Mark Dobrosielski has thoughtfully responded to my article “Learninga Trade” with the following email:
“I just read your article, “Learning aTrade.” I thought it was a very good article, and so it seems did allof the folks that responded to it. I also noticed a common theme inmany of those comments. Lots of those folks learned some of thoseskills at the sides of their dads. That inspired me to write this now,since I've been meaning to do so for quite a while.
“I'd like to see your take on the hourswe have to work at our jobs – why we do it, how much we do it, and(most importantly) what it costs us. We can't very well teach our kidsmuch of anything if we are never home, can we?
“Don't get me wrong – I willing to workvery hard for my money. I'll work 'til midnight when I need to (likelast night), but I deeply resent it when management expects it as amatter of routine. A few weeks ago we even got the dreaded email, “Ifyou're not working nights and weekends, you're not working hardenough.” All-out pushes are fine for a sprint, but not for a marathon.
“I'm not lazy. I'm highly motivated andI'm a team player. The simple fact is that I love my family and greatlyvalue our time together. My kids won't be small forever. Soon enough,my son will stop asking me to play ball with him when I get home fromwork. Soon enough, my daughter won't ask me to read her a story beforebed. What salary would make a man willingly turn his back to that?
“My personal philosophy (andperhaps this is why they never offer me the corner office!) is that youschedule for 40 hours a week. Hopefully, most of the time things willgo well and folks go home at a reasonable hour. When there areproblems, as inevitably happens, you can put in the extra 10, 20, 30hours in a week to put things right again – and then eventually thingsought to go back to normal. I get the feeling, though, that we arescheduled for 60 hours a week just to meet expectations. Then whenthings go awry, you've not got much left to throw at the problem.”
Mark eloquently addresses the work versus life struggle that's sohard to balance. It's especially difficult for engineers, who, for themost part, really do love their jobs. We're torn by our desire to behome, fascination with technology, and the pressure from on high to geta product to market.
In lieu of some sort of radical change (unions? Legislation? Neithersound like anything we'd like) each of us will likely spend much of ourcareer on a tightrope between the conflicting demands of home andoffice. Tools and technology will never help.
When someone invents the Hogwarts School ofEmbedded Development that lets us crank a million bug-free lines ofcode in a month, new competitive pressures means the company will wantthat much code in a week. A wide-bandwidth link from the desk to thechildren can never replace the physical interaction the kids need andwe crave.
Businesses expect too much of exempt employees. Yet I'm reluctant toblame the boss for excessive overtime. Yes, bad planning and poormanagement are inexcusable. But even good managers often have pressuresthat lead to create dysfunctional schedules.
It's chic to blame the fat-cat CEOs (may those Home Depot-likeparasites rot in hell), but half the jobs in this country are in smallbusinesses; most of those are run by reasonable people who are notrobber barons. They're in a hyper-competitive market which makes awfuldemands. Fail to fulfill those, and the company folds. Instead of OTthere's no work at all.
It's a Hobson's Choice.
I'm a great believer in capitalism and understand how companies getsqueezed by competition. I often wonder, though, how it is that manyEuropeans get six week vacations. Their employers still manage to dowell in their battles with American companies who offer their peoplehalf or a third as much time off. How is it that these companies payexorbitant social service taxes yet remain competitive?
Ultimately we employees sacrifice much to preserve the paycheck. Inthe flash of an eye the kids are grown. Suddenly that two year old is aman. Gone. Off to college, married or with a family of his own, in anew orbit that mostly excludes mom and dad. Family time we've lost overthe years to get the latest widget out the door can never be recovered.
When my youngest sibling was small my dad – also an engineer -worked insane hours. Years later he told me he felt that experiencecorrupted years of their relationship. To paraphrase Mark: is workworth that price?
I don't know how to achieve a palatable balance. Perhaps one has toaccept the existential struggle and just do the best one can. But I doadvise young engineers to avoid debt and save money, letting the powerof compound interest work its wonders. A decent nest egg can at leastprovides options, whether for a less demanding job at a lower salary orfor a sabbatical.
What do you think? How does one achieve a balance?
