Shorter hours in software

Famously long workweeks are shrinking as management improves and employees focus on life outside the cubicle.

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
7 min read

Microsoft software developer Adam Barr usually eats dinner with his family these days.

It wasn't always so. In the 1990s, Barr often missed dinner with his wife and young children while regularly logging 50 to 60 hours per week--occasionally having to put in 70 hours for several weeks on end to hit project deadlines.

Now he regularly works from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. "Microsoft tolerates this pretty well," Barr said. "There were definitely cases in the past when, for certain stretches, it wasn't tolerated."


What's new:
Famously long workweeks in the software industry are shrinking as management improves and employees focus on life outside the cubicle.

Bottom line:
Although workers are now spending more time working remotely or on open-source projects, "crunch time" persists at many companies.

More stories on this topic

Barr's ability to sup with his family more frequently underscores a shift in the software world: Many employees are working less punishing hours. Production workers in software publishing--most are computer specialists--worked an average of 36.4 hours a week last year, down from 41.4 hours in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Possible reasons include the reduced allure of dot-com riches and programmers putting greater emphasis on life outside of work. Also, observers say some software houses have learned to manage projects better. In effect, software makers are concluding that productivity suffers when employees work extended days month after month.

"In companies that have a lot of overtime, they waste a lot of hours during the workday," said Tom DeMarco, a consultant at The Atlantic Systems Guild who has written about human resource issues in the technology field. "A normal workday has come to be selected over time because it is productive."

Complex projects and macho coders
Long hours long have been part of software development. Explanations given for programmers frequently toiling into the night include the complex nature of many software projects as well as the need to meet shipping deadlines, especially in the video game world that relies on large holiday season sales.

During the Internet bubble, the prospect of a lucrative initial public stock offering helped fuel the legions of geeks who became famous for sleeping under their desks.

A tough-guy culture among coders also seems to have been a factor. Last year, the International Game Developers Association cited this as a reason for horrible working conditions in the computer game world.

"Developers are sometimes just as much to blame for submitting themselves to extreme working conditions, adopting a macho bravado in hopes of 'proving' themselves worthy for the industry," the professional group's board said in a statement.

In the fast-growing computer game industry especially, long hours continue to be commonplace. A survey last year by the game developers' association found that almost three developers out of five reported working 46 or more hours in a typical week.

More than 95 percent of respondents said their company experiences "crunch time"--a period of intense work prior to a product release. More than 18 percent of respondents to the survey reported having experienced crunches of two

months or more, and more than a third of respondents said they work 65 to 80 hours a week during crunch time.

"I don't think the software industry will ever go to a 9-to-5 industry, but it is moving away from 15-, 17-, 20-hour days."
--Fred Hoch
VP, The Software &
Information Industry Association

Such conditions triggered a rebellion of sorts late last year. A Web log posting critical of game software giant Electronic Arts led to a flood of complaints about work hours in the industry. EA, which also has been sued for allegedly failing to pay proper overtime wages to some workers, eventually sent a memo to employees acknowledging a problem and promising workplace reforms.

One reason the computer game field may continue to wrestle with exhausting work hours is its relative youth. As software vendors as a whole have aged in the past few decades, their employees have come to put in shorter days, suggested Fred Hoch, vice president of software programs for the Software and Information Industry Association trade group.

"Software is a maturing industry," Hoch said. "I don't think the software industry will ever go to a 9-to-5 industry, but it is moving away from 15-, 17-, 20-hour days."

More time for open source?
In fact, government statistics show reduced work hours for software professionals throughout the U.S. economy. Computer software engineers, who work in industries such as software publishing, telecommunications and computer systems design, worked an average of 41.5 hours on their main jobs last year, down from 42 hours in 2003. The average-workweek figure for all occupations in the United States held steady last year at 38.3 hours.

Some programmers may be spending additional hours in front of computers outside their principal job. For one thing, many techies these days get hit up for computer help by friends and relatives. Then there's the thriving open-source software community, in which coders contribute to programs that can be freely distributed and modified by others.

