. They might spend little or no time at all with their kids during the week. Some of them may make more money than I do, have a bigger house and nicer things, but does the price in time that pay for that material wealth make them happier?

No one ever lay in bed at the end of their life and thought, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” For me, the family time is worth giving up a few gadgets and sweating a little more trying to make the finances work.

I write, I work with computers, but I’m not a writer, I’m not a computer technician. Those are things that I do. But what I am is a dad. Solving some computer problem may be satisfying in its way, but it’s nothing compared to my son running to greet me at the door, yelling, “Da’y, Da’y!” and throwing his arms around my legs.

Call me greedy, but I’d like to find a way to spend even more time with the family, while still paying the bills. It’s something that our society doesn’t make easy. Something that is actively discouraged, in fact, but I plan to do it anyway. If I can figure out how.

How about you? What brings you the most joy in your life, and how do you plan to spend the most time possible doing that?

No Good Work Goes Unpunished

There is a school of though, which I have seen advocated on certain online forums, that no matter what your job is you should be willing to do anything your boss tells you. For example, if you were a highly paid specialist engineer and your boss told you to make him some coffee and then mop the floor, your response should be a cheerful, “Yes sir!” You will then be rewarded by raises and promotions.

I have to shake my head in cynical amazement at these optimists (some of whom at least claim to have gotten actual promotions through cheerfully doing whatever shit job is thrown at them). In any company I’ve ever worked at, or any company everyone I know has ever worked at, that sort of attitude is only going to get you more shit jobs to do. As the saying goes, “If every day you do a little more than people expect from you, pretty soon people will expect a little more from you every day.”

It is an unfortunate fact that advancement in the workplace has nothing to do with hard work. If anything, working hard will make it less likely that you will be promoted. The way your boss sees it, the more work you do, the bigger the hole in his department when you leave. He might have to hire two people to do the work you’re doing. Or spread the work around to other people, which is not going to please his other subordinates. Or even the nearly unthinkable option of having to do some of the work himself.

Faced with the choice of keeping you in your place and piling work on your desk, or piling the work on his own desk, your boss is going to keep you where you are every time. He isn’t concerned about what’s good for the company and he sure as hell isn’t concerned about what’s best for you; he’s concerned about his departmental budget and keeping his own ass and desk clear.

I’ve seen this first hand. My wife has a very strong work ethic. She kept working long days, over my objections, right up to the day before our son was born. She was constantly working late, taking work home, frantically working away at every project that landed on her desk, in every job she ever had.

It got her precisely nowhere. She never once got a promotion at any of those jobs. When she finally moved on to another company (or, in the case of her last job, quit to be a full-time mom for a while) it usually took two or three people to replace her.

(A variation on this situation is when the company wants you to start at some low-level job — frequently, though not always, clerical — but promises that they will promote you to something else later. They won’t. Ever. Once a secretary, always a secretary, at least as far as that company is concerned. Don’t fall for it.)

It isn’t only your boss that you have to watch out for, of course. Your co-workers will be more than happy to slack off and let you pick up the workload. Work will flow to you to match your willingness to accept it. The rewards will flow to the guy who goes out drinking with the boss while you’re working late.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard at your job. You should do the best job you can. I’m saying that when it comes time to decide if you’re going to go that extra mile, take on that overtime, take all that work home, think about if your boss or your company would go that extra mile for you. Odds are they wouldn’t. Do your job and do it well, but never forget that your first responsibility is to yourself and your family, not your employer.

How do you get ahead then, if hard work won’t do it? By jumping ship. Move to another company. (Or, if your company is big enough, another department, but don’t count on that; your boss will be working against you. Something else I have firsthand experience of.) You’ll be in the same trap there, but if you played your cards right you’ve got a better position and higher pay. Then, when you’re ready, jump ship again. If you’ve been in the same position for three years, start checking out the job market. You are probably underpaid and overworked.

Does that seem harsh? Disloyal to your employer? Well, if they are loyal to you, you’ll find no advantage to be gained by jumping ship. Your salary is already as good as it’s likely to get. If it isn’t, ask yourself this: Why should you put your employer’s well-being ahead of your own? What have they done to deserve such loyalty.

You’ll probably find that the answer is: Nothing.

Diversify Your Paycheck

I haven’t had a job since the end of 2000, when the Dot-Com I was working for dropped dead by the side of the road.

