Bullshit-Jobs

Near Nuremberg, 2006

I am in the fourth semester of my engineering studies at the university in Nuremberg and I work like many of my fellow-students in several odd jobs to make ends meet.

One of those jobs is working on a nearby building site with three of my buddies during the weekends, for about fifteen Euros per hour.

The main tasks on this building site, which comprises several dilapidated buildings on a spacious estate, vary a little from day to day, but our duties are by and large clearing out an abandoned production facility, hauling gravel and hard waste with wheelbarrows, and removing thermal insulation and drywalls from housing frames.

The production facility itself consists of one main edifice subdivided into several levels and a vast production hall, a couple of attached offices, a few shops, some murky subterranean store rooms, and approximately a dozen derelict apartments.

Most of the apartments are uninhabited for several years, with broken furniture, garbage and waste scattered all over the floors, some of them with rotten food in turned-on but out-of-order refrigerators as if the previous owners had fled their housings overnight.

Overall, it is a foul-smelling and abominably filthy place.

When we are working indoors, my clothes are soaked with sweat after thirty minutes.

We have to wear respirators at times due to the dust-saturated air, augmented with coarse particles when we are using heavier equipment.

On one of the first days we solely removed pigeon carcasses and decomposed excrement from the premises.

There were two or three days in a row when we smashed waste doors and walls to pieces with sledgehammers.

Relief materializes around noon-time as we devour one or two Kebabs and pouring some cheap beer from a nearby supermarket down our thirsty gorges.

When we drive home after the day’s work is finished, we are watching videos that one buddy of mine had recorded with his mobile phone camera, and we cannot help laughing about our intense-yet-awkward efforts since none of us is used to this sort of physical activity.

At home, after taking a shower in my small student apartment, I notice with interest a compared to a few months ago increased lean muscle mass.

Scrutinizing a phenomenon

“Production is ultimately the production of people. A collection of commodities is a secondary moment which enables us to produce people that we’d like to have around – that’s what life is really about”

– David Graeber

After I graduated in mechanical engineering in 2010, I worked for half a dozen different companies in seven years, until I got my first substantial and long-term employment.

What I’d experienced in the majority of these employments up to this point was tedious, stressful and sometimes tough manual work for automotive suppliers and engineering consulting companies.

But what I’d also seen a lot is a quite bizarre and inexplicable phenomenon, that totally alienates you when you experience it for the first time as a new and idealistic member of the workforce.

Superfluous jobs that don’t contribute anything of value for the company you are working for, and if they vanished it would not make much of a difference.

Handsomely paid engagements within important projects that are utterly useless, viewed soberly.

Jobs in which you write reports that nobody reads, create presentations nobody is interested in, organize unimportant meetings, attend unnecessary telephone conferences.

Jobs where you are done with your real work in forty-five minutes (say something about efficiency), and the rest of the day you drink coffee, surf the net, file unimportant reports from other people, kill time with organizing emails.

But how is this possible? Do we really talk about private corporations and projects within a competitive market?

Inefficiencies are rather a characteristic of socialist economic systems, but capitalism is supposed to wipe such things out.

Can be found a reason for this?

BS-Jobs: Case studies

A couple of weeks ago I came across an article written by David Graeber, an anthropologist and political activist.

He breaks down exactly this phenomenon, and wrote a bestselling book about it – “Bullshit Jobs” (or BS-Jobs, as he puts it) where you spend the day with pointless activities, or with pretending to do important work.

He differentiates several basic types of such jobs, and with two of these types I am somewhat familiar with (the main criteria for a bullshit job is that one knows that her job is more or less unnecessary and one cannot really justify its existence; but of course there is, as always, a grey area or you are bound to apply the 80/20 rule):

“Task managers”: That means in the broader sense middle management and supervisors.

“Duct Tapers”: Jobs that are created to solve problems that should not exist in the first place.

In the following, I want to give three examples for BS-Jobs from my practical experience, and share a short personal perspective afterwards.

Case study #1

I was once hired as a consultant to analyze and assess test-processes of a German automobile manufacturer.

This project was initiated by one development department of this manufacturer, and the initial idea was to hire a team of experienced external consultants who were aside from testing also more familiar with a recently modified legislation.

Several companies were involved and responsible for various kinds of work packages (I was myself hired by a subcontractor of the actual consultant company. The team was hastily assembled and in reality not very experienced, as a matter of fact).

