Category: work


Jobs vs automation

I was asked in an interview whether automation was killing jobs. It is a deep topic that will demand a lot of research. But let’s start with this piece that says automation has positive effects on jobs in the end.

At least since Karl Marx, people have been predicting that technology would create mass unemployment. However, these predictions were consistently wrong because they ignored the offsetting benefits of automation. For example, during the 19th century, machines took over tasks performed by weavers, eliminating 98 percent of the labor needed to weave a yard of cloth. But this mechanization also brought a benefit: It sharply reduced the price of cloth, so people consumed much more. Greater demand for cloth meant that the number of textile jobs quadrupled despite the automation.

Something similar is happening in quite a few occupations today. Because ATMs perform many teller transactions, fewer tellers are needed to operate a bank branch. But because it costs less to operate a branch office, banks dramatically increased the number of branches in order to reach a bigger market. More bank branches means more tellers, despite fewer tellers per branch.


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Bullshit jobs vs productive jobs

Striking numbers on the disappearance of “productive jobs”. There is probably a healthy and passionate debate to be had on this topic, I’m not sure the situation as it is described here is true. But beyond the number themselves, the trend looks pretty clear to me.

A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture. Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China). [...]

we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries [...]

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

Tricia Wang researching usages of new technologies in China.

“The quality of work decreases when you become institutionalized”

Marc Laperrouza sent me this interview of Lift12 speaker [videoTricia Wang on FastCompany. She explains her job, which consists in watching people on the fringe of society to identify social change and future trends. Towards the end, she answers a question about her job and makes a couple of comments I find typical of how 21st century nomad workers think:

I think I’m a better researcher when I’m able to work in multiple places and for multiple clients. If I were only doing research for one company, one product, or one community, I don’t think I’d be as valuable. The quality of work decreases when you become institutionalized–you start thinking like an institution, you have to sort of conform to the institutional culture. I don’t fit in that kind of situation, nor do I want to. I want to continue bridging the gap between the tech worlds, the advocacy worlds, and the research worlds, even if there’s not an obvious job description or path to follow.


I don’t know if it is a personal trait or a sign of the times, but I heard this fear of being institutionalized from many of my peers, mostly people who grew up around the “internet” values of global collaboration, information sharing, and constant interactions. I used to think that this way of being would take over the world, that generation Y was about to spread this culture of not being “captive”.

A few years later, I am not so sure anymore. I see corporate life and its reassuring sides making a comeback, fueled by the constant flow of economic gloom. After all, a (disputed but still published on major media) survey found that 75% of French youth would like to have a government job. Another survey found a proportion of 1/3rd. Plan B is becoming the plan A for many, and who can blame them?

I am wondering whether the way Tricia wants to work is a luxury that will remain marginal, or if she is a canary in the coal mine, functioning in a way that will soon be widely adopted across society. I certainly have a small idea on which side I would like to see triumph, but that’s not the question ;)

Greece vs the world

CNN: “According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average Greek employee works 2,017 hours per year, more than their counterparts in any other European country”.

Most hours worked for total employment Fewest hours worked for total employment Most Productive Least Productive:
1. Greece
2. Hungary
3. Poland
4. Estonia
5. Turkey
6. Czech Rep
7. Italy
8. Slovakia
9. Portugal
10. Iceland
1. Netherlands
2. Germany
3. Norway
4. France
5. Denmark
6. Ireland
7. Belgium
8. Austria
9. Luxembourg
10. Sweden
1. Norway
2. Luxembourg
3. Ireland
4. Netherlands
5. Belgium
6. France
7. Germany
8. Denmark
9. Sweden
10. Austria
1. Poland
2. Hungary
3. Estonia
4. Turkey
5. Czech Republic
6. Portugal
7. Greece
8. Slovak Republic
9. Slovenia
10. Iceland

Valve, a 21st century company of grownups

Valve‘s “Handbook for new employees” has reached the public a few weeks ago. If what is written in there is true, then here is a corporation that took on the task of creating a positive working environment for talented 21st century knowledge workers. These exact same people who are deemed as unstable, unfaithful and uncontrollable by corporate managers.

Valve is flat:

Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability [...] But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value.

Employees choose what they want to work on themselves:

We’ve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self-directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100. Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions. Employees vote on projects with their feet.

The founded father is demistified in the name of collective intelligence:

There are lots of stories about how Gabe [Valve's founder] has made important decisions by himself, e.g., hiring the whole Portal 1 team on the spot after only half of a meeting. Although there are examples, like that one, where this kind of decision making has been successful, it’s not the norm for Valve. If it were, we’d be only as smart as Gabe or management types, and they’d make our important decisions for us. Gabe is the first to say that he can’t be right nearly often enough for us to operate that way. His decisions and requests are subject to just as much scrutiny and skepticism as anyone else’s.

Download the handbook (pdf, 4,1MB)

I wonder if all these commandments are realistic, and whether they scale well. It reminds me of Jean-Claude Biver explaining he is giving bonuses for failure to the Hublot employees. I like the idea, but I also fail to see how it works concretely.

