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That Other Kind of Job

This tweet by ChemJobber caught my eye over the weekend. He’s referencing an article in the New Yorker on “The Bullshit-Job Boom”, which is a review of this new book by David Graeber at the London School of Economics. Graeber’s thesis is that there is a higher and higher fraction of the labor market occupied by jobs that either don’t have to be done or don’t really occupy a person’s full time, and ChemJobber was hoping that this wasn’t the case so much in chemistry.

For what it’s worth, I think he’s right. But right around the field there are plenty. Here’s an example from the book, from one of Graeber’s correspondents:

I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.

Yeah, I can definitely see that happening. A key thing to remember is that many of these aren’t “bad” jobs in the traditional sense – they’re not strenuous, dangerous, etc. They’re just. . .extraneous. No one (other than those holding them, and sometimes not even them) would feel much of a sense of loss if these positions disappeared. I’m reminded of a column many years ago (I’ve used this example before) by Mike Royko that he wrote when the city government of Chicago was trying to cut back its staff. He suggested going around and asking people what they do. If they could tell you something concrete and intelligible, he said, keep them. But if they said that they “facilitate” things (for example), or start off with “Well, it’s really hard to define”, then let them go. Those jobs would qualify under Graeber’s definition, I feel sure.

The larger the company you work for, the more of these things will be present – I think that’s certain. I think that one reason is that large organizations tend to be very much more into defined processes than smaller ones are, and as those processes get ever more detailed and defined and monitored, there’s a lot of box-checking that goes on. That’s a big category in Graeber’s classification of BS jobs, actually. His overall definition is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case“. His five categories are “flunky” jobs, where people are paid to stand around and make others look and feel important, “goons” who are there because other organizations have them and you have to keep up (his example is the PR staff at Oxford, which would still not be an obscure university otherwise), “duct tapers” who are there to fill gaps and ameliorate flaws that could be fixed more systemically (but aren’t), “box tickers” who go through vaguely important-looking motions, and “taskmasters” who manage people who don’t actually need another manager and also assign more BS for others to do.

In a large organizations, parts of the process exist mainly because they’re parts of the process; things are done because that’s the way that things are done. And it’s a human tendency to take refuge in this, especially in a business as uncertain as drug discovery. I have seen this, up close and personal, and if you’ve been doing this long enough, you have too. It’s the belief that “Well, if this project fails, we won’t get blamed for it because we did everything by the book”. There’s something useful down there – the idea that you should do the key experiments, investigate things properly, give a project a chance to really work and ditch it if it doesn’t. But barnacles attach themselves, and the end result is a feeling, conscious or not, that as long as the PowerPoint slides are polished enough, and everyone’s favorite assay is run, and everyone’s favorite managerial buzzwords are paid homage to, that it doesn’t matter so much if the project works or not because, y’know, the important parts got done anyway, right?

And that’s pernicious, because we’re not here to make lovely screening cascade slides and spout corporate phrases at each other. We’re here to discover stuff and make drugs, drugs that are effective enough for people to pay money for them, while not leaving a trail of wreckage in our wake. Things that make that process easier, more direct, and more likely to work are probably good, and things that make it harder and more circuitous are probably bad. But adding a fifth person to the safety incident reporting system team is helpful, you say. You’re not against safety, are you? Beefing up the corporate compliance staff is necessary; where would we be if we got in trouble? And the week-long Compliance Fair is coming up; who’s going to decorate the lobby and sit behind the tables handing out brochures, right? And there you go.

60 comments on “That Other Kind of Job”

  1. Peter Kenny says:

    Derek, you really do need to be more respectful. Reminding chemists that they’ll lose their jobs to more enlightened chemists who use AI is an important job. I know that it can be difficult to keep a straight face when the Lean Six Sigmoids refer to each other as ‘belts’ but you’d be IDS (that’s In Deep Shit and not Iain Duncan Smith) without their disruption. The URL that I’ve linked for this comment is a perfect example of the horrid and groundless negativity that Pharma’s Leadership Function has to endure on a daily basis.

    1. Vader says:

      Sigmoid, as in, the part of the colon that attaches to the rectum?

      1. Peter Kenny says:

        Just as dysentery is simply colon chromatography with fast elution…

        1. Nick K says:

          “Colon chromatography with fast elution”. Magnificent image!

