Does the tech industry thrive on free work?
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In a meeting the other day, someone mentioned how it's great that you can think of the solution to a bug that's been plaguing you since the start of the day while you're in the shower. Having a solution unexpectedly appear in your head when you're no longer actively thinking about it is pretty great, reinforcing the idea that we should be taking many breaks, and I'm sure many folks have had this. But it got me thinking about how the problems we solve at work often bleed into our non-work time, and the effect it has on our industry.
Since getting Cookie, I've found that listening to music on the evening walk or while I'm cooking dinner allows me to decompress a little and process the day. I've been making more of an active effort to do this, instead of listening to various podcasts, because I know it's better for my mental health, it allows me to have time to process the day actively or subconsciously, and yes, also leads to me solving work problems. By giving time for the brain to think through the day, it means going to sleep at night is easier, which I've noticed especially helps my ADHD brain that likes focussing on things (so much so that waiting for the kettle to boil I'll be consuming content, or looking up solutions for work instead of taking a few minutes to breathe and think), rather than being left to breath, but this is also beneficial for neurotypical brains.
This sounds like a bit of a net positive, right? People taking time to rest their minds also end up often solving work problems, while having some time to decompress? Well, not everyone is able to just drop the problem and come back the next day, which I found especially true before I was a remote worker, where the next time I could interact with my work machine was when I was back in the office. It's common for people to hang on to a problem a little past their work day ends, getting more frustrated as the things they're trying don't solve it, and thinking "let me just try this one thing" leading to "wait, what about this thing I can try next?", until it's very late, and they're hungry and tired.
I spend a good chunk of my time outside of work blogging about things I've learned while at work, which I'd like to share the solutions for posterity (possibly also to aid my ADHD), under the term blogumentation. But not only that, but if a problem gets stuck in my head, I'll quite often proceed with it into my non-work hours to try and solve it. In this case, I'll do it through blogumentation-driven development, where it's an awkward problem that I can foresee either me or others hitting again, so I want to have a post solving it. I definitely have more of a fixation problem than others may do, and I find it frustrating at times when leaving a problem unsolved, so it can be a case of not being able to drop it, which has sometimes led to me getting to bedtime and be putting the finishing touches to a blog post, cause I want it completely done before bed.
Not only do people do this, but it's very common to find people investing in their skill set out of work, learning more about a new language they're using at work, building side projects to improve skills, or listening to work-related podcasts. This is pretty normalised, and as long as those doing this are comfortable with it, it's not seen as a requirement for the role, and it's not causing strife in their personal life, then that's absolutely their choice. I've been making this trade-off for most of my university and professional life, and have generally been happy with it, although it's not always been easy on the rest of my life.
Doing this "extra-curricular" work benefits me, because I get to write a thing and hopefully solve it for other people, but I think importantly, whomever employs me at the time benefits from this, because they're getting a load of free work out of me. This isn't me throwing shade at any companies I've worked for, it's just a fact that it benefits the company by doing it off their dime. As long as companies don't gamify this, expecting folks to be achieving inside and outside their working hours, then it's fine if people are going into it with all the Information.
This is also seen with Open Source, both because it's very largely maintained by volunteers, but also because employees can end up doing Open Source contributions out-of-hours. At a previous company, it was difficult to do Open Source on work time, so a lot of folks ended up avoiding the process and just doing it outside of work.
I've been very fortunate to work with some people who do not do this, and actively separate their life/work boundaries, and leave work, career and technical development to work time. This is awesome, and really should be the default. Not everyone has the inclination to do this work, and especially aren't likely to have the time - we need to remember that people may be parents, carers, and generally have other commitments in their life that we should be respectful of. We can't fault people for enjoying what they do and doing it of their own volition, but it's when it can be seen as a requirement to move up the career ladder, or looking down on those who don't do it, that leads to it being toxic. We need to make sure that new folks to the organisation and the industry are aware that working your hours should absolutely give you everything you need to be able to progress.
I've ended up - at a previous company - solo delivering a large project completely out of work hours (more info), which I implemented bit-by-bit while between games of Apex Legends 😅 This is absolutely a terrible thing, and was due to it being a side-of-desk thing anyway where I didn't really have time allocated to my sprint to work on it, and as I was very passionate about getting it done, I wanted to get it done however possible. I'm glad I did it, because I was very happy with the solution, but it definitely isn't a recommended thing to do, and I was fortunate that I was able to make those trade-offs in my life to make it work.
Depending on the frustration you're feeling as well, that can lead you to working a little more than you're meant to. For instance, when I was spending most of my day waiting for PR builds to complete - inevitably failing due to a known but unfixed intermittent issue in the CI/CD platform - I would also be rebuilding PRs out-of-hours to get them built, so I could at least merge one of my code changes in a given day.
Look after yourselves, your colleagues, and especially more junior folks who are looking to you as a role model, and looking to learn behaviours to grow in their own careers. I'm also manifesting this message to go into my own head 😅