Working hard, or hardly working?

Monday 17 April 2006

We started trying to seriously estimate how much work we could do in a week at work recently. We used an estimate of 55 work hours in the week. I try hard to keep normal office hours (home by 6:30), but I often work at home some in the evenings and on the weekends, so I didn’t really know how many hours I work in a week. Out of curiousity more than anything else, this past week I kept track: I worked 53½ hours.

Maureen has also been wondering about whether she is working hard enough. By her rule of thumb (you are working hard enough if you think about work when you are doing other things), I am working plenty hard.

Something I could learn from Damien: not working when it is not productive. When we worked together, he had an amazing ability to get up from his desk in the middle of the day and say, “Yeah, I’m not getting anything done, I’m going to go shoot some hoops,” and leave. I was his manager at the time, and there was a general anxiety among my managers that not enough was getting done. So the few times he did this, I was both impressed and annoyed at the same time (they say the essence of management is being able to keep two conflicting thoughts in your head at once).

Damien was one of the more productive engineers, and we’ve all had times when nothing was flowing. Leaving was probably the best thing to do, but it didn’t make casual observers think, “There’s a productive engineer!” Of course, casual observation is not the way to gauge if someone is productive, but it doesn’t stop people from doing it. The other engineer reporting to me at the time was Nosh, a smart guy who had the habit of taking a nap after lunch, another habit which helped productivity, but didn’t look it.

I now find myself as engineering manager, a position in which I will have to gauge others’ (and my own) productivity. My engineers are another challenging bunch, by which I mean, they are people. The longer I work at writing software, the more I come to appreciate that people are the hardest thing to figure out.

One more piece about productivity, Dear Elena’s Weekend Homework, which basically says, “don’t”. BTW: Dear Elena is a blog Dan Steinberg started when his daughter Elena died suddenly.


While I hope I'm not remembered for my superior powers of "leaving work early", I'm glad you recognize the value of it. You must make an effort to feed your will to keep pushing, others won't do it for you.

BTW, a very timely article I just found:
Unless you're working a production line or the like, the number of hours spent "working" isn't that great a measure of "work getting done". Back in high school and college, I had a summer job working in a factory. We punched a time clock and were paid for the number of hours we worked. Connecting to Maureen's thought, I didn't spend a single waking moment thinking about the place or my work there as soon as I walked out of the door.

As a software developer I always have one (or several) background threads thinking about work problems. This isn't unique to software. Other creative professions: the arts, engineering, academia, etc. have this quality too. HP used to run television ads about this.

At my second startup we had to keep track of how many hours we worked each week. The justification was vague: something to do with a client contract. The numbers each week were public so things got competitive. Developers began working even crazier hours -- noone wanted to be thought of as a slacker. As anyone who has tried to sustain ultra-long work hours knows, things got bad over time: more mistakes were made, people lived in their offices, the place started to smell, external relationships were strained, people got sick easily and still came into the office infecting co-workers, etc. The sad thing was that management didn't recognize that there was a problem. People wanted someone to say "hey, it's okay, you can ease up!" but they didn't. By the time burn-out set in, the level of resentment of the managment team was huge.

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