          1. Peter Kenny says:

            I claim no originality for the imagery and was introduced to the phrase many years ago by my good friend Simon Russell

    2. loupgarous says:

      Great site, Kenny. Especially loved the part about calling BS being able to call bullshit on TED presentations. I saw a fantastic TED demonstration of “drone athletics” and only hours later had to admit that I couldn’t think of a single justification for that particular technical capacity.

      “Drone athletics” is probably a good meme for the pure hype we occasionally see at TED, SXSW, etc,

  2. Bureaucracies are fascinating. There’s a wonderful book called Systemanctics which is simultaneously a wildly funny satire and an exact technical description of how bureaucracies work. Highly recommended.

    1. John Wayne says:

      I looked into this book, and I found two related:

      “Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail”

      “Systemantics: The Underground Text of Systems Lore”

      Which is the right one?

      1. The first one, by John Gall, is the one on my shelf. I have never heard of the second, for all I know it’s even better! But the one I meant was the first.

        1. John Wayne says:

          Thank you for getting back to me, and so quickly.

  3. BK says:

    I like this Graeber fellow; he sounds like a Ron Swanson of sorts.

    But I agree that there are many useless jobs in the large corporate companies that I often want to don a mustache and suspenders and in my best Bob impression, ask “What would you say you do here?”

    1. anon says:

      It’s rare that one would compare an anarcho-communist to Ron Swanson, but I suppose we’re living in very strange times. Graeber is a brilliant and unabashed leftist, so I am surprised to see his work show up on this blog but pleased nonetheless.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        I had that impression about Graeber as well. I may not draw the same conclusions as he does from the BS jobs idea (for all I know, he sees them as the Last Heightened Contradiction of Late-Stage Capitalism or something) or fit them into the same conceptual framework, but hey.

  4. milkshake says:

    It is probably not a bullshit job but nevertheless soul-crushing one to be sure: Technicians in the quality control departments and environmental sample analysis. It is the horrid repetitiveness, assembly line style. Some people like to do it and tune out, but most hate it. I spoke with an unfortunate fellow who worked at QC of a large pharma making thyroid medication. For a QC department they had remarkable lax environmental rules, and as you know thyroid hormore API is highly potent, with strong psychoactive effect. The QC department was right next to the manufacturing plant floor, the place was dusted with it and their people were going seriously unhinged not just from the monotony of their work and the corporate baloney but probably from thyroid hormone overdose too.

    A truly bullshit job is the job of a medicinal chemist working on a dead end project that the management has decided to terminate long time ago, just not telling you. Maybe the reason is bad biology, maybe it is just personal thing. But if you spend two years of the most productive part of your career on a project that was doomed all the way from the beginning, it is hard to become ever excited about any future project – this is worse than all the reorganizations, layoffs, aligning lean silo six sigma open office synergies while shifting the paradigms and pushing the envelopes out of the box to better facilitate the go-nogo cutting edge of funnels on the Gantt charts

  5. fajensen says:

    My current job is primarily to attend meetings so my team can do their work.

    At those meeting many glorious PowerPoints are shown to stakeholders, copious amounts of CO2 is produced for the office plants. Except nothing of any Consequence actually gets done at those big-people meetings and those office plants, while quite life-like, are plastic. Someone from ISS comes around and clips flowers on the flower-sockets occasionally. Maybe to show people that there are even more pointless things to do than stakeholder meetings (“… too much whining, and you will be that plastic flower polisher guy”) .

    Obviously, still more meetings are needed to discuss why nothing is getting done and to facilitate “The Process” and “The Design Tools Integration”.

    Thanks to digitalisation we cannot just use black, green and red markers on paper to explain what the installers need to change, no, today we need to run a whole new revision, using the full engineering design process, and issue document listings where every document must be in the state ‘approved for construction’ and everyone has to update their digital design folders for these new listing. It feels like we are invoking the complexity of the Apollo 5 every time someone needs to fit two cables onto the machine we were supposedly building before getting lost in the clouds of 3D spatial integration . 🙂

    Maybe I should care, except, I have many other life interests than work: I like hiking, canoing, travel, running, programming, electronics and grandchildren. All areas can be effectively worked on and planned for while sitting in meetings or in airport lounges travelling for meetings because everyone have their computer with them at all times.

