40 hours

April 14, 2005

JackGanssle-April 14, 2005

Click here for reader response to this article

Intel introduced the 4004, the world's first commercial microprocessor, in 1971. A year later they followed with an 8-bitter.

At the time I was working my way through college as an electronics technician. But the company realized this new technology could enable revolutionary new products. Problem was, none of the engineers knew anything about programming. I did, so was gladly co-opted into the engineering department. It seemed ridiculous that the company was willing to actually pay me to crank 8008 assembly language.

The company was perennially cash-short and just one angry creditor shy of bankruptcy. Engineering was always under pressure to produce some new product that would finally put some financial stability behind 150 people's paychecks. For years several of us young engineers worked insane hours, often putting a hundred, paid for 40. I slept in a VW microbus parked in the lot outside.

The company needed the free labor, but the truth is we reveled in the excitement of the work, and enjoyed some prestige from helping to resolve the company's desperate needs. And, of course, we were young, early 20s, unmarried and for too-long periods not even dating. Who had the time?

The 40-something managers went home at 5. They had wives (there were no female managers there), children, and outside interests.

Now I look back and wonder if this wasn't some rite of passage. Young medical residents live at the hospital for days on end. Raw army recruits spend their days squirming through the mud.

Middle-aged doctors go home at 5. Except for wartime, Colonels have dinner with the family. Yet engineers routinely work long hours regardless of age.

In the USA most developers are statutorily "exempt" from the Wage and Hours act. The government doesn't care if we're compensated for overtime, and too many companies happily play along. I see very few that pay time and a half or even straight time for OT. Some offer comp time: take an hour off for each hour over 40 you've worked when the crunch is over. That seems reasonable... though it's rare.

I object to the engineer who's never willing to put in some extra time to save a project in distress, just as I object to the company that demands constant overtime. Compensated or not, I think routinely long hours are akin to indentured servitude.

Perhaps the eXtreme Programming folks advocate one of the most balanced approaches: never work overtime two weeks in a row. They acknowledge that projects do run late, and extra time is needed. But tired people make mistakes, so too much OT turns a troubled project into a disaster.

But should those overtime hours be compensated? In my opinion, yes. Either in money or in stock options.

One study suggests that the size of firmware is doubling every 10 months. Hiring isn't. The implications are clear. Companies must compensate fairly, or at the very least limit and control the use of overtime.

What's the policy at your company? How do you feel about it?

Reader Response

Yep. Comp time or straight time for EVERY hour over 40. If I put in only 39, I get docked 1 hour from sick/vacation time or right out of my paycheck! Having worked more contract jobs than salary, I am spoiled. My first job out of school actually paid "approved" overtime. I am lucky that I currently work for a manager that believes that you do your best work in 40 hours...that's why I am working here! Working more than 40 hours a week when you spend 7-10 hours commuting and have a family is abuse...for you and your family.

- j

I will work overtime when a project is behind schedule due to an error on my part. So far that's never happened. I will also work overtime when something interests me or I'm "in the middle of something", which often happens. I will not work overtime when I give an accurate estimate of time and the boss "challenges" me to get it done faster. There's no extra reward for meeting the challenge and it tends to make the boss believe that I'm not working hard enough. I believe that is fair to myself and my employer.

- Bryan Mills

Over time must be compensated for!

What is the perception of young vs old doctor.

What is the perception of young vs old engineer.

Compare the old doctor vs old engineer.

The problem is perception! It seems that we value old experienced doctors for their wisdom. Is the old experience engineer valued?

- Tim Flynn

As techies, we are always...usually motivated by coolness factor, and glory! That is being the coolest baddest embedded dude on the block.

I started out designing circuits, and quickly transitioned to making those circuits work with a microprocessor. I found that a lot of consultants were doing a really crappy job of implementing this technology, and getting paid alot for it! As I was signing off on invoices, I said to myself that I can do the same thing, do a better job at it, and still be able to make the kind of bucks I was signing off on.

I started consulting.

and it damn-near killed me, and darn near ruined my marraige.

After some counseling, and setting my priorities straight, I managed to save my marraige, and my personal life. I found that that should always come first.

Today? I still consult, (yes even after 16+ years). I work consistently 45-48 hour weeks...(I believe most of us do anyhow!)...and I have managed to have a decent personal life to boot.

What motivates me the most is....coolness, making a difference with the technology I create, and of course the glory!

- Ken Wada


Be very careful what you wish for. I've been in organizations where paid OT was forced, just because it was "authorized". Of course, I've also been places where unpaid OT was forced too. As an engineer, I know I could (and I have) found contract work if I really want paid OT.

- Jim Montville

I agree with you on this issue of over-time. It has to be done at times to salvage a project and should not be the norm of the day. The company I work for gives compensatory off for anything more than 40 hrs.

