You and the Work-Wife in the High-Tech World

Chip has been reading Microserfs,
a book I read a long ago after Mason mentioned the joke about
one of the characters (who works out a lot) coming home and eating a whole
chicken.

One of the themes Chip pointed out was the “work is your life, life
is your work” idea in the book. In the high-tech world you don’t work
at “offices,” you work on the more friendly sounding “campuses.”
There’s all the “normal life” amenities like sodas, snacks, gyms with
showers, and other
things
that you might consider to be of the realm of “life”
instead of “work.”

(As a funny side note, check out the picture on this Google
page
. Google, who allocates 20% of their employees time to work on
whatever they want [to innovate new things], is often thought of as a
“good” company. Check out that picture though: it’s like, “hey, got a
baby? Just bring ’em to work with you! You want to be at work, right?
Work is life! Life is Work!” I’m sure it’s not that bad, but it’s a
good visual, intentional or not, to my point.)

The thinking here is that workers will be more creative and
productive if they feel “at home” when they’re at work. Furthermore,
since so few people in this industry can schedule and plan to save
their life, it’s part of the job to work long hours when schedules and
estimates turn out (90% of the time) to be totally bogus and
wrong. Thus, The Company wants to remove, or at least blur, the lines
between your life and your work: the company will get more out of
you.

New geeks don’t really see this as a bad thing. The reason, of
course, is because they don’t have a life to “get in the way”
of work. For all us social rejects who’d (and still do) spent years in
front of computer screens, instead of in front of people, the only
difference between “real” work and our past life is that we get a pay
check and we have bosses.

We get sucked in, and we trade participation in “real” life for a
sort of extended childhood with big pay checks and horrendous
deadlines.

Of course, this type of mindset/work-life is terrible is for your
“real” life once you get one. I think that’s understood by anyone
who’s lived it long enough. Once you get into a relationship, start a
family, or decide you want your life to involve anything non-work
related, it’s like you suddenly have two wives, both of which, of
course, hate each other. It’s easy (and lazy) to slip into the mind-set that it’s
your “real” life causing you all the pain, but, really, it’s your
work that’s doing it.

When we talk about generational problems in the software industry
— that, as you get older, companies are just waiting to dump your ass
in favor of younger workers — I think it’s this problem we’re bumping
into. As you get older, you realize that, no, you can’t work 60, 70,
80 hours a week at work. Hell, even 50 hours is pushing it. You need to, no, want to, spend time
with your wife, family, and friends (if you’ve managed to get any out
of work) watching movies, having some beer, or (God forbid!) just
talking and hanging out with them.

(Of course, younger programmers are cheaper and, occasionally, reach that sweet spot of cheapness and effectivness. Older programmers, though effective, are rarely cheap, and rightly so.)

But the Work-Wife just won’t have it: you start leaving at 5 or 6
every day (astonishingly, this is considered “normal” in the rest of
the work-world. I know! I was surprised too.), and suddenly you’re a
slacker, you’re a nogoodnick. Next thing you know, over the years,
you’re one of the “old” guys, just sittin’ around waitin’ to be
shit-canned because you’re not a “team player” and you’re not
“executing” enough.

One could argue there’s a certain justification for all of this considering the pay. If there wasn’t a programmers ceiling, as it were, for the pay (the low six figures), I’d agree. It’s one thing to bust your ass for several years and make partner, or find out you should go into a different field (as with lawyers and accountants). It’s another (worse) thing to bust your ass for several years…then several more years…then more years…then get laid off so someone else will but their ass for cheaper. Repeat.

What’s worse, of course, is that work has become a huge part of
your identity. Life and work have been all mixed up together for you
for a long time, so as (a.) you start to work less, and, (b.) your
work isn’t completely in love with you, it’s like, (c.) part of your
self is disappearing.

I always thought this kind of identity crisis was just the
stupid-shit of day time talk shows, but, I’ll tell ya, it’s real: my
work — no matter where I’m working — is a huge part of who I am. As
I’ve been dumping Work-Wife, I’ve felt the pain of becoming someone
slightly different.

(Of course, this kind of fusing of work and life can be extremely
fun and pay-off big time [both in money and emotionally] if you work
at the right place, with a small group of people. This is why so many
of us geeks lust after startup opportunities, and are constantly
trying to “get the band back together.”)

In the end, though, divorcing the Wife of Work is worth
it. Especially with all the off-shoring stuff going on. This shouldn’t
be anything new if we could just learn from history now-and-then:
remember IBM
fucking over so many of it’s employees in late 80’s and early
90’s
? I’ve realized that work is janus-faced: they’ll do what
they want to make me happy, but once they can get someone else to do
it cheaper, it’s a “thanks,
and fuck-you-very-much
” to me (and my father at IBM).

(Of course, occasionally a company
will figure out that respecting their employees
positively effects the bottom line. But, let’s be honest, in this industry chances are we’ll never work for one of those places unless we start it ourselves.)

Let me be clear that I’m not talking specifically about my current
work. I’ve been doing software for a few months short of a decade now,
since I was one of those social rejects staring at CRTs. The Office du jour is just one in a string of many and, in several ways, not too shabby.

Still, our industry as a whole is vampiric about this stuff. Like
spiders: they don’t eat your whole body, they just suck out all our
tasty juices…and then move on to the next suckling.