Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Work-life balance

You hear a lot about this, or maybe more precisely, you hear people mention it but don't really explain what they mean by it. So what does it mean?

Well, to me, work needs to be somewhere you feel you are contributing something useful to society as a whole, and hopefully something that will last; it's soul-destroying when you are bound by business processes that you know don't work and force you to contribute to substandard products (in my case software). Work needs to be fulfilling in some way, and the only way I have found it fulfilling is through innovation and variety. Unfortunately in the corporate environments I've worked in there is generally very little of either, and there also seems to be little understanding of what makes a software developer happy.

In Steve C. McConnell's seminal book, Rapid Development, he explains that a major problem is a clash of personalities between the typical software developer and the typical manager. The typical software developer is motivated by innovation, personal advancement and team work, whereas one of the major motivations for the typical manager is responsibility. The clash occurs when the manager assumes people are motivated by the same things as they are, and so rewards achievement with greater responsibility instead of greater opportunuity for innovation or personal advancement, etc. For example, in my last corporate job I was given responsibility for maintenance on certain projects, which I can see now was supposed to make me feel rewarded, but because I find maintenance boring and repetitive, it felt like more of a punishment and a demotivator. With this kind of clash being repeated throughout a company, and even an industry, it is no surprise that I only ever found one highly motivated, happy and contented team to work in in the 6 years after I left university. There are a lot of unhappy software developers out there in the corporate world, and I believe a lot of it is down to a misunderstanding of what makes us tick. What is a surprise to me is that so many software developers are prepared to put up with their unhappiness year after year in the hope that "something will come up" and their lot will improve.

I have tried to do something about it, and have been fortunate enough to get my own frelance business started, and this is where the "life" part of the Work-life balance comes in for me. I able to have variety in my work now, and as much innovation as I am prepared to risk. I also see customers face-to-face and I'm able to deliver to real people instead of faceless corporate customers who I'm hidden from by the sales department. Life is now interwoven with my work. I work at home, and although it took a year or so to get used to, I am well used to it now, and it is a much more fulfilling way of working. Life dovetails around my work and vice-versa so much that there is hardly any distinction apart from shutting the door to my office. I work a lot harder now I work for myself, but I feel a lot less stressed and I have a lot more energy for other things than I used to. In short, I feel alive as opposed to having the life sucked out of me, and that can only be a good thing.