The Stack Overflow Podcast

What companies lose when they track worker productivity

Episode Summary

The home team gathers for a conversation about workplace productivity monitoring: Does it motivate employees to get more done or lead to stress that takes away from deep, focused work and replaces it with busywork instead? Plus, the benefits of remote work for neurodivergent people, the nations moving to protect data sovereignty, and the crypto “geniuses” who filed for bankruptcy and disappeared, leaving a 171-foot yacht in their wake.

Episode Notes

What do companies want to gain through monitoring software—and what do they, and their employees, stand to lose? Read more.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport makes the point that our world isn’t geared toward deep, focused, flow-state work; instead, it rewards the appearance of busyness. Workers who see their keystrokes or mouse movements tracked are likely to focus on those behaviors instead of their projects.

More than 50 countries are establishing rules to control their digital information and achieve data sovereignty. Read more.

Gather round for the latest in cautionary crypto tales: The Crypto Geniuses Who Vaporized a Trillion Dollars. If you’re in the market, you can buy their yacht, the Much Wow (we kid you not).

Today’s Lifeboat badge goes to user Tonyyyy for their answer to the question In what way does wait(NULL) work exactly in C?.

Episode Transcription

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Ben Popper Compiler is an original podcast from Red Hat discussing tech topics big, small, and strange alike. What are tech hiring managers actually looking for? And do you have to know how to code to get started in open source? Listen to Compiler anywhere you find your podcasts or visit

BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, joined as I often am by my wonderful crew of co-hosts, Matt, Cassidy, and Ceora. Alright y’all, I wanted to talk about a big story in The New York Times. It's about technology and it's about work that I thought was fascinating. It's about the rise of productivity tracking apps, and they go way beyond the industries I assume they would be in. Yes, it's there for bankers at a trading desk, and yes, it's there for computer programmers, but it's also there for people like chaplains who are working in hospice with people who are dying and are just there to provide comfort, and then they get their performance review and paycheck at the end of the month and they've been demoted for all the time they spend away from the keyboard. Some of the stories in here are so bizarre that they're almost hard to believe. But I just wanted to throw this out and ask– do any of you know anyone who has had a workplace where this kind of stuff exists? This is like they're taking a screenshot every 10 minutes to see if you're at your desk, they're keystroke logging everything, they’re seeing if you're moving your mouse around. And another woman who was an executive at a company said that for all the time she spent stepping away from her computer to write down some notes or to talk to somebody on the phone about a meeting, all that time was counted against her and they actually took money out of her paycheck. Anytime you're not in front of the computer is not counted as ‘on’ time. I was shocked. I'd never heard of anything like this. 

Ceora Ford The closest thing I've heard to this is with warehouse workers. They're very strict. I think that they have like a 15 minute or 30 minute break or something like that but they all have to get in line to clock out, so that takes time out of your break. 

BP You make a great point. They mention that in the story, so that's a great point. And then here's the thing Ceora, they were talking about people who work in all these different industries similarly being like, “I can't leave my computer for a bathroom break because I'm worried that they'll see I’m not there and then I'll get a demotion. That'll ding my productivity.” I was just shocked. I didn't realize how widespread this was and the nightmarish level of surveillance that people were having to experience at work.

Cassidy Williams I'm reading a book exactly on this topic right now. It's called Deep Work by Cal Newport. And it's particularly interesting because he talks about what deep work is, it gets into flow state and that sort of thing which we've talked about on this show before. But he was talking about how there's all these companies, he mostly talks about the tech industry, but other industries too where kind of like what this article says, because they track mouse movements and typing and that sort of thing, it ends up encouraging busy work and not as important work instead of really meaningful efficient work. And it talks about it as a problem and how our world is not really designed for very deep focused flow work. It's designed for, ‘Look at me! I'm working!’ type of work and it's not a good thing because some of the people who have been the most productive in history and people who do a lot of really great books and software and various other pieces of work tend to be very efficient with it and very strict about their time with it and do take regular breaks because it's good for your brain, and that's just not what we see in this day and age. 

BP There were a few quotes in the article about people who are just sort of mindlessly moving their mouse all the time just to make sure, or there's programs you can download and install that are just in the background opening and closing windows and stuff so that if you need to step away it looks like you're working. And that's exactly what you described. Your job has now become a BS job where half your work is just showing that you're working instead of actually focusing on whatever the problem is at hand.

