February 8, 2013 Simon Raper

Thorstein Veblen and Hard Coding

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It is still quite common to hear the career progression of an analyst described as one upwards from the hard graft of coding and “getting your hands dirty” towards the enviable heights of people management and strategic thinking. Whenever I hear this it reminds me of the book Conspicuous Consumption by the American economist Thorstein Veblen. It examines, in a very hypothetical way, the roots of economic behaviour in some of our basic social needs: to impress others, to dominate and to demonstrate status. It’s not a happy book.

His principal concept is the distinction between exploit and drudgery.


The institution of a leisure class is the outgrowth of an early discrimination between employments, according to which some employments are worthy and others unworthy. Under this ancient distinction the worthy employments are those which may be classed as exploit; unworthy are those necessary employments into which no appreciable element of exploit enters.

He sees this division arising early in history as honour and status are assigned to those are successful in making others do what they want and “at the same time, employment in industry becomes correspondingly odious, and, in the common-sense apprehension, the handling of the tools and implements of industry falls beneath the dignity of able-bodied men. Labour becomes irksome.”

We’re no longer hairy barbarians using the vanquished for foot-stools but, as Veblen points out, the distinction persists no matter how illogical and unprofitable. Coding is still somehow viewed as necessarily inferior to the boardroom meeting even if it is the genius piece of code that makes or breaks a business.

Attitudes are changing, but still so slowly that there is a desperate shortage of people with both the experience and the hands-on skills to get things done.

So if you are a good analyst, and you love what you do, then this is my advice to you: when they come to lure you from your lovely pristine scripts, resist. Stay where you are. The 21st century is going to need you!

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About the Author

Simon Raper I am an RSS accredited statistician with over 15 years’ experience working in data mining and analytics and many more in coding and software development. My specialities include machine learning, time series forecasting, Bayesian modelling, market simulation and data visualisation. I am the founder of Coppelia an analytics startup that uses agile methods to bring machine learning and other cutting edge statistical techniques to businesses that are looking to extract value from their data. My current interests are in scalable machine learning (Mahout, spark, Hadoop), interactive visualisatons (D3 and similar) and applying the methods of agile software development to analytics. I have worked for Channel 4, Mindshare, News International, Credit Suisse and AOL. I am co-author with Mark Bulling of Drunks and Lampposts - a blog on computational statistics, machine learning, data visualisation, R, python and cloud computing. It has had over 310 K visits and appeared in the online editions of The New York Times and The New Yorker. I am a regular speaker at conferences and events.

Comment (1)

  1. Very much my attitude towards “career” progression.

    I spent a not insignificant amount of time learning how to code, analyse data, and do my work in a reproducible manner and to the best of my ability.

    I’ve had no training in managment or teaching, so why my employers continually think I should be climbing an imgainary slippery pole that I don’t even have any interest in reaching the top off is beyond me.

    I enjoy (and would like to think I’m fairly competent at doing) what I do. Until that changes I’m not really interested in “progressing my career”.

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Machine Learning and Analytics based in London, UK