A strategic OSS expert: Work smart, work lazy, build assets

Whilst reading an article on Business Insider called, “A Gen Z software engineer at Google reportedly earns $150,000 working one hour a day,” I found one comment quite confronting. It wasn’t the extrapolation that an 8 hour day (possibly working multiple jobs) could generate a $1.2m annual salary but the mindset.

The Gen Z software engineer in question purportedly said, “It’s not like you’d really get promoted for going above and beyond.

This is a fascinating mindset that I hear a lot – that the promotion (or raise) has to come first and then the effort will be delivered afterwards. That seems completely counter-intuitive to me, like someone yelling at the fireplace to give off heat without first putting any fuel in the fireplace or sparking it to flame.

Let’s put the financial value aspect to the side for now.

Let’s instead look at the skills, knowledge, products and the relationship networks as drivers of opportunities instead. I believe that these compound in much the same way money does, but in terms of opportunities when building a career. If we look at the diagram below and replace dollars with “opportunities” on the y-axis, we start to get a feel for why the Gen Z Engineer’s perspective represents short-term thinking that limits long-term opportunities.

In this case, the blue line represents a female Gen Z colleague who also works at Google, but consistently invests an 8, 10, 12 hour day for the first decade of her career. She uses that time to invest in developing skills, knowledge and connections by going above and beyond. She helps colleagues. She finds other projects to assist. She develops new skills and knowledge in the process. She’s probably becoming a valuable tripod in the process. Her colleagues remember how valuable she has been on every project she works on. They want her on future projects and bring opportunities to her. These future projects help to develop more skills, knowledge and connections even if she takes her foot off the gas slightly (as represented by the $0 invested after age 34). The extra work up-front builds its own momentum.

Meanwhile, our male Gen Z’er is the orange line. He does the bare minimum early in his career. Perhaps nobody notices this (or perhaps they do but don’t say anything) or even notices him at all because he’s not present. This anonymity leads to a lack of opportunities being brought to him. Valuable skills come from diving deeper than others are prepared to go (everyone can get the easy skills). An hour a day doesn’t sound like a deep-dive that might garner next-level skills that people know you for and differentiate you from everyone else. At the age of 35, when the penny finally drops, he realises that he has to hustle to make more opportunities happen (as represented by the additional $5k having the be invested each year) but can never catch up to the blue line. The blue line disappears off into the distance even faster if she continues to put in extra effort too. He’ll never be able to catch up with her, no matter how hard he tries.

So, how does this apply back to the headline you may ask? I’m heavily re-using a few concepts from this Consultant’s Mind article in the paragraphs below:

There are always demands (or potential demands) on our time, no matter how smart, efficient or high-potential you are. This is particularly true in the OSS industry when there are always a million things to do, learn, accomplish, etc. This is even more true for valuable tripods that make projects happen by being the glue. It’s just a daily fact that we need to work smart to manage our workloads strategically (the 80/20 rule) where we focus more on outcomes than just the process:

  • What are we trying to get done?
  • Who are the customers and what do THEY care about?
  • What’s critical-to-quality and essential? What’s a waste of time?
  • What plays to my strengths? (following the principle of “only do what only you can do.”)
  • How can you make an outsized impact?
  • What’s the first domino that triggers all the other dominos to fall?

This is particularly true for us technical folk who need to think more about what moves the needle for us / customers / stakeholders instead of just the long list of technical challenges / activities that lie before us.

It also means we sometimes have to work lazy (aka creatively) to minimise effort on what doesn’t move the needle, including:

  • Minimum viable documentation – Is this report useful? Are people reading it? If not, minimise or cull
  • Can we “outsource” this task or automate?
  • Is this better to be self-service? Can we have customers / stakeholders find their own answers and learn in the process?
  • Can we do this asynchronously by email rather than in a large conference-calls or meetings? Can we do this by phone vs. in person?

And finally, to consider what assets are worth investing extra time to create now for a longer-term benefit? I tend to believe, perhaps naively, that if you’re only doing an hour of work a day, you’re not likely to be using that time to create assets. In the world of OSS, most people see every project as being unique and different. Therefore, few tend to spend extra time in creating re-usable templates or frameworks or checklists.

Some OSS experts, especially those on time and materials contracts, are happy to create everything from scratch for each project. By contrast, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to make past work more re-usable (but only in situations where I predict that the opportunity to re-use is likely and going to be useful). For example, some templates I use today had their origins more than a decade ago, although they’ve generally been battle-hardened / refined over the years. Our OSS Vendor Selection framework is just one example. Other asset-building techniques include:

  • Learning skills that make you more valuable
  • Building relationships with clients, experts, thought-leaders and more
  • Honing your points-of-view through blogs, white papers, books, etc
  • Designing and creating products, patents, services, etc

Notice that it’s the same thing we talked about at the start of the article? Putting extra time into developing skills, knowledge, products and relationships that become the assets that deliver opportunities to build a thriving career long into the future.

PS. There’s a major flaw in the logic of my story above though. Did you notice what it was?

If you look at the headline of the very first link above, I dropped off an important end to the sentence….

“A Gen Z software engineer at Google reportedly earns $150,000 working one hour a day and spends the rest of his time on his startup.”

The Business Insider article doesn’t tell us the story behind his startup. Depending on what our Gen Z Googler is doing, it’s quite likely that he is developing skills, knowledge, products and relationships outside of Google. Forming a startup definitely helps broaden your horizons beyond those of a typical employee. Whereas employees tend to have a single area of focus (eg engineering), founders tend to get forced into learning about sales, marketing, finances, operations and much, much more.

What does the curve look like if running a startup / side-hustle and being an employee? Remember, it’s not just additive (blue + orange), but compounding. If we mix orange and blue in the chart above (a brown curve?) it would scream off the top of the chart.

It would be interesting t0 hear more about this particular Gen Z and his startup in a few years from now.


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