Expensify’s CEO David Barrett has an accounting problem

It isn’t the number of hours you work, but what you accomplish

Expensify’s CEO, David Barrett has an accounting problem.  He thinks that number of hours worked is a great way to judge work ethic.  In fact, his first post started kind of strong, but his follow up degraded into the kind of thing that points at two basic problems: an accounting problem and a project management problem.

We ditched expense reports some time ago and started using Expensify.  It is a great service that allows you to scan your receipts with your phone, they are automatically read in (OCR/ICR) and basically your expense report is done for you.  It has never been a perfect service by any stretch of the imagination, but it has been a good service, allowing us to never staple receipts to paper or fill out a spreadsheet.  This is important if you work with other vendors and want to make sure you are reimbursed and paid as soon as possible.

Expensify has had some “gee didn’t you know better” kind of engineering problems.  They set up this very operational system on an old school RDBMS using old school replication technology. It didn’t scale. Frankly they should have known better.

Now it turns out they think this graph...

and this whole business of “crunch time” is normal, desirable or good.  In my mind it indicates a project management problem. Why are there these crazy workdays? What did you fail at that caused a crunch time?

Moreover the idea that you can just “measure” work ethic by hours per week and that anyone not averaging 50 isn’t really making it causes some interesting side effects. The exact opposite of what he’s after, good people who want to do good things and make a difference will leave, people who are good at “looking” like they work hard will stay. They’ll be there the full 50 and then some! Working hard and hopefully billing you by the hour. In the end, the actual output won’t be that great.

There is a basic accounting problem. The problem is intensity. Some people work at a constant intensity and are burnt out by 3p, take a coffee and stretch it to 5.  Some people work at variable levels of intensity.  They spike at maximum productivity and then sometime later barely register as conscious. Taking mere hours as a judge of work ethic rather than, I dunno, work accomplished and whether you’re the first to jump on a problem or the first to yell “not it” seems completely wrong to me.

The trouble is their systems that help you judge outcomes. That is a basic project management function of sorts.  It is much much easier to judge “presence."  Many of the most important things are difficult to measure and account for.  Some things you know when you see it, highly engaged employees who are not only capable, but take ownership in the company and what you do.  With better project management, Expensify might be able to smooth out that wave and have less intense peaks and valleys.  They might also get some better productivity metrics than hours worked.

It is easy to lose sight of things as CEO.  It is easy to say things like “But at the same time, I do want everyone to work 50 hours/wk. I’ve generally maintained at least that for years, so I know it can be done,” but at the same time it is your company.  You are measuring others against your intensity and such.  Moreover it is EASIER to consistently work 50/h a week as Manager, CEO or president than it is for your average coder.  You get to context switch more frequently and there are always tasks that require less intensity that you can swap between.  

I don’t know that you should really set such a bar.  If someone is working 35/h a week and getting all their work done, fully engaged and doing a bang up job, then great!  If someone is spending 50/h mostly reading Hacker News but not engaging in the company, well then... you get the picture. You need people who are fully engaged and productive. You need people with the lights on. The number of hours is arbitrary if the work gets done...unless you’re billing by the hour.



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