That sounds a lot worse than it really is. I have a long history of making money that doesn’t come from an employer and after a few months of trying to find a new job I gave up and haven’t tried since. Instead, I went back to being a tech-for-hire, a computer consultant, a techno-mercenary. The upside of that was that it was work I could do, and I had just enough contacts to get a marginal start. The downside was that I had to work with computers (and users) all day long, and I had just enough contacts to get a marginal start. The most technically adept consultant in the world will starve if he can’t find clients willing to pay for his expertise.

Fortunately, I had time to build up a client base because my wife was working full time. I had a pretty good base built up when, two years ago, my son was born and that all changed. All of a sudden, my dubious and variable consulting income was the sole support of my entire family. It was unsettling.

Two years later, though, there’s still food in the pantry and money in the bank.

Some people would consider it very risky to have a family depending on the uncertain income of the self-employed. You’re too vulnerable to loss of clients, or simple slow-downs in business, where there may not be much work for weeks at a time. The stability of a ‘real’ job is much more desirable.

Perhaps at one time that was true, but I don’t think it is anymore. The so-called ‘real’ job is no more stable than being self-employed. Sure, you have a steady, unvarying, paycheck coming in twice a month…for as long as it lasts. If your employer goes bust, or simply decides that for whatever reason they no longer need your services, you suddenly no longer have an income. (This has happened to me numerous times.)

Financial advisors are always talking about diversifying your investment portfolio, but you never hear them talking about your income portfolio.

As a consultant, if one of my clients goes bust, or decides for whatever reason that they no longer need my services, or re-locates out of the area (and this has also happened to me numerous times), I still have the income from all my other clients. The money I make being self-employed may not be as steady as a regular job, but it is much more fault-tolerant. If one client goes offline, I can keep running on the others; my money comes from dozens of businesses and individuals and it would take a lot for me to lose all of them.

The feast-or-famine cash flow does take some financial discipline to manage, but now that I’ve gotten used to it I like it better than a single paycheck. Perhaps I just have little faith left in the stability of employers, but the diffuse nature of my income is comforting, not worrisome.

It may be useful to you to think, not in terms of earning a paycheck, or an income, but rather of multiple sources of income. That might mean adding investment income to your salary (which could be as simple as interest on your bank accounts), taking up selling things on Ebay, or even a second job. Besides the financial benefits, adding sidelines exposes you to people and experiences that you might not otherwise have encountered. If you are currently between positions (don’t feel bad; that’s going to be more common in the near future, as the economy sags) consider becoming your own employer rather than selling yourself to the highest bidder. Maybe it isn’t right for you, but you might be surprised. Keep an open mind, at least; if you’ve been laid-off then you certainly know how fragile the so-called steady job can be.

In this modern, globalized economy, we’re all freelancers. Think about what you can do to protect yourself from the whims of the market. Your boss might be adding your name to a list right now.

Once More Unto the Breach

The past several weeks have been very frustrating ones at work, not just for me but for one of my clients as well. What with one thing and another I’ve been averaging six long days every week. That’s a lot of time in front of computers.

It started with a client’s move to a new office space. From the client’s point of view it went well enough, but I had to work my ass off to make it so. Due to some organizational changes on their side my input on their IT structure was cut off and I had to work with the result of decisions made by non-technical people, who used criteria that I have not yet been able to decipher.

At any rate, the move itself went well, but not long afterwards they began to have odd networking issues, mainly people intermittently not being able to print to certain network printers. While I was still trying to figure that one out, their Exchange email server began to go offline.

The problem with the email server was that the database size had grown to the limit Microsoft had set for that particular server license, and it was going offline periodically as punishment. Part of the networking problem was that they were out of user licenses. (They use a lot of seasonal workers, swelling the user list, which then shrinks down again, so we typically only have to add users there about once a year.)

A big part of the blame for those things falls on me. I screwed up. Partly through distraction from the several other projects I was working on at the time, partly through disgust with the way decisions were being made (or not made) at that organization (and quite specific indications that any input from me would be ignored anyway), I wasn’t paying close enough attention to those things.

The email problem was quickly diagnosed and it was easy enough to keep things moving along while waiting for a new mail server to come in (which had originally been planned for a month earlier, right after their move). The network oddities, however, had me pulling out my hair and took much longer than I would have liked to track down. It turned out to not be just a matter of the user licenses, but also the switch that one of the network printers was attached to, a hardware failure with the printer itself, a bad network switch, and a bad cable connecting two switches back in the server room. Six different intermittent problems, in other words, all showing similar symptoms, and it took a while to track them all down.

Shortly after getting all those problems finally exorcised, the new mail server came in. I started setting it up and the new software told me that I had to apply a patch to the old server before setting up the new one. OK, no problem, it’s a routine patch.

