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About two months ago, I started work as a full time server administrator for a small company. I have almost nothing to do. I generally work 1-2 hours a day. There have only been two days where I worked 6-12 hours in a day. I've talked to a friend who used to work a similar position and he says that's normal.

Most of my time is spent browsing the internet, reading Stackexchange, volunteering to help out help desk (rare because they almost never need extra help), and just trying to look like I'm working.

When I'm at home, I spend a lot of time working on personal programming projects for fun. Would it be okay to do these in my spare time at work? For the time being, none of them are meant to be monetized, they're purely for fun.

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Personally, the question I'd rather ask my manager in this situation wouldn't be "can I do personal things in the 80% of time I'm not doing work while on the clock" but instead "I appear to be underutilized here, how can we fix it?" Bonus for adding "Here are some ideas for the benefit of the company." As a manager, those are certainly the questions I'd rather hear. YMMV. –  jcmeloni Dec 13 '12 at 13:38
FWIW, there are some jobs which are much like a parking lot attendant most of the time, but which require the ability to respond quickly and professionally to random crises. That's what you're really paid for. One of the best sys-admin/operations guy I've ever worked with introduced himself with "you'll never see me unless there's a BIG problem"-- and then we literally never saw him henceforth. –  Angelo Dec 13 '12 at 15:39
@Angelo even within those sorts of jobs there're wide variations in what's expected. At one end the attendant could be free to do anything to stave off boredom (I knew someone who works(ed?) as a self storage desk clerk because his boss was fine with him spending the 6-7 hours/day there weren't any customers playing PC games rather than getting bored and quitting after a few months). At the other end an additional 'warm body' duty like watching the security cams could be added on. Ron really needs to discuss this with his boss rather than assuming anything. –  Dan Neely Dec 13 '12 at 18:02
@Ron (regarding your last comment) if you know that's saying you have a "terrible work ethic", then, pardon me, why the hell are you asking this question? –  NickC Dec 13 '12 at 18:30
@Ron I'm surprised you seem to perceive some difference between the two. Lots of stuff will not get you fired if you don't get caught. But I would challenge your assumptions that there is any real difference between the two. Most employers would consider "unethical" behavior as problematic, even fireable, at least if repeated. –  NickC Dec 13 '12 at 21:24

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Would it be okay to do these in my spare time at work?

That's a question to ask your manager - not us.

In general, using company resources for activities that are not helping the company is frowned upon - doesn't matter that they are not for profit.

If you can see these activities as something that is helping you gain skill and making you more valuable to the company, that would be a good way to approach your manager about getting permission to expend time one these activities during working hours and using company resources.

I would suggest finding other activities that would benefit the company if these personal projects do not fit the bill - things like learning in order to get certifications or projects that will benefit the company directly.

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Just now while prepping for work I asked my manager if I could "practice programming during downtime at work". He said it was perfectly fine as long as I stopped what I was doing whenever I was needed. He also commented saying the last server admin spent most of day watching Netflix and the one before him read novels most of the day. –  Ron Dec 13 '12 at 15:17

As a fellow system administrator, this time is absolutely perfect for getting your network to an absolutely pristine condition. We all know that day to day maintenance is no fun, but it's the difference between a solid, predictable network that you can be proud of and one that's no end of games.

In my view, you should spend the time doing the following (Essentially in order):

  • Ensure that all your current servers are patched and up to date where possible
  • Ensure that the configuration of the servers is as good as you can get it, following vendor best practices where possible
  • Maintain / build documentation. Follow the "If I were hit by a bus..." line of thinking
  • Speak to your end users / customers and find out what they like and dislike. You can never fix everything, but you'd be surprised how a small config change to you can really make a user happy.
  • After all that, start working on your own personal, but relevant development. Build a lab and start investigating later versions of software and being planning a roadmap for the future. It doesn't really matter if reality reflects it, but ensure you're in the game and aware of what technologies are up and coming.
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you'd be surprised how a small config change to you can really make a user happy. No kidding. As someone on the receiving end this is so true! –  enderland Dec 14 '12 at 17:24

Another thing to bear in mind is what your contract says. Even if your manager says its ok to "practice programming" in your spare time, some contracts contain a clause stating that anything you create on their machines is theirs. So, make sure what you create is only done on your machine.
Also, be aware of creating something similar to products or services that your company has. This could constitute a conflict of interest which most companies will not look at favourably.

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@Ron - You're sure that there isn't something that states that the company doesn't own something you produce on their machines during hours that they're paying you to work just because they didn't direct you to do it? It seems exceptionally unlikely that the company would write that sort of thing into a contract-- it would make it a mess to figure out who owned the code for any systems that their developers built. It seems incredibly likely that anything you work on during these hours would become the property of the company. –  Justin Cave Dec 13 '12 at 18:16
@Ron - I suppose it's possible but even with a system's admin, I'd expect there to be an expectation that you're writing scripts that the company would want to own. I can't imagine that they've set up a situation where you working on your laptop during working hours would write a script to automate some task and the company wouldn't own-- that would allow you to ask for license fees for virtually any work you do for the company. –  Justin Cave Dec 13 '12 at 19:48

If the president of the company came to your desk and asked what you were working on, would you be comfortable telling him/her?

You goal is to do something that is ethical, beneficial, and fun. You have an opportunity here to to satisfy all three. Devise a project that you would enjoy working on, and that would benefit your employer. It won't be as fun as a personal project, but it will allow you to sleep at night and give you satisfaction at work.

Full disclosure: I am guilty of answering this question at work.

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I believe that according to USA law, but as well as in other countries, such as UK, what you in the company's premises belongs to the company. In cases the law is vague, many companies state this in their sign up contract (I have signed this with my current employer). You would not want to jeopardise the ownership of a project if it has to be sold etc, or of the charity you contribute, because you did something within working hours.

I believe I have read in a Spolsky article a case when the company owns even what you do outside working hours, but that's another story and I could not find a link.

I suggest you to read the Dropbox Y-Combinator application, where they explain how they own all their code, including what was written in another company's premisses. Quoting:

Are any of the founders covered by noncompetes or intellectual property agreements that overlap with your project? Will any be working as employees or consultants for anyone else? Drew: Some work was done at the Bit9 office; I consulted an attorney and have a signed letter indicating Bit9 has no stake/ownership of any kind in Dropbox.

What I do when having a personal project, is to do "internet research" such as choosing frameworks, reading articles at most code a snippet, but nothing that would distract me from my day to day activities or would jeopardise my output's ownership. If they want a hello world in node.js they can claim it :-). Every line of code written or anything else, is committed to a cloud hosted repository producing a third party trusted "out of office hours" - timestamp.

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