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Software engineering requires lots of thinking to analyze complex code, and implement solutions and fixes to difficult problems. Hence, it is usually impractical for a software engineer to retain focus for long periods. To regain focus and refresh their mind, they regularly take short breaks from work, in the form of coffee breaks, a visit to the water cooler, a walk around the office building, etc.

In cases where the engineer's efforts are billed to a client based on the hours worked:

  • Is it a common business practice to include these short breaks into the hours billed to client?
  • Is it considered professional for the engineer to report these breaks as working time?
  • Does it make any difference if the engineer is a freelance contractor as against an employee of a company?
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I think it is important to clarify what break means in this case.

I agree with you that as software engineers/developers we may find ourselves frequently loosing focus on long periods of time, or also being stuck fixing some bug or designing some complex method. As a result, is is not rare for Software Engineers/Devs to take a "break" from their current tasks to freshen up their minds.

However, having experienced this situation you are mentioning, I must confess that those "breaks" I take are far from being a moment of idleness or leisure. Usually a break in those cases really means: background processing the task I am stuck/lost focus while doing other work-related tasks. Even in the cases where one is not doing other tasks in the meantime you are actually thinking of that problem, until you get that Aha Moment or some other sort of inspiration to continue that task.

Now, considering that definition of "taking a break":

Is it a common business practice to include these short breaks into the hours billed to client?

You could say yes, as long as those breaks are not leisure/idle moments. Also, as you say, as long as they are short (relativelly of course) breaks. During those breaks you can also do other tasks on the project for that client, being that billable time.

Is it considered professional for the engineer to report these breaks as working time?

This depends, as long as that break time is reasonably long/short and those breaks are not that frequent. Also, it would be ok to report them if you were actually background processing some task related to the project, but would not be ok or professional to report them if you were doing unrelated tasks in the meantime (like other projects or leisure time).

Does it make any difference if the engineer is a freelance contractor as against an employee of a company?

In your first question it does make a difference, as in freelancing you decide what you are billing to your client, but if you are an employee then this is something your boss or manager usually decides, so most probably in the latter case it will not be up to you to decide what is billed to the client.

Now, in your second question it does not make a difference, as in both cases (freelance vrs. employee) it is up to you to decide what you report as work time. The difference is that when freelancing you also decide what/how that reported work time is billed, but when you are an employee that is something your boss or manager should decide.

As an example, say you report X working hours to your boss, but he decides to charge the client $0 for them. You are still getting your paycheck at the end of the month, even though your boss decided not to bill this to the client. You can see how this would be different if you were a freelancer instead, as you will be getting nothing for those X hours.

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My opinion, you're overthinking this.

Breaks in monotony are work time just as much as typing in the editor. It's part of the creative process. So, chatting with teammates, getting a snack, checking SO while waiting for a build to complete just come with the territory. The situation is the same for ancillary distractions such as random phone calls and such. No one stops the clock for two minutes to answer a call from their mother.

Over time, you'll develop a professional sense of what a work-break (billable) vs. a break in work (not billable).

Yes, this is different then task based work, such as answering phones or data entry.

Also keep in mind that tracking such trivial 'breaks' can take as much time as the breaks themselves.

Finally, this is an impossible thing to judge. Some very productive people don't appear to do much work while some other work hard for relative average output.

Lunch is a grey area. If you billing as an FTE, then the daily rate may include that but generally, you don't bill the hour you take for lunch just as you would bill any time taken for doing random errands during the day.

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As a software engineer, I would say those breaks are not for fun and it should be billable.

I take frequent breaks in the form of a quick walk around office and most of the time I articulate solution for a particular problem.

I can do same thing on my desk, but its much better while walking. That way I keep check on my health too.

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