The Tale of Overworked Software Development Teams

It is not a secret that software development team members are perpetually overworked, and that this unhealthy trend keeps growing to the point that clients and companies keep shrugging their shoulders at this while we all keep way too quiet… By the way, and in case you are wondering, this does not just apply to developers… It applies to any member of a software development team: project managers/scrum masters, testers, business analysts, DevOps engineers, Enterprise and Solutions Architects…you name it.

I have been involved in the IT industry for over seventeen years. I love what I do, I love the industry, I love the people, I love the knowledge. The issue is, that we are not being provided, for the most part, with fair and adequate workloads that allows us to maintain a healthy work-life balance, in my opinion. What I have noticed is that we, as a generation, are setting an unhealthy precedent that it is O.K. for companies to knowingly and intentionally overwork IT and software development teams.

Everyone takes shots at us:

“Oh come on, you make good money and you work in your cushy office. And now with COVID some of you even work in your boxers or bath robes from home. Do what you are told or else”

Our ancestors fought hard for fair pay and fair hours and we are undoing their achievement. Let’s paint a picture, shall we? A java developer joins a software development consulting company in North America. This company provides custom software development services for its clients. Our developer’s contract specifies a 40-hour work week, NO OVERTIME, 3-weeks vacation per year at best, and a good salary plus benefits. So far, this is the “IT Dream”: know your stuff, deliver on time and with good quality, be reliable and responsible, get along with people and you will do just fine!

But where does this go off the rails? As the new developer starts working, the workload starts to increase, sneakily… The developer was supposed to be working on one project, and three weeks later, two more projects fall on this developer’s lap with the usual: “we just need a bit of help here and there”. Six weeks after that, the two additional projects start taking more time than the initial project the developer was actually assigned to… BUT … WE WANT IT ALL: ON TIME, ON BUDGET AND WITHOUT DEFECTS!!!

Does the employer ask the developer to work overtime? They rarely do anymore. What they do instead is that they assign you anywhere from 60 to 80 hours-worth of work per week (at which point you need to work 12 to 16 hours each day on average). Some of these tasks come with impossible and even capricious deadlines, often driven by office politics and not by facts or real business needs. So, our friend ends up figuring out that the midnight oil must be burned on a regular basis just to keep up. Then, it goes from “I just need to work extra hard for this particular project in this particular quarter” to you noticing that it is December and that you have been working this much ALL YEAR. You also notice that you are still being pushed to deliver stuff “BEFORE END OF YEAR” (this is a classic one!), and that your management is already asking you for estimations for an equally busy Q1 the next year. Just like that, you being overworked goes from “this one time” to “this is the minimum that we expect.”

Since humans have the ability to adapt and evolve, our developer friend starts getting faster, better, and starts seeing patterns in the day-to-day that allows for shortcuts to be created in order to work more efficiently. You would think that this could help our friend scale down to reasonable working hours, BUT NO!!!. Instead, it is seen as new capacity and not as time needed in order to rest so that our developer can: keep healthy, stay sharp, and take care of a family. As some of you might have seen coming, our developer ends up getting additional projects and goes right back to square one having to work 60 to 80 hours per week for yet another year.

Now, it is time for our friend to try to request “well deserved” time off. Oooooh …this is where it gets really NASTY. You start by submitting your request to your manager or project leader (who is probably also overworked). Since vacation approvers are usually accountable and responsible for delivery timelines, you start getting push back. Our developer friend starts getting grilled with questions designed to GUILT TRIP the person into potentially postponing their time off. Some along the lines: “Who’s your back up?”, “What is the status of: this, this, this and that? “Are you going to be done before leaving?” and the most infamous one “WOULD YOU BE AVAILABLE TO BE ON CALL IF THERE IS AN EMERGENCY?” — this one is a rhetorical question, people. By the way, if you are wondering, it is more of an EXPECTATION disguised as question. NOTE: You have to be professional and make sure that your time off doesn’t impact the project. There is nothing wrong with companies expecting this from their teams. The issue that I am highlighting here is the lack of regard for people’s need for time off and the rotten intention to discourage people from planning vacation time.

Since the developer has bills to pay and a family to feed, the guilt and fear creeps in and the person decides to leave it alone and keep working. How often this happens is disturbing and just wrong. Of course, a sigh of relief from the project leader. What happens then? The developer starts accumulating vacation days and then HR starts asking: “Hey, how come you have not taken your time off? If you do not take it by XXX you will lose it.” So now, our developer is forced to take vacation at times that are not suitable. Moving on with our tale based on millions of true stories, our friend’s forced vacation gets approved and the other NASTY part of this process begins.

Since our developer is responsible and reliable, our friend connects with the project leader to align on what needs to be done before leaving. The project leader dumps a huge laundry list on our friend’s lap and 80 hours a week turns into 100 hours for at least the last 2 weeks before taking off.

It is the developer’s last day at the office, it is 11p.m., with at least 2 to 3 hours more to go…Now it is 3:30a.m. and finally it is all done, and our developer is in the clear and off to get some rest. Right? WRONG.

