Tautology and Business Value

Presented by Heidi Waterhouse at You Got This 2020: From Home

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Transcript

These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

It's great to be here. I'm so excited to talk to you all today. I spoke at adulting.dev, and it was really meaningful for me to give a talk to people who are at a stage of their career where they want to learn about these core skills. The thing I have to tell you is about your business value, and it's going to be super useful.

So, we are going to start with a singalong. I can't tell you're singing, so this works out great. "The wonderful things about Tiggers is Tiggers are a wonderful things; their tops are made out of rubber and their bottoms are made out of springs; they're bouncy, bouncy, bouncy, fun, fun, fun, but the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is I'm the only one"!

A lot of us grew up on this cartoon or encountered it along the way. I think it's a useful way to think about how we feel about what we're doing for our business. According to the song the wonderful thing about Tiggers is that Tiggers are wonderful things. It's a tautology. Nothing actually proves this wonderfulness about the statement. I'm telling you this because it's possible to be a brilliant programmer, or a person with a great deal of skill, and still not be valuable to a company.

Unlike Tiggers, we don't get to sing about how awesome we are. It's a down side, but we are going to deal with it. A tautology is a statement that is true by necessity or by virtue of its logical form. If you say I'm a valuable developer because developing is valuable, you haven't added anything to the conversation. Before we get into this - because this is going to be a little bit hard - I want to affirm your human value.

You matter. Your presence in the world is important, and you deserve to exist in the world and be supported, and have a full and happy life, independent of your relationship with capitalism. You do. Now I'm going to get to the bummer part which is about capitalism. Remember this slide, and you as a human are valuable, and you don't need to do anything to earn that state. You are valuable.

However, corporations are not set up or incentivised to care about their parts. I work for a great company with really excellent people, but I'm always aware they're not paying me because they're nice, or because I'm nice, it's because I'm creating business value for them, saving operating expenses or driving sales, doing something to help their bottom line. No company is paying somebody because it feels good. This isn't to say that the people in your management and your organisation don't care. I hope they do. I hope that you work for nice people who want you to thrive as a human. But that's not all there is to employment, and, as I watch my peers who are managers struggle with this, I have to say it's not easy to say, "I like you as a human and you're not working out as an employee", so let's make our managers make fewer of those decisions.

When we get hired to do something, it's because the company has recognised a business need that will make them more money, or save them money, or get more customers - something like that. They're hoping they've hired a round peg for a round hole, or at least a squishy ball of Play-doh they can shove into a round hole because what they have is a round hole. This is what I tell people when they're writing cover letters: you need to understand what the problem you're solving is, and address that in the cover letter.

Oh, I see you need someone who can do this and also this. Okay, I will address that in the cover letter. I will answer that question that you're secretly asking yourself every time you look at a résumé. Will this person solve my problem? You fulfil a business need. It's nothing personal. In many ways, this is the talk that I wish I had had when I was 25. It was 2004 - I had a boring job, I was in the middle of having babies, and we were going to have a recession in a bit. I didn't understand the principle. I thought I was getting paid because I was a good writer. No, close, but not enough.

I didn't understand that I was actually getting paid because the company needed good writing. And if that seems like a distinction without a difference, I want you to sit with that a little bit. They don't care that I was a good writer, they just need a good writer.

Companies exist make money by selling good goods or services, and your skills contribute to the goal of making money. That's why you get hired. They want the skill you have. You were the goose that lays the golden egg. But if you stopped laying golden eggs, or they stopped needing golden eggs, then they don't need a goose any more. The reason people keep employees is because they're expensive to replace.

Hiring is strangely expensive, and at upper level positions, it can cost as much as half a year's salary to find the right person for a job. At lower level positions, it can still cost, say, $10 to $20,000 especially when you consider all the time people spend on the team interviewing. Companies do not like replacing people if they can get anything useful out of them. But they will replace you if they see a strong advantage, if they can get somebody who does better than you do at a break-even point, then they may make that choice. Not because anybody dislikes you, and not because you're doing bad work, but just because companies exist to make money. And here's another sad true fact: inflation applies to golden eggs.

