The future of work


There are people who receive retirement as a blessing, the opportunity to enjoy some free time that they did not have throughout their lives, while others take years to get accustomed to it, if ever at all. They get up at the same time as they did before, look for the company of former co-workers and spend the day telling anyone who wants to listen to what their past life was like without paying attention to the new life that has begun.

Our society is like that kind of retired. For one hundred and fifty years we have been an industrial society where the factory was the center of everything. And although we have ceased to be, while recent unemployment numbers were strong, too many of us are still trying to hold on to our past.

The inventions of Henry Ford

Industrialization had a champion: Henry Ford. His legacy goes beyond the assembly line, the automobile or mass production. In fact they are not even his inventions. Among the things that were “invented” by Henry Ford:

  • The “middle class” (encouraging through wage increases that their workers could buy the products they manufacture)
  • “Free time” (reduced the working day to 40 hours weekly, 5 days a week)
  • And “consumerism”, fueled by advertising, as a way to fill that free time.
  • Other “inventions” by Henry Ford that have shaped present-day society are the inclusion of women in working life, the relocation of production seeking the lowest costs (even if they are bitter enemies such as the USSR or countries governed by dictators)
  • Confrontation with unions, franchising, sharing benefits with efficient workers as a way to retain them.
  • Corporate social responsibility in companies.

The industrial working model

Even if you have never worked in a factory, the way in which your work is measured and valued in 2016 or the process for which you are hired in a company is inherited from that era. However, we are no longer an industrial society. Industry is not the engine of development. Except in a few sectors, factories have been “commoditized”, looking for cost savings in countries where labor is cheaper.

Detroit, hometown of Henry Ford and for decades the cradle of car companies is now almost ruined, with fewer inhabitants than before the industrial boom of 1910, and the most valuable company in the world is Apple.

When we buy the latest model of Apple Watch, iPhone or iPad the first thing we read is “designed by Apple in California”. That’s where the value lies. The rest, if the components were built in Bangladesh and assembled in China is not relevant. We understand that they looked for the best manufacturing option, and that everything but the design can change from one day to another.

The “open source” software model

Faced with the “commoditization” of the industry, its place in society as a motor of growth and innovation has been occupied by another sector: software. The most valuable companies in the world are software companies.

And within the software industry, there is a “mode of production” that stands out above any other: the “open source” software concept. Although it is a very broad concept, to simplify, we will refer to as “open source” software that has been created and maintained by a freely accessible community whose license allows it to be freely used, modified and distributed.

In the same way that Henry Ford was the champion of industrialization, the “open source” world has its own hero. Linus Torvalds Ford was born in the United States, the son of Irish immigrants, poor, and a self-made millionaire.

Linus was born in Finland, in a family of university professors who guided his education (for example, his parents chose the name as a tribute to the Nobel Prize in chemistry Linus Pauling) and was fascinated by computers from an early age. He also created an “empire” which we now know as “Linux,” but with significant differences from the Ford empire.

As in the case of Ford and the assembly line, Torvalds did not “invent” the open source software, or version control software, but it is the main driver of a different mode of production and work thanks to Linux and Git.

Thousands of developers have voluntarily contributed to the improvement of the product based on their knowledge and possibilities, integrating into a community with its own leaders, standards and management model to become the most used software globally; surpassing other software developed in a conventional / industrial way, and its management model spreads rapidly to other areas.

The keys in the Open Source world

The world of open source software is different from that of the industrial society.

On one hand, it is the developer who voluntarily chooses which project to engage, and to what degree. Each one works on software of their choosing and usually without receiving a salary in return. Choosing the project in which to get involved is key. If you choose well, and the software you are betting on becomes popular, you will have no problem getting hired by any of the many companies that will use that software. If the project does not scale, they will be hours spent in vain.

Another of the characteristics of these communities is meritocracy: while in industrial society the roles are imposed, in this case it is the community that decides, based on criteria such as the involvement and the quality of the contributions. There are no short cuts. This often creates difficulties for newcomers with more enthusiasm than knowledge.

Commitment: Salary (at least directly) is not the main motivator for most developers to collaborate in a project, but rather it’s the conviction that they are contributing to improve the status quo and/or it will have direct benefits over their professional career in a future. One of the key tasks of leaders is to be able to keep the commitment of the most valuable partners.

Consensus search: It is consensus (expressed in different ways) and not democracy the way most open source software communities operate. Democracy is a “tyranny of the majority”, which in a group where most of them collaborate voluntarily, there is a danger that the discontented “abandon the boat” and create their own alternative projects (as has happened In bitcoin). Therefore, even if it is slower, we try to agree on all the decisions to maintain the degree of commitment of the members.

Transparency: In a conventional company, chances are you do not know how much your partner earns, what his or her work day is or what their goals are. In this new open software world, everything is documented, including the hours in which a person works or contributes to the project. A good developer does not need a resume per se. Recruiters who know what they’re doing can track a potential candidate’s code and overall proficiency in Github.

A matter of time

In the same way that although we have never worked in a factory, we are directly influenced by its management mode, it is foreseeable that the way of organization of the open source communities affect us in the future even if many of us don’t know how to write a single line of code.

Today, there is a tension between both worlds: conventional companies envy the innovation capacity of open source communities (eg, banking and blockchain) and try to replicate them within their organization, but often clash with internal hierarchical structures.

On the other hand the developer in many cases needs to work in “conventional” companies and “conventional” projects in order to survive, using his free time in personal projects that bring out the best in him.

It is a matter of time for one model to replace the other, but how long? And…will we miss the old model ?.


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