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In defense of Amazon's long hours

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
David McNew/Getty Images

The New York Times has gotten a lot of attention for its feature on Amazon's work culture. Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld portray a ruthlessly competitive workplace where people are expected to work long hours, leaving little time for family.

But it's worth noting that it's not hard to find similar complaints from former employees of other prominent technology companies. Business Insider has a roundup of complaints from Apple employees, including one who "hardly (hardly meaning never) saw my daughter during the week because the hours were so inflexible." An employee in Uber's corporate offices writes that "at Uber, you work nights, weekends, and holidays." Netflix has been described as a high-pressure workplace with a "culture of fear."

Of course, not every high-profile technology company is like this. Google and Facebook are known for emphasizing work-life balance. Yet these companies' work cultures are "balanced" only compared with the insane expectations set by some of their competitors. When I worked as an intern at Google in the summer of 2010, many employees would get free dinner at the company cafeteria and then go back to their desks for a couple more hours of work.

There's a good reason so many technology companies have intense, demanding workplace cultures. Especially in the software industry, employees who work longer hours get more work done. And we all benefit from the resulting innovations.

Working long hours helps people keep up in a fast-changing industry

There's a saying in the technology world that the best programmers are about 10 times as productive as the average programmer. What people mean by this isn't that the best programmers write 10 times as many lines of code. Rather, it means that they're able to find clever solutions that allow them to accomplish more with fewer lines of code.

Some of this is about innate intelligence, but in my experience a bigger factor is that the best programmers spend a huge amount of time absorbing technical information. With knowledge and experience about a broader range of software tools and programming techniques, they're more likely to know about the perfect tool for the job at hand.

And a similar point applies to workers who serve other roles — like marketers and product managers — at a company like Amazon. In a dynamic industry, it takes constant effort to keep up with what Amazon and its competitors are doing. Employees who log more hours aren't just accomplishing more this week; they're also broadening their experience in a way that will make them more productive in the future.

Of course, there are diminishing returns to longer work hours. Beyond a certain point, you're so exhausted that you get much less done than you think you do. But some people find work at a company like Amazon so exciting that they don't mind putting in long hours — and they can set the pace for everyone else.

Smaller groups working longer hours are often more productive

You might wonder why instead of driving employees to the point of exhaustion, technology companies don't hire more employees to spread out the work. But this doesn't necessarily work.

A famous programming aphorism known as Brooks's law explains why. It says that adding programmers to a late project makes it later. It was coined by Fred Brooks, who led one of history's first large-scale programming projects: the development of OS/360, an operating system for IBM computers in the 1960s. All the pieces of the software had to work well together, which meant that programmers on Brooks's team had to spend a lot of time talking to each other. Indeed, the larger the group, the larger the fraction of time each programmer had to spend talking to others.

This is a big reason the most innovative software projects tend to be created by small groups. A 10-person team working 70-hour weeks is going to be a lot more productive than a 20-person team working 35-hour weeks, because the larger group is going to spend a lot more time sitting in meetings, arguing on mailing lists, and waiting to get answers from colleagues about how their respective parts of the software project will work together.

The point applies to non-engineers too. The smaller a team is, the more efficiently it can work. Small teams require fewer meetings and less email discussions. They are less likely to be sidetracked by miscommunication or disagreement. They're more flexible and — ultimately — a lot more productive per person.

Amazon's white-collar workers have a lot of options

That said, there's more to life than working, and it would be pretty depressing to work in a world where working in technology required you to give up on having a personal life. But it's important to remember that most white-collar workers at a company like Amazon have plenty of job options.

Vox's Matt Yglesias writes that he once talked to an Amazon executive who said, "I did the best work of my life, far better than I ever felt possible, and I don't regret leaving at all."

Life at a high-pressure company like Amazon can be exhilarating. Employees can make a lot of money, gain valuable skills, and be part of changing the world. Then if they find the long hours to be incompatible with other goals in their lives — like spending time with their families — they can switch to a less demanding job later in their career.

Of course, some of the specific anecdotes in the Times story — like the "woman who had thyroid cancer" who "was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment" — are indefensible, as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has acknowledged. And there's more reason to be concerned about Amazon's treatment of low-wage workers in its warehouses. But it's not a problem that a company would expect long hours from its best-paid employees. If they don't like it, they can find other jobs. And in the meantime, they might create some amazing products and services.

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