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The Meaning of Work

They called this ‘having a job’

Words: Matthew Simmonds

Since the first organisms emerged from primordial soup until only very recently, life has been about survival. Within the last few millennia, humans figured out that by splitting work into different tasks and sharing them across specialised individuals, their collective chance of survival increased. They called this ‘having a job’.

Because the world has changed so dramatically, ‘having a job’ is no longer purely about survival. That is why we have things like Social Media Managers, PR Gurus and HR.

2016 is an age in which we have the great privilege of working not just to survive, but to lead fulfilling lives. The average human spends 80 000 hrs at work, yet we give comparatively little thought to our profession and whether our job is the best use of our time (both for ourselves and the society we live in).

We decided to muse on the subject over brunch with two of our regular café customers and now friends, and quiz them on how they ‘have a job’.

Baris

Baris is a Software Engineer. He loves clever hacks and always has. He tells me how when he was 8, he learned how to hack his Commodore 64 PC so that he could cheat on Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands and Dizzy Egg.

“I found out that if I typed in 100s of lines of code, I could write directly to specific memory locations and change parameters like how many lives I could have or how fast I could run.”

He then moved on to MSN chat and worked out how to change his friends’ names to rude words: “Not to be an arsehole, I just thought it would make things more fun!”

Minor mischief in his early years turned out to be the building blocks of a serious software engineer. Baris has worked for some of the leading and most influential tech startups including uSwitch and GoCardless. He recently quit his job and is working out his next move. He is deliberating over 3 options: getting another full-time job, working as a contractor or joining his friends in the early phases of a co-operative.
There is clearly a tension between the security a full-time job has to offer and his innate desire to work continuously on new and exciting things. Working for someone else forces you to do whatever is necessary to grow the business; occasionally this involves a really interesting engineering challenge, but often consists of monotonous tasks that just need to be done.

“At the end of the day, businesses are a very strange construct. They don’t actually exist for the good of people in them. They are just the legal representation of someone’s capitalist desires.”

Working as a contractor, on the other hand provides the opportunity to earn good money in short bursts, allowing him the freedom to travel in between jobs. However, contract work allows little freedom for creativity and the good money often comes from dry corporate environments. Joining his friends’ software developer co-operative, is a unique opportunity to try something new…

“The idea of working with 6 of my closest friends is very appealing. We’d all earn a base salary, which would be irrespective of whether you are a junior or senior developer. This would provide a great fall-back mechanism in times you cannot work – if you become ill, for example. Unlike a business, the co-operative’s main interests would be for its members to be happy, healthy and well. I like working with other people and seeing them benefit from my work. This is why this option is really appealing to me.”

Whatever his decision, his mischievous, non-conformist spirit is very much alive and kicking:

“I’m never going to wear a suit to work. People can dress me up in a suit when I’m dead if they like, but until then it’s not happening.”

Lichan

Lichan greets me with a warm smile and a happy handshake. He knows all the staff by name and it’s clear that they like having him around as much he likes being here. He tells me how this coffee shop is his regular. He also has a regular restaurant and a regular dry cleaners. “Having regular places like this is the best way to really understand the neighbourhood and feel like you belong in here”, he tells me.

Lichan grew up in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. As a kid he spent most of his days riding around on his BMX and throwing water bombs with his friends. When he was 7, he wanted to be an Astronaut. Now he is a Management Consultant.

“Wait, aren’t Management Consultants famous for going into places and firing 5% of the workforce?”, I ask timidly; the stereotype does not fit the friendly persona I have just met.

“Maybe in Strategy Consulting there is some truth in that but I do Technology Consulting where everyone is generally nice. No one gets fired, god can you even fire anyone these days?!”

I breath a sigh of relief, in the first 5 minutes I had not witnessed the charming facade of a sociopath.

Now heartily tucking into his Eggs Benedict, Lichan tells me about how his job is focused on improving the way technology is used within big corporates. His team are parachuted in either to fix technology that is broken or to implement a new system. They work with FTSE 100s including big banks, law firms and retailers.

“I enjoy meeting new people and understanding what makes them tick. The world is full of different people and we’re all here for different reasons. What motivates them, what distracts them, what makes them happy and sad – I find that all very interesting. I honestly don’t know how I would cope if I had to work at the same desk every day, working on the same thing week-in, week-out. I enjoy the fact that we get to travel all over the place, that you can work from anywhere and carry your whole office with you. I get to work with new people on new challenges and that is really exciting for me.”

What do you dislike?
“I often have 2 sets of politics to deal with, one within my company and one within our customer’s company. Sometimes that can get difficult. My occupation is one where you are continually in new environments and have to make decisions – there isn’t an opportunity to coast. You have to embrace that. If you don’t it would wear you down.”

We have talked a lot about people, but fundamentally you work with technology. Why?
“Whilst my job may look like it’s all about computers, software and applications, it’s actually often about people. It doesn’t matter whether the problem is fixing a mainframe or helping a team to change the way they operate. I view solving these two types of problems in the same way – people are just complicated machines.”