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

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Not much seems to have changed since then. Earlier this year, a group describing themselves as "Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees" posted an open letter decrying similar practices at Rockstar Games. In addition to long hours and lack of overtime pay or time off for developers, the Devoted Wives write, "For four consecutive years, salary raises have not adjusted properly to cover inflation. This is especially unjust to those who significantly contribute to projects."

Two things about these firsthand reports are particularly troubling. First is the consistent theme of marital breakdown due to work stresses, which speaks of the tremendous mental and emotional toll that chronic overwork takes on employees. Second is the fact that these witnesses chose to remain anonymous, which suggests they fear reprisals from their employers should their identities be discovered. If that's the case, it's a safe bet these problems aren't going away.

Burnout destroys companies
Game development is notorious for "crunch time," in which developers work around the clock as the product shipping deadline looms. But such practices are hardly confined to the gaming industry. InfoWorld has exposed such abusive practices in other high-tech fields. Even in enterprise IT departments, too few managers seem to realize the damaging effect that overwork can have on their employees -- and by extension, their companies.

When workplace conditions become unbearable, the brightest and most talented employees are usually the first to leave. This is only logical; with their qualifications, they're likely to have plenty of other opportunities elsewhere. As a result, however, the overall competency of development teams tends to sink to the lowest common denominator. In other words, the more managers pressure their developers to perform beyond their limits, the less effective their teams become in the long run.

IT consultant Bruce F. Webster calls this "the Dead Sea effect," a reference to the Middle Eastern body of water that has grown too salty to sustain life. "Large companies tend to lose the really talented IT engineers and hold onto the less talented ones, when they should been actively seeking to do just the opposite," Webster writes. "And the effect tends to be self-reinforcing: the worse an IT shop becomes, the harder it is to get really talented and effective IT engineers to join it and the harder it is to retain them if they do."

The trend toward offshore outsourcing exacerbates this effect. The lower the quality of the in-house development team, the more tempting it is to replace them with low-cost outsourced development. But the more in-house developers feel they can easily be replaced, the less invested they will be in their work, the company, or its goals.

Software managers have it in their power to halt the Dead Sea effect. They can set sane working hours and offer overtime pay or comp time when longer hours are necessary. They can enforce mandatory vacation time. They can set realistic deadlines and resist the temptation to adjust deliverables at the last minute. They can even try alternative methodologies, such as agile development.

The most important thing they can do, however, is recognize the value of their employees, both as assets and as human beings. Even in an industry that moves at the pace of the Internet, every employee deserves to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect -- even if they do like pizza and Mountain Dew.

This article, "Developer burnout: Time to end the 'disposable geek' mentality," originally appeared at Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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