A Sanity Check

Although working conditions at Electronic Arts are certainly worse than average for the software industry, crunch mode can be found everywhere, from game development companies to start-ups to some of the biggest and most well-known software companies. The software industry as a whole is growing at a furious pace—as such, employees, particularly software engineers, are often pushed to their limits to meet production and ship deadlines. The current situation has led many people to ask the question, as Evan Robinson puts it in his “Engines of Mischief” blog, “Can people really program 80 hours a week?”

We will seek the answer to this question, among many others relating to crunch mode. Now of course, someone could program for 80+ hours a week, but the real answer to this question requires a thorough analysis of the ethical and economic ramifications of doing so. It would be remiss of us to neglect the employee’s world outside of the office, and it would be naive, as we will show, to assume that employees who work more hours are always more productive.

In an industry as volatile and dynamic as the software industry, maintaining a blistering pace in the workplace is often seen as the only way to get a leg up on the competition. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception that needs to be eliminated from management practice. Many managers in software development today seem to subscribe to the idea that in order to increase productive output one need only increase the number of hours that employees work. In this sense it is fair to say that many managers and companies believe that hours worked and ouput have a linear, or at least directly proportional, relationship with one another. This is almost certainly not the case. In fact, as we will demonstrate, research dating back as far as the early 20th century has shown that there is a point, placed usually at about 40-50 hours per week, after which total productive output will decrease as additional hours are worked.

The troubles with crunched work environments extend beyond the immediate realm of the office. Long hours and weekends ruined by stints at the office can take a harsh toll on marriages and families, as well as employees’ general psychological and physical health. Unfortunately, some employees find themselves with no choice but to dig in and suffer through crunch periods, which can often last for months with no end in sight. Some software engineers who have decided to walk away from “the crunch” or have been fired from their jobs for not putting in the (often ridiculous) number of hours required of them, have chosen to speak up and let the rest of the world know about the evil that often lurks behind the gilded front doors of many of the biggest software companies. We are sharing their stories in an attempt to give the reader an idea of just how horrific such a seemingly mundane job can turn out to be. We have already told the story of employees of game-maker Electronic arts. Our next tale comes from deep within the biggest software company of all—Microsoft.