Shahzad Bhatti

May 7, 2008

IT Sweatshops

Filed under: Computing — admin @ 11:50 am

Though, I have blogged on Sweatshops a few years ago, but recently I was talking to a friend who works for a company that was nominated as “15 best places to work for” in Seattle Metropolitan’s May issue, but I found out that the company’s HR department pushed employees to vote to get into the top list. What I found was that the company is not bad place to work, but like many other companies is a sort of sweatshop. Having worked for more than sixteen years and over ten companies as an employee and consultant, I could relate to it as well. The truth is that IT departments in most companies are sweatshops, where workers are pushed to make incredible hours and sacrifice nights and weekends. In fact, my current employer is no different. In retrospect, I have found five big reasons that contribute to such environments:

  1. Taylorism – Despite popularity of agile methodologies and the claim that Agility has crossed the chasm, I have found command-control structure based on Taylorism mentality is still rampant in most places. The management in most places think that giving workers impossible deadlines will force them to work harder, which implies putting 60+hours/week. I have seen companies claim to be agile and promote working smart over working hard, but their practices were no different. These people try to increase velocity by any means (e.g. overtime). I heard one manager brag how his team has higher velocity than the consultants they hired to learn agile practices, ignoring the fact that team was putting 70-80 hours/week.
  2. Offshoring/H1 – Though, this may not be politically correct thing to say, but offshoring and H1 visas lowered the values of software developers. Despite Paul Graham’s essay on productivity, most management measure programmers by their rates. Also, most of H1 visa holders are not married and tend to work longer until they get their green cards.
  3. Dot com Boom/Bomb – Though, this may be nostalgia, but I feel programmers had more respect before the dot com boom/bomb. Though, I admit during boom, programmers were over valued, but they have not gained prior status.
  4. No overtime – The fact that IT workers are not eligible for overtime adds incentive for management to ask for any amount of work. Though, I have seen some lawsuits from game companies and IBM, but things would be a lot different if this rule changed. This probably be one of the reason, I would be open to creating a worker union for IT folks.
  5. 24/7 With the widespread usage of Internet, all companies want to become 24/7 shops even when they didn’t need it. Though, this has added convenience for mass consumers, but IT folks have to pay for it. For example, in my company developers are responsible for operations, which add considerable work.

Conclusion
I don’t see this trend will subside easily in near future. Most companies measure dedication and promotion by how many hours one put. To most employers and recruiters, the word “family friendly environment” is a code word for a candidate who is not committed. The only solutions to sweatshop mentality I see are adopting agile values, changing overtime policies or becoming independent contractors and make your own rules. Though, agile practices offer glimmer hope to address this, but bad habits are hard to break. Many companies adopt agile processes without adopting key values that they promote. In early 90s when Total Quality Management was in vogue, I saw my company changed titles of managers to facilitators and titles of directors to coaches, and yet their cultured remained the same. Today, I see many companies change titles of team leads or project managers to scrum masters and titles of managers to product owners, and think they are doing agile.

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