Unearned Income

What should you do when you get a $1000 award that you really do not feel you deserve? Should you celebrate or feel guilty?

This actually happened to me yesterday. Yes, people are losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance, taking pay cuts and generally making do with less. And I, a very comfortably paid civil servant also just got a 3.52% general cost of living raise plus a 1.26% locality pay adjustment because living around Washington D.C. is expensive, dontcha know. Now due to what feels like a random act of nature, I am getting this $1000 award.

The award is for “vigilant operational focus, continuous monitoring, and troubleshooting” of the system I manage. The award was at least in part for troubleshooting weird network issues during an event that occurred early in December that nearly took down our critical real time system for more than a day. I will not get into the details, but let’s just say the problem had to do with our network, not our servers or software.

As the manager, did I spring into action? Not really. I have a woman who works for me in charge of the system’s operations. She definitely sprang into action, as did about half dozen other people. When problems like this happen, they are not hard to detect. Even if we don’t quickly discover a problem, which we usually do, the public will let us know. Our job is restoring the system to a fully operational state as quickly as possible. Since we run the system within a complex national enterprise environment, it can be hard to figure out where the problem lies. This incident was particularly daunting because we had never seen it before. We had engineered what we thought was a system nearly impossible to take down because it is hosted out of multiple data centers across the country. We were also drawn down a number of blind ends because the problem appeared to be due to something else we had been dealing with.

In other words, everyone was doing their jobs. Moreover, my job was to let others far more competent than me to handle the problem and keep my management chain regularly informed. If necessary, I was capable of making certain threatening noises to those who might be obstructing a solution. In general though I don’t go that route. We are all very collegial. When these things happen all sorts of teams (including some people I manage and people I don’t) myopically work on the problem, working on it nights and weekends if necessary until it goes away. I certainly have system responsibility as the manager, but I do not actually solve the immediate problem. In most cases, I add value by staying out of their way. That’s pretty easy.

In fact, before I took this job five years ago pretty much the same people were busy triaging this and similar problems when they occurred. In this case, my role was largely reduced to tugging my chin. There are situations in life like that. You can have people do what they can, but no amount of huffing and screaming will solve the problem like this any quicker.

Nonetheless, yesterday out of the blue I got this $1000 special award. Fortunately, I was not the only recipient. Two others in the branch I manage also got what are likely similar sized awards. They earned their awards by dropping their normal lives on a dime to solve these problems. The extent of my accomplishments in this area has been to persuade people with the money to give me more money to make these sorts of incidents far less frequent. I did this in part through funding a study that helped point out some of our root performance problems, then buying appropriately configured servers. This was doubtless helpful overall, as the general trend has been that we have been having fewer performance problems over the last few years. However, I have already been rewarded for these efforts in performance awards.

This one came from outside my management chain. After taxes, the amount will be considerably less than $1000, but it will still seem like money I am not entitled to receive.

Some part of me wants to give it to a homeless person, or shower it on House of Ruth (my favorite charity) or buy some meals and shelter for the homeless. I look around my house, which is full of all sorts of adult toys that tickle my fancy and find myself bereft of ideas on how it could possibly make me happier. Perhaps given these uncertain economic climate I should just throw it into my savings account.

I have another couple of weeks before I will actually receive the money. I suspect that rather than spend it on riotous living I will find some needy nonprofit and send them a check for the net amount of the award. They will make better use of it and I will not have to feel guilty about pocketing money that I don’t feel like I actually earned.

One response to “Unearned Income”

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