Can Software Developers Really Have Work Life Balance?
Well, it depends on your definition of work life balance. Let's discuss.
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I have a rich annual tradition that I only just became aware of this year.
Every year, around this time, Apple has some kind of conference or announcement or something. It's the time of year when, for a day or two, an iThing getting smaller or losing a USB port makes everyone absolutely lose it and flood my news feed with opinions for a few days.
And I've only this year realized that this seems to happen annually, and that it's probably a pattern. But every year, including this one, I've mustered a strong, festive sense of complete apathy. I think.
You may also like: The Software Developer's Guide to Work/Life Balance
The Nights and Weekends Platitude Heard 'round the World
This year, the event rocketed into my awareness not because of some new product or service, but because half of my Twitter feed started retweeting things like this:
Tim Cook just said thank you to all the Apple employees "who gave up their nights and weekends from their families" to build all the shit they just showed.
- Dan Kim (@dankim)
It's heart-warming how many people are noting @tim_cook's celebration of working nights 'n' weekends and refusing to applaud extractive sacrifices. Overwork isn't cool, especially not on a regular, expected, and self-imposed schedule. Deal with a crisis, sure. A release ain't that.
- DHH (@dhh)
Whoah, okay. Curious, I spent some time looking for the transcript of wherever he said this, but to no avail. I couldn't even find a video of it. (Though I did learn that this annual apple thing is called "WWDC.")
The closest I could find was this Tweet with a quote, from someone who, presumably, had listened.
Tim Cook's closing words: Thanks to all the people "giving up nights and weekends". If this is Apple's work ethic that's really a shame ☹️��
- Alex �� (@alexmuench)
So, from what I gather, Tim Cook, during the course of the obligatory shout-out to the little people, gave them thanks for working their little tails off during their little nights and their little weekends. And the world subsequently had opinions.
I Have Deep Ambivalence About Hustle Culture
Long time readers of the blog might remember this viral post about "sucker culture." I let a CEO, "Victoria," have it for bemoaning her employees' lack of desire to work extra hours for no pay.
In fact, I've written at length about the standard corporate hierarchy and how it involves a cultural tricking of many people into over-performance in exchange for no value. Obviously, in the posts and in my book on the subject, I don't treat this as a positive.
And, perhaps most compelling of all, I own a business with employees. And, along with my wife and partner, hold work-life balance as a non-negotiable governing principle. We view this as humanistic and simple, good business.
If we're building a company that requires heroic efforts to exist or scale, we're building something unsustainable and with artificially inflated value. It's the corporate equivalent of wrestlers cutting weight just before a weigh-in.
And yet, I work a lot. Last week was a 4 day week, following Memorial Day weekend, and I managed to work a 49 hour week from Tuesday to Friday. In my management consulting life, I used to put in 40 hour weeks, run the business that would become Hit Subscribe in the evenings from my hotel, and still do things like write a book. And sandwiched between Sunday night and Friday night flights home.
So, what's my deal? Am I a hypocrite? Some kind of would-be martyr? I'm honestly asking myself these questions non-rhetorically, and this blog post is my attempt to figure out the answer.
Because I think it's none of the above. I think, instead, that I'm fortunate enough to have continually hacked my career into situations where I both enjoy and benefit from work, thus rendering it all a sort of work/hobby mish-mash.
Work Life Balance Is Surprisingly Complicated
As I set out to mentally model the issue of work-life balance and my own career, I thought I'd lay jobs out maybe from "good to bad." But what does that really mean?
As I started to conceive of these spectra, I realized that you couldn't model it with a grid, or even with a 3D plot. Without using the rolled up dimensions of string theory, I figured this would require a matrix. So, here's my attempt at one:
A quick category explanation:
- Financial: what is your financial situation as you do your work?
- Effort/Pay: how much are you working to earn the fulltime pay you want/need?
- Satisfaction: what is your level of job satisfaction?
- Risk: how much trouble are you in should your work situation change for the worse? Or, how much leverage does your job have over you?
- Stake: how invested are you in the work that you're doing or company at which you're working?
- Agency: how much autonomy do you have in your role?
- Advancement: how likely is your work to result in a better work situation down the line, and how much better?
So, if you want to compare your work situation against someone else's, or maybe your own over the years, you can do so pretty easily. Give yourself a score in each of the six categories, and sum up the result.
I Realize This Isn't Perfect
Alright, now before I go any further, let me address the inevitable sharpshooting and objections. Is this perfect? No, of course not. I'm bulldozing a relatively new path here, off the cuff, to try to establish a point.
- These are not orthogonal categories. Nobody would be independently wealthy, collecting passive income, while also subject to micromanagement except in some cartoonish situation like the "Undercover Boss" show. These categories are unarguably interconnected.
- This doesn't neatly account for a prime and side hustle, where you might rate different modes of work differently. Just blend them into an average for that, I guess.
- Doubtless there are other spectra upon which to evaluate work. Feel free to add them if you like this model!
Let's Consider Some Examples
To further drive home the point, let me add a few examples of hypothetical situations. Here's me laying out 3 plausible roles and situations, filling in scores as realistically as I can guess.
So, this should give you some idea. Do enough examples, and you'll get a feel for which scores correspond to what conceptual levels of Maslow's Hierarchy.
My Apparent Hypocrisy: An Attempted Explanation
Now, before working my way back to the nuances of Apple's overworked staff and our collective outrage takes, let me attempt to justify my own existence and thinking. To do that, I'm going to score my own life, right at the moment.
But I'm going to score it in three separate ways.
