Friday, June 13, 2014

How Not to Suck at Work

I've been thinking about this post for a while, and since we have hired three new people who start next week, I wanted to do it now so no one thinks I am writing about them.

There are a few things that drive me crazy about employees and co-workers, and having heard enough other people complain over the years, I know I am not alone in these. As a public service, here are some tips on how not to suck at work.

1. Understand that you were hired to do your entire job. Yes, even the parts that don't interest you personally. Even if there are parts of your job that require you to do things you don't want to do, like getting up early, commuting in rush hour traffic, wearing a suit. You were hired for a whole job. Even if you are a part-time employee, they still expect you to do your whole job, and yet the world is FULL of people who want to pick and choose the parts of the job they will do.

Recently, I knew someone looking for an assistant. Countless people said things like,

"I want the job, but I can't do the part that involves traveling."

"I could do the traveling but I could not do the part that involves driving around town to pick up and drop off things."

"I could only work until 3 p.m. "

Then you don't want the job, because all of those things are part of it. There are people who will take a position and then just not do the parts that don't appeal to them personally or do a really shitty job on those parts, with the excuse "I needed the money."

Those people are assholes.

Let me explain how not to be them.  If you are not the sole employee, it is likely that there are people who like the exact part of the job that you hate. If your boss approves, make a deal with them. For example, I hate getting up early. Most places where I have worked, there is at least one person who gets up at 5:30 a.m. and would love to teach the 8 a.m. class, take the shift that begins at 7 a.m. Instead of dragging in at 9:30 for my 7 a.m. shift (suck), I trade hours so that they always get to leave at 3 p.m, I don't have to come in until 10 a.m. when I am somewhat functional, and everyone is happy.

2. Don't miss work, come in late, miss an appointment or fail to get an assignment done using the excuse, "I was too busy." This just drives me nuts. YOU were too busy?  So I'm supposed to complete the report, write the program, pick up the mail or whatever it is that you were too busy to do? Because I'm just sitting here doing nothing? Presumably, your coworkers are also busy people. Now they are busy people who think you are an asshole.

3. Don't use not knowing how to do something as an excuse not to do your job. Let me explain how all of the other people in the world who did not exit the birth canal with a knowledge of Google apps and software development kits figured it out:

  • They read these paper things with black squiggles. We call them "books".
  • I have heard that you can find lots of information on the Internet. If what you seek is not on wikipedia, don't despair. There are other websites.
  • AFTER having tried to figure it out for themselves, they talked to other people.
If your employer has their act together, they should have some type of training for you and even, hopefully, a mentor system set up. If someone says to you, "Feel free to ask me if you have any questions" then you should feel free to ask them if you have any questions.

Don't abuse the privilege, however, or you may find your email answered with something like this.

How do you know when to ask for help and when to do it yourself? Here is a good flowchart for making that decision:

  • Figure out how long it will take YOU to find the answer.
  • Figure out how long it will take the person you ask to find the answer.

If the two numbers are equal, do it yourself, for God's sake. Otherwise, you are just asking the person to do your job.


  • Divide your salary into your estimation of the other person's salary.
  •  If it would take you twice as along to do it, but he or she makes twice as much money as you, figure it out yourself. 

The net gain to the organization in dollars will be zero and you will take the other person away from their work. They are probably doing this calculation in their head and figuring it costs the company the same for them to figure it out as you but now they are doing it instead of their own work and they think you suck.

If it will take me half an hour to modify the code to show a message when a student gives the incorrect answer, then I don't want you spending 40 hours figuring it out. Even if I am somewhat irritated to have my own work interrupted, I can calculate the benefit to the organization of me taking the time to answer the question.

Hopefully, these three tips will bring you a little bit in the not sucking direction.

If you yourself do not suck at work and have additional advice to proffer, please do include it in the comments.

================ SHAMELESS PLUG ======

This is what I do as a job, games to teach math.
You can buy one. It will make you smarter. If you are already maximally smart, give it to a dumb person you know.


Unknown said...

Interesting post! I am an IT professional. I java developer to be specific. On large projects, I am the project tech lead, an individual contributor AND the project manager. How do a fit all of these hats into my work week. I don't know, but it happens somehow.

A poor performer not only SUCKs, but sadly they suck up a lot of time from the average and top performers. Sometimes, it isn't cost effective to have top performers help the poor performers unless you see potential -- then you make the investment. You lose a lot of trust in these types and try to build them to where they can be productive members of your team. I also interview every person that we hire on my team. I give programming tests, ask a ton of questions, just to make sure we don't hire a poor performer. Sometimes they break through the cracks in the walls. When do you give up on them? When does it get to the point where the top performers had their fill of picking up the slack?

Sylver said...

A few comments on #3

Assume that any question, no matter how trivial, will always cost at least 30 minutes of your colleague's time.

When you *have to* ask someone else, put it in writing and do something else while waiting for the answer. Unless it is urgent to-the-minute, absolutely-must-be-solved-now, don't barge in with your problem:

3 reasons:

1. The cost of an interruption is very high for programmers because a programmer has to keep a mental "stack" of the variables, methods and algorithms.

It may take only 2 minutes of your colleague's time to answer your question/solve your problem BUT it could easily take him half an hour to get back up to speed. Worse, some people like myself do most of their work "in the zone". >80% of my work happens in 20% of my time. Distract me at the wrong moment and it could cost me the day.

Sending your question by email guarantees that your colleague will see it at a time when he (or she) is not actively programming (he is looking at his emails, after all) so your 2 minutes problem only costs 5 minutes and not hours of production.

2. Describing a problem in an email takes a bit of effort, which dissuades people from asking the really easy questions: it's faster to look on Google the parameters for a function call than writing
-"hey, what's the keyword for fast for a jquery animation?" (and of course, it is "fast")

3. The very action of formulating the problem often leads to a solution. I lost count of the number of problems I have solved while writing the question on StackOverflow, even though I had already spent hours trying to work it out on Google.

And when writing about a problem, don't forget to explain what you have already tried. It's a good way to learn what you were doing wrong, things like "Hey, the operator '==' checks equality after type conversion, you have to use '===' if you need the object to be of the same type".

Xef said...

Maybe you can do a total interactive game, like a treasure hunt whit their cellphones and the games app. You answer the question that the app gives you whit math, it gives you the clue of where the next question to solve. You can use QR codes to activate the questions on your phone app

Xef said...

I can make a video of a simulation of the game and its application on teaching math, and doing it in a fun and useful way.

Dr. AnnMaria said...

Hey, Chris -

I was not thinking of poor performers as much as people who are new. For me, I'm willing to work with someone who is trying to learn, open about what they don't know and willing to put in more effort in developing themselves than they expect me to put in. That is, read the manual, use Google and then ask me. All of that depends on if I have time. Ideally, an organization should allow time to develop new employees. Willingness for your top performers to do that is going to depend on how much else they have to do.

Sylver -
You are totally right about how formulating the question often leads to the answer. It happens to me all of the time also

Fritz said...

On the other side, a good leader / boss / employer should be able to discover where are the strengths of the employee and to organize the work load so, that this strengths can be used optimally.

Beside of this the hints about when to ask are 100% true :-)

The "busy" argument is a little bit special, sometimes some one is really busy because working at task with higher priority and sometimes these task and priorities came from exactly the people which will complain later, why the tasks with lower priority could not be finished...