One last post for this decade.
There has been some discussion on tech twitter lately on the subject of whether it is possible to be “successful” in the programming business without working long hours. I won’t dignify the posts which started this conversation off — firmly in the “not possible” camp — with a link; you can find them easily enough I suspect.
My first thought upon seeing this discussion was “well that’s just dumb“. The whole thing struck me as basically illogical for two reasons. First, because it was vague; “success” is relative to goals, and everyone has different goals. Second, because any universal statement like “the only way to achieve success in programming is by working long hours” can be refuted by a single counterexample and I am one! My career has been a success so far; I’ve worked on interesting technology, mentored students, made friends along the way, and been well compensated. But I have always worked long hours very rarely; only a handful of times in 23 years.
Someone said something dumb on the internet, the false universal statement was directly refuted by me in a devastatingly logical manner just now, and we can all move on, right?
My refutation — my personal, anecdotal refutation — answers in the affirmative the question “Is it possible for any one computer programmer, anywhere in the world right now, to be successful without working long hours?” but that is not an interesting or relevant question. My first thought was also pretty dumb.
Can we come up with some better questions? Let’s give it a shot. I’ll start with the personal and move to the general.
We’ve seen that long hours were not a necessary precondition to my success. What were the sufficient preconditions?
I was born into a middle-class, educated family in Canada. I had an excellent public education with teachers who were experts in their fields and genuinely cared about their students. I used family connections to get good high school jobs with strong mentors. Scholarships, internships, a supportive family and some talent for math allowed me to graduate from university with in-demand skills and no debt, with a career waiting for me, not just a job. I’ve been in good health my whole life. When I had problems I had access to professionals who helped me, and who were largely paid by insurance.
Did I work throughout all of that? Sure! Was it always easy? No! But my privileged background enabled me to transform working reasonable hours at a desk into success.
Now it is perhaps more clear why my “refutation” was so dumb, and that brings us to our next better question:
If we subtract some of those privileges, does it become more and more likely that working long hours becomes a necessary precondition for success in our business?
If you’re starting on a harder difficulty level — starting from poverty, without industry or academic connections, if you’re self-taught, if you’re facing the headwinds of discrimination, prejudice or harassment, if you have legal or medical or financial or family problems to solve on top of work problems — there are not that many knobs you can turn that increase your chance of success. It seems reasonable that “work more hours” is one of those knobs you can turn much more easily than “get more industry contacts”.
The original statement is maybe a little too strong, but what if we weaken it a bit? Maybe to something like “working long hours is a good idea in this business because it greatly increases your chances of success, particularly if you’re facing a headwind.” What if we charitably read the original statement more like that?
This is a statement that might be true or it might be false. We could do research to find out — and indeed, there is some research to suggest that there is not a clear causation between working more hours and being more successful. But the point here is that the weakened statement is at least not immediately refutable.
This then leads us from a question about how the world is to how it ought to be, but I’m going to come back to that one. Before that I want to dig in a bit more to the original statement, not from the point of view of correctness, or even plausibility, but from the point of view of who benefits by making the statement.
Suppose we all take to heart the advice that we should be working longer to achieve success. Who benefits?
I don’t know the people involved, and I don’t like to impute motives to people I don’t know. I encourage people to read charitably. But I am having a hard time believing the apologia I outlined in the preceding section was intended. The intended call to action here was not “let’s all think about how structural issues in our economy and society incent workers from less privileged backgrounds to work longer hours for the same pay.” Should we think about that? Yes. But that was not the point. The point being made was a lot simpler.
The undeniable subtext to “you need to work crazy hours to succeed” is “anyone not achieving success has their laziness to blame; they should have worked harder, and you don’t want to be like them, do you?”
That is propaganda. When you say the quiet part out loud, it sounds more like “the income of the idle rich depends on capturing the value produced by the labours of everyone else, so make sure you are always producing value that they can capture. Maybe they will let you see some of that value, someday.”
Why would anyone choose to produce value to be confiscated by billionaires? Incentives matter and the powerful control the incentives. Success is the carrot; poverty and/or crippling debt is the stick.
Those afforded less privilege get more and more of the stick. If hard work and long hours could be consistently transformed into “success”, then my friends and family who are teachers, nurses, social workers and factory workers would be far more successful than I am. They definitely work both longer and harder than I do, but they have far less ability to transform that work into success.
That to me is the real reason to push back on the notion that long hours and hard work are a necessary precondition of success: not because it is false but because it is propaganda in service of weakening further the less privileged. “It is proper and desirable to weaken the already-weak in order to further strengthen the already-strong” is as good a working definition of “evil” as you’re likely to find.
The original statement isn’t helpful advice. It isn’t a rueful commentary on disparity in the economy. It’s a call to produce more profit now in return for little more than a vague promise of possible future success.
Should long hours be a precondition for success for anyone irrespective of their privileges?
First off, I would like to see a world where everyone started with a stable home, food on the table, a high quality education, and so on, and I believe we should be working towards that end as a society, and as a profession.
We’re not there, and I don’t know how to get there. Worse, there are powerful forces that prefer increasing disparities rather than reducing them.
Software is in many ways unique. It’s the reification of algorithmic thought. It has effectively zero marginal costs. The industry is broad and affords contributions from people at many skill levels and often irrespective of location. The tools that we build amplify other’s abilities. And we build better tools for the world when the builders reflect the diversity of that world.
I would much rather see a world in which anyone with the interest in this work could be as successful as I have been, than this world where the majority have to sacrifice extra time and energy in the service of profits they don’t share in.
Achieving that will be hard, and like I said, I don’t know how to effect a structural change of this magnitude. But we can at least start by recognizing propaganda when we see it, and calling it out.
I hate to end the decade on my blog on such a down note, but 2020 is going to be hard for a lot of people, and we are all going to hear a lot of propaganda. Watch out for it, and don’t be fooled by it.
If you’re successful, that’s great; I am very much in favour of success. See if you can use some of your success in 2020 to increase the chances for people who were not afforded all the privileges that turned your work into that success.
Happy New Year all; I hope we all do good work that leads to success in the coming year. We’ll pick up with some more fabulous adventures in coding in 2020.
Thanks to my friend @editorlisaquinn for her invaluable assistance in helping me clarify my thoughts for this post.