The 100-hour work week myth

Chris Yeh calls out workaholism as the stupid choice it is:

If you work 100-hour weeks, no one (investors, co-founders, employees) can blame you if things don’t work out, right?

And I like to think I’ve worked a lot smarter since then [missing dinner with spouse].

The life of an entrepreneur can be rough, but at least it’s a life of your choosing. The same can’t be said for your family. Give then a chance to make their own choice.

In other words, it is the default choice in the valley and in the technology sector. And its a stupid choice. 168 hours in the week. 100 hours at work. Allow 8 hours/day for sleep. Drive-time to/from work of 1 hour. This leaves exactly 13 hours for the employee to do *anything else*.

A few years ago, I had a job with the best work-life balance. This start-up had with only 7 engineers with 30-ish total people. Between November and January, we built a Paypal integration and a major piece of functionality that got the start-up their first bits of solid revenue. Everyone took their normal holiday vacation. Every programmer worked 9-5. No weekend work. We completed the project on-time.

The company is LinkedIn. We achieved this because Jean-Luc Vaillant was fanatically about knowing exactly what was to be built and automated tests so he knew exactly where the code was. Those tests had to pass each and every night. No new work was to be done until all the previous night’s failed tests were fixed.

Every later employer had to live up to this reasonable bar. Sadly most fail and most projects are late.

They fail because the managers listen to the siren song singing the lies:

  • that says that automatic tests are optional;
  • “trusting” the developer to adequately test by hand is good enough;
  • that there is more time to do-it-again than to do it right
  • that documentation is optional and it better to have team members figure out anothers work than it is to demand that the creator document;
  • and that long hours are better than sane hours

While Chris does touch on the work-life balance with his wife, he misses some key points. If the team is working 100-hours/week:

  • the team has no reserve capacity – if a short-term sprint is needed to wrap up a project – forget it
  • the team starts to waste time at work: web surfing and game-playing. So while physically there, they are neither productive nor getting a break from the work environment.
  • as soon as there is any corporate setback – moral collapses. When it looks like the company is going to be the next Google, employees will justify to themselves that working ridiculous hours will pay-off. This illusion is dispelled at the first severe setback.
  • someone outside of work is always telling the employee how stupid they are to work such long hours. The wife, the husband, the kids, the mother, or just the friends who are going up for that most excellent ski trip to Lake Tahoe.

So my advice to employers:

  • Get rid of the game room. Make employees have fun outside of the building.
  • Cut the power to the employees computers at midnight. Make them sleep so they can think and not make silly mistakes.
  • Do a postmortem on every crisis. Without blame and with automation ONLY, look for ways to make sure that the crisis can never, ever repeat. Working “harder” or requiring greater “perfection” is NOT the answer.
  • Reward employees – not for working harder, freeing up ‘capacity’. Did some developer, IT person, or janitor do something or automate something that freed up 20 minutes/person/week? In a 30-person startup, those 20 minutes saved is the same as hiring a full-time person for 3 months! Get everyone to look for these “small” time-savers. Work now becomes less onerous, more enjoyable, and your headcount stays down.

Expanding on the last point with some examples:

  • Automatic tests — avoids developers acting like monkeys do manual tests.
  • Buy the absolute fastest machines. My latest machine took me from 15 minutes builds to 1m30second builds. I started running the tests all the time!
  • Virtual assistants to handle the random shit that an employee might have to do during the day
  • Every 6 weeks, a mobile oil change service so that no one needs to run to Jiffy Lube
  • Outsourcing human resource issues

Spend the time to discover those “small, annoying” things that seem to petty to complain about — but that impact a significant percentage of the company.

Remember for a small 30-person startup saving 1hr20m/person/week ( i.e. 16min/person/day ) is the same as hiring another person. And in the process, enables everyone to step back from the brink.

Google has their famous 20% “free” time to work on new projects. Every startup should have 20% “free-up” time to make existing projects less painful.

While I am working hard at amplafi I am working even hard on making sure that my family knows I much rather be with them than coding.

Also read Steve Blank’s post on the Lies told Entrepreneurs.


Update ( 27 July 2009 ) My response to Paul Jozefak, a German VC, guest blog post:

Strongly, strongly agree with:

Ask me what I see lacking most in startups in Europe and I’ll say hunger, drive, and lofty goals.

For me my hunger and drive come directly from wanting to change the world for my children.

So I equally strongly DISagree with:

worked four jobs for the money to launch their venture, without giving a second thought to “quality of life” or “spending time with the kids.”

For me sacrificing the hours between 6:30-9:30pm that I spend with my kids is a false choice. I sacrifice that time only when absolutely necessary and never more than 2 days in a row. Once I have those 3 hours with family, I am emotionally recharged and able to focus completely on building my company, Amplafi.

I am not alone in this. Chris Yeh and Steve Blank : Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves share my feelings.

My personal reality is the least successful company demanded the worse and longest hours. And the most successful startup asked the most reasonable hours. We work from 9-5. No weekends. No missed holidays. You might have hear of it. Its called Jean-Luc Vaillant did his job and managed his people well.

Shitty long hours is not a badge of honor. Its a sign of bad prioritization and resource management. Sure some times the long hours are necessary… just like a sprint is necessary at the end of a marathon. But you don’t sprint the entire length of the marathon. And unlike a marathon in a startup, there is no rest after crossing the first finish line – just another finish line in the distance.

A startup that is sprinting constantly better hope that they get bought before exhaustion sets in. Otherwise their competitors that have paced themselves better will pass them up and their best people will burned out and quit. Any little stumble, any sign that success and glory are a few months away… and the startup starts spending time looking for fresh blood.

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4 Responses to The 100-hour work week myth

  1. Renat says:

    I have another suggestion how to be productive and deliver in time – do less… do less of the stuff which is not needed. In short also known as YAGNI – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YAGNI

    IMHO it’s very important, even more important as 40 hours working day and automation. And the only way to achieve it – feedback and short iterations.

    Just my 2 c.

  2. patrick says:

    @Renat —

    Absolutely. As a rule we don’t do this vigorous pruning enough.

  3. Dave Doolin says:

    I missed this when it was posted.

    Sadly, I think the downturn will make things worse: more people spending more time at work, trying to be “more productive.”

  4. Pingback: Log Your Work: Should You Lump Or Split Your Time? | There Is NO Box

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