‘Must be willing to work under pressure’ is a warning sign

As a programmer looking for a job, you need to be on the lookout for badly managed companies. Whether it’s malicious exploitation or just plain incompetence, the less time you waste applying for these jobs, the better.

Some warning signs are subtle, but not all. One of the most blatant is a simple phrase: “must be willing to work under pressure.”

The distance between we and you

Let’s take a look at some quotes from real job postings. Can you spot the pattern?

  • “Ability to work under pressure to meet sometimes aggressive deadlines.”
  • “Thick skin, ability to overcome adversity, and keep a level head under pressure.”
  • “Ability to work under pressure and meet tight deadlines.”
  • “Willing to work under pressure” and “working extra hours if necessary.”

If you look at reviews for these companies, many of them mention long working hours, which is not surprising. But if you read carefully there’s more to it than that: it’s not just what they’re saying, it’s also how they’re saying it.

When it comes to talking about the company values, for example, it’s always in the first person: “we are risk-takers, we are thoughtful and careful, we turn lead into gold with a mere touch of our godlike fingers.” But when it comes to pressure it’s always in the second person or third person: it’s always something you need to deal with.

Who is responsible for the pressure? It’s a mysterious mystery of strange mystery.

But of course it’s not. Almost always it’s the employer who is creating the pressure. So let’s switch those job requirements to first person and see how it reads:

  • We set aggressive deadlines, and we will pressure you to meet them.”
  • We will say and do things you might find offensive, and we will pressure you.”
  • We set tight deadlines, and we will pressure you to meet them.”
  • We will pressure you, and we will make you work long hours.”

That sounds even worse, doesn’t it?

Dysfunctional organizations (that won’t admit it)

When phrased in the first person, all of these statements indicate a dysfunctional organization. They are doing things badly, and maybe also doing bad things.

But it’s not just that they’re dysfunctional: it’s also that they won’t admit it. Thus the use of the second or third person. It’s up to you to deal with this crap, cause they certainly aren’t going to try to fix things. Either:

  1. Whoever wrote the job posting doesn’t realize they’re working for a dysfunctional organization.
  2. Or, they don’t care.
  3. Or, they can’t do anything about it.

None of these are good things. Any of them would be sufficient reason to avoid working for this organization.

Pressure is a choice

Now, I am not saying you shouldn’t take a job involving pressure. Consider the United States Digital Service, for example, which tries to fix and improve critical government software systems.

I’ve heard stories from former USDS employees, and yes, sometimes they do work under a lot of pressure: a critical system affecting thousands or tens of thousands of people goes down, and it has to come back up or else. But when the USDS tries to hire you, they’re upfront about what you’re getting in to, and why you should do it anyway.

They explain that if you join them your job will be “untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services.”. Notice how “untangling” admits that some things are a mess, but also indicates that your job will be to make things better, not just to passively endure a messed-up situation.

Truth in advertising

There’s no reason why companies couldn’t advertise in the some way. I fondly imagine that someone somewhere has written a job posting that goes like this:

“Our project planning is a mess. We need you, a lead developer/project manager who can make things ship on time. We know you’ll have to say ‘no’ sometimes, and we’re willing to live with that.”

Sadly, I’ve never actually encountered such an ad in the real world.

Instead you’ll be told “you must be able to work under pressure.” Which is just another way of saying that you should find some other, better jobs to apply to.



We all make mistakes, and I’ve got 20 years’ worth: from code that crashed production every night at 4AM, to accepting a preposterously bad job offer.

Every painful failure taught me a lesson—but only after it was too late.

You can do better! Join 3300 other programmers, and every week you’ll learn how to avoid another of my mistakes.


You might also enjoy:

» Five ways to work 35 hours (or less!) a week
» How to find a programming job you won’t hate
»» Get the work/life balance you need
»» Level up your technical skills