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Programmers are debating the ethics of secretly automating their jobs and working a couple of hours a week

Over the past week, programmers have been having a huge discussion on the ethics of secretly automating their jobs, after one of them posted a question about it on Stack Overflow, a self-help site for programmers.

This anonymous programmer said he was starting to feel guilty about how he quietly turned his whole job into less than two hours of work a week by writing a bunch of scripts.

All the work he was hired to do is getting done, but he works from home and hasn’t told his boss about the scripts. He basically spends his day taking care of his son, and fears if he reveals the scripts, he’ll be let go, not for unethical behaviour, but because the company will use the scripts and won’t need him.

The guy wrote:

“Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job? …

As you can guess, it is pretty much the most boring job ever. However, it’s a full time job with decent pay, and I work remotely so I can stay home with my son.

So I’ve been doing it for about 18 months and in that time, I’ve basically figured out all the traps to the point where I’ve actually written a program which for the past 6 months has been just doing the whole thing for me. So what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes to clean the spreadsheet and run it through the program.

Now the problem is, do I tell them? If I tell them, they will probably just take the program and get rid of me.”

One thing: the programmer also confessed that he’s been covering his tracks, deliberately introducing a few random bugs into his work “to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.”

The question also got posted to Hacker News, another site where programmers discuss stuff, and generated a big discussion.

Interestingly, of the dozens of programmers who commented, people were split on whether or not his behaviour was unethical.

Secrets and fake-outs

The people on Stack Overflow generally leaned toward calling this situation unethical. One user, Magisch even suggested the guy was “defrauding your employer.”

Stack Overflow user Joe Strazzere summarized this viewpoint best:

  • “You spend 1-2 hours per week working from home (to be with your son), but get paid for 40
  • You wrote the program 6 months ago but haven’t told your employer yet
  • Every week or so you lie about what you completed
  • You deliberately inserted bugs into your program to aid in your deception
  • You are continuing to cause the analysts who create the spreadsheets to spend a fair bit of time verifying your work
  • You admit that “it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the right thing”

Although the answer seems obvious to me, perhaps your personal ethics lead you to conclude that this is ok. I suspect you know the truth though …”

Another programmer on Stack Overflow admitted that he once also automated a similar job but said the reason it wasn’t unethical was that his employer knew:

“In my case I could have had a mindless data entry job for half a year, guaranteed. Instead I automated the process and publicly disclosed this to my employer. I’m now assigned to a department that suits my talents and abilities,”

That automation work ultimately saved him from later layoffs in his department, he said.

Most people on the “unethical” camp believed the guy had an obligation to tell the employer about the scripts even if he couldn’t bring himself to confess how long he’d been using them and how little he’d been working.

The wrong incentives

But the folks on Hacker News generally broke the other way.

Many of them argued that as long as the company got what it was paying for, it shouldn’t matter how much time it took the guy, although even this camp generally agreed that faking the bugs was clearly wrong.

One wrote “I don’t think there’s an ethical consideration here; it’s a transactional relationship, value delivered for wages paid. If the company could get the job done cheaper in a different manner, it would do it and dismiss the employee. Is that defensible? The employee is creating value for the company. They’re holding up their end of the bargain. Companies exploit employees all the time.”

Another wrote about being in a similar situation when building web pages and said he suffered repercussions:

“They wanted to pay me by the hour, but I negotiated paying by the page instead. Of course, I automated the job. And surprisingly, at least to naïve me, they were annoyed that I automated it. Even though they got the same result for the same money, and we had explicitly agreed to do it by output, not by time.”

One pointed out that there are whole areas of IT where automation is the rule, not the exception, such as system administration, the job of ensuring IT systems don’t go down. “I’ve known plenty of sysadmins that have significantly automated most of their work and mainly just monitor and maintain, good for them. Nobody ever criticised them for this, in fact it’s good practice.”

Another agreed, “As a sysadmin, 90% of my job is automated. I am available 24/7 if anything goes wrong. But then OTH, I can run errands, watch movies, play video games at work. This is true for almost every sysadmin I know.”

One person said he’s made a whole career out of automating his jobs by never hiding it:

“Five years ago, I had an entry level overnight noc position at a big company, and within 6 months I had scripted almost everything and was watching Netflix most of the night and didn’t make any particular effort to hide that I had nothing to do. I got rewarded for it with a promotion, and then I did the same thing and got another promotion, and another. I’m making more than twice was I was making before and now my job is telling other people how to automate their jobs away.”

One programmer best summarized the Hacker News’s point of view:

“The only thing he is doing wrong is under-utilising his own talents and potential productivity, for which the optimal solution is for him to find a better job.”

It’s not unheard of for tech folks to automate their jobs.

We’ve previously reported on a programmer who, after he left his company, was found to have automated things to such a degree, he even had the coffee machine automatically making him a latte.

What’s interesting is that programming has a reputation for being a job that requires long and often brutal hours. And it’s true that many tech folks work that way.

But it is also apparent that there’s a whole subculture of folks doing the reverse, people who have engineered their jobs to carry on without them.

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