As open-source software like Linux has become a bigger commercial hit, some technology professionals now work with it as part of their regular job. But many technology workers have volunteered their time to such projects--to the tune of about a day a week.

Devoting time to pet open-source programs may be more feasible now for techies because of shorter hours at software companies. Even some computer game publishers have adopted less grueling work schedules.

"In order to make the best games, people have to be having fun. They can't be feeling under the gun all the time."
--Jeff Briggs
CEO, Firaxis Games

Employees at Hunt Valley, Md.-based Firaxis Games occasionally put in long hours to complete projects, but chief executive Jeff Briggs said he doesn't expect workers to log more than 40 hours a week. "In order to make the best games, people have to be having fun," Briggs said. "They can't be feeling under the gun all the time."

For their part, nascent software firms and other start-ups aren't likely to be the manic workplaces they were a few years ago, in part because of more mature--and thus better--management teams, according to Laura Roden, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs. "You don't see the cars in parking lots all night. You don't see people sleeping at the office," she said.

Overtime overrated
Research indicates that long hours don't translate into heaps of extra work. Consultant DeMarco has studied productivity data and concluded that workers putting in 44 hours per week generate

the same amount of work as those who put in 36 or 37 hours.

"There's nothing to be gained from the extra hours," he said. DeMarco argues that there are limits to how much people can churn out without adequate breaks, and companies with cultures of long days tend not to run meetings in a disciplined fashion.

DeMarco's logic makes perfect sense to Fog Creek Software founder Joel Spolsky. It would be rare to find Fog Creek's five full-time employees working more than 40 hours a week, Spolsky said. Despite--or perhaps because of--these traditional hours, revenue at the maker of bug-tracking software has more than doubled every year since its inception five years ago.

"You don't see the cars in parking lots all night. You don't see people sleeping at the office."
--Laura Roden
CEO, Silicon Valley
Association of
Startup Entrepreneurs

In Spolsky's view, pushing software developers to work long weeks for an extended period risks "negative hours" that actually cost the company. "Your productivity goes down," he said. "You start making mistakes because you're tired."

Spolsky knows a thing or two about long work hours from a stint in the early 1990s at Microsoft, where he worked for a time on the MSN product. "It was standard operating procedure to stay through dinner," he said.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how work hours have changed at the company. In a statement, the software giant said it does not have standard work hours, and hours change for various employees as products go through different phases. "These hours are typical for the software industry, and Microsoft is no different," it said.

Microsoft also said it "realizes that a good work/life environment fosters passion and creativity at work. We are dedicated to the success of our employees and, as such, provide them with a number of tools and resources to help them manage their lives at work and at home."

Flexibility on the rise
One tool Microsoft and others are using to help workers meet family demands is letting employees access computer networks remotely.

"The single biggest improvement to many people's lifestyles has been the fact that working from home is more commonplace," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at research firm RedMonk. "Many major software vendors support and even encourage this practice, and it's having a major impact on the quality of life for employees while actually increasing the hours that they work."

"In companies that have a lot of overtime, they waste a lot of hours during the workday."
--Tom DeMarco
Principal, The Atlantic
Systems Guild

Employee burnout and less job security also may factor in coders cutting back their workdays, said Diane Berry, an analyst at research firm Gartner. There's a "realization that if the company is going to have layoffs, many will do so irrespective of how hard people worked in the past," she said.

Microsoft's Barr, for one, is happier with his shorter schedule. Continuous 50- to 60-hour workweeks throw one's life off kilter, he said. "You're always missing dinner with your family, or you're always thinking that you should be at work," he said.

Employees in the software industry have seen their share of trouble in recent years, ranging from massive layoffs to the offshore threat. Amid the gloom, shorter hours are a development that's quite literally sunny for coders--they now have more time to spend in the great outdoors, away from their cubicles.

Years ago, when he was working on the Windows NT operating system, Barr canceled a weekend rafting trip with friends just in case he might be needed for any coding emergencies. As it turned out, nothing went wrong with the software. But Barr still missed out on the experience. "I wouldn't do that now," he said. "And I don't think I'd be asked to."