Internet Explorer 3.0 had its 25th birthday the other day. In honor of that one of the original devs posted about his experience on Twitter. He tells the story of 2 AM foosball games and having all meals at the office. I joined Microsoft a few years later, and while not every team was working late and having dinner delivered, the number of days that there wasn’t a team nearby that had dinner brought in, with enough leftovers for folks on other teams without dinner to get some, was vanishingly small.
Prior to that I was in the game industry, so I was very familiar with the idea of crunch time and working 20 hour days to get a gold master released on time. Remember, this was before the advent of online updates, let alone downloadable content. Everything had to be in the box, and there could be weeks between sending the master off to the duplicator and getting things on shelves.
Which gets back to that twitter thread, which turned into a bit of a twitter storm. The author remembers it fondly. Talks about how much he learned and how it started his career. Friendships forged in fire that continue to this day. Pride in the effort and the result.
Others, who weren’t there, saw it differently. They see exploitation. They see people giving up their lives and their families for at best, money, or more commonly, a company that didn’t care. That the people who thought they were having a good time were fooling themselves.
I worked with some of those people on other projects. Some of the smartest folks I’ve worked with. And, at least when I worked with and for them, balanced. They knew when to stretch, when to work hard, and when to relax. Did they learn some of that working on IE 3? Almost certainly. Did they work hard then? Absolutely. Too hard? That depends. They didn’t think so. The families I knew didn’t think so. I think they made a conscious decision to trade the time and effort for the experience, learnings, and yes, money, that they got for being there.
Which is absolutely not to say that it is the right way to build software for the long term. In a year the team grew by 10x and they all needed a break after. That kind of effort isn’t sustainable over the long term. And no-one should offer or expect it. But just because someone chooses to work that hard and others benefit, doesn’t make it exploitation. It doesn't invalidate their choice.
Which leaves me very conflicted. At that time I worked that way. On multiple occasions. At the time I didn’t feel exploited. At the time I felt empowered to do the right thing and internally motivated to produce the best product I could. I remember the camaraderie we felt. The fun we had. The things I learned. The closeness and sense or purpose the entire team had. Looking back I don’t feel exploited.
On the other hand, I don’t work that way now. If I see someone doing it now I ask them why. If I’m involved I ask them to stop. I ask them to think long and hard about the choices they’re making and make sure they understand the sacrifices involved. I’ll tell them about my experiences. The things I missed out on. Because it was a sacrifice. I gave up a lot. Looking back, I wonder if I made the right decision. Would I be happier or more fulfilled now? There’s no way to know. Now I don’t make the same decisions. I have a different viewpoint and I don’t think it’s the right choice for me, or for others.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t get to make the choice. These things still happen. Back at Uber, when we were bringing up a datacenter one of the datacenter folks worked for 12+ hours with abdominal pain. He went to the ER, passed a kidney stone, and then came back and finished what he was doing. I, and multiple others, told him not to do something like that again. We had told him at the beginning of the day, and multiple times over the course of the day, to go home. We told him not to come back. But it was his decision.
It was part of the culture. Don’t let the other person down, regardless of the cost. Is it exploitation? I don’t know. Certainly demanding that kind of response and punishing those who don’t leads leads to that behavior and exploitation. If the bosses expect that behavior and treat it as the norm then it becomes exploitation.
But what about when it comes from the bottom up. When everyone is that passionate about what they’re doing? Is that exploitation? And how do you know the difference between a driven team and a team that doesn’t feel safe enough to speak up when they’re put in that pressure cooker? How do you keep passion and drive from becoming a positive feedback loop that turns into burnout? How do you keep from romanticising this kind of pressure?
What do you think? I’d love to hear about other folk’s experiences.