First day of vacation, our friend wakes up to emails and missed calls. Panic kicks in and our friend takes some calls, answers some emails, all in the hopes to be seen as “a team player that works hard and is worth keeping around”. Soon enough, vacation time is over, our friend is back to work and the only break was working 20 to 40 hours a week instead of 60 to 80. Hang on, it gets better as some of you who’ve read this far might have already experienced. When our friend is back to work, now another 100 hours a week for the next 2 or 3 weeks is dedicated to catching up. So, our friend “EARNED” vacation by working excessive hours all year, more excessive hours before and after and normal hours while off and resting. WHO THE F*** devised this? and HOW THE F*** did we all agree to work like this for the past 20 years?

This cycle repeats and 2 to 5 years have gone by. Our friend has a lot of grey hairs now, 20 to 40 pounds overweight because “who has time to work-out and eat healthy?”, maybe back problems, trouble sleeping, maybe close to needing blood pressure medication and not much of a family life.

One day, our friend wakes up and says: “THIS IS IT!, NO MORE! I will work normal hours; I will not be available when I’m off and I will provide project leaders reasonable expectations of the workload that I can manage during normal business hours. There, problem solved!” So, our developer tries to pull that “stunt,” as unfairly seen by the leaders and problems begin. I have personally been in management meetings where you hear “leaders” say “This guy used to be great! Now he is lazy and wants to do the bare minimum” or “this person has an attitude problem; you push a bit and all you get is b*tching and complaining”. So now, our friend’s grand plan will create the label of “slacker” and will eventually result in termination. Just because our friend was trying to defend the right for a healthy work-life balance. By the way, it should be called “life-work balance” instead. See how we are conditioned to prioritize work over our own personal lives?

In an alternate scenario, rather than putting one’s foot down, the developer just resigns to go to another company to be put in a similar situation, but at least for more money, benefits, closer to home, etc. In either case, here’s where companies will start seeing the well-deserved consequences of treating people, their main asset, in this unfair and inconsiderate way.

Attrition finally materializes and the project leader is informed that our friend is leaving the company and that a replacement is needed. The developer gives 2 to 3 weeks-notice and all of that expertise is now going to a competitor. Before you ask: “What if the next company is not really a competitor” … stop for a second and think… I say competitor because companies no longer only compete with each other in their respective industries. All companies, regardless of their business model, compete with each other for talent, as well. A major retailer and a bank do not directly compete in their revenue generating activities, but they both need skilled developers, eventually!

So, now our friend goes to another company and the remaining team has to pick up the slack and be even more overworked. You see emails coming in on a Saturday at 10:30p.m. You see people committing code on a Sunday afternoon. Project timelines are barely holding, but the worst part is that the so called “leaders” don’t even see the bigger problem: they keep harvesting more unhappy team members that will eventually leave just for a change in their routine and thereby creating an even bigger problem for themselves and for those who remain working for them.

Now you might say: “Nice little tale, not hard to foresee how it ended, what is your point?” It comes down to simple questions that we need to demand answers for ASAP:

When will companies start taking real action to take care of their people? I am not just talking about benefits, bonuses and money. When will they really care about their employee’s well-being and mental health?

What needs to happen for management to stop shrugging their shoulders when team leaders report people working excessive hours?

What needs to happen for so called “LEADERS” to realize that human beings need rest to function correctly and to perform?

When are we all going to acknowledge that this is wrong and that it needs to be corrected?

When will companies realize the difference between staying competitive and being greedy?

When will we realize the stupidity of using Agile frameworks to “manage projects” rather than to allow teams to self-organize and deliver value at their own set velocity?

At what point will we take a stand for fairness in all industries?

Why is saying “this is not feasible” a capital sin now?

When will companies understand the value of life-work balance and how it could positively impact their business, competitiveness and ability to attract talent?

When will vendors, consulting firms and overall service providers explain to their clients that their teams are composed by HUMAN BEINGS that have lives and needs, too?

We need to start asking these questions and start proposing solutions to help employees and employers thrive and win together while maintaining healthy, sustainable and fair workloads. This is nothing against profits or the need for companies to stay ahead. It is more in favour of balance between family life and hard work.

Final Thoughts:

Overworking and de-valuing employees leads to them seeking other employment. This overworks and devalues current employees who have to take on the workload of the one who left, and thus pushes deadlines ANYWAYS and results in delays and errors ANYWAYS that could have been organized better, and wouldn’t have resulted in a termination or a letter of resignation. If companies commit to working their employees the ALLOWED 40hr work week… the employees will function better, as they have ample time for rest, AND begin to perform better… and as long as they remain valued and worked the HUMANE amount… do companies not realize that in the long run they will actually be able to deliver to their clients faster and more efficiently?

Put greed aside, value your people, and deliver faster, better quality service.

Read that again.

We noticed that our friend the developer actively found more efficient ways to deal with the workload. So, given that the developer became more efficient, providing faster, more accurate, and more quality content, the company actually benefits from spreading work over 40hrs rather than 80hrs, and in turn will begin producing MORE and FASTER.

Let that sink in.

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