You have a certain value when you get hired, but if you don't keep increasing that value, then it's going to be easier to replace you. In environmental sociology, there's a concept called the treadmill of production where actors are perpetually driven to accumulate capital and expand the market in order to maintain relative economic and social position.

I think you've probably all experienced that, where when I was a kid, my parents didn't have a cellphone bill because we didn't have cellphones, and now that I am an adult, I'm paying almost $400 a month for my family's cellphone bill, so I am driven to make more money because I have new expenses, and that is how capitalism is set up to work. It is to make things that were luxuries into essentials, and if they're essentials, then everybody has to buy them, and then you have to work harder to earn them.

So, you know, the thrust of this section is I blame late-stage capitalism for a lot of this. Blame late-stage capitalism for a lot of things, because that's what's going on. Sow when you're thinking about your business value, the first thing you have to understand, the first thing you need to do is understand how your company makes money. You should really find that out. And how does your role contribute to how your company makes money. How can you in particular - you, listening to this talk - add to the bottom line of your company? If you don't understand how they're making money, then you're not going to be able to contribute to it effectively.

This was a really cool graphic I found when I was researching this: where do big software companies make their money? LinkedIn don't sell think software but they sell a fair amount of advertising, and they have a subscription revenue stream. Apple makes hardware and software, but doesn't do advertising. What is it that your company makes money doing? Their job - your job - actually is to provide value to the company - literally.

That's what you're here for. It's not what was written in the job description, it's not what you do or want to do, it's not what you're brilliant at, it's providing value to the company, and this was so hard for me to get my head around, because I'm a really good writer, and what I want to do when I'm writing is write really good documentation, but sometimes what needed to happen was we needed good enough documentation much faster, and I was, "That's not right. That's not how it's supposed to work. You don't understand my art!" They understood perfectly well, and I didn't, that my art was less meaningful than their bottom line.

So, when you're having a conflict with somebody who is telling you to do something that seems weird, then you should listen to what makes money. Now, there's a caveat to that. There will come a point in your career where someone asked you to do something bad. And you have to decide whether you're going to compromise your moral values to do that. I have been a whistle-blower. I have walked away from jobs. It's a position of enormous privilege to be able to do that, and I know that. But I also know that, if we go along with everything because that's how we make money, and nobody stands up and says, "This is morally heinous," we end up in a more morally heinous world.

So, if you're in a position where someone is asking you to do something that you feel is unethical, reach out to your network and say, "Hey, I'm not okay, I can't whistle-blow right now, I'm not in that place, but I need to find a new job," and then document everything you can without violating the laws, and leave. It will take a while, but it's worth doing, I promise. You only get one soul, and you might as well safeguard it. So, what are different jobs, and how do they map to this whole value-mapping, right? All right, so a developer's job is to make saleable product.

It isn't even necessarily to make usable product, although I recommend that, it's to make something that people can sell. Operations job isn't really to keep systems up, although that's a side effect of the business value, which is to save on running expenses. A manager's job is to make developers more effective and prevent churn. And as a developer advocate, I was thinking about what my value is.

I think the bring I - I think the thing I bring is enthusiasm. I'm excited to talk about feature flags, how you can make your whole system more elegant and beautiful. I'm literally excited. That enthusiasm is the business value that I bring. Your job is not, let me be clear, clever digressions, interesting problems - I'm sorry, it's almost never your job to solve interesting problems; internet slapfights - not your problem; bitcoin mining - I think that one is pretty obvious; or bossing people.

You notice I put managers in here saying their job is to reduce churn and keep developers effective. It's not to tell them what to do but to point them to the business value case. Let's think through what did you do yesterday? Yesterday was Friday. I don't know about you, but I watched the news in horror. I live in Minneapolis, and also I know a few things, because, yes, and I prepped for this talk. If what you did was punch a clock and do what somebody told you, that's okay, but it's not necessarily going to be sufficient for ever.

What did it produce? What did your work yesterday produce? How does that make the company money? Is saving money, building intangibles, or whatever else you're doing, going to help the company? You need to be able to sort of answer that for yourself. Every day. Because that's kind of how we get evaluated.

