A friend of mine recently brought to my attention the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the workplace, especially in Silicon Valley. I suspect this is not limited to the software field and probably either has or soon will bleed over into other “knowledge worker” fields. Caffeine is now a gateway drug.

The sports world has something to teach us here. Back in the 70’s, bodybuilders and power lifters started experimenting with steroids and 40 years later it’s hard to imagine a sport that hasn’t had a PED scandal. It’s not hard to see why athletes were (and continue to be) so easily tempted:

  1. Their careers are relatively short.
  2. Their earning potential after their athletic career is often limited, so they want to maximize their earnings while they can.
  3. Their short career can be cut even shorter at any time by injuries, which can be either prevented, ignored, or recovered from faster through the use of PEDs.
  4. At the highest levels, incremental increases in performance are rewarded with exponential increases in compensation.

There are circumstantial similarities, but they aren’t as exaggerated in knowledge worker industries. For instance, a sudden industry shift can shorten or redefine your career. This recently affected many hardware engineers working for hard drives manufacturers. A repetitive stress injury or back issue can make it difficult to work at a computer for long periods of time though I’m not aware of any workplace injury for programmers that is on the same level as a blown ACL in terms of either frequency or impact.

The money angle matches up the best, but really only for people that are able to “exit” an equity position. In sports, the parallel would be for those exponential earnings increases to come only if your team wins the championship. For company founders in a tech exit, the money can be as good or better as an elite athlete. At many companies though, a senior engineer who is “twice as good” makes less than twice as much money.

There are other competitive advantage issues in sports though, and many of the others aren’t so clearly “cheating.” For example, Tiger Woods had Lasik eye surgery. Twice. I’ve never heard any suggestion that this was improper, and I’m certainly not suggesting that now. Still, his surgically enhanced eyes make him a better golfer. Say that last sentence out loud. Now, say it again but replace “surgically” with “chemically” or replace “eyes” with some other body part. It doesn’t seem like it would take much for this sort of thing to lead to serious objections from people in both sports and medicine.

I would now like to introduce you to Oscar Pistorius:

Oscar Leonard Carl Pistorius (born 22 November 1986) is a South African sprint runner. Known as the “Blade Runner” and “the fastest man on no legs”, Pistorius, who has a double amputation, is the world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 metres (sport class T44) events and runs with the aid of Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs by Ossur.

Oscar’s record times in the three primary sprinting events (100, 200, and 400 meters) are within 1-2 seconds of the world records in those events by runners with legs. There is a debate surrounding him and his running blades concerning whether or not he should be eligible to compete in an open competition like the Olympics and whether or not these blades constitute an unfair advantage.1 That debate is complicated, I think, by the fact that the Olympics have generally allowed advanced technologies to be used in competition in ways that absolutely destroy existing records. Two recent examples of such technologies are the LZR Racer swimsuits and Clap Skates. In both cases, almost every related world record fell in the first Olympic Games where those technologies were introduced. For any readers that find Oscar’s story interesting, check out Anthony Robles. he is a disabled athlete who has won in open competition.

Provigil seems to match the profile of sports-related PEDs like steroids and HGH. There are both short and long term side effects. There are potentially additional long term effects that are not known or understood yet. People who use them illegally generally have a low likelihood of criminal prosecution. Because of these similarities, I’d like to make the following predictions regarding how this is going to play out:

  1. Leadership will initially have tacit approval of such things, and may even encourage it in some cases. Ultimately, this will fade because companies will not want to expose themselves to the legal liability resulting from creating a culture that pressures their workforce into using illegal drugs and exposing themselves to long term health consequences.
  2. Even though the average employee would probably rather not take such drugs, nor would they enjoy competing against other members of the talent pool, there will be resistance to drug testing in this area. This will happen because the workforce will not want to grant control and leverage in this area to leadership.

It won’t stay that simple for long. There’s enough money involved, that it’s not hard to imagine a market for designer drugs2 for knowledge workers. There could be surgical and mechanical options too, just like in sports. If you are one of the many people that missed the fine documentary Johnny Mnemonic, I recommend you track down a copy to see a completely reasonable possible future.

This may not end up manifesting itself on a person-by-person basis either. With the global economy, certain countries could specialize in offering a “performance enhanced” workforce. It seems dark, but there were such high levels of exploitation when manufacturing became a global market, why would it be any different here?

There’s no point in making specific predictions though. That’s already been done, and done well by creative minds of science fiction. In a comment to Attention to Detail, Hacker News user 6ren brought up the Verner Vinge novel A Deepness in the Sky and the “Focus” he was referring to can also be used as an example here3. Further examples are left as an exercise to the reader.

  1. Note: His current status is eligible. The Wikipedia article I linked lays out the details clearly 

  2. In the sports world, the best example of this is BALCO 

  3. This is also a favorite of mine. Nice work to unknowingly choose an example that ties together consecutive articles