Working hours for engineers 🗓

Saturday, August 18, 2018 :: Tagged under: engineering management. ⏰ 4 minutes.

The song for this post is Gimme Chocolate!!, by BABYMETAL.

I heard an anecdote about a bunch of honchos of a company having a leadership meeting, discussing resources. One of company's non-technical leaders said: "I looked into it and your engineers, on average, clock in at 11:00AM. Don't tell me you need more resources, manage your team better to work normal hours."

This is a contentious topic! I heard this and had a few reactions that don't fit into Twitter.

Simple math

I'll start by stating the obvious: of course adding more time to someone's work schedule, all other things being equal, will mean more output. If you came in at 9:00 instead of 11:00 and worked the whole time, over 5 days of a work week you're adding 10 more hours a week. Think of what 10 more hours of weekly exercise does to your health! Or 10 hours of weekly piano practice for your piano playing! 10 hours ain't nuthin'.

I've seen this in practice. At my first startup gig where I was 1/3 of the engineers, I produced a lot of code. I was asked a few times how I was able to ship so much, and the best model I could come up with was: "I start working at 9:30, others get in at 11:15, I think part of it is that I just plug in more hours."

A talk I linked in an earlier post argued "exercise isn't the most important component of weight loss" but opened with the line "to be clear: I do believe in thermodynamics." Sure, if you burn more calories than you consume, you will find that energy from somewhere, and that will come from your body eating itself. Physics is real. But the rest of that 40 minute talk was describing how there's more to the story there, and I think a similar force is at play here, too.

But, like

The first thing I'd mention to the leader making this observation is that atypical working hours is more common in software than many other white-collar jobs like consulting, banking, or finance. That alone doesn't mean it's okay, or an acceptable status quo! But it might suggest there are deeper reasons for this behavior.

If asked "why do engineers show up in T-Shirts at 11:00?" and you answered

capitalists collectively invested billions into college-aged privileged boys, glorifying "boy king" narratives while demanding little accountability (often rewarding childish, irresponsible tendencies and practices), and as a result tech company culture is often more like a frat or treehouse rather than a collection of intelligent adults trying to build a value-producing, sustainable, civically-responsible business

you know, I'd 1000% agree with you. That's a big part of it. But I feel like that's not all of it.

I'd argue engineering is creative work, and this optimizes for a different employee base (and different work habits) than other professional classes. The best analogy I can think of is ad agencies, or the inside of a TV show's writer's room.

A funny time to be an engineer

This is an interesting and weird few decades to be a software engineer. On the whole, we don't know what we're doing. Everything we write is about as secure from attack as thick cardboard. Our chips and hardware are millions of times faster than it was 20 years ago but the experience of _using_ a computer still feels much the same because our "improvements" to software have a funny treadmill quality on code efficiency. While this article contains many simplifications, there's something to be said for arguments to not call us "engineers," since that work is normally reserved for people applying hard science and rigor, which most of the time, we're not.

But, with all that in mind: we're swimming in job opportunities. Code is terrible, but everyone wants someone who can write it.

Some folks make the case that one day, software jobs will look more like blue-collar machine operation, but right now, that's not the typical case.1 Software engineers are the worst, except for everybody else.

Who gets good at engineering

It's worth remembering that learning engineering is a pretty heavily-gated process. Like playing a musical instrument, it doesn't come naturally or intuitively. You have to push through a lot of failure, and practice deliberately. Often you don't have a teacher figure to give you gold stars along the way, and you need enough time and motivation from somewhere to learn it (to say nothing of access to technology).

You're normally doing large parts of that journey in isolation. Most programmers don't read code recreationally, many don't "code socially." Bringing them into a team environment is often an adjustment.

All this to say, for most engineers, the skills in the craft didn't come from the same places as clocking in early with a freshly-ironed shirt or well-kept hair.2

(I'd argue that many white-collar jobs lean on these things to because the appearance of competence or success is actually how many of them are graded. But that's much larger essay, and frankly, SWE also judges a lot by appearances.)

What does good management look like

I'll just drop a few other points that I think are related:

Tim Chevalier (has since protected their tweets) said something I like (paraphrased): "many managers disallow remote work because they don't know how to evaluate an engineer's performance without the associations from seeing them around the office." In a world where most people are only okay at their jobs, I suspect many managers tweak the easy knobs ("come in early") rather than create an environment for many types of individuals to succeed.

Because, like creatives in ad agencies or TV writers, software is home to many types of people. I struggle with depression. Here's Leigh Honeywell discussing a recent ADHD diagnoses, with resources. Here's tef discussing the same. It could be that your engineers have a medical condition and they've structured their life knowing what's best for themselves?

So

If it isn't clear: I don't think telling people to "just come in earlier" will work out too well for you if you manage software engineers. I understand the frustration, but I think one is better-suited demonstrating empathy. Chances are, there's a cost to cranking the easiest, surface-level knob.


1. ^ There's another, longer set of blog posts arguing that the main force holding this back are engineers; we often optimize for feeling smart when we work. This means a lot of innovation and investment cycle between solving problems that have already been solved elsewhere, or problems that don't actually exist.

Similarly, we could make our foundations a lot more solid, but choose not to because it would require a ton of coordination which is less fun than re-building and re-building.

2. ^ Nor is the converse true or inverse true! A lot of excellently-groomed folks who come in at 9:00 are excellent engineers, and there are many messy nerds who aren't that great at coding.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