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Essential Work

1. Ron

We worked in a big room filled with desks and tables. One wall was made out of glass and looked out onto a hallway.

This used to be the mainframe room, the 60s era computing technology that got the astronauts to the moon. Our computers were Sun workstations that sat on the tables. Each of us had one to work at, a luxury in those days. I sat in front of batman. Next to me was robin. And then gothamcity. The workstations for the other teams had different themes. Lots of computers, but the mainframes were long gone. Cold air still blew in thru vents in the floor—a relic of the need to keep the mainframes cool. On some days, we had to wear gloves to keep our fingers warm.

On the far wall, there were some partitions where a select few had real desks. But most of us sat at the tables where our clients would daily walk by to gaze at the software technology being built in that lab.

Ron was our system administrator. He installed the workstations. He named them. He gave us our login credentials. He set up our email. And when we had a computer problem, he would solve it. 

Ron was always available. He always had a smile on his face, unlike most of the system administrators most of us had worked with. He always found a solution to our problems.

2. Six-Figure Salaries

These were the early days of the dot-com boom. Software companies were spinning off and pulling talent from our team on a daily basis. To our disbelief, those who left for the dot-com world commanded six-figure salaries.

At the time, the expression six-figure salary was reserved for consultants that went out on their own and job-shopped their technical skills. The notion that you could get a six-figure salary just by jumping from one software job to another was inconceivable, which is why so many people were leaving.

One day, I bumped into our boss after Ron had solved some problem that I was struggling with. (I think it was an email problem that required Ron do a traceroute on in order to figure out why gothamcity had stopped delivering email.)

“How are things going?” he asked.

“Great,” I said. And I explained how Ron had just solved my email problem.

He nodded, not really understanding much about email.

“I have to tell you,” I added. “If anyone on our team deserves a six-figure salary, it’s Ron. We’d be lost without him.”

He looked at me blankly, nodded, and walked on.

3. Essential Personnel

You see, Ron was one of our truly essential personnel, even though we didn’t use that term them. But six-figures? Except for independent consultants, back then no one made that kind of money except consultants… or managers. And system administration was perceived as a blue collar job. What I learned that day as my boss silently nodded and walked on was that blue collar jobs were almost by definition not essential.

Ron left not long after that. A dot-com six-figure salary was calling.

I tell this story, because I bumped into this story on Naked Capitalism, today. It pokes at this pathology: why essential work pays poorly (think delivery drivers, grocery store workers, transportation workers, air conditioning technicians, meat packers, farmworkers, sanitation workers, …). 

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