For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

By Jack Ganssle

Work Vs Life

Published 1/12/2007

Mark Dobrosielski thoughtfully responded to my article "Learning a Trade" ( with the following email:

"I just read your article, "Learning a Trade." I thought it was a very good article, and so it seems did all of the folks that responded to it. I also noticed a common theme in many of those comments. Lots of those folks learned some of those skills at the sides of their dads. That inspired me to write this now, since I've been meaning to do so for quite a while.

"I'd like to see your take on the hours we have to work at our jobs - why we do it, how much we do it, and (most importantly) what it costs us. We can't very well teach our kids much of anything if we are never home, can we?

"Don't get me wrong - I willing to work very hard for my money. I'll work 'til midnight when I need to (like last night), but I deeply resent it when management expects it as a matter of routine. A few weeks ago we even got the dreaded email, "If you're not working nights and weekends, you're not working hard enough." All-out pushes are fine for a sprint, but not for a marathon.

"I'm not lazy. I'm highly motivated and I'm a team player. The simple fact is that I love my family and greatly value our time together. My kids won't be small forever. Soon enough, my son will stop asking me to play ball with him when I get home from work. Soon enough, my daughter won't ask me to read her a story before bed. What salary would make a man willingly turn his back to that?

"My personal philosophy (and perhaps this is why they never offer me the corner office!) is that you schedule for 40 hours a week. Hopefully, most of the time things will go well and folks go home at a reasonable hour. When there are problems, as inevitably happens, you can put in the extra 10, 20, 30 hours in a week to put things right again - and then eventually things ought to go back to normal. I get the feeling, though, that we are scheduled for 60 hours a week just to meet expectations. Then when things go awry, you've not got much left to throw at the problem."

Mark eloquently addresses the work versus life struggle that's so hard to balance. It's especially difficult for engineers, who, for the most part, really do love their jobs. We're torn by our desire to be home, fascination with technology, and the pressure from on high to get a product to market.

In lieu of some sort of radical change (unions? Legislation? Neither sound like anything we'd like) each of us will likely spend much of our career on a tightrope between the conflicting demands of home and office. Tools and technology will never help. When someone invents the Hogwarts School of Embedded Development that lets us crank a million bug-free lines of code in a month, new competitive pressures means the company will want that much code in a week. A wide-bandwidth link from the desk to the children can never replace the physical interaction the kids need and we crave.

Businesses expect too much of exempt employees. Yet I'm reluctant to blame the boss for excessive overtime. Yes, bad planning and poor management are inexcusable. But even good managers often have pressures that lead to create dysfunctional schedules. It's chic to blame the fat-cat CEOs (may those Home Depot-like parasites rot in hell), but half the jobs in this country are in small businesses; most of those are run by reasonable people who are not robber barons. They're in a hyper-competitive market which makes awful demands. Fail to fulfill those, and the company folds. Instead of OT there's no work at all.

It's a Hobson's Choice.

I'm a great believer in capitalism and understand how companies get squeezed by competition. I often wonder, though, how it is that many Europeans get six week vacations. Their employers still manage to do well in their battles with American companies who offer their people half or a third as much time off. How is it that these companies pay exorbitant social service taxes yet remain competitive?

Ultimately we employees sacrifice much to preserve the paycheck. In the flash of an eye the kids are grown. Suddenly that two year old is a man. Gone. Off to college, married or with a family of his own, in a new orbit that mostly excludes mom and dad. Family time we've lost over the years to get the latest widget out the door can never be recovered. When my youngest sibling was small my dad - also an engineer - worked insane hours. Years later he told me he felt that experience corrupted years of their relationship. To paraphrase Mark: is work worth that price?

I don't know how to achieve a palatable balance. Perhaps one has to accept the existential struggle and just do the best one can. But I do advise young engineers to avoid debt and save money, letting the power of compound interest work its wonders. A decent nest egg can at least provides options, whether for a less demanding job at a lower salary or for a sabbatical.

What do you think? How does one achieve a balance?