CW There was an example at Yahoo. What was the CEO's name, Marissa Mayer? When she first joined they basically had these kinds of logging softwares and she was pushing for people to not work remotely because she could see that people were spending less time on email and more time on this and that, but then it turned out productivity started going down or something because people were doing much more busy work and less of their meaningful work because of these metrics that are silly that don't actually show what work is.

CF I feel like this is probably in the grand scheme of things counterproductive, because in the tech industry one conversation we've been having in some places is the idea of the four day work week where a lot of companies who have done the four day work week have seen that the productivity of their team or company was either the same or increased surprisingly. And I feel like this is the exact opposite of that. Micromanaging your employees and keeping a close eye on them, otherwise you take money out of their paycheck. Is that really increasing productivity at the end of the day? Is skipping lunch and skipping your bathroom breaks actually going to make you better at your job? 

BP It’s going to stress you out.

CW Yeah, it’s awful.

Matt Kiernander I feel like the most happy friends I have are the ones who work at companies where their performance is very empirical, it's very output driven. If they get the work done then that's all that matters. It doesn't matter whether or not they're sitting on their bums for eight hours a day doing busy work, it's whether or not they're able to meet the capacity and the targets that they've been set by the team and whether they can do that work in four hours or eight hours, it's the productivity that matters.

BP I completely agree with that. I feel lucky. Cassidy and Ceora we’ll hear from you, but at Stack Overflow we set goals, we have projects, and we have deadlines, and making those deadlines and pushing those projects live and then measuring if they work and fixing them as we go on, that's what we're all about. It doesn't matter how you got there. What matters is that you did the work to get to that finish line and then you figure out how to measure the results and improve or iterate as necessary. Do you two feel like that's kind of the vibe at the workplaces you've been at recently? 

CW Yes. My work at Remote is very async, which is interesting because if you can avoid a meeting, they want you to avoid a meeting. Just get your work done whenever you can, stick to Slack messages and Loom videos if you have to communicate something a certain way, but otherwise try to be as async as possible. And it did take some getting used to because my previous role was very, very meeting driven. But everyone is so productive because they just work on their own time whenever they can. Some people prefer just working at night, some people prefer the morning. We're across so many different time zones that's just kind of how the company functions and it works very well. It's something that I feel like a lot more companies should do.

MK Considering everything that you do is async, does that ever get lonely that you're kind of not interacting with a certain number of people every?

CW Honestly no, because we still do have meetings like one-on-ones with our managers or occasional syncs where we do have quick conversations and we do still have social meetings too. They try to say if your meeting is not a one-on-one or something it should probably be social so that way you can make friends and that sort of thing. But I know for myself, I will have occasional social calls or coffee chats or something with my coworkers. I get my work done and then I have more time to talk to my non-work friends. So I don't mind that at all honestly.

CF One thing I've been thinking a lot about too is, for people who are either neurodivergent or people who don't really fit the typical nine to five schedule, I think that working when you're most productive is really productive and that those times are different for every person. For instance, I know with one job I had, every day routinely there was an all-hands that every employee at the company was required to attend. And I am not a morning person. The meeting for me I think at the time was like 7:30 and that like derailed my whole life. So taking into consideration people who are neurodivergent. I have ADHD, I think a couple other people here do too, and that can affect when I'm most productive and sometimes that's not the typical nine to five schedule. I actually find that I prefer to work the West Coast time zone, so I'm on when all my West Coast coworkers are on and I think framing work in that way if you can, if you do have the ability, you work in an industry or a field where you can work asynchronously or mold your schedule to what's best for you, I think that works really well for people. Think about people who have kids and things like that, people who have health issues, if you can work when it's best for you, I think that ends up making it so that you produce the best work as well. 

CW That's how one of my coworkers actually does it. She and her husband have a couple of toddlers and so they're very young and very, very active. And because they both have very flexible schedules, she'll work in the morning so that way she can take the kids in the afternoon and he'll work in the afternoon so he can take the kids in the morning. They don't need to have daycare because they're able to stagger their schedules like that.

