Don't waste time on heroic death marches

Workaholism is seldom a virtue, whether you’re programming or writing articles.

I’m a workaholic. I typically work from 50 to 60 hours per week, and I’ve been doing it for decades now. Don’t be like me. Yes, for me it works well, but I’m wired that way. If I’m breathing, I’m researching, reading, or writing. Most people aren’t like me, and trying to get your staff to be that way doesn’t work out well for them, your company, or your projects either.

I was recently reminded that many bosses think the only way to get work done is by forcing their employees to work overtime or to push them into trying to finish projects without enough time. What jogged my memory was a tweet from Hadi Partovi, CEO of, in which he fondly recalled how Microsoft pushed out Internet Explorer 3 to combat Netscape during the 90s’ web browser wars.  

Partovi proudly noted that the Internet Explorer team was “the hardest-working team I’ve ever been on. And I’ve worked at multiple start-ups. It was a sprint, not a marathon. We ate every meal at the office. We often held foosball tournaments at 2 am, just to get the team energy back up to continue working!”

He continued: “Sadly, there were divorces and broken families and bad things that came out of that. But I also learned that even at a 20,000-person company, you can get a team of 100 people to work like their lives depend on it.”

Stumbling to the finish line

I’ve heard this kind of macho boasting about badass people working themselves literally into the grave over and over again. I’ve seen it far too often as well.

And you know what? For all the posturing, the vast majority of projects I’ve heard and seen using this kind of death march approach failed. They failed badly.

I’m not talking about the quality of life or work/life balance. We all know those go to hell when you get people working until 2 am for days on end. I’m talking about the end results. The resulting programs and projects usually stink.

I mean, seriously, how good do you really think code written after weeks of 10-hour days at the keyboard is going to be? I’ve read those programs and they’re usually garbage. What happens next? Your employees end up burning even more hours fixing bugs caused by exhaustion. 

Throwing more resources, be it people or man-hours, at a project doesn’t make it more successful. Don’t believe me? Read Fred Brooks’ classic: The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.

Even Partovi realizes, after reflection, that he’d “created the misimpression of a toxic culture and then glorified it.” He also confessed that when he first founded, it “started out in an unsustainable ‘crunch mode,’ and as we’ve grown, we’ve intentionally focused on how to achieve our ambitious long-term goals in a way that also offers a healthy work/life balance for our team.”

Many projects face times when, for a short while, a lot of work must be put in during a short time. But when every day requires insane hours, it’s another matter entirely.

Don’t stop, we’re building value

That includes “startup mode.” You know the drill: The startup’s leadership just assumes everyone will stay at the office 24/7 and begrudgingly allows that going to your mom’s funeral might—might—be acceptable before meeting with the venture capitalists for round-A financing.

I didn’t make up that example, by the way. It happened to a friend in Silicon Valley. He quit—and the company never made it. His leaving had nothing to do with its failure. Its collapse had everything to do with overworking staff until, ultimately, no investors were left to pour money down the hole. Dozens of burned-out workers were left in that disaster’s wake.

More generally, I’ve seen far too many companies valuing work hours before any other measure of success. That works for law firms and other businesses where it’s all about the billable hour. Most businesses, however, should judge their employees by what they actually accomplish. Personally, I don’t care how many or few hours workers put in so long as they get done their jobs.

Successful companies, whether they’re programming houses, retailers, law firms, whatever, make their employees’ needs a priority.  For example, when was the last time you complimented your staff on a job well done? Try it. You might just find that sugar makes happier worker bees than the vinegar of endless work.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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