I value a healthy work/life balance. My wife might disagree with me, and cite my inability to stop working, even while on the couch in front of the TV with my laptop, but quite frankly, I think we’ve achieved a pretty nice balance here at Ping.
On occasion, which I think is both normal and healthy, when we’re nearing a major product release, a big trade show, or we’re at the quarter end push, things can get pretty hectic. In those situations, I don’t think it is that uncommon to have to put in some extra hours to get things done. That’s normal. But if you find yourself always under the gun, working mad hours just to keep your head above water, you likely need to re-examine your priorities and planning process. Sooner or later, this style of operation catches up with you, and your people, the company and ultimately your customers will pay the price.
In the past 5 years, our engineering team has delivered on time 97% of the time. As major product release dates approach, and the known defects list grows, our teams often have to work extra hours to meet our high quality standards. This is normal. We try however, as best we can, to keep weekends sacred. We don’t always succeed, but it’s important that we recognize the boundaries between life and work balance. I think this is especially true when a company values tenure and wants to inspire confidence in its people.
This week, we discovered the fact that we will likely need to pull some extra hours to wrap up our next release on time. I have 100% confidence that our team will deliver, after all, they’ve earned their reputation. But, our VP of Engineering had a few words to say about it, which I think are simply beautiful, so I thought I’d share.
…Obviously I have strong feelings about overtime and family time. Hoping this note gives you some insight to a perspective I’ve developed through a lot of years.
Engineering Requires Overtime: I have generally found that some level of overtime is needed to meet the shared goals of the team and company. Things happen and hopefully the overtime is a speed bump, contained to the work week and does not spill over to weekend time. When it does we need to think about what it means.
Overtime as a Life Style: People have different work patterns and different feedback loops to “have they done their best”. We have team members that constantly pull some level of overtime as reported in every two-week period. I do this as I have a >8 hr work day pattern that I am comfortable with each day and I actually draw energy from. It is reasonable for me and I have strong boundaries to it not going unreasonable. I’ve learned that with such a pattern, things can get out of hand as I can recall billing 3,400 hours one year (consultant world) versus a normal year of 2080 hours minus vacation, holidays, and sick leave. This pattern, something I kept up for many years at levels above 3,000 hours, was not fair to my wife, not fair to my work, and not fair to me. Oddly enough, I had no leadership person in my life to ground me to what was best for all and I blocked everything my wife said about long hours. You could say my CEO took advantage of me but because I did not draw a boundary, I took advantage of myself.
Do Not Cast Your Overtime Ethic on Others: First, it is a fair expectation that everyone wants Ping to be successful. However, that expectation should not translate to you laying your personal overtime feedback/allocation on others. Everyone has a different situation and a different ability to handle speedbumps. I like to think that given enough warning, everyone can find 3 to 4 hours on a single weekend to help catch up. Repeating that is family situational as I learned one time.
I was leading a classic waterfall effort and we had fallen behind by a least two weeks. We did the speed bump thing and everyone pitched in but we needed more weekends. The lead engineer came to me and said he couldn’t do it—I was upset as meeting the goal was, in my small mind, what we all lived for. He mentioned he needed to spend time with his wife and children picking wildflowers. I thought, wildflowers over getting a new distributed DB to the market—how crazy. You can imagine how crummy I felt when two years later his wife died of a brain tumor. A painful lesson that touches my heart even today.
Weekends are Special: Work week time is different from weekend time. We have a company ethic of not gobbling up weekends as a normal way of operating. With 30ish years of career, this is the first job I have not worked at least a half day every weekend and in some, a full Saturday. Funny as it sounds, it is my wife that remembers this and made that observation, not me because I had come to expect it as a pattern necessary for being in a leadership role. So, I shorted the wonderful things of value that come with not having every weekend pulled down to a day or, best case, day and half. And, let’s not forget that weekends are about recovery, so we can do our very best during the week.
Families Have Weekend Patterns: So let’s say we have to pull some speed bump weekend time. It’s not an easy thing to do. If you’re are like me, I have a family pattern (with a few variations). We shop for groceries on Saturday, we do house cleaning, home improvement stuff, and yard work generally on Saturday afternoons and so on. Actually we both have an agreed to floating two-hour block set aside for doing our personal work stuff—I generally try to catch up on reading and I scan my e-mails. Even with this built in time, breaking this pattern as a speedbump requires shifts around responsibilities since things still need to be done to keep the “ship” provisioned and running. So, more warning is fair to my wife and to having less stress at home.
Burnout Can Happen: I like people to report every hour spend in serving Ping. This is important as I track overtime for each person so I can alert the PDs to people starting a burnout pattern. I put them on alert to a few people just a couple weeks ago. It is complex, as reset from habitual overtime in a burnout mode is tough as it involves the person’s feedback mechanism and the baseline expectations of the organization. Burnout is bad and I do not want anyone in Ping to say we drove them to burnout. If this should ever happen, I will view it as a failure of leadership.
I am proud of our record as a team. Less than 3% slip rate year-over-year is amazingly solid and easily in the top 5% of development teams. And don’t forget the situations where the release to marketing was a day or so ahead of the timebox end. The stats point to every train requiring some push to higher hours at the end and the indicators are that our current delivery is no different. I think we will improve this situation with better testing automation, faster defect finding, and knocking down defects in flight throughout the release. And this will happen this year!