ea_spouse : profit at the cost of human dignity

My copy of The Best Software Writing I – selected and introduced by Joel Spolsky arrived the day before yesterday. I finally managed to start reading it last night after getting back from a truly magical evening at the Chinese State Circus. The book is a collection of essays/posts on online blogs that Spolsky has brought together as examples of simple goodle writing that engages the reader and captivates them. Spolsky introduces each essay with his own take on the subject matter. The essay I chose to read first was entitled EA – The Human Story. Anyone who knows me, knows I play several online games (most FPS ones), and I have a great interest in the gaming industry in terms of the products and technologies that they produce.

It’s safe to say that I was not expecting to be moved quite as much as I was by this account, which you can read online in its entirety over at http://ea-spouse.livejournal.com/. Before I go any further I will say this, I believe that ANYONE working in the software industry or in human resources, in fact everyone should read the essay.

It’s written by the spouse of an Electronic Arts employee who wrote this under the anonymous moniker ea_spouse, she chose to remain anonymous because in her own words she has “no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit“. Her account dramatically made the world aware of the shocking sweatshop-like labor practises at EA. It’s important to point out that this account was originally written in 2004 and since it was first published the controversy it generated has led to class action law suits against EA, as well a shedding light on what appears to be a commen trend within the gaming industry.

She describes what her family has to endure as her spouse is forced to work in excess of 85 hours a week for months on end, or in her own words:

Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out

It’s a heart wrenching expose that both captivates and evokes an extremely emotional response in you as you read it. As she laments the forced hours without any overtime or compensation, or even time off for employees you cant help but feel sickened. I had to put the book down and walk away for a moment when she wrote:

“If they don’t like it, they can work someplace else.” Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA’s Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one’s workforce never enters the equation:

Like anyone in the software industry you accept that you do have to work long hours sometimes as deadlines begin to loom, most of the developers that I have known dont mind this, but commonsense alone should tell us that this should always be the exception – never the norm. Ultimately it’s un-sustainable. We’re all human beings, we have lives outside of our work, other interests to persue, other dreams to achieve. ea_spouse ends her account with this …

…when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it’s not just them you’re hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?

Before joining Talis I used to work for an organisation, where I did clock up close to 70 hours a week for sustained periods. Of course no-one actually forces you, your just left to wander if you want the stigma of being labelled not a team player. I can only comment from my own perspective but I have no doubt that much of the apathy, cynicism and even contempt I had for the industry was a product of just how soul destroying it is to wake up, go to work, come home, sleep for a little and then wake up and go to work again. Your depressed, your constantly tired, your irratable, you become less and less attentive … to the point where you dont even sense someone running up behind you with a lead bar!

But what doesnt kill you, generally makes you stronger … at least thats something I try to believe. As I Read ea_spouse’s account, and thought about my own experiences as a developer working extended hours for sustained periods, I was immediatly able to contrast that with what things are like now.

For me Talis is a very different kind of environment to work in as a developer. I dont know whether its because we’ve embraced agile methodologies that are based around the principle of sustainable iterations of work, or whether its because the people I work with and work for genuinley care about the wellbeing of every member of the team. Or as I suspect its probably a combination of both. Our iterations in Skywalk are weekly, the small team on average completes around 15 units of work per week (our velocity – dont ask me to define what our units represent … I always quote my estimates in donuts! 😉 ), but I recall how our programme lead reacted a few months ago when the team over a couple of iterations averaged twice to three times that figure.

Our programme lead on skywalk, Ian Davis, is probably one of the finest programme mangers I have ever worked with. Probably because he doesnt think of himself as a programme manager. He’s extremely goal driven and yet a humanist who puts the well being of his team before anything else. As a team leader he’s a pragmatist, but it’s his charm and his passion that has helped bring together bunch of talented geeks and focused them into a team in every sense of the word. Anyway a few months back our velocity shot up, we were coming to the end of the development on a research prototype we call, Cenote, we wanted to have the piece up and running so Paul could show off some of our achievements at a conference in Canada. There wasnt a real requirement for the prototype to be made available, it was always a nice to have. But the team wanted to showcase its work, we take a great deal of pride in what we do. Ian was on vacation and in his absence we simply plowed on got it all done and delivered. When he came back and checked our velocity, he was appreciative yet told us that he didnt want us to make a habit of that because it wasnt sustainable. He then planned our next iteration to be around half our normal average velocity on the grounds that he wanted to make sure we all got a bit of rest. I’d never known a programme manager to react like that … or for a company to let him.

2 thoughts on “ea_spouse : profit at the cost of human dignity

  1. Pingback: VirtualChaos - Nadeem’s blog » ea_spouse : Follow Up

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