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Managing Software Engineers, by Philip Greenspun (philg@mit.edu)


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I think two views can be seen on the issue of working long hours:

Measuring the number of hours worked as a means to measure productivity is totally wrong. The only thing that should count is when the product is shipped, and that the employees are fit for the next project.

The suggestion that people that leave by 6.00 are either understimulated or won't grow is very dangerous. I'ld rather have a good programmer leave by 6.00, knowing that his wife (yes, many programmers actually do have both friends, SO's and children) won't hate his work and that he will return the following morning, rested.

The second view is that the company really don't care about the long-term risks of having to replace employees as they get worn out by the hard work. From a HRM perspective, it is wrong, and from a long-term economical perspective, it is dangerous.

But, if the goal of the owners is to produce a couple of killer applications quick, and then cash in on the sale or IPO of the company, that's really the way to go!

/Fredrik Lundström, Software designer

-- Fredrik Lundström, November 6, 2000

Everything in Philip's article is dead-on, except for one MAJOR issue: working your top people like dogs is the fastest way to have them find the door.

Burnout is a fact of life, and it happens to the best of people. If those people are your best people, you're in big trouble.

A characteristic I have seen of the top-end programmers is an ability to self-regulate. They'll get what they're working on done when it should be done (remember, no-one can accurately schedule SW eng problems beforehand, to paraphrase Fred Brooks). If you take away the freedom to self regulate by forcing continual ridiculous hours, they're going to leave.

After all, if they're working 40 hours, they're still producing the equivalent of 400 "average programmer hours". Does anyone really want to lose that?



-- Stephen Drye, November 6, 2000

Overall, I thought the article was a good one, except for the part about "long hours == productivity". I think many of the issues people have raised about that point are right on, but I'll add one more:

Before I got older, got married, etc., I used to work much longer hours. In my experience, being at work for more hours did NOT increase my productivity. I noticed that most of the engineers who were working those long hours were spending a lot of time talking, surfing the web, playing pinball or air-hockey, etc. Your article hints at this when it discusses the need for making the work environment more comfortable and entertaining. If engineers were doing nothing but working for those 70 hours, why would they need entertainment while at work?

-- Andrew Shebanow, November 6, 2000

It is true that 70 hrs/wk can cause health problems if poorly planned. But 70 hrs/wk in a quality low-stress environment is far healthier than 40 hrs/wk in a bad-quality high-stress environment. That is why many people work 80hrs/wk in small companies and are happy wherease they would be miserable at 40 hrs/wk in large ones. It is the manager's role to eliminate the stresses to maximize health and productivity.

The key underlying factor is the amount of stress on the individual which will break down the individual at their seams, either mental or physical. Stress may be in unclear job demands, separation from family, disorderly work environment, lack of creativity, etc. Simple quantity of labor is not the highest workplace stressor (although it is a symptom that often exists in high stress environments). To reduce stress employees must be part of a well-planned process.

Speaking from experience, carpal tunnel and musculo-skeletal disorders can be avoided through proper programs of exercise, stretching, yoga, meditation, scheduled breaks, and nutrition to reduce psychic and physical stress and strengthen the body at its seams. These conditions -- as well as many others such as chronic back pain -- can also be alleviated this way. These are not permanent conditions in many cases although Western medicine often finds no financial incentive in treating them properly.

Anyway, Greenspun seems to have great insight and sensitivity regarding his employees. He will surely put a program in place to prevent stress from harming his crew and his company. Afterall, he has more to lose than anybody if his workers are not healthy and his company folds. I believe it is merciful to dismiss the average programmers who can't keep up before they break down under the pressure. I believe it would be wise to tear the exceptional ones away from their computers for a game of basketball on company time, deadlines be damned.

Overall, aD is probably a great workplace for exceptional people and a terrible place for average ones. This is the best kind of new economy company.


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-- Alec Permison, November 6, 2000