Do "cool" careers suck as much as working at EA?
November 11, 2004 7:46 AM   Subscribe

This entry from an EA Programmer's wife (via /.) details working for EA to complete exhaustion. I'm a young guy, maybe I don't know, but it seems to me that most of your 'dream jobs' like working on a video game, a magazine, advertising, etc. are completely exploited by management because it's seen as a cool job. Also, hundreds of people are waiting to take your 80-hour work week 'dream job.' Is this pretty much the sharp edge to doing what you love to do? Most jobs are pretty shitty, but it looks like anything remotely creative/cool sucks beyond measure as far as hours and stress goes. Do all of these 'cool' careers suck this bad? Is it just something that comes along with the industry, and you should just shut up about it?
posted by Stan Chin to Work & Money (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, stan, it's not, but in a way, you should -- that is, you should "put up, or..." Which I don't mean in a harsh way: I mean by that that you can (usually) find alternatives.

In fact, I'd argue that we're all morally obligated to find or enforce those alternatives. It seems clear to me and has seemed clear for a very long time that we're deep into a "correction" phase, where business is pushing back against the continuing effort to separate work life from private life. Corporations really do want to be able to buy our labor power and all that goes along with it; they'd love to be able to buy the right to control content of our minds, and everything we learn while working on their problems, too, and if it ever becomes feasible to do so they'll lobby hard for it. Their "right" to it is purely a matter of whether they can get it from us; we have to not let them have it.

So don't just shut up -- do something. You're doing it for yourself.

... spoken by someone who lives and works in a town where you take the job-scraps that are thrown to you and are happy to get them, doggammit....
posted by lodurr at 7:59 AM on November 11, 2004

i had a job like this (though not as cool) and ended up with some kind of breakdown.
i resigned and found a better job, with better conditions, that paid twice as much (seriously). so it does occur, but you can escape (in my experience).
on preview - yep.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:01 AM on November 11, 2004

Yes--it comes along with the industry. The demand for the "cool" jobs is so high that management can afford to demand this much of people.

My sister is working 60 hours or more a week for one of the least creatively challenging animation studios in NYC, and until recently wasn't getting paid enough to afford health insurance.
posted by Jeanne at 8:07 AM on November 11, 2004

If only there was some way for coders to consolidate their power to force employers to follow fair labor practices. We could collectively negotiate with employers and demand fair contracts. By standing together and ensuring that they can't just fire us and exploit someone else, we could level the playing field.

Many creative and professional workers look down upon labor unions, believing they exist only to help blue-collar slobs stay lazy. They are suffering because of their arrogance.
posted by Eamon at 8:23 AM on November 11, 2004

Eamon: Thanks, you made me smile.... But if you want to lose a smile quickly, mention the "U"-word in a crowd of American professionals. Unions are nearly as socially unacceptable today as Communism.

I've tried talking about a few different ways of doing this -- through guilds, professional associations, networking associations... At one point, I was talking up the idea of a "Technical Professionals Guild" -- just trying to get reactions, see how people felt about the very general idea, without any specifics at all. Reactions ranged from mild interest to instant scorn, with most reactions being in the vein of vague discomfort.
posted by lodurr at 8:38 AM on November 11, 2004

Unfortunately, Eamon, that doesn't work, either. I'm in a creative professional union (WGA) and, when in production, the hours are *horrible*. Get in at 10am, work on next script till the run-thu (around 2-3pm), get back from the runthru, and (more often than not) completely re-write the epsiode that's in production. Starting at 4pm, ending at midnight or later.

Repeat until the show gets cancelled.

Worse, the jobs are so scarce, you're *happy* when you have the opportunity to do this.
posted by herc at 8:40 AM on November 11, 2004

it looks like anything remotely creative/cool sucks beyond measure as far as hours and stress goes.

It's not just the creative jobs. The situation is the same in every industry that I'm aware of. If you're in, say, the top half of your chosen profession, and if you're not working for the government, retail services, or in an entry level position, then you're going to be working 60+ hours a week.

Large law firms operate exactly this way, up to and including the high expected turnover, and the fancy offices and the seemingly sincere promises of humane treatment. Many of my coworkers probably haven't taken a real two day weekend in the last year.

Top business people work this hard too. You think the CEO of EA isn't putting in 90 hour work weeks?

Doctors work this hard or harder. So do bankers. So do accountants at the Big 5. And academics, and social workers, and psychologists, and top real estate agents, and on and on and on.

