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Technology Workaholics – Sad but True

I’ve found another one of those blogosphere discussions that seems to have struck a nerve with folks. Jason Calcanis wrote a post about how to run a startup on the cheap. Lots of others, including Michael Arrington and Duncan Riley have added to the discussion as well.

This is one of those “only in Silicon Valley technology start-ups” kind of discussions. As I’ve read through these posts, I’m reminded how peculiar the world of venture-backed startups really is. Venture-backed startups sign up for a very specific program that drives a lot of this behavior – there is constant pressure to grow and become successful at breathtaking speed. The higher profile the company and investors, the more pressure there will be to succeed and succeed quickly (with quickly being a relative term). While I don’t agree with everything in Jason Calcanis’ post, I do think that his post and Michael Arrington’s post do highlight some of the key things you need to think about (whether you do them or not is your own decision) if you want to run or be part of a tech startup or a startup that’s part of the tech economy.

In my opinion, many of the things in all of these posts are unique to the world of technology and probably don’t qualify as management best practices aside from hiring the best / right people.

Instead of dissecting those posts (I encourage you to read them as they’re all good), I’d like to offer up a collection of musings I have about the nature of work, particularly in technology. Tech seems to both breed and attract workaholics and I think there are some things people might want to consider when mulling over that marginal hour.

Working vs being at work – There is a substantive difference between working and being at work. I find there’s a relatively fixed number of working hours during which I can really product high-quality work (no, I’m not telling the number of hours this is). However, there is a lot of serendipity to the way in which work happens. Simply put, there are some things that only happen if you happen to bump into someone in the hallway, overhear a conversation, riff on a topic with a co-worker face to face, or have some other chance occurrence. This is part of the value of being at work, even if you’re not working on company business. Sometimes it’s good to be “at the office” even if you’re not 100% focused on doing company business – it keeps the possibility of these serendipitous moments alive.

On a related note, this is why I think telecommuting is really hard in small companies. When you’re trying to figure things out and the relevant team is a small group of people, having everyone in one place where these chance “ah ha” moments can occur is really important. Encouraging people to “hang out” at work is not necessarily a bad thing.

Most hours vs best hours – I’d argue that what any successful company needs is its employees best hours, not the most hours it can possibly get from that person. In my experiences, there is some core portion of the day or some core number of hours during the day when a given individual does his or her best thinking and work. It’s not unreasonable for a company to expect and seek employees who want to spend their best hours of the day working on things that matter for the company. Simply focusing on the number of hours spent and driving that number as high as possible is not really that productive.

It’s easy to promote workaholic behavior when you don’t have to internalize the cost of burnout.I do think many start-ups attract mission-driven people who really believe in the work they are doing and think they are part of something special. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s fairly easy for most start-ups to promote a go-for-broke work mentality because it’s highly unlikely that the company itself will have to deal with the ugly results (namely burnout, poor relationships outside of work, etc) this mentality produces because most start-ups simply don’t survive long enough for the effects of burnout (lost motivation, physical and emotional stress, disinterest, etc) manifest themselves in the employee’s work product. By and large, startup employees as a whole run a high risk of burnout even if a relatively small number of companies live long enough to have to deal with it.

I think this is sort of a selection bias issue. The companies that work employees hard and stick around long enough to have to deal with the effects have a “success problem” – they’ve managed to stick around, survive, and succeed and now have to reap what they’ve sown. The upside is that if you’ve “made it” as a start-up, there’s usually economic and social benefits for employees in successful startups that make the sacrifice feel worthwhile. At the end of the day, I think the social contract between most employees and start-ups works along these lines — work really hard and when we succeed and conquer the world it will all be worth it.

Prolonged task focus can get in the way of breakthrough creativity – One thing worth mentioning is that too much maniacal focus on one topic or set of problems without a break of some sort really undermines creativity. A good friend sent me the following quote a few days ago and I think it really applies:

Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen – Leonardo da Vinci

No matter how engaged you are in a task and how important it seems, there is generally value in taking a step back at times to catch your breath and rethink the challenges you’re trying to tackle.

Sprints vs marathons – This is maybe one of the most overused metaphors in the world of business, but I do think it applies to the world of work. It’s really important to understand whether you’re at the point where you should be sprinting or pacing yourself. It’s really hard to sprint forever. In business and in sports, the longer you sprint, the more time you need to recover and catch your breath. Not every deal, line of code, project, or deliverable warrants an all-nighter. For companies who have a long-term view and plan, it’s important to balance the sprint and marathon natures of work. For companies who are just worried about making it to the next day, the desire to make everything a sprint and worry about slowing down or pacing yourself later can be extreme.

At the end of the day, the whole issue of work/life balance is pretty straightforward. If you don’t ask for it or demand it, I doubt you’ll get it. If work/life balance matters to you (and I think it should in whatever fashion you seek to balance work and your personal life), make sure you have realistic expectations about what the environment expects of you.

Editorial note – I enjoyed Duncan’s post the most because I thought it did touch on the “is it all worth it in the end?” subcurrent that most people who work hard in tech ask themselves in the shower or before they go to bed at night every day. More people should talk about that stuff. I thought Arrington’s post was great because it was honest without being preachy – one of the better posts I’ve read from him of late.

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