But this document has one merit: it shows a direction, it transpires some of the coolest corporate values I have ever seen. Even if this is not applied, the fact that employees are trying is probably worth it.

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What employees want

I regularly preach that we need to unlearn, and here is another example. If you taught yourself how to do business during the 20th century, you probably think that employees want money, security, and promotions. Apparently reality is quite different.

Dream jobs of pre teens: today vs 25 years ago

A fascinating comparison of pre teens aspirations, today vs 25 years ago. Much of the evolution of society can be seen in these numbers. From middle class, scientific, requiring-long-studies jobs to entertainment, instantaneous, artistic professions.

Careers in teaching, banking and science have suffered the biggest fall in popularity over the last 25 years according to a new generational study which reveals a seismic shift in career aspirations within the space of a single generation.

The study reveals that for many of today’s pre-teens, traditional careers have been superseded by the desire for fame, stardom and celebrity and suggests that the media is now just as influential, if not more so, than parental advice when it comes to potential careers.

Top ten career aspirations of pre teens


25+ years ago

1 Sportsman 12%
2 Popstar 11%
3 Actor 11%
4 Astronaut 9%
5 Lawyer 9%
6 Emergency services 7%
7 Medicine 6%
8 Chef 5% 8
9 Teacher 4%
10 Vet 3%
1 Teacher 15%
2 Banking/ finance 9%
3 Medicine 7%
4 Scientist 6%
5 Vet 6%
6 Lawyer 6%
7 Sportsman 5%
8 Astronaut 4%
9 Beautician/hairdresser 4%
10 Archeologist 3%


What football can tell us about society’s evolution

The BBC has a vizualisation of the evolution of premier league players’ birthplace over the past decade. Twenty years during which workers movements have been liberalized after the famous Bosman Ruling ended the quotas restricting the number of non-nationals on teams. What we see here through the lens of sport is the general trend towards globalization of the workforce, where talent gathers in places it can better be leveraged regardless of political or geographical constraints.

Where the Premier League’s players come from (1988)
All 1998

And in 2009
All 2009

Arsenal in 1988
Arsenal 1998

And in 2009
Arsenal 2009

Manchester United in 1988
MU 1998

And in 2009
MU 2009

During those years, the English Premier League became the most powerful in the world, and reached multiple continents by capitalizing on foreign stars attracting viewers in their country of origin. Why not think about the lessons that can be drawn here, at a moment where borders are being closed to emigrants because of the crisis.

The early adopters crisis

There is a disturbingly increasing number of early adopters who tell me they are fed up with their jobs. Those same people who were creating homepages with 28k modems back in the 90s are now closing their blogs, snubbing Facebook, moving around with no computer or iPhone, wishing aloud they had less commitments and more money to open a restaurant, a store, or engage in a life involving more down to earth activities. It could be anodyne – and probably is in some ways as we all tend to always want the opposite of what we have – but I feel there is something interesting here. Let’s review some of the arguments involved:

The web industry got boring, at least if you like adventure. I already wrote on this last year and it is truer than ever. Changing the world got complex after a rare period where you could wake up in the morning, fire your computer, and write a piece of code that would change everybody’s life. Now launching a website requires 12 months of work, a team of 10, and whatever you want to do has already been done. Boring.

Humans need to have something to show for their work. Websites are not the most tangible achievements there is, and for example half of what I have ever done in my life is now gone (like, the Financial Tracking System whose has been updated a long time ago, Bernard Nicod’s 1996 website). The other half is made of services, events, advices, discussions, reports, many things that do not really materialize. I think that, over a long period of time, this has an impact on people. Human beings need to touch, feel, show, share, and new technologies tend to cut them from such fundamental needs. It finally made an impact, and this is probably one of the main reasons behind the tiredness and rejection of technology you start to get from early adopters.

The Beatles: early among the early adopters

• Another factor is the partiality of online interactions. Many early adopters ended up with rich and intense careers involving heavy usage of computers. When you have done that for many years you get hundreds of emails per day – most of them from people you care about, but that you have only seen once or twice. Once again it feels a bit like trying to trick a fundamental truth, forcing our sensitive (in the sense: that needs to feel and touch) nature to rely only on incomplete interactions to survive and maintain a high level of socialization.

Tools are limiting. Why is it so hard to maintain a network (i.e.: have accounts on 20 websites), read emails without feeling overwhelmed, work on a laptop more than three hours while on the move, connect to the internet anywhere? Why don’t we (I’ll put myself in it for this one) have a really good solution to handle tasks that have become so recurrent and crucial? Even the most basic and simple need of all has no good technological solution. How to manage your todo list on anything else than paper? Tools are taking their toll on productivity and creating frustration, and are one of the most cited factor of tiredness. Computers are making shovels and hammers appealing again, don’t tell me you saw this one coming :D

It will be interesting to see if what happens these days is a fundamental shift, or just a temporary crisis worsened by hard economical conditions. Can the people who built new technologies really reject it?