So how do you find out what your value is. How do you find out what the company hired you to do if it wasn't the job description? Well, let's ask. Ask what the value that you bring to the team is, ask what the team is contributing. Research how your company makes money, and understand how you fit into that. Stay curious about your industry. You can't just sit down and do what people tell you to do. You're going to get left behind.

You need to go to conferences not only like this, but to technical conferences. Almost all of them are online now, and therefore free, and have streamed all of their content which gives you a great opportunity just to take some lunch times and catch up on whatever you're interested in, whatever the company's working on. Draw the connection between what the company is working on, and what you're doing, because that connection is really what you need to understand in order to be able to keep moving forward in the direction that's going to contribute to the company.

There may be only one Tigger, but there are lots of friends in the 100-acre woods. It's not a shop of horrors where everyone gets eaten. It's the world that we make; it's the world that we can make together. It's really hard right now to give any kind of conference talk and not talk about the fact that systematically across the world we've been perpetrating racial inequality and violence. It feels funny to talk about what do you do in the coming recession when the recession is here?

When I wrote this talk, there was no Covid. Now that I'm giving it, I know that a lot of people are losing their jobs. A lot of people I value and who I think do good work, but the companies are looking around and saying, "We can't keep these people on, even if they're great."

And so it's a really scary time to be out in the world, especially as a junior, but I want to tell you that I've been through two recessions so far - this is my third - and there is another side, and you're going to get through, and the things that you learn now about long-standing value, about working with each other, about building community, are going to be what gets you through to the other side. And I am waiting for all of us to make it through to the other side together.

If you liked this talk, if it was useful to you, if you want the slides, I'm going to go ahead and post them in the Discord, and, if you want a T-shirt from LaunchDarkly, you can go ahead and visit this link, and we will either send you a T-shirt, or a bandanna, depending where you're located. I want to thank you all for your time. I know you've taken a Saturday to listen to this conference, and it is a choice that you've made with your time. So, I am happy to take your questions now. Thank you again.

Carolyn: Hello, thank you so much, Heidi. It was like between Tigger being the perfect energy boost we needed post break and everything being ultra-relatable, I really appreciate you also taking the time to give this talk today. The first question is how can you find out if your existing work has company value?

Heidi: That's a great question. So I kind of glossed over this, but let me say, you need to understand how your company makes money. Like what company are you working for if it is a publicly traded company, you can go look at the stock reports, and say where are the income streams? They have to disclose that.

If it is not a publicly traded company, I would go to - if in a small enough company, go to your finance person and say where is the majority of our money coming from? Then you go to your manager, and you say, "What do you think our team's job is? What are we here to do, and how does this relate to this overarching goal?" That combination is going to let you connect those dots.

So I work for, well, we used to be small, but we're now a medium-sized start-up and the business value that we are delivering is that people can do things more quickly and safely, okay? So my value is to tell people how we can do things quickly and safely, so I can make that connection. This is going to take some work. It's like a research paper, but it's worth doing because, once you learn how to do it, you're always going to be able to see your position. All right?

Heidi: I can read it out loud. So, "What if your work indirectly supports bottom line but you can't tell? How can you bring that value to the forefront and make others notice it too?"

So, if you can't figure out what's going on exactly, like, if you are in development, you can frequently look and see what does the software sell for? What percentage of the software am I, right? An amazing number of people don't know what their software sells for. You have to track down the sales team, and it's, "It depends, but...." anyone who has tried to figure tut.

It depends. They eventually will give you a number, because they eventually give customers a number. But maybe your contribution is in savings. Maybe your contribution is in saving either, like, direct financial things, like I work in ops and I keep our AWS bill sane, or maybe your contribution is I work in HR and I make sure our employees are happy.

An example is internal communications. How do you talk about the value it brings to other people's work? Internal communication assist essential. If you don't have them, then every team sort of diverges, and works on different things, and they're not always the correct thing. Internal communications means you're keeping the entire company aligned. How you can point to the value of that is point out places where it's failed and how much it's cost.