Except this time. That patch blew the old server from Hell to Christmas. I worked furiously all night to try and get it back up and running before people came in to work the next morning, and was only partially successful. I started installing the patch at 9pm and it was 3pm the following day before I had everything fully up and running again.

(Then the next day I had to go in and try to install the patch again. A process I faced with some trepidation, after my ordeal of the days before, but I did it.)

The point of all this is that the client has had several days recently when their computer infrastructure wasn’t working worth a damn. There are some lessons to be learned here.

First, the client is not, so far as I know, particularly unhappy with me. I am sure they are not thrilled about the problems, but I haven’t taken too much of a hit because of it. The key here is that I’ve been working with them for a number of years now and the systems have generally worked quite well, and I worked my ass off trying to resolve the various problems as quickly as possible. Also, because of the way I had things set up, the impact of some of the problems was minimized. During the hours in which their mail server wasn’t talking to the outside world, for example, they could still use the Internet and the rest of the network, and inbound mail was queueing up on the email gateway so nothing was lost.

Everyone screws up now and then, and things break sometimes. If you consistently do a good job for your clients (or your boss, though that’s more problematical), you’re building up credit that will serve you well when something goes wrong. Relatively major problems at rare intervals are more tolerable than constant annoyances.

Second, I had to go outside the organization’s chain of command and bother some people whose job it wasn’t (but who were willing, much to their credit, to make some noise and make things happen) in order to get some decisions made. As a result, we’ve done some reorganizing and clarified the lines of communication and generally made it a lot easier — I hope — to get things done in the future.

When everything is going well, there’s no motivation to reorganize and try to make things work more smoothly. If you bust your tail holding everything together with chewing gum and duct tape, no one is going to notice, because you are holding it together. Things that work well are invisible, and eventually taken for granted. That’s not a bad thing, usually. A company’s computer network, for example, shouldn’t call attention to itself. But, like an economic downturn that shakes out weak companies and makes the economy stronger in the long run, sometimes it takes a failure somewhere to bring problems to light and provide the motivation for a proper fix. Every failure is a source of lessons to be learned.

Looking at all of this work from another angle (and all that fuss and bother with that one client was only part of it; there were lightning-blown computers, server migrations, and so on and so forth), I’m bloody exhausted. My wife asked me if I was going to bill the client for all of the many hours I spent fighting that crashed mail server. “Most of them,” I told her. I’ll probably give them a bit of a break, but for the most part, they’re going to get billed what I worked. I didn’t make any mistakes on that one; it was just a bad break and unfortunately the nature of computers is such that every now and then you’re going to have to deal with a crash. The big wad of hours I’m going to bill as a result is, to me, like collecting on life insurance. I wish it hadn’t come to pass, but since it did I’m not going to turn down the money.

Speaking of which, the money has been pretty good these past couple of month, but there comes a point when I just want some free time to spend with my family and to get some rest. As I believe I’ve said before, no on ever lay on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office.

Minor disasters in the workplace can sometimes be made to turn out well, even an improvement over the pre-disaster state. The price can be high, though, for everyone involved. Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to throw yourself into the breach and do what needs to be done, close up the wall with the bodies of your English dead, and afterwards collect your pay. But no amount of money is worth not being there while your child grows up.

This Best of all Possible Worlds

The recession is over, and now it seems like everyone is waiting for the jobs to come back. There is talk of a ‘jobless recovery’ and the financial press counts every tick in the latest unemployment numbers while new college graduates and the unemployed sweat and scramble for any scrap of a job that comes along, and wait for things to get better.

The trouble is, there is every indication that there is no more better. This is as good as it’s going to get.

Oh, employment numbers may tick up a little bit. Even accounting for all the people who just give up on looking for a job, or are working at a much lower level than they were two years ago, the job market may improve a little compared to the worst. But I see no reason to think that it will ever be as good again as it once was. At least not for a generation or two.

When job markets were local, there was an ebb and flow in the demand for and availability of workers. When the economy boomed, companies hired more people, the pool of available workers shrank, and in the best practices of supply and demand, wages went up as employers competed for the best workers.

Now the job market is global. There are no more labor shortages, and there won’t be until the whole civilized world is at approximately the same level of prosperity and economic development. When times are bad, companies lay off expensive Americans and move operations to cheaper countries, and when times are good they keep doing that and pocket the higher profits. They are, in fact, required by law to do so. (A corporation has a fiduciary duty to make as much money as possible for the stockholders, and they can be–and some have been–sued if they let little things like morals or ethics get in the way of making a bigger profit.)

