Why Crunching Doesn’t Work: A CTO’s View

· 4 min read
Why Crunching Doesn’t Work: A CTO’s View

Years ago, when I was still new to the role of a CTO, I interviewed Sam, an experienced project manager with an impressive resume. He had overseen major initiatives at big tech teams and boasted he always delivered projects on time, no matter what.

In the interview, Sam explained his rigorous approach — he held each engineer personally accountable once a deadline was set.

“That’s how you drive results,” he preached. “Engineers won’t push themselves unless you light a fire.”

I was fascinated by Sam’s confidence and hired him to lead the development of a new cloud product for one of my team’s projects. But problems soon popped up.

If anything slowed progress, Sam demanded overtime and weekend work until the engineers were back on track. He angrily criticized anyone who asked for deadline adjustments, refusing to hear reasons. Cracking the whip on overtime quickly burnt out engineers. Morale dropped sharply as the team felt chewed up and disposable.

Our engineers started subtly padding estimates to protect themselves from Sam’s wrath, which was a natural reaction. But when projects inevitably dragged on, all it led to was more forced overtime — we got ourselves into a vicious cycle.

After a few months under Sam’s management, the engineers were utterly disengaged and miserable, and the cloud product was delayed with no end in sight.

Sam’s rigid approach was unsustainable and unhealthy. Forcing overtime without addressing underlying roadblocks just led to burnout and resentment. Despite his claims, Sam clearly didn’t know how to lead engineering teams to success.

I had to let Sam go. It took time to repair the damage, but luckily, morale and productivity recovered soon. We eventually launched the product only a few more months late, thanks to the team’s revived commitment and energy.

The High Costs of Constant Overtime

Working crazy hours might feel like getting more done, but studies show that’s not true. Trying to pull 60-hour weeks as a software engineer to impress the manager results in feeling burnt out and getting less done than when working normal hours.

Decreased Productivity

Those extra 20 hours often contribute little besides extra stress and mistakes. Research shows productivity declines rapidly after 50 hours per week. Output at 60 hours is usually the same as 40 hours.

As a leader, you should take steps to avoid unrealistic overtime expectations, like setting reasonable roadmaps and deadlines. It would help if you blocked off rest periods after crunch times — this is something we have yet to do in our team. And rather than make everyone work excessive hours, hire more staff to handle growing workloads.

Burnout and Mental Distress

Constant overtime leads to burnout, making you exhausted, cynical, and incapable of doing your job well.

I had a rough period in my 20s. After months of 80-hour weeks trying to meet impossible deadlines, I developed insomnia, anxiety, and hated work I used to enjoy. This took a huge psychological toll while destroying my morale and wellbeing.

Managers should watch for signs of burnout and reassign work before developers become severely overwhelmed. I want to provide mental health days and enforce a daily limit on hours worked. Support and understanding as a leader can go a long way, too.

Increased Health Risks

Studies show a 60% higher risk of cardiovascular and other issues for those working over 10 hours daily. I know this from my experience — crunching excessive overtime and juggling multiple projects led to me getting sick and suffering consequences for years.

With crunch periods at the expense of sleep, exercise, and healthy food, health can suffer. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so long-term sustainability should be prioritized over short-term gains when managing deadlines.

Low Retention

Constant overtime often signals poor management and unrealistic demands, driving talented people to look elsewhere. After months of continual excessive overtime, people lose loyalty and leave for a healthier work-life balance.

Hiring and onboarding new staff doesn’t help in this case much, as it stalls projects even further. Instead, we should set realistic deadlines and hire enough developers to retain top talent.

Poor Work-Life Balance

Overwork makes it way harder for developers to pursue hobbies, family activities, and hanging out with friends outside of work, all of which are extremely important. Canceling vacation plans multiple times due to impossible deadlines hurts well-being and inevitably impacts work.

As managers, we should promote healthy work-life balance and avoid unreasonable overtime expectations. We, people, need downtime to recharge.

Lower Work Quality

Excessive overtime leads to fatigue and burnout, sabotaging software quality. I’ve often seen under-rested engineers at crunch time overlook bugs and write messy code to meet deadlines.

Prioritising sustainable work practices over deadlines ensures developers can produce consistent, high quality work. Rushed jobs often require rework down the road anyway.

Value People Over Deadlines

The costs of constant overtime are clear. As managers, we have a responsibility to our teams to avoid setting unrealistic expectations that lead to excessive crunch time. Our people’s health, engagement, and retention should be prioritized over short-term gains.

While an occasional late-night sprint can rally the troops, prolonged overtime will not work long-term. It hurts morale, productivity, and quality. Developers are human — they need rest, balance, and support from leaders who value their well-being.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way from both sides. The memories of burnout and exhaustion from my younger years stick with me. Now, when facing tight deadlines, I check in with each person. How are you holding up? Do you need to take a break? What can I do to help?

By showing I genuinely care, I build trust and loyalty. My team feels empowered to speak up when workloads are unreasonable. Together, we can course-correct before burnout sets in.

There will always be more work to do. Fortunately, there are also better ways to manage it. With empathy, flexibility, and open communication, we can deliver great products on time while keeping ourselves happy and healthy. We deserve nothing less.

Originally published on Medium.com