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Work Culture Toxicity in Tech

nprimak profile image Nadya Primak Originally published at nadyaprimak.com on ・3 min read

I have a confession to make: I was on Twitter over the winter holidays when I should have been spending time with my family. What was the trending topic that caught my eye, you might ask? Last minute Christmas gift ideas? Pictures of pets in Santa hats? No, but I wish I could say it was one of those things. Instead, it was about work culture toxicity in tech.

It started with this:

Pretty harmless, right? Of course tech twitter wasn’t going to let this stand without controversy.

I’m not 100% sure if these were the first tweets to start off the debate about work life balance, but they were major players. The fact that this debate sprung up during the winter holidays. The only significant chunk of time off most Americans get, already says a lot about the toxic work culture we have in this country.

What makes it worse is that tech elevates this capitalist propaganda, glorifying workaholic ism. I’ve encountered many people in the tech industry who share this attitude. They are the last ones to leave the office, and they judge you if you don’t work the standard 9-5 hours. I worked at one company where my coworker was asked by his boss to talk to me about arriving to work earlier. He believed that working later hours was a privilege only seasoned developers ought to have.

At another company I worked at we had an AMA with the CEO and someone asked about working from home. The CEO’s response was “sure you can work from home, but you won’t be working for this company anymore.” Its so common for developers to tout all the unorthodox benefits that working in tech can offer. Often the first benefit that is discussed is work from home, but there are many companies where that is not allowed.

Of course, the above examples are far from the worst ones. In game development working 80+ hour weeks is not uncommon, especially during crunch. It’s also not uncommon in early stage startups. Consulting is another area where workaholics runs rampant. I had a stint at a consulting company that didn’t last long because I saw my coworkers burning out. They were actually suffering physical symptoms for months on end.

There are plenty of companies who abuse their engineers like I described above. They can get away with this abuse a lot more easily when they brainwash engineers. Brainwash them to perpetuate the belief that working weekends and nights is the way to a successful career.

Some engineers believe that they have to work extra long hours because they are making more money than people in other industries. However engineers are not like lawyers. They do not charge their clients by the hour, so working those long hours does not actual equal more pay. Certainly it’s not fair that teachers and social workers make way less money than software engineers. But working longer hours out of guilt does not do anything to make the situation less fair. It also won’t make the company you are working at appreciate you more. If anything, they will just start taking your extra hard work for granted. But don’t take my word for it… here are some more tweets that say it a lot better:

I’m going to end my post with this tweet from the creator of Ruby on Rails. Here he responds to someone who agreed with Ryan Selkis about working long hours. Except he took it even farther by saying workaholic ism = changing the world. If anything exemplifies work culture toxicity in tech, it’s this guys hot take.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door”in paperback or Kindle now.

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nprimak profile

Nadya Primak

@nprimak

I am a full stack developer by day, experimental game developer and indie hacker by night. Blogging at www.nadyaprimak.com/blog

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Sigh. There is ample evidence that human beings are not more productive when they burn the candle at both ends.

There are occasional periods where one might need to do a bit of extra work for a period, but when this is regular it's inhumane and ridiculous.

If you can't run a successful company without running your employees into the ground, maybe you don't deserve to run a successful company.

 

@ben The cult of over-work is immune to evidence, because, well, it's a cult.

I love Japan but their work culture where you have to stay late to appear busy and important is the main reason why I will probably never live there.

Likewise I have little appetite to work in one of those hot silicon valley unicorns full of ninja 10x developers who work at night fighting production incidents, instead of, well, doing proper root cause analysis of why they have so much production incidents in the first place.

Oh maybe, we should settle on proven technologies instead of always choosing the "latest and greatest"?

 

Since I started working in IT (many years ago) I have changed many companies.
I noticed that eventually the less I work the more I'm paid!

The matter is that IT jobs need certain degree of creativity - and it is not something well aligned with overworking. Doing bugs on weekends to fix them on workday nights is silly strategy. Managers who don't understand this - just ruin their projects and companies.

It is OK to work hard - but to work for your own professional grow. One may participate in commercial project by day - and write games by nights. Or watch online courses. We need to diversify our knowledge and skills - and working 24 hours a day on the same project won't help diversification!

 

It is OK to work hard - but to work for your own professional grow.

