There’s more to caring than working long hours

Show you care through your craft, not your time sheet.

Image credits Beth Jnr, with my edits

I came across a tweet by former Netflix engineer Alex Castillo that reflects on the value of caring at work.

Alex recounts how the team he had just joined at the streaming giant discovered a broken legacy app on a Friday and managed to fix everything by the following Monday.

The tweet attributes the quick turnaround to how much the people involved “cared.” But to me, the picture that emerges is one of unsustainable overwork.

Does working through the weekend mean caring?

The legacy app Alex’s team inherited was so broken that they couldn’t even run it locally, let alone deploy a fix for it when short on time on a Friday. They decided to regroup on Monday to find a solution. Alex, eager to prove himself, spent the weekend writing a new app to serve as a drop-in replacement. “I was done by Monday at 8am. Just enough time to shower and walk to the office.”

Once there, he approached his manager to show off the fruit of his labor, only for the manager to share with him the drop-in replacement app another team member built over the weekend. Maybe the colleague didn’t bother with showering and so got to the office first.

Alex gave his blessing to the other app being deployed instead of his. The tweet doesn’t say, but I assume they took the time to compare the prototypes and choose the best one. “This was the first time in my life that I felt a sense of belonging at work,” Alex writes, “I was no longer the only person who cared. Right then, I knew I only wanted to work with people like that.”

Alex has a point. Working with people who care makes a huge difference.

When everyone in a team is committed to the same goal and focused on unblocking each other, the results they deliver are greater than the sum of their individual capabilities.

But let’s not equate working over the weekend with caring!

Now, before continuing with my rant, I want to acknowledge that I don’t know the whole picture. I never met Alex or his teammates. I’m just reading a story that was condensed into a long tweet. Still, I’m concerned by how it conflates the positive value of rolling up your sleeves to come up with solutions to urgent problems with an overwork and hero mentality, which I find very dangerous.

I’m picking on Alex’s story, but what I’m really getting at is the difference between caring by jumping headfirst into a problem and caring by taking a step back and thinking things through.

Long hours are a poor substitute for good engineering

There’s a place and time for going all in, burning the midnight oil, and even working through the weekend. From the sound of it, Alex’s team was in that situation. His and his colleague’s efforts helped the team ship sooner, which I’m sure delivered business value.

Let’s zoom out, though, and consider the consequences of two engineers in a team of three plus a manager spending their weekend working. How well can a team perform this week when 75% of the individual contributors haven’t had a day off since the previous Monday? What would have happened if the new app turned out faulty once deployed or another, more urgent fire broke out?

Working extra hours is an effective way to put out a fire, sometimes the only way. But it is not a sustainable approach and should not be encouraged as a way to show care.

Working through the weekend is a solution for the symptoms that doesn’t address the underlying problem. Fixing the broken app is pointless if you don’t address the issues that led to the app being broken in the first place.

Unless deployed as an emergency measure and rapidly followed up by an introspection process to discover the root cause of the issue and how to prevent it in the future, sprinting like Alex and his teammate did will only result in setting a precedent that others might feel compelled to live up to.

A better approach is to consistently focus on quality. Show you care through your craft, not your time sheet.

Caring is doing the humble, boring, but necessary cleanup work that every established codebase requires. It’s sometimes pushing back against the pressure to deliver in order to have a solid implementation.

Communication is caring

Something else that concerned me about Alex’s story was the lack of communication. Why didn’t he or his colleague inform the team about their weekend effort?

Granted, they may not have done so because it was the weekend after all and they didn’t want to disturb the others. Still, a message on Slack could have been sent nonetheless. Instant messaging is relatively unobtrusive. It’s safe to assume that if the receiver doesn’t want to be distracted they won’t check their messages.

One could have said, “Hey, you know what? I’m fired up by this challenge. I want to take a shot at rewriting the app this weekend.” The other could have replied, “Me too. Why don’t we work on it together?” Or “I have a different rewrite in mind. Let’s see which one comes out better.”

At this point, the manager might have reminded the eager ICs that they ought to rest during the weekend. Or, knowing that inspiration is short-lived and it’s good to capitalize on it, he could have encouraged them but also adjusted the team workload for the upcoming week to compensate for the extra hours the two put in during the weekend.

Caring on the job also means caring about your team. Communication is a crucial component of effective and thoughtful teamwork. Knowledge is networked, and the more context breadcrumbs you can share with your colleagues, the easier their job will be.

Show care through consistency, not intensity

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to prove yourself, spending your free time prototyping alternative solutions, and presenting them at work. It shows that you care, but it is not the only way to care.

What about the other person on the team, the one who didn’t show up on Monday with a new app. Did he or she not care?!

Maybe it’s because I’m getting old and jaded, but I’ve come to value restraint more than enthusiasm. I’m more impressed by consistency over intensity.

Like Alex, I only want to work with people who care, but they need to care about the long game first and foremost.

I hope my teammates take plenty of time to unwind, so they can focus intensely when they’re at work and come up with the kind of novel solutions that only a rested brain can.

I think Alex wanted to highlight a valuable trait but chose the wrong story to do so. He and his teammate showed great care, but not because they worked through the weekend. They did so by taking ownership and initiative. They rolled up their sleeves and set to work to address the issue at hand.

Find people who take ownership of problems and dedicate themselves to solving them. But don’t confuse overworking with caring.