27 October 2015

Work with Meaning

Years ago I worked for the IT department of an Austrian bank. I contributed to an application built to approve loans automatically, including some fraud detection. Surely the application made perfect sense for the bank, as it had already taken 50 person years to develop it. But my work did not feel meaningful. I believed it was due to the virtual nature of the product. (Most banking products are virtual, nothing real is produced. Further virtual products allow for the most contrived processes which is why I believe finance to be a horrible industry to work for. But that is not the point here.)

Like it Matters?So my work had no meaning, it did make sense. It was neither important nor did it matter. It did not feel real. Of course it did make sense, but not to me. It was just a feeling, soon forgotten over the excitement of a new project. What does it mean to be meaningful, to be important, to matter? Using the definitions from dictionaries the meaning is the end, purpose, or significance of something. Being important says it is of consequence or significance. Consequence again is defined as importance or significance - I am going in circles here. I use the words meaning, importance and it matters in the same way. I am still looking for the right words to use as English is not my native language.

We can argue for hours and still not agree on a definition of meaningful work. You are paid for your work, so it matters. People spend money on the product or service you provide, so it must be important to them. Maybe you tackle real problems and create new and innovative solutions, which surely have meaning. To describe what I mean, I refer to Alf Rehn's presentation about How To Save Innovation From Itself, given during Craft Conference this year. It is the most important presentation I have seen in 2015. I will not summarise it, just watch it now. (I definitely recommend watching it. Besides talking about important topics, Alf's sarcasm is hilarious. I laughed and cried at the same time.) Kasia Mrowca shared her summary of his presentation and Linda Saukko-Rauta published her sketch notes from the same talk given in 2013.

I am still not sure of my definition of "meaning / importance / it matters", but it includes social factors and much responsibility, maybe a personal social responsibility similar to Corporate social responsibility. I will not talk about your personal responsibilities, which are your own decision, but I believe that we as software delivery professionals have a professional responsibility because our software is everywhere and heavily impacts society.

A similar opinion was expressed by Martin Fowler during his lightning talk Not Just Code Monkeys at Agile 2014 and OOP. Martin emphasised three points for us developers: Sustainable Business, Professional Software Excellence and Social Justice. While we (developers) are concerned with software excellence a lot, I have hardly seen people touching the other two areas. Even articles discussing ethics, e.g. Mike Cavaliere's Ethics for Freelance Programmers mainly talk about customer relationship and avoid the real issue of social responsibility.

Witch's HatMartin finished his talk with the concrete call to care actively for diversity and privacy. The recent story about VW showed another aspect: fraud. Robert Martin said that the engineers that implemented the cheating code failed in their professional duty. Even if the engineers did not know, which is unlikely, they need to take some responsibility for their actions.

So why did they do it? Maybe they were afraid to lose their job. While getting fired is not appealing, I believe it is not a real problem. The demand for our skills is huge and there are always more offers than we can take. But I agree that changing jobs may be inconvenient. Then there is thought of replaceability which might be not as important as we think. I guess that they did not care. There was a problem and the engineers found a solution. The technical challenge of cheating the test was interesting and possible. So it was done. I know developers who are more interested in the solving of problems, the technical challenge and the tools than in the implications of their work. I do not blame them. I do not know if I had acted differently.

I find the whole topic difficult. Structuring my thoughts (by writing this post) helped but I still have many questions. Obviously there are many things we need to care for, e.g. the environment, extreme poverty, waste of resources, Human Rights, cruelty to animals and much more. What should we actually care for? What can we do about it and which impact could we have as software professionals? I plan to explore these questions in a series of future articles. Let's see what comes up during these discussions.


Unknown said...

Thanks for this text! It's certainly food for thought ...

I'd like to add that *meaningful* work is (as far as I can see) the best burn-out prevention. People don't burn out from working too much. They burn out from feeling caught in the treadmill, from not seeing any impact their work has.

And thanks for the link to Alf Rehn's talk! I'm watching that right now, and it's really great.

Peter Kofler said...

Thank you Klemens for your thought. I did not consider this relationship, but highly agree. To make the point even stronger, I left mentioned job with depression and burn-out back then. An experience I would rather not repeat.