It's part and parcel of having a "good" job. If you want to get off that track, you'll probably have to accept heavy financial and social sacrifices.
posted by gd779 at 8:46 AM on November 11, 2004

Meanwhile, I'm in another union - the American Federation of Musicians - and we have very strict enforcement (at least in my area) of how long we can work at a clip, when breaks are to be taken, and when overtime starts. I quite happily racked up a nice amount from overtime alone on a recent gig. It depends on the union and how well it maintains its presence in your area.

On the flip side, the sheer amount of personal hours I put into keeping my skills up as a musician & instrument/reeds maintained often approaches full-time job status. And it's a given that I have to invest that time just to find work.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:48 AM on November 11, 2004

herc, as bad as it is, I can't help but think that it would be worse without a union. Also, the games industry isn't exactly the same as yours (or auto manufacture, for that matter). I'll be the first to admit that my hypothesis is completely untested.

lodurr, you're absolutely right: I've had the same experience. I just wanted to point out that things could (probably) be better, but the programming community's pigheadedness is the only thing keeping that from happening.
posted by Eamon at 8:51 AM on November 11, 2004

gd779 - I think you're projecting. There are a number of us for whom a 50 hour week is unusually long.
posted by bshort at 8:52 AM on November 11, 2004

gd779: Top business people work this hard too. You think the CEO of EA isn't putting in 90 hour work weeks?

The classic corporate confusion of interest. The CEO of EA well may be putting in 90 hour weeks. You can be damn sure the CEO of EA isn't getting paid $60k for those 90 hour weeks.

These "good jobs" are sweatshops.
posted by jmignault at 8:53 AM on November 11, 2004

Eamon: Thanks, you made me smile.... But if you want to lose a smile quickly, mention the "U"-word in a crowd of American professionals. Unions are nearly as socially unacceptable today as Communism.

Mention the U word at work, even if you're in a union, and the bosslady will tell you immediately what a hassle they are and how much better it was when we were all just good friends [and didn't have health or dental insurance, or retirement, or paid leave]. A lot of the conditions you describe, Stan, aren't limited to creative jobs but are also a direct result of high unemployment. While it can seem counterintuitive, unemployment is good for business. This is because your replaceability-factor affects how much jobs can work the hell out of you and know that you have to suck it up. If there were no easy replacement for you, they'd try harder to keep you. They still don't want to fire you -- then they'd have to pay you unemployment benefits -- but if you quit....? When I worked in the tech industry they used to hold stock options over our heads like they were some sort of golden carrot worth striving for. Now that I'm in the library world, you just bust your ass because you care about the folks you serve [and, thanks to the union, don't get paid total crap]. I don't mean to sound like an AFSCME advertisement but it's been a huge quality of life change for me. Then again, I might just be a blue-collar lazy slob.

gd779: I don't know a single academic that puts in 60+ weeks, top half of profession or not.
posted by jessamyn at 9:25 AM on November 11, 2004

This is something I think about a lot. I currently work for a company whose existence is about doing certain categories of design faster, cheaper, and if the client will let us, better. A lot of that -- most of it, I think -- comes from eliminating some extra trappings of the agency experience that are superfluous for many potential clients in a large market. Some of it comes from a few simple process ideas which often do introduce some real efficiency. So to a good extent, I believe in what the company does. But some of it comes at the cost a lot of extra sweat on the part of workers, and I'm not sure that this place could have gotten off the ground as easily, say, the mid to late 90s when work was plentiful and well-paying. That said, after a month or two of crunch, management *does* hire new employees and things get better (until the next crunch), so this isn't exploitation. My general feeling is that the job market has allowed employers to get away with whatever they choose to for the last 2-3 years.

But I have worked places -- even a company that created games, albeit educational games -- where hours were sane. And hey, the educational game company not only had sane hours, they're the only software development shop I've ever worked for that had *specs* and a process that everyone took seriously. By the time a spec was done, you had a description of the software behavior that was solid and detailed down to the states/behavior... almost high-level psuedocode... though without the algorithm details. I worked 30-40 hour weeks. Most programmers did the same under ordinary circumstances.
Great place to work. Of course, that was back in 1998....
posted by weston at 9:31 AM on November 11, 2004

The classic corporate confusion of interest. The CEO of EA well may be putting in 90 hour weeks. You can be damn sure the CEO of EA isn't getting paid $60k for those 90 hour weeks.

Found on /.: last year Lawrence Probst III made $1.45M, and exercised $22.78M in options.

