Productivity and negative space

My post Why programmers are not paid in proportion to their productivity has been getting a lot of buzz today. One of the arguments in that post is that the most productive programmers know where they can find software to do parts of their job. When they reuse existing code rather than writing their own from scratch, nobody notices. They probably don’t even notice themselves, at least not often.

The work you don’t do is a sort of negative space, like the shape formed by the empty space in a painting or the silence in a piece of music. It’s hard to appreciate what’s not there. It’s hard for a business to reward the unnecessary work that someone avoids doing.

Venkatesh Rao has a different take on what makes some people far more effective than others. In his post Thrust, Drag, and the 10x Effect, he says that the people who are 10x more productive are the those who allocate large, uninterrupted blocks of time to work on difficult creative tasks.

Rao’s observation would also help explain why super programmers do not earn super wages, and it ties into the idea of negative space. People who fracture their time putting out fires seem more productive, or at least more responsive, than the people who block out time to think. It’s harder to notice someone not being frantic. Thinkers don’t fare well in environments that reward activity more than accomplishment.

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2 thoughts on “Productivity and negative space

  1. On the connection to Rao’s observation, I think there may be a bar-raising effect there as well. People do, I think, recognize that the quiet deep-thinker is a different kind of contributor than the responsive fire-extinguisher, and value them with different metrics. But I think the bar is higher for the former than the latter. The fire-extinguisher is seen as a good one of he/she is responsive, seems to put in a good number of hours, seems to be working hard, etc. The quiet, non-frenzied deep thinker, though, is expected to demonstrate a sort of genius: the tradeoff for seeming to be “out of the rat race” is to be so wondrously sublime that you earn the right to be. But then you may have to be 100x to satisfy those expectations, not only 10x.

  2. In the end, it’s about advertising yourself. Business and work are unfortunately not always the same thing. Being successful at one oftentimes means struggling at the other. The reason for this is because people who work consistently are never seen, and also rarely noticed for their accomplishment. People who put themselves in front of people all the time, but don’t do a lot of work play a balancing act between politiking and making sure they skirt the bare minimum.

    As it happens, the latter person usually ends up climbing the latter faster. In my opinion, your success is entirely relative to how well you balance/juggle those two sides of business. Tell people how good you are and show what you’ve done. If you don’t it’s unlikely anyone else will.

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