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Do good programmers prefer projects to families?

When I read Philip Greenspun's article, from which the following excerpt is taken, it reminded me of the heated discussions here about the folly of long hours:

"If you see one of your best people walking out the door at 6:00 pm, try to think why you haven't challenged that person with an interesting project. If you see one of your average programmers walking out the door at 6:00 pm, recognize that this person is not developing into a good programmer. An average programmer's productivity will never be significant in a group of good programmers. If you care about profits, you must either come up with a new training program for the person or figure out the best way to terminate his or her employment with your organization."

The article, called "Managing Software Engineers," can be found at:

Do any of you agree with Greenspun's apparent claim that good programmers must prefer being at work at 6 p.m. to being home with their families?  Couldn't someone be a damn good programmer, but still regard programming as a job that ends at 5, at which time they happily head home?

Name Withheld by request
Tuesday, April 16, 2002

The folks who get ahead, regardless of carreer, come early and stay late.  But even Greenspun didn't expect folks to do this every workday of their life.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

That comment always struck me as odd since he seems to
also favor 'Peopleware' & 'The Mythical Man Month'.

My personal thought is that if you aren't an owner, you're
a fool for working those types of hours (been there).  Sure,
once in a while it will be necessary, but don't make it a

Even if you are an owner, you gotta ask yourself what
exactly it is that you are trying to 'get ahead' of.  Which is
more important, work or family?  Work or leisure?  Pity the
people whose only leisure is their work. 

I won't try to refute Greenspun, thats been done far more
eloquently by people a lot smarter than me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

I think Greenspun's advice is generally excellent. However it should also be noted that he obtained $20 million through skill in having other people work for him.

I'm not sure if it's fair to characterise the part that's quoted as being a choice being family and project. Although Greenspun doesn't refer to it, and it would probably contradict his stated advice, it's possible to go home for the evening dinner and then return to work, or else continue working at home.

Hugh Wells
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Hey Hugh,

"I think Greenspun's advice is generally excellent. ... it's possible to go home for the evening dinner and then return to work, or else continue working at home."

Uh, OK, but do you mean to be advocating this? Does this seem like normal and reasonable, or desirable working conditions for a highly skilled professional?

X. J. Scott
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

I'm an employee and not a consultant (I believe AD was a consultancy?) but I believe he didn't really want to hire people with families...

And also, from what I'd guess from consulting, you're doing smaller and simpler contracts, so it's more a matter of getting shit out the door in a minimum of days.  At least when demand is high.  The consultants I've known tend to trade monotony for longer hours.

A further thing is that if you keep the workplace pleasant, it's nice to work long hours; you can come home in a more jovial mood.  The Greenspun article did emphasize that good working conditions are a must, to compete with home.

But reading this article makes me remember that I'd never, never want to be an inexperienced programmer at a company.  Have you read that well-known article about SAS in FastCompany?
[ ]

SAS was in the gossip columns just last week:
[ ]

Janos M.
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

By the way, there is also the Slashdot article on this essay:
[ ]

Greenspun also tackles objections there, though they're not necessarily eloquent.  I just glanced at his history of comments, where he points out that he's now a quiet schoolteacher, who doesn't still believe all the things he wrote years ago.  He writes something that gives a lot of insight on a certain weblog we all know:

"Online communities only work if someone puts forth a strong opinion against which others can react."
[ ]

Janos M.
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Maybe Greenspun was quoted out of context, if he was'nt then the man may be intelligent, and have lots of money, but he's a fool, pure and simple.
I know some poor fools will defend that viewpoint, even though, if correctly quoted, its indefensible.
I love my work, and yes, I have to drag myself away sometimes, but heres the rub - I drag myself away.
After I've done that, I can enjoy many things, and some of them, unbelievably to some, are even more satisfying than developing software.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

I think Greenspun's being taken out of context. He never came across as that unbalanced in his book or in person and a look at his personal interests on suggests that he doesn't practice it.

One trivial observation - he was a perpetual MIT student. 6PM is leaving early for night-owls who may not be in before noon.

More seriously, it's really down to the question of whether people are working on things they find interesting or "just a job". The latter won't be your best programmers - that'd require switching camps to the first group. What time they leave is an [inaccurate] rule of thumb for distinguishing the two.

This touches on the question of consistency. Many of the best programmers are notorious for working absurd hours while hot on the chase and then "slacking" when things are slow. When you're focused on a problem, you aren't watching the clock. A good manager realizes that consistent doesn't mean productive, so the real question is whether someone is always out the door at 6:00PM or only if there's nothing critical going on. After all, two 60 hour weeks and and two 20 hour weeks average out identically to the 4 40 hour weeks the guy in the next cube put in, even assuming their productivity is identical (doubtful).

Chris Adams
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Hi X J Scott

Good question ( Do I advocate returning to work for the evening, or continuing to work at home? )

Yes I do, if it's important, and you live conveniently close. Where I draw the line is people just staying late and putting in empty hours. From the sounds of it, Greenspun's company was doing good stuff with good people. That's worthwhile.

I would also draw the line where extra hours were expected or required because of incompetent senior managers. I didn't get the impression this applied at Greenspun's company.

