Cog in a Machine


Walking around Headquarters early in the morning always reminds me of my two different lives at my company: I.T. and Dispatch. I leave my current office, in which I am a largely nameless worker bee, and briefly visit my previous world, a vaguely familiar place in which each worker has a specific niche and responsibilities that only he or she can fulfill.

These two different lives reflect two different kinds of jobs that we can generalize to most of the workforce. Since I’m not feeling creative enough to dream up snazzy names, let’s call them person-oriented jobs and role-oriented jobs.

Person-Oriented Jobs

These jobs depend on the specific skills, personality traits, contacts, and experience of the individual who holds the position. The worker has a niche, turf to control and defend, and is producing work that few if any other workers are doing at that company. Managers generally fit into this category. Perks might include one’s own office or desk, phone number, business cards, reputation, and appointments plus a sense of ownership and achievement regarding one’s projects. The work schedule is often normal business hours, but not necessarily. When the worker is out of the office, the work either doesn’t get done or only gets done by special arrangement with a coworker. Drawbacks include meetings. Coworkers, clients, and customers have a relationship with the worker.

I know some of these people. My dad is a CPA who owns and runs a small accounting firm. My friend Donny runs a company that sells parts to soup up your car. My friend Chris is a financial analyst. His wife Demona is a science teacher. In my previous life in I.T., I was a technical writer and business analyst.

Role-Specific Jobs

Role-specific jobs generally involve shift work, the kind of jobs where some warm body needs to do something for some amount of time. The worker’s individual identity and personal characteristics are not the keys to success. Instead, the worker’s value lies simply in fulfilling a role for a given time. Despite minor differences in ability, technique, or style, workers are largely interchangeable within each group. If one worker can’t come to work, someone else steps in and gets the job done. The work schedule can be quite variable and include nights, holidays, and weekends. The worker generally lacks a dedicated phone line or cubicle/desk/office. Relationships with clients/customers are generally superficial and very short-lived with limited interaction. Perks include the ability to trade shifts with coworkers, leave one’s work at work instead of dragging it home every day, and maintain some level of anonymity among the company’s customers.

I know several of these people as well. My friends James and Alexis are police officers. My sister Lisa is a nurse. My friends Jeremy and Lacy are firefighters. I am a flight dispatcher.

Which is Better?

Neither type of job is better than the other, but for many, one is a better fit for their personality, personal life, career goals, or abilities. For me, a role-oriented position is a better fit. During my time in I.T., I discovered that I dislike meetings, prefer not to work on huge projects that follow me home at night, feel a bit guilty if I’m away from the office for too long, and prefer not to be the only person capable of making a particular decision or fixing a given problem. As a dispatcher, all I have to do is show up and do my work until it’s time to leave. Although sometimes I wonder about specific flights after I leave, generally I go home and relax at the end of the shift. Whether the shift was good or bad, once it’s over, that body of work isn’t my problem anymore, and then next day I’ll have a whole new set of work to do. Each day gives me a sense of accomplishment and closure. I’m not on call. Nobody bothers me with fires to put out when I’m not on duty. If I call in sick or trade off a shift or use a vacation day, someone else does that work instead. They might do it better or worse than I would have, but it doesn’t matter either way because it’s not my problem. I look around in my office and see at least 12 other people doing exactly the same thing I’m doing, and any one of them could step into my role with minimal effort.

I also love the anonymity. I’ve probably developed some sort of reputation among the pilot group, but our interactions are nearly always professional rather than personal. On a phone or radio call, the captain generally calls me “Dispatch”, and I generally call him or her “Captain”. It works out great since I’m terrible with names. Plus, unless I happen to know the captain, I don’t really care who he/she is. I care that the voice on the other end belongs to the Captain, with whom I share joint decision making responsibility for the flight.

Some people want to be an artisan, a puppetmaster, a unique contributor to the business world. Bravo, says I. We need plenty of people like that. But I’ve discovered that it’s great to be a cog in someone else’s machine. I get plugged in for eight hours, do my thing to the best of my ability, and then get swapped out with someone else until next time.

Which type of job do you prefer? Which type do you have right now? If they don’t match, why not?