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My employer develops software for small business. The competition is fierce and survival is paramount for us. I often get call at 9 or 10 at night, sometimes at weekend from the customer support team, sometimes from my boss, telling me there are some problems at the customer site and we need to fix it asap.

Is that normal in 2B market? I know it is quite normal here in China. But I would like to know is that normal in rest of world?

With people working from home more and more often in 2020, sometimes it is hard to define the working hour and non working hour. So will that happen more often than before (again, in the rest of world)?

My 3rd question is, inevitably, how do I deal with that? I really hate to work at my spare time.

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    What does your contract say with regards to on call duty and being available during non-work hours? – sf02 Oct 26 '20 at 14:52
  • If there is a major incident someone has to fix that. The management can ignore that and try to find someone in the middle of the night who is able to fix it. Or management can plan for situations like this and have people on on-call rotation. In all companies I work in the past that had such on-call people the company negotiated the payment for being on-call with the people upfront. Usually, they paid something like 10% of your normal salary per hour just for being available and respond to your phone even at night. And 200% for each hour you actually work outside of business hours. – spickermann Oct 27 '20 at 6:47
  • @sf02 I particularly downplay the fact that I am from China because I believe it may be common in the rest of world. The answers I got so far confirmed that. But if you were talking about the contract, it is another story and I may need to emphasize that I am from China. – Qiulang Oct 28 '20 at 6:55
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Yes, this is pretty common.

Because, ask yourself - how else are customers supposed to get critical software problems fixed in a timely manner?

You have a limited number of options as a business to service your customers:

  1. Have a large organization that has 3 continents worth of shifts, so it's always working hours somewhere (except for weekends, and holidays, and such)
  2. Have staff available after hours to some extent
  3. Don't help customers after hours.

Some businesses can get away with #3. SaaS businesses and competitive businesses can't. You can try to have "first level support" on the weekends but only escalate to engineers during their work day, but that ends up being a decision made if the business doesn't demand it to be successful.

Some businesses can afford to do #1 via running shifts or "follow-the-sun" staffing - but there's always the problem of issues that go beyond the ability of whoever's at work at that time and needing a specialist. Trying to have a distributed team that's actually qualified to work all levels of issues is nearly impossible, so even if you do #1 you may need (albeit less) #2.

So often your business ends up needing to do #2. There's infinite schemes here - often fronting things with automatic support, and "support engineers" that are not full developers/operations engineers that are a lower cost option, and so on, but it is common to have either a formal or informal after hours "on-call" rotation for software developers to handle critical problems. This can be paid "just as part of your salary" (common in the US) or "paid as a separate hourly thing" (a lot of Europe). In some companies it's a choice, in others it's not, it's a condition of employment in that role.

Based on the business need, the staffing, and how crappy the software is, I've seen oncall activity be anything from "once in a long while" to "you are on call all the time, just you, and absolutely having to handle issues every night." This is like any other facet of a job - how much does that bother you, how much money is it worth to you, how employable are you otherwise? When I was younger and had been unemployed for a year due to the recession, I took a tech job with lots of oncall and was happy to have it. Now I'm older and well off and try to avoid it more.

Local laws and norms may try to prevent off-hours/extra hours work, which is fine, but also means there's fewer software jobs in those places. I was working at a multinational and we had our US team and our EU team and the EU team didn't want to work oncall for the SaaS product we were running (even though we offered pay for it and stuff). Fair enough... But then that office started asking "hey why aren't we hiring vacated positions here? Is this office growing or what?" And the real answer was "Look, we need engineers to do the job we need done, and we're going to hire in places where that will happen." US engineers were more expensive than the EU engineers but we were willing to pay more to meet our business need. Welcome to the global economy.

So there are jobs that don't require it, but there are also many jobs that do, so you'll have more job opportunities and make more money if you do it.

