Donald J. Patti

Dead Babies, Dead-tired Staffers and “Leaving the Zone”: Exceeding the Envelope in Software Development

In E-Business, Ethics and ideology, management, Quality, Software Development, Technology on 12 October 2009 at 10:38 am

I know, I know.  “What do dead babies have to do with software development?” you say.  “Are you playing my heart-strings?”

Sensationalism being what it is, I have to admit that I couldn’t avoid leading with nearly everyone’s horror – dead babies.  Yet, there is a critical tie between today’s three attention-grabbing subjects and software development that makes this entry worth reading.  And, it has implications for how you manage your staff, software developers or otherwise, in the days to come.  Read on.

Leaving the Zone

It’s been more time than I care to admit, but during my senior year of college I learned what it means to be “in the zone” as well as what it’s like to leave it – painfully.  A track and cross country athlete at the NCAA Division 1 level, I was the first finisher on my team for my first four races, finishing in the top five for every race and posting two victories.

Old glories aside, it’s far more notable what happened next – my body crashed.  Though I’d trained hard with the rest of my team by posting a full Summer 80+ mile weeks and even two at 100+, I then took on the World when classes started, signing up for a full slate of five courses and tacking on a full time job managing a political campaign in Montecito, California, fifteen minutes south of Santa Barbara.  I slept less than five hours a night and spent nearly all my time racing from one place to another, which is a sure recipe for a wrecked body.

Back then, I had no idea there were limits to the punishment my body could take, but I found out quickly.  After consistent finishes with the lead pack among hundreds of runners, I finished no better than the middle of the pack in my remaining four races.  Even worse, my team went from three victories in four races to middle-of-the-pack as well, in part because I was no longer pacing them to victory.  At the end of the season, the affects of over-work were readily apparent – an MRI showed three stress fractures, one of the femur, our body’s largest and most durable bone.  Clearly, I didn’t recognize when I was “Leaving the Zone” by over-working myself, but had only just come to realize this.

Dead-Tired Staffers

Amazingly, it took an enormous amount of self-abuse for me to finally start listening to the messages my body was sending me about being tired or over-worked, but the lesson has stayed with me since.  As I’ve spent more time at work leading people, I’ve noticed that lesson also to the work world, where tight deadlines and high-pressure work can lead us as leaders to push for overtime again and again.

Consider your last marathon project with brutal deadlines and lots of overtime: Can you remember seeing these signs of over-work in your team members as they pushed themselves beyond their limits:  Irritability; an inability to concentrate; lower productivity; poor quality; at the extreme, negative productivity, when more work was thrown out than is gained?  Looking back, you’ve probably seen at least a few of these, and if you check out your defect logs from the work produced during these times, you’ll notice a spike in the number of defects resulting from your “more overtime” decision.  But, maybe you’re still denying that over-work will threaten the success of your projects, not to mention the long term well-being of your team members, as you run a dedicated team of dead-tired staffers over the edge.

Dead Babies

If this is the case, you wouldn’t be the first manager I’ve met who doesn’t understand how over-work can actually slow your project down rather than speed it up.  Software developers, analysts, engineers and QA team members, these managers argue, are hardly putting in a hundred miles of physical exertion each and every week, though they may be putting in 60 or 70 hours of work.  These managers counter that mental exertion and sleep depravation are not the same as physical exertion on the level of a college athlete. Or, they accept it in theory, until a project falls behind or a key deadline looms.

Though I found a number of excellent articles and blogs on the subject of software development and over-work and I’ve posted at the bottom of this article, the best evidence of the adverse affects of sleeplessness, stress and over-work on our ability to use our minds productively actually comes from the world of parenting.  In the Washington Post article, “Fatal Distraction: Leaving a child in the back seat of a hot car…”, report Gene Weingarten moves beyond the emotion of a very sensitive subject and asks the telling question of what was going on in the lives of parents who leave their children in cars on hot, sweltering days.  The answer?  Stress, sleeplessness, over-work and half-functioning brains – in many cases brought on by us, as managers.

“The human brain is a magnificent but jury-rigged device,” cites Weingarten of David Diamond, a Professor of Molecular Physiology who studies the brain.  (Weingarten and Diamond deserve all of the credit for this research, but I’ll paraphrase).  A sophisticated layer – the one that enables us to work creatively and think critically – functions on top of a “junk heap” of basal ganglia we inherited from lower species as we evolved.  When we over-work our bodies, the sophisticated layer shuts down and the basal ganglia take over, leaving us as stupid as an average lizard.  Routine tasks are possible, like eating or driving to work, but changes in routine or critical-thinking tasks are extremely difficult.  Even the most important people in our lives are forgotten when fatigue and stress are applied, as Weingarten’s article shows.

If an otherwise dutiful, caring parent can’t remember their own child when sufficiently fatigued, what is the likelihood we’ll get something better than a dumb lizard from our software development team when we push them above sixty hours per week again and again?  And when they’re finished, how high will their quality of work actually be?

So, when considering another week of over-time, think twice.  Sometimes, it’s better to just send the team home.

—–

Gene Weingarten’s Washington Post article can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701549.html?wpisrc=newsletter&sid=ST2009030602446

Other good articles on overtime and software development can be found here:

http://xprogramming.com/xpmag/jatsustainablepace/

http://www.uncommonsenseforsoftware.com/2006/06/planned_overtim.html

http://www.systems-thinking.org/prjsys/prjsys.htm

http://www.caffeinatedcoder.com/the-case-against-overtime/

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