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Scale Things that You Do

Scale Things that You Do

February 26, 2019 10:58 pmComments are Disabled

If you’re into the tech scene chances are you’ve read Paul Graham’s essay Do Things that Don’t Scale. It’s gospel for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs because it encapsulates an important principle for successful startups, that it takes an awful amount of work to get from 0 to 1, whether it’s dollars, users or customers. And that work often needs to be done laboriously, without technology, because of the technology existed, said entrepreneurs wouldn’t have an open business opportunity in the first place.

I would like to propose a corollary to this famous rule, for those among us who aren’t starting their own companies, but are instead trying to achieve success inside organizations large and small. That rule is: Scale Things that You Do.

Everyone’s job involves, more or less, the production of certain outputs at a certain rate. A software engineer produces code, an architect produces blueprints, a lawyer produces contracts, a customer service representative produces resolved cases, and a barista produces coffee. Since many of these roles are compensated based not on level of output but on time, there’s no reason for most people to think of their jobs as being the fixed output of a certain amount of work product over the same period of time. After all, a barista makes the same money no matter how many cups of coffee are brewed, so why make more? The pay will be the same. In the mind of most employees, salaries and time are fixed, so output must be fixed as well.

Unfortunately, employers often see the contribution of an employee very differently. To an employer, time is fixed, but salaries are variable. The reason salaries are variable to an employer is because business income is also variable. It’s highly prone to fluctuations in demand in a volatile, competitive and often hostile marketplace. Employers have no problem cutting pay when times are bad. And of course they won’t raise pay automatically when times are good. But they will raise pay for high performers, because the output generated by those performers creates extra income.

It’s easy for unit-based workers, like salespeople, taxi drivers, and general contractors, to understand the immediate benefit of extra outputs over the same period of time. But it’s harder for workers whose contributions to their company are obscured by a steady, fixed paycheck to understand how extra efforts might translate into tangible benefits in the long run. And so the hamster wheel spins and so many people feel trapped in their monotonous jobs, receiving their steady, fixed paycheck for steady, unchanging work.

Which brings us to our rule: Scale Things that You Do.

The most successful people in any firm are those who figure out how to produce more outputs at the same cost: in other words, those who increase efficiency. This can be done in several ways. Technology is one. If you find yourself copying and pasting rows of a spreadsheet into another spreadsheet all day, chances are that could be automated by a macro–something anyone with Google could figure out how to do. Outsourcing is another: in the same example, there’s a remote worker in the Philippines or Bangladesh or Nigeria who could do the same task for a fraction of the cost of an American worker.

There are many people reading this who are thinking “If I do that, I’ll be out of a job, won’t I?” Well, it depends on what kind of a job you want, and how much you want to make. If you’re happy doing the same boring job day in, day out, then of course you would resist any attempt to change the status quo. But if you would like to move up, you need to think about how you can scale the work you’re doing to provide more value for your employer.

It is true that if someone came along and offered the same service you do for a lower cost, you would be out of a job. But the key difference here is that you would be scaling your own job. When you scale your own job, you have promoted yourself. You are now not responsible for just your work, but the work produced by new resources you have willed into existence. The extra work is now under your purview. Since by definition your outputs have increased, you now have the ability to demand more pay for your contribution, and the employer has to oblige, because the cost of not obliging is too great. The cost of not obliging is replacing you with a less performant worker, or watching you move on to another company that is willing to pay for your talents.

One of the best ways to increase efficiency in an organization is through management. Employers will look for rising leaders in the ranks of a company to groom as managers, because they recognize the efficiency-adding value of great managers. Great managers create great teams that together produce more work than would be done by all members individually. That’s what justifies paying a manager at all: if managers created cost for no benefit, few firms would employ them.

There are two ways to move up in an organization: wait for an opening and apply, exposing yourself to the risk of competing against others for limited, more powerful roles each rung of the ladder. Or, you could give yourself more responsibility by figuring out how to scale your own job. People who figure out how to scale their own jobs invariably find themselves with more responsibility and higher pay.

So, if you find yourself struggling at work, don’t take Paul Graham’s advice to Do Things that Don’t Scale. Instead, Scale Things that You Do. And eventually you will be successful enough that you can quit, and maybe one day even start a startup of your own.

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