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Background:

This is my first job, recent graduate. Small firm, ~20 employees, I was hired originally to manage pay per click advertising. I grew out of the role quickly and took on many other roles in the company. I was appropriately given raises to reflect my new duties (didn't ask for the raises). I've automated a lot of my workload and my employers know about this and were very happy.

Issue:

And while I've created and suggested many new projects that would be beneficial for us, due to the nature of leadership, only a few were approved and I've finished everything that I could at this point in time. I feel like I've reached a cap, and have begun job searches (a few final round interviews coming up)

And since I've largely automated the majority of my workload, I have about 3-5 hours of "free time" during my workday. Since I don't take lunch breaks it adds an extra hour to my day where I'm not actively doing anything. Because I like to keep myself engaged/challenged/not idle, I tend to try to learn more skills (programming, best practices, data science, database etc).

Question:

Is it ethical for me to use company time to learn new skills that may not be directly relevant to my job?

  • @Fattie The ironic thing is when I was a Sophomore I quit my computer science track to go into econ. I ended up in a small e-commerce startup and realized a lot of inefficiencies in the process could be optimized through programming and development. So I've come full circle. I've already been looking for new jobs, and have a few final round interviews left. – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 17:01
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Growth and learning should always be considered valuable by your employer.

However this requires that the learning have some potential value to the company. It doesn't have to be directly relevant to your current tasks, but it shouldn't be far afield. Learning new languages that could provide additional automation opportunities is valuable even if you don't have a specific task to automate yet.

Speak with your manager, so that they are aware of what you are doing. You don't want them walking up to your desk and being surprised at what you are working on.

  • I guess the reason I say it's not directly relevant is because I proposed writing a small python script to help organize our inventory and cross check to see if we've priced too low but they denied it saying it wasn't worth it and that manually doing it is better. (We've missed a lot and had pricing errors/issues) But I still am learning Python anyways as it's relevant and I've even shown them a working prototype but they turned it down again. – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 16:11
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    I'd just add - always have a way to describe what you are learning in terms of a project or idea for the company - so if someone comes up to you and says "what are you doing?" you have an answer ready to go which is relevant – dan.m was user2321368 Feb 8 at 16:31
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    @my_mistakes It doesn't sound like they objected to you developing a proof of concept -- they just didn't want to fully implement/deploy your solution. The fact that you developed a script (regardless of technology) to meet a business need means it's directly related to your job, which is in part developing scripts. – mcknz Feb 8 at 16:39
  • @dan.mwasuser2321368 good point. I generally do have an answer like that python prototype I had working but it seems they aren't interested in the technology. We're not big but, big enough to where manually checking pricing is becoming an issue (3000+ prices to check) – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 16:40
  • @mcknz you're probably correct in that. I just felt like I was wasting working hours because they rejected the idea, even though this was something I developed on the side after finishing my tasks and assisting co-workers on their assignments (from time to time) – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 16:42
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Is it ethical for me to use company time to learn new skills
that may not be directly relevant to my job?

It absolutely is ethical as long as you're still doing the things that are asked of you.

In addition to doing what has been asked of you, you seem to have a history of taking initiative on new tasks. So, it's not like someone can say "well, if you're done with your project, ask your boss for more work". You've clearly already done that.

At a deeper level, everyone has to be responsible for their own development. Do not "ask for permission". This is especially true in some environments where the default answer is "no" or "ask higher management".

If one waits until they get a "green light" to proceed with self-directed skill development they could wait a LONG TIME. This is how folks end up with utterly obsolete skills after years of loyalty to their employer which will eventually part with them in favor of hiring somebody else with the very skills that they never got "permission" to develop.

As for relevancy to your job, I think you're in the best position to judge that. Many managers and especially executive level management have NO IDEA what their people actually do and what skills they're exercising. They're interested in the outcomes of the work and not usually the nitty-gritty details. Sadly, the way orgs work these days, the first impulse is always to hire for new skills rather than develop in-house. If they cared about skill-development they would be evaluating their employees frequently and selecting folks to train-up for new skills-- that's very rare.

