Does Any Software Project Actually Need ‘Crunch Time’?

Another week, another story of technologists enduring a gauntlet of “crunch time” to finish a project. This go-round, it’s Activision Blizzard, which is accused of grievously overworking and underpaying its QA staff (amidst other allegations leveled against the gaming giant in recent days). 

Accusations of 100-hour weeks is nothing new in the gaming world. Giant gaming companies such as Rockstar and Epic regularly claim they’re doing everything possible to reduce their technologists’ scheduling crunchiness, although the issue never quite seems to go away. Insane workplace cultures exist outside of gaming, as well—technologists at companies such as Tesla report stressful periods ahead of product launches.  But do teams really need to push their members to the limit in order to succeed? The answer is often “no,” provided the team can plan in advance. Here’s how Aaron Boodman, a former Google employee who worked on Google Chrome, recently described the process behind that browser’s creation:

“Turns out that software projects actually benefit strongly from having senior technical leadership deeply involved,” he added later in that Twitter thread. “Having strong technical leadership has lots of advantages, but one of them is it naturally leads to a healthier cadence. These folks typically have to be home for dinner, and they’re old enough to know that death marches don’t work.”

That’s not to say the process was a working vacation. A 2008 Wired article about Chrome’s creation describes one of the early development teams working from “between 7 and 8 am… until 6 or 7 at night” with breaks for lunch and some video-gaming. However, that’s still a far cry from the 20-hour days and constant stress that defined the creation of some iconic apps and services. The Wired article also mentions how Google went to great lengths to keep the team free from bureaucracy, with engineers able to tweak and improve whatever code they wanted (it’s well worth reading for its description of how to implement a big project).

Companies other than Google have rolled out projects without resorting to crunch, of course. Moreover, the willingness of many technologists to endure ultra-long hours might be on the decline. The COVID-19 pandemic made millions of employees around the world reconsider their work-life balance; even as offices re-open, technologists have been vocal about their preferences for all-remote or hybrid work (the latter involves heading into the office a few days per week, and working from home for the rest). Surviving crunch time isn’t quite the badge of honor that it used to be—and with the right planning and management, chances are good it doesn’t need to happen at all.