« Looking for "Naked Conversations" | Main | A Chance to Contribute to the "Monad Hacks" Book »

January 22, 2006

That 4 am Thing

There was a bit of a flap a month ago when Mark Lucovsky posted a comment on Mini-Microsoft's blog talking about the energy level at Google. He wrote (talking about Microsoft):

I was there in the old days and witnessed and was part of the awesome energy that was happening at Microsoft. Sixteen years later, I remember walking through the halls rarely seeing anyone in their offices. Everyone seemed to be at lunch, at the pro club, or stuck in a meeting. When does the actual work get done?

And then, discussing a short trip he took up to Google's offices in Mountain View:

I worked until 3am and guess what. I wasn't the last one in my area of the building the leave! There was plenty of company. All these guys are proud of their work, love what they are doing, and wanted to nail their deadlines and then take a few days off for the holidays. At 330am I arrived at my apartment, slept for a few hours, and then arrived at the office at 8am, grabbed a free hot breakfast, and put in another full day leaving work at 4am. Again, i was not the last one to leave. I work in an area where a team is preparing for an upcoming launch and 90% of that team was there when I left at 4am, and they were there when I returned at 830am the next day.

Now I don't doubt what he says is true, but in the discussion/flame war that ensued, much was made of the 4 am time and how much of a team would have been at the office at that time in the "old days" of Microsoft.

Pushing for a few days to meet a deadline (which is what was going on at Google) is one thing. But I was there in the NT team during the "old days" in 1990 (I'm astonished to realize that those days were closer to the time of The Soul of a New Machine than they are to today). There really weren't people consistently working until 4 am. It's just not sustainable; you can't work until 4 am and then be back in the office at 10 am for any lengthy period of time. I remember one time I worked through the night until about 8 am, fixing up the reference counts in the Netbeui transport (an undertaking that required a lot of time to get my brain up to speed on, so I decided to just plow ahead and finish it in one sitting). This was very unusual and at 4 am that night I was the only person there.

But people did work a lot of hours, of course. What they did was work basically the maximum number of sustainable hours (sustainable from a food/clothing/shelter point of view, not from a friends and family point of view). Come in around 9 am, work until 11 pm, go home and sleep, repeat the next day, 7 days a week, for weeks or months at a time (I did know one guy at Softimage who worked a similar number of hours, but had shifted his schedule forward; he consistently worked from about 3 pm to about 5 am, so he was there at 4 am, but he wasn't back in the office the next morning). And there was a high energy level on the team, and MarkL certainly was in there working as hard as anyone else.

The endless 14-hour days, and not some rare all-nighter, was the real killer. I was just recently talking to someone who had a pager and was on-call for some particular type of incident, and he talked about dreading the 3 am call. Shoot, a 3 am call is fine with me. At 3 am all I'm doing is sleeping, which I can do another time (for example, the next morning, since after a 3 am call you could presumably come in after lunch the next day without anybody looking at you funny). What I would really dread is not the rare 3 am call, it's the common 7 pm call, when I'm playing Monopoly with the kids, or some other event that, given a specific combination of their ages, their moods, and what happened that day, will never be repeated again.

Posted by AdamBa at January 22, 2006 10:30 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Thanks for the comments. It's interesting to hear from someone else who was there in those days. I get the feeling that MarkL is just trying to justify his move, especially since Google's "Do no evil" slogan is becoming more laughable each and every day.

Posted by: Phil at January 24, 2006 08:47 PM