But even if the stuff you're studying is not relevant to your current job, it may be relevant to your future career path whether it remains at you current employer or not. Again, you are in the best position to judge relevancy.

  • Thanks. I just feel a bit guilty. It's been plaguing me ever since I hear and see my friends saying all the cool things they've been working on and how their workday is so hectic etc. – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 16:30
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Since I don't take lunch breaks it adds an extra hour to my day

You can use those to study whatever you want, without the ethics question - and you should do so.

If you choose not to study your own stuff, my advice would be to walk around, read a book or listen to a podcast.
A break helps most people enjoy their work more and become more efficient, find out if you're one of them.


Is it ethical for me to use company time to learn new skills that may not be directly relevant to my job?

Probably that is ethical.
But it might not be the right question to ask - the question to ask is "Does your employer consider it ethical/useful/productive/worthy?"

I suspect they will given your track record, but obviously I can't say for sure.

  • I'm not sure if they consider it useful. To borrow from my example in another comment, I developed a proof of concept python script to organize inventory and price check for items priced too low. They weren't interested and insisted it was better to do it manually (keep in mind while we aren't big, there are over 3000+ items and prices to check). – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 20:52
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    @my_mistakes Yeah, I see where you're coming from. This is going to sound weird, but it probably doesn't have anything to do with whether they consider it useful. It is more likely that their paranoia about anything automated intersecting with their pricing reminds them of those really expensive TVs that WalMart and Amazon sold for $5. Irrational reaction - doesn't reflect on you at all, and doesn't really have anything to do with your python program. Spend another five years doing this and you'll know what I mean (even if I'm wrong about this specific thing). Also, take your lunch break :-) – J. Chris Compton Feb 8 at 21:17
  • I get it. I didn't think of it from that perspective. Automation has its uses, but without testing and QA mistakes can be made without being caught. I agree with your sentiments! – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 21:20
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    @my_mistakes -grin- Go ahead and write that python script to find pricing errors. Run it and see what it says. Mention a handful of the errors (start with 3) to someone that might appreciate it - just say, "Hey, this looks odd to me. Why are these priced like they are?" Let that person take the credit... see what happens next. – J. Chris Compton Feb 8 at 21:46
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It sounds like you don't have any co-workers doing similar things to you. That means part of your job depends on your unique (in the company) expertise.

Being expert involves continuous learning. So learning is part of your job.

Being expert means innovating. It sounds like you are doing that, by proposing new ideas. But please be patient if your ideas aren't accepted immediately, if at all. It sometimes takes months or years for companies to catch up with their innovators. If you created a proposal to zumbinate the framises automatically, that's great. Let it sit with the company's managers. When one of them comes to you and says, "hey I got an idea! Let's automate our zubmination work!" that's a sign of your success.

Being a team member involves letting your manager know when you are unsure of your priorities. So ask about your priorities.

You're presenting lots of ideas. It can be frustrating when they aren't accepted. Don't let that frustration get the better of you: if 20% of your ideas get accepted, you're doing way above average. That's life in the working world. Seriously.

And, if you're getting bored, move on. But don't move on just because you're frustrated.

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As a point of reference, I am a software developer at a mid-sized, stable company, and my work description specifically say that I am obligated to learn and develop my skills. It also says that I and my manager must have a personal education plan in place for me. All developers have the same work description so I have not negotiated this myself. My other main task is to "create things that are in the best interest of the company". To be able to make such things in a sustainable fashion year after year we all need to further our knowledge.

Don't ask for permission. If, for some reason, you cannot put into words why developing your skills is important to the company, then you may always ask for forgiveness. It is not unethical to learn new things on the job, you never know what might turn out to be useful later.

  • I get the general feeling my employers don't value my work outside of the routine responsibilities I have. It's clear they were happy when I expanded to take more duties within the scope of the company, but going above and beyond or in a different direction was not taken to kindly. I was not really reprimanded but advised to "stick to the basics" and "not to worry about other things" – my_mistakes Feb 8 at 20:54

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