Exactly. Your time is your own. A company that doesn't care about employee burnout also won't care about their professional growth.

 

that answer reflects poorly on this Ryan Selkis, but we have to understand:

when he sent his tweet, he was probably sleep deprived and stressed and too busy to think clearly.

 

Nice write-up, got me thinking. I'm definitely more on Jason Fried's side than Ryan Selkis', although I also think there is some truth in the "you won't change the world working 40 hours a week" credo. It's an eternal debate, but what is really going on everytime it comes up, is that it opposes people with totally different interests. What I think people often don't realize when arguing about working overtime, is the role of one's will. The thing is, it's crucial.
What I mean is that, for example, working for your own company and working for someone else is completely different in terms of motivation. Working overtime is one thing, but doing it to fulfill your own dream, and working overtime for someone else, is totally different. Even if it's for someone else, there are many factors that can change your inclinations to do it. And I really think that the more motivation you have, the less you will feel the negative effects of working too much.
Having both worked independently and for companies, I have felt the importance of ambition myself. I'm more inclined to lose track of time when working for myself than when working at an office, even if I'm doing the same job. Which is not to say I'm lazy or a bad worker. It's just a question of perception. I have worked overtime at companies on a few occasions, but generally I enjoyed it because I was never forced to do it, and because I was motivated by the project, and thought it would also be an enriching experience for me, in addition of a leg up for the company. I know I would have a much worse time if I didn't believe in the project or company, or if I was being coerced, or worse, bullied into working overtime.
It's a common thing for people who start their own company, or who live off their favorite hobby, to be heard saying they don't feel like they're working. So for me it's logical that these people go around defending 80-hour weeks.
The real problem, as you say in the article, is toxic culture. It's when people think that other people who don't think like them are lazy. They are not, they just have better things to do with their own life at that point than work for someone else. If it makes you feel happy and fulfilled to your ass off, then fine, do it. And of course I can understand that you'd really like it if everyone in your company worked as much as you. But they won't. They just won't. A few will, some will make an extra effort, but others won't. So work your ass off if you want, but don't impose it on anyone else and don't make shame them for thinking differently.

 

Yep, for sure. I am lucky and privileged to have worked at companies that don't have this culture. Twitter is such a subset of the actual developer population, all you really get is hot takes. I know folks who have worked over 15-20 years in one company and have normal hours and hobbies and are some of the best engineers I've come across.

Speaking from my own experience I think you eventually come to realize what makes you happy and what you don't want to do, then you make sure you keep doing things that light you up and avoid situations where you do things you don't want to do. That takes time for sure, to be in a spot to make that work.

 

Long hour culture makes me furious. I see it as theft. No one has the right to your time, certainly outside of what they're paying you. (And even then ...)

Moreover, it clearly doesn't work. I'm a firm believer in Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time. Long hour culture just forces people to work poorly in order to avoid burning out.

 

Well, the opposite is, who are you to judge someone who wants to use this right on time for his/her work?

 

Absolutely! I try not to judge individuals. As you say, who am I -- who is anyone -- to judge how someone else uses their time?

What I do judge is the organisations that constantly expect their staff (including the most poorly paid) to work crazy hours. That's not a way to care for your employees.

Of course, these organisations can be extremely successful.

Fortunately, there are many other successful organisations who do treat their staff well. More power to them, I say!

 

There are people like me who tried to compensate lack of personal life in their 20s and thought I was being workholic. I now regret it during my 30s.

That extra work or the hours you spent gives you nothing back and takes years of your life quality.

 

I like to think about work as an endurance sport, for example, cycling (whihc is my hobby actually). You won't be a better cyclist simply by riding more. You have to schedule your trainings, with proper rest in between. You'll need a longer rest after a harder training. Good night time sleep is also crucial (8 hours or more). If you don't rest, you'll get overtrained - which doesn't mean that your are going to be too good, but quite the opposite, not getting any gains, or even losing performance. Also, if you got overtrained, you'll need months of rest to recover. It is pretty close to what we would call burnout in tech.

Working in IT is an endurance sport of the brain, which is not a muscle of course, but needs similar care. If you don't treat it well, you won't reach your full potential.

On the other side, there are a few aliens, like Elon Musk, who can do multiple companies with high performance. I have no idea, how he manages it, and I am a bit concerned about his health... but he might be a martian after all.