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embeddeddevelopment issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helpscompanies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is
and more bug ridden, requiring yet more hours to be worked to fix it. I used to work in a company where 70 and 80 hour weeks were the norm. Mental breakdowns and even suicides happened, due in large part to the stress at work. Now the norm is nearer 40 hours and stresses are much lower. As for productivity, this is at least as good as when double the hours were being worked.
– Ian Okey
You said:”Ultimately we employees sacrifice much to preserve the paycheck.”
I say; Do we sacrifice to preserve the paycheck? My bets are we do the sacrifice to preserve/advance our careers. Ask any working mother, or woman who wants to advance her career question such as you asked. Many of them take serious time off for their families/children. Take for instance, 10+ years. This is pretty normal. It is no wonder the engineering fields and especially embedded are bereft of women! Also, take into account middle layer managers. My wife and I have many women friends that simply do not have any children at all! My wife? She is an architect, (the building kind), and she took an 11 year hiatus from her profession. Luckliy, she managed to get back in as a middle level manager, and got a job overseeing construction of the San Jose Civic Center, (~ $.5billion job). I can truly say, her case is the exception, not the rule!
Early, in my career as a consultant, I worked ridiculous hours, and barely got to see my eldest son. After sacrificing so much, the companies I consulted for simply went under, and everybody went to other places. Even though, I sacrificed so much, in return, I got pretty much nothing, other than the consulting dollars ($), and at times, while waiting as a creditor during the bankruptcy proceedings. I got absolutely zilch, nada … nothing at all!
So, later, I decided to call my own hours, and got a lot more picky about who/whom I consulted for. In this way, I was able to:
– Coach eldest son's soccer team for 6 years
– Manage to take time off during middle of week to go on family outings
– Help with 'school and other issues' during the middle of the week.
Suffice it to say, I sometimes work on weekends, and sometimes I go in on times I would rather not, (e.g. Christmas or New Years evening) … and from time to time I still do! And yes; my average work week is still 9+ hours per day M-F.
It is easy 'to get lost' in the ongoing career struggle. However, our children are young/little only once in our lives! When all is said and done, friends/family/community are most important. Money, is important in that having large quantities of the stuff really does allow one to expand their set of choices for living.
– Ken Wada
Confused Manager says: Engineer who work 16 hours per day accomplish twice what engineer who work 8 hours per day.
And since on salary, on half pay.
– Ed Ezzell “But even good managers often have pressures that lead to create dysfunctional schedules.”
Then those managers are failing in their assigned duties. Period. Scheduling is a primary role of a mid-level manager, and those who cannot keep up, are no better than then engineer who cannot do basic math.
– Matt K
Thank you for a well-written and useful article. In my view, it is fair, it raises absolutely critical issues and it is likely to get people thinking.
I don't doubt that we would agree that we serve people best when we succeed in helping them to think more carefully about critical issues.
I'd like to take a minute to comment on one aspect of the article.
At the end of the article, you ask “How does one achieve a balance?”
Let me suggest the following.
First, I believe most of us are seeking happiness. Not superficial happiness, but deep satisfaction from our lives. We want our lives to have meaning, and to be mostly joyful.
Now, for me, the desire to be happy creates some subordinate or derived requirements, or more simply, “needs”: I need to be happy at work, and I need to be happy when I'm not at work, e.g., either at home with my family, or when I'm doing things with friends.
The requirement to be happy at work creates, for me, some implications: I have to be doing work I enjoy, I have to like the people I'm working with, I have to be doing something meaningful, etc.
In like manner, the requirement to be happy at home or when out with friends creates other implications: I have to have a good relationship with my family, I have to help around the house, I have to provide for the needs of my family, I have to go to movies that I may not especially want to see, etc.
Now, from time to time an implication from one of these sets will be in (apparent) conflict with an implication from the other set.
For example, I may have to work some overtime at work, in order to maintain my happiness at work (I can't be happy if I let my co-workers down) and yet, I may have to keep a promise that I made to my family (I can't be happy if my wife is made at me for breaking a promise to her.)
When these conflicts arise, I will perceive (sooner or later) that I have a problem, or, if you wish, a dilemma.
