13 Apr 2018

Facts and myths about work-life balance in software development

How much free time should the software developer have?

Everyone needs free time. Regardless of how much you love programming, spending your time doing nothing else may have bad consequences. The importance of work-life balance is so obvious that we’re not going to elaborate on that. Rather than doing this, let’s find out if… having proper life-balance as a software developer is even possible. And how you, as a software developer, and your employer can help make it happen.

If you are a software developer, you probably realize just how time-consuming this line of job can be. The stereotype of a glass-wearing nerd always in front of their computer doesn’t help convince “outsiders” that developers also need a break. But how much of a break do they really need?

The impossible task of calculating developer’s free time

Not the most optimistic start, huh? Well, let’s get to it.

In an ideal world, assuming you work a standard 40-hour workweek and spend around 90 minutes a day commuting, you should have around 30-40 hours a week for leisure activities. Except, it is very often not realistic for a variety of reasons.

Due to the nature of software development, projects often get very intense temporarily as the deadline approaches. This dreaded practice is known as “crunch time”. In many companies, it is assumed and taken for granted that developers will agree to dedicate a lot more hours than they normally would during this period. The crunch time sometimes effectively triples (!) the number of hours worked per week. Some developers find it difficult to decline so that they can stay competitive or simply because their project and its success means so much to them. Back in 2009 at Rockstar Games, the popular game developer known for titles such as the Grand Theft Auto series, things got so out of hand that the wives of some employees wrote an open letter to the company’s management to elaborate on the negative impact seemingly endless crunch times have on their families.[1]

And then, there are also side projects.

Side projects or… life?

Being a software developer is truly a unique profession. However, for some individuals it’s much more than just a profession. To hone their abilities even further, help open source communities or simply out of sheer passion, they often spend their free time on various side projects, usually without any compensation.

It’s easy to miss the fact that the popularity of side projects among developers and the argument that it is a good way to learn new innovative technologies, which may help them be more competitive in the market, to some extent blur the boundaries between work and life.

Should one dedicate a lion’s share of their leisure time for side projects? The answer, as always, is “it depends”. But if you feel like the only way for you to further improve your skills and learn new technologies is through engaging in side projects, it may be that your current employer doesn’t provide you with enough challenging and exciting work.

Work-life balance is worth fighting for

At this point, it goes without saying that achieving satisfactory work-life balance may be very challenging in this profession. And yet, this is a goal worth fighting for. Putting in way too many hours for an extended period of time may quickly lead to job burnout. And there are many reasons to believe that this specific condition of feeling both physically and emotionally unable to continue is particularly common among software developers[2]. What’s more, proper work-life balance of employees is beneficial for their company as well. Research consistently shows that workers that do not work overtime are far more effective[3]. And there are only so many hours daily a developer can effectively spend coding without reaching their limit.

How can software companies help?

Software companies can help their employees achieve work-life balance by both respecting their leisure time and providing them with exciting opportunities at work so that they don’t have to search for them elsewhere to such a great extent.

Of course, in today’s environment it’s incredibly hard to abide by rules such as the famous 80/20 principle by Google, which allowed employees to dedicate 20 percent of their time to work on innovative side projects that can benefit the company (even Google no longer practices it![4]). But actually listening to developers’ opinions and assigning them to projects that can truly help them grow can go a long way.

The role of management in achieving this goal also can’t be overstated. A smart company not only relies on great developers, but also on brilliant projects managers that will make sure that projects are being developed in a sustainable manner – one that is not based on a misconception that software developers are tireless and somewhat disposable workhorses, but precious assets with a lifetime of growing and enjoying themselves ahead. And that’s the kind of environment we’re striving to create at Software Mind.

Software Mind is a Polish software house, which prides itself on providing top-of-the-line software development outsourcing services. Our goal is to attract the cream of the crop of software developers and equip them with our knowledge of how to make outsourced projects really work. You can learn more about our approach by getting familiar with the Software Development Outsourcing Toolbox. And if you already have a specific project in mind, you may simply contact us and tell us all about it. We know we can help you turn it into a wonderful product.

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