- First, I'm going to score it according to how it would look if I optimized for most time spent with friends and family.
- And then, I'll score how I actually live these days.
- Finally, I'll score it based on my future goals.
(As an aside, this scale could probably use a "financial" that goes up to 20 or something to disallow a situation where my current score is only 2 below Tim Cook's.)
Now, let me elaborate, particularly as this relates to work life balance.
1. Me, Optimized for Work-Life Balance
I own two businesses: DaedTech, my consultancy, and Hit Subscribe, in which my wife and I are partners and for which we both work full time. So, with stake, agency, and advancement, I'm in great shape.
Hit Subscribe has grown to employ four of us full time (along with a lot of contractors). In the beginning, I wrote all of the posts and handled all of the sales and client management, while Amanda handled graphics, editorial, and our small set of operations.
But as we've grown, I've back-filled myself over and over again. These days, I no longer create content, handle account management, or do much sales. I can best summarize my role as strategy, business development, and partnership management.
And the company can live indefinitely (if not grow a lot) without those functions. As a result, I am fortunate enough to be in a position where we've built a business that provides a nice, full time income for us without me needing to work full time.
That's awesome, full stop. I am very grateful for this state of affairs.
But, I opt not to take advantage of the work-life balance column at all.
2. Me, Actual
Instead, I put in more than 40 hour weeks with Hit Subscribe, and I also continue to do some consulting here and there under the DaedTech umbrella. This knocks my work-life balance score down from 4 to ,1 and my overall situation from 29 to 26.
You might wonder why nothing else changes, and I'd say it's honestly because I'm used to balancing a lot. I got a masters degree while working full time. I started this blog and a moonlighting practice while working full time. And so on and so forth.
So, working a lot doesn't detract from my satisfaction with the work. I can manage, especially given the 5s in stake, agency and advancement, all of which make any strides I realize that much more impactful for me.
And, that's really the point.
3. My Goal
All of the extra time that I'm sinking into the business(es) is really aimed at raising my score in the other columns.
By continuing to grow our business interests and diversifying, we can eventually nudge our score in the risk department up to a 5. And we can do the same for effort for pay -- getting into passive territory. (Ideally, we'd get to independently wealthy status, but the need for additional nuance there shows itself. I never aim to be fabulously wealthy, just enough to do what I want, professionally, without worrying about money.)
With risk and effort for pay maxed out, I can then turn my attention to work that rates a 5 in satisfaction. Don't get me wrong, I love Hit Subscribe, and building a business is fun and interesting. But I didn't spend my formative years dreaming of running a content marketing agency, the way I did about becoming a novelist or researching groundbreaking tech.
With enough 5s notched, I can do those things. And I intend to.
That's really the play, and that's my story. I'm voluntarily taking a dip in one column to eventually raise several others, that one included.
So I think I can definitely justify a different choice for myself than I would advocate for others, in other situations, with other scores. If taking a hit in the effort for pay column yields a realistic chance of raising other scores for you later, and you can deal with it, then do it. But if your stake, agency, and advancement scores are a lot lower, there's less, if anything, to gain from going that route.
The Apple Engineer Situation, Revisited
If you take away anything from this strange exercise in matrices, I'd like for you to grok the idea that our individual work situations are so complex and so nuanced that it's really hard for you to evaluate someone else's with only one or two of these pieces of information. Working 40 vs 50 hours is only a tiny piece of the pie.
On Twitter, I saw all of the aforementioned "shame on you, Tim Cook" hot takes. And then I also saw the counter-, hotter-takes.
All you sanctimonious 9-5ers ranting about Tim Cook thanking Apple employees for putting in nights and weekends: don't work-life-balance-shame me.
- Avery Prometheus Rosen (@4BringingFire)
This seems entirely predictable. And not just because people love rail at one another on Twitter, for reasons I can't fathom. To illustrate, I'll do one last set of scores.
I'm basing this on the premise that we mostly project our own state of affairs onto stories we hear about similar people. I'm comfortable with that assumption, given humankind's myriad cognitive biases.
Take the person outraged by Tim Cook's death march gratitude. This person probably enjoys good work-life balance, takes advantage of that, and feels invested in that life choice. So, highlighted in red is their perception of how their life would look upon switching to Apple. All else stays the same, except that angry 2 point drop associated with the red.
Likewise the defenders, many of whom are likely death march veterans and similarly invested in that life choice. These folks probably feel a bit more stake in their job and have slightly more potential for advancement, and this offsets the dip in work-life balance. When they hear complaints, they hear people wanting their stake/advancement scores, but with none of the skin in the game.
There Aren't Right Answers, But There Are Wrong Ones
In reality, we know fairly little about the lives of the people Tim Cook mentioned. So, we argue on their behalves, largely by mapping our own experiences, preferences, and assumptions into the gaps subconsciously.
Oh, sure, many of the arguments touch on the example/precedent that Tim Cook reinforces -- that of cultural overwork. But the difference between overwork and dedication is really tied up with the amount of leverage that the individual has (an amalgamation of risk, stake, agency, advancement).
If I write code for some miscellaneous company 9-5, and then I go home and work on my home automation hobby all night, nobody would cry malfeasance. I'd just be an enthusiastic hobbyist with good work life balance, even if both work and life involved writing similar amounts of code.
Overwork thus becomes a question of coercion or manipulation, accomplished by either preying on people with low scores for risk or creating false expectations around stake and advancement.
So, in the end, I don't think there's a right answer to the question of whether someone should hustle or pursue work-life balance. But I do think there's a wrong answer, and that wrong answer happens when it's no longer up to the person whose work and life are in question.
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