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I work in a corporate setting and I have put a great deal of work into custom-building specific tools and gathering information which assists me in my job here. I and others have noticed these tools allow me to arrive at accurate conclusions, produce accurate results.

As a result of my self-gathered data and self-built tools, I am able to answer questions with proper information. Technically, all the data by which I arrive at these answers is available to anyone through our proprietary ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system.

Am I obligated—or can I be compelled—to share with my employer the tools that I built, or to reveal how I arrived at my conclusions?

I have gathered data X, which allowed me to create query Y, which provides conclusion Z; which is very useful for decision-making.

Am I obligated to explain the steps I took (what data I gathered and how I formulated my query to arrive at the conclusion)? Or is it alright for me to keep my methods to myself, as technically all the data is available in the ERP system, and anyone who was willing to put in the effort I put in could theoretically arrive at the same conclusions?

The workplace environment is quite toxic: I certainly wouldn’t be given credit for sharing my methods, they would merely be appropriated from me, and used by someone else to get the credit.

If I were properly motivated—i.e. incentivized—I would be happy to share what I have built. But the toxic environment precludes this. How can I convey this without angering anyone / making anyone jealous?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Before commenting, ask yourself if you're contributing anything new to the conversation and whether your intended comment is what comments are for, or if you just want to vent or share your own opinion or answer without writing an answer. – Lilienthal Feb 3 '18 at 20:27

11 Answers 11

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If you built these tools at the office, and against existing corporate systems, then they belong to the company. Accept that.

You are worried about getting "credit," which tells me you're part of the toxicity problem, albeit probably a secondary part, and not a "source" of toxicity.

If you're worried about "credit," make a department-wide announcement that you have built these tools, and include your management 2 or 3 layers up. Offer to train your colleagues on it. Kill them with kindness.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lilienthal Feb 3 '18 at 20:26
  • This. Nothing more nothing less. Somewhere in op's team there is a frustrated junior who can't get anything done, solve that issue. Op doesn't have to teach how the tools were made, but being made in company time they belong to the company. – Stian Yttervik Feb 4 '18 at 1:12
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Yes, you need to explain your methodology if asked. First because the data and the proprietary tool you are querying belongs to the company not you and second because, you need to make sure your query methodology is correct. No analysis tool should EVER be used without full QA to make sure that it is not misleading. No analysis tool should ever be built to query corporate data without being in source control and available to anyone who might get assigned to work with it. What you have done is very unprofessional.

Third, your attitude is counterproductive. If you want credit, that's fine. Make sure you share the tools in such as way as to get credit. Look at how to do that by reading about office politics. If you are doing data analysis, office politics is a critical part of how you will succeed because you need to convince management to make decisions, you need to know this stuff so that you get the credit you deserve.

  • Thank you for the reply. I will look into reading about office politics as you suggest. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 15:58
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    I learned this lesson many years ago in a similar toxic environment - people don't trust data, they trust 'people'. – SeanR Feb 2 '18 at 17:00
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    @SeanR Completely reasonable as well. Although both can be manipulated; people seem more inclined to believe that data presented to them is accurate; especially if it's well presented and aligns with expected results. – JMac Feb 2 '18 at 17:52
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    It seems a large stretch to call this activity unprofessional. @L.Arryn has gone above and beyond to make sure they are more productive and more useful to the employer, providing better analysis and at reduced time and cost. What has been done so far is exemplary model employee behavior and is of utmost professionalism. What is done from this point forward is all that is in question. You seem to be underestimating the effects a toxic workplace has on employee decisions. I would write up a lot more about that to be convincing, except this is just a comment. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 18:42
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    @cdkMoose Like I said, what was already done is not unprofessional at all. The future course could be, and is if the tool is company owned. Who owns the tool depends on multiple factors, and if it is privately owned by OP then the company has no right to it and OP has every right to sell it to the employer or withhold it. That is the law, and it is moral. There is nothing unprofessional about it. We do not have enough facts to know whose property it is (though I would guess it is company property), and it sounds like that is part of what OP is trying to figure out. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 19:41
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As I read my own answer it sounds kind of harsh, but it's reality.

Did you make the tools during working hours?

