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Letter to a startup, from an employee
48 points by exhaustedworker on Jan 28, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 33 comments
Dear startup employer,

It's a workday, but I'm not at work. I'm pretending to work from home. Company policy says I should file for PTO, but I won't. You'll never know; I'll feel guilty.

But I need this day. You took a lot from me. I didn't hesitate for a second when I dropped all my weekend plans and rushed to fix what was broken. I worked all weekend, late into the night. I was there first thing Monday morning, and again on Tuesday. Then I stayed up all night Tuesday because it was release night.

I didn't do any of this because you pay me to. I did it because I take pride in my work. Things were broken. I'm responsible for them.

Now I'm taking time to eat a meal. I'm having the day I should have had last weekend. I'm breathing. The stress is ebbing away. I'm recharging so I can do great work for you again tomorrow.

Startup employer, I need this day so I can be awesome for you. But you want to take this day from my PTO, and that's just not right. You took my whole weekend. You took dinner with my spouse. You took a whole night of sleep and I came to the office anyway, because my coworkers depend on me. I'll never complain about these things because I'm an internet engineer and this is my job. If it's down, I'm up, no questions asked. In the morning we'll do the post-mortem work to see how to make it better.

Startup employer, we need to talk about our vacation policy. I wish you'd read this article about Netflix: <https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr/ar/1>. Please read it, because when I read it, I want to send them my resume. I love the idea that we can be honest and reasonable with each other about my time. I'm flexible for you. Why can't you be flexible for me?

Startup employer, please stop tracking my PTO. There's a lot of other things in that Netflix doc I'd like to talk to you about but let's take this first baby step together.

We can do this. We'll both be better for it.

-exhausted tech worker

I see your point, I really do. It seems like there are management problems within this particular startup. These problems happen everywhere, unfortunately, if management and software best practices aren't in place. At a particularly large ($100+ Billion gross revenue) company, we had the same problem. The solution for me was to just break the management rules. If one of my employees worked all night or all weekend, I told them to take the day, or two, off. I broke the rules. I didn't report the time. I didn't fuss over the PTO policy. I took care of my people and they took care of business and we all won. I felt bad about having to break management rules in order to take care of the very really humans that worked on the software, trying to keep their quality of life in balance with the rules an organization keeps, and to keep revenue high. Those bad feelings lead me to the next point I will make.

There are some software best practices that can solve a lot of these issues. Years ago I began to espouse DevOps principles. Those principles keep people from being there all weekend and all night. High levels of testing and high levels of automation really do help and make a huge difference in quality of life for engineers.

I can hear the objections now. "I am already working nights and weekends, how can I add more to get tests and DevOps in place?" or "my company won't support it!" or even "we have some of that..." Well, if you are up all night for a release, if you are there on a weekend fixing something that is broken, if you are constantly on call and exhausted, you don't have enough. Just do it one step at a time and you will find that you will spend a lot less time fixing things, being exhausted, and being frustrated, and a lot more time making new features for your employer. It's a skill that moves to any environment and any company.

Chin up friend, and good luck!

I think it's strange to point to that Netflix article as a better way to do vacation. Unlimited vacation policies open up way more opportunity for employee abuse.

This is absolutely true. Without a solid vacation policy you can't lean on anything when push comes to shove.

At the end of the day, I believe that if an employer wants to be fair to employees, it doesn't matter if they have unlimited vacations or register PTO, it's going to come down to the message the employer sends to the employees about how to use vacation, when there are special situations (servers go down at 1am), and when the right time to indulge is (you overworked a bit this week - take the 2nd half of Friday off because you earned it).

I think you mean "abuse of employees" rather than "employee abuse."

That is indeed what I meant.

Incredibly valuable point of view. Your frustration demonstrates how a PTO policy can hurt an employer more than it protects.

I work on employee leave policies with companies, and we constantly struggle to balance these needs. While companies have different needs, I think that all companies need to listen to their employees.

If I may pick your brain, what would a reasonable policy look like at your company?

I can gladly play the role of the worry wart employer and see if we could flesh out a policy that would work.

I'm not the OP, but a few ideas present themselves to me:

- if an employee works late, allow them to arrive at the office later than the usual start time (maybe a number, like 10 hours after they finished, to allow for 8 hours of sleep and an hour commute each way - or more to accommodate time to shower, dress, eat, etc.) This should be common sense - you'll get more and better productivity in 5 hours from someone well rested and fed than in 8 from someone exhausted and hungry, and they already gave you those extra hours and more last night!

- convert overtime to PTO beyond a certain point. Maybe or maybe not for a 10-hour day, but your guy who works 9am to 3am (18 hours, or 2 days in one) not only deserves the extra time off as a reward for going the extra mile, he's going to need it -- and soon -- to maintain his productivity.

- every weekend day worked is compensated with an extra day of PTO. Because weekends are supposed to be paid time off and you're taking it away. Even 1 hour worked on a weekend at a manager's request gets compensated with a half day of extra PTO.

