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DoorDash Employees Forced to Deliver Food: Is it a Gimmick?
A few weeks ago, Business Insider had an article on how a DoorDash employee making $400K, complained about having to make one food delivery every month. The WeDash program, which indeed requires all employees right up to the CEO to make one delivery a month, is not all that harsh.
“If they can’t deliver, they can choose other experiences, such as shadowing customer-service staff.”
As the title implies, not everyone was happy with this initiative, leading employees to vent on a social network:
“Mandatory ‘WeDash’ starts from next year. You need to dash once a month. WILL BE TRACKED IN PERFORMANCE REVIEWS!! What the actual fuck? I didn't sign up for this, there was nothing in the offer letter/job description about this.”
It is easy to get on a soapbox with this.
On the one hand, you may say that these are extremely privileged workers, some make well over $400K. What harm can be done by having them deliver and understand their customers and what their delivery people go through?
At the same time, you may say that this is just a gimmick. Would it make someone a better developer if they delivered food once a month? The associated costs are significant, and when people are forced to do it (i.e., by making it part of their evaluation), it kind of defeats the purpose.
So the key question is “why”?
Why would a firm choose to impose a policy like this on each of its employees?
Let me offer a few examples of similar activities and then try to break things down.
A Banker Driving for Uber
There are many examples of similar actions; some voluntary, some not.
One of my favorite stories is that of Michael Grimes and Uber.
“Mr. Grimes, Morgan Stanley’s top technology banker, has moonlighted for years as a driver for the ride-hailing service, according to people familiar with the matter. That side hustle—hardly necessary, given his multimillion-dollar Wall Street salary—may help Morgan Stanley win a role on the most hotly anticipated stock-market debut in years.”
When asked about it recently, in the M&T Immersive Week in SF, Michael described his first ride (the only one he didn’t score 5/5), and shared the reasons behind his decision to join Uber as a driver. According to Micheal, every single banker knew they had to demonstrate if they truly wanted to understand the market and “win” the Uber IPO. He did it. While most bankers talked about Uber through the lens of data and financials, he had a deeper understanding of the firm through the drivers’ side. How essential was it? Probably not that much, but in a world where we are used to just following what “others do,” in order to be competitive, you must look for an edge.
This example, however, is quite different from DoorDash. Michael chose to do it. He didn’t have to.
An Uber Developer Driving for…Uber
Let’s stay with Uber.
A few years back, I took an Uber from the airport to the Wharton campus in SF. During the ride, I struck a conversation with the driver only to realize that he was a software developer that worked on a product similar to the one I had worked on many years ago. When I asked what prompted him to drive for Uber, he said he was actually part of the Uber mapping team. Before he could say more, he was immediately subjected to all my complaints (the main one being that a ride to 2 Harrison St using Uber maps always leads to the wrong side of the road), but he eventually managed to explain that as part of the mapping team, he had to spend half a day each week driving (albeit this was a while ago and things may be slightly different now).
This was actually quite similar to my own experience while in the tech sector. Years ago, as a software developer, I had to spend one afternoon every week on customer service alerts for calls that required a higher level of expertise. These calls proved instrumental in detecting “bugs” and seeing how our customers used the product, which was often different from how it was meant to be used.
The idea is that some issues are really understood only if you experience them. I am sure there are software developers that don’t like this idea, and maybe that means they are not a great fit for that team.
But these are not cases that only occur in the tech industry. It has also reached academia.
“The University of Iowa recently asked faculty members to volunteer to work a weekend football game, the Chronicle reports.”
Other universities, like Michigan State, asked faculty to serve food at their cafeterias. Again, this is somewhat different to the WeDash concept, since this is not part of the ongoing job duty. This is just driven by the nationwide labor shortage that has hit colleges relying on low-wage workers to run their dining and custodial work.
But in all of the examples, there is a tradeoff. A specialized and skilled resource is asked to carry out other tasks that may indirectly help their actual job, but at a very high cost.
Looking at the examples provided above, we can identify multiple reasons that warrant asking high-skilled workers to do things that are usually done by low-skilled staff:
You want your people to better understand the product they have developed and how their decisions, on features for example, impact user experience. In the case of DoorDash, this applies to both Dashers and end customers.
You want to spark new ideas that are not found inside the office environment or hidden in data. This is related to the notion of learning by doing; the idea that learning really occurs when we are doing things (or by those doing things), and thus you want to be as close as you can to consumers. But if this is indeed the case for DoorDash, once a month seems a little too small.
It’s symbolic: in times like these, when it’s so hard to get dashers and employees, the firm does things differently, it puts in a collective effort, signaling that it cares.
It’s a way to “weed out” the employees that don’t “belong”. If you are not willing to “dash” once a month, this might not be the right industry for you. In other words, it’s a cultural cohesiveness action.
But let me add one more reason that encompasses some of the ones I mention above, but is related to the process of scaling. In a startup, there is a very strong identity between the employees and the problem they are trying to solve. Most employees won’t join an early-stage startup unless they believe in the problem they are solving and there is strong proximity to customers. Why? Because there is nowhere to hide. When a customer has an issue, you immediately know about it, and you can really feel their pain.
As the organization grows, the buffers between the employees and their customers increase. You don’t see real customers. You see data about real customers, you hear the firm’s product managers talk about the data and their opinion of real customers, but you are no longer in direct contact with real customers.
When a firm is scaling, one of the hardest things is to maintain the ability to “see” the customer. Because it’s so hard, firms use the one thing they can: they introduce processes. For DoorDash, this means requiring workers to be dashers once a month and adding that requirement to their formal processes.
A process is first and foremost a communication device. And in this case, DoorDash is communicating that they believe this is important.
But why is it so important?
Who you ARE
Because this is who we are. This is who we want our employees to be. The firm doesn’t just want a software developer, the firm wants a software developer that can also solve the last-mile delivery problem when needed.
Heidegger outlines it best: you are what you do – you give yourself an identity by a set of activities. The example that he likes to use is that of a carpenter. I can pick up a hammer and build a house and I do that to be a carpenter. By doing this, I identify as a carpenter.
We are all expected to do things that we don’t think contribute much value to our job, yet the organization we belong to expects us to. And we either do them or we don’t. By making either choice, we define our identity.
One more example from academia. As faculty, we do things that we don’t think we need to. Some faculty will say that teaching belongs on that list…but clearly this is our way of being sarcastic.
But attending graduation ceremonies could be considered one of those “unnecessary obligations”.
Traditionally, faculty attended graduation because their presence was essential; to “certify” that students were graduating. Nowadays, we vote before the ceremony (and even this process is ceremonious in nature), so some faculty members fail to see why their presence is necessary. In their minds, the university could just as well hire people and dress them in academic garbs in order to cover the traditional aspect. Either way, no one sees them when they are seated behind the deans.
So why should we attend?
I can tell you why I do it (and I attend every year). It’s a reminder that behind the students there are families, and for many of these families, this is a transformational event (whether this is the first child to graduate from college, or the fact that their child is becoming truly independent). It’s a reminder of the diverse cultural context from which our students are coming. Neither of which can be observed in a classroom where we see our students as students, and the students themselves do everything they can to suppress this diversity. It may sound cheesy, but this is a reminder that we are educators and with that, the immense potential impact education has on these students’ lives. Something that is easy to forget when you need to grade 240 exams in just 2 days.
This is our true “for the sake of which”.
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