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40 Hour Weeks

July 30, 2007

Jack Ganssle-July 30, 2007

According to a recent Baltimore Sun column people waste 20% of their workdays, spending some 1.7 hours a day doing non-work activities like socializing and surfing the net for personal reasons.

I can't find the source data so can only speculate about the nature of the survey, but it's hard to believe that this "problem" is universal. Factory line workers, for instance, have a rigidly-controlled schedule that allows for little wasted time. Presumably the study pertains only to office workers who do retain some control of their time.

What about for engineers? Fred Brooks (The Mythical Man-Month) claims the average software developer is only 55% utilized on a project. The rest of the day is consumed with meetings about the new health-care program, supporting other projects, performance reviews, and all the annoying but necessary trivia of life in a corporation. Brooks makes no statements about how much time software folks waste, though.

One could make a pretty good argument that a certain amount of wasted time is healthy. Socializing is the grease of human interaction, and hardware/software development is indeed a very human activity requiring a sort of cooperation that can be more intimate than found a lot of other relationships. Take away the grease and the friction will cause teams to implode.

Developers do have a certain amount of forced wasted time " like waiting for builds. A two minute compile is too little time to use productively, so we kill time checking email, Slashdot, googling moron celebrities and the like. 

More egregious time wasters might include the quintessential three martini two-hour lunch. I learned a long time ago that, for me, one drink at lunch and the afternoon is gone. Toast, as I fight off a nap. But it's been decades since those were common, and even back then they were the province of sales-types, not engineers.

My experience over the years has been that engineers are pretty focused on their work. Sure, there are distractions, legitimate and otherwise. But most of us object to any but the shortest off-topic interruptions.

What's your take? How many hours a week would you consider wasted? Are those going to personal time or to annoying corporate side issues?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com


If surfing out to read Jack's column is part of what the efficiency researchers call wasted time, they really are off base. An engineer who doesn't keep learning about both hard and soft skills misses out on a lot. As a work-aholic programmer my perspective is probably warped, but maybe it can enlighten people (about what not to do).

20 years ago I graduated with a B.S in Computer Science. Since then, I have done a lot of 50-60 hour work weeks. In 2002-2003, I carved out a role where I was always on. You know, 24/7 mode: mornings at the office interacting with colleagues, afternoons in the lab coding/debugging, automated test kickoff 5-6 pm, commuting & dinner, then nightly protracted email sessions, primarily with Asia.

I was always at DEFCON 1. In a company of 3000, I was noticed and supported by a VP, and acknowledged by my manager as having helped save a large customer account, but they were lost nine months later.

In the grinding months and years of urgency, workaholism was joined by other compulsions and by physical and attitudinal ailments. Weight gain, hypertension, fatigue, negativism, cynicism, and the love of software development turning sometimes to loathing.

In CMM level 0 culture, all our projects depend on heros to survive, so why wouldn't you step up an be one? Clearly, its part of the gig. But it sucks. The year I worked the most unpaid overtime, I got my smallest raise. One year, my diligent helped me dodge a layoff to be the only software engineer from my office to keep his job. In hindsight, I might have done better taking my severance pay and starting my next (and better) job a year earlier.

Personally, I am ready for a different life. I believe there are folks who are not software slaves, because I have seen them. They say no a lot. No to overtime, no to small annual raises, no to features or tasks of dubious value, and no to assignments they don't like. They come in late (but rested), they leave early, they take what seems like four or five weeks vacation a year.

When our boss passes out raises, promotions, and extras like training and conferences, why would he give them to the burned-out guy who already gave his best? It doesn't seem fair, but it is a free country. There is no physical, training, or skill barrier preventing me from selling my value, easing up on my work schedule, and negotiating for more goodies.

Bottom line - time worked is irrelevant. If you think your sucess is based on your results, its all about the 80/20 rule. If you are not on the 20 percent of your job that matters, you can spend four times as much time and might not get much back.

If you think it is who you know, you better network and move around. Capitalism has a way of forcing resources toward profitable enterprises, so it might be smart to move the resource that is you to a project that generates a high rate of return. Golden parachutes aside, the best engineer at a company that goes bust is likely to see his options submarine and his regular paycheck end abruptly.

The limiting factor never has been time, but rather things that make one guy more productive than another like training, skill, technique, judgement and focus. Working smarter not harder is an ugly cliche, but making yourself competitive and finding a niche that brings out your value and enjoyment of the job helps more than a few more hours at the office.

- John Wilson


All of this starting in what type of person you are, it will tell how you will spend your time (working or not working).

In my case i manage a new deparment (Research & Development) in a small company, soo every day i need to do something that isn't just the project (software, hardware, schematics, test...).

But i think that we could always use our time better.

- Bruno Muswieck


The human mind is not productive all the time. If you spend all of your workday heads down then you are making mistakes or chasing your tail and you will be less productive than had you done other things.

- John o


I'm one of those crazy guy who track my daily working hours using a spreadsheet. The reason was I used to work as a Project Manager and when I've moved back to work on design and software, I find my time just 'lost', therefore I started tracking my time a year ago. Surprisingly:-


1) 15 mins every morning for my laptop to wake up from hybernate and fetch emails! The harddisk keeps spinning!
2) 15 mins waiting at the lift during peak hours such as morning/lunch/evenings
3) 15 mins (accumulated) for toilet visits.
4) 1 hour daily on non project stuffs such as admin/HR/payroll/travel arrangements/line management activities and also time spent searching for info as the info is not beside you or when you need to confirm something.

- Andy Wong


I agree with the statistic, that 20% or more of the work day is wasted. But tusually it is wasted with MEetings, My supervisor, talking to me about what is going on in the company, and my having to mentor snot nosed PhD graduates, who have never had any formal programming training, and then expect them to produce production level code. I mean what programmer, or engineer in their right mind would pass a reference to an STL vector into a function , and then set that reference to a another STL vector created inside that function ??

So I waste my time debugging this guys code, because he has spent a week on this mess of his. And because he has a PhD, while I only 15 years of expereince, adn 3 MAster's degrees I am belittled, and paid less.

- Anonymous

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