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  • Thanks for sharing your story. Just out of curiosity, have you ever heard of 996 ? nytimes.com/2019/04/29/technology/china-996-jack-ma.html – Qiulang Oct 27 '20 at 2:29
  • @Qiulang China works completely differently, especially on tech. For those that don't know, 996 means you work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. I'm pretty sure some countries outlaw 72 hour workweeks. You can bet if 996 is expected, you'll have people pulling 7 days a week or more than 12 hours a day. – Nelson Oct 30 '20 at 8:07
  • @Nelson of course not every company works that way. My company doesn't. But when I read the book "Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup" I get quite similar feeling. You may also check this article forbes.com/sites/rebeccafannin/2019/05/05/… – Qiulang Oct 30 '20 at 8:13
  • As a whole I think China's IT infrastructure is completely different than what the rest of the world does. For starters, the way the government is in control of the internet would completely change how you deal with corporate data, and they'll probably have a hand in your company once it gets big enough. Imagine the US government running parts of FAANG and Microsoft? It is a very different landscape there. – Nelson Oct 30 '20 at 8:39
  • Regarding the overtime working culture I feel it is not that different. Just taking questions asked here as an example, I saw the question like this from time to time workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/163438/… or this workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/163298/… – Qiulang Nov 4 '20 at 2:13
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It may depends on the country but you will find most people consider this abnormal. In some countries it is even illegal to do so.

Take France for example (mandatory IANAL) you have a "right to disconnection" meaning you have the right to not read your emails or to not accept calls after work hour. If you need to stay available in case of support or emergencies it must be stated in you contract and you get compensated for staying available (even if nothing happen).

Working from home does not change anything, only your place of work may have changed, not your office hour, if you're expected to work 9-17 in an office then you're expected to work 9-17 at home too.

To deal with it it depends on your country and labor law. If you can be fired without any reason and fear not finding another job then you may have to bite the bullet. However if you really want to address the issue you need to be clear and firm : tell you boss those call are creating an unbalance in your work/life balance and you won't respond anymore to those call. If their is a need for a 24/7 support team then proper arrangement must be made and people need to be recruited or compensated for this.

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    It's very normal in the USA but you get paid appropriately. – Fattie Oct 26 '20 at 15:19
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    @Old_Lamplighter , regarding France/Germany. Many, many elite programmers contract or work fulltime from France/Germany. And they work in a (let's call it) "international manner". They are aware that (in certain projects) you are on-call all the time, but of course, you get paid at an enormous rate for such an intense project. – Fattie Oct 26 '20 at 15:28
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    @Fattie unless your boss says, „i‘m not sure we have work for you tomorrow, if you can‘t get work done tonight“ the idea that you even get paid for non official work hours is laughable. Let alone ‚paid appropriately“ In the rarest of jobs that might be so, but in the USA, that is not the norm. – morbo Oct 26 '20 at 16:19
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    I don't fully understand your comment, @morbo . In the US (and generally in software, particularly the aggressive world of startups) it's really common to get a high salary "in return for" the need to be on call at all hours. (TBC I personally would never, ever take part in this. I work as little as humanly possible. But it's completely common.) Yes, it's ALSO common that there are rip-off artists who want you to work all hours, for crap money. That's life. – Fattie Oct 26 '20 at 17:01
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    @guest I'm pretty sure it's perfectly legal in the US, in all states, yes. – Fattie Oct 27 '20 at 13:46
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It is

  • perfectly normal, common and acceptable

  • if you are paid a high salary to compensate for it.

The situation is: "the job is tough", hence "you get more money".

So,

Candidate: "As a skilled junior, I'd like X30,000 for the job."

Employer: "You have to be available 24/7 for emergencies."

Candidate: "Understood. What about X37,500 then?"

Alternately,

Candidate: "As the new team lead, I'd like X230,000 for the job."

Employer: "You have to be available 24/7 for emergencies."

Candidate: "Understood. What about X300,000 then?"

It's that simple.

"My 3rd question is, inevitably, how do I deal with that?"

You have two options,

  1. Politely ask for a higher salary.

  2. Politely explain that you will be leaving. Find another job without the "24/7", or, with the "24/7" but more money.

In theory, you could say "I will stay here, but, not do the 24/7 stuff".

But that's generally impossible in the case of a high-intensity software product. So, you get a lot of money to do high-intensity, realtime-critical software. (Or you move on.)

It sounds like the OP simply does not want to do the 24/7 thing - a perfectly reasonable choice. My guess would be they would have to move on to another job. If the employer is now "used to" getting 24/7 at a low rate, the employer won't change, and that's that.