As a side note to @jmfayard , I'm currently living in Japan, and I exactly know, what you are talking about. It's like a huge group of zombies working all day (and night) long ... and I can't expect zombies to do good work. I am lucky to have found a good company, which cares about my life and carrier, but it is quite rare here.

 

I think the missing variable here is passion.

People that are passionate about their work or goal want to keep going. People that are working for someone else's goal that work extra are grinding.

Sometimes management is messed up, but to use that as a conclusion ignores the reality that most managers are messed up. If your choice is to not work until you find your unicorn job will probably land you in the poor house.

If the anecdotal evidence provided by some 10X programmers about their positive experiences is the bar for truth, and you aren't a 10Xer, you'll be parked at the 'World isn't fair' lot... long term.

I started this field really late, and I work extra because I don't want to work forever, and I have less time than people that didn't go down a non-related path.

There are people that live the dream without pushing beyond the minimum, but if you're reading this, it's probably not going to be you.

 

Any company that doesn't allow any time to be worked from home should have a really good reason for not doing so. That CEO was correct, you can work from home at another company, but is that what he actually wants?

 

The holiday situation in particular in the US sounds very sad. I work for a game developer/publisher company in the UK and every year so far we've been given between 5 and 10 paid holidays extra, on top of the mandatory 28 paid ones per year that every company gives anyway.

I also never felt obliged to work overtime (apart for 2-3 emergencies), though I often choose to. I wish all companies carried this mentality. It actually makes people look forward to go to work.

 

People do good ... definitely ... but no one is changing the world. Especially by working at their job more than their normal hours. That's a myth. I would argue you can be more effective by balancing your life. No one is so important that they're "changing the world."

 

This is awesome. Balance needs to be the most important thing for any successful developer or human for that matter.

 

Those who say, 'you can't be successful if you don't work 24/7' are really those guys who don't plan thing according to the problem they are trying to solve.

I get that sometimes you don't have the time to plan, but those "sometimes" should not become an excuse for "not planning" every other thing that you can... That's just stupid...

 

I think productivity and output of work/progress is a KPI that is quantified to the point in business where it's no longer considering the fact that we are all human beings with real lives and aspirations.

I can't be alone in thinking that when someone says "You won't change the world on 40 hours a week. I chose to want to change the world" that they are so delusional in perspective that it's frightening that companies advocate this attitude?

 

Jason Fried and DHH are the owners of Base Camp. Their blog signal v noise m.signalvnoise.com/ is amazing and every book they have published are also amazing.

Would recommend.

 

I agree.

It may happen every now and then that because of an emergency you need to do the extra effort, but this should be every now and then. If you live in a state of perennial emergency there is something wrong somewhere. Full stop.

 

If they have free time and want to work instead of spending it with friends and families, it is better to spend it learning some new stuff (tech or maybe some hobby) or doing some open-source community help (as one of the tweets said) or working on your own startup project, not working for some company whose managers and sales promised impossible stuff to clients and now want devs to make impossible - possible (and other "motivational" shit). Most companies give sh*t about you only while you're useful for them. At the first sight of any issue for company budget, they'll lay off anyone, since "everyone is replaceable".
And about that example of "people that changed the world" - all of them either did something they didn't saw as "work" or something that was their personal project, NOT for some company in order for some guy that promised to clients everything they wished in order to pay him to make his dreams become real.

 

Working weekends and nights does nothing but foster burnout. Last company I was at I did that. I went as as far as taking a client call in the hospital room right after my daughter was born. That one still stings. You know what all that did? Nothing. It got me nowhere. I did all this to prove to my boss that I was worth it. In the end, a new manager came in and basically made my life hell. So I left. The boss did nothing to try and keep me. I can see if you’re single, in your twenties to maybe grind a little but you have to find balance or you will burn out. I have a family now and I’m not working nights or weekends for no one.

 

Some people value how fast you mop-up over fixing the leak.

Work smarter!

 

If you're talking about a life/work balance, then there's no place to "life" in your work. It's better to look for another job.

 

do what you love, and the rest of the problems are solved :)

 

Where do you work? I'd love to see a list of companies who have a track record of treating their IT staff fairly

 

Great article. I will soon be starting my career into the job industry and this article I feel is something worth keeping in my mind 😃