    In the end, we will be very late, managerial desperation kicks in, virtual money will suddenly tunnel into physical reality and large teams of effective consultants will do everything with minimum interference since they can ignore The Process (I have done that side of the equation also, it is quite nice work too).

    I see it as a 1’st world problem.

    The conflict arises because all the agit-prop of today says that work should be oh-so-meaningful and personally fulfilling. One just has to see past all that flim-flam and instead worry about what one controls. Which is: How one spends the money and one’s time away from work.

    My grandfather for sure did not expect anything more than just getting paid from work.

    1. John Wayne says:

      “My current job is primarily to attend meetings so my team can do their work.”

      Yep.

    2. x says:

      “The conflict arises because all the agit-prop of today says that work should be oh-so-meaningful and personally fulfilling.”

      Well, it’s not like they’re going to pay you well in MONEY – and in some cases, your “free time” is really just time spent on call – so you’d better damn well find some psychic reward to supplement your income. Imagine if all those employees realized they’re in business and decided to raise their prices to cover growing overhead?

  6. Me says:

    I read the original article awhile ago. Plenty of these roles to go around:

    At one big pharma I worked at there was a whole rank of management whose task it was to present Powerpoint slides of what the med chem teams were doing to senior management.

    And the one above took the Powerpoint slides from 3 or 4 of these guys and presented it to even more senior management. The even more senior management would go around giving talks about ‘how they were steering the ship’ and simultaneously blame the underlings if anything went wrong.

    The level below the first mentioned had the option: they could either get involved in managing the med chem programs, or they could sit at their desks reading Nature.

    Below that were the chemists and their line management who generally did all the work.

    Since I left med. chem and moved on I think these days I have a job that would be regarded as a ‘duct-tape’ role based on the above definitions: They could eliminate my role by training other functions to check the regulations before they did anything. I probably spend a day a week adding value with input into stuff and the rest of it attending meetings and filing paperwork.

    And in my new role we had an ingenious solution to remove the time burden of meetings: Arrange meetings before the meetings where we can discuss what we will discuss in the meeting. I’m actually dead serious…….

    1. Peter Kenny says:

      There is another type of job which could be described as “Being Informed” although this job is not about assembling information or distilling information into knowledge. This job is quite literally about being informed (usually by people presenting powerpoint slides). Just as presenting powerpoint slides has become a job, so too has being presented to.

    2. Paul D. says:

      There’s an old Dilbert on that (see link in name).

    3. NotAChemist says:

      The last time I had to attent pre- and post-meeting meetings it was in an adversarial conflict with a vendor. It allowed us to co-ordinate our response. It made sense.

      1. zero says:

        That’s battle planning, and perfectly appropriate. I’ve seen the same thing for contentious meetings between departments.

        Internally, though, it is often better to pick someone to put together a document covering the knowns and unknowns of interest. That can be circulated by email for comment, so the actual meeting proceeds like a status report instead of a remedial math lesson.

        For me that means a dozen people can ‘lightly inform’ themselves on a given topic, weigh in on any concerns they have and get those concerns addressed before the meeting. It’s much easier / faster this way to figure out whether enough information is on hand for a decision and then either make one or assign tasks to get to that point.

    4. Fluorine Chemist says:

      I am not surprised at all! In my previous employment, the entire senior faculty was called to discuss the color of the floor tiles in the rest rooms! This meeting went on for a couple of hours. A marathon meeting took place starting Friday morning about 09:00 hrs and ending at 19:00 hrs, just to discuss the layout / colors of the organization’s website! At one point of time, I used to feel like puking on hearing the “m” word, I got so averse to meetings. Luckily (knock on wood), in my present employment, the longest meeting I’ve attended has not gone beyond 30 min and I could get a lot of good takeaways.

      1. There is a class of people who measure their worth by how many people of what rank they can induce to attend their meetings, and how long they can hold them.

  7. Chrispy says:

    As the saying goes, a corporation is like a tree full of monkeys: those at the top look down and see a bunch of smiling moneys. Those at the bottom look up and just see a bunch of a__holes.

  8. milkshake says:

    “Middle management is like a mother in law: It can be useful but the life’s easier and more joyful when there is none.”

  9. luysii says:

    As someone who dealt with people with neurologic impairments of all sorts, there are people who love repetitive work and ,more than that, can do it BETTER than the readership because they don’t get bored or frustrated, and feel useful doing it. Things like bookbinding etc. etc.. In the States check out GoodWill industries or any sheltered workshop.

