Development, Quality

Work-Life Balance in Software


The image of a programmer eating, breathing, and sleeping code is a stereotype for a reason- developers are often the last ones to leave the office. However, new research is confirming what many have suspected for ages- that development after 6-8 hours is not only less productive but may actually be worse than not working extra at all.


When you think of programmers, what are the first few ideas that come to your mind? Nerd is probably first, and it's generally true- a lot of people get into this field because they'd rather not deal with lots of people, especially customers. (You'll find that's not true of us, but we're the exception to say the least.) Someone sitting at his or her desk all night typing away is probably second- most people think that programmers are the type to grab hold of a project and work at it until it's perfect, or, in a more negative light, that they're so often left out of discussions of feasability and deadlines that they're left holding the bag and can't go home before the job is done. I quickly found one developer on Stack Exchange wonders if he's bad because he has a life outside of work.

In an interview with, Chris Kelly of New Relic calls this mindset the Nerd World Order. Most programmers can turn out a lot of work in a short amount of time, but new research is finding that the work done after a certain amount of time, generally 6-8 hours for programmers per day for 5 days a week, is only less effecient but perhaps also counterproductive. Inc. magazine provides a nice summary of research on hours worked over 40, but that's a discussion of workers in general, not developers. Given the inevitable bug here and there and the difficulty estimating how long a problem should take against how long it actually took, the special effects that code has on the over 40 hour work are difficult to measure. We've found that as one of us sits at his or her desk for more than a few hours, the bugs and poor decisions in code rise quickly, and we've already discussed why quality software is paramount to us.

There are essentially two solutions to this issue: one involves fighting back with the expectation that time spent away from work will result in happier developers and more production at work overall and the other concedes that work and life are forever blended and seeks to make that more satisfying to the work and the worker. Our opinion these two and our practices follow an explanation of both here: recently published a list of ten ideas to improve life quality, and many of them relate to leaving work at work. Nearly everybody has a smartphone, and programmers, being pegged (largely accurately) as nerds are expected to be constantly in touch with work and respond instantly to any issues or questions, no matter how trivial. Being able to designate times in which, barring catestrophic emergency, we are unavailable, and shaing the burden of those inevitable emergencies rather than putting them all on the new guy has helped us realize that we're more creative, happier, and more productive when we are at work. Our customers often tell us that we're not the surly, irritable, and unfriendly group of developers they're used to dealing with; we chalk that up to both being uniquely gifted in people and computer skills and our practices in work life balance.

We are, however, always connected, whether we choose to monitor the connection or not. Rather than agree with Micheal Arrington that sometimes developers need to suck it up and live at work, another philosophy seeks to embrase the blending of life and work and make sure that a programmer's life and work interfere with each other as rarely as possible. Huffington Post suggests that we dump the idea of separating work and life to balance each other and blend the two by making sure our work and our life have the same goals. Forbes echoes a similar sentiment, encouraging both workplaces and employees to be more flexible and allow the two focuses to occur at work and at home.

At GRS, we budget 6 hours a day for 5 days a week- the astute among you note that those numbers total up to only 30 hours a week. How can we not work 40? Think about it- why is the number 40? Who came up with that number decades ago? Do you really think that a workweek budget invented before the age of television is necessarily the right one for the internet age? We are all available to respond to urgent needs- urgent meaning a customer is losing money- after hours, but we take the time to make sure our work isn't likely to allow for those kinds of needs and that when they do arise that we know exactly what to do when they do come up. We are certainly not clock watchers- our 30 hours can come at any time during the week, barring the needs to be available for phone calls and meetings.

Salesforce has a nice list of 9 Thought-Provoking Quotes About Work-Life Balance, and our favorite is from a former First Lady:

Don't confuse having a career with having a life.