In internet years and in the programming industry, many might consider me a dinosaur. I’m in my mid-forties, and have been programming professionally for almost 20 years. In fact, I’ve been working for the same company for over twelve years; who does that?
Here’s the secret: I pace myself.
9 to 5 is enough
I see a lot of blog posts from people much younger than myself about the horrible expectations of startup culture, and, really, technology firms in general. Expectations that you put in 60 to 80 hours a week, because if you’re not fully committed to the organization’s success, you’re a dead weight. They all talk about the toll on mental health.
To be honest, when I started at Zend, I felt the same pressure, but, interestingly, it was pressure I exerted on myself. There was always so much work to do, and, with Zend Framework in its nascent stages, I found the only way I could juggle both my actual work duties (which, at the time, were actually around the Zend websites!) and my OSS contributions and collaboration on ZF was to put in extra time. I’d work my regular hours, and then work an hour or two after the family went to bed, and while we had downtime on the weekends.
And once I was transitioned to the Zend Framework team, it was just habit.
Eventually, Zeev became my boss, and he put a stop to it. “You’re of no use if you’re burnt out.” He basically forbade me to put in more than 40 hours a week.
My life turned around. But why?
It turns out that if you do not treat time as a commodity, you squander it. I quickly discovered that limiting my hours forced me to prioritize what I was doing, so that I could do it in the time I had alotted. There was no more “this will only take an hour or two; I’ll finish after dinner.” Instead it became, “Can I finish this today? No? Put it on tomorrow’s list.”
And with that focus, I found that I was doing the tasks that were necessary, and that I actually ended up doing more in less time.
Sure, it’s great to be passionate about your work. But passion isn’t focus, and without focus, you won’t ship anything.
What about learning?
The technology industry is terribly unforgiving. You’re expected to not only know what each new shiny emerging technology is, but have opinions about it. Constant learning is valued.
Interestingly, my father has always told me, “The day I stop learning is when it’s time to die.” I’ve always lived by that mantra.
So, how do you pull off constant learning in your normal work week?
You carve out time from your day and dedicate it to learning. Even 30 minutes a day is enough to dive into something. Remember what I said about constraints? If you put constraints on your learning time, you tend to be more focused in what you want to accomplish, and spend your time more wisely.
Thirty minutes may not seem like a lot. But in that amount of time, I was able to build my first Node middleware, my first web component, my first React component, a script to mine data from GitHub, a chatbot in coffeescript. Thirty minutes is enough time to decide whether you want to continue with a technology, or move on.
What about after work?
Without work consuming my free time, I found I suddenly had a lot of it. What was I supposed to do if I wasn’t working?
I’ve brewed beer off and on for over 20 years; with more free time, I started brewing again. I took the time to better understand the craft, and to document how I brew, as well as examine the results so I can improve, and brew beer I actually want to drink.
When I was in my twenties, I used a bicycle as my primary mode of transportation. I missed it, so I acquired a new bike, and started biking local trails regularly, when the weather permitted.
Also in my twenties, I trained in both T’ai Chi Chuan and Aikido; these past few years, I discovered I missed moving my body as I sat at my desk day in and day out. Around 18 months ago, I started training in Hapkido, which taught me new ways to move.
We were finally able to buy a house six years ago, and with a house comes both maintenance as well as a desire to make it your own. This past summer, we tore out our aging and rotting patio deck and built a new one. Ourselves. And passed the city building inspection!
Consistently, I come back to work each week refreshed and ready to tackle my projects. Consistently, I find I have new ideas and approaches to try as I start the day.
Those extracurricular projects force your brain to work in different ways, and lead you to solutions you would not have come to with your eyes glued to your monitor.
I love what I do for a living. Professional problem solving? I’m in! Working with people from around the world? Hold my coffee! Helping people help other people with technology I maintain? Sublime!
But, believe it or not, folks, 9 to 5 is not the sign of a lazy or unenthusiastic developer. It may be a sign of somebody who knows that the value of their craft is how they work within constraints, including the most unforgiving constraint of all: time.
What will you do different this year?