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When clients (and bosses) go bad...

Halfdayguys
What's it like to work at your company? Is anything beyond 8 hours a Big Exception, or does leaving at 5 PM evoke the "working a half-day again?" crack… In all my various jobs, from independent contractor to start-up employee to one of the thousands at the big monolithic tech company, I've worked in every conceivable tech scenario. But the worst are the ones that become slaves to their clients--often driven by the fear of losing one.

And fear leads to underbidding. And underbidding leads to… pulling all-nighters to make an impossible deadline on too few resources. (And the dark side is in there somewhere.) I love users, but as they say on the plane: you must put on your own oxygen mask first. You can't take take care of users if you or your employees are exhausted and stressed. On Maslow's hierarchy, empathizing with users comes after sleep.

I've seen too many startups begin with the promise of freedom, passion, and good intentions--only to end up exchanging one kind of "prison" (working for demanding bosses) for another--working for overly demanding clients. I've seen some companies become slaves to the client's whims because we had "too many eggs in one basket", allowing clients to exploit the fact that you need THEM much more than they need YOU. And then there's the company that's looking to sell or go public, promising everyone that "if you just work really hard for the next three years, we'll all make a ton of money." (Assuming you lived through the process.)

So why is it that some companies have such an unhealthy relationship with their clients (which means an equally unhealthy relationship with their employees)? It's not like we won't work our butts off for the right reasons, but when it becomes standard to put in 10 hour days and work at least a part of every weekend, simply to keep up with the insane deadlines, our creative energy drops to zero. You're getting labor but no passion. Productivity with no creativity. And we'll switch jobs in a nanosecond if we get the chance. The worst is when you're expected to work like a dog and the culture discourages complaining or even questioning.

There is at least one industry that has the right idea about the times when you have to put in long hours... Hollywood. Or at least the parts I worked in, which were post-production, games, advertising, and marketing. In the motion picture world, where your project manager is called a "producer", when they asked you to work the long hours, at least you were treated like a tempermental star who needed to be pampered ; )

In the Hollywood model, even the programmers usually got the diva treatment when the company really needed you to stay late. At most tech companies, on the other hand, when you have to work late, your manager springs for pizza, vending machine soft drinks, and maybe take-out burritos. But the Hollywood firms I worked for usually passed around the gourmet restaurant menus, if you worked beyond 7 PM. More surprising, they would also do whatever was necessary to make my daughter happy about my working late (as a single parent). They'd "send a car" to her school, bring her in to the facility where we'd have dinner together (whatever she wanted), take her to the ultra-luxury private screening theater (telling her how "Steven Spielberg sat right in that same chair yesterday...") and let her watch previews and early cuts from movies that nobody outside the studio had ever seen. (One of my all-time favorite employers then was BLT, a motion picture advertising agency, but I also loved working for the now-defunct kid's game division of Virgin--Virgin Sound and Vision, under the best creative producer/manager I've ever worked for, Tom Mott)

Ideally, a better way to treat employees is to try to avoid putting them in that spot ever. But things happen, and we understand that there will be times when we (the workers) just can't get it done during normal business hours, and the schedule just can't slip. Still, the difference between being expected to put in the long hours and being worshipped for doing it cannot be overstated. If we want to make happy users, we have to be happy. Our employers/managers/clients need to accept that, and act accordingly. If you're making us work late all the time because of lousy management, that's inexcusable. If you're making us work late because you're greedy and just want as much business as you can (im)possibly handle, that's inexcusable. But if you need us to work late because things happened that nobody predicted, or because this demo means something drastically important to the company, for which we will also be rewarded... then sure, we'll be willing to pitch in. But spend the extra few bucks to treat us as well as your clients. You should be wining and dining us, not them, when you're asking so much from us.

And as the tech employment market starts to tick up ever so slightly, it's becoming less and less of an "employer's market" again. I don't care about the Aeron chair, but I do care about having a life beyond work. If you can't make your business model work without promising your clients a miracle (which we're expected to pull off), change your business model! And when you DO ask us to go our ass off again, a little worshipping goes a long way ; )

Posted by Kathy on November 7, 2005 | Permalink

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» Be mindful of the balance of power from Signal vs. Noise
Kathy Sierra on When clients (and bosses) go bad: Ive seen too many startups begin with the promise of freedom, passion, and good intentionsonly to end up exchanging one kind of prison (working for demanding bosses) f... [Read More]

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» Kathy Sierra: Balance in Life from The Newest Industry
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Tracked on Nov 7, 2005 7:48:48 PM

» Workaholic hours in your twenties from Perspective
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Tracked on Nov 7, 2005 11:32:38 PM

» Workaholic hours in your twenties from Perspective
Kathy Sierra's post today, an empathetic and emphatic rant on overtime, reminded me of the days I worked, as an avowed workaholic who rarely got home before 8pm at Result:McCann back in the mid nineties. [Yes, I'm old :)] While [Read More]

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» Developing with Passion from The SquizLog
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» Kathy Sierra Speaks the Truth (As Usual) from The Porter Method
Over at the Creating Passionate Users blog, Kathy Sierra (one of the masterminds behind the wonderful Head First series of books) has a fantastic post that every working Joe should read. It is When clients (and bosses) go bad. It really does ... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 8, 2005 11:28:20 PM

