You want to work on cutting edge technology, you want challenging problems, you want something interesting. Problem is, you also want work/life balance: you don’t want to deal with unrealistic deadlines from management, or pulling all-nighters to fix a bug.
And the problem is that when you ask around, people tell say you need to work long hours if you want to work on challenging problems. That’s just how it is, they say.
To which I say: bullshit.
You can work on challenging problems and still have work/life balance. In fact, you’ll do much better that way.
My apparently impossible career so far
Just as a counter-example, let me tell you how I’ve spent the past 14 years. Among other things, I’ve worked on:
- A component of the flight search product that now powers Google Flights (flight search is hard—my team was working on the stuff on slides 44-48).
- The prototype for what was then cutting edge container storage technology, a prototype that helped my company raise a $12 million Series A—and then we turned it into a production ready distributed system.
- A crazy/useful Kubernetes local development tool.
- Most recently, scientific image processing algorithms and processing pipeline.
All of these were hard problems, and interesting problems, and challenging problems, and none of them required working long hours.
Maybe those past 14 years are some sort of statistical aberration, but I rather doubt it. You can, for example, go work on some really tricky distributed systems problems over at Cockroach Labs, and have Fridays off to do whatever you want. (Not a personal endorsement: I know nothing about them other than those two points.)
Long hours have nothing to do with interesting problems
There is no inherent relationship between interesting problems and working long hours. You’re actually much more likely to solve hard problems if you’re well rested, and have plenty of time off to relax and let your brain do its thing off in the background.
The real origin of this connection is a marketing strategy for a certain subset of startups: “Yes, we’ll pay you jack shit and have you work 70 hours a week, but that’s the only way you can work on challenging problems!”
This is nonsense.
The real problem that these companies are trying to solve is “how do I get as much work out of these suckers with as little pay as possible.” It’s an incompetent self-defeating strategy, but there’s enough VCs who think exploitation is a great business model that you’re going to encounter it at least some startups.
The reality is that working long hours is the result of bad management. Which is to say, it’s completely orthogonal to how interesting the problem is.
You can just as easily find bad management in enterprise companies working on the most pointless and mind-numbingly soul-crushing problems (and failing to implement them well). And because of that bad management you’ll be forced to work long hours, even though the problems aren’t hard.
Luckily, you can also find good management in plenty of organizations, big and small—and some of them are working on hard, challenging problems too.
Avoiding bad workplaces
So how do you avoid exploitative workplaces and find the good ones? By asking some questions up front. You shouldn’t be relying on luck to keep you away from bad jobs; I made that mistake once, but never again.
Long ago I was interviewing for a job in NYC, and I mentioned that I wanted to continue working on open source software in my spare time. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:
Interviewer: “Well, that’s fine, but… we used to have an employee here who did some non-profit work. We could never tell if their mind was here or on their volunteering, and it didn’t really work out. So we want to make sure you’ll be really focused on your job.”
Me: “Did they do their volunteering during work hours?”
Interviewer: “Oh, no, they only did that on their own time, it was just that they left at 5 o'clock every day.”
At that point I realized that, while I was willing to exchange 40 hours a week for a salary, I was not willing to exchange my whole life. I escaped that company by accident because they were so blatant about it, but you can do better.
Finding the job you want
When you’re interviewing for a job, don’t just ask about the problems they’re working on. You should also be asking about the work environment and work/life balance.
You can do so tactfully and informatively by asking things like “What’s a typical work day like here?” or “How are deadlines determined?” (You can get a good list of questions over at Culture Queries.)
There are companies out there that do interesting work and have work/life balance: do your research, ask the right questions, and you too will be able to find them.