‘Penned’ tech specialists are earning six-figure salaries to ‘do nothing’ and string out 10-minute tasks

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On Monday morning the alarm goes off. You have a coffee, check the diary, there’s an hour-long meeting to listen to your team leader go through some admin. Then it’s off to scuba dive for the rest of the week.

This is reportedly the reality for a cluster of sought-after tech specialists getting “penned” by major industries like banking, telecommunications and travel.

The term refers to a hiring trend where rare candidates are taken on by businesses despite having no work to do, but are on call in case they’re needed.

Dr. Emmanuel Maggiori, who has worked with top global companies as an A.I. specialist and data scientist and is currently freelancing at a multinational investment bank, told Fortune he left academia because he wanted to make an impact in the commercial sector only to find himself twiddling his thumbs.

Dr. Maggiori clearly remembers the moment he realized doing little-to-no work was the norm in some teams.

“I spent a couple of months on a project and my bosses were really pleased with it,” he said.

“One of them said to me: ‘You made this happen. If you didn’t do any work for a year now, we’d be happy we hired you.’ I didn’t want to be rewarded with not working.”

In the coming years working as a freelance software engineer, Dr. Maggiori worked with an array of big businesses and continued to find career stagnancy.

Team meetings, he said, were filled with people pitching the tasks they were working on.

Colleagues would block out entire weeks to complete what he claimed were 10-minute jobs in a behavior known as “task bloating”.

“In a previous role, I heard one person used to scuba diving during office hours. Another person I know just watches online courses all day—they might leave when their employer stops paying for a subscription,” he added.

Data supports these anecdotes in some cases: Google Cloud’s DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) ‘State of DevOps’ report for 2022 found that the number of ‘low’ performers in the software supply sector had more than doubled when compared to the previous year, from 7% to 19%.

Low performers are classed as respondents who deploy services less frequently, have longer turnarounds for changes and service restorations, or who have worked on updates that degrade the service and will require fixing.

Trying to stay busy

Determined to be proactive, Dr. Maggiori said he continually asked for work and was given tasks like “chasing” people for updates—who never replied—before being told by a superior: “I don’t want to tell you to stop asking questions, but maybe don’t.”

It was in banking that Dr. Maggiori witnessed the full extent of candidate “penning” for the first time.

Under a new contract paying $978 a day, he waited two months before his requests for something to do were answered.

“During those two months all I had to do was attend the weekly meeting for admin, which was stuff like: ‘Make sure you book a desk if you’re coming into the office,’ he said.

Peers in Big Tech have similar stories, with one former Meta staffer saying the company hoarded candidates “like Pokemon cards”.

Brit Levy said on TikTok she had to “fight for work”, adding her teammates spent hours “dog fooding” –exploring the Metaverse for bugs—in order to look busy.

In an anonymous survey posted to the online career community Blind, one user asked: “How many focused hours of work do you put in each day as a software engineer?”

The vast majority, 71.3% of the 4,246 respondents, claimed they worked six hours or less a day.

The largest proportion of voters—32.4%—said they work between three and four hours, followed by 26.7% who said they worked between five and six hours a day.

12.2% said they did between one and two hours a day.

A source—working for one of America’s top ten banks—told Fortune the majority of software developers they work with are forced to do nothing when they are first hired due to complex onboarding.

Speaking under the conditions of anonymity, they explained: “Software work is incredibly complex with a lot of rules and the financial sector is even worse because of all the regulations.

“A lot of it is down to processes—we often have difficulty getting them access to the right level for them to be able to work. That can take weeks, you can have somebody start and they don’t even have access to the system.

“They literally just have to sit there –there are lots of software developers who come in and they’re ready to start, they try to log in to their laptop and they don’t have access to anything. Then they spend days on the phone with the help desk. This happens to I’d say seven out of ten of the software engineers I see onboarded.”

Why are companies hiring for these roles?

There’s a range of motivations for businesses to keep onboarding people without any idea of what they’ll do, added Dr. Maggiori.

The author said there is a lack of understanding of the complex work specialists were hired to do, allowing for the slow pace to continue.

There’s also complicity among peers not to call out task bloating for fear they’d all be asked to do more.

“If someone says: ‘You need to spend a few million on this to make it work’, they will,” he added.

Other hiring motivators include snapping up talent when it’s available to deploy when needed, but more cynically, Maggiori believed middle managers simply want bigger teams: “The thinking is the more people you manage, the better. They want to hire to meet metrics.”

It’s a theory supported by a member of the so-called PayPal Mafia, Silicon Valley VC Keith Rabois.

Rabois, who was an executive at PayPal in the early 2000s alongside Tesla CEO Elon Musk, told an event hosted by banking firm Evercore that Google and Meta had hired thousands of people to do “fake work” to hit hiring metrics out of “vanity.”

What’s the impact?

Getting paid six figures to do “nothing” might sound like the dream for some.

The reality, Maggiori said, is that it’s boring and demotivating.

“If no one cares if you don’t work, it makes you feel like whatever you do just doesn’t matter anyway,” he explained. “It’s not laziness, it’s demotivation.”

The onus isn’t on the employees but the employer to foster a spirit of proactivity, added Ignatius Nothnagel, who worked for Amazon for six years before launching his own coaching firm working with tech start-ups.

He told Fortune in his many years at Amazon Web Services in both South Africa and the Netherlands, he never saw staff searching for something to do.

Nothnagel said that the e-commerce giant’s encouragement to staff to “think like an owner” pushed employees to think creatively and proactively, taking it upon themselves to find work to do.

His experience of working at Amazon, he said, was like working at other start-ups with the end goal of making a difference.

At the end of the day, Nothnagel added, businesses not making the most of talent are “paying a very expensive person to use 1% of their brain.”

Another side of the coin

Other sources working in the tech sector told Fortune their days were filled with similarly meaningless work, or simply “doing their own thing”.

However, this is a far cry from the reality witnessed by Adam Machanic, who has worked in data roles across the U.S. financial sector for more than 20 years.

He told Fortune in a phone interview that a lack of work sounded like a “totally different world” to his own.

“I’ve worked for various firms like start-ups and financial services,” he said.

“In start-ups, the founder needs to get the business off the ground as quickly as possible so you all work really hard to get it there.

“Finance has never been known as a place to go and not do any work—we’ve always had a work hard and get rewarded for it culture.

“The idea that someone would sit there doing three hours a week is completely foreign to me.”

Machanic drew similar comparisons to Rabois, saying that tech layoffs at the likes of Meta, Google and Salesforce showed how companies could survive despite shedding thousands of workers.

“I’ve never worked in a massive organization but I can only assume it’s way easier to hide,” he said, pointing out that laziness isn’t necessarily stemming from the bottom ranks of businesses, but rather for middle-managers “delegating” their laziness.

He added: “It’s hiding behind this wall of saying they’re very busy. At smaller firms and in the hedge fund space there’s just no room for that.”

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