» When clients (and bosses) go bad... from Heinrich's Blog
Mmm, very interesting article. I hope some bosses get to read this. powered by IMHO 1.3 [Read More]

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» When clients (and bosses) go bad ... from Scott's Blog
I came across this article via the Signals vs. Noise blog. While the entire piece is 100% on target, this passage really spoke to my current situation: But the worst are the ones that become slaves to their clients--often driven by the fear of losing... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 11, 2005 11:58:02 AM

Comments

"a little worshipping goes a long way"

When I first read it, I thought it said:

"a little horsewhipping goes a long way"

Posted by: Scott | Nov 7, 2005 4:01:17 PM

OMG...I SO wish you were my boss.

Sigh.

Posted by: Tara 'Miss Rogue' Hunt | Nov 7, 2005 4:44:11 PM

I second the "wish you were my boss" comment. Although, I remember being treated pretty good in The Dot Com Era where it was not even uncommon to find me asleep at my desk after working a full day. They worked me to the bone and actually did try their best to make sure all of the developers were kept happy. Still, it was a pace that could not be kept up forever.

I'm definitly on the other side now. I work crazy hours out of a home office and slave myself in order to keep my kids feed. What you said hits home about clients that are able to learn that you need them more then they need you. The same is true for partners who tend to under pay and under value your worth. In that scenario, a "partner" has been able to turn himself into a boss.

At least I am not alone like I thought I was for the last 3 years of wondering why getting away from corporate America really doesn't feel that different. There are just less people around during the day to sling rubber bands at or play jokes on to fend off the daily routine.

Posted by: Collin | Nov 7, 2005 8:25:37 PM

"Still, the difference between being expected to put in the long hours and being worshipped for doing it cannot be overstated" Absolutely right.

All too often we find awards and citations that say "XYZ went out of his way by staying late and working weekends to keep the client happy". The question as to whether that was necessary (or created due to somebodys incompetence)is ignored.

Also, there is a premium on staying late. The efficient employee who finishes his work in 4 hours is doomed since recognition usually goes to the guy who works for 12 hours.

Posted by: neelakantan | Nov 7, 2005 9:04:56 PM

This is one of the reasons I am glad I'm a salesman.

Some days all I do is eat lunch and play golf with a customer.

Other days I process papers all day.

If I work 16 hours, it benefits my bottom line, my commission, my life.

Here's where I differentiate myself from other salesmen... I take breakfast to the office workers on occassion. To the yard employees, to the manufacturing guys and to the truck drivers.

Without them, I'm toast !

Those of you who are using people in an unsavory way to further your own causes...shame on you !

Take care of those that take care of you and you'll be a lot better off.

Posted by: Mike | Nov 7, 2005 9:21:23 PM

Tara: you don't want to me as your boss--I'm definitely one who belongs in the "individual contributor" side of worker/boss equation. However, after reading about the whole Mind Camp thing -- and the way you've handled that, and everything Liz and Nancy have been saying about you -- I wish you were MY boss! You rock ; )

neelekantan: you are so right on the efficieny thing -- and *quality* is often overlooked by managers, favoring instead those willing to put in more time, travel, and obedience. Don't get me started about Sun...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 7, 2005 10:02:51 PM

Donald trump said "Never get on to your knees in front of your client!"

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Nov 8, 2005 4:17:50 AM

Don't know about the Boss wish but I would want to see you as my co-worker. We'd challenge each other out and do great things together. And by great things I don't mean date or flirt ;-)

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Nov 8, 2005 4:34:19 AM

....and then there are those of us self employed types who are both terrible employees and slavedriver bosses. I fired myself three times last week but had to hire me back because nobody else could work with me.

My retirement plan is to fire myself, then sue me for wrongful termination and hope the insurrance company pays me off to keep quiet.

ps: Loved your book. The only programming book I've ever sat down and read cover to cover.

Posted by: Andrew Pollack | Nov 8, 2005 5:33:28 AM

Great post. I have been trying to get this point across at my organization for many years, and have even recommended firing a couple of clients (or at least resetting their expectations). In the recent economy, however, it has been a tough sell. With the rebound, we are now starting to see frustrated, burned out employees leave (or come very close), and I think it may be starting to sink in. Just in case, though, I printed off multiple copies of your post to give to our management team. :) Thanks.

Posted by: Jessica | Nov 8, 2005 7:18:31 AM

That's one of the things I love about where my husband works - it's a company that expects you to work 40 hours a week. Period. They have onsite haircuts and oilchanges and laundry service and things to make your life easier. If you *do* work late, it's because you chose to for some reason - not because your manager had his head up his ...

I worked at one place that demanded weekends and OT from trainers, who were told - we're in a crunch and when it's over, you'll be able to take extra breaks and we'll make up for it. Then when the crunch was over, the management laid off half of them. It sucked rocks. I was so disgusted by the whole process...