Because, almost no-one has been perfect at this, you say, okay, look at this example where we didn't get that right, here's how much it cost us to walk that back, or to bring that team back into alignment.

Carolyn: Yes, that absolutely makes sense, especially - yes, that's a really good way to quantify things, that maybe are a little bit more vague. We have another question from an attendee. So any tips for folks looking for their first tech job, and how to figure out how to frame what you can bring to a new career.

Heidi: Congratulations, welcome to the fun! I'm excited you're looking for a tech job. The thing you're going to want to emphasise when you don't have this work history is that you do have a history of understanding of problem.

So your first tech job, either you're a career transitioner, or you're very young. If you're a career transitioner, you have a ton of resources to talk about. Like, I have an acquaintance who used to be a bakery manager before she got into tech.

And the thing that she had was the ability to manage complex timelines, and so, when she was applying for jobs, she's, like, add one of the things that I can bring to your tech team is the ability to understand complex timeline with multiple dependencies because if you get the frosting done before the cupcakes, it doesn't work as well. She didn't say frosting in cupcakes, but that is essentially what she was saying.

Mine your past experience for whatever you have that's, like, relevant to solving a problem. Even if you don't necessarily know what exact problem that team has, you can still say, like, from the looks of your job ad, it appears that what you need is maybe what they just need is somebody to come in and do the boring work, and the thing that you can offer there is documentation, like, there's nothing more valuable than a junior who documents all of the unspoken assumptions as they go along, because that gives the team as a whole the ability to onboard faster and to solve problems faster, and do troubleshooting faster, but a lot of senior people know it, and they don't document it. And then it's travel knowledge, and it gets lost.

Carolyn: Excellent advice. I'm also a career-changer, so I switched from journalism, and that is also what I tell people, because I think no matter where you come from, you have - like, if you're changing careers, whatever your past career is, there is always something that you bring, that is like uniquely applicable to software, even if it's not directly coding, it is exactly what you said about problem-solving, and being able to approach things in a different way.

So I really appreciate you highlighting that. I think it's excellent. So, we have another one. So what would you recommend when we are providing value outside of our originally hired for contribution without an official title change? Is that undervaluing yourself by not having specific recognition around your contributions?

Heidi: So, there's a ton of labour that happens that doesn't guess acknowledged in a job title, and it's valuable to teams, but because we don't have a way to tie that to direct monetary compensation, we tend to dismiss it.

There are probably - there probably - there probably aren't many managers listening to this talk, but for the love of Pete, when your runs an ERG, or helps out with any kind of cultural stuff, write a letter of thank you, write a commendation, even just an email - something they can put in their folder for, "This is what I did." It's very difficult to get corporations to pay for these culture things, because they don't see how it contributes, but I will tell you that failing your culture contributes to churn.

You're losing a lot of your best technologists if you have bad culture, because they are the ones who can see systemic problems, and they're like, "Hey, look, I'm the the only black woman on this team. I don't think this is going to work out for me long-term. I'm going to start looking for an exit." So if you're not paying attention to your culture, you're paying into a churn fund, and that is also super expensive.

If you're not getting value for that, ask your manager, ask your peers, ask the people you run it for, and then - this is a really important job tip - keep, not on your work email, a folder of - mine is labelled "Attagirl" - and it's just email compliments, or especially nice Tweets, whatever, that I save because it makes me feel better on bad days, and because I can pull it up, and say look, in an instance, a lot like the one you're asking about, someone complimented me on doing a job good.

Having that external affirmation and confirmation helps people to understand that you have been doing this work, you will continue doing this work, and it's valuable to you.

Carolyn: That's excellent. I never even thought about keeping a folder like that. Absolutely it makes sense. So thank you for that. I want to shift a little bit, and you touched on ethics, which is one of my favourite topics. So how do you balance needing to work, and the ethical implications of what your work does?

Heidi: This is a really hard one to answer because it depends so much on your circumstances. I am very privileged. I am principal level in my company, probably even today if I wanted to leave my company, I could find another job. So I have a lot of ethical bank, so I can say, like, look, I will quit if we work with this organisation. Just FYI, it's a deal-breaker for me.

