Duty is such a strange word in the modern West. Or perhaps in America.

They say it’s foolish to speak of duty in a world driven by capitalism, more or less, almost purely so. There are no fiefdoms; there are no agreements of fealty; nobody is duty-bound to protect you from anything that might befall you.

We might speak of duty in relation to religion; but I don’t believe in a religion that features duty as its anchor and center.


Where I work, managers are supposed to protect their teams from crap that falls from above, and stand behind every member. Some managers do this better than others, and I happen to be part of a team where the managers have traditionally done this (practically trained to do this, apprenticed from “generation” to generation of managership, which span just a couple of years each). Not every team is so lucky.

All my mangers on this particular team have even protected me, as best as they could, from the fallout that results from, say, someone heavily afflicted with PTSD from time to time. Sometimes this has had to been from other team members. What can I say. PTSD is not something people understand, generally speaking.

This protection goes up for at least two levels. Maybe it goes all the way to the top, but the ways of CEOs and their VPs are strange, so I don’t think it does. Still, it takes a lot to get fired (not that this has stopped people from, I assume accidentally, achieving it. Always impressive when they do manage it, however!).

So on my team, at least, there is duty. In my organization, at least, there is duty; a lot of it, in fact. The department I’m in these days bases many of its decisions partly due to business concerns (as per usual) but in large part to duty to the customer. This is not always true in other departments, as culture tends to be a bit patchwork around here. Some departments are so young that the concept of duty has not yet descended upon them.

Perhaps duty is why my department tends not to go in for much in the way of pizza parties, unless we can bring along our laptops. Or better yet, have pizza delivered to our offices while we work away. Our director tries to bring us fun—actually, the VP heading our department tries very hard at times to bring us fun—but such efforts ultimately are not as successful as they are for other parts of the company.

Many people (including people in my own company) would say that this is entirely crazy, and there’s no such thing as duty—and besides, duty ties you down, and in this day and age, who wants to be tied down with responsibility? Or, rather, responsibility’s much stricter cousin, duty? A mere concept with no backing in an age where jobs last for less than five years (usually).

I think duty keeps me sane.

I think, actually, duty keeps most people sane in my organization. Which might be saying something about the kind of folks who are attracted to the culture of my department.

Still, I think duty has a place, outmoded as it is.

And in the end, our duty is what keeps the company going. Other departments may make horrible mistakes with regards to customer service, relations, and basic common sense, but my department—we’ve learnt our own lessons.

So that’s what I think of duty. I know that anybody at Google would laugh at this, which is why I don’t go off and join their Promised Land for Techies and Software Engineers, where nobody who isn’t money-starved ((This can happen even to people who work for the Big Three. It’s amazing what insane housing prices on the coast, insane college tuitions, spouses getting laid off in the horrible economy, and multiple children can do to you.)) would ever willingly take on a pager. ((“Why does GMail fail so often?” you may ask. Although to be fair, it is and would be a very gnarly operation even in a well-run ship.))

I think there’s nothing wrong with laughing at duty, and perhaps we are all deluded over here. But duty is why I stay where I am now.

People usually move in the high tech world every few years. A tenure of more than five years at any company, unless it’s one of the blue chip software companies like IBM, is highly unusual.

I plan to stay here for as long as I possibly can. It’s been done before. But I’ll only stay as long as duty is an important part of the equation.

People think I’m crazy.

Well… I kind of am already, you know?

4 thoughts on “Duty

  1. That’s interesting.

    I think of that as “work ethic” rather than “duty.”

    Duty is what I owe my family, my friends, my society, myself, my readers. Work ethic is what I owe people who pay me.

    But they’re really just both words for responsibility and fulfilling one’s obligations, aren’t they?

  2. I think my definition of “work ethic” is not the same as yours. :)

    Your definition of work ethic incorporates some of my definition of duty, which is a certain awareness of what happens if you don’t fulfill your obligations, and also to whom you owe your obligations. I, on the other hand, have a more stripped-down definition of work ethic.

    I’m in the tech industry, and I know people who work very, very hard—and are pretty much completely ignorant of what happens when they decide to chase another shiny object rather than see something through properly. Not just finishing the project, but also doing the things necessary to market and maintain and keep the customer base happy.

    They always work very hard, mind you; the shiny object people put in anywhere from 50% up to 150% more hours than the duty-bound people. The duty-bound people are less heroic; we build the bridges that don’t fall over and the buildings that don’t fall down. We follow through to make sure things are maintainable, things keep running, and customers are happy.

    The shiny object people will erect many, many things; but they don’t pay much attention to what happens when their things fall over, stop running suddenly, or screw over customers. That’s left to the boring, duty-bound, non-heroic people to clean up.

    And because the shiny object people somehow are really allergic to their pagers, sometimes the duty-bound arrive too late… and then you get fiascos like Google Buzz or the 1984 Kindle book “returns.” Which are always fun to clean up and attempt to PR manage later.

    Le sigh. At least we don’t have to commit seppuku.

  3. It seems like we’ve really moved to valuing the shiny object people more than the people who care about the customer. I’m not even in your industry and I see it in mine.

    The thing you’re calling duty is what makes underpaid front-line people – phone- and email-answering monkeys, people who process messed-up forms and rescue misrouted emails from queues nobody reads – follow up on cases that are totally not their job and are going to make them unpopular with the people whose job they are.

    I think about the Amazonfail with the delisted queer books – at some point, a couple different Customer Service Representatives had the opportunity to nip that in the bud. “Wow,” they could have said, “That is strange. I don’t know why it did that, I am going to have to investigate and call you back.” But instead they scanned for keywords and sent out form letters, because that’s what they’re trained and incented to do, and it turned into a big PR problem instead of a small internal problem.

  4. Man, I’d have hoped customer service would be the last place to see the trend. :-/ But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Sigh.

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