loading...
Cover image for The Value Of Your Time

The Value Of Your Time

deciduously profile image Ben Lovy ・4 min read

Last week I published a post about my plans to refactor an old project I haven't touched in about a year. The refactor I have planned is extensive, but there's no hurry - the tool works fine right now.

Of course, though, we live in a mysterious world, and a few days later the admins call me up and ask if I'd be willing to work with them on an entirely new feature. Why now, after so long, I don't know. I can only assume divine intervention.

In brief, keeping the classrooms appropriately staffed throughout the day is a non-trivial problem, and keeping staff around the building updated on last-minute adjustments is even more complicated. They want a UI that will allow them to build these schedules that's aware of staff-child ratios and generate individual staff slips for the day. Then the staff could just navigate to a webpage to see the current status, instead of relying on a big game of telephone over the walkie talkies. Anything to cut out chaos.

I'm unexpectedly torn.

Pros:

  • I was already planning to dig into this codebase anyway.
  • I believe they've correctly identified their problem, and their proposed solution would greatly help.
  • I've remained friends with these people since leaving that job - we help our friends.
  • I want to do it. It's a neat, interesting problem, and since they've asked me my brain has been firing on overdrive about it. I already have a good idea about how it's gonna work.
  • It's a project - you usually learn stuff doing those, and then have a bigger, more impressive portfolio.
  • One of the admins is learning how to code himself and willing to contribute and learn in the process.

Cons:

  • It will involve a major time commitment.
  • I will not be compensated for this time.
  • The aforementioned learner is really, really new and likely won't affect the total build time by a lot. This is more "neutral" than a con, and I think a project like this is a great way to build skill anyway.

Really, that's it, but I'm worried the time commitment outweighs the pros. I'm just not positive how to quantify it.

The way I see it, time I spend building software does have some inherent value to it, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly how much. For starters, I've never been paid a single cent for any code I've written. Going on historical precedent alone, my time is not worth anything, but I know it's not as simple as that. I am capable of creating value via software, because software I've written has freed up paid employees to spend more of their time on tasks that computers cannot do. There is intrinsic value there.

Who cares, though? Knowing I'm doing a favor doesn't make the favor not worthwhile, and if I'm not currently getting paid to write any of my code, why should I care that I'm not getting paid to write this code either? I deeply enjoy coding, I choose to do it as a pass-time, so why worry about value.

However, my time is also not infinite, and there are other things I use it for. I know myself, I'm going to want to get this done for them, and it will necessarily take time away from other endeavors.

I don't feel overworked, in fact, quite the opposite, but when I start to break down how I spend my week it starts feeling a little tight:

Hours/week: 168 (7 days * 24 hours/day)

Activities by hours:

  • Sleep: 56 (ish, I do strive for 8 hours/night but sometimes fall short)
  • Full-time non-tech job: 44 (including commute)
  • College classwork: 15-20 (varies by week)
  • Tech job hunt: 10-12 (resume tweaking, listing searches, cold emailing, interview practice)
  • Errands: ~3.5
  • Physical exercise: ~3.5

These are the non-negotiable items, and the using the higher bounds net me 28 hours a week of time for other stuff I want to do, or 4 hours a day. This actually sounds pretty cushy, but disappears quickly - I have a number of side projects I'm working on, I have a girlfriend who would be annoyed she places under "side projects", I like playing long board games and going on big hikes and stuff - and I do feel it's pretty damn important to not let these other aspects of my life slip. The list above is full of "Ben is sitting at a computer", I'm not thrilled about the prospect of sitting at a computer for the rest of my week too.

I'm probably going to say yes with the caveat that it won't be quick, but I'd be curious to hear how all y'all handle requests like this. Did it change between when you were an amateur and when you went professional? Would you say yes to this project?

Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

Discussion

pic
Editor guide
Collapse
bigj1m profile image
Jim Plourde

I will not be compensated for this time.

