‘Developer Bob’ and His Illicit Work-Around: What’s Wrong with Outsourcing Your Job to China?

I’m hardly the only American worker who has spent precious moments of work time in the past few days fantasizing about outsourcing his or her job. Why a lot of people are hailing the mysterious Developer Bob as a 21st century labor hero

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Consider that last, er, paragraph a failed experiment in outsourcing.

Inspired by news accounts of an American software engineer, identified only as Developer Bob, who secretly outsourced his job to China so he could spend his days surfing Reddit and looking at cat videos, I decided to try a clever cat-related labor-saving ploy of my own: to get one of my cats to write this piece for me by setting her on my laptop keyboard.

Well, that didn’t work. Not only did my cat fail to produce any usable prose — it’s almost as though she had no business-writing training at all — but my experiment didn’t save me any time. Because of an unexpected issue with excessive squirming (hers), it took three tries for me to get my cat to type that one, um, word. The first time I set her on the keyboard, she accidently shut down my laptop with her little paws, and after her third try I had to spend a few moments assuring my computer that I didn’t want to change my power-saving or mobility settings before I could get back to the task at hand.

(MORE: Developer Outsources Job to China so He Can Watch Cat Videos)

In retrospect, it’s clear that my experiment was doomed to failure. Unlike Bob, who outsourced his job to secret subcontractors who were at least as qualified as he was to do the work, I simply set an overgrown kitten on my laptop and hoped for the best.

But I’m hardly the only American worker who has spent precious moments of work time in the past few days fantasizing about outsourcing his or her job. If you take a few moments to look at the comments appearing on the news accounts of Developer Bob’s adventure in laziness, you’ll see a lot of people hailing him as a sort of 21st century labor hero.

On CNN.com, a commenter named Michael wrote:

I would love to shake this guy’s hand. This is absolutely hilarious.

DHLOC concurred, writing

They should have promoted him instead … LOL

Over on Gawker, meanwhile, one commenter with an unprintable Internet handle suggested that Bob’s only real crime was that he was careless enough to get caught by the security consultants who ultimately exposed his little work-around.

[E]ven myself, who is only an analyst, would have known to use a proxy server through the home. Again, lazy.

Somewhere out there is one bad mofo who hasn’t gotten caught, who isn’t wasting time being an Internet hamster. That person is MY HERO.

Another Gawker commenter, Arden, asked the questions that were on a lot of people’s minds:

So when a corporation outsources your job, it’s just capitalism and sorry but that’s how things work, get used to it.

But when YOU outsource your OWN job, well that’s wrong and bad and you’re fired now and you shouldn’t be lazy.

Smell that? That’s the smell of good old-fashioned American hypocrisy.

There is, of course, one little difference between outsourcing in general and what Bob did. When corporate executives and/or consultants outsource work, they ostensibly pass the savings along to the company’s shareholders (after collecting huge bonuses and/or fees for themselves, of course). Bob did his outsourcing on the sly and passed the savings on to himself.

But in a broader sense, Arden is asking the right questions. After all, the idea that you can make a profit by getting other people to do your work for you isn’t exactly a terrible business heresy. It’s sort of the basis of capitalism itself. That’s what every business owner who hires employees is doing. That’s what every contractor who hires subcontractors is doing. That’s what every company who outsources jobs to foreign workers who are willing to work for less is doing.

(MORE: Did Google’s Promise to ‘Do No Evil’ Persuade the FTC to Do Nothing About Its Search Bias?)

And as long as the work done is good enough to pass muster with customers, no one (except those whose jobs are outsourced) suffers. Indeed, as Adam Smith pointed out many years ago, this sort of division of labor provides us — well, some of us, at least — with enormous economic benefits.

And Developer Bob’s work was, by all accounts, exemplary. According to Verizon security expert Andrew Valentine, who busted Bob and wrote up his story as a case study, the cat-video-loving programmer turned in code that “was clean, well written, and submitted in a timely fashion. Quarter after quarter, his performance review noted him as the best developer in the building.”

Aside from Bob’s dishonesty, and the fact that he kept the money for himself, the biggest issue with Bob’s little plan was that he exposed his company to big security risks. Indeed, it was the security breaches inherent in Bob’s system — the foreign developers accessing his account from Shenyang, China — that ultimately exposed him.

In other words, he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling security consultants.

Today, in cubicles across America, disgruntled workers (and aren’t we all at least a little bit disgruntled?) are trying to figure out how to do what Bob did — and not get caught. Some of them, I daresay, will succeed.

Never underestimate the ingenuity of the really, really lazy.