In reply to the question about whether experienced professionals should be "expected" to work this way, this probably gets back to whether idiots are running the show. If folks are expected to work late while the idiots play gold, then no, I don't.

But if folks are developing excellent new stuff, and respect and consideration are in place, then sure, put the hours in. The other acid test is that the developers are sharing in the financial rewards.

Hugh Wells
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Work to live. Not live to work.

Nobody ever had 'I wish I spent more time in the office' on their headstone.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Leave people alone to do what they want, as long as they deliver. That seems reasonable to me.

Of course if you can find a way to make them want to put in the extra time when required thats jus' peachy. But if they don't want to be there and they are forced to come in, they won't do work worth a damn.

Expect people to come in out of hours against their wishes too often and the work they do will be on their resume.

Robert Moir
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Great topic.

In my experience, and I've been in the business for 14
years, I have found most software dev. projects
ultimately unsatisfying. In 14 years of programming (etc.)
it has been so rare to actually have my code used for
more than 6 months. Projects get cancelled, nobody buys
it, somebody else rewrites it (usually behind my back,
yippee), whatever. It's always the most unlikely things
that end up being your "great work."

Why on earth would I want to work hours and hours of
overtime for something that's likely going to be thrown away
or cancelled? That is so unfulfilling.

I have worked for 4 different companies doing different
types of programming for each of them. Not VAST
experience, but enough to appreciate the scarcity of
interesting work. If you're working on something that
is compelling, that solves a real problem, or helps
someone accomplish their goals, it is a rare gift.

There is a previous comment in this thread about SAS. I am
a former SAS employee ("former" by choice) not think
SAS is a utopia. Like all companies it has its quirks and

Most companies will happily accept your overtime (free
labor!). To expect that you will get something valuable
out of that extra time for your career is a real risk.

It is a rare company that truly cares about its employees,
to the point that it will choose a bad business decision
over a good one, for the well-being of employees. Business
is business.
My point is this. This is not school any more, there is no
"graduation." You basically need to set your life goals and
work towards them, and understand the sacrifices you need
to make to reach them. If you want to be the best
programmer ever, yeah, you need to spend most of your
time programming.
(However the same thing could be said about a painter,
mucisian, athlete, etc.). Hopefully, being the best programmer will give you deep satisfaction of a life

But if you want to be a great parent, have a loving, fulfilling
marriage, run a marathon, belong to a worthwhile organization, or whatever, you need to devote time to
those things. There are only so many things you can do
in a life. You really don't have to be #1 in all of them.

As a friend of mine in Vet school once riddled me:
q: What do you call the veterinarian who graduates LAST
  in her class?
a: Doctor.

Lauren B.
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Read that entire slashdot thread.,.....Interesting posts on being overworked causing problems in person lives......


Some folks are being told 15% requirement (Score:3)
by gelfling on Monday November 06, @06:57AM (#646172)
(User #6534 Info |
That 15% OT is mandatory now which translates to ~7.5 extra work days/year depending on where...

And the odd thing is that we all get Thinkpads specifically to work the odd hour or so at home and then get dirty looks (well not actual dirty looks, but some of us get the virtual dirty look in the form of never getting more than a 2 no matter what, never ever ever) if we dare to leave the office before the divorced twice, never home workaholic boss does. 

Was happening... (Score:1)
by xerx on Monday November 06, @07:12AM (#646192)
(User #63759 Info) 

What will happen...

All the best programmers will suffer from massive burnout, depression, marital and health problems. But then why should the company care, they can just hire new young clueless programmers to slave for 70+ hours. It seems to the company the way to go, but it is all just an illusion and ultimately costs more in the end.

Re:Do they only hire people with no social life? (Score:1)
by CACondor ( on Monday November 06, @08:54AM (#646180)
(User #213711 Info) 
That's not fair: most of those other people are either single, or slowly destroying their personal relationships.
It is OK to work single people 70 hours per week?

I've been in this business for 20 years and I've been in periods of up to 98 hours a week of work at times. They make you extremely burnt out and very grumpy with lesser mortals. I am not sure the extra code was worth it. I'm sure a couple of relationships blown up in the process were not worth it. Generally my co-workers have not enjoyed me when I was in such modes and management had quite mixed feelings.

The basic idea is that life is five balls: family, friends, self, love, and work. In life you must juggle all five but he work ball is made of ruber... if you drop it, it will bounce right back. The other four are made of glass and you must be very careful to balance them as they will take a long time to repair if you drop one of them.
It sounds corny but at the time it helped me make a few difficult decisions about work and now I'm more successful yet happier in all other aspects of my life.

did mondo virtuoso work for a hot start-up for about 5 years. I loved it. I loved the kudos. I loved the contribution I was making. I also developed ulcers and migraine headaches, one of which was so bad that I nearly died (I.V. fluids, because I couldn't keep down water). I became estranged from my wife and nearly lost my family. It took me 5 years of working at a slacker company (Sun Microsystems) to get back to normal. Now I can work in the real world again, but I won't make the same mistake twice. The short-term rush is not worth the long-term agony

I think that is the general approach to programming these days.
Work 70+ hours weeks until you make enough money that you can retire when you have that nervous breakdown.
Thats my play anyway.