You lost me at this line. While it's going to be fun and a good opportunity to learn, this does not pay bills. Call me a capitalist, but if you want to create wealth, you have to exchange it with money. Naval Ravikant has a good take on this that you should enforce an aspirational hourly rate. Then when doing something you evaluate if it's cheaper to do it yourself at your fixed hourly rate. If not, you outsource it.

Doing it for free has two effects: undercutting the price hurts other freelancers because @deciduously does it for free, so why pay higher than nothing ? Secondly, you are telling the world that your work has no value other than your own personnal satisfaction. I paid through tech school doing magic at corporate events. I also worked for a circus. I've seen performers ridiculously undercutting the comon price and 1 guy doing it for free. It hurts everyone because it spreads the word and people ask why they should pay you a fair price that pays the bills while there is someone doing it for 15$/hr or free ?

While you give them your time for free, they will gladly save/make more money using your product and you will not see any benefits from that other than personal satisfaction. As you can see, I'm against giving away my time for free; it has a value and you can't get more time. When it's gone, that's it until you ran out of it.

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

I was hoping someone would elaborate on this aspect. This is a good point, it undercuts well-meaning freelancers.

Does it matter, then, that if I do not do this project, they won't be pursuing it with another provider? This isn't the company commissioning a product, their employers didn't set them to this, they just sat down and thought "Hey, Ben knows coding". Because it's not really a market transaction, do you feel it still is harmful to the market as a whole?

you are telling the world that your work has no value other than your own personnal satisfaction

While I understand this is a bad move for someone looking for a job, I don't currently have any proof to point to that it does.

When it's gone, that's it until you ran out of it.

This hit home, and is good food for thought.

Collapse
bigj1m profile image
Jim Plourde

Does it matter, then, that if I do not do this project, they won't be pursuing it with another provider? This isn't the company commissioning a product, their employers didn't set them to this, they just sat down and thought "Hey, Ben knows coding".

This might sound selfish at first, but this shouldn't matter to you. You are renting your time to build a system so they can save time and money. Right now, you are the best offer they have: 0$. This is sad, but in business people aren't always honest. Of course if you do it for free, they won't complaint that you are not getting paid. They will cling to that offer unless you decline or they don't agree with what you ask. If it not good with you, they won't ask permission to hire someone else. That's business.

While I understand this is a bad move for someone looking for a job, I don't currently have any proof to point to that it does.

This isn't about finding a job, it's putting a price on your time. It's the most scarce resource you have, use it wisely and don't give it away for nothing. Spending time has a direct cost to you: health, relations and wealth.

Thread Thread
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

I also, though, spend time coding for recreation. I'd be chalking this up under that category. The fact that these people will benefit is secondary to me, if I didn't want to build it it'd be an easy no.

They aren't in a position to offer me any money, it's me for free or nobody, and I would feel good about alleviating their stress. Value created is incidental.

I don't necessarily disagree, just trying to explore it.

Thread Thread
bigj1m profile image
Jim Plourde

You talked about classrooms and staff, so I guess we are talking about a school. Is it privately owned ? Or part of a school board ?

Thread Thread
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

It's a preschool operated as part of a larger non-profit. No pockets will be lined.

Thread Thread
bigj1m profile image
Jim Plourde

I thought it was a school board owned school. Still, non-profits can still pay to get something, but I understand more your motives to do it free. In the end, it's you that makes the call. Do it if it lines up with what you believe is the right thing and don't overstrain yourself.

Thread Thread
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

I really appreciate your perspective!

Collapse
quinncuatro profile image
Henry Quinn

Did it change between when you were an amateur and when you went professional?

It changed so SO much. I used to be into doing "small" little projects like that. However once I got my second job after college (this one actually pays market rate) I dropped most of the side stuff.

I'm starting to pick up blogging about development stuff again, but that's something I want to do for me. If anyone wants me to work on a side project, I give them my contractor price (min. $75/hr). That way, if they REALLY want me to help, it's at least worth my while.

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

How did you settle on your rate?

Collapse
quinncuatro profile image
Henry Quinn

For me I based it on a gut feeling. Now that I'm earning a bit more, I'll probably up it.