BP That's nice. All right, I want to bring this one to a close. Thanks everybody here for sharing your stuff on it. Just to sort of put this in perspective before we jump off, the article says that 8 of the 10 largest employers in the US now track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time, and that is for millions and millions of people. I mean, I had heard of it but it's alien to me. I've never experienced it, I don't have any friends who've experienced it. I guess the article does make one sort of good point which we've talked about before. They were saying, what are the things that people do see once they look at this, and it's like, “Well, this person was playing video games three hours a day while they were on the clock. They were looking at porn twice a day in between meetings. They were hiring other people and outsourcing their work to lower paid workers.” So that's the scenario that convinces the managers or the executives that this is necessary. 

CW I feel like there's those, I don't even want to call them bad eggs, but there's certain behaviors like that that aren't great but I would guess that a grand majority of people aren't doing that and it's frustrating to hear. But that was another thing that they brought up in the book. There was this one case study where there was some worker who was constantly playing video games at work but they always met their deadlines for everything that they produced, and so the manager was like, “I mean, I'm not a fan of the fact that they play video games all day, but if they get their work done, who am I to tell them what they do with their time?” 

CF Yeah. I actually had a similar thing happen to me when I was in school which I just realized parallels pretty well. I was notoriously doing other things when I was supposed to be doing work in class because I would finish my work early so then I would draw or I would make friendship bracelets while I was supposed to be doing work. And my teachers couldn't really get mad at me because my assignments and classwork was done. But that's how I kind of feel, like if someone's playing around but their work is done at the end of the day, then their work is done at the end of the day.

BP You're lucky to have good teachers. That has happened in my children's education. They finish something early and then they start drawing a comic book and then the teacher comes around the room and is like, “It's math time. This is not what you're supposed to be doing.” It's like, “Well, I finished the assignment,” but some people are inflexible in that way. So I think that's a good point, Ceora. 

CW I think we could go on a deep dive about how the education system is very not tailored for kids who are creative and do get work done quickly and that kind of stuff. We could all probably name cases of that sort of thing whether it's happening to us or other people. And yeah, unfortunately that element of creativity and getting stuff done fast is rarely rewarded with our education system. 

MK One other thing I'll add as well, just on the subject of if you get your work done then that should be good enough. You might be able to afford to play video games for a couple of hours. In the freelance community there's a big stigma, not a stigma, but a lot of people try and get away from charging or billing hourly for their work and doing project based things. And the reason for that is because that rewards efficiency over time in a seat. So they're able to take multiple projects, work extremely efficiently and fast and get it done. And just because they spent 10 hours delivering a project, the end value of them delivering that, it doesn't matter whether they take 30 hours or 40 hours to do it, the value remains unchanged. And it's one of those things going from a salaried position to I guess freelance or project work, is that in a salaried position you are being paid throughout that entire year. You are being paid for those 40 hours a week. Whereas doing projects, it rewards efficiency more than anything else. 

CW Outcome-driven.

BP Yeah. I hope people who are smart enough or efficient enough to handle their own work and then subcontract out for other companies, get a second laptop, okay? Do yourself a favor, don't drag yourself into this mess. All right, a few more news hits we had here I wanted to touch on. There was one here, it was about the era of borderless data ending. And so this was about how 10 years ago as apps were coming out that were being used globally with the rise of smartphones and people were downloading the same apps in China as in the US or as in Europe or as in Africa, there weren't a lot of controls about where the data flowed and where it ended up and who owned it for legal or other purposes, and that now a lot of governments and regulatory agencies are becoming much more serious about this. We had to deal with this at Stack Overflow. We have a hundred million developers visiting every month, super global, and we had to do lots and lots of updates and revisions to become GDPR compliant and to figure out where the data was being held and I'm sure we'll have to do more in the future. But I would put it to you three, is this something that you've had to deal with in your work, and do you think that some of these new rules and regulations are a good thing? 

CW It's something that I deal with a lot at Remote because a lot of my coworkers are based in Europe and in elsewhere and, whew, data management, we've had to do so many different trainings and even when talking about interview candidates we're not allowed to say their name on Slack if we're discussing things because it's all about data privacy and making sure that people's data is protected. And I think it's honestly a good thing but it's clunky right now. I think we've all been on those websites where they have the gigantic cookies banner and stuff and I do think that it's one of those things where it should probably be opt-in rather than opt-out of cookies and lots of other things there that I could rant about. 

