Badge of Honor

10 years ago i was interviewing for a development position with a large technology company. During my 5th interview a project manager asked me a question i've not forgotten.

"What would do if you had a looming deadline and the project was behind schedule?"

This question has an easy answer. It also presented younger, just-as-recalcitrant-me a moment to ruffle some feathers, so i took it. I told him how deadlines were important but that it was a shame the onus for working long hours often fell to developers. I said that often systemic deadline missing was a result of PM's, sales people or supervisors over-promising on timelines and failing to budget adequately for development or testing iterations.

Silence followed. Eventually the man said "Huh." That was my last interview with the company.

Rights of passage

So what became of that young campaigner of coder rights? Well i graduated university and immediately started putting in 50+ hour weeks at a startup. I was attracted by the usual jargon. Teams that "worked hard and play harder". The added "er" on "hard-er" being a clear indication that the hours would be such that play was all but impossible given the onerous hours.

I think the issue here was viewing the hours as a right of passage into the industry. As if, in order to carve out my place in the startup world, i first had to carve out an equal size of my personal life to make room for my piece of the pie.

This is common in many of the friends i have in the industry. We are all taught, actively or passively, that long hours are a requirement of the space. We accept them as a price of doing business. We wear them like badges of honor, earned through some loosely justifiable self-sacrifice.

A perspective shift

A year ago i left my role as a startup CTO and co-founded a consulting company. This has been an eye opening experience in many ways. A lot has changed for me during this time. The most obvious shift has been my perspective around working hours.

You see, since that university interview i became the person who would pound my chest about my ability to work long hours on impractical timelines. I used to justify this to myself as an inevitability. I "cared more" or it "came more naturally to me" or i was "more passionate" than my coworkers. Typical Kool-Aid flavored nonsense.

Once i started setting my own hours and business expectations i realized that i view long hours fundamentally differently. Long hours are no longer a badge of honor, they are indication of failure. I can't imagine feeling required to work 50+ hours right now. If i did, you can be damn sure i would fix whatever caused that fire drill in a hurry.

So why doesn't that mindset exist more in tech companies? Every tech company i have worked for had a similar trend. Long hours are idolized by the executives. This is backwards, though. Long hours should be a condemnation of the corporate strategy and timelines. When a company is regularly insisting on them, questions should be asked of the leadership.

After a year out of the usual grind, i have come to recognize this as obvious, in retrospect. Hearing friends cope or brag with their working situations no longer strikes me as a competition where i need to bring a similar story of corporate hardship to the table. It now just strikes me as sad. I want to ask the executives of these companies what is so wrong that is requiring such a schedule.

I wrote this post after talking with a friend about their job and hearing it has been harder than they want. But they never actually said it was harder than they wanted. Instead they talked about their brutal hours and constant stress positively. It had become a badge of honor for them.

They bore its weight with pride.

tl;dr: We've come to accept long hours in technology companies. We should focus on why they are necessary instead of how we can best shoulder their demands.

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Written by Ben
Ben is the co-founder of Skyward. He has spent the last 10 years building products and working with startups.