Young programmers working long hours: a fun job or bad management?

If you’re looking for a job with work/life balance, you’ll obviously want to avoid a company where everyone works long hours. But what about companies where only some people work long hours? If you ask for an explanation of what’s going on at these companies, one common answer you’ll hear is something like “oh, they’re young, they don’t have families, they enjoy their work so they work longer hours.”

As you venture into the unknown waters of a potential employer, is this something you should worry about? Those younger programmers, you’re told, are having a wonderful time. They’re waving their arms, true, and there’s a tangle of tentacles wrapped around them, but that’s just the company mascot, a convivial squid. Really, they’re having fun.

Or are they?

To be fair, there really are companies where programmers stay later at the office because they enjoy hanging out with people they like, and working on interesting problems while they do it. More experienced programmers are older, are therefore more likely to have children or other responsibilities, and that’s why they’re working shorter hours. On the other hand, it may be that the pile of tentacles wrapped around these programmers is not so much convivial as voracious and hostile: the kraken of overwork.

The kraken of overwork

Another potential reason less experienced programmers are working longer hours is that they don’t know how to get their work done in a reasonable amount of time. Why? Because no one taught them the necessary skills.

I’m not talking about technical skills here, but rather things like:

Many managers don’t quite realize these skills exist, or can’t articulate what they are, or don’t know how to teach them. So even if the inexperienced programmers are given reasonable amounts of work, they are never taught the skills to finish their work on time. In this situation having children or a family is not causal, it’s merely correlated with experience. Experienced programmers know how to get their work done in a reasonable amount of time, but inexperienced programmers don’t.

In which case the young programmers’ lack of kids, and “oh, they just enjoy their work”, is just a rationalization: an excuse for skills that aren’t being taught, an excuse for pointless and wasted effort. Those inexperienced programmers waving their hands around aren’t having fun, they’re being eaten by a squid—and no one is helping save them.

Avoiding the kraken

So when you’re interviewing for a job, how do you tell the difference between these two reasons for long hours? Make sure you ask about training and career development.

  • This excellent list of questions to ask during an interview, by Elena Nikoaeleva, suggests asking “how does the company help junior people to grow?”
  • If you’re being interviewed by a manager, ask them for an example of mentoring and teaching they’ve done.
  • If you’re being interviewed by a junior developer, ask them about a time they went off track and took to long to finish a track, to see if they got any help.

Hopefully the answers will demonstrate the less-experienced programmers are taught the skills they need, and helped when they’re floundering. If no, you may wish to avoid this company, especially if you are less experienced. Good luck interviewing, and watch out for krakens!

Want a job with work/life balance? Learn how to become more productive, be more valuable as an employee, and find the right job by reading The Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.

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