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I love software development and this is what I do for a living. My company is an outsourced software development firm. I can see that the company is pretty ambitious and competitive in terms of the projects it services.

For the past few months, our department has been assigned to a very time-demanding project. We have been working for at least 14 hours a day, 6 (sometimes 7) days a week. I can see that the project is somewhat taking its toll on the members of the team. Recently, there were many sick leaves and during breaks, all we ever talk about is how sucky our situation has become. Everyone is being pressured to be at their best and 40-man month modules are shortened to 10-man months! The team morale is pretty low. Software quality has become even lower. Several team members have already resigned or are thinking of leaving.

I am new to the IT industry. I have been with this company for less than a year and the ideas I have of the software world are based on the little experience I have earned. So my questions are:

  1. How do I teach myself to handle the stress and prevent the morale problem from spreading to me? I want to perform well and maintain the quality of my work.

  2. How can I help improve team performance and morale? Aside from performing, I know that I can not do what I need to do without having my teammates. How do I help them?

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Why do you need to work so much? Bad management? Low budget? –  superM Sep 20 '12 at 13:07
    
The schedule is pretty tight for a project this big and in my opinion, we are really short on people. –  nmenego Sep 20 '12 at 13:10
    
I edited out the "is it normal" bit; it expands the scope of this question to be a bit too broad broad for a single questions. Questions here should be focused around a single central issue that all answers can address. –  Rarity Sep 20 '12 at 13:29
    
@nmenego, So I guess this is bad management. Do you have any planning? –  superM Sep 20 '12 at 13:38
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Regardless if consistent 14 hour days are the norm in your country for software developers, that kind of effort is unsustainable and this project will fail, probably the company as well. Even if this stress hasn't gotten to you, it may be a good idea to leave just for that reason alone. –  maple_shaft Sep 21 '12 at 13:11

5 Answers 5

up vote 17 down vote accepted

How do I teach myself to handle the stress and prevent the morale problem from spreading to me?

Each person is different about stress. Some people need to mitigate it by avoiding stressful situations, others by re-couping once being stressed. Most need some mix, and almost everyone differs on how to achieve those things.

As for morale; there's no avoiding that. Being at work for 80 hours a week rather than... anything else is going to suck. Even the most optimistic or oblivious worker will notice that sooner or later, and be sad that everything sucks.

How can I help improve team performance and morale?

By working fewer hours. No amount of good work environment or compensation will counteract working too much. If you're not management, then you need to argue for it. There have been a number of studies about the 'optimal work week' and the such. Depending on your locale, unionization might be an option if you're dead-set on improving the workplace.

Is it a normal trend/event for an IT employee to be this overworked?

Maybe in certain industries, maybe right near release. Never for months on end. Your company is taking advantage of you, especially if you're not getting any sort of hourly wage or overtime. At 80 hours a week you're basically working for half of the rate you are employed at.

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We are being paid for every hour of overtime plus a little more for every hour past 10. Do you think this justifies the work? –  nmenego Sep 20 '12 at 13:31
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@nmenego - It makes it more fair. For some, the overtime pay limits the stress since they know that they're making tons of extra money (which they can spend to re-coup from stress). I don't think that it is a smart (or common) way to do business. People still get burnt out. –  Telastyn Sep 20 '12 at 13:34
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@nmenego What use is money that you never have time to spend? –  Tacroy Sep 20 '12 at 19:24
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@Tacroy "never" is a big word. Presumably stress now will lead to less later (big vacation, house paid off, ring for better half, etc). Problem is 70 hour work weeks that go on for months, and trying to recover in a week. –  WernerCD Sep 21 '12 at 0:13

This problem isn't about you, it is a problem with the company that frankly you should not want to deal with. Some extra hours during crunch time in software product development are expected, but what you are describing are sweatshop conditions that should be unacceptable to most engineers.

If a company is asking or demanding employees to work 80 hours a week, the problem is that the company needs more engineers. What probably happened here is that the company underestimated the amount of time and effort would go into this project, and they are trying to make up for it.

Paying engineers some amount for overtime worked is a nice gesture, but to expect employees to be available for 80+ hours a week is simply not sustainable for that period of time. If you are new to the business you may not know this yet, but I would say you could probably make the same amount of money and work half the hours.

Other than the fact that you are burning out, you mentioned poor software quality. It is one thing to work long hours and to sweat for a product development effort that is incredibly successful, but exerting this much of your time into something that appears to be a failure at this point is a bigger issue for your career.

This company's business model is unsustainable, and you will see turnover continuing which means fewer mentors to choose from for a young engineer like yourself. Find a company with a more reasonable work schedule.

