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Itamar Turner-Trauring
Itamar Turner-Trauring

Posted on • Originally published at on

Competing with a "Stanford grad just dying to work all nighters on Red Bull"

A reader of my newsletter wrote in, talking about the problem of finding a job with work/life balance in Silicon Valley:

It seems like us software engineers are in a tough spot: companies demand a lot of hard work and long hours, and due to the competitiveness here in Silicon Valley, you have to go along with it (or else there’s some bright young Stanford grad just dying to work all nighters on Red Bull to take your place).

But they throw you aside once the company has become established and they no longer need the “creative” types.

In short, how do you get a job with work/life balance when you’re competing against people willing to work long hours?

All nighters make for bad software

The starting point is realizing that working long hours makes you a much less productive employee, to the point that your total output will actually decrease (see Evan Robinson on crunch time). If you want to become an effective and productive worker, you’re actually much better off working normal hours and having a personal life than working longer hours.

Since working shorter hours makes you more productive, that gives you a starting point for why you should be hired.

Instead of focusing on demonstrative effort by working long hours, you can focus on identifying and solving valuable problems, especially the bigger and longer term problems that require thought and planning to solve.

Picking the right company

Just because you’re a valuable, productive programmer doesn’t mean you’re going to get hired, of course. So next you need to find the right company.

You can imagine three levels of managerial skill:

  • Level 1: These managers have no idea how to recognize effective workers, so they only judge people by hours worked.
  • Level 2: These managers can recognize effective workers, but don’t quite know how to create a productive culture. That means if you choose work long hours they won’t stop you, however pointless these long hours may be. But, they won’t force you work long hours so long as you’re doing a decent job.
  • Level 3: These managers can recognize effective workers and will encourage a productive culture. Which is to say, they will explicitly discourage working long hours except in emergencies, they will take steps to prevent future emergencies, etc..

When you look for a job you will want to avoid Level 1 managers. However good your work, they will be happy to replace you with someone incompetent so long as they can get more hours out of them. So you’ll be forced to work long hours and work on broken code.

Level 3 managers are ideal, and they do exist. So if you can find a job working for them then you’re all set.

Level 2 managers are probably more common though, and you can get work/life balance working for them—if you set strong boundaries. Since they can recognize actual competence and skills, they won’t judge you during your interview based on how many hours you’re willing to work. You just need to convey your skill and value, and a reasonable amount of dedication to your job.

And once you’ve started work, if you can actually be productive (and if you work 40 hours/week you will be more productive!) they won’t care if you come in at 9 and leave at 5, because they’ll be happy with your work.

Unlike Level 3 managers, however, you need to be explicit about boundaries during the job interview, and even more so after you start. Elsewhere I wrote up some suggestions about how to convey your value, and how to say “no” to your boss.

Employment is a negotiated relationship

To put all this another way: employment is a negotiated relationship. Like it or not, you are negotiating from the moment you start interviewing, while you’re on the job, and until the day you leave.

You are trying to trade valuable work for money, learning opportunities, and whatever else your goals are (you can, for example, negotiate for a shorter workweek). In this case, we’re talking about negotiating for work/life balance:

  1. Level 1 managers you can’t negotiate with, because what they want (long hours) directly conflicts with what you want.
  2. Level 2 managers you can negotiate with, by giving them one of the things they want: valuable work.
  3. Level 3 managers will give you what you want without your having to do anything, because they know it’s in the best interest of everyone.

Of course, even for Level 3 managers you will still need to negotiate other things, like a higher salary.

So how do you get a job with work/life balance? Focus on providing and demonstrating valuable long-term work, avoid bad companies, and make sure you set boundaries from the very start.

We all make mistakes, and I’ve got 20 years’ worth: from code that crashed production every night at 4AM, to accepting a preposterously bad job offer.

Every painful failure taught me a lesson—but only after it was too late.

You can do better! Join 3300 other programmers, and every week you’ll learn how to avoid another of my mistakes.

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