Something one of my professors said about "emergencies" stuck with me though -> "My hourly rate is $X/hour, but it'll take $500 just to get me out of bed in the morning."

Collapse
grumpytechdude profile image
Alex Sinclair

You can take a look at contractor job boards - I know in my area, contractors earn a very minimum of £500 a day.

Collapse
gypsydave5 profile image
David Wickes

I guess my only comment would be: is it open sourced? Make that a precondition, find a way to get the code out in the open. The benefits would be enormous.

Full-time non-tech job: 44 (including commute)

I find it insane that you're not working full time as a software developer. What's driving this?

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

is it open sourced?

Of course! It'd be an extension to a codebase that's already on Github. I feel strongly about this.

What's driving this?

Thank you, that's kind to say. Probably poor self-sale skills. I did not attend college after high school, just now at 27 starting my bachelors, and am lucky enough to be currently employed in a job that would otherwise require one. The few promising offers that have come around would have been paycuts, which has just not been viable. I learned to code in the first place always intending it to be a hobby, and then fell in love.

I have a good feeling about this summer, I've been getting closer and closer and seeking outside career help.

Collapse
gypsydave5 profile image
David Wickes

just now at 27 starting my bachelors

You are still young! I only started doing this tippytappy business at 35.

I've been getting closer and closer and seeking outside career help.

Good luck - I honestly mean that. You write well, and you've built some interesting projects. If there's any way I can help let me know.

Thread Thread
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

Thank you so much :) I'll more likely than not be posting about whatever happens...

Collapse
kball profile image
Kevin Ball

One of the most useful approaches/mindsets I've come across for questions like this is as follows:

There are 2 basic ways of responding to requests: "Yes unless no" and "No unless yes".

Yes unless no means that you default to saying 'yes', unless there's a compelling reason to say no. This approach makes a ton of sense early in your career, or any time you have a dearth of opportunities... you want to take advantage of things coming your way.

At some point, you will probably end up in a situation where you have more opportunities than time to pursue them. At that point it is important to switch to "no unless yes". The default answer is 'no', unless there's a compelling reason to say yes. This is especially true if you know where you're going and have already lined up a lot of projects and work that helps to get you there.

Most people (myself included) don't make the switch until quite a while after they should have... with the result being they become stressed out and overcommitted. For me I was at a place where I couldn't take on anything more, but I still felt guilty every time I said 'no' to something because I was coming from a default of 'yes of course'. Learning this mental model and switching to 'no unless yes' helped me completely remove that feeling of guilt, as well as end up at a much more manageable/low stress life.

--

Unless I'm misreading, it sounds like you may still be in 'yes unless no' mode... lots and projects and side projects. And that may well still be the right approach given where you are at, looking to move to a new career path.

Only you can decide when it's time for you to move to 'no unless yes'. I will say that when I made that shift, I found it a lot easier than I expected, there was a lot less push back than I anticipated, and at least for me it was loooooong overdue.

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

This does sound like the sort of thing I will have trouble with down the road, but you're right, I'm very much in the "yes unless no" mode now. Any opportunity to build something useful is still a good thing for me. I'll definitely be sure to keep this in mind, though, I like your concise way of phrasing the concept. Thanks for your input!

Collapse
coreyja profile image
Corey Alexander

Full-time non-tech job

I agree with gypsydave5, this might be the things that shocked me the most about your whole post lol, I assumed you were working in a tech job! Your posts didn't ever give me the impression you weren't a professional coder!

I will not be compensated for this time.

I think everyone is this thread has made some amazing points around this, but there was something I wanted to add.

I don't think that just because you aren't being paid means you aren't valuing your time. It can also mean, as maybe applies here, that you are donating your time to this non-profit. It could even be thought of as equivalent to a monetary donation at in the amount of hours_worked * hourly_rate.

Did it change between when you were an amateur and when you went professional?

I 100% get coding in your free time cause you enjoy it, I do that as well. But one thing I've noticed is that it's been hard for me to work on projects that I don't feel like doing on any particular day. I'm very likely to jump between projects frequently as something different interests me. I think this got worse as I got a full time coding job, but I've always hopped around.

