How to become a part-time programmer: an interview with an expert
For some people, a 40-hour workweek is something to aspire to; for others, it’s still too much time taken up by a job. If you fall into that second category, if you want more time for hobbies, family and friends, or working on your own software projects, you too might dream of working less than full time.
But how do you get there? Almost no one advertises part-time programming jobs–believe me, I’ve me looked.
The answer: negotiation. I’ve negotiated a shorter workweek a few times myself, and I’ve met other programmers who have done so as well, some with just a few years of experience. And of all the programmers I’ve met who’ve negotiated part-time work, Mike’s record is the most impressive.
Mike has spent pretty much all his career working part-time: he’s been working part-time for more than 15 years. To help you get to a shorter, saner workweek, I sat down to interview Mike about how he does it.
Q. What does a sane workweek mean to you?
MIKE: Well, I only ever worked full time for about 1 year, and I learned pretty quickly that a sane workweek for me was less than 40 hours a week. I guess it’s up to each individual, but I think most of us are forced to work more than we’d like, and at least for me 30-32 hours is better.
I want to work on average less, but I make it clear [when starting a job] that [I understand] things happen, stuff needs to get done. I would definitely work longer hours here and there.
Q. How did you realize you wanted to work less hours?
MIKE: Part of the reason I decided to demand this so early was, I started that first job when I was in university, and I stayed on for several years part-time while I was school. My contract was 10 hours a week, not very much but I was also going to classes and had to do homework and shit. I suppose that got me used to being able to go cycling or climbing or hiking on fairly short notice.
They were terrible at planning at this company, when a contract deadline was coming up everyone was working 60 to 70-hour weeks, having dinner at the office all the time. I wasn’t forced to get caught up in that, since I had my excuse of going to school. I worked a lot more than 10 hours I was contracted to, though.
I saw this cycle there a lot, where managers would pull numbers out of their ass and promise them to clients, and then all the programmers were panicking for the last month. The panic mode of getting this done. [My feeling is] I’m not committed to those numbers you pulled out of your ass to tell your client, so partly it was reaction to that, seeing these people spending their entire lives at the office. I wanted to carve out my time early on.
Q. So how did you end up part-time after that first year?
MIKE: At that I job I tried to quit.
But they basically offered me more money, so I was like, “what if you gave me 75% of that, and I worked less?” And I guess they wanted to keep me around and they went for that.
At that job I was on payroll as a full time employee, but I got a bunch more holidays. So I got a quarter of my time in holidays; 72 days off a year? I was constantly booking time off, which was interesting.
That was how I landed my first part time thing. And then I did eventually quit that company and worked elsewhere, but I had found a new job while I was still in a part time situation, so it was a lot easier to demand a similar deal going forward.
Q. How many companies have you done this with? How many part time jobs?
MIKE: A bunch. All of my jobs. 7, no, 8.
(Mike goes off to look at his resume)
If you count the two I have now, two part time contracts, then 9.
Q. How exactly did you negotiate for shorter hours at later jobs?
I have several interviews here and there. And sometimes—if it’s a company where I’m meh, not that serious about or interested in—I’ll send them an email early in the process saying “hey I want to work part time.” And then if they won’t go for it I won’t bother.
If I definitely wanted to work there, I’d go for the interview without telling them [I wanted a shorter workweek]. And if I got back for subsequent interviews or I got an offer I’d say “now I’m working 75%, I want to work part time somehow, I’m open to various different arrangements, I’m interested in working with you, lets work something out.” Mostly if the companies were in the job offer stage they’d consider it very seriously. One was “no, no way,” they didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Mostly they’re interested in negotiating somehow.
Q. What kinds of counter-offers did you get?
MIKE: Sometimes it was stuff like “I want to hire you, how do I sell this management? Help me sell it to management.” That job took me 6 months to get from interview to legitimate part time job offer. That was the longest, and also unbeknownst to that company I’d been laid off: I’d started negotiating when I had a job, and was subsequently laid off. They wanted me to sell it to management. I said, “I don’t want to work 5 days, how much happens Fridays? Not much? Then I’ll work Monday to Thursday.”
Usually I negotiated the full-time salary first, and then the details of pro-rating later: mostly it was about the details, once you’d convinced someone you were worth having. The easiest ones to negotiate are the ones which are 80% time, especially one day a week off. Usually I’d say Monday or Friday, and get a longer weekend, go to the mountains. But one of the people I inspired got himself an 80% contract, and he said “you’ve got to take Wednesday off.” With Wednesdays, you only ever work two days in a row. It was awesome.
I always set expectations: “you’re getting the best 4/5ths of my time, but only 4/5ths. I’m not going to pound out as much code.” Realistically you kinda do, but the expectation should be if you’re not there Wednesdays you shouldn’t be doing as much work. That’s part of the argument, that you’re doing almost as much useful work.
Q. Did you find asking for a shorter workweek got easier over time?
Yeah, for sure, it definitely got easier. After the first couple times I felt more confident asking in the first place. It got easier in that sense.
Q. When you tell people you don’t work full time, how do they react?
It’s still considered weird by a lot of my friends, but I also get the other reaction, “I wish I could do that.” Some people when you start new jobs, once you’d explained why you weren’t there Wednesday, they’d say “I totally want that” but then I’d say I only get paid 80%. Once they’d realize they’d get paid less, [they’d say] “I’m not doing that.”
Other people would say “cool, I want that.” Definitely people I’ve worked with over the years have been inspired to do that, which is pretty nice.
Q. Why was the lower salary not an issue for you?
MIKE: I don’t know, I guess I decided early on free time was more important than more money. Programmers are paid pretty well in my experience, 80% of a programmer job is plenty of money to get by on. Typically it’s a lot more than what a lot of people are getting.
For me it was putting a premium on my time, and wanting to have that time to do other things. I’ve got hobbies, always had hobbies, different sports over the years which takes time. But even just stuff like having time to work on your own programming project, which I think is really valuable. Valuable enough to me that I’ll actually pay money for it in the form of taking less salary.
I definitely don’t have any regrets for doing that.
Q. Any final advice?
MIKE: My biggest piece of advice is that you have to be willing to quit your job to get a sane workweek, or you won’t sound convincing when you ask for it. If you’re looking for a new job, just ask, and if you’re still at a job, then you’re in a better position to ask.
Just go for it!
Itamar here: while I agree that working less than full time is wonderful, it also isn’t for everyone. Perhaps to you a sane workweek means working for yourself, or working remotely, or just getting a job where you can go home at 5PM.
But whatever a sane workweek means to you, the basics are the same. As in Mike’s case, you need the skills to be productive and valuable, you need to be able to negotiate, and you need enough financial security to have a strong negotiating position.
Are you ready to get a part-time job?
Do you want even more details? Would you like hear more stories of people who have gotten a part-time job, and how they did it? Want a blueprint for how to make yourself more valuable, and a process for negotiating for a part-time job?
The Programmer’s Guide to a Sane Workweek has chapters on becoming a more valuable employee, exercises to helping you improve your negotiating skills, interviews with other programmers who work part-time, and a process for negotiating part-time hours at a new job.