Code, nerd culture and humor from Greg Knauss.

People — actual human beings, those fleshy things that keep trying to talk to me as I type — confuse and frighten me.

They’re complicated, these “people” things. They don’t follow the rules that I’m used to. Causality — A leads to B leads to C — is something that happens just enough to mess me up, and f(x) — where f is a person and x is any given situation — equals pretty much whatever the hell it wants to. You can play Hunt the Wumpus with the black-box of other people’s personalities all you want, but the arrow is just as likely to hit you in the ass as come out the other side. And as badly as you want to take the top of people’s heads off and root around until you find the bug, you’re only going to get arrested if you try it. Trust me.


Photo courtesy of Eleven Eight.

And so I’ve spent recent years trying to come up with rules of thumb to try to explain and understand human behavior. Not algorithms — nothing so precise — but general theories to go by, pre-calculated crutches that I can lean on when I get in trouble. Which usually happens as soon as I open my mouth. Why is everybody suddenly looking awkward? What I said? It was a joke!

One rule that I use is the Value Proposition. It’s a marketing term that I’ve always dismissed as a marketing term: “Our integrated service-provider solutions offer a premium value proposition.”

But taken in a larger context, meaning can actually be squeezed out of the phrase — a first for a marketing term, as far as I know: A value proposition is the sum of what each party in a relationship brings to an exchange, enumerated to allow for a more precise evaluation than would otherwise be available.

This isn’t just a seller-buyer thing, as it’s usually used. A value proposition can be calculated — in some rough degree — between the participants in any relationship: commercial, emotional, managerial, whatever. I offer A, B and C; you offer D, E and F and if they zero-sum pretty well, hey, we’ve got a deal. Let’s get married!

(For any actual human beings reading this, that shudder that just went up your spine is called “the creeps.” But this article isn’t for you, you socially functioning whole, you. It’s for me and people like me, for whom the ability to quantify something makes it both comprehensible and comfortable. We view the world differently than you and your innate understanding of emotional trade-offs. So you can take your butt and withdraw it 1.56 meters.)

By defining relationships in terms of the value exchanged, you can (again roughly) determine their fairness. By line-iteming what’s exchanged between two parties, it’s easier to tell if that exchange is a good deal for both of you. The whole complicated array of human interaction can be broken down into smaller pieces, evaluated, and then reassembled with a greater understanding of what’s actually going on. Yes, it’s mechanical. Yes, it’s emotionally obtuse. Yes, it attempts to reduce the endless variations of how people deal with each other — in every context — to a small set of easily-digested bullet-points. But that’s why it works with brains that do that same sort of thing all day, every day. Ideally, it’s the less-messy equivalent of taking the tops off of heads. It’s certainly easier than the Sisyphean task of actually trying to figure people out.

So what can you do with a value-proposition-based view of relationships? You can evaluate them is what, and then act on that evaluation.

So, here, an example of how this nonsense can help you better understand a situation: Let’s say that you’ve got some vague notion that your relationship with your employer is unfair. What does that mean? It probably means that you’re grumpy, depressed, less than spectacularly productive. But the reasons are all tied up in the mush of spastic emotional response. How do you evaluate the cause of this feeling, in a way that can actually be used in a discussion? “Unhappy” is not a negotiating position. How do you tell if it’s something you should act on (as your gut says) or if you should shut your pie-hole and get back to your job (as your boss might offer)? How can you quantify the feeling, to do something useful with it?

Put it in terms of a value proposition. Let’s assume that when you were hired, both you and the company figured that each was getting a good deal. That’s why you hooked up in the first place. You were going to get a decent salary, a culture that looked attractive, some solid benefits and a shot at doing work you enjoyed. They were going to get a good programmer who could clean up the mess the previous clowns left and sell the result to fund their endless need for hookers or cocaine or whatever it is they do with all the money. OK, great.

Now, a couple of years later, you’re unhappy. Why? If you’re actually a programmer, the answer to that question is probably “I dunno. Emotions confuse me. I’m going to play some Team Fortress now. Maybe the problem will go away after I’m done.” It’s just a feeling. Things seem… off. Unfair, in a vague, ill-defined way. So let’s re-evaluate the value proposition that got you into this mess in the first place.

In the past couple of years, your value to the company has gone up: You now know the systems, and have been contributing solid code, shipped some good products. You’re better educated in the business, and have good relationships with various contacts in other departments. You do your job more efficiently and more intelligently than the stumbling noob who wandered in the door a while back.

The company’s value to you may have gone up as well: they’re paying you more, presumably. And. Um. What else?

Maybe the business has boomed, but your salary hasn’t. Maybe corporate culture has tightened up, and it’s a much less fun place to work. Maybe you’re now doing work that you don’t enjoy as much. Maybe by making this paragraph in the second person I can pretend that I’m not nearly as self-absorbed as I actually am.

And so maybe the company’s value to you has actually gone down. You’re giving more and getting less. Someone changed to rules while you were busy working. That vague feeling of “unfairness” stems from this now-unequal value proposition. You’ve quantified it, in admittedly crude terms, but at least now you have a li