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I work at a very young start-up company. We have had turn-over rates (mass resignation of staff, thrice) in the past but changes in the system have led to a more a stable employee retention and better technical-skilled employees. We do games, and I don't know with other software fields, but the "death march" is quite popular in our field.

My boss believes that the only way for us to catch-up to top companies is to exert more effort, which generally translates to more time working. Hence, we've had a culture of working a lot of hours (we work an average of 65 hours a week, peaking up to 90hours a week).

Our deadlines are either very difficult and sometimes impossible (since the team is pretty young) but our management sets deadlines at the "if people at company X can do this in X days, we can do it too"

I personally believe that raising team efficiency is one of the factors that can help eliminate too much overtime.

I've seen my subordinates/junior staff often not focused enough during the day, but I don't know how to objectively measure this (I've seen questions here relating to KPI's, or key performance indicators).

I'm in a position where I have good relations with my boss (our CEO), the management and the entire team and I believe they're more than willing enough to hear out what I have to say.

How can I approach this in a way that is beneficial for both the staff and the company?

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Game programming requires heavy math (sometimes PhD level). Does your team have enough math skills? If not, hire math PhDs to solve your problem. I am serious. –  scaaahu Feb 18 '13 at 9:33
I understand that the market is highly competitive nowadays. But having a 3day deadline for a project that doesn't have any artwork, nor are the producers done with making game-specifics, seem downright unreasonable to me. In my experience, the deadlines my boss sets are rarely met, even with 70-80 hour weeks, but in the end the deadlines "we" estimate always hit. This maybe highly opinionated ofcourse. Don't get me wrong though, our boss loves our team and even praises them for their growth and immense technical skill. –  Wintermute Feb 18 '13 at 10:23
If you have a culture of 65-90 hour weeks, of course you will see employees "not focused enough during the day". Most people will not bother to focus and work hard if they know that they'll have to work all evening and on the weekends regardless. –  Carson63000 Feb 19 '13 at 11:12

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The link you included in your question contains really all the information and references you need. Especially the Evan Robinson's well-known paper Why Crunch Modes Doesn't Work, together with the supporting material and references, should provide you with ample arguments.

Basically, in pushing for sustained 60-85 hour work-weeks, your CEO is flying in the face of a majority of research done in the previous 100 years on worker productivity and risks.

This seems to be the norm in the games industry since the last 10-15 years though, so he's not alone in this apparent irrational behavior.

I would also add these hypothetical questions to your CEO:

  • In the last 10-15 years, has the number of zero-day bugs and defects in shipped games products increased or decreased?
  • In the last 10-15 years, has the average schedule overdraft on deliveries of games products increased or decreased?
  • In the last 10-15 years, has the average budget overdraft on games projects increased or decreased?

And finally:

  • In the last 10-15 years, have the number of working hours per week for each person in games projects increased or decreased?
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@maple_shaft: That does make one wonder if, because the no-life-outside-work demographic trends younger and less-experienced, game companies are shooting themselves in the foot by hiring so many of them. –  Blrfl Feb 18 '13 at 20:55
@Wintermute I'm sorry if I wasn't clear. My view is that in the last 10 years, while the number of hours worked per week per person has gone up, neither the quality nor the reliability of games development has improved. And I don't mean quality as in how "good" the games are, I mean quality in terms of bugs and defects in the finished product. If anything, it's gone the other way. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. –  pap Feb 19 '13 at 7:35

The simple answer is to simply begin working 40 hour work weeks and make sure YOU are efficient for those 40 hours. If you aren't already burned out then the results will become apparent fairly quickly. If you are already burned out then 40 hour weeks probably won't make a difference, so keep working your 60-90 hour work weeks. Keep in mind that if you choose to continue with the long work weeks you'll be looking for a new line of work in the near future and that won't include any careers requiring thinking skills because your body is going to shut down all on its own because you chose not to listen to it.

I really don't understand how people can let themselves be so taken advantage of like your company does to you.

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In the US, there is a widespread sentiment of "you should feel lucky to even have a job these days." It's not as prevalent in the software industry, but there are some regions where it is the case. –  alroc Feb 18 '13 at 15:39
I really don't understand how people can let themselves be so taken advantage of like your company does to you. A thousand times this. They work you to the bone because you let them. There is a reason that such predatory companies only hire young people, because they are too young to know any better. –  maple_shaft Feb 18 '13 at 15:49
There is always the route of messing around on the internet all day and then working all evening, which is probably what most of the team are doing. It's a good way to recover from or avoid burnout until you move on somewhere that deserves your full productivity. Companies like this cannot tell the difference between activity and productivity. If they did, they wouldn't ask people to work so many hours. –  pdr Feb 18 '13 at 16:39

To change from a culture of overtime to efficiency you will have to stop the death marches. Each person has a limit, after that they can actually produce negative work. The density and severity of their errors will mean that that last few hours they worked, the project went backwards. Their mistakes may be obvious , they broke the build. Or it may be subtle, they picked the wrong choice of the size of a field in the database so that next week the tables will have to be rebuilt.

If you try to tell them that they are inefficient but you still expect 60-90 hours a week they will not have a reason to change. If they can produce more quality code in less hours, but you don't reduce the expected number of hours, they can't help but be demotivated and inefficient.

One way to address the issue runs counter to the arguments in the mythical man month. You need more developers. Yes increasing the number of the people on a project does greatly increase communication issues. But expecting too many hours also is inefficient. Unless you are paying them for every hour of overtime, your costs will rise by adding members to the team. But you have already had 3 incidents of massive numbers of employees quitting.

I know nothing of your company, but a great way to demotivate people is to have management be able to flaunt their free time, hobbies and wealth. Management that leaves every day at 5, and has time for fun filled weekends, without a way to compensate the developers, designers, and artists is doomed to be facing mass exodus #4.

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if the three man team can't complete the task in 40 hour weeks, the team is sized wrong or the deadline is too tight, or they are gaming the system. You require 60 hour workweeks, so they give you sixty hour work weeks. –  mhoran_psprep Feb 18 '13 at 12:55

Seems to be working If you're meeting the deadlines, I don't see how you can justify calling them impossible. Your boss thinks he's the next Steve Jobs. Just push for more-it's really that simple.

Negative Consequences I haven't found any mention of what happens when deadlines aren't met. Has anyone been fired? If management is correct, and you aren't competitive in your market, everyone suffers the natural consequences of a weakened company. Does it affect your bonus?

Rewards If this company makes it 'big', are you all going to be millionaires? I'd expect more turnover unless they pay better than average salaries.

Like too many programmers/engineers, you've developed an "all or nothing" mentality about your job. The boss set this impossible deadline, oh my! So what? The programmer is afraid they will release more bugs, but the management would rather meet the deadline because the level of bugs is acceptable in their mind AND THEIR USERS. We'll have to spend even more time fixing things. So what? They know this will happen. Everyone expects a quick patch after a major release.

It's all in your head I'm willing to bet as the deadline nears, features get removed. Cut back on your hours. Get some sleep. Do something fun. You'll be more productive. You can only suggest others take this advice. When everyone realizes the sky isn't falling, your management may figure out you've learned to play the game.

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