The project was poorly organized from the beginning. Some tasks were well-defined, but most weren’t. It was more like a straw-fire of activism, generated by the new legislation and a new type of vehicle-platform which was in the process of development.

We did what consultants usually do. Collecting data, leading interviews, assessing the major department-processes via textbook assessment forms which had, for all intents and purposes, no connection whatsoever with anything in the real practical world.

There was no chance for an external consultant who was not familiar at all with this company to comprehend, let alone manipulate any of the intricate processes given the limited resources at our disposal (either this was due to ignorance or deliberately).

It was almost entirely BS. The majority of the assessment and the analysis only existed for its own sake, supposedly from the very start1. Our work products disappeared in some virtual drawer and were soon forgotten. On the whole it had something to do with politics and action-fake in an organization where money was somewhat of a non-issue.

1 a case could be made that this was also a sort of “box-ticking” exercise, a further definition of a BS-Job basic type

Case study #2

One characteristic of modern corporate organizations is the concept of outsourcing.

One example. Hardware or software testing is in very rare cases still carried out by in-house test authorities. The staff of the automotive companies has reduced itself to a team of technical managers, with limited knowledge about technical details within the development-processes.

Everything is executed by dozens of subcontractors, the working packages so huge and complex that nobody is really able (or inclined) to estimate the exact amount of resources which have to be allocated.

The testers, which were assigned by a subcontractor and themselves employed by another subcontractor, don’t exist without supervision, technical supervision and a test-management hierarchy.

If anyone is creative or has too much time on his hands, there is plenty of space for inventing BS-activities. There is also a wide range for automating a good deal of the process. If someone is savvy with coding, it is not very difficult to expand a two hours test-activity to, say, a two days test-activity without any genuine difference in the result.

Nobody verifies these expenditures of time, because barely anyone has motivation or time to check convoluted code and scripts with thousands of program-lines, or scrutinize the whole test-strategy on which basis the code was once created.2

For testers and test-management are usually highly skilled personnel, they can literally do whatever they want. I once had an assignment (BS-Job so to speak) to supervise and instruct these people. That was hardly necessary, and happened maybe two to four times a month, though the whole thing was intended as a full-time job.

Your boss is also rather uninterested in the fact that you don’t have work for eight hours. 

He gets the money for outsourced projects and work packages for months, sometimes years in advance. If there is indeed no work, the best one can get is a shrug with the shoulders about the elephant in the room.

2 this is in parts an intrinsic problem within the development process of software, so actually not BS

Case study #3

I once had a job that was originally not a BS-Job, but turned into a BS-Job after about two years. The trouble started as we were not longer permitted to have our offices and laboratories close to our client (that had some legal background).

Again I was hired by a subcontractor of a subcontractor. The main assignment for the project-engineers was software testing in context of Electronic Control Units (ECUs). During the course of the project, most of the testing had been automated (to which I had contributed) or was carried out by the supplier himself.

Two factors generated more and more BS.

Because we were no longer in the proximity of our client and his test-facilities, we had to afford a great percentage of our working time now as travel time. Equipment and vehicles, our daily business main objects, were scattered around several far-off buildings and workshops.

Since our testing was to a large extent automated and our processes meanwhile well-engineered, we had nothing else to do than scrutinizing every detail of our test-scripts, even being aware that is barely necessary and rather making up tasks where there aren’t any real problems.

The roles in that project were poorly defined. In later stages of the project and reciprocally proportional to the real work which had to be done, it became more and more a mixture of bickering over responsibilities and craving for influence.

I communicated these issues directly to my superiors, though they were yet well aware of it.

Due to habit and the structures of the corporation my bosses didn’t want to dissolve their team of experts, who had gotten their salaries through some intricate contracts and big development budgets for months in advance.

Eventually I quit this project and left the company since nothing changed. 

Epilogue

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”

– Parkinson’s law

Of course, I can turn the problem on its head and ask myself: Is it better to have a BS-Job than to have no job at all?

Unfortunately, here we have some kind of dilemma here and there is no easy answer obviously.

But I don’t like to do work which is essentially useless. It makes me depressed. And I think I am not the only one who feels like this.

Some ambient noise might be unavoidable. A structural problem within vast organisations.

But perhaps if we really make an effort to get rid of some of the apparent BS-Jobs, we could facilitate creative projects and do useful research about stuff that matters.

That would be a good thing, I suppose.

References

  1. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory – David Graeber, Penguin Books 2018; ISBN 978-0-241-26388-4