Development

How many hours should I work (as a programmer)?

Uncle Bob in his book “The clean coder” has a very clear answer to his question:

You should plan on working 60 hours per week. The first 40 hours are for your employer. The remaining 20 are for you. (…) Perhaps you do not want to make that kind of commitment. That’s fine but you should not think of yourself as a professional. Professionals spend time caring for their profession.”

This is a really bad answer and promotes very bad habits in the industry. If you look at how many hours a programmer works on average it will be in the range from 40-60+ hours a week. Very rarely you will find a part-time programmer.

Let’s try to figure out what the correct number is.

Is it harmful to work above 40 hours?

People that constantly working 60 hours are not professional and should consider this:

  • Assuming you are employed for 40 hours and you work an additional 20 hours - If you would be a freelancer your salary would increase by +50% - however as an employee you will probably not be given a pay raise and you will not get any recognition because your extra work is just assumed as the new ‘normal’
  • You are putting your job as your only priority and will not have time for relationships, friends, family or your own personal interests.
  • Additionally, you are harming other developers. Two developers working 60 hours a week do the same amount of hours as 3 developers working 40 hours a week. You effectively are eliminated a job opening making it more difficult for a junior developer to find a job.

I bet you are thinking right now: ”But there is so much to do, I cant work fewer hours. The project will fail if I do not get all the tasks done. My manager is pressuring me to work long hours

I am going to let you in on a couple of secrets:

  • There is always a lot of work, the client will always want a new feature, bugfix, etc. that is the nature of developing software. In most cases, it is not the end of the world if a feature is delivered at a later point in time.
  • Your manager’s job is to get the most work out of you for the least cost. If you work more hours for free, hey that’s quite a good deal for the manager in the short term. However great managers will realize that allowing programmers to go home and have a life outside of work will make them more effective at work thus actually improving the project’s outcome in the long run.
  • If you think the project will fail because you are not putting in extra hours, then the projects resources are being miss managed. Management is not aware of the state of the project - You pitching in and doing extra hours, makes the problem worse - as management just believes that the velocity of the project has not changed. You are not signaling to management that the project is not going well and the project cannot continue in this way - they do not know that they are allocating 150% of resources that are available to them. Everything seems to be fine - but in reality, management would have to take action to maintain the project’s velocity they either have to hire additional people or adjust the deadlines to match the available resources.
  • And finally, the deadline for the project is probably arbitrary. Any project manager knows that things go wrong in a software project. You can assume that there are multiple fallback deadlines. Even if there is the ‘last’ deadline - you are dealing with people and people can be flexible if you communicate with them - also if they already invested months of time and resources into a project, in most cases you do not throw that away immediately.

Overtime is sometimes unavoidable, but it always should be a temporary measure, never a permanent state.

It should not become a permanent state because studies have shown that most humans when working more hours just work less efficiently. So it is very likely that you can work fewer hours and achieve the exact same outcome because you are working more focused.

In short - you should only be working more than 40 hours for a good reason.

Working for 40 hours is also bad

If you think you can clock in from 9-5 and just work on your tasks - you will burn out.

You have to stay up to date on what is going on in your field. You have to learn multiple programming languages. It is your responsibility as a professional developer.

Managers will not take care of this. Most times they will promise you ‘trainings’, while at the same time they will never have the budget for you to actually attend a training.

“But learning a new technology that my employer does not need is just for me”

Let’s assume you learn an abstract programming language like Piet - It seems useless for your employer at first, but maybe at your company for the problem that you have to solve this language may be the easiest solution. It also may be that this technology makes the problem harder and you should avoid using it.

No matter the outcome, you the developer will have sharpened your skills have a deeper understanding of the technologies being currently used by contrasting them with the newly learned technology. Additionally, you gain knowledge about technologies you might want to consider or avoid in the future. With the side benefit that you are less frustrated at your job because you know your skills are growing.

But without your effort in learning about the technology, your employer cannot make an educated decision and will just go with whatever they have always been using. The manager may not even be aware of this new technology. In the end, it is your job to explain to your employer if they should use technology or not - they rely on their employees to highlight the potential benefits/downsides of using any tech.

You have to plan this time, it’s part of your self-management - just as you would plan time for your emails. It’s just part of your job, your manager will not tell you to answer emails, it’s just part of your job to do that, the manager assumes that you know that.

If you only dedicate 40 hours to complete the tasks that your employer gives you, you are neglecting your skills why your employer hired you in the first place - and risk to be replaced.

Programming for 20 hours from 9-5

Now, let’s take a look at my ideal view of how you should spend your 40 hours a week:

  • 20 hours is for working on actual tasks
  • 10 hours is for practicing skills and keeping up to date
  • 10 hours is for meetings, email, and socializing

25% of your time spent on practicing seems excessive. Coding is equally craftsmanship and artistic expression. Consider other professions like a concert musician. A violinist would be practicing for months for a single concert - 99% training and 1% performance. Nobody would say that is excessive.

Note: Practicing skills means actively learning and solving problems it is not passively watching for hours YouTube talks or listening to podcasts

Meetings in an organization simply take time a lot of time that you are not spending programming, and many times you get the feeling you were in so many meetings you did not get anything done for the day and clock in an extra hour - however attending meetings is work. you did get something done - you are allowed to go home you may not have done fun things like coding - but you did work.

If you miss a deadline because of a meeting then you maybe should reconsider if you should’ve attended that meeting in the first place. nobody’s forcing you to attend every meeting. If your manager complains that you’re not going to attend a meeting then you can explain that you have a deadline to meet – The manager can then decide what is more important. You are the one that has to inform your manager about the conflicting responsibilities.

The remaining time you can spend working on tasks and that is if you are lucky around 20 hours.

But I am passionate about programming

You can program as a hobby even while you’re working in the field. But then you have to treat it as a hobby and you only should do it if you have the time and it gives you joy and satisfaction. - this also means working on your own project - not work-related and overall it should be relaxing.

Quality over Quantity

It all comes down to quality over quantity. It is better to commit to fewer tasks and deliver them on time and in good quality than deliver many tasks with bugs. Because the bugs will drastically reduce your development velocity over a long period of time.

And in the end, your manager will also be happier because your work output becomes more predictable and reliable. As a bonus, the manager does not have to explain to people why the software was created with so many defects and then order overtime to fix them as fast as possible.

Working focused we get you much further than overworking and neglecting your life outside of work.

There is no correct answer

You have to think about your personal situation and work the way it suits you.

Take your time to think about your current situation, your capabilities, and set your priorities.

Take responsibility and control over how many hours you work. This is an active choice - do not passively just do that what everyone else is doing.

What do you think? How many hours do you work?