BP And I'm visiting the website for the seventh time, Cassidy, and accepting the cookies on mobile. It's like, how many times do I have to accept these cookies?

CW Please! Yeah, again, I ultimately think it's a good thing but the ergonomics of it are not there yet. 

BP Right. 

MK When I was working in Amsterdam one of the things that we had to deal with was localizing for English, Dutch, and German. And it's a kind of similar thing where it's necessary to do but it's incredibly clunky and difficult to kind of get right. And it's a lot more work for us as developers to incorporate this. I find it really challenging to be honest. 

CF Yeah, I think in general it's a good thing. Just thinking from a user's perspective, it's good for their data and information to be protected. And also as far as the question goes, whether or not I've had to deal with this, actually this is the first job where I've had to deal with it so much because Okta/Auth0 are security companies. I was just having a conversation with my manager the other day and some information that I'm used to just keeping anywhere, I can't do that anymore just because of law changes.

BP That's going to be good for you. You're going to sharpen up your game.

CF Yeah. So it's something I'm having to deal with increasingly. I think the issue is that the legal/law system if that makes sense was not built with technology in mind.

BP Right. It hasn’t kept up.

CF Yeah. And I also think that technology or the software that we built wasn't built with data privacy in mind either. So I think with those two things trying to fit together it's going to be clunky for a while. I think it's good to start now as opposed to later, but I think it's going to be a long time until it feels natural or it actually works. But I do think it's a good thing. 

CW I think you're right. Companies took advantage of the fact that the government hadn't caught up yet. 

CF Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely, 100%. 

CW Good for them, you got your bread, but at the same time it's something that they’ve got to stop now. It's the kind of thing where I think a lot of people push back, like, “Oh, I've got nothing to hide. What does it matter?” But the thing is, at a macro scale, if a company can use all of this data to sway public opinion on anything, which we have seen happen, this could get worse and worse and it's very, very dystopian. And so I think data privacy is something that we need to lean into and push for as individual consumers and as developers and people who have a say in the companies we work for, because it's very important in the end.

CF I was going to say, I wonder how this is going to pan out for companies that are basically built off of exploiting the fact that this wasn't a thing before. Like, the rug is being pulled from underneath them. They're going to have to probably essentially change everything about whatever they do. And we could name quite a few companies right now but I won't do that. 

BP No, no. I was going to say I don't want to name names, but since this is public information, Facebook said to its shareholders, we expect to lose $10 billion in ad revenue because of Apple's changes and people opting out with ‘Do Not Track’. So that's out there exactly like you were saying. This has been their business model and now consumers are being given the chance to opt out and that's going to have a big impact. We won't name names, but to continue the trend, there's been a lot of talk in the developer world and I think it's super interesting about the in-app browser, where you're in this simulacrum of a browser, it feels like you're in Safari or Chrome, but really you're in this web box that's inside of whatever the app is and the rules are completely different. Whatever privacy settings and cookie settings, throw those all out the window. The in-app browser is its own little wild west with its own rules. Right, Cassidy? 

CW It's wild. I was reading about this recently because the apps that have the in-app browser can track everything you do in that in-app browser, which if you've ever opened a website in TikTok you might know, you can't open that in Safari. It's just in TikTok and you have to find that URL elsewhere and that is by design because they can see what you're clicking and they can tailor everything to you. And it's frustrating this is just allowed, but it is, and they can tailor every single thing to you and make you really, really dependent on what they show you. 

CF That's one thing about TikTok. I think Instagram at least allows you to click on the little Safari icon or whatever. 

CW Yeah, you’ve got to do that every time. 

CF Right. But if you're purchasing things on the in-app browser, they keep track of all that information, right? They know exactly what you bought, how much of it you bought, how quickly you bought it.

CW They offer to save it for next time. 

CF Yeah. All of that is a thing and God forbid you're logging into different things and accounts and things like that on there. I kind of picked up on that too. I was like, “This is really strange that they don't let you open this up in the browser.”

CW That's by design. 

