On SharedAwarenessSystem, AlexSchroeder and BayleShanks wonder aloud why it seems so much fun to program for free, yet not so much fun to program for money.

What prevents programmers from having fun and getting paid for it ?

(1) could eventually be dealt with by commoditized financial derivatives designed to smooth earnings (a form of “job insurance”).

(2) could be helped by more organizations/corporations devoted to taking care of things like matching programmers up with jobs, and doing billing, helping with legal issues, etc (like; but they closed).

I’ve collected some other ideas for organizations, and a few similar organizations, at .

Should I move that list here ?

DavidCary 2004-02-27 02:09 UTC

(see SoftwareBazaar for more replies to this thread)

Programming for work doesn’t suck because you’re getting paid for it. You’re getting paid for it because it sucks.

People only pay you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. That’s why they pay you. It’s incentive. It tips your personal cost-benefit analysis in favor of doing the task they need done. If you were doing it anyways, they wouldn’t give you money for it. They’d save that money and buy ice cream with it.

I don’t think there’s a way to find work that’s enjoyable like play is. I think it’s a pernicious myth: there’s a job out there for you that’s fulfilling, fun, and well-paid, and you just need to find it. The corollary being that if you are working in a job that is not your personal dream position, then it’s nobody’s fault but your own.

That dream job, in fact, does not exist. The trick instead is to find jobs that give you the most buck for your bang, and apply your energy to non-work activities that are enjoyable and fulfilling. Yeah, it’s kind of depressing to realize, but at the same time it’s kind of freeing. You’re under no obligation to find fulfillment in the labor market, just like you’re under no obligation to find fulfillment in paying your taxes or taking out the trash or any of the other tasks that you have to do even if you don’t like them.

People only pay you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do.

That’s certainly true for many jobs. Nobody wants to do them without some kind of compensation, yet lots of people want them to be done, and are willing to pay cash for the benefit of avoiding doing those jobs themselves.

But there are at least 2 exceptions that I know about:

  • Some jobs I cannot do. I don’t have the right tools, I don’t have the right training, I don’t understand the language, or there is some other reason I cannot do that particular job, at least not this year. These jobs may be fun for the people who put in the time and effort required to collect the right tools, get the necessary training, learn the lingo, etc.
  • Some jobs are fun for other people. Some appear to genuinely enjoy the great outdoors, bright sunlight, flowers, birds, that sort of thing. Some people enjoy working with horses. Some people appear to enjoy standing in front of a group of people and making them laugh. Some people enjoy floating around in the sort of micro-gravity that makes other people nauseous. Some people enjoy using expensive military hardware to blow things up.
  • (any other exceptions ?)

In other words, rather than paying these people to do something no sane person would do for free, I pay them to tip their cost-benefit analysis into doing my fun job rather than someone else's fun job.


:Above all, find ways to have more fun. There’s no evidence that people produce more when they hate work. …

:Ignore anyone who says you’re paid to be miserable or that having fun at work is tatamount to ripping off the company. … Just keep in mind the difference between pleasure in work and the joys of sabotage or revenge. … add a little zest, fun, or humor to your work …

:For example, there are Southwest Airlines flight attendants who lace preflight safety announcements with large doses of stand-up comedy. It’s more fun for employees, and more likely to get passenger’s attention … Or the young worker at a tool and die company whose design for a new riveting machine made it almost as much fun as a video game: “…. could you load the rivets fast enough to keep up with the machine? …”

:– Escape from Cluelessness book (c) 2000 by Lee G. Bolman and Terrence E. Deal

(Is this excerpt short enough for FairUse ? – DavidCary)

You came up with some great examples (although the programming example is the best) of the false syllogism of “enjoying your work”. Here’s the rough outline:

#I enjoy being in the outdoors. #A job as a park ranger requires being in the outdoors. #THEREFORE, I would enjoy being a park ranger.

The fallacy here is not realizing that a job that requires situation X also require situations W, Y, and Z. Being a park ranger isn’t just about nature hikes and sniffing flowers: there’s paper work, there’s road clearing, there’s hours in the office, there’s getting pushed around by bureaucrats and politicos and logging companies and such. There’s shooting sick bears. There’s picking up trash. There’s isolation and loneliness.

If you’re a park ranger, you don’t look out at all the visitors to your park and think, “Man, those SUCKERS! I get to do the exact same thing as them, and I get paid for it!” Park rangers don’t get paid for enjoying the outdoors; they get paid for all the other crap they wouldn’t do otherwise.

Another example is being a prostitute. If you like sex, why wouldn’t you become a prostitute, right? But you don’t get paid as a prostitute to have sex with people who you care about or who you find sexy. You get paid to have sex with someone you don’t know and you wouldn’t have sex with otherwise.

