Impact Without Burning Out

I go on and on about impact-per-engineer in organizations and how my mission is to help double and triple it for my clients. However, it seems like a significant portion of leaders in our industry cannot envision how this can come about without making engineers work “harder.” In fact, I believe that working less is likely the key to increasing impact and maintaining urgency.

What is actually happening in the hard-working startups around us? I’ve had a front-row seat, having done freelancing work and advising dozens of companies. When you spend enough time watching many different teams, noticing patterns becomes easier. The major one is the real lack of urgency even though people seem to be spending a lot of hours at the office.

What we don’t realize is that these long hours slowly numb us to the value of our time. The simple fact is that when Joe knows he’s going to be in the office for 10 hours no matter what, he will naturally be in less of a rush to get things done and cut straight to the point. Meetings? They might be boring, but he’ll go when invited. Falling down a rabbit hole trying to spot a bug? He might only realize this a day later when he mentions the same thing in the daily standup. Time loses its significance.

The Expensive Freelancer Mindset

Contrast this day-to-day action with the freelancer that has a high hourly rate. I used to do this for a few years and it really opened my eyes to the ineffectiveness that’s typical in our industry. While others learned to take useless meetings for granted, I left useless meetings with a lousy feeling—the client got nothing for that hour. This slowly calibrated the way I worked so I didn’t join meetings unless I thought my presence would be beneficial. Further, I didn’t feel bad if I realized halfway through a meeting I was no longer needed and headed out.

If these seem negligible, take a moment and run a quick estimate in your head: how many engineer hours are wasted in your organization on this every week? To add to it, knowing that I’ll be billing for every hour I spent working for the client created a constant sense of urgency—and not in a bad way. I was more likely to remain conscious of the time and ask myself, “what am I doing here?” That meant that I would notice useless meetings, features that seemed to be getting out of hand, and even realizing that I was spending way too much time fighting their internal tooling, waiting for the CI, and so on.

Having this intrinsic sense of time that made me gauge every action through the lens of its impact resulted with something that felt almost like a superpower compared to the “regular” employees around me. Couple that with another benefit: people knew I was expensive, and so were less keen to waste time around me. Knowing I’ll be coming to the office the next day prompted decisions to be made rather than letting endless discussions to go on. This meant that the hours I was spending there were even more effective, and I didn’t have to do anything to make it happen (other than charge enough).

What COVID Taught Us

After COVID started, I talked to hundreds of tech leaders as part of the research for my new book, The Tech Executive Operating System. Many reported that with kids being at home, parents seemed to be working fewer hours, but there wasn’t a significant drop in productivity, if at all. That isn’t to say that working from home with kids doesn’t have its price. I know firsthand how big of a toll it can have. Nevertheless, the efficacy of most people wasn’t affected.

I believe that this is a result of an increased sense of urgency. Suddenly, every hour mattered more, making people focus on what was genuinely essential. Moreover, the introduction of async work meant that some useless calls were replaced with a Google doc or a Slack message. We removed a lot of cruft.

All this is to say that I believe we should find ways to create urgency regularly. We’ve started hearing about companies trying out four-day workweeks. Frankly, I believe this makes sense for the same reason. Cutting the time means people will value every hour even more, making them less inclined to while the time away. Your takeaway should be that increasing impact-per-engineer is not about typing faster but about creating a better connection to a goal and innate urgency.