Frauds in the US Patent System

Remote Workers Are A Pain To Manage (sic)

This is not exactly news anymore, but a fraud-related scandal was uncovered a few days ago in the US patent body of regulation.

This hits me on two different levels, completely unrelated to one another : work-at-home mechanics, and the actual concept of patenting stuff.

My distrust of any patent system (especially for software) in today’s day and age has popped in once or twice already.

The work-at-home side of this story is distressing to say the least. In the last 15 years, I have worked for maybe a couple of months in an actual office with actual people. It’s no secret I don’t enjoy it, and it’s no due to any of the fine folks I was sitting next to. It’s just that my habits of cursing loudly at my screen, and my need for a total lack of distraction when I’m focusing on a particularly thorny problem, make having people sitting right next to me a difficult fit.

But because of stories like this, and because it is so easy to cheat bosses/customers of actual working time when they don’t have their eye resting directly on you, working from home is a very real deal-breaker for my interactions with customers sometimes. Trust issues aside, on an hourly basis, I get more than regular employees, and I can Do It in my bathtub! Holy granola! From the outside it looks like I have some totally unfair advantages over everyone

As Seen From The Other Side

Truth be told, working from home is hard.

Let’s start with the beginning of the day: it’s so easy to snooze the alarm and go back to bed. Really. Especially if you have been working late the day before. Then whatever your routine in the morning might be, taking your time to read the news, catch up on social stuff, etc is tempting. Then you realize it’s really late and you might have to cram everything before lunch, which could last longer because you’re enjoying it in front of the TV, etc etc…

Basically, if you have any procrastinating tendencies, they are all very easy to succumb to. Structure helps, like having “office hours” to simulate the real thing, planning your customer phone calls early in the morning, or at any other time you might be tempted to do anything else but work. Life hacks such as this are easy to implement and adhere to, and every one should know themselves well enough to know which ones are important and how their personal procrastinating tendencies surface. Because the key thing about working from home isn’t replicating a workplace at home.

To be able to work from home, you need to know exactly how your brain works.

To take the only example I know well enough, I tend to be very code efficient right after I wake up. So I have two known times where I cram my most urgent/important stuff : early morning, and after my nap. Yes I do take naps, partly because of this, and in a regular office, it’s not generally the norm. After roughly 2h straight of coding, my mind tends to wander. I start checking news, chat with people. So I use that time to do my support / client stuff. But even that is tiring, so I generally cap that out at 1h. Then I do the code that’s less neuron-consuming, which might (or might not) get me in the zone again for more important stuff.

The important part of all this is that I spread my work hours larger than strictly necessary. I usually have a 8-8 work day, and I sometimes work for a few hours on week ends as well. Because I can, and because it doesn’t impede on other things I consider vital. And during the day, I have free time to run errands, have a cuppa with people, etc. The very fact it’s spread out a bit means that I can contract it if necessary to stay on a deadline that is whistling dangerously close, or expand it a bit if I have time and am feeling under the weather or uninspired.

The Root Of The Problem

Applying “office rules” at home seems completely stupid and backwards to me. Either you give people the option to work from home until they can’t achieve what they said they would do anymore, whatever way they want to organize themselves, or you force them to be under scrutiny in an office. Giving them restrictions in their own homes will lead to resentment and “cheating”, and there should be no shame in saying after a while “look, it doesn’t seem to work when you do it remotely, come back in an office”, to potentially be tried again at a later date. The remote workforce problem embodies to me a fundamental flaw in how people’s work is valued : results vs time.

It’s perfectly ok for people whose job it is to be available (to interact with customers who may or not call, for instance) to be paid / valued in good part relative to the time they spend on the job. But for developers, to take an example I know only too well, it’s all about what we do deliver. Time is second.

Let me take an example. Company A contacts me, for a contract on an app that displays news for their product and allows for support contact, and social sharing. The very first question they ask is how long it’s going to take. Which is fine and normal. But based on that, they derive the amount of money they will assign to the project. While my time is as valuable as anyone’s, we can all agree that there are some things I will do faster than others with my level of experience (to take the seniority out of the equation). If it takes a colleague of mine 1 month to do that app, and I take only 2 weeks, should I be paid less? No but the second question they ask is “what is your daily rate?”. So in essence, if I have a fixed rate that’s close to the market I will be paid less for the same job, and if I double it, I probably won’t have the contract. How is that fair?

I can hear sniggering in the back : “why don’t you just SAY you will take a month?”. The ethical value of that comment is left as open for debate.

But once again, we circle back to the problem of assigning a value to someone’s job, and the perversity of contemplating cheating to “fix an intrinsic wrong”. I refuse to think every single human on the planet is prone to cheating in every circumstances. Most of the time, mostly honest people who try to game the system to do less while earning the same financial compensation feel cheated themselves. It is indeed a HR problem, but not in a “let’s put more restrictive measures in place to increase productivity” way, more in a “let’s see why these experts in their fields feel like they aren’t paid enough”. And remove the actual bad apples based on results.

  

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