Yeah, I'd work 90 hour weeks for that.
posted by Eamon at 9:59 AM on November 11, 2004

what other people have said above is true, but there's also a certain attitude where people take pride in working too much and admire it in others.

after reaching the point where i was curled up on the floor in my living room, in a foetal ball, in the dark, sobbing into the telephone asking my boss to not ask for more features in less time, i made a decision - work comes second. now, i have a pile more free time and a better job. some people make snide comments about me working according to the clock, but truth is i still produce work good enough to keep me in a job. i'm still given responsibility. i still get praise.

these days i'm more frustrated with people i work with who don't have a similar attitude. they take on too much, are too busy, and it makes what they do worse. they end up doing worse work for it, and are a pain to work with.

and these people are in the majority, and still complain. i sometimes wonder why they continue to complain rather than actually do something. do they either secretly enjoy the idea that they "work hard"? do they lack confidence in their ability as much as in their endurance? do they have other pressures that make them too scared (i'm pretty secure financially, for example, although i doubt i own or earn as much as most americans here)?
posted by andrew cooke at 10:00 AM on November 11, 2004

I don't know a single academic that puts in 60+ weeks, top half of profession or not

Hard-science types put in a lot of lab hours, and there's also a lot of work that gets done at home. I for one would only hit the 60-hour mark if I were trying to grade 50+ papers in a weekend, or if it were pre-conference crunch time to get a paper out, or if I were in an early data-crunching phase of a new project and it were particularly interesting / fun / demanding.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:09 AM on November 11, 2004

(sorry, my previous post too peevish - i was just the same until pushed too far)
posted by andrew cooke at 10:18 AM on November 11, 2004

I don't know a single academic that puts in 60+ weeks, top half of profession or not

In the University of California system (UCLA, UC Davis, Cal) all the younger profs I knew with the first level of tenure got there by working insane hours. Staying 12+ hours per day and in the lab every weekend. My advisor used to only take Sundays off, so I made sure to be working in the lab at least 6 days a week, if not 7 to prove I wanted it.

But the funny thing was, all the professors that were younger than 50 and worked these hours had terrible family lives. My advisor met, married, and divorced someone in my few years in grad school. Another prof on my committee found his wife in bed with another man. I only knew one female prof with tenure that had children.

The professors that had been in the game for 15-20+ years with full tenure had weekends off and went home at 5 or 6 pm, as they were essentially cruising towards emeritus status. But all the young guns worked themselves to death.
posted by mathowie at 10:21 AM on November 11, 2004

A company that makes a cool product is not necessarily going to be a company that's cool to work for. I think that's were a lot of people have misconceptions. The folks at Big Game Co. don't sit around all day on couches in their PJ's playing games. They make the games, and in some ways a programming gig is a still programming gig whether you're making Halo 2 or or coding some boring in-house app for a law firm.
posted by Cyrano at 10:44 AM on November 11, 2004

Well, I have what I think of as a cool job--working for a small press--and we bust our asses because that's what keeps the company in business. And if the company folded, I would have to go get some bitchass job where I had to work on someone else's schedule and where my butt being in a chair would be just as important as what I actually did. Sure, I'd have health care, but I would need it a lot more as I'd be driven to hurt myself daily.

So some cool jobs involve loads of work because they wouldn't exist without it.
posted by dame at 10:46 AM on November 11, 2004

I am a programmer. I make good money. In the last 10 years I have worked in "permanent" positions and as a contractor. If I go home later than 5, it's because I came in after 9.

But I don't live in the US. And I made a decision to not have a career. Instead, I have two pools of money - one for periods of unemployment, so I can walk any time I like, and one for the unspecified future when I get sick of this kind of work.

It was striking, when I did briefly do some work in the US, how stupidly symbolic and unproductive the long hours I witnessed were. And we did work in NZ for US clients who felt ripped when we only did 8 hour days, but were then surprised when the job got done more quickly (sleep + relaxation = programmer productivity, duh).

You might ask yourself *why* these jobs are "cool": who says so? Why might they want you to think that? What benefits do you derive from having a "cool" job?

Young man, you have a splendid opportunity to avoid the classic problem of "how do I get off this treadmill"? Don't get on it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:53 AM on November 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

And anyone know who we have to thank for this? Protestant fundamentalists!