The existence of dilemmas are, to the best of my knowledge, the reason we sometimes feel torn, or upset, or depressed. We know, perhaps only intuitively at first, that needs important to us are somehow at risk.
Now, what I think is not well known is that there are some very good techniques for solving problems of this kind. It can be difficult work, of course, because what we are doing amounts to searching for a solution that will protect both of our important needs. This is always harder than simply assuming that we are powerless to do anything and just “Trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
Briefly, these techniques come down to a few simple steps:
. Stating the problem precisely, in the form of a simple diagram.
. Examining the wording of problem, to ensure that it's a valid statement of what is really bothering us.
. Exposing (“surfacing”) the assumptions we are making that are causing the problem to exist.
. Choosing one or more assumptions to “challenge” or “attack” in order to break (resolve) the dilemma.
Now, I suspect you will recognize this as the so-called “Evaporating Cloud” technique of Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. It's a good and useful technique.
There are other useful techniques as well, but in my experience, they ultimately come down to the steps mentioned above.
Now, to close this already far-too-long comment, let me just suggest that while being good at recognizing and resolving serious problems is a key skill that all people (especially engineeers) should develop, it is still not sufficient to fully address the valid and important question you raised. But, it's a damn good start!
– John Sambrook
You take a wife for life and a job while it is mutually convenient. Too many people get it backwards.
I quit the job where I was working 6 & 7 days a week + getting calls at night (Plant Engineer for an iron foundry) after I ruined my health 20+ years ago. I had nothing lined up but was totally burned out. It was the best career move I ever made. I am now doing electronic design work and have the best job of my career.
The only response to managers who expect nights & weekends as a norm is to quit. May as well do it now before you get totally burned out. They in turn will be rated on the fact that they can not get the job done because the key staff left.
After 60+ hour weeks, my quality of work drops rapidly and you get down to the late night crunches fixing mistakes that you never should have made.
– Don Herres
Hee hee hee… Mr. Ezzell's Confused Manager sounds strikingly like Dilbert's Pointy-Haired Boss, with a generous helping of Bean Counter.
One who truly believes that's a win/win needs to speak with the overworked Engineer's family, provided it and his marriage are intact.
– Daniel Daly
I think those of us with kids are the lucky ones because it forces us to think about and feel guilty about working longer hours and not spending enough time with our kids and families. I have seen the engineers without kids who become slaves to their work because they do not have another competing force to win out over the demanding work schedules.
I recently quit the engineering side of things after 12 years and now work in technical sales partly because of the work schedule. My boss once called me up on a Sunday afternoon when I was at my kids' birthday party and asked me to come into the office to fix a problem that had developed. Even when I explained that it was a birthday he still persisted and unfortunately I relented and went in. One of the best questions to ask your perspective manager in an interview is if they have kids. Nothing gets an engineer out the door at close to 5 pm than kids.
What do I think about achieving balance? Everyone's life is an experiment with a sample size of one. Only I can decide where I spend my time and dedicate my time and priorities. Reading articles such as “Work Vs Life” help to keep things in perspective. Thanks!
Another great article Jack,
But this time I disagree with you
“Yet I'm reluctant to blame the boss for excessive overtime.”
Is completely off the mark.
Chronic overtime IS the fault of management period. There is no one else to blame.
I was a Software Engineering Manager for approx 20 years (and 10 years before that as a Software Engineer) and have seen every screwed up company and manager possible. I have been married that entire time and raised 3 wonderful children to young adults.
A last minute push an occasional overnighter that just shows commitment on the part of the engineer and should be rewarded by the manager (such as a comp day off, with dinner for him and his wife being picked up by the company). By the way this also makes the engineer look good to his wife, who has been on his back about the overtime. Nothing like winning over the wife to the company's side to retain that engineer.
Chronic overworking is the worst offence made by a company, if you see it happening, leave that company there is no salivation!
Once you alienate your engineers they will find ways to pay you back, such as not making those deadlines, not caring about the quality of the product, leaving the company at critical junctures, distributing company secrets to competitors, etc. I have seen all of this happen.
