When he was a Java developer for NBC from 2001 to 2006, Steve Nathanson freely admits, he worked more than the standard 40-hour workweek. When helping build an application for NBC News that relied on an election-predicting algorithm, he would find himself woken up by frantic early-morning phone calls. During crunch periods, he worked late nights and weekends, and rarely took lunch breaks.
Work-life balance among technology professionals is very much in the news following a much-discussed New York Times article about workday conditions at Amazon. That piece painted a picture of a harsh workplace where employees literally cried at their desks. While some pundits leapt to defend Amazon’s culture, others publicly questioned whether Amazon and other tech companies are in need of adjustment.
One of those who railed against the tech industry’s intensity was one of its own: Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, who wrote in a piece on Medium about the risk of burnout among developers and other tech pros: “Fundamentally, this is a familiar part of tech culture: at high performing companies, employees work extremely hard, to an extent that is unsustainable for most people.”
Matthew Elefant, founder and partner at Melity, an app-development firm, agrees that, while the tech industry can drain a lot of time from employees, there’s also a generalized desire to avoid burnout. “Generally speaking, most companies are looking to offer employees strong balance,” he said. “The problems come when certain things need to happen at a specific time.”
For Elefant, creating the perfect work-life balance requires “maturity” on the part of both of employees and employers: Management can’t always expect a pool of tireless labor to meet product-launch deadlines, and employees need to realize there are limits to their employers’ flexibility with regard to benefits and working hours.
“I think the key is really to have proper project management,” Elefant said. “If we can make sure projects are planned and time is allocated for the right tasks, we can really improve balance.” When a project planned for a week actually takes three, it can lead to a massive spike in work for employees trying to wrangle with a suddenly messy schedule.
VMWare, a tech firm that provides cloud and virtualization services, is another company that advocates a work-life balance, which the company’s CEO, Pat Gelsinger, refers to as a “balancing act.”
“In the same way that management and the employees work together to make a company successful, management and employees together must make explicit steps in the area of work-life balance,” said Betsy Sutter, Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer at VMware.
Sutter believes that many tech employees strive to be the best, which can lead to them working insane hours. Because of that impulse, she said, both employers and employees need to take steps to make sure work schedules don’t get out of hand.
The Balancing Act
While Nathanson certainly experienced his fair share of late hours at NBC, he says the company did try to promote work-life balance. “When NBC merged with Universal, they gave me paternity leave,” he said. “I was one of the first people to take advantage of that. It was very helpful.”
NBC also provided a gym, which proved useful as a counterbalance to developers’ “sedentary” lifestyle. Nathanson only left the company after deciding he wanted to pursue his number-one passion in life: Music. He now works on a site called Same That Tune, which allows users to compare different songs to see if they sound similar.
Melity has also tried to give employees better work-life balance. Elefant admits there was a time when developers at the company worked long hours to handle multiple product launches.
Since then, the company has implemented programs to make things easier for employees, including the opportunity to work remotely. Elefant is proud of the company’s peer review initiatives, which give junior developers the chance to work with senior developers on specific projects, allowing the former to inch up the professional ladder a little quicker.
“My perspective is if you give people an opportunity to communicate their passion, they really like it,” said Elefant, who believes there has been a clear improvement in the quality of work since the peer review program was instituted.
At VMware, work-life initiatives include “date night” movies hosted on the campus lawn, along with Halloween parties for both employees and their families. There’s also unlimited non-accrued vacation time, in-office gyms, dry-cleaning services, and a focus on 6-9 PM as “family time.”
“Employers should understand that work-life balance is hard to achieve, especially in Silicon Valley,” VMware’s Sutter said. “Employers can strive for work-life integration, allowing for more fluidity in defining workspaces, and allowing space for work or life to easily take priority, as needed.”
For developers who are anxious about working ultra-long hours at a tech company, Nathanson advises doing a bit of research into the prospective employer’s culture and work environment; see what programs they offer that promote a good work-life balance. But above all else, you should head into the job with the right mindset.
“I would say get into the business if you have a curious mind. It’s constantly evolving.” he said, mentioning that he started out learning java but went on to learn PHP. “You have to be adaptable.”