    1. loupgarous says:

      During the Manhattan Project, two methods for separating U-235 out from the less useful isotopes of natural uranium were pursued. One was the electromagnetic separation method Ernest Lawrence developed at UC Berkeley and implemented at Oak Ridge – vast-scale mass spectrometry, essentially.

      The actual separation out of U-235 was done by women of no particular technical background – they were fairly young, teachable, and above all, non-draftable people unlikely to be sent off to fight World War Two (although they did help win the war pretty conclusively).

      Apparently some scientists were concerned that these ladies weren’t looking at the meters showing beam centering and immediately adjusting the potentiometers at their workstations well enough to give the best separation.

      A contest ensued between the scientists who designed and built the electromagnetic separation gear and the women who operated it – over a shift, who produced the most U-235 (as measured by how well the beams were centered)? The women kicked some serious scientist ass.

      1. JustSomeEngineer says:

        The first time I had to “oversee” a test manufacturing run my boss only had one piece of advice: “Just stay the **** out of the techs’ way and everything will go fine.”

  10. MoMo says:

    Everyone I ever hired from Big Pharma needed exorcised to cast out years of demons and evil spirits. They were poseurs, coat-tail riders, patent co-opters, and in short, some of the most reviled, repulsive and ignorant idiots around. Of course our bad for hiring them, but the Charm Offensive goes over quite well and the corporate-speak they had memorized assured their entrance into the organization. Then after about 3 months and with their true colors visible we had to build cases to get rid of them.
    You could fire half your scientific staff with this phenotype and not miss them.

    And if your management/CEO doesn’t know who are the real producers/inventors are fire them too (also goes for Board Members). They obviously aren’t doing their job or have aggressively promoted miscreants in the first paragraph.

    1. fajensen says:

      Parkinsons Law: Infected personnel should be dispatched with a warm testimonial to such rival institutions as are regarded with particular hostility.
      It is possible that there is a little “pass the grenade”-game going on amongst the HR / Search and Selection crowd?

    2. loupgarous says:

      As a SAS coder on contract to one of the very biggest Big Pharma firms, I once had to debug a program giving some palpably wrong adverse events rankings on a test data set. The problem, I thought, had to be in the code calling the Top Ten Adverse Events macro and tabulating its results.

      But it wasn’t obviously bad code, and had passed peer validation, so I took the program back out of “production” and went old school on the issue, which involved being a biological data processor running the same code, my MPU being a handheld electronic calculator left over from college (years and years ago), and output pencil on chart paper.

      Then I dumped a listing of the Top Ten Adverse Events Macro itself and “ran” it on a very small test data set (n=100 or so). Comparing it with manual calculations, the Top Ten AE macro used to report adverse events on every medication submitted for FDA New Drug Approval for years proved to be broken (SAS consists of not one, but several programming languages. SAS Macro has a markedly different syntax and order of execution than base SAS language or SAS Graph).

      The macro was written by someone who’d by then graduated from mere team membership to group team management. I fixed the macro, placed it back into production, reported the issue, and nothing more was said. The macro’s author, by that time, sailed onward and upward through that firm’s corporate strata (at which time mere ability to parse code became less important to the firm’s legitimate goals, admittedly).

      My < 20-year long fight with metastatic cancer began around then, and my career consulting for Big Pharma (or anyone else) soon ended. It's not a case of "bad coder promoted, good coder dropped". SAS Macro has fooled smarter people than me before. The author of that macro followed the same peer validation procedures everyone else at that firm followed, and the procedures just weren't good enough to catch arcane problems with the way macros resolve in the SAS System (I personally think that execution of SAS programs is so difficult for mere mortals to comprehend that even SAS Institute stopped trying to make it more intuitive decades ago).

      Not sure what this says about how large technical ability looms in how people advance through the ranks in Big Pharma. I've seen exceptional people in Big Pharma management, but not in that particular firm. The one I dealt with most often in my product team fell below "unexceptional" to "toxic personality", and the harassment I dealt with in that team one reason that my reaction to thoracic surgery for the removal of my first tumor was withdrawal and severe depression.

  11. NMH says:

    From a review of the book on amazon:

    “Having been one of these low paid wage laborers several years ago, it seems like a cruel joke. The higher paying job I find, the less I actually have to work. The higher ranking the position, the less the job is about doing things and contributing to society.”