And why should we work those hours? The average pay range for a Senior Software Engineers in Southern California is $80K to $100K. This is pathetic, there is no other “profession”that has this poor of remuneration. Attorneys START at about $120K. I personally know people who work on the floor at a major hardware chain (no, not Home Depot) who make over $150K. Same for sales people for a major furniture chain.
Not one of these people has to deal with the hours, complexity, and BS that we as engineers have to put up with.
Work is to make money, it is NOT your life. That company you sacrificed for WILL send your job to another country the first chance it gets, they do not deserve your loyalty, time, blood , sweet and tears, without earning it first! Your loyalty to the company begins and ends with that pay check, dont be a victim because you are creative, read your Ayn Rand!
– Chris Gates
Harry Chapin said it best. Every working parent ought to hear this songonce in awhile:http://www.lyricsdepot.com/harry-chapin/cats-in-the-cradle.html
Your company won't always “love you back” for all the long hours you putin, but hopefully your family does if you give them the attention theyneed.
Nobody ever said on their death bed: “I wish I spent more time at theoffice”.
people should have roles and objectives for each role…
one role is “worker'
another role is “father” or “mother”
objectives need to be clearly defined and measurable
no matter what role you have…
if you take the above seriously, you should be fine..
– ricardo sardenberg
The European Perspective:
Yes, we have 6 weeks of vacation, and social charges and tax eat up at least 40% of our salaries.
But we avoid to commute insane hours. Many of us commute on bicycle or use public transport.
Once at work we tend to overengineer our products, out of cultural based obligation to create durable non-junk product. Which is good for cars, and bad for consumer electronics.
– Bernhard Kockoth
Shoot, I'm a grandpa now (with my daughter and her baby living in my home while son-in-law is in the Navy) and I have a young boss with kid at home. It is THE ONLY WAY to be employed. You MUST have a direct manager with young children at home who understands the family/work balancing act.
And, BTW, perhaps life is more like a series of 22,000 daily experiments (rather than just one lifetime). This way, you can re-evaluate the results based upon differing input criteria:
* What happens if I DON'T come in on weekends, but I DO provide quality work value to my employer for 40 hours in a week.
* What happens if I leave on 2-weeks of vacation with fires burning at the office?
* What happens when I change my priorities and my focus?
– Brent Rauscher
The article and all the comments were interesting. Work life balance is aserious point of discussion in many conversations.I was believing that in the west people do stick to 40 hr work weeks and inEurope to 36 hour work weeks.I believed that one major cultural plus was that in the west people keeptheir work and personal life completely distinctdo nothing but their work in office hours, and forget it completely outsideoffice hours. This I believed forces a certain discipline allowing one tobalance work and life.
The article and comments indicate otherwise.
My personal experience with my previous job : When I joined the companypeople ere working upto 2 AM and alsowere having routine 6 day weeks. Projects were well behind schedule. Thereason was absence of formal planning.
I had to align with the company, but could slowly change and in three monthspeople were allowed to go home at 6 PM.Schedules were drawn realistic, there was sufficient objective data toconvince customers on the schedules, and shipments took place at least 4 hours ahead of committed schedules andthese were defect free.
it was a pure business software company.
I was successful in mentoring all to learn serious planning and have a selfdiscipline to produce honest effort and schedulesupported with data. All schedules were formally agreed upon top down at alllevels.
The company turned to a 40 hr week company and productivity improved. InJanuary every one was requested toplan their holidays/vacations/ time off for the year till December and thesewere applied for and sanctioned in January.
No work was scheduled on planned holidays for a person. No work wasscheduled on official holidays.Every piece of work underwent serious review and rigorous testing. This wasplanned for and carried out.Once a piece of work is reviewed and cleared, the reviewer was responsiblefor defects unearthed thereafter.People became self disciplined and were conscious of their time(not stressedover it). Do it right first time was the mottoof every one. It was internalized. Rework became a shame.
The net result was a workforce that loved their work and life. They becamebetter skilled, learnt a lot of new things,rose in their responsibility and career, spent time with their family andfriends, and had better physical, emotional and spiritual life.
Exceptions and crises were there, but the planned off time, allowed a littlebit of stretch on genuine emergencies,without stress, since such crises were few and far between.