Now, a more realistic way to put it is this: if you have to put up with situations W, Y, and Z anyways, why not get situation X out of it? Like, if you’re going to have to sit in a fluorescent-lit office for 8 hours a day, shuffling papers and dealing with meetings, why not do a job like that where you also get to do some programming? The enjoyment is a condiment in the otherwise bland and ucky soup of work life. It may make it better, but, hey: it’s still work.

Some people seem to have more fun at some programming jobs than others.

I sort of hoped someone had figured out why that is. Or otherwise figured out ideas for making below-average jobs a little more fun, even if there is some minimum amount of ickyness common to all paying jobs.

(accidental ickyness and essential ickyness – analogy with Wiki:NoSilverBullet)

(A link to studies on why programmers in some environments are more productive than programmers in other environments would be good.)

How can we encourage people to hire programmers ?

Some ideas seem to require quite a few programmers to work together to implement:

Other ideas only require 2 programmers to cooperate:

I want everyone to BrainStorm up a few dozen crazy ideas, then test out a few of the most promising-sounding ones.

I want everyone to help collect and share a list of proven-to-work ideas.


Wellll, I guess I question your premise: that there are programmers having fun at their jobs. I was a programmer for 15 years, and I never met one.

Programming is fun. Programming for money is not. And it’s inherent in the reasons people would pay you to program.

But, y’know, I’ve done enough of my Jacob Marley imitation, I guess. If you really think programming for money can be as fun as programming for pleasure, more power to you. I hope it works out, although I know it won’t.

Lastly: why would this be on-topic for CommunityWiki?

I guess organizing groups of people so that they can both earn money and have fun at the same time would be on topic, don’t you think? The particular programming focus is just due to our professional background-bias. :) I’ve been talking a lot about having fun and still earning money with other people such as my girlfriend who teaches bellydancing, for example. I also talk about it at work a lot, where I’m one of the “old hats” and I’m trying to teach the newcomers something about how to organize their lives around their working life instead of beeing eaten alive by the company. There are management issues, organisation of teams, organisation of your own time, separating family life and hobbies from work (or not!), etc. From this point of view, the messages above are just unorganized shots in the dark, rambling and full of programming-bias, but it could eventually expand into an interesting section of the wiki.

“If they have to bribe me to do it,” a person might figure, “it must be something I don’t want to do.” -- Alfie Kohn (found on Wiki:ForBestResultForgetTheBonus )

I’m so happy I found the Creating Passionate Users blog In particular, the Never Underestimate the Power of Fun post. It makes me suspect that I can adjust the “fun slider”.

So what’s this about ?

Alan Watts's Work as Play video talks about this. His solution is to treat your job as a game. He uses a bus driver as an example. He has to remember all the traffic rules, avoid other vehicles, and maneuver a cumbersome vehicle around corners. However, he can look at it another way: as a very subtle game, or as dancing. Getting from point A to B is no longer something to hate, but something to enjoy.

From the The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell:

But how about the second part of Santayana’s definition: “done for its own sake”? By this he seems to mean “we play because we like to.” As trivial as it sounds, this is an important characteristic of play. If we don’t like to do it, it probably isn’t play. That is, an activity itself cannot be classified as a “work activity” or “play activity.” Instead, what matters is one’s attitude about the activity. As Mary Poppins tells us in the Sherman brothers’ wonderful song, Spoonful of Sugar:

   In ev’ry job that must be done
   There is an element of fun.
   You find the fun and snap!
   The job’s a game.

But how do we find the fun? Consider the story that psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Chick sent me high”) relates about how factory worker Rico Medellin turns his job into a game:

    The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station
    should take forty-three seconds to perform — the same exact operation almost
    six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work
    very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it.
    The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete
    approaches his event: How can I beat my record?

This shift in attitude turned Rico’s job from work into play. How has it affected his job performance? “After five years, his best average for a day has been twenty- eight seconds per unit.” And he still loves doing it: “‘It’s better than anything else,’ Rico says. ‘It’s a whole lot better than watching TV.’”

What is going on here? How does simple goal setting suddenly redefine an activity we would normally classify as work into an activity that is clearly a kind of play? The answer seems to be a change in the reason he is doing the activity. He is no longer doing it for someone else, he is now doing it for his own personal reasons. Santayana actually elaborates on his definition, stating that upon further examination:

    Work and play ... become equivalent to servitude and freedom.

When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We work for food because we are slaves to our bellies. We work to pay the rent because we are slaves to our safety and comfort. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn money to care for our families, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because “we feel like it.” The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work. The less obligated you are to do some- thing, the more it feels like play. Stated differently, “It is an invariable principle of all play … that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play cannot play.”

Interesting, musicians play, even if they do it as a job. I did it as a musician for long. No matter how bad the payment is, the moment the maestro lifts the stick you “play”. And you do it the best you can. Always. It’s that work - play transformation you’ve got to learn to be a musician / a wiki person.

See also


EditNearLinks: FairUse BrainStorm