Stories about Software


The Gravitational Force of Wage Labor

Editorial Note:  Thanks, to all for the heavy response rate to my last post!  I’m glad there’s interest in Expert Beginner T-Shirts and I’m really excited by all of the people interested in exploring new ways to do free agency.  In fact, I was sort of blown away by the number of responses, which far exceeded my expectations.  I’ll be figuring out next steps before too long, so stay tuned!

Today I’m going to do something that’s a first, but probably not a last, since it makes sense.  I’m going to regard a comment as a reader question (since the comment came in the form of a question).  This one also has a much shorter cycle time than average because the substance of it was something I was literally just having a conversation about in the last couple of days.  I have opinions on the matter, and fresh ones at that.  Here is the comment/question.

Ever dealt with this situation? You’re brought on to deliver with clear expectations on both sides. You deliver. They like you. They want you to stick around. Then your job slowly morphs into “do whatever needs to be done as an all purpose IT generalist.” You came on to port an old app to a newer platform, and next thing you know they are asking you to write custom sql data transforms to onboard new customers. To top it off, you want to be a “team player”, so you agree to take on one of these tasks. How would you respectfully and professionally address this situation? It’s basically the “this is not what I signed up for” argument.

First of all, have I ever dealt with this situation?  Oh, my, yes, and from a lot of different angles.  And, I’m not just being grandiose — there are a lot of different angles of approach once you think about the nuanced relationships between standard companies, software companies, software consultancies, and free agents.

But despite the myriad situations in which this arises, there is really only a singular cause.  And it’s because the closest thing to a law of nature in the corporate world is what I’ll call the “Gravitational Force of Wage Labor.”  But let me resurrect my consulting taxonomy before I get to that.

Consultants and the Enterprise

There are, in my estimation, three main ways for non-salaried people from outside of an organization to act, temporarily as part of that organization.  (Someone please chime in if you think of another one that is fundamentally different — I have not given this exhaustive thought to make sure nothing is omitted.)  I say “act as part of the organization” to discount superficial interactions and put us squarely into the realm of consulting.  These are as follows.

  • Staff augmentation
  • Project specialist
  • Retainer consulting

(As a quick aside, please note that I would consider wholesale project/product delivery to be a vendor relationship — if you’re a ‘consultant’ that sits at home every day for six months, building a piece of software that you then hand off to the client, you are acting as a vendor rather than as a part of that organization.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, these line up pretty well with my taxonomy from the earlier post, when expectations align and all is right with the world.

  • Software pros, when onsite, offer staff augmentation.
  • Specialists, when onsite, serve as project specialists for the duration of some project.
  • True consultants, when onsite, do so in a retainer consulting capacity.

This should line up with common experience.  Software pros sign on through agencies to work at the company with its staff developers or else they get para-dropped in by ‘consulting’ firms in the same capacity.  The only way you know whether they’re staff or not is the color of their badge.  Specialists come in to help with the CRM installation and then toddle on off to the next CRM installation elsewhere when this one finishes.  And, consultants come in to offer advice during the course of a particular situation or phase of a project.


At least, that’s the theory.

The Gravitational Force of Wage Labor

But have you ever noticed something odd?  Have you ever noticed that you come in as a consultant or specialist, and are regarded as a high priced, hot shot commodity?  And then, you just kind of run out of steam somehow, without realizing it, six months in?  When you started, the CTO was interested in your strategic expertise, but now some project manager is chiding you for not reporting your status with a little more flair during a daily standup?  (I’m asking the royal you, since the question submitter presumably has, per the premise of the question.)

What gives?

Well, if the Gravitational Force of Wage Labor is a natural law of the corporation, the strings that comprise it at the Planck length are “familiarity breeds contempt.”  Coming in, you were the $200/hour strategy consultant or the $150/hour CRM guru.  “What?!  I could get three developer to do three times the work — that’s expensive and crazy!  Oh, okay, this person better be worth it.”  And, you’re in.  And the sticker shock of your rate, the exoticness of your knowledge, and all of the other stuff that closed the sale of your labor made you a hot commodity and everyone wanted you on their calendar.

Fast forward six months, and there is no more sticker shock.  Decision makers that approve and keep budgets are interested in variance — not looking at every line item to see if it strikes them as high.   Your ‘exorbitant’ rate is recast almost as a sunk cost and people get used to you.  They converse with you, grok your ideas and expertise, and generally figure out that you’re human.  You start to become one of the gang, and your rate starts to look an awful lot like a wage.

And on the labor side of things, the initial purpose of the visit came and went.  There was a CRM install and that ended, or there was a competitor codebase acquisition that you navigated them through, and then you stayed for the next thing, whatever that might be.  In doing so, you go from “charming dinner guest” to “that person that wouldn’t go home after the party ended.”  Or, perhaps this scene from the original Austin Powers movie captures it a little better.

The Gravitational Force of Wage Labor is the tendency that organizations have to suck everyone into wage labor mode.  The force of the suck varies directly with the square of the duration of time on site.  Or, something like that, anyway.

Why is It Like This?

There’s more at play than the various parties around you simply getting used to you, however.  That’s the most visible representation of the subtler consideration that actually drives the familiarity breeding contempt.  And, stated bluntly, that consideration is that corporations treat anyone without a specific exit strategy as a wage employee.  And the longer you hang around, the less clear to anyone it is that you have an exit strategy.

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to pilfer a little from Developer Hegemony to explain what I mean with an example.

