A couple of weeks ago I was compelled to open the case on my balky computer and dig into its guts. My goal was diagnosing a long-running and progressively worsening series of program crashes and operating-system reboots, all of which were crimping my productivity and putting my data at risk.
It took more hours than I would have liked, but in the end I had my culprit: a bad stick of DDR2 memory, now upgraded and replaced. Along the way I also updated the BIOS for my computer, stress-tested and reconfigured various bits of hardware and software, and killed several trojans and a dormant worm.
I am now suffering no computer ills. My machine is running like an electronic top. I’m confident going forward that I have a stable platform from which to work, and that’s no small comfort given that I hope to do a great deal of writing over the next nine months. My computer is, after all, my workshop, and I don’t need a workshop that blinks out at random intervals.
While diagnosing my computer problems I ran a series of tests, including MemTest86+ — which proved decisive. In order to run that program I had to download and install it, which I was able to do after a couple of faltering attempts to decipher the geek-speak instructions.
While performing this relatively simple task I found myself confronting an age-old debate that seems almost generic to human existence:
When should you hire someone to do a job for
you, and when should you do it yourself?
The answer, always, is found at the intersection of time and money. How much will it cost, and how long will it take, either to pay someone to solve the problem or to do it yourself? (Here I’m assuming that the goal is not one of self-satisfaction, but simply solving a problem by the most effective means.)
As it happens, I know a fair bit about how computers work and how they fail. Fixing my computer wasn’t so much a question as a task. Still, I couldn’t help but think about people who might not have the same body of knowledge and experience to draw from. How would someone who doesn’t understand computers deal with the same issue? Should they try to be self-sufficient and solve the problem themselves, or would that demonstrate stupidity in the face of all the available support options? Time, or money?
The money part of the equation is simple at the margins, but can be fairly complex in the mushy middle. If you have no money then by default you must do things yourself. If you have all the money in the world (or more than you need), you will probably offload everything as long as time isn’t a critical component of the problem. (For example, if you gashed your arm and were bleeding to death you would probably try to stop the bleeding yourself, rather than wait to see a board-certified surgeon.)
It’s when you have some money, and multiple, conflicting demands on that money, that the decisions get complicated. Any expenditure limits your future options, so keeping cash on hand has value in itself. Too, knowing whether you’re going to get good value for your money is a nightmare. Just because someone hangs out a shingle it doesn’t mean you’re going to be fairly charged, or that the work will be done to your standards. In fact, you could get gouged for slip-shod work that you would then have to pay someone else to fix, leaving you out more money and more time than you would have forfeited if you had done the work yourself.
The point here is that what looks like a simple question — paying others to do work for you — can quickly explode into more complex and problematic questions, all of which also involve time as a component.
The risk inherent in transferring responsibility to someone else is a big reason many people choose to do a task themselves, even if it might take longer and prevent them from spending time on something else. While no maxim applies in all instances, most people soon realize there’s more than a grain of truth in this saying:
If you want something done right you should do it yourself.
For the purposes of this post done right means done correctly, not done the way you want it. If you have eclectic tastes and you’re decorating a bathroom, odds are nobody but you is going to be able to deliver a satisfactory result. But if your tire is flat you don’t really care about styling, you just want to be able to drive your car — preferably without getting yourself dirty.
And yet…even the question of fixing a flat tire can be complicated by questions of time. How long will you have to wait before help arrives? If you’ve broken down in front of a restaurant and you were on your way to lunch, it probably makes sense to wait. But if you broke down in the Mojave Desert in July, and help won’t arrive until after you die from the heat, fixing the tire (or driving on the flat) probably makes more sense.
To optimize your time, not only must you decide how long a task will take if you do it yourself or pass it off, but you have to factor in any learning curve associated with each choice. What will you have to learn in order to solve the problem? Do you know how to do what you need to do? Are you starting from scratch, or building on a foundation? If you’re passing the job off, do you know someone proven, or will you have to research the available solution providers? If you find someone who looks good on paper and says all the right things, what assurance do you have that your work will get priority, or be overseen by the right people?
As noted in the gashed-arm example above, time isn’t a constant. There are emergencies that need to be dealt with now, when a professional might not be readily available, and there are nagging issues that can be put off until later — when, presumably, someone’s office hours coincide. But even making that judgment costs time which might be better (more optimally) spent on something else.
The Professionalism Problem
Professionals in every business recognize the threat of do-it-yourself solutions, which is why this maxim is often invoked:
Any man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.
Given that legal proceedings can be emotionally demanding, I suspect there’s more than a grain of truth in that saying as well. I also think you’ll find very few brain surgeons operating on themselves — although admittedly that’s a bit different.
