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I recently began to work at a company that specializes in helping researchers parallelize scientific problems and programs and utilize the processing capabilities of GPUs to speed up problems which fit the architecture well. Lately I found out that one of my colleagues has been utilizing the spare machines and GPU cards to mine bit-coins during off-hours such as evenings, nights and weekends. He has set his programs to automatically go into a sleeping state if they detect that other processes are trying to access the resources.

The total worth of currency he has made so far are trivial amounts at best. He claims that the machines are not doing anything during these off-hours and that he isn't doing any harm to anyone. He fails to realize that this is costing the company electricity and the constant full capacity usage of the machines are generating a lot of heat. Additionally this unauthorized usage of the company assets is not allowed in our contracts, at least not in mine. I fear that if this behaviour escalates there will eventually be an investigation into the usage of the machines and more control, making all employees' lives harder. The reason I have not yet gone to management is that I am still fairly new here and I do not know who my allies are. How should I act in this situation?

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High GPU utilization = high wattage utilization. He's costing the company money, full stop. He might also be stopping the machines from sleeping –  Rarity Jan 28 '13 at 3:16
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The whole idea of bitcoin is based on fact, that it costs at least as much to generate one, than it's worth (otherwise you'd have hiperinflation). Which mean he's costing the company at least as much, as he makes. –  vartec Jan 28 '13 at 11:14
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@vartec That argument would probably not fly. The value of bitcoin is also based on a bunch of other things, such as velocity of transactions, number of exchanges, etc. Changes in value of bitcoin over the last few years do not correspond to changes in computational power. An interesting question is: perhaps it's worth it for the company to adopt a policy of mining bitcoins on all of their machines at night time and this employee is just a trailblazer :). –  MrFox Jan 28 '13 at 20:15
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He may want to consider if it is worth it for the company to take ownership of his code. –  JeffO Jan 30 '13 at 22:03

3 Answers 3

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Speaking as a Systems Administrator, I've run into just this kind of thing (it wasn't Bitcoin, but something like Seti@Home). This is a bit different since I'm the officially responsible party for such systems and can take action on my own authority, but the principles guiding how I respond also apply to you.

There are two competing interests at work here:

  • Corporate culture It could be that such usage is culturally acceptable so long as it doesn't get in the way. This is not an easy thing to figure out all by your self.
  • Contract language It is highly likely that your employment contracts do include wording to the effect of banning the use of company resources for making money privately (negligible != zero). Secondly, 'unauthorized usage' could also apply, but that's kind of hairy.

It's a bad idea, that's for sure. But how to handle it involves the above.

In all likelihood, a strict reading of the contract bans such usage. However, some companies like to apply "common sense" to the application of contract language, so may actually permit certain banned usages so long as it doesn't impact anything. Don't do anything precipitous until after you've learned a few things.

In this case, since you're new to the company you're not really in a position to understand how corporate culture modifies contract language application. Secondly, you don't know who allies are, so embrace that role and go to the manager of those systems (someone, er, like me). Declare ignorance of how things work (which is true), explain what you found, and ask how this works. You're seeking education, not tattling on a co-worker.

At that point, you've done what you could. You've reported a questionable behavior, and probably now have a much better grasp for the edge-cases around your employment contract. If it turns out that such usage actually is banned, you'll have earned an ally in that manager. If it turns out that it's allowed, you'll likely get some of the background for this specific case, which will help your understanding of how the company works.

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Very nice answer. In addition, when you do bring it up, I would not mention the name of the person until asked. In case of asking to be educated, names don't matter, so you further remove yourself from seeming like a tattle-tale/snitch. –  NickC Jan 28 '13 at 5:34
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The situation has been resolved peacefully. –  Steinin Jan 31 '13 at 9:17

I think the key points to handling this situation are:

  1. Talk to your immediate reporting manager to gather data, since you are new as you said.
  2. Give your colleague (let's call him Bill) the benefit of doubt. Your objective should be to keep him away from trouble, not get him in trouble.
  3. Don't rush. Allow yourself enough time to deal with the situation.

As the first step, have a casual chat with your manager (let's call him John), and ask him if employees are allowed to use spare machines during off-hours "to complete the project sooner". I know that's not really your point, but you don't want your manager to imagine that you are thinking of using spare resources for your personal use.

If he says this cannot be done due to contract rules or other reasons, you could then ask him if it okay to put the spare resources to personal use "once in a while". If you find out that this is allowed, then you ask a specific question, "Are all kinds of personal use really okay? I mean, clearly, using it for illegal activities would be wrong, but what if someone were to use them to make legitimate money?"

If he reveals that making money using company's spare resources is not allowed, you point out your observation without selling out your colleague. "John, actually, the reason I asked you this is I saw bill do this once. Maybe he interpreted the contract differently. I don't want him to be in trouble, perhaps you could talk to him about it?"

On the other hand, if this is allowed, you could simply report what you observed, without making it sound like a complaint. "John, the other day, Bill showed me this interesting thing ...", and then let your manager decide how to deal with it.

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They are using their employers resources to make money for themselves. Check your employment contract to see if it allows that (I doubt very much it does). More likely there is a clause in the contract or company handbook on using company resources for your own personal use as being a firing offense.

Also you risk being liable for it as well if you knew about it and did nothing. Imagine he does get out and says that you knew about it and sanctioned it to your boss.

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Steinin already said that Steinin's contract does not allow it, but Steinin does not have a copy of colleague's contract. For all Steinin knows, this is a negotiated fringe benefit. –  emory Jan 27 '13 at 22:37
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If it is a "negotiated fringe benefit" then he shouldn't have an issue reporting it to management then. As for "Employees are compensated for use of their own resources" depends a lot on the company. BYOD rules can be very strict, and the OP is not describing such a situation. –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 28 '13 at 8:40

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