Seriously, back in the day (1500-1600s) during the formation of the Industrial Revolution, leading protestants looked at the bible and interpreted the second coming of Jesus would come when knowledge was complete, or something similar to that wording. That along with various versus in Revelations indicated that earth needed to be like heaven. This meant improving the community and general conditions from middle-age squalor to uh, industrial revolution squalor -- which was seen as better. As a result people began to accumulate wealth which was an indication of them doing their deed to improve humanity's lot. The cascading effects of wealth turning into something desirable obviously exist to this day, though not nearly as their intended purpose. It's one of the main reasons why England/US flourished during the Industrial Revolution.
posted by geoff. at 11:03 AM on November 11, 2004

Joe's, w.r.t. productivity of overtime: Damn straight. In my time in the software industry (since '97), I've seen an awful lot of wasteful overtime.

That said, the company I work for would fail in 90 days if its salaried employees started working 45 hour weeks. 50+ is the norm; though you'll never get anyone to admit it, everyone's project estimates are based on the idea that completion dates can be assigned arbitrarily since people will work whatever time is necessary to accomplish the task, every time. Of course, the quality of execution is execreble, which is something that my company is actually kind of known for -- that, and periodically running operating costs for several quarters in a row at 105% of revenues... (And no, the upper management doesn't get fired for it. And yes, they do deserve to fail. And no, for some bizarre reason, they don't fail....)

So, anybody have suggestions for fixing this, since this is green and not blue?

On preview: CALVINISM, YO!
posted by lodurr at 11:04 AM on November 11, 2004

lodurr, what do you mean by "fixing this"? Your company, IT company work practices in general, or your own situation?

In general one person cannot turn around a whole company's entrenched bad practise; even the CEO has a hard time doing that. I can't think how to say this without being preachy: if you don't like the game, don't play. Start your own game with your own rules if necessary.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:18 AM on November 11, 2004

lodurr, changing business processes is very complicated and change must occur across all departments. While I'm not saying don't try, expect it to be a very uphill battle over a long period of time. Be prepared to put your neck on the line and become an unpopular person.

My web development company (for the record, I work in both music and the web - 2 jobs) is only around 20-something people. I've been the workflow and standards evangelist ever since I started.

I have the support of the VP and nearly every employee and manager (I'm a senior developer, not management), and yet every change is still baby steps.

It took me 1.5 years to get us to adhere to some sort of standard in documentation. 2.5 years to get the designers to use CSS. It will have been 4 years to get us to hire and retain a proper Project Manager. Never mind all of this cuts production costs & errors and allows us to collect money from our clients in a more timely fashion. It's still change and that is very difficult for a business.

I only enjoy this change and freedom of voicing my opinions because the company is so small and I've worked hard at being someone of value (and it didn't take working more than 40 hours a week). If I were in a larger company, I'd probably be dismissed as an uppity/incompatible employee.

It probably *would* be more productive if I just started my own business, but there is no way in hell I would ever do that, for numerous reasons. So, I just keep plugging away to improve this company until I get enough money to eventually leave the web forever. (So in a sense, I will be playing my own game, afterall.)
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:04 PM on November 11, 2004

ooh, forgot to respond to this:

"If you want to get off that track, you'll probably have to accept heavy financial and social sacrifices."

Mate, to stay on that track imposes heavy social sacrifices, like giving up your friends, your family and any outside interests in the name of your work. If your work is your vocation, then that's a choice I can agree with, but otherwise, jeez, what fun things are you going to spend that money on? Childcare and guilt-presents and cleaners and takeout food and expensive vacations you can't enjoy because you're too wound up and psychiatrists and ... And unless you are disciplined with money, the financial rewards are transient too - but if you were disciplined with money, you wouldn't need such a high income.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:44 PM on November 11, 2004

Mate, to stay on that track imposes heavy social sacrifices, like giving up your friends, your family and any outside interests in the name of your work

Yeah, but stepping off that track often means losing the respect of your family and friends, losing financial security (What if you lose your job and can't find another one? What if you or your kid gets really, really sick?), and losing what is probably a fairly large chunk of your personal identity.

Don't get me wrong, I'm stepping off the track as soon as my school loans are repaid. But there are costs both ways. You pays your money and you takes your chance.
posted by gd779 at 1:19 PM on November 11, 2004

Point taken, gd779.

One last set of notes before I shut up:
- trying to win respect of family through career was a big mistake for me; conversely, breaking out has earned me the respect of my friends.
- I personally believe the financial security of a permanent position in the corporate world is illusory. I have seen too many redundancies to think otherwise.
- you're on the money with the loss of identity thing, but whether that's a good or a bad thing? It depends on your philosophy.