- create some sort of direct consequences for management (that is, personal consequences, not just the inevitable disgruntled workforce that wants to quit) when a project is mismanaged such that employees are regularly giving up sleep and weekends to fight fires and meet unrealistic deadlines.

Looks good to me. I'll try to title each aspect and kick the tires from a compliance standpoint:

- Work Late, Sleep Late. This reminds me of policies for truck drivers and pilots, which make sense to me--you don't want employees to "crash" product. A bit of a pain to track hours, but there are plenty of hour-tracking systems, and tracking hours can be a great tool go back and review your own productivity. (Caveat: I have to track every hour.)

- Daily Overtime. This is in some ways a reality in several countries' labor laws. We have seen labor lawsuits (e.g., in China) where the employee prevails on unpaid overtime because it is the employer's responsibility to keep track of overtime. And in some countries' labor laws, overtime = any time over the daily AND weekly max (e.g., Brazil). Again, we are tracking and accounting for hours, but I am someone who loves to hit the clock and see what I got done yesterday, last week, last month.

- Your Time is Worth More Than Ours. I love it. I think 1.5x or 2x time is more reasonable than 4x time on the weekends, but the eventual number, whether 1.5x or 10x, is somewhat arbitrary. The point is that this policy screams that the employer values people's lives and makes a company think twice before making people give up their spouse, partner, kids, family, friends, health, hobbies, etc.

- Clock Management. This is a great policy, which we've seen elsewhere and written for employers. Bottom line, I think: if your team is always working nights and weekend, something is out of balance. I agree that it is better to have a rule in place and an objective way to track it than it is to have a disgruntled team for even a second. I think a red light should flash and a foghorn sound when a team goes over budget on time. I know it does in my line of work if I were to exceed a client's time budget. It's by no means unforgivable, but it almost always a management shortfall.

Overall, I see two themes--time tracking and employer responsibility--in your suggestions, which interrelate. My main thoughts are:

1. How would it go over with teams if we asked them to hit a digital clock and log their hours?

2. Could we brand this as part of our identity as an employer that doesn't wants incredibly efficient employees and management?

3. Do you see this in already in one form or another in your other workplaces? (I do.)

4. Could we brand this as in the employees' interests and not Big Brother making the employees punch their time cards?

5. Could we couch all of this as the employer's responsibility and not one more task we pile on our employees?

Excess off hours time needs to be comped at at least 50%.

It's not hard, it's not complex, it's not unfair. If I work 16 hours on the weekend I deserve at least 8 hours of additional PTO.

Comped at 50%? If I'm up until 3am because of fixing a critical production bug that is causing the operation to lose money, I'm taking the entire next day off. None of this 50% nonsense -- that might be less abusive, but it's still abusive.

I have to disagree for a moment. I can understand why engineers get into a mindset that this sort of arrangement might be fair, but honestly, how is this fair at all? Most everyone is salary. Let's say, for ease of numbers, you are salaried at $104,000. This breaks down to $50 an hour if you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 52 weeks in a year. Let's also assume you have 10 PTO days. In reality you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 50 weeks a year. You take two weeks off for vacation.

Now, let's image you are actually putting in 50 hours a week (not a bad average for a startup) instead of 40. And let's say you are actually getting comped 50% of those hours as PTO. According to this plan and math by week 44.5 of the year you have accumulated enough PTO to take the rest of the year off. To put this into perspective you would be able to take off from the beginning of November all the way to the New Year, and you'd probably still have a bit of PTO roll over. I doubt that any company will go for this.

On the flip side of this equation you have worked approximately 10% more hours than you have been paid for to accumulate that PTO. This reduces your functional hourly rate by 10%. If you actually stopped working at week 44.5 and took all of your PTO that you have accumulated, you would still functionally only make $45 an hour instead of $50.

This is completely unfair.

So what is the solution? Well, my solution has always been to work hourly instead of salary. This changes the equation. If I am making $50 an hour and I work 50 or 60 hours in a week, I don't feel so bad. My employer hardly ever wants to have me work overtime. Isn't that interesting? They would rather the overtime goes to salaried employees. That says something. However, when they do need overtime, I don't feel bad, I am being paid. On the flip side, when I want to take a day off or a vacation, I don't bill hours, and I don't get paid. The employer usually thinks this is a great idea, and I just have to budget for the ebbs and flows. This is fair.

Another option is work smarter (I do this whether I am salary or hourly). Test everything so it doesn't break. Automate everything so it can be deployer, scaled, or fixed as quickly as humanly possible. I work hard to put myself out of work. Yet, I always have more work than I ever need.

I like the hourly approach or at least the effective hourly approach. I.e., track every hour you work and every quarter, 6 months, or year, show your employer what your effective rate is and why it isn't fair.

I also like the notion that this is a responsibility the employer should bear. I.e., the employer should pay the employee for every hour worked. If you're working for equity, then maybe not. But I think there should be some kind of premium or balancing for hours worked on time off.

In the end, it's good for employees and employers. Employees are happier and valued; employers get happy and productive employees.

> I doubt that any company will go for this.

