Should I stay in software engineering?
September 30, 2008 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm an unhappy overworked software engineer. Am I in the wrong field?

I've been a software engineer for about 6 years now, all in the same job. My problem is that the hours suck. I know that some crunch time is expected when projects are due, but I'm regularly working 10-11 hour days, and working on the weekends is pretty common. My question is, is this normal? Are other people in the field working hours like this? I have a chance to leave the field and do something different, but because I've only worked one job, I'm not certain if the long hours I've been working are part of the profession, or if I could realistically expect to find another software engineering job where the hours are more reasonable. I want a job, but I want a life too. Can I have both if I stay a coder? What sort of experiences have my fellow mefites had in the field?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have had varying experiences with all of my software engineering jobs. If you are regularly working 10-11 hour days and weekends, then your company is broken. It is not this way with every company. For example, 37signals has the exact opposite of the typical startup work-to-death attitude.
posted by mkb at 8:55 AM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been a software engineer for about 6 years now, all in the same job.

There's your problem. Some development companies have perpetual unpaid overtime, some never do. Most have crunch only when necessary, usually when a big milestone is coming up.

Overtime for knowledge workers has been well studied and crunch time for anything but very small periods quickly ends up making software projects later that they would have been if there was no crunch at all. If your employer doesn't understand this (or disregards it), they're an idiot.

If I were you, I'd move on. There are better jobs out there.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:58 AM on September 30, 2008

As mkb points out, there are exceptions to the rule. However, they are few and far between...thus the reason the "work to death" shops are the rule. All I can say is you need to do some deep networking with engineers at other shops and get a feel for which shops have a more appealing atmosphere and work habit.

As a rule of thumb, I'd note that any job ad that describes the office as a "dynamic workplace environment" will probably not be to your liking. That, in my experience, tends to mean "24-7-365 crunch-time".
posted by Thorzdad at 9:04 AM on September 30, 2008

My ex was a software engineer working in the computer game industry. At one job he regularly worked 12 hour days, and weekends as well during "crunch mode". He was well-paid and got hefty bonuses, but it took a great toll on his health and our relationship.

After he left that job and started working for a smaller employer, though, he had regular 8 hour days and a life again. So if his experience is any indication, it's certainly possible that you could find a better situation with a different employer.
posted by velvet winter at 9:10 AM on September 30, 2008

Consider working as a developer outside of a software company. Most companies need some kind of in-house programming, and they may be a better environment since they aren't competing with other full-time crunch-time companies. I'm in charge of IT at a call center - sure, you laugh, but I and the programmer that works for me work 8-hour days and no weekends, and we spend at least 40% of our time on projects we choose ourselves.
posted by pocams at 9:14 AM on September 30, 2008

You don't mention your location - what you describe is certainly more expected and prevalent in the Silicon Valley area.

If you enjoy other aspects of the field do as suggested above - find another job and see if it sucks any less. You can always ditch the entire field later.

I'm on the east coast and work for a health care company with a large IT department with a sub-group of developers. There is the very occasional "crunch time", but for the most part the entire building is a ghost town by 5:30pm.
posted by mikepop at 9:26 AM on September 30, 2008

I'm a software engineer and have never had those kind of hours. You can find software jobs that don't suck like that. One suggestion: try finding a job that allows telecommuting.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:30 AM on September 30, 2008

Working people 10-11 hours a day is like keeping the thermostat at 95 F on purpose. Shops that do this are simply broken and there's no good reason to work for them. Find somewhere that actually understands that this is counter-productive and see how you like working there.
posted by 0xFCAF at 9:39 AM on September 30, 2008

Stuff like this varies drastically, but what you describe is not abnormal.

Being at a software job for 6 years is a long time, especially to be putting up with what you describe when you don't want to be. That's about the length of time I spent working long hours and wasting my post-college years because I didn't know any better and let my work be my life. Then I decided I wanted to change that and I had to leave my job to do it.

After that, I've had a lot more reasonable jobs. I had a great job that was 8:30 to 4:30 (and 20 vacation days!), strong project management, and good room to work for people who wanted responsibility. But the pay was too low and I left for greener pastures purely for that reason. I miss the way that job let me really do some big personal tasks while still working.

Jobs that let you have a life exist. If that is what you want, you need to be frank in your interviews and keep trying. Be willing to walk away when you feel mistreated and feel secure enough in your abilities that you don't need take crap from your employer. It's a wonderful feeling and it lets you be honest to your employer and it gives them a chance to give you what is actually meaningful to you.

You're not going to get away from crunch times, but you should be able to find a place where crunch time is not the norm.
posted by cmm at 9:45 AM on September 30, 2008

If the only thing you hate about your career is the hours you are currently working, dude, find another job. Try stating at the interviews for example, that you are over working 11 hour days more than twice a month.
posted by shownomercy at 9:46 AM on September 30, 2008

Large, established companies will expect 8 hours a day. Startups might expect 10-11, but only for a year or less, while you're still getting off the ground. 10-11 for six years at one job is sick, bad, and unhealthy for your career and your well-being.