MK I've never bought anything through an Instagram ad before because I kind of feel like they got me if I do. If I do that I'm like, “Oh cool. I concede defeat here. You won, I'll buy it, here's my information.” The one thing I have bought recently actually was for like vacuum storage and keeping your fruit and meat and stuff like that fresh. That I can endorse. That was a very good purchase. But maybe this is where it all begins. Are you ready for a crypto story? Because this is wild and I fully expect a movie to be made about this some stage after the dust settles. Are you ready? 

CW I'm ready. 

BP Yes. 

MK All right. Well once upon a time, there was a crypto company called Three Arrows Capital, otherwise known as 3AC. They initially started making money with currency arbitrage. Basically they would take mispriced quotes from vendors for foreign exchange companies, foreign exchange fees, or brokers, and they would make profit, like sometimes cents on dollar traded to make money. So if a company misrepresented a quote, said 70 cents but the actual price was 71 cents, they could capitalize on that for instance. And so people stopped working with this particular company because they were basically making money in a not very nice way, and they pivoted into the crypto scene funny enough. And people thought they were geniuses. This is an article from The Verge by the way, so there's a lot of really good information there. And they found a lot of success here. They raised a lot of money, they were working in the millions of dollars territory. And then they made a series of investments, so they invested heavily in Terra and Luna and their estimated crypto holdings went from 500 million to 604 dollars. Yes. So they lost a lot of money doing some of these things.

CF A lot is an understatement. 

CW So many zeros gone. 

MK That's a country's GDP for sure. It's run by these two folks, Davies and Zhu, and they admitted that they lost $200 million in investments, which is just wild when you think about it. So they recently filed for bankruptcy last month, which also brought down a fellow firm called Voyager Digital, and the founders are believed to be in hiding and there are theories being thrown around that they're in hiding because they borrowed cash from organized crime. 

CW Oh my gosh.

BP This does sound like a good TV series. 

MK Also, with any good TV series there is typically a boat involved, and they bought a yacht for $50 million and it was called the Much Wow Yacht.

BP Much Wow. 

MK Yeah. Sorry, it was $150 million, and it's being left in I think Singapore because they can't they can't get access to it.

BP Yeah. 3AC was kind of like the one in the middle. They had a lot of counterparties. My understanding is that Voyager and Celsius and a few other people who have run into rough times, it all stems back to 3AC and the amount of money that they had borrowed from people that just went poof. And along with just disappearing and declaring bankruptcy, they've made it impossible through these other ones for people to withdraw their funds. So shout out to our last guest from DoNotPay, this was what they were talking about when they were saying you can sue these companies in small claims court and if and when any money is ever recovered, you will be at the front of the line according to the DoNotPay founder to hopefully recover some of what you lost. 

CW I would like to quote The Notorious B.I.G. and say, “Mo money, mo problems.” 

BP Yeah, for sure. All right. Well I hope everybody who’s listening is okay, and if you got burned on this one, our condolences. 

CF That's incredible in a really terrible way.

MK Yeah. They’re currently headed to Dubai at the moment because there are no extradition agreements. So if this does turn into a movie there's going to be international travel, they're going to be on a boat, organized crime. It's going to take all the box office things.

CW It's going to be like Wolf of Wall Street, but crypto.

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BP Alright everybody. It's that time of the show. I'm going to shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge and we're going to say our goodbyes. “In what way does weight:null work exactly in C?” Yeah, in what ways? Thanks to Tonyyy for answering that question and you earned yourself a lifeboat badge, Tonyyy. You've helped almost 40,000 people so we appreciate it. I am Ben Popper. I am the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Email us with questions or suggestions, If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps. 

CW My name is Cassidy Williams. I do developer experience at Remote and OSS Capital. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things. 

CF And my name is Ceora Ford. I'm a Developer Advocate at Auth0. You can find me on Twitter. My username there is @Ceeoreo_. 

MK And I’m Matt Kiernander. I'm a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow. You can find me online, Twitter and YouTube @MattKander.

BP Yes, everybody head on over to our YouTube channel. Just look up Stack Overflow on YouTube. Matt has made some awesome videos, plus you can see all of us doing the podcast in person. 

MK Oh, in the last episode you can see Ben do a spit take, so that's also fun. 

BP Yeah, I'm being more careful with my seltzer intake on these. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening and we will talk to you soon. 

All Bye!

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