If I were properly motivated—i.e. incentivized—I would be happy to share what I have built. But the toxic environment precludes this. How can I convey this without angering anyone / making anyone jealous?

The company paying you, and you doing this on company time, was all the motivation you needed.

Am I obligated—or can I be compelled—to share with my employer the tools that I built, or to reveal how I arrived at my conclusions?

How does not having a job anymore sound? Without explanation your conclusions are worthless, and if so you've been spending time on something which has so far gained no worth to the company, i.e. you've wasted company time. Something I'm sure they didn't hire you for.

Am I obligated to explain the steps I took (what data I gathered and how I formulated my query to arrive at the conclusion)? Or is it alright for me to keep my methods to myself, as technically all the data is available in the ERP system, and anyone who was willing to put in the effort I put in could theoretically arrive at the same conclusions?

That comes down to what's in your contract, but most likely. The company hires you to both come to these conclusions and explain how you did so. The company most likely literally owns everything you do/work on during work hours. Even universities own what students create while they study there.

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    Hello djsmiley2k. I don't agree I need to explain how I arrived at my conclusions. Anyone willing to put in the effort I have, could arrive at the same ones. I appreciate all the replies to my question: it seems there are mixed feelings about this issue. It is very hard to know what to do, how to proceed. I should start a blog about this.Without revealing too much about my personal situation, I am not worried about job security in the least. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 17:10
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    @L.Arryn, I understand that you don't think you need to explain, but frankly this is not a question of whether you agree with what is right. If I asked someone on my team to explain what they have been doing with their time at work and they refused to explain, they would be in a serious predicament. If you are taking this attitude because you believe you can't be fired, then I believe that is contributing to the toxic environment. – cdkMoose Feb 2 '18 at 19:19
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    @L.Arryn: "Anyone willing to put in the effort I have", yes, but your were paid to do it. If the company pays someone else again - why did they pay you in the first place? – Make42 Feb 3 '18 at 11:06
  • Thinking you don't need to explain, is different from being in an environment where you're required to explain how you came to a conclusion to prove your information is correct. If your workplace simply accepts information because 'X said so' then I'm glad I don't work there. – djsmiley2k in darkness Feb 4 '18 at 16:48
  • Also if you're not at all worried about job security, why are you even asking this question? – djsmiley2k in darkness Feb 4 '18 at 16:48
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First and foremost, check your employment agreement. This is primarily a legal question, and I'm not qualified to give legal advice, but neither is anybody else here without knowing more details of your work and employment. My only advice for you is that I would tread very carefully, and that generally, at the very least, it's likely that if they paid you to do the work, they own the product of that. But again--IANAL (I am not a lawyer) and it is HIGHLY dependent on your contract.

  • Thank you for your reply. Certainly, they own the product of my work: conclusion Z which I provide when asked. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 16:00
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    By "the product of your work", I mean any effort on your part that you undertook during time that they paid you for, and/or using their resources. I don't just mean the final results of your analysis or whatever it is that you are doing. Depending on your employment contract, you may need to get legal agreement from your company to retain the rights even for things you do on your own time with your own resources if it is too similar to your role at your job. Just be careful. Toxic environments suck and I understand why you need to protect yourself. – kmc Feb 2 '18 at 16:21
  • Hello kmc. Your reply is so appreciated. Yes, I am trying to protect myself. If I allow it, all I have built and worked for to build the ability to obtain conclusion Z will be taken from me. I will receive zero credit. A chosen person will be given credit for arriving at conclusion Z, and conclusion Z will be implemented in business decisions. Were I certain I would be credited I would not hesitate to outright provide. Yes, it's the toxicity here that is an issue. Toxicity & politics. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 16:25
  • Man, I feel for you. I've been there and it was killing me. It destroyed my confidence, my faith in myself or really anything, and eventually my ability to do a good job. Finally, my physical health actually started to take a toll. Here's something you can do for you: every time to do something that you're not going to get credit for, add it to your resume. – kmc Feb 2 '18 at 16:53
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People have mentioned IP rights, and I really do not disagree with them. You, absolutely cannot, under no condition, turn around to a competitor and sell them whatever you developed.

Having said that, you don't seem to be asking about this at all.