Let’s take a cartoonish diversion into a thought exercise to gain a bit more understanding. Imagine that it’s back in ancient times and I earn my living digging moats and ditches as a sanitary measure. As I get older and sorer, I decide to start hiring some help, and some local youths agree. Each day, they show up and dig, and I pay them in an ancient currency called shells. Except, every now and then, torrential rains turn everything to mud and prevent the work from being done. And when this happens, a couple of the youths show up anyway, protesting that they need the money.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic, but I’m also not a philanthropist. They should be planning for occasional rain days, but, apparently, they aren’t. I’m not going to pay them for doing nothing, so, instead, I offer to pay them every day, rain or shine, 15 shells per day. I had been paying them per cubic foot of digging, which tended to equal out to 20 shells per day, but they don’t seem to mind the pay cut. It works out better for them in the end, anyway, because the only thing that keeps them from blowing all of their money gambling on dinosaur races is the fact that I portion it out this way.

But then something starts to happen. I pay them 15 shells per day for their labor, but then, on days, they don’t do anything, I pay them 15 shells. I start to feel like a sucker. So, I announce that I’m no longer paying people to dig ditches, but rather, I’m paying them to work for me in general. When it’s sunny, I pay them 15 shells for a day of ditch digging. When it’s raining, they stay inside and earn their 15 shells cleaning and maintaining the tools.

I’ve switched from paying them for the market value of specific labor to paying them what amounts to a retainer for “do whatever I tell you.” I now sort of own them. At least, I own them as long as they need the money.

This (obviously simplified) is how the ownership concept develops when it comes to labor. As a worker, you cease to offer your labor as a commodity and, instead, offer yourself as a commodity in exchange for a dependable wage. “For 15 shells per day, I will do whatever you need done.”

This arrangement creates a certain opacity to the value of anything that the laborer does. The arrangement is no longer one in which an activity with clear value is completed for clear compensation. Digging ditches may be worth 0.5 shells per cubic foot, but being a laborer of mine is worth 15 shells per day, whether those days are spent digging ditches, sharpening shovels, fixing handles, or fetching me groceries. For 15 shells per day, you do any and all of those things, so who really knows what any of them are actually worth? And, with a stable of ditch-diggers-cum-employees, it becomes very difficult for me to determine the value of any one of them to my enterprise.

The arrangement shift itself may seem subtle, but the impact is dramatic. In the cartoonish, ancient world, I’ve gone from owning the ditch-digging contracts to owning you. In the real world, I’ve become an owner and your employer. Your labor doesn’t have a value — you do. That value is expressed in tens of thousands of dollars per year, and it’s measured mainly by whether or not you show up and whether or not I like you.

Programmer 24601

Back in the world of consulting taxonomy, when you show up as a specialist or consultant, you show up to dig ditches on sunny days.  When you hang around on the rainy days with your hand out, you cease to be a specialist or a consultant.  Instead, you are, for all intents and purposes, a wage laborer, but since the company isn’t signing your checks, you are now a staff augmentation.

Mitigation Via Boundaries

Once you’ve hung around long enough to lose your luster as an expert, it’s sort of hard to come back without drastic action.  I’ve seen this plenty of times — erstwhile consultants/specialists find themselves in this position and are mystified by their standing and wondering how to recapture the magic from that first point of contact when there was a specific charter.  And, while I’ve seen the problem plenty of times, I’ve yet to see anyone succeed in recapturing that CIO’s attention from this position.

You’ve really only got one play here, and that’s the negative sell.

The negative sell gets, well, a negative reputation, but I think that’s unfair.  It can be done diplomatically and, more importantly, effectively.  For those not familiar, the concept of a negative sell is one where you actually suggest to a prospective buyer that he many not want your services.  In the case of our former CRM guru now banging out SQL scripts to scrub the staging database, this might be as simple as pulling the engagement sponsor aside and saying, “you’re paying an awful lot for my services, and I’m not sure what I’m doing here is worth your money.”  It’s a little confrontational, sure, but it’s also honest, and it says “this is below my pay-grade” while also highlighting that it’s the client’s money being wasted (as opposed to your time).

The negative sell can take stronger forms as well, but those are usually better earlier than later.  “I don’t do that sort of work, but I can reach out to my network to see if I can find you someone better suited,” is something that I say quite frequently to clients and prospective clients.  The key here is to excuse yourself while continuing to help them solve their problem, if more obliquely.  And this can also work when you’re in the situation already: “I think our expectations here are misaligned, but I know you’re depending on me, so I’ve taken the liberty of finding you person X who is a little more suited to this work.”

But these are both mitigation plays when you’ve already slid into staff augmentation mode.  There’s a more fundamental consideration here, if you want to remain in the retainer consultant or specialist role.  That is, you have to come into each engagement with success/exit criteria.  As I mentioned before, absent this, companies will treat you as a wage laborer and tell you, “if there’s time to lean, there’s time to clean.”  When you’re a staff augmentation you’re really a wage laborer, and when you’re a wage laborer, you’re there to do whatever suits the fancy of some manager that’s in charge of you.

The life of a retainer consultant or a specialist is thus a high risk one.  Each retainer engagement for the consultant involves deciding up front what the scope of advising will be and when it should stop.  Each specialist engagement involves defining the deliverables that end your employment.  Each thing you agree to starts a ticking clock on needing to find the next thing.

It makes for a busy life and one that’s as filled with negotiation, marketing and other fluff as it is with delivering and executing.  But it’s also the only way I’ve found not to blink and find that you’ve gone from advisor to fungible laborer.