Developer burnout: Time to end the 'disposable geek' mentality

Late hours, lack of time off, and limited opportunity to get ahead lead to worker burnout -- and hurt companies in the long run

Everyone knows the software programmer stereotype: Developers are lone hackers working late into the night, the room illuminated only by their computer monitors. They subsist on delivery pizza and Mountain Dew. They rarely leave their posts when there's coding to be done, sometimes even spending Friday night on the old couch in the office.

While that description might sound like a romantic ideal to a certain brand of misanthropic hacker, the vast majority of developers are ordinary workers. They have families, hobbies, and responsibilities that have nothing to do with build cycles and release schedules. Unfortunately, however, workplace pressures often force these everyday developers into situations that bear far too close a resemblance to the basement-dwelling existence of legend.

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Long work hours, missed vacation and sick time, and lack of recognition and advancement are endemic in the software development industry. For all the talk of a "knowledge economy," some of the smartest and most highly specialized members of the workforce are often treated like disposable labor, easily replaced by newer, cheaper recruits. The result, predictably, is burnout, where the most seasoned team members leave the organization for greener pastures -- and or vacate the field completely.

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Any sensible manager should recognize that this is an untenable situation, one that will weaken any company in the long run. And yet, software development teams seem to have a way of creeping into toxic work patterns before anyone realizes what's happening. If we as an industry hope to reverse this trend, software managers need to be mindful of the signs of workplace breakdown and, more important, take swift corrective action.

It's not all fun and games
Nowhere are the worst practices of software development teams more prevalent than in the videogame industry. In an editorial published last week, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander asked, "Is the game industry a happy place?" The answers were less than encouraging. Alexander quoted one anonymous developer as saying, "Game development has a way of taking over your life, because there's always more that can be done to improve perceived quality. I've seen a lot of divorces in my time in the game industry."

That should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the industry over the years. As far back as 2004, an anonymous commenter going by the handle "ea_spouse" wrote of long hours, missed vacations, and lack of comp time or sick leave at Electronic Arts, a major game development firm. "Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy," ea_spouse wrote. "The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation."

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