Posted by: Anna | Nov 8, 2005 10:04:56 AM

Excellent Article. I think the correction has to be done at contract stage. Thats when schedules are set, terms are set. And thats where youg companies hasten when price is ok and dont seem to bother about other issues.

Posted by: Sid | Nov 8, 2005 11:36:35 AM

Excellent Article. I think the correction has to be done at contract stage. Thats when schedules are set, terms are set. And thats where youg companies hasten when price is ok and dont seem to bother about other issues.

Posted by: Sid | Nov 8, 2005 11:45:40 AM

You nailed some of the reasons I left tech world (once a VLSI chip designer, board designer, C/C++ programmer, CTO, blah blah). Wish I'd worked in Hollywood ;-)

Posted by: Evelyn Rodriguez | Nov 8, 2005 4:45:08 PM

Hollywood isn't the only place overtimers are treated right. Financial services companies - the good ones - that do taxes will work their people like dogs during the tax season but treat them like royalty for doing it: Thursday they pass out the fine dining menu for the people working Saturday. Mileage and Parking for the Saturday people; generous (and takeable) pto in the off season; the whole office will shut down for a few days right after the busy season and around holidays in the off season.
Or look at teachers. How often have you met one coaching in the evening or on the weekend then running home to grade papers or work on their continuing education projects. The good ones work very, very long hours then take the summer off.
I think the older businesses that are in a position where they have to work employees hard have learned to treat those employees right for what they do and give them enough down time between peaks to keep them fresh.
Maybe its time for employees in the IT field to force their employers to learn those lessons.

Posted by: Paul | Nov 8, 2005 6:46:35 PM

You abSOlutely rock!

Posted by: Nikhil | Nov 8, 2005 9:27:22 PM

I've seen comments about Sun in your blog so I'll go ahead and add mine, on the topic of bosses gone bad. My boyfriend's group in Sun was bought by another huge tech company that has its own foibles but he is so much happier at The New Company. Because:

- The New Company recognizes that he's good at his job . His instructor scores give them this information, plus apparently his bosses have the ability to distinguish good work from bad work.
- He does good work in 8 hours a day, and they think that's fine.
- They reward his good work with recognition and bonuses

Crazy stuff, huh? All things that The New Company does that Sun didn't. Oh, and they don't make him travel four weeks a month, either.

It doesn't take an Aeron chair. Just basic "duh" good treatment.

~ Solveig

Posted by: Solveig Haugland | Nov 9, 2005 3:35:50 PM

> there is a premium on staying late. The efficient employee who finishes his work in 4 hours is doomed since recognition usually goes to the guy who works for 12 hours.

There was a short article recently in The Readers Digest: About 37 million Americans start their workday between 4:30 and 7:59 am but... "in many offices, 'staying late is like the red badge of courage'". So many of those early arrivers find they are stigmatized for "leaving early".

Posted by: Vicki Brown | Nov 9, 2005 11:02:57 PM

Another difference between Hollywood productions and most companies serving clients; most Hollywood productions are given multi-million dollar budgets to produce movies whereas most client service companies are just trying to survive on the crumbs that their clients are willing to feed them. Maybe you should try selling projects to cost-adverse clients that requires you spend big bucks on tempermental staff that you have to pamper and see how much extra money you are able to get from your clients for the things you suggest. Said another way "Unless you've had to make payroll, you can't understand."

Posted by: Mike | Nov 11, 2005 8:50:09 AM

Good points! I focused on a bit different side in http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2005/04/in-praise-of-lazy-employee.html some time ago.

BTW, I overheard this comment in one nameless company: "Thank goodness it's Friday; there are only two more workdays this week!"

Posted by: Bill Harris | Nov 11, 2005 1:05:58 PM

Interesting that "oxygen mask" was mentioned, since that is one of the self-esteem tools that Jerry Weinberg describes in the book "More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant's Tool Kit"

http://www.dorsethouse.com/features/excerpts/exmsch01.html

quote: "It reminds me of my ability to breathe, which symbolizes my need to take care of myself before attempting to help others. My colleague Eileen Strider added The Oxygen Mask to my kit ... reminds me to operate from a healthy place, the place from which I'm most likely to be able to help others...."

Posted by: keith ray | Nov 11, 2005 5:32:37 PM

Thank you. I've found your site by accident, and this article was good, clear, well written and SO SO right.

I'm adding a link on my blog, and referring this article to some of my colleagues.

I'm reminded of something that was said by a guy I used to work with (in a place where I worked many hours of unpaid overtime each week for years, with no recognition or reward):

"When you are lying on your deathbed, you will NOT be gasping out with your last breaths... I wish I had spent more time at work."

Posted by: Ashleigh | Nov 26, 2005 4:51:03 AM

"When you are lying on your deathbed, you will NOT be gasping out with your last breaths... I wish I had spent more time at work."

Unless you work at Immortality Inc.

Posted by: willc2 | Dec 1, 2005 10:45:13 PM

Did you mention Aeron chair? Well, i love that chair too! Actually i got mine from relax the back shop. Well, its a nice chair, very relaxing and so comfortable. I recommend that to you too guys.

Posted by: Ryan | Jul 9, 2007 1:30:54 AM

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