The world catches on to the life of programmers

The NY Times has picked up a story on the long hours and poor compensation for young programmers at EA— the story was originally picked up by Slashdot as a LiveJournal entry by the spouse of an EA employee. Reading the LiveJournal post, I really do feel for those EA employees that are experiencing too much crunching and not enough compensation (in the form of money or time off), but it is somewhat amusing to find that the rest of the world is finally catching on to the lifestyle of programmers and how, in the end, it’s not really that good for you.

The truth is that, for better or worse, high tech work culture has become an extension of late night hacking sessions. When I was in college, engineering students were characterized as the ones who were pale, a little sickly, stayed up all night coding, and were never seen before 11 am. While the occasional all-nighter is a fact of college life, for engineering students, it was a way of life. While some of those late nights probably could have been avoided by less procrastination and more focus, I don’t think anyone could keep up with the curriculum without pulling all-nighters on a fairly regular basis.

Many of my Stanford classmates will argue that their majors required late night study sessions too– the HumBio core was notorious for the ridiculous amount of assigned reading. The issue is that eventually, that lifestyle comes to an end for most people. Unfortunately, for high tech folks, the long hours only continue. Every year, I see a bunch of Stanford computer science students graduate and head off into the work world. Many of them are lucky enough to get jobs doing work they are really excited about– going to Microsoft, EA, Google, and other popular companies– and I see the same thing happen to most of them: they are so excited to be doing the work they’re doing and getting paid a decent amount of money suddenly that they’re willing to devote all of their time and energy to their jobs, just like most of them did with academics when they were in school. But eventually, they realize they’re six months, a year, five years, ten years out of school and they’re still living like college students, just maybe with better stuff than they had before. And for some, this isn’t that much of a disappointment– some love it– but for some, it’s a turning point and this is when they start working normal business hours, getting hobbies, meeting new people, dating, getting married, having children, seeing sunlight, etc. But no worries, another generation of young, naive people fresh out of school and so excited just to be working on the next cool new game or the newest version of an operating system will be there to fill their shoes.

One of the secrets to the tech industry’s success is this buy-in from employees. And at many of these places, they’ve drank the Kool-Aid so much that they consider some of the things companies do as perks. It started with getting a laptop and having your home Internet connection paid for– at first, you say, wow, I get a computer to take home and free Internet service. But then, the expectation is that since you have a computer at home and you have high speed Internet at home, there’s no reason for you to stop working or stop emailing when you get home. High-tech companies, especially startups have reinvented these perks: companies are letting people work non-traditional hours, letting them surf the Web at work, even setting up quiet rooms for quick naps, etc. Places like Google take it a step further with catered lunches, car washing services, and commuter buses with free Wi-Fi servicing employees who live in San Francisco. It might sound cool– hey, free lunch brought to you, a free car wash while you’re at work, a free commute– but all of this is designed to encourage long hours and more work. If your employees don’t have to leave campus to get lunch or run errands or anything else, they’ll be more likely to spend that time doing work. If you can take a quick nap while you’re at work, staying until 10, 11, midnight seems easier. The whole idea of calling the workplace a “campus” represents the very crux of the issue– the line between work and home becomes so blurred that you can no longer tell the difference.

Now, I’m not saying that long hours are a bad thing– if there really is a good reason to spend so much time working, then that’s great. Teachers, doctors, nurses, and others all do incredible work that require long hours, extreme dedication, and at least some personal sacrifices. Take an extreme example– could you imagine if the President of the United States punched out at five everyday? (Let’s not get into our current President’s vacation history.) Could you imagine if you couldn’t get in touch with the President because he refused to be called at home? There’s a reason why the President lives and works in the White House. And aside from how life-or-death important your job might be, if you really love to work, then that’s great. Living to work rather than working to live isn’t always a bad thing, but expect to make sacrifices.

The real problem is when companies don’t stop their employees from voluntarily working all the time and/or start expecting their employees to work 60, 80, 100 hour weeks with no vacation or overtime. For example, even if a company doesn’t expect employees to work long hours, many employees will do it because they truly love their work or they simply don’t have anything better to do. But reaching burnout can be a voluntary process and in the long term, good managers keep an eye out for it and step in before it happens. Moreover, if the majority of people are working long hours all the time, soon it becomes an unfair competition– people who choose to work all the time even when it’s unnecessary end up pushing out the people who don’t and the latter is punished under the idea that they’re not meeting some standard. But there is a line between failing to fullfill responsibilities and duties and choosing to have a balanced life and by federal law, a 40-hour week with mandatory breaks is the standard. Twelve to eighteen-hour work days, ten minute lunch at your desk or no lunch at all, and no vacation should certainly not be the standard.

To be honest, I’ve drank the Kool-Aid too– my boss is always telling me to take more vacation, to stay home and really not do work when I’m feeling sick, to keep the line between work and home clear. And to be honest, I can’t really imagine only working 40 hours a week and don’t expect any job I apply for in the future to have that guarantee. In the end, I don’t know how or if this problem will ever be solved, at least in the tech world. Although we complain about the late nights and constantly comment on how tired we are, there is a certain geek bravado associated with this lifestyle– you can just tell by how often people talk about how long or how late they’ve stayed up or how many hours they worked this week or how they haven’t had time to have a proper meal. We’re complaining, but deep down inside– or maybe right there on the surface– we all believe we’ve earned some bragging rights. In our own geeky way, they are our own war stories.