Your Job As A Programmer Is Not To Enrich Your Employer

Spread of $100 bills.

Reading today about the furniture CEO who directed their employees to work on becoming better employees and finding more revenue instead of worrying about their bonuses made me remember situations where executives failed to communicate with us employees.

My job was always to make me or my team as good as possible to accomplish whatever project we were asked to do in a reasonable time, cost, and quality. It was never to make my superiors more money or even the company. Unless you own the company or have a vested interest like stock or options that matter in a startup, you can only deliver the software, not chase revenue, beat competitors, generate buzz, or anything you don't control. Asking all employees to find more revenue but ignore their own needs is akin to enslaving people, not having employees.

Other than my two startups (1985-1994), I have always been an engineer, architect, and sometimes team leader or even the only person on the team, but never an executive or someone tasked with high-level leadership and not building and delivering software. At my startups, I did everything from worrying about revenue, writing code, leading the team, and even giving interviews—the most complex work I ever did. Afterward, I preferred to build things. So I spent enough time being the person responsible for keeping us employed and having to make difficult decisions to know what it feels like.

During the dot-com era, a new CFO told everyone that we would all be millionaires in the next year because they had pushed through an IPO in their last position. We were thus expected to work even harder to accomplish this goal. Yet less than a year later, we were out of business. It happened on a Thursday at 4:30 PM, no less. While we did our jobs, the executive team collected nothing from our largest consulting customer, failed to pay the rent for seven months, tried to save the company by selling hardware that was never paid for, and never told anyone what was going on. So far from becoming millionaires, we had no jobs or benefits.

In my next job, working for an international consulting company, a new CIO came to the U.S. division where I worked and told us there would be no layoffs, and everything looked good. But, unfortunately, the layoffs started two weeks later and closed the whole U.S. division.

Working at an online travel agency a decade ago, the mobile team I worked with did everything right; we made most of the company's profit with 2% of the employees, supporting multiple apps, mobile web, and services. But, unfortunately, the company spent vast amounts trying and failing to integrate a European brand and its U.S. brand, was unable to update the flagship website, fell further and further behind our competitors, and turned a leader in the market into an also-ran. Executive teams came and went, but nothing we could do could make up for all the poor decisions. Eventually, our parent company sold our brand to our biggest competitor, and everyone was laid off.

Another job had a CIO who relentlessly bought new technologies we had no use for and then wrote glowing reports about how much we were getting out of them for the vendor, despite us not using them. Later he was fired for taking kickbacks. In the time I worked there, he almost always sided with what vendors told him and ignored anything internally generated. Working there was frustrating because your ultimate leader had no interest in his employees.

Even at my last job before my giving in and retiring, the CIO of our division was a big fan—of himself. I remember the first all-hands meeting he put together, featuring giant screens with recordings of our internal customers praising his work (not really us). It was so clueless we all came away from the meeting with little respect for him. In all the years he was there (he quit to take another position and took a bunch of execs with him), all I can remember the CIO doing was creating multiple multi-point plans full of empty platitudes. There was nothing inspirational or even valuable for them.

So what do these stories have to do with the premise of this article? You can only do so much for your employer beyond which you are not all that important to them. I've always tried to be the best programmer or leader I could be, but that is just me—after all these experiences, I knew that, ultimately, I was just getting paid to do a job, and I had no involvement in the decisions above me.

Being laid off is not all that unusual in this industry and is part of the landscape of working in it. However, most of the time, it's not something you did but a result of decisions you cannot affect. I had 15 jobs (not counting my two startups), was laid off multiple times, and had one company go out of business, plus several more that should have. Some jobs I left voluntarily because I could not accomplish anything due to poor leadership or an unpleasant workplace or found something I thought was a better opportunity to make a difference. Good leadership matters in creating an excellent workplace, but it's not always easy to identify before you start; often, it takes a long time to realize how bad it is.

If your CEO starts demanding you make more revenue when your job has no impact on it, or revenue is determined by someone else, it makes the job much less valuable. In my final position, the CEO (no longer there) was known as "Mr. 10% more revenue a quarter" because he demanded that instead of all else. If your leader insists that your job is to make the CEO look good, you may need a new job.

You work to get paid, hopefully doing it as well as you can and trying to make a difference—but it's not your job to help your CEO get a bigger bonus. If you want to do that, start your own company!