For the record ...

As mentioned 100s of times on this site, I strongly recommend programmers NEVER, EVER work long hours. But yes, it's very common to be offered "danger money" to work on (say) very high visibility, always on, high value type product.

Just some examples are something involving financial transactions, or hit apps with payments, or anything with critical sensitive info. No mystery, completely commonplace.

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    While some people may be fine doing after hours work for more money, there are also those who no amount of money is a replacement for the time they lose doing work after hours. – sf02 Oct 26 '20 at 15:33
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    hi @sf02 .. is this sentence not clear? "Find another job without the "24/7"," – Fattie Oct 26 '20 at 16:56
  • Hi it is not 24/7 it is 996, have you ever heard of that ? forbes.com/sites/rebeccafannin/2019/05/05/… – Qiulang Oct 27 '20 at 2:33
  • @Qiulang , thanks for the tip, I had not heard the phrase! – Fattie Oct 27 '20 at 11:00
  • Of course, it is a Chinese only term (so far, and hopefully) :) – Qiulang Oct 27 '20 at 12:09
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This is common and acceptable, in certain contexts. These are the contexts in which it is acceptable:

  1. Your company should provide you with a valid business reason for requiring on-call after-hours support. Basically, you want to know why you should interrupt your free time and whatever the problem is can't be resolved the next day. If the server crashed, probably reasonable. If the user needs a password reset, probably it can wait. Many companies have a "severity gradient" to deal with this, e.g. a "Severity 1" issue is service-affecting and needs to be resolved urgently, while a user password reset would probably be a lower-severity issue that doesn't even get forwarded to the on-call person. On top of this, the company should provide you a business reason for needing on-call at all. For example, if you're a B2B company doing B2B operations, you probably don't need to resolve issues at 10pm. Your client businesses are not open at that time and they don't need the issue resolved urgently. You can start working a couple hours early the next day and get it fixed then after a good night's rest.

  2. Your company should have an on-call rotation, unless the company is very small. It's not fair to have one person who is 24/7/365 on call and isn't allowed to have a life. Even if that person says it's ok with them, it's still not ok. For small startups, it's OK, provided that the company has a growth plan and intends that to only be a very temporary measure. You shouldn't subject yourself to 24/7/365 on-call, it's not healthy.

  3. You should be paid higher than the industry standard for providing on-call service. Technically what you are doing otherwise is unpaid overtime, and you should never provide unpaid overtime. You should make sure that your salary is commensurate with the amount of responsibility you are expected to take; you don't want to be poorly paid and also have to provide unpaid overtime. Additionally, this should be written into your contract that you have to provide on-call services. It's normal to work a little bit of overtime here and there, like if your day ends at 5pm and you're in the middle of writing a line of code, you don't just stop and be like "ok I'm done", you keep going to a checkpoint, so maybe you work until 5:15 or 5:30. However, the level of service required for on-call is more than this and you should be compensated for it.

As for your other question, nobody can predict the future. However, personally speaking, I've been working from home for almost a year now (I was working from home prior to covid due to other considerations), and my approach is that I don't look at work stuff after I'm done for the day. If my boss wants to reach me after hours, he has to either tell me to expect something from him at which point I'll consider his request when I receive it, or tell me that I have to provide on-call service, or his request doesn't get handled until the next day. That's it. I'd recommend to anyone to do something similar, and just switch off your work stuff when work is done to avoid blending your work with your home life, which isn't healthy.

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  • "you probably don't need to resolve issues at 10pm. Your client businesses are not open at that time " The point is (at least in my company) you fix it at 10 so the client businesses will be back to normal in the next morning. – Qiulang Oct 27 '20 at 2:44
  • Right, you're not wrong. However, it is also acceptable to fix the bug at 8am instead of 10pm, if your client business opens at 9am; they don't know the difference. If it's not a high-severity issue (e.g. "my account is locked out because I forgot my password"), it is also acceptable to ignore it until the next business day. No reasonable client expects your company to be available 24/7/365 if you're B2B. – Ertai87 Oct 27 '20 at 14:42

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