Pig Irons at the 'Plex

Hi. This is Can. Today, I’ll be talking about consulting companies.

Consulting firms are all the rage these days. I’ve never worked at one, but considered it and have many close friends who do. I am not going to lie, just a few years ago if you asked me what McKinsey did, I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Not that I can give you a good answer today, but I can probably regurgitate what I’ve learned over the years and through my friends. It’d be better than no answer.

Most people don’t care about those companies, but those who do generally have strong opinions. For example, some people think a few consulting companies run the world, which does seem a bit silly. Like, people give them ominous names like The Firm, and yes, they do have a lot of CEOs as alumni and all, but still. Slinging PowerPoints for a living is a far-cry from puppeteering the world.

Others think these firms are essentially shallow husks of other companies’ wills. Instead of secretly running the world, these people argue, all consulting companies do are provide cannon fodder for big corporations. Shift the blame, in other words. This, can happen in multiple ways as well. For example, you know you need to downsize, but obviously, that’s going to hurt some feelings, and you’d rather not be the bad guy, so you hire a consulting firm to tell you that you need to downsize. Then, when people point fingers at you, you can tell them that it wasn’t you, but the newly-minted MBAs from HBS (or INSEAD, fine) that made the call. Who knows better than Harvard folks?!

But there are even more on-the-nose ways to shift blame using consulting companies. Yes, you can hire them to tell you to do things that you know you need to do, but also, you can skip that they-told-me-so part entirely, and straight-up hire them to do the bad things for you. The MBBs of the world are a bit too buttoned-up for that kind of mercenary work, but there are always others who will pick up the slack.

Take Accenture’s work for Google. And, seriously, oh my god:

The cellphone ban has created a particular kind of dark comedy in the Austin office. Certain Accenture services require employees to log in using two-factor authentication, with expiring codes sent to workers’ phones. Since Accenture banned phones on the production floor, employees now have to race to the lockers where their phones are kept, then race back to their desks to enter the code before it expires. Accenture also banned pens and paper at employee desks, so employees who worry they’ll forget their code have to quickly scribble it on their hands before locking their phones back up and making the run back to their desk. Workers are now frequently seen sprinting through the office with a series of digits scrawled messily on their palms.

Look, I do not want to be glib about this by quoting an absurd, if not slightly funny anecdote. This is awful on so, so many levels. The physical and psychological trauma these people toil over, day after day, just so that you and I can enjoy a clean, if you can call it that, experience, is heart-breaking. In fact, some of the claims are so egregious, I am honestly shocked they even pass the legality test. How on earth could you subject someone to so much traumatic content, even if you pay them? I am not a lawyer, or a labor rights enthusiast (expert?), but it does seem unacceptable.

There’s another way to think about this entire situation. I’ve talked about this before. One thing that’s happening right now is that tech companies we all love (and fear) are slowly discovering that they do exist on the same plane of reality that we have been living in. I am old enough to remember when it was the conventional wisdom that tech companies like Google would always stay quirky and be these places where you could, I don’t know, have beanbags and slides that allow you to travel from floor to floor.

Yet, here we are where people who do work for Google (through Accenture, but come on) can’t even sign on to their accounts on time unless they run, like actually run, to their desks with their 2FA codes scribbled on their hands. I guess if you are really into Taylorism, you would appreciate that kind of seconds-level optimization, but it does make you wonder why we haven’t advanced past measuring people moving around pig irons in so many hundreds of years. I can tell you one thing though: if 1/10th of that abuse was imposed on a Google engineer, they’d architect the buildings so the engineers wouldn’t have to run as long. Or they’d give them Segways. Or scooters. Or, I guess, fix the god damn problem.

But, you know, there’s another interesting angle here, and that’s about how so much of technology is not really technology, but just a bunch of people working really hard. Much to my own chagrin, I am pretty steeped in the world of technology journalism, so it’s hard for me to tell, but I do wonder, often, how much into the common consciousness it has dissipated that much of “AI” and “Machine Learning” tools are…many, many thousands of people doing the work that appears to be done by machines.

There’s a bit of reckoning here, I think. For the last few years every single tech company has been extolling the virtues of AI and ML; how they could use those tools to process not just do things that no human could ever do, but also do things that no sum of humans could ever do.

Benedict Evans has a good handle on this; how ML manifests in real life is not some omniscient, clairvoyant being but rather an ability to summon (spin up, I guess?) a million interns at will. You can’t, yet at least, make AI look at a photo and be able to tell you something a human cannot, but you can make it look at a million pictures.

But, I guess, you can’t even do that really, so you call up Accenture, so they spin up a lot of workers. I don’t even know what is what anymore, as the former engineer can only hear “Python instance” in the word worker anyway.

This whole thing reminds me of an old Teller (of Penn & Teller) quote: “Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” It’s good, I think, someone is parting the curtain so that the mere mortals that are us, the common public, see that what’s been long touted as magic is just more people than we might reasonably expect doing the work for us that we don’t want to do.