Business of Software


'Overtime' from
A while back, I read a blog post on Big Bang Technology’s blog written by Max Cameron titled “Why We Don’t Work Overtime“. I will give a full disclaimer here at the outset, I probably work too many hours, so I have a little bit of skin in this game. Namely, I could be accused of only responding because my work choices were being invalidated by someone else. That certainly isn’t my impetus for this blog. I merely wanted to offer a different perspective to Max Cameron’s blog post.

Cameron is writing from the perspective of a Startup Company. He does make an exception to the overtime rule for the founders, but for his employees he says,

There are no heroes at our office. When the clock strikes five, 
the team goes home. If they try to keep working, I tell them that 
the game's over and they lost. They either put too much on their 
plate, got taken off-task, or were wasting time. None of those 
justify working past five, on a holiday, or over a weekend.

I certainly applaud his motiviations. He sticks to this rule even when clients ask for it, when they’d need it to win new business, etc. It is one of his company’s core values and they stick to it. Everyone realizes that when an employee (especially a salaried one) works overtime, he is “doing more than he agreed to” and is “taking away family time” and “upsetting the work/life balance”. However, what I find interesting are some of the reasons that their company takes that choice away from their employees.

One major reason that Cameron cites is that to persuade employees to work overtime, the noble concept of “sacrifice” is invoked. In his mind, soldiers, firefighters, and police officers sacrifice, and to try to align that concept with “expected overtime” is a dangerous habit to get in to.

He points out that the employees who work over are the “heroes” and those who don’t are “losers who let you down”. In his words, “Yearly reviews just got a whole lot easier”. Later he says, “How could I promote a loser when they’re surrounded by winners?”.

I want to deal with that point first. He is obviously being rhetorical and a little sarcastic with those last quotes, arguing his point to ad absurdum. However, I think there is a point to be investigated there. My current boss has taught me a lot about managing people and the value of making “the hard decision”. It sounds to me like Cameron is welching a little bit on managing employees. Sometimes, you have to make the hard choices. As my boss likes to say, “Who do we pay to do the hard stuff?”.

Imagine on one hand that you have an employee who works only 40 hours and is very productive, gets along well with others, is a leader, and so on. Now, imagine you have another employee who works a ton of overtime, but you know that it is because he isn’t very efficient. He has a good work ethic and to make up for his lack of efficiency (and “social time” during work hours), he tries to even it out with that overtime. Now, if you are a manager who can’t promote Mr. Productive Forty and explain to Mr. Compensating why he didn’t get the job, you aren’t much of a manager and should rethink your career path.

Let’s pretend there is another scenerio. This time, you have two very equal employees. One of them is a “5:01 Developer” (gone by 5:01 every day) and the other works over to make sure things get done on time, or to add special features off of the “nice to have” list that never gets prioritized ahead of “big projects”. In that case – all else being equal – why wouldn’t you promote the overtime guy?

These kinds of decisions are why you are the person writing the reviews.

A point that Cameron makes alongside this one is the concept of burnout. This is definitely a very real problem. However, I feel that he’s again arguing to take the “copout” path. He seems to be claiming that it is impossible or would require too much work to monitor and make sure that his employees aren’t burning out. There is a big difference between running a guy at 80+ hours a week for months at a time, working 1 or 2 60-70+ hour weeks before huge release, and regulary working 50 hours a week because that’s what you are comfortable working.

As I admitted earlier, I definitely work overtime. I am soon taking my first vacation week in years (only because the company stopped paying out for unused time – I have to “use it or lose it” and I’m too practical for that 😉 ). However, I’ve been going at this pace for about five years straight now, across 2 companies. I’m not close to burnout. You can’t manage people homogeneously, you have to manage to the individual. I’m more of a sports car, not a minivan, there is no danger of running the engine at a little bit higher speeds.

I’m not bragging. My point is that I’m different than other people and a team needs all kinds of people on it. The Apostle Paul actually writes to this point quite eloquently in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 12:14-21:

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, 
I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason 
stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, 
"Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it 
would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? 
If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of 
them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, 
where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head 
cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 

There are things I do well and things that I don’t do well, and I realize that I don’t always see them clearly. The way that that is remedied is that my team is made up of all sorts of people. The person building the team knows what he has, and fills the gaps appropriately. The fact that I can easily work 50 hours a week or more without burning out is just a tool that my company has at its disposal, just as all of the other skills of employees are at their disposal.

One point that I just could not grasp in Cameron’s blog post was the fact that he is willing to let his clients down because of this overtime policy. Even if the work completed because of overtime would win their clients more business or help solve a serious problem that they are having, overtime is still off limits.

I see nothing wrong with working over to win new business, for you or for one of your clients. Your client has likely worked with others who cannot deliver these things and you make yourself indispensible to him as someone who can deliver them. But again, there is the potential for abuse, but that relies on your client service managers or account representitives to “do the hard stuff” of recognizing and stopping abuse before it gets anywhere.

As I was discussing this topic with a good friend of mine, he pointed out to me that one problem he had with overtime was that it “excused” or “covered up” poor planning. For instance, if a project was projected to have 15 features and be delivered in 2 months, but was estimated poorly, that can be a problem. Proper Agile philosophy is to have the business either extend the date based on the metrics from the iterations, or cut features. Another approach is for it to still spend the hours, but spend them in 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks to meet the deadline. That’s a “death march” and no one really wants that.