Like everyone else I think having people work 70+ hours a weeks is bullsh*t. It might work for a while but it isn't sustainable or neccessary. I work with veteran of the software industry who started in the 70's, 80's and early 90's. Not only can they put out high quality code, but they can do it in 40 - 50 hours.
Maybe if you hire single people who wish to stay single this will work. Heck if you reward them well enough anyone might do it for a year or two, but I don't think it's sustainable.
See what happens to your star programmers when they are going through a really ugly divorce because there wife has given up on their marriage.

Comments like this and obvious expectation to work 70 hour weeks seem rather condescending and also imply an expectation that work is more important than your life. In my experience, at 70 hrs/wk, work becomes your social life too. Sorry, but that's not acceptable to me anymore. I have and want a life outside work. I recently got engaged, and in my opinion, family comes first. Then friends. Work should have a lower priority than your happiness, and it shouldn't try to provide all those things (afterall, most employment that I've experienced in the US is "at will" and they will drop you with no compassion if they need to make cutbacks). I might love my job, but not over other aspects of my life. I work to live, not live to work.
If other people want to work that hard and enjoy it... fine, but don't be resentful of those who want to work 40hr weeks, and don't try to make them feel guilty for that. I've seen too many examples of managers trying to manipulate people with families, outside interests, etc, by telling them that a load of other people in the office are working twice as many hours. That's not fair: most of those other people are either single, or slowly destroying their personal relationships. What's the point of working 70+hr weeks on a project if you wind up with a divorce? You've lost somebody from your life who should be there long after you've left your employer. You might have earnt a lot of money (assuming that the project succeeded), but it's no good if you have nobody to share it with, and enjoy life with.

Saturday, April 20, 2002

Just to clarify, the above was what I PASTED from slashdot...Those are not my posts...Just thought that was an intersting pattern some people threw out there..

Saturday, April 20, 2002

Hi, I worked at arsdigita and the main reason philip advocates a scenario like this is because he likes to sit in front of a computer until midnight, and he thought his employees should do the same thing.

However, everyone who works in software knows that nobody is really working 90 hours a week . Especially if they are on salary . Even if a person is in the office 90 hours a week, 45 of those hours are spent sending random email, eating a sandwich, instant messenging people, and so forth. 

The ONLY people I have ever met that actually _work_ 90 hours a week were "consultants." It is a lot easier to work long hours when you are billing out for each of those hours.

To answer someone's question...arsdigita was not a consultancy. Initially it was, when there were only 5 people. but after that point it became a typical "web startup" style business with salaried employees.

In summary, one probably shouldn't work 80+ hours a week unless paid for each of those hours, or unless you own a significant amount (10% or more) of the company. Working overtime on a salary is for suckers.

Saturday, April 20, 2002

It looks like there are very few experienced people who are willing to work more than 40 hours a week.  Interesting...

Sunday, April 21, 2002

I think that Microsoft has it exactly right on this point. They completely separate the concept of "hours worked" from performance. When I was there, my manager didn't care or even know how many hours I worked. What mattered was how much you get done. I worked some pretty retarded hours, but admittedly, I often spent a lot of the day reading e-mail and browsing the web. There were other guys who worked strict 9-5 and were extremely high performers (and rewarded for it) -- they just worked smarter.

Taking into account how much people get done rather than how long they work allows everybody to work at their own pace, and in the end, I believe it produces the best results for the company.

Jordan Tigani
Tuesday, April 23, 2002

A skilled professional does more with his or her time than an unprofessinal worker, who thinks that more hours spent in office translate to more accomplished.

My goal as a programmer is always to do more in less time.

How a person defines getting ahead in life subjective. I feel for those whose life are only dimensional and tied to work. These people define themselves through work and suffer greatly when loss od job occurs.

Ahsan Ali
Friday, January 31, 2003

There is an interesting comment in the discussion thread for Greenspun's article :

>> This is a great article on software engineering with plenty of good examples on the difficulties of managing software engineers. Every manager should read this to gain a proper perspective on managing a project. But, I disagree with this one statement:

"One of the paradoxes of software engineering is that people with bad ideas and low productivity often think of themselves as supremely capable."

How can anyone be so arrogant? Maybe these people are so lost, that this is the only conclusion they can accept?'s gibberish. <<

I don't disagree with the comment, but the original commenter (sorry, I forgot to copy the name) failed to see that it can also be applied to people who write articles. I found much in Greesnpun's article of interest, but almost everything I agreed with was contradicted elsewhere in the same article.

Keith Collyer
Sunday, September 28, 2003

It ain't what you do, its the way that you do it! So speaketh the wise ladies of Bananarama.

Being male, I think working after 6 is inevitable to get stuff done some days. I learned a lesson from a dentist friend of mine; if she doesn't have clients, she comes home and does the paper work.

We set too much store by rigid convention. I'm not an advocate of work places run completely like campuses, but can see the benefit of maintaining a very flexible approach to getting the job done. Women appear to be excellent at this, men could try harder....

Geoff Holmes
Sunday, November 2, 2003

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