Einstein was moonlighting at the Swiss Patent Office

DR. PAVAN SONI
4 min readMay 29, 2024

Lately, moonlighting has been highlighting, a phenomenon which has only been exacerbated with the pandemic and employees working from home, far away from the gaze of their supervisors. Is moonlighting inherently wrong? Is it indeed ‘cheating’, as some leaders have declared so? A lot depends on what you do during those off-office hours. If you are doing the very same, with similar firms, even in a non-competing space, it is wrong, not just for you but also for your employer. But if you are indulging on a side huddle in pursuit of creativity then you have a shot at creating history. How does the firm and the individual systematically shape such side huddles? When is it productive before slipping into being counterproductive? What are the social and economic costs and benefits? The article sheds light on such issues.

Imagine that your application of being a teacher has been ceremoniously rejected all the universities and teaching institutions across Europe. You apply for private tuition and no pupil turn up. You settle to become a third-division clerk at a patent office, next to a railways station, staring the ominous clock while reading patent applications and prior arts from nine in the morning till five in the evening, six days a week! Not to mention the struggle with a failing marriage back home. And yet you have time and creative juices to churn out no less than five theoretical papers on science, three of which will give a new lease of life to Physics for another century. That was Einstein in 1905. He was a technical expert — class III at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern between 1902 and 1909, and with no access to any scientific instruments, literature, colleagues, or inspiration. He was all by himself, consumed by his thought experiments. Was that moon lighting? Very much by the present standards.

Steve Wozniak at HP was creating the future of Apple years before he left to co-create the company with his friend Steve Jobs. He would spend his time going well beyond the ‘call of duty’ to develop new hardware and systems, with no direct relevance to HP of the day. During the late 80s, Tim Berners-Lee took on the side gig of automating information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world, and this led to the creation of the World Wide Web. None of these were day jobs. If there is a pent up creative capacity of somebody which is not adequately channelized by the employer in question, the person should be allowed to do justice to it in whichever fashion. Or else, it’s lost for ever. And that’s not a loss for the employer or employee, but for humanity at large.

I would propose three conditions under which moonlighting makes sense, and, in fact, it must be encouraged.

When employee talent is not fully utilized

When an employee’s talent is not fully utilized or developed the employee must be allowed to take up additional tasks, within or outside the formal setup. Afterall, it’s an employer’s responsibility to tap into the resource, or else you run into the risk of the asset eroding, if not escaping. It’s not just utilization of talent, but also development and enhancement through job enrichment and exposure. The mythologist and writer Devdutt Pattanaik spent his early years at Sanofi Aventis and Apollo Group of Hospitals honing his skills as a writer, along side his day job as a medical practitioner. That allowed him to craft a very creative career for himself and help the larger milieu.

Employee working on a broader cause

When the cause the employee is working for is broader than the firm’s immediate interest or relevance. If an employee is creating a solution that benefits the industry, including competition, or could potentially shift the paradigm of the market as a whole, the firm should be willing to fund such ventures. That’s how Intel encouraged its engineer, Ajay Bhatt, to create the USB standards that didn’t just benefit the firm to inter-operate with other devices but became an industry standard for data communication. It was not exactly what Intel, the chip maker, was known for.

Helps firm develop new comptence

Moonlighting makes for a great investment if the employee helps the firm develop new skills and competencies. If an employee is working on the similar domain that the firm excels in then where is the firm learning from? It’s a circular flow of knowledge. It is possible that through a side-gig the employee or a group develops new competences that would then become mainstream in the organization. This way the firm can mutate to become more future ready. For instance, the early experiments that the internal IT team did at Amazon with its infrastructure and computational capacity laid the foundation of AWS, which has become the biggest profit engine for the company. All such experiments were planted years before the company made any profits from its core business.

Side gigs or moonlighting makes a lot of sense if the employee can honestly explore herself and pursue genuine interest outside of work. If it is about getting quick bucks doing the same work at a similar setup, then it’s rightfully criticized, but not all moonlighting is bad. Who knows the next inventor is sitting down the corridor hiding his creations from you? Time for you to unleash such talent without getting insecure.

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DR. PAVAN SONI

Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.