5 ways to improve gmail

This post has very little interest if you don’t use Gmail

If I had a friend who was a project manager at Google, here are a few ideas I would give him to enhance the tool I use the most in my daily life: Gmail. All these considerations should be taken with one thing in mind: there are two big religions in Gmail world, the “archivers” and the “friends of chaos”:

- “Archivers” read messages and archive them to take them out of their sight as soon as they are treated. Their inbox is their todo list, and their goal is to have zero message in their inbox before they go for the week-end.

- “Friends of chaos” never archive any message, and usually have thousands of unread items because they don’t open messages that don’t interest them. Needless to say, archivers think that FOC are messy and irresponsible and FOC think that Archivers are dangerously maniac ;)

I am a member of the Archivers tribe, and my remarks should by taken with that usage pattern in mind.

This becomes increasingly needed as I start using the mobile version more and more. On the mobile version there is no next or previous message link, so we really need something as Yahoo mail had a few years ago: an archive message and move to the next one in a click. That would really speed up the “morning scan”, when you go through all your messages to see which ones you can archive and which ones will demand more attention.

The way I work goes like this:
- gmail is my todo list
- I have macro tasks (like “organize LIFT08″ or “write article”) I keep on paper
- I have micro tasks like “organize LIFT08 badges” or “invite speaker XX” which, 99% of the time, I execute by email.
- I have follow ups, things that left my micro tasks list because I treated them on my side (badges order or invitation email sent) and should happen if everything goes well. To not lose track of all these things I need to maintain a separate list that gmail could easily handle for me via a “send & follow” button. All outgoing messages would for example be labeled “to follow” and listed in a special page. As soon as I get an answer the label would be removed, and this list would be super useful page with all things that have left my todo but still haven’t been treated.

The way my messages are displayed by Gmail has a huge impact on the order of treatment. Messages on top of the screen get most of my attention, even if usually the ones at the bottom are more important and well, more late. There is a conflict that needs to be resolved here, between the importance of messages and their freshness. If I have 5 important messages I need to manage, and a new message comes up from a friend who sends a bad email joke, I can’t resist but click on the message simply because it shows up on top and as unread. Because it is a new message it becomes the most important message, which is not good. The older a message is, the more urgent it is to treat it.

There should be a way to reorder messages in a better way than the actual “what’s new is on top” view. Let’s consider potential factors:
- age of the message (the older the message gets, the more urgent it becomes to treat it). We actually need the opposite view, with old messages on top and new in the bottom.
- frequency of exchanges with sender. Is the message coming from a coworker I email 15 times a day, or from my mother who pings me once every month?
- speed of answer. If I usually answer to a persons email in less than 10 minutes then his emails should be on the top of my todo list.
- meta data of the message, like labels the message has, its length (short message can be treated very quickly, let’s take them first to get them out of the way), its position in the conversation, etc..

All these factors should be taken into account, and have more influence on the presentation of messages. An idea: why not change the width of the line displaying the message summary to signify it’s importance?

I don’t use google reader for a stupid reason: I don’t want to mark each post as read as I scan through way too many. So I use bloglines (yes I know it’s very very old school), and therefore my RSS and email are separated. But I need a view that embeds my two main information sources together. And here is an idea based on a condition: create the best flow of information, interrupting me as little as possible while allowing me to manage new items as they come in.

Step 1: merge RSS feeds and email


When a new email comes in, it appears on the top of the screen in my stack of items that I have to read.


Using a color fading technique, the new email appears in red then becomes an item like others as I move up in my reading.


When I reach the email, it appears just like any other piece of content. I can perform all actions on it (archive, reply, etc..)


What appears on my screen would be the result of a complex stacking process, where the system consistently reorders the upcoming items that are not on my screen using a number of parameters (date of post for RSS, importance of sender, urgency level, message is a reply to one of my message for email) and feeds them into the interface.


With such a concept, novelty does NOT equal interruption, and that would be a huge production boost, allowing me to stay in an information flow, not having to switch between applications (I have all my information in one place) nor being interrupted by new items.

A minor point that can still have a positive effect on productivity. The scenario is the following: empty indox, no new messages. I am composing a new email. Suddenly the Inbox link turns bold as I got a new message. This teases me into leaving my writing flow and click on the message to see what it is. Most of the time it could wait, but it’s tempting to see what it is. Why not give me more details about this email so that I can make a decision on whether I want to read it or not? A simple one liner on top of the screen saying: “new message from XXX, subject YYY” disappearing after a few seconds, allowing me to make my decision, and not creating that frustration of not knowing what that new message is about.

But these ones I am sure Google is already planning to release them soon:
- we need an offline version using Google Gears. The new interface already has a few offline mechanism (you can switch between messages and inbox view for example) but we need more!
- unlimited storage
- a “search message by size”.
- etc etc…