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Jan Wedel
Jan Wedel

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The Fear of Effectiveness

I started my first internship as a software developer at a huge German industrial company in 2003. I was ready to rule the world or least code something with great value. It was a big thing and I was exited.

I'm gonna rule the world

That suddenly stopped when I learned that I had to program in VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) to automate large Excel sheets. To make it even worse, my main task was to type out large piles of paper into Excel. And when I say "large piles of paper", I meant that literally. We were applying for public tenderings and got thousands of pages of a printed specification. Each page contained a table with items that needed quotation. So two interns and me were hired to type out every item into Excel which would usually take 2-3 weeks and then hand it over to the project managers.

VBA was actually only used to calculate intermediate sums for each sections.

So exciting

So after one or two of these specifications, I was wondering what this little floppy disk are, that most boxes contained together with the paper.

I asked the other interns but they did not know. I asked the project manager and they told me it's some special file format they cannot read with Excel and they don't have any other program that could read it. But it may contain the specification.

So it appeared that they hired three interns for years instead of buying the application that could actually the the file.

I decided that I would not waste my time anymore. Instead, I reverse-engineered the format and implemented a parser in Excel that would directly create a well-formatted Excel sheet in a few minutes instead of weeks.

I was quite happy to demo that to the other interns. The reaction was not what I had anticipated. They told me to not use it because it would kill our jobs.

I did not listen and went to the project manager. He had a look at the resulting Excel sheet and found a couple of encoding errors (German umlauts have not been decoded correctly) and decided that my program was not correct and I must do this by hand because it's more accurate.

Yeah...but no

Obviously, I did not listen again. For the rest of my time there, I used my program, fixed the umlauts and other issues manually and reading stuff online the rest of the time. When one of the project manager came around, I opened an Excel sheet I had always prepared in background and pretended I was working.


Eventually, I couldn't take the boredom anymore and applied for another internship internally.

What was your first internship or maybe first job like?

Top comments (5)

bradtaniguchi profile image

I interned at a company along with a few other interns. I was eager to apply myself to any and all programming tasks. So much so I asked my fellow interns what they were working on.

One of them was working on something very similar to what you had to deal with, manual data entry for massive spreadsheets. They estimated it would take a few weeks to get through manually entering all the values by going to a url and getting another part of the url.

I believed we could automate the task using some url parsing and Javascript magic. They said go for it, but they don't mind doing the work because it was easy.

I spent the next 3 hours bashing my head against the Javascript api's (I hardly had any experience with JS at the time) but came away with a script that looked like it would work as it worked on a small subset of the sheet I was given to test on.

I went up to them and gave them the code. They said thanks, but they aren't going to use it because they want to stay busy.
They spent a few more weeks manually entering the values and then finally used my script to check for errors.

This wasn't my first job, but it was my first experience automating something using programming. It surprised me at how people received it. It seemed like people focused more on doing work than doing their job.

phlash profile image
Phil Ashby

It seemed like people focused more on doing work than doing their job.

Yep - and for good reason, we largely occupy a society where having paid work is a critical feature, leading to all manner of so-called bullshit jobs. With the advent of automation, either your own examples here or much larger shifts in automation across society, it's unlikely we can continue to rely on having 'enough interesting work for everyone', thus you find interns re-typing data that was already digitised just so they have something to be paid for, or more and more people applying for fewer 'useful' jobs in society and increasing inequality as the money runs out.

There are ways out of this madness: within an organisation, it's typically realising that the humans can learn/adapt to doing more valuable things, leaving the machines to do the grunt work more efficiently - we got the hang of printing presses after a few hundred years; for society, I will point at this splendid talk given by Scott Santens back in 2017:

stealthmusic profile image
Jan Wedel

Yes, absolutely. This is probably the same behavior when people feared they will loose their job because machines or computers in general in the past.
One thing I’ve learned is, that no matter how much you automate as a developer, there will always be enough work but it might be other work.

bizzy237 profile image

They could also be afraid that if they start doing their job faster they'll only get more work, which is almost inevitable in a world obsessed with productivity

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stealthmusic profile image
Jan Wedel

Yes, maybe. But it’s never a good advice to make decisions based on fear (except you’re facing a grizzly bear).