You might not be in the wrong field, but you're definitely in the wrong company. Run! Run!
posted by svolix at 10:21 AM on September 30, 2008

I'm a computational biology researcher in academia. I've worked with many professional programmers (many of whom did not have biology background), and none of them worked crazy hours.
posted by grouse at 10:30 AM on September 30, 2008

I went through something similiar (finally lost it after 10 years) and I can tell you that even the act of putting my resume together put me in a good mood. I ended up in a situation where the hours are better, but the new place has different things to hate about it than the old place. But I got what I wanted, which was to get home in time to see my kid before he went to bed.

Try to get a different position within the same company if you can; one that you know doesn't put in crazy hours.

Failing that, I agree with finding another job. You're not the first to leave a company because they had no consideration for the employees' personal time and you won't be the last.
posted by PsuDab93 at 10:46 AM on September 30, 2008

I'm a contractor, which means I get to see the inside of a lot of different companies.

In my experience, long hours plus weekend work are not the general rule, except in a few specific areas. founders-era startups require a total life commitment, and the games industry is notorious for long hours, but there are lots of places that don't expect you to sacrifice your entire existence to the job.

Six years is an awful long time to stay in a single job, even if they weren't trying to work you to death. Start shopping.
posted by ook at 10:47 AM on September 30, 2008

nthing "find a different employer." There are many different types of work environment -- you do not have to be in one where 11 hours days are the norm.
posted by zippy at 11:11 AM on September 30, 2008

Yep get a new job. What's the worst thing that can happen? You can always go back where you started. Being successful and happy involves taking chances.
posted by Slenny at 11:29 AM on September 30, 2008

Nthing find a different job. Software engineer/developer/code monkey/ here for a small consulting company. I work 8-9 hour days; 10-11 hours and a couple weekends only for the week before a big crunch (of which I've seen 4? 5? in my almost 3 years here). You can do better.

I think you can tell what kind of shop you're looking at by talking to the employees. If there are a lot of early-twenties types who have nothing better to do than work crazy hours, then crazy hours it'll be, and hence that's what is expected. If the vast majority have kids and a husband/wife/significant other to go home to, then long hours will be less accepted by employees and are the exception rather than the rule.
posted by cgg at 11:33 AM on September 30, 2008

I've worn the hat of developer and manager-of-developers at startups and large international companies. What you're seeing is more common than it should be, but not the rule.

First, pocams advice about working as an in-house developer in a non-software company is good. I've done it, and it can be very rewarding- the downside is that you work alongside fewer developers, the upside is that you spend more time learning (IMO) useful stuff like how companies actually operate, since a lot of the work you do tends to be process automation.

Also, I suspect that Long Developer Hours stem, at least in part, from the widely-held belief that programmers are introverts with no social lives; thus, they have no problem staying late in front of the console because there's nowhere else they'd rather be. I don't have hard data to back this up, but I've heard this comment come out of several C-level exec's mouths.

Lastly, managing developers is much harder, IMO, than other groups of people. Developers are often not good at estimating work requirements, partly out of ego, partly because the number of things that can go wrong in a software project tend to be extremely high. It's tricky business, because people trained as managers often don't understand the Developer Mindset, and people trained as developers often lack the finesse needed to be effective managers.
posted by mkultra at 11:33 AM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not all jobs are like that. I worked at Google 2001-2006 and generally worked 8 hour days, 5 days a week. Of course crunch time would involve longer hours and I did some work from home on weekends. Also I got stuck with a pager from time to time and so had to be on call 24/7. But those were exceptions and in general the hours were quite sane. Some of my colleagues worked much longer hours but mostly it was because they wanted to, not because they were expected to. A few specific roles seemed to involve a lot of extra hours; honestly, I avoided those.
posted by Nelson at 11:55 AM on September 30, 2008

While I think finding another job with sane hours in the same field would be best long term, I have to ask - do you actually have to work those hours, as in you're ordered to, or do you simply feel obligated to keep on top of your many projects and well, because everyone else does?

If it's the former, then just run. There's no point trying to fix it.
If the latter, you may want to try sitting down with your boss and explain that the hours you're working are simply too long for you any more, especially if they're unpaid. If you're doing the hours because you feel guilty not doing them, you've a good argument for getting help setting up proper realistic delivery timescales and possibly even spreading the load somewhat.

With 6 years under your belt, you're likely a valuable guy, and it's a simple truth that working more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for longer than a couple of weeks actually decreases the quality of your work so that fixing your mistakes (and things you miss due to sustained weariness) actually takes up more than time than if you hadn't bothered in the first place. There are many studies showing this.

Time management is a difficult skill, and your company should be helping you work sane hours, not driving you to unhealthy ones. As I say, with 6 years experience there, it's worth a meeting or two.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:03 PM on September 30, 2008

Read 'Why Crunch Mode Doesn't Work' (specifically about game development, but applicable to the wider software industry), then start looking for a new job. I do basically the same job as I used to for an IT consultant, using many of the same skills, but it is run sanely and I am exponentially happier.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:48 PM on September 30, 2008

Nthing GTHOOT. I can attest to the fact that there are plenty of shops that don't beat their workers until morale improves. I've worked for more than one.
posted by Citrus at 10:14 AM on October 2, 2008

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