Sunday, September 17, 2006

Why Crunch Mode Doesn't Work

I have long been fascinated (and disgusted) by the lack of government, union, or HR care for the abuse of workers in the software industry. During the dot com era, I actually heard it touted as an intentional strategy by some Silicon Valley managers to hire young programmers right out of school who would work long hours for little pay and were considered "disposable." Mostly, they were disposed of, by burn out.

This attitude was reflected a little more indirectly in the cuts in benefits and pensions everywhere including major companies like AT&T, layoffs in which senior people were cut on the principle that they were easy to replace; among other people mismanagement decisions that seemed to me to be incalculably stupid. Incalculable, unfortunately, because the decisions and decisionmakers at these companies were protected by layers of indirection (about the reasoning, minimally) and because there is profound difficulty in measuring the damage to the company, products, and customers, both long and short term. Stupid, because the people in the trenches doing the work understood the impact every day, in terms of workload, quality of work, culture, their attachment to the company, belief in the industry and in what they were doing...

More than one person I knew who was young and abused in the dot com era decided they were "getting out," went to open a record store (or flower shop) and never looked at a computer again. In an era of declining enrollment in computer science programs, we as an industry can't really afford that.

Here's a guy in the game industry--one of the most famously abusive software sectors--trying to make the case with a fairly well-researched article on the subject: IGDA - Articles - Why Crunch Mode Doesn't Work: 6 Lessons. Tagline: There's a bottom-line reason most industries [except the software industry] gave up crunch mode over 75 years ago: It's the single most expensive way there is to get the work done. Of course, in the software industry, quality hasn't mattered that much, till recently. Will things change? Will software management change? Will the calculation become easier to make to argue against the stupid?

And here's an article, only tangentially related, but I think still related, on why America is lagging in R&D. The State of Research Isn't All That Grand. R&D is being outsourced, because it's cheaper that way; and R&D is "hard to measure" because it's a long-term investment. Most American companies aren't actually that good at long-term anything, in a profits-now-or-your-bonus-is-impacted business world.

Why hasn't Built to Last had more impact?

4 comments :

Jeff Mather said...

Interesting. The software industry — for all of the smart, knowledgeable people in it — seems to have a habit of not learning lessons from the past.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. Yeah, but. But has any industry learned this for real? The auto industry is shipping its jobs overseas to where crunch mode is acceptable because it's enforced by economic clout. The academy takes it for granted that we'll do what we have to for tenure, which means (in my case, anyway) almost constant crunch mode during the semesters and no real summer. The airline pilots aren't being forced into crunch mode, but every job gets several THOUSAND applications, you have to retire at sixty, you can't switch carriers, and even when you work for one of the two or three solvent carriers, your salary can be cut by forty percent (my brother's was) in binding arbitration so that your (solvent) company can "keep up" with the (non-solvent) competition. And you can change careers, but not jobs. And that's not even considering the company-store ethos of Wal-Mart, the continuing abuses of miners and textile workers (the ones whose jobs haven't yet vanished to China and Mexico), and all the rest of it. What industry is there that's really given up on crunch mode?

--Catherine.
PS Hi--hope you're doing all right! :-)

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