Still, as everyone knows, experience usually counts for a lot in any line of work. Where do-it-yourselfers might face a protracted learning curve in order to make one decision, a professional might plow through twenty key decisions in a matter of minutes. Given that most people value their own work knowledge, it makes sense that people would assume that professionals in other lines of work also bring valuable experience to the table. An in general I think that’s true.
On the other hand, anyone who’s worked a job for more than a month has probably noticed that disinterest and incompetence isn’t just the stock-in-trade of punching bags like the DMV or your local auto dealer. It’s actually a work-life philosophy that shows up everywhere.
But we don’t have to ascribe nefarious motives to professionals in order to question the wisdom of farming out work. The most professional thing about professionalism is the facade. Behind any business card or web site or brick-and-mortar facing, however, we know we’ll find the same frightening mix of human failings, time pressures and budgetary constraints that exist in our own work lives. So while it may in fact be true that anyone acting as their own lawyer has a fool for a client, that’s little solace to someone who unwittingly hired a shyster lawyer or a distracted lawyer or a substance-abusing lawyer or a double-billing lawyer.
The Professionalism Panacea
If the default professional perspective is that somebody else can always do a better job if I’ll only have the courage to pry open my wallet, where do I stop? If I should hire my taxes done, should I hire a personal chef? What about a stand-in for trips to the grocery store, or on a speaking tour? Should I hire a counselor to act as a go-between with all of the people I love, because my communication skills might not be as clear and supportive as they should be?
I get that I don’t know everything. I get that other people know more than I do, and that they’re willing to share that knowledge with me for a price. I get that doing things myself means I’m not doing them as well as they can be done by other people. I get that I feel the same way when I see people fumbling with words. I get it.
But none of that helps me solve any particular time-or-money question. What I need are criteria by which I can try to make useful, beneficial decisions.
Every time-or-money decision is unique. Even the same decision at different times can produce different answers because of changes in available time or money. But there are a few constants I’ve discovered over the years, and I think they’re worth keeping in mind when you’re deciding between doing something yourself or paying to have it done.
- Doing a job yourself doesn’t necessarily waste time if you bank knowledge in the process. It may cost time now, but potentially save time later if the knowledge you acquire is built upon or used again. Acquiring knowledge not only helps you solve problems yourself, it also helps you hire the right people to solve problems for you. Learning everything you can does more to help you make good decisions than anything else.
- Money is more important than time. If you’re debating using time to solve a problem or using money to solve a problem, use time. Money is what you must have when you need other people to help you. Time is what you always have, even if you feel like you don’t.
- Coordinating with someone else takes time and introduces levels of complexity. Increases in complexity are increases in risk. Estimating the time it will take to effectively coordinate, and analyzing the risks you face if others fail to perform, are critical aspects of deciding whether or not to do something yourself.
- Other than emergencies, the best time to pass a job off to someone else is when you are scaling up. Don’t just hire someone to do something once: plan on hiring someone you can build a relationship with. The goal should be finding someone who can be a reliable part of your process pipeline, so you don’t have to make the same decision over and over each time you have that same need.
All of my computer knowledge comes from do-it-yourself experiences, and that bank of knowledge is constantly drawn upon. Had I not learned all of those lessons I would have had to turn my machine over to someone else in order to solve my most recent issues, and that would have cost me time and money. I’ve also made that knowledge available to others, and if I had to guess I would say that the savings to them (in the aggregate) is easily over $10,000.
(The takeaway here, again, is that time isn’t always a cost.)
Whatever business you’re in or hope to be in, you’re going to be doing a lot of things yourself that you might not be doing later if your business takes off. That’s the nature of start-ups: you have to hustle, and a big part of hustling is learning everything you can.
If you’re in the business of selling things you’ve written, chances are you’ll be doing almost everything yourself for a long time. Even traditional publishing and agenting functions will probably be out of reach for a while, meaning you’ll have to learn how books are marketed and sold and how rights are protected. (If you don’t do this then you most assuredly do have a fool for a client.)
Ultimately, paying a professional is really just paying someone else for the time it would take you to learn what they can do, plus the cost of the tools necessary to do the job. As I said in a recent post, I’m going to look for someone to help me with the cover for the POD version of my short story collection. While part of that decision has to do with getting a good artist/graphic result, a big factor is that I won’t have to shell out money for software tools. (The full version of Photoshop CS5 currently retails for $700.)
My goal is not only to get a good result on this project, but building a relationship with someone who can help me down the road. Call it scaling up.
— Mark Barrett