Sustainable Pace

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Last week I interviewed an engineer with good analytics, solid software design skills, and relevant professional experience. He would have been a good potential fit for my team with one exception: his belief that he could not produce good software working more than 40 hours per week. The concept, known as the sustainable pace, was first introduced to us in the early 2000s by Extreme Programming, and became popularized in the Ruby community by the Chicago-based 37 Signals. The theory asserts that the intense collaboration required for short and frequent releases is unsustainable beyond 40 hours per week. The result of overtime is a degradation in both code quality and engineering creativity - and a sign of weakness in an engineering team.

The 40 Hour Week

The 40 hour work week is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. The work week that is the standard of the Western world is not based upon scientific studies, but upon a desire in the 19th century to protect overworked and underpaid factory workers from exploitive owners. Various movements proposed different daily limits (10, 12 and 8 hours) before the 8 hour day won out.

The 10X Engineer

I support people of all professions striving to achieve the right work-life balance based on their personal and professional goals. But the implication that great software engineering can and should be contained to 9 to 5 rankles me. I grew up in an era of software engineering “rock stars” - Dan Bricklin writing Visicalc, Tim Patterson developing MS-DOS, Wayne Ratliff creating dBase, and the first Mac team creating MacOS. The achievements instilled in me a belief that great software engineering required sustained bursts of intensity. I applied that passion as a pre-teen, and continued it when I became a software professional. Some of my greatest achievements came when I pushed myself.

Passion In Pursuit

Software is not a manufacturing process and software engineers are not assembly line workers. Sometimes great achievements require great efforts, as exemplified by the previous and current “rock stars” of our profession. In time boxing yourself to 40 hours in any personal or professional pursuit, you have chosen to put a constraint on your potential that may yield good but rarely great results. Great results comes from the intersection of skill and passion - and passion cannot be contained to pre-defined hours.

So I will respect adherents to the sustainable pace, but also ask that they recognize they have made a personal choice, not found an inherent human truth. Hard work does not always yield great results - but great results almost always requires hard work.


“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.”

--Steve Jobs

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