Part of the reality of being a programmer, is that it is one thing to create tools for yourself. It is very different to create tools for someone else. You can tell them you made the tools, and you must give them the source code (they own it), but if they want you to somehow get it to work for someone else, that takes it to a whole different level of responsibility and some type of promotion-like discussion should happen.

You're worried about not getting credit. You seem to think that access to source code means they will then be able to re-create exactly what you can do. While technically true, reverse engineering code is not a trivial task. If they're not self-motivated and skilled enough to create these tools in the first place, understanding someone else's code is going to be much harder, because it will cater to your specific style and methods.

The fact is, it is perfectly safe for you to do exactly what you fear. It's OK to explain your methodologies. It's actually OK to even give out the source code. If it doesn't work for someone else, it isn't your responsibility. If the company wants you to have this responsibility, they need to promote you to do that. If they want to fire you, then that becomes a different discussion, one which you actually have a lot of leverage.

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    What you say about IP rights and selling to a competitor only applies if it was the company's time and/or resources. If it was 100% your own time and resources (at home, on your own PC), then it belongs completely to you. Though, you might want to quit your current job before selling it to their competitor, otherwise it could be a conflict of interest. At my current employer, there is an agreement in place that I can't do this, so I can't, but someone with no such agreement could. At my previous job, some of us were (illegally) expected to "just get the job done on time", even if that meant... – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 18:50
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    (2) ... working unpaid hours (ie: working 11 hours but only claiming you worked 8). People did that. I did for a short time before I quit, and I used that to block them from using something I worked on, since I had done part of the work at home on my time on my PC in good faith (that practice - at home on own PC - was not frowned on there, and it wasn't till later that they screwed me). I left notes in files and in the tracking system that a certain thing could not be used as it did not belong to them, and I think they abided by it since that'd be legal nightmare for them otherwise. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 18:53
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    No, it's not necessarily data theft. It depends. You're not stealing their data by running it through (what OP might claim is) a third party program to process the data. The data is in their house and never leaves there. It just passes through third-party software, which happens all the time. So that cannot be considered theft. I agree though, the whole thing is a tangled legal mess full of tripwires. Best not to go down that road. – Aaron Feb 2 '18 at 18:57
  • "It is very different to develop tools for someone else". Oh my yes. – candied_orange Feb 3 '18 at 4:41
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By not telling people, you are making a mistake. Regardless of how toxic an environment, you are either someone who is a benefit to the company or someone who is not. An entirely new position could be created for you. Wouldn't you rather be the person who creates tools for others to use or just another one of the "grunts" doing the same thing over and over?

Encourage others to use the tools. Make yourself known as the person who goes beyond their job to benefit the company. This is an opportunity to leverage your talent. If there is a lay-off of some sort, you would be someone they want to keep; especially, the person (probably higher up) who took credit for your work. They will probably want you to do more of it especially if they are this greedy.

Also, this is something you want to put on your C.V.

Remember, if your boss can't get promoted, you probably won't get promoted.

Edit: Whether it's the tools or the methodology, it's no different. They should still want you to come up with more of it in the future. If not, you need to find a better group of people to work with.

  • Thank you for your answer. I would love to be the one known for creating the tools. I already have listed this on my CV, AND in my LinkedIn where many higher-up managers are part of my network. I have told my supervisors I am able to build the tools. They don't want ME to build the tools. They want me to give them the methodology so they can use it for themselves and their friends. I hope that makes sense! I am already known as a person who goes above & beyond. However, they do not want to give me credit. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 16:19
  • You may want to alter the question, so the focus is not on the tools. – user8365 Feb 2 '18 at 16:33
  • Hello JeffO. Thank you. Your answer: "you need to find a better group of people to work with." stuck with me. I am afraid of having my contributions stolen, with no credit given. This has happened to me before in this workplace. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 17:16
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Am I obligated to explain the steps I took (what data I gathered and how I formulated my query to arrive at the conclusion)?

The answer varies company to company depending on the agreements that you may have signed.

For example: IF you signed a form stating, "anything you create on company time is the property of the company" this doesn't necessarily mean that the thought processes belong to the company just the result or physical / virtual property.