    This, IMO, is a pretty good description of academic science. The most important work—experiments—done by post docs and grad students, are done by poorly paid employees. Then as you go up the ladder, near the top, you find tenured faculty near, at, or beyond retirement age, with a shuddered lab (no grant money), one class they may teach (if they teach it at all), and are paid $150 K a year. Hence, this book applies to R1 research institutions, IMO.

    1. Vader says:

      Freakononics is not a reliable guide to all things economic, but it got this one right: It’s the Brass Ring Effect. Part of the pay for all those talented graduate students and postdocs is a sinecure later in life as a tenured professor. Except a great many of them will never actually receive that pay, so it’s cheaper than paying them up front.

  12. Emjeff says:

    Boy, does this hit home, and it’s not just Big Pharma. At my tiny company, there is a person whose job it is (as far as I can tell) to keep track of when things are due. This is a person who could not actually do anything on the list, but nevertheless gets to call the shots on when things need to be done. Do I have to explain how irritating it is for me to have to explain why certain due dates won’t work to a person who is two years out of college?

    1. tommysdad says:

      Pretty much anyone in “Project Management” is extraneous.

      1. Chris Phoenix says:

        Project management can be useful, and I say that as a software engineer. When done right, it’s just division of labor. A good ratio might be one project manager for 25-50 engineers. They gather information about progress toward the goal, distill it, spot problems early, keep stakeholders in the loop, and give a useful high-level picture to engineers of how their personal schedule fits the project schedule.

        These are all things that software engineers could do in theory, but in practice they aren’t all equally skilled at, and if 50 of them tried to do it for themselves, they wouldn’t coordinate well.

        Which is better – for the project manager to collect information from you, or for your VP to randomly stop by and grill you? (The VP isn’t necessarily good at scheduling either, BTW.)

        I’ve worked in startups that were small enough that the managers could be their own tech leads, project managers, and product designers. That’s great when it works. I’ve also worked at a big company on a big project that needed a project manager and didn’t have one, and I NEVER want to go through that again. High-level stakeholders I didn’t even know existed were panicking and pressuring my manager to reorganize my project, and meanwhile no one had even given me a deadline.

        That’s not to say every project manager is needed, or does their job well. But don’t say they’re never useful.

      2. Francini says:

        That depends on the project being managed. Where I am, I consider them highly necessary cat-herders. The day-to-day work of the people at my level is interrupt-driven enough such that, if there wasn’t someone to keep us moving on projects that affect our group’s long term goals and growth, we’d do nothing but service the interrupts. They also serve as a voice louder and more tenacious than our own when we tell them that we need person x in group y to provide us with thing z on a time scale shorter than geologic.

        1. johnnyboy says:

          Agreed. The PMs at my company are all PhD scientists, they understand what is being discussed, and their ‘cat-herding’ function is absolutely crucial to project teams actually getting things done. The problem is with PMs who only have a project management degree and don’t have a clue what is being discussed in meetings.

  13. johnnyboy says:

    My group recently went through two 2-hour meetings, in order to prepare for what we were going to discuss at an upcoming larger group meeting. Counting that final meeting, that’s about 70 FTE hours that were spent on pointless discussion, venting and digressions, which could have been spent on actual work. And that’s excluding all the hours that various people spent on polishing their respective powerpoint slides for that final meeting, of which in the end only about 30% were shown, as people were too busy exposing their various points of view to actually stick to the agenda. The end result of that last meeting was a decision that could have been taken in 30 minutes by the group leader, if that leader had any leadership, which he doesn’t – which is why he’s a company veteran and a mid-management survivor. Oh, and the other thing that was decided was that… we would set up more of these larger group meetings, to facilitate more ‘exchanges’ and ‘increase communication’.
    All this is not exceptional, it’s just routine at my mid-size pharma company – whose management loves to tell itself how ‘agile’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ we all are.

  14. Tom Smykowski says:

    Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don’t have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?

    1. Pennpenn says:

      On the one hand if you can so easily define your job you may well not fit into the “waste of space” categories detailed above, so they’re not talking about you since in many contexts being able to effectively talk to people is useful.

      On the other hand “poster doth protest too much, methinks”?

      1. cal says:

        Hopefully you didn’t miss the commenter’s name being from the 1999 movie “Office Space”?