After working full time coding I definitely can tell a difference between when I WANT to be working on something and when I HAVE to be working on something, even if they are both for my job. It's just better to work on the things I want to work on.

Would you say yes to this project?

I think my answer would be that it sounds cool and I'd probably work on it, but no timelines and no guarantees. Cause it doesn't seem like they are really in a position to ask for more and then you don't have to feel committed to anything.

So if you aren't gonna get any financial gain out of it, and you don't really have need for this project to be improved for a portfolio or anything. I'd say totally work on it for as long as it interests you! And if/when it doesn't or something interests you more, stop working on this and don't feel bad! You'll learn way more and enjoy it way more if you are working on the things you want to work on rather than things you feel like you are obligated to work on.

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

Your posts didn't ever give me the impression you weren't a professional coder!

Clearly, I'm in the wrong line of work ;)

equivalent to a monetary donation

Somehow, even though this center largely runs on donations, I never framed it like that. This resonates, thanks.

very likely to jump between projects frequently as something different interests me

It's a real problem for me as well, which is why I kind of jump at the opportunity to build a tool other people will use. Much higher chance of ever finishing the damn thing.

no timelines and no guarantees.

I think this is how it's going to shake out. They'll be happy if they ever get something working. I'm going to struggle with "not feeling bad", so I think I'll probably see it through to the end, but I don't feel any specific pressing need to get it done right this second. I'm hoping my new coder friend will slowly take on more and more of the labor as well, as he'll actually be one of the users as well. You're right, though, once it feels like an obligation, it's not nearly as worthwhile.

Thanks so much for your response!

Collapse
190245 profile image
Dave

The pay for time etc, will come, it doesn't have to be this project, but it'll come.

I think you also skipped some other positive aspects; the experience gained by teaching a complete newcomer, and the benefits to your own portfolio.

That said, I wouldn't take the project on. I have taken a similar project on in the past for a friend. A genuine business need, where we'd agreed a rate I would be getting paid, and my friend would be "helping" to write the code.

My friend pretty much did nothing but screw it up & cost time in putting it right. Maybe your friend is better...

The project requirements also ballooned (like they have a habit of doing), and before we even had an MVP, my friend was trying to sell the product (and failing, because the latest copy on his laptop was broken...).

In the end, I walked away from the project, but we remain friends.

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

Great insight, thank you. I also decided not to pursue this, and feel it would likely have similarly ballooned.

Collapse
mjyc profile image
Michael Jae-Yoon Chung

Interesting read, thanks for writing this up (and to those others who participated in the interesting discussion below)!

For some reason, I was thinking of this post praxis.fortelabs.co/the-rise-of-th... after reading your post, sharing it in case someone finds it interesting.

Collapse
antonrich profile image
Anton

I think it's a problem of communication more than about time.

So, I would have wrote them a letter like this:

Hey, admin. I'm actually working on this project already. However, I'm working at my own pace. My hands are tied at the moment and unless I'm compensated I can't dedicated a lot of time to it and your request certainly has implications of time commitment.

Collapse
powerc9000 profile image
Clay Murray

I suppose it comes down to compensation and interest. If you aren't being paid then you really should believe in the cause. Is it going to teach you new things and be exciting to work on?

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

Is it going to teach you new things

I'm new enough that I have yet to find a project that doesn't.

be exciting to work on

Like anything, to a point ;)

believe in the cause

I guess I don't know. I honestly couldn't care less about creating value for the employer, but I do care about these people and having done their job, I know it's hard. I believe in making my friend's lives easier, so it's worth it.

Thanks for your insight!

Collapse
dylanesque profile image
Michael Caveney

If this will strengthen your portfolio and the company is a non-profit that does good work and doesn't have much ability to pay, I say go for it.

Collapse
deciduously profile image
Ben Lovy Author

Thanks for your response! I'm actually not so sure it does help my portfolio - it's an addition to a project I already have, but it does make that project a little cooler.

Either way, it's a good company doing good work :)