People who are newer in their career, who are younger and more economically precarious - which is not, by the way, your fault, see above late-stage capitalism - may not be able to make that choice. And that's okay.

What you can do is do the best you can to change the culture that you're in without getting fired, and work your way out as fast as you can. Like you may not be able to table-flip and walk the moment somebody signs an ICE contract, but you can update your résumé and start contacting people, and say here's what I've got, here's what I'm looking at, if I spent six months up-levelling my skills, what do you think I should up-level in so I can go to a different company?

The sad fact is almost all technology companies are ethically compromised in some way. It is a matter of picking the least poisonous of the pills, not picking an entirely good actor. I can't think of any entirely good actors.

On a related note, if you are maybe in that position of being more privileged and you are able to walk out, what do you think is the line between, "I should stay and try to change things from the inside "versus, "I should whistle-blow and leave?"

Liz Fong Jones has an excellent talk on that about when you should leave. Since she walked away from a lot of money at Google, I feel like she's got a lot of room to talk about that. The time I whistle-blew and left was actually about a - they requested that I commit plagiarism against the American Medical Association. Those are lawyers I'm unwilling to tangle, and the fact that they asked me to do this when I told them it was plagiarism, tells me they will never respect international property.

I didn't quit until I had something else lined up. So I think how you know when you can walk away is when you're going to be able to keep your family safe. And when you can no longer - when nobody will listen to you about culture change, or they will listen to you, and do nothing, like, I think a lot of us are confronting the fact that our companies have been trying to do better about racial representation, and, like, there's a few people of colour in our companies, yet it doesn't seem we are making progress in real representation and inclusion. If they keep failing, eventually, maybe you're not really trying.

Carolyn: No, absolutely. I think people realising that, I don't know, I've realised, like, you might be thinking that you work somewhere that really cares about these issues, and the reasons they are highlighting that, things are not going to change. That's really good advice. We have our final question for this time, how do you manage when a company hires you and it's clear you don't know what they impact or value or want you to do to show it?

Heidi: Okay, so this is actually developer advocacy is a super fuzzy place. We don't do direct sales leads or have direct marketing campaigns. There's not a lot of numbers. I heard this talk by somebody, and they made me feel warm and fuzzy, and six months later, I saw their company come up and thought maybe why not?

So, like, this is something I struggle with all the time. I think it's important to say here's the value that I think I'm bringing, like, I think that I can quantify my contribution by saying, "Here's how many people are using the API." Because that's something that I'm talking about. Here's how many people are watching my talks, and, like, six months later, if you have multi-touch attribution, you can find that out.

What in general - but, in general if the company doesn't know - you ... you can't make that case. If you don't make that case, you will get somebody new saying, "Why are we even paying for that department?" So even if you had, like, a visionary person who hired you on, by the nature of technology, jobs are always changing, they will leave, and, if you don't have a way to say here is how I'm reducing costs, here is how I'm promoting our image, here is how I am streamlining internal processes, then it's going to be really hard to argue that you should get to stay.

Carolyn: Definitely. That's all the time we have, but I really want to thank for taking the time to say that's okay to advocate for ourselves, and we will continue this conversation hopefully in the self-advocacy channel on Discord.

Heidi: That sounds great. I will be in the sponsored channel on Discord if anybody has any questions. I will be around for a few hours this afternoon.

About the talk

You didn't get that cool programming job because you're a great programmer. You got it because the company you work for wants to make money and they think you can help. It's easy for us to feel like our worth/value/capitalist expression is tied to our employment, but it's also useful to flip that narrative and talk about how our companies need us, and how we can use that understanding to be more valuable employees and even better humans.

What is the value that you bring to your employer? Can you articulate it? Can you expand it? Can you take that value and use it for your own purposes?

About the speaker

Heidi Waterhouse is a developer advocate at LaunchDarkly. When she's not trying to make CI/CD happen, she teaches inclusive sex-ed, sews, and raises two kids with her wife.

Photo of Heidi Waterhouse

Heidi Waterhouse

@wiredferret

You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.