Hence I feel, the managers belief in scientific work planning, with duerespect to personal life of all,is the key to work life balance. The manager must also take theresponsibility to make this principle work by mentoring all working forhim/her.
The manager is not apart from the team. He/she exists for the team. Theteam makes him/her successful.The manager is a facilitator to all who work for him/her and make him/hersucceed. Manager has to be gentle and firmand practicing work life balance has to be lead by example by the manager.
There are very few superhumans. An individual has many roles- as asubordinate, boss, peer, spouse, parent, sibling, friend, relative, andmember of the society.One has to play all these roles to fulfill one's responsibilities. When youare not a superhuman, one can play one of these roles excellently, byrobbing one's time from the other roles. This would be, according to me, afailure, and in my younger years I have gone through this. I say so, becauseit was not one's capability that led one to perform one role very well, butone's failure to perform the other roles. Today I respect a person whoperforms all roles average than excelling in one at cost of failing inothers.
The only exception, that is acceptable, is the case people who havesacrificed for the world in a larger sense, benefiting many or people whohave made great contributions to the world. They are people who have serveda much greater purpose in this life than most of us.
Of course , there are superhumans, who are exceptions, who can play allthese roles very well at the same time. I revere them as they are trulygreat.
– Ramamoorthy Renganathan
Family 1st. Job 2nd. God doesn't care about your job accomplishments. He will ask how did you raise the children that were intrusted to you. I've noted that Program Managers have the highest divorce rate. I learned a lesson when I was drafted into the Army. Because I was a college grad, they put me to work as a clerk. You might suppose that was cushy since after all,it got me out of guard duty. After I while I hated it. Paperwork was ridiculus. So I quit and became Joe Nobody in the motor pool. Did my guard duty like everyone else. That was the best time of my Army career. that's why being Mr. Important isn't what it is cracked up to be. Family 1st.
– Phil Gillaspy
Sorry Jack, but I too have to vote with Chris about excessive overtime being a “boss problem”, which is almost always due to mismanagement. Any by that I mean not just managing the project, but routinely creating schedules that range from incredibly optimistic to simply preposterous. Not surprisingly, the peons aka engineers that actually have to do the work are rarely if ever seriously consulted about said scheduling. It is your supposed obligation as a “professional” to get it done no matter what. So you get blamed for the delays instead of the managers who actually caused it. How convenient.
Of course management never cares about overtime because they aren't paying for it. No one bothers to conserve a free resource. As long as the US labor department permits companies to routinely misclassify such huge portions of their staff as non-hourly exempt, they won't improve their operations. Can you even imagine any other so-called professional (think lawyer, doctor, dentist, consultant, etc.) being expected to work for free? Maybe I'll ask my dentist to do the next filling for free because she got so much business from me last year! Until companies are forced to pay for the overtime they so routinely squander, don't expect planning to be performed realistically.
As for “confused manager”, anyone who thinks they are getting twice the work for twice the time is severely deluded. At very best, someone pulling 80 hour weeks may be getting 50% more done than at 40 hours. Studies consistently show that mistakes rise and productivity drops as overtime rises. I'm not talking about occasional sprints that last up to a few weeks, these happen even under realistic scheduling. But any business model that expects 50+ hours weekly as the norm deserves to be trashed, because that is what will happen to the company. Am I saying the companies I did the most overtime for performed the most poorly, often going under? Yes, indeed! My dazzling reward for all this extra effort was substandard wages, and one layoff after another, as the companies downsized into nonexistence.
Incidentally, the managers I worked for, who usually had families, never put in anywhere near the overtime they demanded from their engineers; no empathy there! Not only was the extra work not appreciated, it just raised expectations for more. This is where the younger post-boomer generations, who refuse to sacrifice the way their bosses expect, have it exactly right. They are very smart not to fall into the trap their parents did, 'cause your company definitely won't love you back.
Thank goodness the company I work for now believes in some semblance of realistic scheduling, so as to not offend customers by failing to deliver on time (they take that seriously). For the first time in many years, I'm enjoying my profession again, feel more productive than ever, and doing some of my best work.
– Steve Peters
I am pleased to see that you have eschewed the the rebel colonial spelling and used the true English version of 'grey'. 😉
– Ian Ledbury