However, sometimes it is politically expedient to deliver the project by working the overtime. Not everyone works at a company that can afford to turn down external clients or at a consultancy that can easily refuse work. A good deal of software development is done as part of an “in-house” shop that develops software for “an enterprise”. There are 100 ways that you can curry favor by seemingly doing the impossible and those who don’t see the value in that don’t have a very mature view of the “real world”.

However, the issue then comes if you don’t learn a lesson about your estimating and back yourself into those kinds of corners on project after project. Again, I fall back on “Who do we get to do the hard stuff?” If your Project Managers can’t control these projects from the outset, you probably have the wrong people in there.

This has definitely been one of my longer rants and I know that a lot of people will disagree with me. Feel free to leave a comment below, or blog your own responses. If you do a reaction blog, please link it in the comments so that I can read the discourse and the other readers may benefit, as well.

4 comments Overtime

I posted something related to this a couple weeks ago, but from the opposite perspective:

Here’s how I see it. I think of my career and my life with family like a business. I primarily provide value to two “businesses”: the company that I work for and my family. The company I work for values things to help them to make a profit, and my “business” of my family values things like having time together and having me around to help take care of the kids. My employment is a partnership between the company I work for and the “business” that is my life, and the partnership should be mutually beneficial.

If I’m working somewhere and I work extra hours, that extra value that I provide to the company means that I am providing less value to my family because I’m not around. My kids don’t see me as much, and my wife has more work to do taking care of the kids. (Since I’m a contractor, at least I get paid for the overtime, but I’d rather have the time than the extra money.)

So if the company I’m working for decides that everyone has to work overtime because they want to cram extra functionality in, then that extra work comes at the expense of my family, especially if I’m a full time employee who doesn’t get paid for overtime. I have a problem with that, just like my company would have a problem if I told them that I was going to work 30 hours a week for the next month, but I want to paid the same and I don’t want it to come out of my paid time off allotment. No company would ever allow that, but they’re often more than willing to take 10 extra hours a week away from me and my family. For those full time employees who don’t get paid overtime, why aren’t they allowed to take comp time after the deadline has passed in order to make up for the extra time that they just worked? I’ve never seen any company to do that. If they gave you that expectation of overtime when they hired you, that would be one thing (I worked at one such place, and it was fine because you knew it going in, and we got paid for the overtime). But if you’re hired with the expectation that you are getting paid a salary for 40 hours and then they want to work 50 hours without making it up to you with comp time or at least paid overtime, I have a problem with that. Some managers realize how this works and they see that they can try and squeeze an extra 10 hours a week out of their employees with no extra cost to the company, and they see it as a cost savings or play it off as “the company can’t afford to hire any more workers right now”. I avoid these places like the plague. (This is why I feel that all developers should be paid for overtime so that they can’t be taken advantage of. Usually in these places, the full time employees will be working extra, but the contractors won’t because the company doesn’t want to pay the extra money.)

If someone wants to work extra, I don’t have a problem with that, because it’s your choice. I’m not saying that people who choose to work extra hours don’t care about their family, that’s their business. I also realize that in this business, sometimes you have to work extra in order to get things done, and that’s not always the company’s fault or poor planning or anything like that. In an ideal world it would never happen, but in the real world, sometimes it’s necessary, and I’m OK with that, that comes with the profession. I also place a lot of value on my reputation as someone who succeeds and gets things done, so occasionally I’m willing to do a little extra effort because I high standards for myself. I just don’t want to feel like I’m being taken advantage of.

That’s my long rant. Good post, it was well thought out.

Pete says:

Thanks, Jon, for your very well-reasoned answer. I appreciate the perspective from the other side.

Very nicely presented perspective. How very much I enjoy seeing these types of post and the comments and gaining and in some instances “re-gaining” the vastly different perspectives from varying generations and career paths and roles.

Some of this reminds me of a star wars movie – “Only a sith lord thinks in absolutes”. There are so many more intangibles to a career versus a job. Factory workers get paid for every widget produce or every second punched on a clock. Lawyers don’t, doctors do not, professors do not and professional athletes do not.

All have of their very own assessment of their “value” to the “organization”. But it is the view I received from a long time colleague who has a very well noted and MVP style career as an architect that I find most interesting. He asked, “How do I create a new level in my career where I am not limited to hours billed?”

I think at different junctures in ones career our mentality changes. Our ideology evolves and we live scenarios where we are “forced” to grow wings if we are to live in the air or grow gills if we are to live underwater.

Managing a team of hourly developers affords a different perspective. Successfully executing fixed-price-fixed-time projects provides a different platform of learning. A VC buying a consulting company has a much different perspective than the person with the ability to “turn down client business that …” disagrees with their own philosophy.

[…] I know that there are people who would bristle at the suggestion that employees aren’t doing their best for the entire day or that there are readers who would believe that I’m advocating for a poor work-life balance. I am a proponent that people should work hard while they are on the clock. If you do that, work-life balance shouldn’t be a problem. If you work hard, taking time off won’t matter because you won’t constantly be behind. If you (and your team) are all doing your best and you’re still behind and there isn’t an obvious point-in-time reason, then you’re understaffed or mismanaged and that’s the manager’s problem. However, I’m not against people who do work more or even work over from time to time to get things done, as I describe in this post from over 9 years ago. […]

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