Uncharted Waters

Nov 22 2017   1:53PM GMT

Is Overtime OK?

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Tags:
Burnout
overtime
Vacation

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US. Many people take off Thursday and Friday to have a day with family and then a day of vacation leading into the weekend. This got me thinking about the hours many technical workers put in throughout the year. It’s always more obvious to me in the winter. People get in early while it is still dark outside to have some quiet, focused time before the rest of the team arrives. Then, when they leave in the evening it is dark again and most of the team has already left for the day. First in, last out.

I put a lot of overtime in early in my career, following that first in last out pattern. I will rarely do that today. Chronic overtime is terrible for a variety of reasons. I have a couple of ideas on why it happens.

I got in early and left late for my first few years in tech. I was a new person at a company, hadn’t finished my undergrad yet, and my previous job was in a blue collar field of work. There was a learning curve that I wanted to track quickly, but I also wanted it to be obvious that I was working hard. Or rather, working harder than the other people that had just started at the company. I was creating a social signal I had learned from being in band and boy scouts as a kid. I wanted to be noticed by managers and anyone who has control over yearly reviews. This social signal often works regardless of the quality of work a person is putting in during those extra hours.

The other reason I see people working long hours, and I’d say this is way more common in the US, is that someone just doesn’t know how to do their job. It only takes one or two people for the effect to cascade down to the technical team. Pretty quickly, lunch is being catered so that developers don’t need to leave their desk and requests for working Saturdays come in.

overtime

A year or two later at that same company, we got a new manager that was very ambitious. He wanted to get more product to the market, and in a faster cadence than we were used to. This is a goal that every development manager on the planet shoots for. He gave up control of the sprint backlog to our product managers, started adding new team members, and let some of our development practices slip to get there. Our product managers put more work in the sprint than we were capable of completing. The new team members of course needed time to get familiar with the code base we were working on. And, getting lazy with development practices like code reviews and testing meant we had more work at the end of each sprint to fix problems.

One person who wasn’t a very good manager invited several other people into the process who were not very good at backlog management, and development on a new code base. The result was everyone working too much, and being overworked to the point of burnout.

Unless you are the business owner, or have a large amount of equity, over time is a red flag. Maybe that new person coming in early and staying late could use some coaching to they can do their job in a reasonable amount of time. Maybe the team that is working nights and weekends could use far better management. Hopefully all of you get to enjoy a few days off without checking email, or putting in one last bug fix.

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