That doesn't mean it's not fair.

On the flip side, no company will ever convert their salaried employees to hourly unless forced to by the government. It's an abusive relationship that they're being allowed to manipulate and it means nothing but good things for them. Companies that have 100+ developers are different than those that have teams of consultants, both in the depth and breadth of work that they're doing.

I guess we both kind of miss the entire point, though. Nothing will change in our industry without better worker organization.

The logic is true: whether or not a company will go for it does not necessarily bear on fairness.

And I think that instead of .5 PTO for weekend hours worked, maybe consider 1.5x or 2x pay hourly to cover the premium for working instead of living. It has to stop somewhere...

Part of worker organization is telling both the rational and emotional reasons why it's better to have workers who can put down their work for more important things, like family and life outside of work.

I absolutely agree with you. It's really a large abusive relationship which is sadly prevalent in this industry.

I have thought about workers organizations within our industry. I don't see why we don't have these, and yet they don't exist at all, at least not with any real power and organization. I know a few things but I can safely say I have no idea how to fix that.

One solution I've seen is comp time for exempt employees above your "normal" hours. So if you work 50 hour weeks normally, and need to for some reason work requires you to do 70 hours, you'll get 2 days of comp time. Now this brings up arguments about what are your "normal" hours and how to calculate that but it is an alternative without having to go hourly.

The problem is not PTO in my experience. It is being a Salaried worker expected to have ownership in a project with very little backup (and being expected) to work ridiculous amounts of hours with very little breaks or personal time.

The fact that most companies who put you on a Salary will not give you Comp Time for the overtime you work.

... Eventually you need to learn to respect yourself and your hours and stop giving your startup employer your heart and soul while you live paycheck to paycheck.

I used to do this; Putting in 80 hour weeks taking 1 day off every 10 days or so -- worst time of my life. I wasn't going to the gym and I wasn't eating well primarily because I had to eat out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And at the end of the day, the only thing I gained was knowledge. All of my work is gone, our company is gone, the project was lost and the company that bought our company is struggling.

Take your nights and weekends.

You people who do such long hours I really don't get you!

The standard 40 is more than enough for me, in-fact too much.

Ideally work 40 hours and then spend those other 20-40 hours on building something for yourself, taking a second job, or just relaxing and enjoyment.

If this is the 'American' way then try emigrating to Europe!

Slightly indirectly related to PTO .. Fortunately, I had a great manager with whom I could talk freely on many subjects including this one. I had kind of "rebelled" once about the work-life balance. He did say one which stuck with me. There are cases where one might have to work extra: 1. Your own screw up (includes productivity) 2. Screw up by other teams which affects your work 3. Bad project management which includes unrealistic deadlines

The only thing that you can control is #1 by becoming more productive and more automation.

The #2 is interesting because it is a 2-way street i.e. there will times that someone else might have to work more because you or your team screwed up.

About #3 .. well there is nothing to be done Either endure or leave.

Startup or not, this is relevant to all jobs in IT. It's your job to educate your employer that you aren't to be taken for granted. Good luck.

At the same time, shouldn't this be self-evident? It's a bit depressing that the vast majority of employers would need to be educated about this.

No, I'd say. The most self-evident thing to do is do whatever is best for yourself in the short term. Any other behavior is increasingly harder to gather... evidence for it being best.

It's a two-sided marketplace, each side having a big incentive to take the maximum they can get.

In a very short-sighted sense. You treat employees like this and you quickly burn them out (decreasing medium and long term productivity) or create turnover (wasting time recruiting, interviewing, ramping up, and occasionally hiring someone who's wrong for the job).

Edited to add: and why does everyone think it's acceptable and even commendable these days to be only out for yourself?

Marketplaces are most ruthless and often immoral in their emergent behavior.

I'll definitely agree that the results are often bad.

I won't agree that anyone should ignore the reality of it though. Realize that it is the most literal definition of a marketplace, and nothing is going to change fundamental fact. Once one accepts that, he'll be much better grasp of how to make it better.

The American capitalist mantra is that you should only look out for yourself. In a world with a vast liquid labor pool, that means getting as much as you can out of workers.

> Startup or not, this is relevant to all jobs i̶n̶ ̶I̶T̶.


Maybe, but this isn't the issue at hand. The issue is that it's easy for employers to take advantage of employees. Just because you're in a startup doesn't mean you MUST be taken advantage of since that's the cross to bear for engineers. That's not sustainable and it's a bummer so many people in the industry think that being abused is the only way to make it to the end zone.

Why can't you talk to your Manager?

That's it. Communication!


This is why I started my own company. No matter how great the company, you will always eventually be put in a situation where management or sales makes a promise they can't deliver and you, the developer needs to suffer the consequences.

Now, I will only put in all my nights and weekends if I am at least a 50% owner in the company.

Pretty much the same idea here. Startup didn't mind me fixing bug at 3 am, but wanted me at the office by 9 am. I left.

The worst part is probably the fact that I got a raise when I stopped caring about the company altogether, and took 2 month for a 15 days job...

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