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The company may need more engineers, but simply adding more people does not guarantee that things will get better (ask Fred Brooks). And it's almost certain that doubling the size of the team will not reduce each team member's hours by 50%. What's being described here is a death march, and it's not sustainable. Something must slip - features (reduce scope), quality (can you afford to put out a known bad product?), or the schedule. –  alroc Sep 20 '12 at 16:09
    
@alroc - Agreed that doubling the team is not the best solution, but hard to argue that this place is at least somewhat understaffed (without knowing team size at all). By adding some additional labor it would reduce a bit of the burden, and certainly reducing scope could be an option. –  fecak Sep 20 '12 at 18:01
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I agree, they are almost certainly understaffed. A common mistake is a manager saying "everyone's working 2X hours, so let's double the people and halve each person's schedule" and then have everything fall apart. Not to mention the overhead of adding and maintaining additional staff in an environment that already seems to have project management problems. –  alroc Sep 20 '12 at 19:07
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+1 "This company's business model is unsustainable", all the more reason for the OP to start looking for their next opportunity. –  Joshua Drake Sep 20 '12 at 19:31
    
@alroc I agree with what you said (something must slip) and I try my best to direct this concern to my supervisors. I believe no one in the company wants to ship a low quality software but I doubt if this is possible with the scopes being so big. Having to achieve a 40-man-month task at 10-man-months is, at the very least, crazy. –  nmenego Sep 21 '12 at 1:12

My suggestions for improving your own morale are:

  • Get enough rest, exercise, and sunlight (as much as is feasible with the crazy hours you're working--little things like a walk at lunch can help).
  • Focus your efforts on things you can control and things that are productive. (Yes, you should strongly recommend fixing the hours problem, but if management won't listen, don't beat your head against the same wall.) Another part of this is accepting that you can't possibly get done everything that's expected. Prioritize as best you can and understand that things will slip until staffing is corrected.
  • Identify some personal boundaries and stick to them. How long are you willing to work this schedule before looking for another job? How late are you willing to stay on a given day?
  • Use some of your overtime pay to treat yourself. If you buy something fun, or something that gives you time to have more fun, like paying someone else to clean, that can make the extra work feel a little more worthwhile.
  • If you can, build up your savings until you have an emergency cushion that you could live on for a few months. Even if you don't really want to quit, just knowing that you can if it gets worse can help.

None of these is going to turn an unsustainable work situation into a good one, but they can help you get through it without being completely miserable or having the quality of your work take a nosedive.

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Great answer. I would also add that focus on being positive, even in the stressful situation you are in. Do not burn bridges. Your manager may also be under the same pressure, just like you and your colleagues. Don't let things get personal. –  Luhar Sep 21 '12 at 3:28
    
+1 for "build up your savings until you have an emergency cushion". OP is in the fortunate situation of his death march being accompanied by overtime pay - take advantage of that fact! –  Carson63000 Sep 24 '12 at 6:00

Welcome to your first Deathmarch(tm)!

I think everyone has to go through at least one to experience what it is.

20+ hours overtime/week 3-4 weeks leading up to a major release, most would consider fairly normal, or at least acceptable. Personally, I look at any overtime as a failure in project management but a certain degree of estimation-error is often inevitable towards the end of a complicated release-cycle.

20+ hours/week of overtime over a sustained period (months) is not an estimation-error, that is a systemic fault. Either you have weak steering, unable to prevent substantial scope creep or your development-process and architecture is so bad that you can't produce effort estimations with any level of accuracy. Or you have particularly cynical management that simply thinks running people over the edge and re-hiring after each project is easier than building a working development department. That is rare though.

In my experience, the only way to break out of the deathmarch-cycle is a dramatic de-scoping of the current effort. Few companies have the fortitude, resources and humility to actually do this and many will simply let it run it's course. For a small company, it can often end in financial ruin. For larger companies, they may succeed in pushing through, but a lot of talented people will quit, the product or project will be considerably more expensive than anticipated with lower quality which will take even more time to fix. Probably some middle-management fall-guys will get the axe.

If you manage to get a scope-revision in place, that's a hard and real process to determine:

  • How much longer can the team sustain a positive output and
  • What can realistically be accomplished with a minimum acceptable level of quality in that time

Assuming this can be done, once the release is out then it's imperative to really get to the bottom of the systemic problems that led you there, or they will just keep reappearing.

  • Why can't you keep control of the scope? Maybe you need to look at tighter control and prioritization, or maybe smaller, iterative releases with more frequent re-prioritization? Maybe you need a more formal structure with steering committees and stronger project management?
  • Why are the expectations not in line with your final product?
  • What is preventing you from producing accurate effort estimations?
  • Are your ambitions such that you actually need to hire more people?

In closing I can tell you that no amount of perks or motivators can keep people satisfied over sustained periods of time under these conditions. There is ample research on the subject, for example you can take a look at Herzberg's Two-factor theory. Offering motivators (extra overtime-pay, additional perks, teambuilding, etc.) will make people pump overtime for a limited period of time. However, decent working-hours overall is a firm hygiene-factor for almost everyone.

So to answer both your questions: you can't. Stress, burn-outs and illness are physiological manifestations of what happens when you're overworked in a constant high-pressure situation. It will happen to everyone eventually. Low morale and performance are the psychological manifestations of the same problem, equally inevitable.

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+1, I think this is a really good answer. –  enderland Sep 21 '12 at 21:31
  • Encourage a good attitude and lead by example.

  • Acknowledge, praise and encourage good work by your fellow team members.

  • Use humor (carefully, considering the people) to defuse tense and difficult situations.

  • Use good tools for project/feature/bug tracking, e.g. Pivotal Tracker. Use a tool that your team find easy and helpful to use. Agree on the usage patterns and appropriate naming, categorization of issues (severity, priority), etc.

  • Address issues with regular scheduled meetings and never assume that everything is ok.

  • Use quality tools to enhance your productivity and worth.

  • Respect people's habits. Some folks need peace and quiet sometimes. Others don't notice noise ever.

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