McAviti said...


fair judgement - the moral impact of our work is one thing that is too often overshadowed by the cool tech and the fast pace of our work. If working in finance industry is morally hazardous in general, everybody has to judge for herself, of course. You drew your personal conclusion and that's good.
I just read a book about the beginning of our industry and how it was driven by creating first the fission and then the fusion bombs. Puts things a little bit into relation. But maybe the next generation will have similar judgements for finance, who knows...

What's definitely true is that the "distance" to meaning is a long one in this case. IT in a bank is (in its best) a service to a service, maybe to another service, so direct impact on making people's lives better ones is scarce. But that's maybe one of the drivers of meaning - the distance to improvement. Still it has to be clarified what improvement really is, and there won't be agreement on all aspects of it. But for me it is clear, that a farmer has a much easier line of argument here than we IT crowd have. At least, an organic-stuff farmer. ;)

A third aspect is the question of long-term effects of our work. When building a thermonuclear device for spontaneous combustion its maybe not hard to guess. When working, e.g. on a quantum computer this guess-work is much harder. To be honest, I am afraid of what IT is going to acchieve next, the next real-big-thing, could create something that is not controllable by humans anymore. With data this has already happened. I am just transforming into a dinosaur. :)

Peter Kofler said...

thank you for your comments. I try hard to avoid judgement as meaning is a personal thing, and there is no point in criticizing people for what they do without knowing why they do it. As such everything I write is personal and I hope I did not offend you or anyone working in finance.

You mention a concept of distance - I like that. I did not consider it. Also you raise a lot of new questions, e.g. what is improvement really, what about long-term effects and so on. I might add these questions to my questionnaire I use for the upcoming interviews.

This topic is complicated, probably highly philosophical, and I do not expect to get good answers by analysis alone but we need to start the dialogue with each other to discuss and define what our responsibilities might be.

McAviti said...

For sure this is philosophy, and ethics. :-)
It also touches the question of pursuit of happyness as well, which also has a lot to do with distance I think, to other people in this case.

Sounds like a pretty interesting project, asking scientists and engineers about these topics; people that tend to shut out those things, or at least the clichee says so. Hope to hear from it.

Peter Kofler said...

The first interview is up. I discussed with Sebastian Göttschkes about work with meaning, social responsibility and personal values: http://blog.code-cop.org/2015/11/interview-sebastian-gottschkes.html

McAviti said...

Not very controversial yet. But we've got really way too much meat in our cantina... :-)
Looking forward the next interview.

Peter Kofler said...

yes Sebastian was really practical and down to earth. After reading several upcoming interviews, I do not see any controversial material coming up at all. And by my experience, I do not expect much controversy at all. Everybody I ever talked to agreed that the usual reports from animal farms are horrible or that kids should not work in Asia. Still it happens, so I guess people do not know the implications of their choices (e.g. buy cheap) or do not believe in their power to change anything. And this is the area where I hope for guidance from the people who have thought about the topics much longer than me. We will see...

McAviti said...

But isn't it quite disappointing that there is no controversy, given that the climate changes for the worse and will do so in the future, rain forests are still brought down, and I don't see many politicians working smoothly together for stopping wars and unrest?

When there's no controversy and just consent (in our industry), does that mean we are all angels and can pat our own shoulders? Are there no people any more thinking like one of the great founders of our industry, John von Neumann, who said "you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in"?

And it hasn't to be about saving the world all the time. The interview touched the question of participating in projects that will cost many other people there jobs. Is it just progress? Or something else? I think one challenge right now for humanity, at least here, is how to deal with stagnation. We have already harvested the crops of the digital revolution, our (real) economy's growth has come for a halt, and still our industry (I mean IT) is heavily dependent on some form of growth... so are we holding a key role in making the rich richer and the poor poorer?

Well, sorry for the drivel, can't say anything against that the world would be a better one if everybody just starts to improve what's in reach, starting with herself. But no news there. :)

Peter Kofler said...

The next post is up: http://blog.code-cop.org/2015/11/interview-carlos-ble.html

While Carlos is definitely more hard-lined, still no controversy here. Maybe there is none because I reached out to people who I believe to do better than me and whom I want to learn from. I see now that this is causing bias and there is no real dialogue because everybody agrees. So I need to find some "opponents" as well. An interesting idea indeed...

Also McAviti keeps reminding me of deep topics I did not touch till now. Thank you for that, too. I will have to revisit my questions or plan a second iteration. Looks like we (my guests and I) are just setting the stage.

Peter Kofler said...

And the next with Samir Talwar.