Bob was a software developer who churned out code for a critical infrastructure company. And he was a good one. So good, in fact, that he was recognized in performance reviews as the best developer in the building, a reputation enhanced by an “inoffensive and quiet” demeanor that made Bob the sort of chap “you wouldn’t look at twice in an elevator,” according to a Verizon case study.
That’s what made him so effective.
Late last year, Verizon’s security team was hired by Bob’s company to investigate the secrets of Bob’s success in pulling off what is either an epic ethical and security breach, or a brilliant operating model that reflects the beauty of the modern economy.
Here’s what happened.
One day, Bob—that’s the pet name Verizon assigned him, by the way, which is perfect because Bob could be anyone—realized that his job could effectively be outsourced to a developer overseas. So that’s what he did. He contracted with a Chinese firm based in Shenyang (a hub that is known, among other things, for a rich talent pool in software) and paid it less than one-fifth of his six-figure salary to churn out his code, which he reviewed and handed off to management each day, on time and with high quality. With all of his new free time, Bob engaged in more fulfilling activities, as outlined in Verizon’s summary of his daily schedule:
9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos.
11:30 a.m. – Take lunch.
1:00 p.m. – Ebay time.
2:00-ish p.m – Facebook updates, LinkedIn.
4:30 p.m. – End of day update e-mail to management.
5:00 p.m. – Go home.
Life was good. Bob treated the consulting firm as a personal cost of doing business, his employer got good, clean, timely code, a geek in Shenyang had a job, and Bob spent his day doing what every disaffected coder dreams of doing: checking out adorable animals and diving into the underbelly of the Internet.
Eventually Bob’s employer noticed an open and active connection from Shenyang in its VPN logs and hired Verizon to investigate. Verizon discovered hundreds of PDF invoices from the Shenyang firm, and Bob quickly confessed. It emerged that he had the same gig—or “scam,” as The Next Web called it—going at several different companies, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
The fallout from Bob’s shenanigans has been swift, fierce and widely publicized. Most of it has focused on how risky the whole thing was: When you get hired to code for a company, the argument seems to go, you don’t turn around and outsource your work to some nameless engineer working in a state infamous for questionable security and intellectual property rights.
But what makes it feel wrong—above and beyond the fact that it probably was wrong according to company policy—was that Bob was good at this. Like, really good. It was bad enough that he dared to do it; the fact that he made a ton of cash by franchising the model only added insult to injury. The cat videos added even more adorable insult to said injury.
When I read the story, however, my first reaction—after being impressed, of course—was that Bob’s employer should have gotten the name of the Chinese coder who handled Bob’s account before escorting him from the building. Maybe they should hire that guy, I thought. In this moment of malfeasance, why could I not help but think that this company had missed the point?
Because what Bob revealed, by ingenuity or by scam, was that there is another way of doing business in his company. A way that is not just cheap and efficient, but capable of delivering superlative results. If I were an executive at that company, I’d be all over this. Why did Bob do it? How did it work? How did he QC the code? How much work could the consulting firm take on? Which cat videos does he recommend? There are so many questions.
But this story says even more about Bob the (every)man. This guy, stuck no doubt as a code monkey in a drab cubicle somewhere, secretly eliminated his own job, then capitalized on the arbitrage by keeping his salary. Certainly this deserves some plaudits, if not for its operational prowess then for its financial insight. Bob literally rewrote the business case for his employment, and created a new model for himself that kept costs low and revenues high. If Bob were a company, he’d be hailed as innovative. And if he worked in a start-up, he’d have been promoted to COO.
Then there’s the cultural commentary. Bob’s gambit ultimately revealed a number of flaws in his company, including the value assigned to the work he does. Draw your own conclusions: Bob was either severely overpaid for the work he was doing (seeing as his employer could have farmed out the work for a fifth of the cost), or he was severely underpaid (by being employed as a mere coder when he should in fact have been heading up technical operations). Perhaps the fact that Bob had more to gain by cooking up this scheme than sharing his insight with the company says a thing or two about the company’s incentives. How unhappy must Bob’s colleagues be? What sorts of freedoms would keep them engaged and loyal? In the chasm Bob created by eliminating his own job, he revealed the abyss of an unhappy workforce.
Ultimately, the case study reveals more than one man’s sloth, greed, and malfeasance, which appear to be Bob’s crimes for commercializing his 21st century malaise. To call him a “lazy genius,” as one publication did, is to begrudgingly recognize his talent while condemning his motivation. It also makes us wonder about the line between employee and employer. Why is it that decision-making of this sort is a virtue at the corporate level but a crime on the personal level?
Bob will probably have no trouble finding work. No one knows his real name. The firm in Shenyang is still available for contracts. He’s proven his model. And there are new cat videos posted every day.