A few years ago I met an American manager who had been transferred to a New Zealand branch of a multinational. He shook his head in bewilderment as he said: "I can't understand what's wrong with my Kiwi employees. Half of them only come to work to fund their hobbies."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:36 PM on November 11, 2004

Well, I was thinking about Stan's problem, specifically, but more generally, the larger problem that long punishing hours seem to be built into the business assumptions of American corporations. I have no hope of ever changing processes at the company I work for; I don't trust them, never have trusted them, and can't even imagine ever trusting them at any point in the future, so I have no real incentive to ever help them save any money or reform the way they do business. (To give you some idea: This is a company that figured out a way to charge their consultants for getting laid off.) Here, I look out for me and my team-mates.

joe's: That attitude sounds suspiciously like perspective. We actually have it here, too; most people I meet who take the step "off the train" are met with respect, not condemnation. We just find it hard to say the nice things in public -- they get said privately, with a touch of envy.
posted by lodurr at 2:57 PM on November 11, 2004

"The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation--as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery--how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this "use value", regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good; how they do not care a damn for the sugar and the fixed capital invested in the plantations, but rather observe the planters' impending bankruptcy with an ironic grin of malicious pleasure... They have ceased to be slaves, but not in order to become wage labourers, but, instead, self-sustaining peasants working for their own consumption. "

-- my old mate Karl.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:18 PM on November 11, 2004

well, this thread may be dead, but i got this email, which i thought was interesting (perhaps because i agree with it, but also because it's nice to hear someone else's experiences and i think the point about upbringing is a good one):
I'm an old dog who spent several decades in a lab putting in frightful hours, then another 2 decades in business putting in even worse hours. Like you, I burned out and spent several years licking my wounds. During that time I had unlimited hours to ponder why I had done this to myself. Certainly there was the lure of lots of money and the possibility of financial independence. But in retrospect, I think that was more an excuse. Buried deep down I discovered that I was reacting to beliefs which had been picked up in childhood and never corrected by me.

One of those was that I was "lazy". My well-meaning parents used this epithet on me to encourage me to work harder at school and to spend less time in my own thoughts. Since it was always possible to find others who appeared to spend more time at their studies or other activities than I did, I grew to believe this about myself. When I entered university and was relatively free to choose my own lifestyle, I determined to prove this judgment wrong and became a workaholic. That commenced the addict's cycle of work 'till my health failed, recover, then start again to make up for "lost time". (The illness was always viewed by me as evidence of my laziness.)

My point in writing about this is that I believe that many people are driven by their own demons, adopted at a very early age, which are never challenged for what they are because they are so deeply seated. Like you, I was finally blessed with utter collapse which forced me to re-examine these very basic assumptions. Like you, I came up with an entirely different value system and have been delighted with the results.

I think that a very important point has yet to emerge in the discussion 'in the green', and which bears directly on the questions you raised. Employers will do anything they can to perpetuate these kind of myths (for obvious reasons). I once had a man working for me who had been voted as one of the country's most effective CEO's. He had successfully rescued a major corporation from certain bankruptcy and brought it into a commanding place in the electronics business. He told me that the secret to his success was to assist every employee in establishing a lifestyle that they then had to run harder and harder to maintain. The key was to instill in the group consciousness that success was measured in the number of "toys" accumulated. Loss of toys was equated to failure and no one can tolerate being viewed as a failure by one's peers. Internally, these practices include offices with windows, corner offices, 'rug-ranking' (thickness of pile = measure of status) and so on. By extension, these are extended to type of car driven, size of home, private school for kids, and so on.

Once on such a treadmill, it takes a remarkably strong ego or a major melt-down to break out of that mold. Move too far from that mold and society will commence pointing at you as being a 'parasite', even though you might not be drawing upon any social assistance or the help of others.

"do they lack confidence in their ability as much as in their endurance?" I think that endurance has been raised by the factors mentioned above to be a major virtue. So those on the treadmill who are seeking to show that they have some value choose to demonstrate such endurance to make up for their self-perceived shortcomings in other areas. Through demonstrating such endurance they seek the approval of their peers, neighbors and relatives. How marvelous that you have seen through that fallacy and have the courage to live your new found beliefs.

Richard Malcolm
(hope i've edited ok - there was a bit of stuff either end that was personal-email-ish) (psst - when are accounts opening again?)
posted by andrew cooke at 8:40 AM on November 12, 2004 [1 favorite]

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