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Thankless Jobs

One day during one of our office lunch breaks, Ben and I walked quietly across the shopping mall where our office was located to find some food. Ben turned to me and said "...You know I have a Thankless Job". Ben had just been reprimanded by the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) for a bug in the company's video player for what felt like the millionth time now. This was my first time hearing such a term and I asked him what he meant by that. He explained that if he did his job perfectly no one would know any work had been done at all but if he messed up just a little there would be a shit storm... in his words "There was no glory to be had".

To give you some context. It was 2010 Google Chrome was 2 years old, Internet Explorer had 50% market share, Twitter Bootstrap did not exist and the largest open source community on the internet was sourceforge.net 😂. It was also the time that if you wanted to watch video on the internet you had to download Adobe Flash virus Player. There was no HTML5, there were no video tags.

My first job after university was at a startup that did qualitative market research through video. We sent webcams to your house (because in 2010 barely any computers came with cameras) and whatever product we needed you to give feedback on we would send it to you also, then we paid you after you finished reviewing the product. Sometimes we needed you to review something as small as toothpaste and sometimes it was as big as a car, payments ranged from $50 per review to hundreds of dollars depending on the budget of our client. Your review gets uploaded to the system, transcripts get generated and our researchers' slice and dice the video to find key insights for our clients. It was focus groups digitized. To get such a system up and running at the time, we created a lot of proprietary technology and one of them was a Flash video player which was at the center of the whole system. Ben's job at the time was re-factoring the video player. If he did his job perfectly, no one would be the wiser but any tiny mistake was the loss of confidence from our clients, the project management team and the executives of the company. It is a hard position to be in.

The idea of Thankless Jobs haunted me for several years, it just didn't sit right. This is not unique to software development, Thankless Jobs are everywhere. You see them when we go to the stadium to watch a sports game, and you have no idea how many thieves or terrorists the officer you just walked past apprehended while you ate your hotdogs and drank your coke. You see them everytime you use a public bathroom and you have no idea the mess the Janitor cleaned up before you walked in etc. To attain self-actualization we have to feel we are positively contributing to society and that the society recognizes this. Most of us do this via our day jobs, the fact that there are jobs in which no one can visualize or perceive your contribution until something went wrong worried me. It is because of this very issue I added processes like Build software in the open and wrote a post on Communication. Not because I needed the thanks, but it made clients aware of the actual value they were getting, which made them happy and which in turn allowed me and my team to self-actualize.

This came full circle for me recently when I learned about the Service Recovery Paradox, which is when someone places more trust in a system that recovers quickly after being notified of an issue, rather than a system that silently succeeds all the time. Trust and Gratitude come from the observability of a process and Thankless Jobs are jobs where those in charge or those being served have no visibility into what it takes to execute in that job. This is why reports are important to managers, this is why status updates are important to clients...visibility. It moves your position from being suspicious to one of being open, transparent and collaborative. So if you ever find yourself in a Thankless Job, where there is no glory to be had, increase the visibility of your process. Send daily reports or have weekly status meetings. Do not work in the dark.

  • Thanks to Ben Roux and Uzo Olisemeka for reading drafts of this.