A Response to Extreme Working Conditions in Software Development
A couple articles regarding the treatment of developers, among other employees, at major video game studios like Bioware and Epic have recently caught my attention.
In both exposés, an investigative journalist speaks with a number of anonymous company insiders about working conditions and discovers that workers are regularly pushed to work as much as 100 hours a week in some cases, facing condemnation and ostracization, even firing, if they don’t.
While there are often pressures within companies to hit aggressive targets, it shouldn’t be controversial whatsoever for anyone to suggest that such treatment should not be allowed to happen, for a whole load of reasons.
Because no product exists without the contributions of every member on the team.
Because profits and product success, while important, can never be more important than the happiness and health of people, particularly when those people work for you.
Because demanding 100-hour work weeks, or even 50-hour work weeks, will inevitably lead to burnout (and does so on a grand scale, according to the aforementioned articles), which will in turn lead to turnover, crappy work output, and potentially even a negative article that paints the company and its products in a really bad light — all of which can affect your bottom line far more than pushing the release date.
I stand by the premise that hiring for culture and fit is by far the most important thing you can do for your company, but largely because it helps to ensure those employees love working there and continue to do so, producing great output, for a long time. It’s good for them and it’s good for the business.
Clearly, software development (and video game development especially) is a world with important deadlines. Writing, testing, and deploying great code takes time, and it can be hard in some cases to estimate the amount of time necessary to complete a project. When aggressive deadlines are set, it creates an increasing sense of pressure on developers to finish their work, but that pressure ultimately leads to developer burnout, shitty code, and mediocre products.
The advice I’d have for any software development team leader or product manager is to recognize that the people you have working for you need to be the priority. Deadlines can almost always move. Sure, you might answer to a board of directors or a legion of gaming fans with itchy Reddit fingers, but at the end of the day, everybody involved wants the same thing — an exceptional product that they’re proud of. If that requires a few extra months, so be it. If it needs another year, ok. Even if it means missing the financial quarter you promised you’d release in, it is never worth sacrificing a healthy company culture just to hit an arbitrary deadline that can always be moved.
When crunch time comes, as it inevitably will, it’s crucial to be upfront and honest with your employees. Tell your employees when they’re hired that overtime may occasionally be required. Make sure it only happens occasionally. If you promise overtime rewards, like bonuses, follow through on them. It’s certainly possible that some employees will happily put in a couple 100-hour work weeks for a nice bonus — just as long as it really is only a couple of weeks and the bonus is real.
In summary, game studios (and any/all development companies) need to be better about putting their people first. And if you’re a person working under such difficult conditions, either demand better working conditions (yes, you have that power–look at Google’s employees staging a sit-in due to mistreatment after their walk-out six months ago) or get the hell out of there and find a company that will take better care of you.
I’m the CTO and co-founder of Devetry, a custom software development company in Denver, CO with widespread working knowledge of many programming languages, frameworks, and technologies. We simplify the complex world of software as business-driven consultants and dev team support for software/tech companies in higher education, renewable energy, healthcare, and much more. Learn more at Devetry.com.