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Reasons for self-education #1: owning your life
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jducoeur
This isn't helpful for everybody, and my apologies to those for whom it is just frustrating. But I think there's a point worth making to any young programmers in the audience, at least.

I often go on about self-education, in many different ways: my basic principle is that you should be trying to improve your skills in *some* fashion every single day. Doesn't have to be just raw programming skill -- indeed, it's often best to do this in a well-rounded way. So sometimes I'm learning about programming, but sometimes it's about project or product management, sometimes about usability design, sometimes about my current problem domain, etc. The point of the exercise is doing something that helps you advance your career skills every day.

Folks take this as being about job security, and there's something to that: I developed the habit largely as a reaction to watching several people wash out of the industry after Y2K, and others who have just gradually rusted and become unemployable. But it's just as much about *owning* your career and your life.

Specifically, I'm reacting to more than a couple of friends who have been buried by work, often in ways that I find a little abusive. When I find out that a friend is having to go into crunch mode on a regular basis, that work is eating their life, that it's making them miserable and lonely, my reaction is sympathy -- but also a pretty good reminder that I just don't *do* that. (At least, not any more. I did do that at Looking Glass, for five miserable months of working every single day. Buzzpad was founded by a bunch of LG refugees, mainly on the theory that there had to be a better way to do software development.)

Seriously: when I interview for a job, I am very clear upfront that I work 40-45 hours a week. I try to be reasonably focused and smart in that time, and when a genuine crisis arises you do what's needed to deal with it. But if the crises keep coming, or if you are in never-ending crunch mode, that's a sign of management failure, and I just plain don't tolerate that. And this loops back to the self-education point: I can get away with not tolerating it -- with saying, "No, really -- you need to fix the institutional problem here" -- by being the best.

Plain and simply, you get to be the best by deciding to be, and then working hard and constantly at it. And the payoff is that employers *need* you; that, in turn, means that you aren't at their mercy, and can push back when an employer is turning their management failures into your problem. And this usually improves the company, to boot. Scared employees let employers get away with practices that are, in the long run, detrimental. The 40-hour work week isn't about being *nice* to employees, it's that it is a good sustainable pace for the average person; companies that overwork their staff tend to suffer the results in the long run. By not putting up with "It's a startup, so we all put in 150%!" bullshit, I force employers to develop good habits instead of building a house of cards.

Ultimately, though, it's about owning your life. If you're good enough, you don't have any reason to be afraid of your employer and what they might do. And if you aren't scared of your employer, you're in a much healthier place all around. And while being That Good isn't enough in every field (especially in this economy), it definitely still is in programming: truly top-flight engineers, with deep and broad skills, are still in real demand...
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Mind if I point some students at this post? (Some of them might appreciate the programming-language musings too.)


Employees in constant crunch mode is a sign of bad management in any field, me think'th.

Even in Fast Food.

Remember that boss I had last year who worked everyone he hired, 6, 12 hour (split shift) days a week? He could never quite understand why, about the time an employee got good, they left for another job. Leaving his store with a constant, ever-changing flow of new, inexperienced employees, and an ill-run store.

He had two stores. Both are now closed.

It's also important to be able to show growth since the last time you were hired. I've seen a couple of sad cases where people were able to pretty much just do the same job for years, with steady raises. When the job went away (always a risk, nowadays), they had a tremendous struggle finding a new one.

"..Companies that overwork their staff tend to suffer the results in the long run". Exactly, because you're ultimately paying for output, not hours spent. Material created by an exhausted person is simply not going to be as good as something done by someone fresh. My Dad, who has bossed a lot of construction sites, says that if you push the crew too hard, all you get is sloppy work that has to be torn out and redone anyway. That, or the workers get resentful and then don't tell you about major problems when they're still easily fixable.

As for my field, a few scientists really are able to work productively for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, but most -- including me -- aren't. I have worked in flat-out crisis mode once: four solid weeks of 12-hour days (but only 6 hours on Sundays!) when my boss and I desperately needed to get a grant application written. It worked, and we got the grant, but we were both completely exhausted and needed a week to recover. As you say, if those hours are a permanent expectation, your people are just eventually going to quit or burn out, and the company won't get anywhere.

Good companies see that the 80 hour weeks and crisis mode aren't sustainable, even in fields that sometimes demand them.

I work in a field that does have genuine crises that demand 100 hour weeks sometimes - environmental response. But the jobs where we put in those kinds of hours are real emergencies - the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Hurricane Katrina response, the anthrax contamination in Washington after 9/11, the Challenger disaster - things that are totally unplanned, time-critical, and affect people's lives, not just someone's bottom line.

And even in those, there are limits. I worked a smaller oil spill response last summer, and we were doing 84 hour weeks as a plan. But we were also strictly limited to two week stretches, and then at least a week at home to recharge.

I hope you will keep updating your content constantly as you have one dedicated reader here.


Thanks. This journal's going to continue to get updated, although I'm afraid the programming entries are only a fraction of the topics at hand...

Okay, that was a little freaky for me, because I could have sworn my husband wrote that instead of my brother. Seriously...don't do that again. ;)

Well, we *are* both top-flight systems architects. It breeds a certain similarity of outlook...

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