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Itamar Turner-Trauring
Itamar Turner-Trauring

Posted on • Originally published at on

'Must be willing to work under pressure' is a warning sign

As a programmer looking for a job, you need to be on the lookout for badly managed companies. Whether it’s malicious exploitation or just plain incompetence, the less time you waste applying for these jobs, the better.

Some warning signs are subtle, but not all. One of the most blatant is a simple phrase: “must be willing to work under pressure.”

The distance between we and you

Let’s take a look at some quotes from real job postings. Can you spot the pattern?

  • “Ability to work under pressure to meet sometimes aggressive deadlines.”
  • “Thick skin, ability to overcome adversity, and keep a level head under pressure.”
  • “Ability to work under pressure and meet tight deadlines.”
  • “Willing to work under pressure” and “working extra hours if necessary.”

If you look at reviews for these companies, many of them mention long working hours, which is not surprising. But if you read carefully there’s more to it than that: it’s not just what they’re saying, it’s also how they’re saying it.

When it comes to talking about the company values, for example, it’s always in the first person: “we are risk-takers, we are thoughtful and careful, we turn lead into gold with a mere touch of our godlike fingers.” But when it comes to pressure it’s always in the second person or third person: it’s always something you need to deal with.

Who is responsible for the pressure? It’s a mysterious mystery of strange mystery.

But of course it’s not. Almost always it’s the employer who is creating the pressure. So let’s switch those job requirements to first person and see how it reads:

  • We set aggressive deadlines, and we will pressure you to meet them.”
  • We will say and do things you might find offensive, and we will pressure you.”
  • We set tight deadlines, and we will pressure you to meet them.”
  • We will pressure you, and we will make you work long hours.”

That sounds even worse, doesn’t it?

Dysfunctional organizations (that won’t admit it)

When phrased in the first person, all of these statements indicate a dysfunctional organization. They are doing things badly, and maybe also doing bad things.

But it’s not just that they’re dysfunctional: it’s also that they won’t admit it. Thus the use of the second or third person. It’s up to you to deal with this crap, cause they certainly aren’t going to try to fix things. Either:

  1. Whoever wrote the job posting doesn’t realize they’re working for a dysfunctional organization.
  2. Or, they don’t care.
  3. Or, they can’t do anything about it.

None of these are good things. Any of them would be sufficient reason to avoid working for this organization.

Pressure is a choice

Now, I am not saying you shouldn’t take a job involving pressure. Consider the United States Digital Service, for example, which tries to fix and improve critical government software systems.

I’ve heard stories from former USDS employees, and yes, sometimes they do work under a lot of pressure: a critical system affecting thousands or tens of thousands of people goes down, and it has to come back up or else. But when the USDS tries to hire you, they’re upfront about what you’re getting in to, and why you should do it anyway.

They explain that if you join them your job will be “untangling, rewiring and redesigning critical government services.” Notice how “untangling” admits that some things are a mess, but also indicates that your job will be to make things better, not just to passively endure a messed-up situation.

Truth in advertising

There’s no reason why companies couldn’t advertise in the some way.I fondly imagine that someone somewhere has written a job posting that goes like this:

“Our project planning is a mess. We need you, a lead developer/project manager who can make things ship on time. We know you’ll have to say ‘no’ sometimes, and we’re willing to live with that.”

Sadly, I’ve never actually encountered such an ad in the real world.

Instead you’ll be told “you must be able to work under pressure.” Which is just another way of saying that you should find some other, better jobs to apply to.

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.

Top comments (8)

kossnocorp profile image
Sasha Koss

Can't agree more!

I think that deadlines aren't' necessary and usually could be substituted with better management and alignment of the team. They do more harm than good. As the effect of the pressure shows after a while, it allows managers to demonstrate good results to the bosses and then accuse developers of bad work when the burnout kicks in.

I had a chance to work in a company that was praising aggressive deadlines. Once they were working on a feature that depended on the start of the year. They had just two months before it starts, so everyone was stressed out and working long hours and on weekends. The team made it in time so CEO was praising the team and labeled them as the reference that everybody should look up to. The feature turned out to be buggy, so the team had to work even harder in the following weeks. As a result, many people left the team and then the company. That whole situation would be avoided if the management told the team to start working on the feature long before the end of the year.

davertron profile image

Sure, some deadlines might be unnecessary but to say that for everything seems like a gross over generalization.

kossnocorp profile image
Sasha Koss

I could be wrong for sure!

However, I'd like to play a mental game and find an alternative approach to a mandatory deadline if you can provide an example.

Thread Thread
davertron profile image

Sure, let's say I'm hiring someone to come do some renovations on my kitchen. How do you propose that should work?

kossnocorp profile image
Sasha Koss

Btw, I've added "Aggressive deadlines" as an anti trait to Cultural Fit:

rhymes profile image

Sadly, I’ve never actually encountered such an ad in the real world.

I would consider joining a company like that, because as you say, they've taken the step to admit the issues to themselves, instead of burning out employees and use turnover to hope to fix all the things :D

Great post!

scottishross profile image
Ross Henderson

I built an application in 3-months when I didn't have access to all three integral APIs. I had to fake API call and build the application. I worked an extra hour, at least, nearly every day and weekends at times. When it was released it was found that my testing methodology was producing correct results, but with production data, it would break.

I was obviously blamed for it even though I said at every step of the way that I didn't have sufficient time.

To this day after several bug fixes and passes, there are still inadequacies in the process I couldn't fix.

weevi profile image
Rima Paskeviciute

great post! thank you.