      2. Nate says:

        Go watch The Office, then the parent comment will make more sense, and in fact be humorous.

  15. Uncle Al says:

    Graeber’s thesis” I find Graeber’s outputs to be insufficiently organic. He requires constructive inputs from a bioethicist, social activists, and a Gender Studies professors’ committee…all buffered through their respective staffs…who in turn manage the diversity day laborers who punch keyboards.

  16. ThoughtLeader says:

    Any of the following should set the BS detectors buzzing: “Lean/Six Sigma”, “Strategy/Strategist/Strategizer”, “Change Management”, “Agile”, “Change Agent”, “Disruptive Innovation”, “Big Data”, “Big Data Analytics”, “Blockchain”, “Learnings”, “Stakeholder”, “Thought Leader”, etc, etc, ad nauseum. Some companies appear to be a lot worse than others with GSK and Pfizer topping the list with the highest ratio of gasbags to workers in my opinion.

    1. zero says:

      Agile and stakeholder are not automatically BS. Often, but not always.

  17. loupgarous says:

    Not just “Disruptive Innovation” – use of any term with “disrupt” as its root applied to technical activity or its management ought to trip MONGO ALARM BELLS.

    Journalists writing about technology and corporate management are mostly responsible for laziness in talking about “disruption”.

    Often, it just means “interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem”. “throw into confusion, throw into disorder, throw into disarray, cause confusion/turmoil in, play havoc with”;
    More drastically “alter or destroy the structure of (something).” distort, damage, buckle, warp.

    “Disrupting markets” isn’t that sort of disruption. Market disruption happens when a missing and unusually useful commodity or service enters the market and less efficient goods or services lose market share (or artificial constraints on those markets no longer apply).

    Bogosity surrounding “Big Data” is because people keep saying it’ll work in ways it won’t. The nation’s medical records, sanitized of patient identifiers, could spot things like fluoroquinolone toxicity much sooner than patient or prescriber reporting of drug and device adverse events. It could be paid for by taking Big Law’s medical liability money stream away from them.

  18. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    Old computer hackers’ term is Lion Food. From a joke about a lion who escapes from the zoo and hangs out near an IBM office eating one manager a day and nobody notices.

    http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/L/lion-food.html

  19. You guys really need to read Herbert Kaufman’s classic, “Red Tape.” Click my name for the Amazon link.

  20. bacillus says:

    Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy: “in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions”

    1. fajensen says:

      The Law need to be updated. In the old days those bureaucracies may be bad, but, they were also an organisational safe-harbour from outsourcing and competition.

      Now, the competition game is played everywhere, meaning that there is a third type of person:

      That is the person who, rationally enough given the circumstances, seeks to maximise his/her own personal goals while the organisation and it’s (long neglected) goals to this person are merely the current means to that end.

    2. RZ says:

      I’ve yet to hear of a teacher union official taking over a school system.

  21. Mike C says:

    I’m going to chalk this one up to “more people visibly talking about this thing than in the past” rather than “more of this is actually happening now than in the past”.

    Why do people think bullshit jobs are more common now than before? In the past someone could get hired to do a bullshit job and keep that bullshit job until it earned them a pension. Now most bullshit jobs result in layoffs at least as quickly as the non bullshit jobs. The complaints about middle management in the comments seem to ignore that there is a lot less of it now than in the past: guess which jobs were eliminated in the last recession and didn’t come back?
    Also, In the past many hourly positions were full time but involved a lot of waiting. Now everyone gets brought on as part time and put on the schedule at the last possible moment, then sent home as soon as the rush is over.

  22. Process Chemist says:

    I was the technical team leader for our pharma intermediates chemistry group (10 chemists, chem engineers and technicians). We had a business meeting that I attended and at that meeting there were more people there than was in my group actually doing the work. I knew then that we were in trouble. Especially when the business development head opened up the meeting with: “O.K. thanks for attending, this is going to be a working meeting.” WTF? As opposed to…..

    1. Anonymous says:

      Academic Group Meetings: Many Pipeline readers will know what I’m referring to, but many others (who haven’t been thru the grad school research experience) might not.

      Maybe I come from a different time period, but academic group meetings used to be useful. I begin with the stories of the RB Woodward group meetings that began in the evening and went on until … until there was nothing left to discuss productively. Some meetings would go on until the early morning hours … and resume later in the day.

