Everyone knows the software programmer stereotype: Developers are lone hackers working late into the night, the room illuminated only by their computer monitors. They subsist on delivery pizza and Mountain Dew. They rarely leave their posts when there’s coding to be done, sometimes even spending Friday night on the old couch in the office.
While that description might sound like a romantic ideal to a certain brand of misanthropic hacker, the vast majority of developers are ordinary workers. They have families, hobbies, and responsibilities that have nothing to do with build cycles and release schedules. Unfortunately, however, workplace pressures often force these everyday developers into situations that bear far too close a resemblance to the basement-dwelling existence of legend.
Long work hours, missed vacation and sick time, and lack of recognition and advancement are endemic in the software development industry. For all the talk of a “knowledge economy,” some of the smartest and most highly specialized members of the workforce are often treated like disposable labor, easily replaced by newer, cheaper recruits. The result, predictably, is burnout, where the most seasoned team members leave the organization for greener pastures — and or vacate the field completely.
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Any sensible manager should recognize that this is an untenable situation, one that will weaken any company in the long run. And yet, software development teams seem to have a way of creeping into toxic work patterns before anyone realizes what’s happening. If we as an industry hope to reverse this trend, software managers need to be mindful of the signs of workplace breakdown and, more important, take swift corrective action.
It’s not all fun and games
Nowhere are the worst practices of software development teams more prevalent than in the videogame industry. In an editorial published last week, Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander asked, “Is the game industry a happy place?” The answers were less than encouraging. Alexander quoted one anonymous developer as saying, “Game development has a way of taking over your life, because there’s always more that can be done to improve perceived quality. I’ve seen a lot of divorces in my time in the game industry.”
That should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the industry over the years. As far back as 2004, an anonymous commenter going by the handle “ea_spouse” wrote of long hours, missed vacations, and lack of comp time or sick leave at Electronic Arts, a major game development firm. “Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA’s Human Resources policy,” ea_spouse wrote. “The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one’s workforce never enters the equation.”
Not much seems to have changed since then. Earlier this year, a group describing themselves as “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” posted an open letter decrying similar practicesat Rockstar Games. In addition to long hours and lack of overtime pay or time off for developers, the Devoted Wives write, “For four consecutive years, salary raises have not adjusted properly to cover inflation. This is especially unjust to those who significantly contribute to projects.”
Two things about these firsthand reports are particularly troubling. First is the consistent theme of marital breakdown due to work stresses, which speaks of the tremendous mental and emotional toll that chronic overwork takes on employees. Second is the fact that these witnesses chose to remain anonymous, which suggests they fear reprisals from their employers should their identities be discovered. If that’s the case, it’s a safe bet these problems aren’t going away.
Burnout destroys companies
Game development is notorious for “crunch time,” in which developers work around the clock as the product shipping deadline looms. But such practices are hardly confined to the gaming industry. InfoWorld has exposed such abusive practices in other high-tech fields. Even in enterprise IT departments, too few managers seem to realize the damaging effect that overwork can have on their employees — and by extension, their companies.
When workplace conditions become unbearable, the brightest and most talented employees are usually the first to leave. This is only logical; with their qualifications, they’re likely to have plenty of other opportunities elsewhere. As a result, however, the overall competency of development teams tends to sink to the lowest common denominator. In other words, the more managers pressure their developers to perform beyond their limits, the less effective their teams become in the long run.
IT consultant Bruce F. Webster calls this “the Dead Sea effect,”a reference to the Middle Eastern body of water that has grown too salty to sustain life. “Large companies tend to lose the really talented IT engineers and hold onto the less talented ones, when they should been actively seeking to do just the opposite,” Webster writes. “And the effect tends to be self-reinforcing: the worse an IT shop becomes, the harder it is to get really talented and effective IT engineers to join it and the harder it is to retain them if they do.”
The trend toward offshore outsourcing exacerbates this effect. The lower the quality of the in-house development team, the more tempting it is to replace them with low-cost outsourced development. But the more in-house developers feel they can easily be replaced, the less invested they will be in their work, the company, or its goals.
Software managers have it in their power to halt the Dead Sea effect. They can set sane working hours and offer overtime pay or comp time when longer hours are necessary. They can enforce mandatory vacation time. They can set realistic deadlines and resist the temptation to adjust deliverables at the last minute. They can even try alternative methodologies, such as agile development.
The most important thing they can do, however, is recognize the value of their employees, both as assets and as human beings. Even in an industry that moves at the pace of the Internet, every employee deserves to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect — even if they do like pizza and Mountain Dew.
Read on and take the road to recovery:
7 steps to recover from IT career burnout</a
Top tips to energize and motivate burned out employees
Addressing stress helps minimize potential of burnout
Read more of Neil McAllister’s Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com.</a