More on Paradise

A couple of people have commented on the previous entry, citing, essentially, that Google needs to do this to be "the best". I understand the argument completely: Google wants to attract the top talent, or retain the top talent, or at least entice the top talent, not to mention give them every reason to be horribly productive, so all of that extravagance is a justifiable--and some might argue necessary--expense.

Thing is, I don't buy into that argument for a second. Talent wants to be rewarded, granted, but think about this for a moment: what kind of hours are these employees buying into by working there? There's an implicit tradeoff here, one that says, "If you are insanely productive, then the cost of this office is justified", meaning the pressure is on. Having an off day? Better pull the all-nighter to make up for it. Got stuck on something you didn't anticipate? Better pull the all-weekender to compensate. You're not in the bush leagues any more, sonny--you're at Google, and we paid a lot of money to make this office your home away from home, so snap to it!

I'm not suggesting that Goole is explicitly demanding this of their employees... but neither did Microsoft, back in the day.

See, all of this--including the justification arguments--is eerily reminiscent of Microsoft in their heyday, with the best example being the original Windows NT team. The hours they pulled over the last few months (some say years) of that project were nothing short of marathon sprints, and Microsoft laid everything they could at the feet of these developers (though nothing like what Google has built in Zurich, mind you) to help them focus on shipping the project.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the whole thing, and one quote from that article stuck with me: that the pressure to work the insanely long hours didn't come from upper management, but from the other developers on the team. "Are you signed up for this thing or not?" was a euphemism for "Why the hell are you leaving at 9PM? And you're not back until 8AM? What are you, some kind of slacker?" (I felt like screaming back, "Just say no!", and I wasn't even there.) The peer pressure was insane, and drove several members of the team to get outta Dodge as the first opportunity. Or some took off for bike rides across the country to recharge. Or some just... broke.

Microsoft doesn't do this anymore. Nobody is expected to put in 60 hour work weeks as a matter of course; now, the average is around 45, which I believe (though I have no factual evidence to support this) is about average for the industry as a whole. (C'mon, admit it, even if you're a strict 9-to-5'er, you still do a little reading at home or stick around after hours to help with the big rollout. It needs to be done, and you're professional enough to want to see it done right.)

In college, I learned a lot about startups and established companies. Like most of the folks I hung out with in college, I used to stay up way too late with friends hanging out at Woodstock's (the local pizzeria) arguing politics/sex/religion/operating systems or playing role-playing games*, then come home and bang out a 5-page paper in a few hours before cracking open my notes to study for the final that morning. I could do this without any real penalty, but I usually ended up taking the final, then coming back to my apartment and passing out for a few hours, only to awake to my roommates chanting "Piz-za! Piz-za! Piz-za!" and starting the whole thing over again. I was young, I had energy, I was fundamentally stupid, and I can't do that anymore. I can't sprint like that and still be able to function coherently over time, and as you get older, you realize that while college can be managed as a series of sprints, life requires you to have a more marathon attitude, particularly because you can't know when the sprints are coming, like they do in college.

As companies grow larger, their initial lifecycle is a series of sprints: roll the first release out, take a breather while the sales guys gather in the customer(s) and figure out what the next iteration will be, then do the whole thing over again. This effect is even more pronounced if the company has that one Really Big Customer, the one that represents some significant (over 50%) of the company's revenue; it's that company that drives the feature set and its delivery date. Meeting their needs and challenges becomes the source of the sprints to come.

As time goes on, however, and assuming the company has somehow managed to find success, they find that the Really Big Customer is actually now just one of several, and the features and the timing of the releases need to be balanced across the entire customer set. In other words, while some sprints are still necessary, the frequency and intensity begins to smooth out and the focus shifts to structure, pace, and consistency.

That is, if the company has successfully transitioned from "startup" to "established". Some startups never do, and try to sprint themselves from one scenario to the another, and eventually run themselves into the ground. Managing this transition isn't easy, and is something that generally only comes from having lived through it once or twice... or three or four times... Ah, good times.

Remember that whole "work/life balance" thing? We're discovering, over and over again, that having a good work/life balance is a key part of maintaining a sound outlook on life, much less your basic sanity. Creating a "home away from home" where employees can put in insane amount of hours is not healthy "work/life balance"... unless you presume your company will be staffed with fresh-from-college twenty-something singles who have nobody to go home to and all their friends in the office. And that, folks, is not a sustainable model.

Point is, Google's extravagance here smacks of startups, sprints, and fevered intensity. What's worse, I hear little bits and pieces of rumors that Google reveres the eleventh-hour developer-god who swoops in, pulls the all-weeker to get the release out the door, to high praise from management and his/her peers.

That's not sustainable, and the sooner Google--or any other company, for that matter--realizes that, the better they will be in the long term.




* - Does this really surprise you? Yes, I am a huge geek.