With no more labor shortages, all the power is in the hands of the employer. They know that most of their employees have no options, and are terrified of losing their jobs, and many of them use that power ruthlessly. I know people who have been fired for refusing to spend practically every waking hour at work (without compensation for the overtime), requiring them to never see their children. That is the work environment we have now; do what your employer says, whatever they say, or risk being fired and not being able to find another job for months, or years, or ever again. They can replace you tomorrow.

Even worse, if you try to stand up to your employer you risk losing your healthcare. In many cases, that gives employers the literal power of life and death over their employees.

This is the reality for most American workers now. The employer holds all the cards, you have little or no bargaining power. Welcome to part-time jobs, the low pay and oppressive work environment of the service industry, and wondering every day if you are going to have enough money to pay your bills, and if you are even going to have a job at all next week.

People have become angry when I attempt to point out that is may be about as good as the job market is going to get. I can’t really blame them; it’s easier to get mad at someone for pointing out a problem than to get mad at the people who caused the problem. Those people are powerful and scary and far away.

However much the government might be talking about jobs and job creation right now, they really don’t care. They haven’t for decades, at least. They can’t care; it’s against policy.

The official US policy for years now has been globalization. Reducing barriers to trade, encouraging multi-national corporations, and whatever is good for business. Globalization may be great for big corporations, but it is as bad as can be for the average worker.

I can’t really blame the government either, though. They’re just doing what their constituency wants. That, of course, being the big corporations. They are who put our elected representatives in office, and keep them there, so that is who those representatives listen to.

(Sure the voters count, but you can only vote for the people on the ballot, and no one who hasn’t been approved by the big interest groups is going to get on the ballot. That is the fundamental fact that you must keep in mind whenever you watch ‘our’ government in action; it’s not our government.)

So, the middle class shrinks, the divide between the rich and poor gets bigger, and people spend more and more of their free time playing games like Farmville, because it gives the illusion that they have control over some part of their lives. Is there anything we can do, besides wait for the global economy to reach equilibrium, leaving no low-wage regions for the corporations to flee to?

Take back the government. That’s more easily said than done, but the government will not act in the best interests of the average person as long as it represents interest groups rather than people.

This was your county once. Take it back.

Money and Motivation

This is a very interesting illustrated discussion of how people aren’t motivated by what most employers (and even many employees) think that they’re motivated by.

From my own experience, I see a great deal of truth in this. I could make more money in my business if I wanted to, but at this point in my life I begrudge every day not spent with my son. I work enough to meet our financial needs, and that usually leaves some time for more important things, like playing catch with my son. Not as much time as we’d like, and he always gets upset when I leave for work and tries to stop me, but as I tell him, “Daddy has to go work to support you and mommy in your luxurious mommy and little boy lifestyle.” It doesn’t really help.

And on a good week, though, we’ll have a couple of days to go to on Daddy and Nathaniel Adventures, a couple of days that most dads don’t get to spend with their kids because they’re working, chasing one more handful of dollars.

I can always make more money, but a life only holds so much time.

The Little Engines That Wouldn’t

Once upon a time, some people were asked to assemble toy trains.

This was an experiment to see how much work people would do before giving up. The participants were paid for each toy they assembled, but each successive toy paid less than the one before. (That is, if they were paid $x for the first toy, the second paid $x-1, the third, $x-2, etc.)

To make it more interesting, the participants were broken into two groups. In one group, the assembled trains were left in the test area, where the assembler could see the product of their work. In the other group, the toys were disassembled by the test monitor and put back in the box to be reassembled.

The first group built more trains before giving up; about ten to the other group’s seven. This is usually interpreted to mean that people will work harder and longer if they can see what they have made; if their work has a visible, tangible, result. I think that that is only part of the answer. I with the test had had a third group; their trains would be removed from the testing area after completion. I am pretty sure that they would have built eight or nine trains before giving up.

As motivational and satisfying as it is to see a tangible product that you have built, it is even more demotivational and depressing to see your work undone as fast as you can do it. I think the second group suffered not only from not having a visible result from their work, but from having a visible non-result.

No one likes for their work to go completely to waste, much less to have their nose rubbed in it.

Both of those things, unfortunately, are common in the workplace.

See The Future Of Employment

This is the future for most workers. It sucks.

Perhaps before we worry too much about working conditions in China or other ‘Third World’ countries, we should look at conditions in the Third World country right here in the United States.