- Sateesh K

The overtime policy at my company has varied widely over the years I've been here. In the past, it was much more varied. I knew of engineers who were putting in mandated 80-hour/7-day weeks and not being compensated, while at the same time others were being compensated for an extra 4 or 8 hours in a given week.

Now, there's a standard policy (and also, an accounting system that supports it) for overtime, and it goes something like this. The first 4 or 5 hours OT in a week are considered casual. Anything over that can go on your time sheet and will show up in your paycheck. The OT rate is straight time. How you're supposed to track that first 4-5 hours is anyone's guess. There's also a less formal comp-time policy where you can take time off for uncompensated hours worked.

I have been fortunate in never having to work many uncompensated hours. I agree with Jack's position that routine, uncompensated hours are indentured servitude. It would be one thing if engineers were more highly compensated (say, at a level of 20% of the CEO's salary). As it is, their income is closer to that of the unionised person who sweeps the shop floor than it is to the CEO's. To tell them that 80-hours weeks are expected for $60K/year is disingenuous at best.

- Steve S

For me, excessive overtime has always centered around two things: (1) The macho challenge a lot of young engineers (mostly male) get faced with in their first few years on the job to work . And, (2) The willingness of engineers and their managers to sign up for ridiculous schedules that can't possibly be met without enormous amounts of overtime. I find that a lot of older engineers still think they need to prove themselves or impress co-workers by pulling all nighters, even when its not warranted. Also, with regard to schedules, you need to stand up and be willing to defend your estimates for a given task or project. If you know something can't be done properly in the time that management is demanding, you're ultimately setting yourself up for failure by agreeing to do it.

- Rick

Good article! I agree that every engineer is obligated to put in the extra effort when the need arises. My employer does not compensate at all for overtime " no matter how many hours.

Luckily the call to duty is few and far between. The only time that it really affected my personal life was when a project was 6 months late (no fault of ours " requirements kept changing) and the product was part of our AOP. We desperately needed to complete the software and start shipping units. Unfortunately it happened during the forth of July holiday. We were required to work insane hours over the whole holiday weekend while EVERY manager in the joint was at home celebrating. Why is that? I'll admit that our immediate manager was blown away at our extra effort. Bottom line: we finished in time to deliver every unit on the books, but were NOT recognized by upper management for the extra effort.

That hurt to the quick. Good thing we engineers do this stuff for fun!

Employers: please recognize hard work and dedication. It won't hurt you in the long run. Compensate in some small way " bonus, good raise, comp time, ata boy, something!

- Rick P

Where is the category for 30-40 or 20-40?

I have worked very few uncompensated hours because I put my foot down even when I was young. Generally, I have been hourly almost my whole working career.

- Rebecca Reed

Being an R&D Manager, I guess my perspective is scewed. And yes, I'm a middle aged manager (ouch, that really hurts but it's a fact). Having started out as a hardware designer, then firmware engineer followed by desktop application software engineer to client-server software engineer, I have experienced all manner of different projects for varying industry types. I have seen engineers sneak by on "40" hours a week and seen others for whom 50-60 hour weeks was normal. No amount of pushing and shoving from management has ever affected the timescales of a project by more than 5% (my own law from 17 years of engineering). People react badly to management pressure. Demotivation kills whatever gain could have been had from extended work hours (this is well documented and easy to see in real projects) - particularly when working at the request of management. So why compensate for the longer face time?

The solution is to never expect overtime from anyone, but to be grateful to those few who are self-motivated enough to complete projects against all odds and are smart enough to know when to put in the extra time. Very often, the thrill of moving a project to completion is motivation enough. While we cannot compensate in $'s, paid timeoff after project completion, choice of the best assignments and healthy merit increases follow those that put in the effort and achieve project goals. Requesting overtime is wrong, it shows managment out of touch with reality. I routinely work 50+ hours per week to keep my workload under control. No-one has ever had to request overtime from me - I do whatever is needed to get the job done. I expect, but do not demand, the same attitude from my staff - and unofficially compensate accordingly.

- D

I feel there must be a strict rule regarding the unpaid over-time for every engineer on this earth.They must be compensated in one way or the other.Most of this overtime is due to the unrealistic schedule set by incompetent managers.And sometimes to maintain a very high profit margin in an fixed price project.Both ways it is detrimental to the individual affected.And a new trend in most of the offshore companies is to extract as much as one can from the engineers.They compete among themselves for lesser rate to get the contract somehow.And the result is the slogging engineer.Who is there to question them or the management.If you ask anything,you are not competent,not flexible,not..so and so.This is a very wrong trend getting set.And some stay overtime because his boss is still around (may be because he won't like his wife's face)!

- Jyothi Bhat

Working extra hours can happen in discrete point in time on occasions mentioned by you. Every engineer worth his salt likes to put in that bit of extra not because he is compensated in terms of OT but for him, the work at that point in time is more like parenting a child and hence no work.

But if it happens on regular basis then there are fundamental problems

(Project: overruns or personal life: run over: Choice is ours)

- Shantanu

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