As you mentioned the environment is toxic and there could be push back towards this attitude and therefore it's important to have the facts regarding the policies of the company prior to engaging in a discussion about this topic.

  • Thank you for the reply. It is the thought processes, what I have done with the data I have gathered, that I feel is valuable. Anyone could arrive at the same conclusions I have with the same level of effort: they would rather not and rather appropriate my methods which led to those conclusions, for themselves. Knowing this, is it OK for me to tell them NO, these are my tools, go build your own if you want the same conclusions ?? – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 15:52
  • I would say that there is a level of ethics that goes here as well. As for the legality of it - that's for someone else to answer as I'm not a lawyer however someone cannot force your thoughts much like they can't force your methods out of you. Just pay close attention to any contract / agreements you have signed and ensure that you're not bound by that. – 0perator Feb 2 '18 at 16:00
  • Hello @0perator. Thanks for your reply. There is definitely a level of ethics. Like the one time I had a personal emergency and I asked permission to leave the office one hour before the end of my workday, and I was denied and threatened with disciplinary action. Was that ethical? In such an environment perhaps one could understand from my perspective, why ethics are subjective, and exist on a sliding scale. – L.Arryn Feb 4 '18 at 4:59
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It is hard to acquire nice TEM image but it is extremely hard to interpret a TEM image. First you have to have a TEM microscope, second you have to know how to operate it and last, you must know what the image means.

Your case is quite simillar to me. You have built a set of tools - a microscope - but still to get results Your expertise is mandatory. Sharing the microscope won't make anyone able put you aside, they can get same images as you, but they won't be able to conclude anything from it.

You are obligated to explain how it works to your superiors to check whether it works properly.

Maybe it is a matter of the toxicity of the environment.
If any from your peers are about to claim credit for it, make your tool a tight blackbox, go to your boss and show them how it works and why it works. Then the L.Arryn-toolbox may be deployed as a tool to work with. Or there will be a document describing the workflow to be kept from now on creditting you as well.
If you are concerned your boss will take the credit "stealing" the idea from you, you can go higher. But if it is that toxic, asy my colleague told me jokingly, go update your LinkedIn profile.

Taking the issue from different point of view the most valuable "thing" here is finding out, how the tool shall work and making it work. The tool itself is a cheap byproduct and the credit for it is just five-minute-fame thing. in other words, the most valuable "thing" is allready yours and nobody can take it from you.

  • thanks for your argument by analogy. These are good suggestions. – L.Arryn Feb 2 '18 at 22:19
  • What is "TEM"...? – Peter Mortensen Feb 2 '18 at 22:28
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    @PeterMortensen I'd guess transmission electron microscopy – svavil Feb 2 '18 at 23:00
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It would seem you would need to provide the actual tool(s) themselves or acces to the system to be able to use them (aka on a sharepoint sure, etc). As far as being required to proved a manual or guide on HOW to use them is different. As long as you let them have access to whatever you made that’s on there system or computers, your fine, as they can’t force you to sit there and train them on how to use it. You would likely need to look for another company if you did that, but it seems that is a good choice based on what you said the environment is like.

Unless it’s some sort of time machine, I’m sure they can figure it out at some point. If not, then that would be another red flag of the culture there.

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Check your offer letter and if you signed an "Employee Invention Assignment and Confidentiality Agreement" or related document which may state that all your work becomes company intellectual property while working on their time, property, and or equipment.

If you didn't sign such an agreement then I suggest legal counsel or talking to your boss and working out an agreement that works for you and getting it in writing.

Employers would be probably be more willing to let you open source tools and libraries if you can convince them that it's better to open it up because the community can provide bug fixes and or catch edge cases that you'd otherwise wouldn't have and that it doesn't expose any critical business logic propriety to the company. But of course it'll just depend on your employer's terms.

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If you built the tools while under a contract then it is likely that your employer owns them. Exceptions can exist, for example there are exception in academia in certain legislations where teachers and/or researchers at universities may own the (rights to) result of their work either partially or completely or maybe if you are only hired to do a very specific thing for a company, for example when doing consulting. But most "standard" employments as far as I know (I'm definitely no legal expert) what you produce when under contract becomes your employers.

But... if you built it then it's likely that you are one of the better at knowing how to use it and what to use it for...

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