Accounting for Time

I haven’t had a job that could be done by rote since I was a lifeguard, with one or two miserable exceptions. For most of my jobs, I’ve been given an area of responsibility and told to figure out how to get it done.

Also for most of my jobs, again with a couple of miserable exceptions, I’ve worked to serve one organization; few and far between have been the times when I was supporting several different organizations at once so that someone had to know how to bill my time.

A person looking at my education might call me a well-educated person, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I had good grades while growing up, and a Masters degree is a further distinction. Many of my peers have no need for such a degree; our work isn’t taught in schools; it’s learned by a variety of experiences bound together to be compared and contrasted to inform any current situation. I just happen to have a grounding in the theoretical backgrounds for what I do, or at least some of them.

From all of this, I don’t respond well to being asked what I did for work on a given day. Generally, I did what had to be done, and when nothing had to be done, I looked for something that should be done. Sometimes, I merely waited for something else to happen so I could continue what I was working on. I made sure I knew what was important to those leading me, and I set my priorities by their priorities, influenced by my knowledge of details that might escape them. I’d try to make sure anyone who matters understood my rationale, but mostly I pursue their goals and my overall goals in the ways I see fit.

Some of my employers, especially the commercial enterprises, have been very keen on whether my time has been an investment or an expense. If I am an expense, I am a charge against this year’s income. If I am an investment, my time has a residual benefit over three or five or seven years, or some other amount of time. It makes this year’s financial statement better to say that only one third of my salary is a charge this year and that the other two-thirds can be depreciated over time. Of course, if next year all of my work is of immediate benefit only, suddenly I’m three times as expensive as I was last year, and the gap between income and expense has narrowed, or a deficit has increased.

When some company brought me in for a specific duration to implement some upgrade or change, I was an investment. That makes a lot of sense. But if you employ me because you need three backup administrators or two system programmers, you’ll be paying for three backup administrators until some point when you decide you need more of us or fewer of us. My cost will be relatively stable. I am an expense, not an investment; if you don’t pay for someone like me, you don’t merely continue with the status quo; you lose a function.

Whether I’m working for a hardware store, an equipment manufacturer, or even a software developer, I’m not in the main line of business; I’m part of the infrastructure that makes things possible, and we’re a small part of the business. If I do our jobs well, you barely notice us. It’s like the power company: if you turn on a light switch and the light turns on, you don’t thank the power company. You only think of them during an outage — or when paying the bills.

I understand why a software company wishes to know which products its programmers are working on. They have to know how much to charge for the product, and they have to assess if the product can be profitable or not. I understand why implementers have to report for which customers they’re working; it’s not fair to charge A if the implementer was working for B.

My work supports several customers indiscriminately, and it supports several aspects of our offering for them equally. If I report that I worked eight hours today for my division without billing to a specific customer, asking me what I did isn’t going to be interesting to you. I can tell you about trying to configure servers, or talking with peers about how they solved similar problems elsewhere, or about meetings with vendors to discuss several ongoing projects in parallel, but a bookkeeper who’s told to make sure all lines on timecards have descriptions won’t understand any nuances of that. No, the several projects in parallel don’t have different cost centers. They don’t apply to different customers. It’s all one big stew.

So, news from my supervisor this week that Payroll wants our division to start commenting our time reports puts me in a funk. Our 7,000 employee thirty-five year old start-up that’s privately held just became slightly more like some of my past Fortune 500 employers in one of the least attractive ways possible.

Accounting for time might be standard operating procedure, but SOPs aren’t “one size fits all,” and as my ex once accused me, I’m not normal.


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