      I was in groups that also had Group Meeting evening start times because you didn’t know ahead of time if discussions would last 20 minutes or many hours.

      More recently, I think that academic group meetings are scheduled for one hour (rather, 50 minutes) between 9 AM and 5 PM. Even if you are on the verge of cracking an important problem or settling an important lab issue, the meeting is over … because everyone has to get to another meeting.

      (To non-grad school readers: Some typical formal (prepared) group meeting topics could include (1) research update by one student (on a rotating basis) (2) presentation of recent literature – like reading Pipeline but interactively in a seminar room (3) problem solving – recent (or old) literature presented as a problem for people to develop their skills (4) discussion of lab business (“We need new lamps for the photoreactor.”) (5) Etc. In my experience, when there wasn’t much to discuss or to do, the meetings were over early and we went back to work; if meetings went on and on, they were usually interesting.)

  23. Automation says:

    BS finds a way tho
    It’s the intra-firm flow that is simply beyond the human ability to staunch. We are outclassed by this problem as a species. A friend of mine is an automation tech/engineer who occasionally has pharma customers. So one day my friend gets asked to read some SOP’s before my friend goes onsite. My friend gets an email with eleven, twenty-to-fifty page pdf’s and thinks ‘ah yes busy work…’ ok whatever my friend can read a page or two, get frustrated, and skim the rest. Then one of them somewhere says you are only allowed to read ten in a day… So you have to assume that three things happened in order. Some a**hat in a .gov bureau somewhere (or worse an employee of a real firm) said “mmmm looks like the contractors are too efficient and concerned with finishing on time better slow them down with a raft of paperwork to read. Ya that’ll make things safe around here no hurrying to finish on my watch” (yes that is a verbatim quote, my friends microphones are everywhere). Then some time later after the SOP system was implemented the number required to just set foot onsite exceeded ten. Then sometime after that someone else realized that this amount of BS is too much BS to do in one day and said not “hummm lets cut back on the BS” he instead said “Looks like those tricky contractors are skimming the BS too fast better tell them not too skim in the most un-enforceable way possible” (again real verbatim quotes). So my friend gets told this ten vs eleven thing by my friends boss and my friend just makes sure the dates on the form that says when my friend “read” the SOP’s that less than ten were “read” in a day. Humans, nothing like a garbage fire in the morning.

    As to “meaningfulness” in work, despite being born in the last quarter of the 20th century I never expected for work to be “meaningful”. I’ve always assumed that the people telling us that work should or would be “meaningful” were terminally-slow or in marketing or both.

    I’m not sure if it’s the USSR’s “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” (quantitative easing Social Security, ya the dollar will be a hard currency for YEARS to come, YEARS) or just the peter-principle writ large, but the longer I’m in “business” the more I start to think that NO-ONE knows what they are doing.

  24. myma says:

    At a big pharma I was very happily packaged-out from, there was a whole department for “Risk Management”. They seemed to be spending their time expanding the risk template that each project had to fill out by one column per unit of time. It was truly advanced math. Meanwhile, projects would fail or succeed anyway.

  25. Rich Rostrom says:

    “In a large organizations, parts of the process exist mainly because they’re parts of the process; things are done because that’s the way that things are done.”

    Unverified anecdote: the drill manual for a British army field gun crew circa 1930 specified where each man was to stand when the gun was fired. It included two men standing about 10 feet behind the gun, facing to the rear. No one could remember why they were there, but it was in the manual. Eventually some one figured out why: they were there to hold the horses.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Primo Levi’s Chapter 12 on Chromium in The Periodic Table starts with a recipe for making varnishes: “… returning to boiled linseed oil, I told my companions at table that in a prescription book published about 1942 I had found the advice to introduce into the oil, towards the end of the boiling, two slices of onion, without any comment on the purpose of this curious additive. I had spoken about it in 1949 with Signor Giacomasso Olindo, my predecessor and teacher, who was then more than seventy and had been making varnishes for fifty years, and he, smiling benevolently behind his thick white moustache, had explained to me [… (read Levi’s book for the explanation) …] Evidently, with the passing of the years, what had been a crude measuring operation had lost its significance and was transformed into a mysterious and magical practice.” Later in the same chapter, he explains another mysterious, nonsensical and non-sensible practice of adding ammonium chloride to a paint recipe.

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