Being a software programmer is one of the best jobs these days for your pocketbook and your job security, but it can be incredibly bad for your mental health.
Two things are going on that are literally driving programmers crazy.
One is something known as the “imposter syndrome.” That’s when you’re pretty sure that all the other coders you work with are smarter, more talented and more skilled than you are. You live in fear that people will discover that you are really faking your smarts or skills or accomplishments.
Women programmers frequently confess to suffering from imposter syndrome, and that’s not surprising. The syndrome was actually first documented by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes as a particular issue for successful women. It’s also the subject of a number of self-help books geared toward women.
But a lot of male programmers increasingly say that that they feel it, too.
These people tend to apply extremely high standards to themselves and not to others. Imposter syndrome is common in professions where the work is peer reviewed. Writing software is just such a field, particularly open-source software where anyone can look at the code and change it.
From the ‘imposter’ to the ‘Real Programmer’
The trap of imposter’s syndrome is that programmers think they need to work harder to become good enough. That means spending more time coding — every waking minute — and taking on an increasing number of projects.
That feeling is called the “Real Programmer” syndrome as named by a post that went crazy on Reddit last week. The Real Programmer lives only to code. Redditor big_al11 explains:
A Real Programmer is someone who loves programming! They love it so much that it’s what they spend all their time doing. …
the Real Programmer doesn’t really consider it “work”. …
a programmer isn’t a Real Programmer when they don’t volunteer to work 60 to 80 hour weeks (for no extra monetary compensation, remember) because it’s “fun”. …
It permeates the industry’s culture.
… If you want to succeed as a programmer you have to at least look like a Real Programmer …. So you get people working evenings and weekends just for appearances and they start to burnout.
That programmers are expected to work insanely long hours isn’t new. But this idea that they are doing it of their own accord, for the sheer joy of it, is new.
For instance, a decade ago, during the Internet bubble, a book called “Death March” became a best seller. It documented how insane hours for programmers led to health issues. It concluded that poor project management was to blame.
In 2004, coders actually sued Electronic Arts regarding overtime and won a $US15 million settlement.
Years later, in 2010, a story went viral from a woman married to a programmer who worked for Rockstar Games. It told how the company expected programmers to work 12-hour days/six days a week for months or years on end, damaging some programmers’ health as a result of the strain.
By 2011, the Real Programmer shift was taking hold. That year a discussion on the programming social network StackExchange went nuts, by a guy who asked, “I don’t program in my spare time. Does that make me a bad developer?”
The general consensus was that you can be a good developer if you only work during normal working hours, but that the “greatest programmers code during their off-hours as well.”
More isn’t always better
That idea is of questionable validity. Stanford students studied how much time a person can really spend programming productively. In what shouldn’t be a surprise, they found that working too much reduces productivity. Overworked coders tended to produce less high-quality code when working 60 hour/weeks than refreshed people did when working 40-hour weeks.
That hasn’t stopped the imposter/Real Programmer syndrome from taking hold. And there’s been some really sad stories along the way.
For instance, about a year ago, corporate programmer Kenneth Parker wrote a post on his Ken’s Programming blog called “I Knew a Programmer that Went Completely Insane.”
It discussed his co-worker who worked so hard, he had “a complete mental breakdown.”
He was one of the hardest workers I had seen in the industry. He would frequently stay after hours to work on projects; He was always available when management needed someone to rush a job out over the weekend…. His willingness to push himself to get a job done is what they liked about him. However, his productivity was not so great when he landed in a mental institution.
Recently, New Relic software engineer Nick Floyd has begun writing and speaking about something he calls Nerd Life Balance. After confessing that he once suffered from imposter syndrome, he now believes that nerd happiness occurs by finding a job to love. He writes:
Being at New Relic is challenging, hard and awesome all at the same time, but it has never been work for me. Before joining on, I had accepted some beliefs that work always had to be work, which was often frustrating, and that life was the escape from being frustrated at work. But I had it backwards — Life is awesome when this thing called ‘work’ becomes another way of expressing the passions in your life.
On the other hand, Redditor big_al11 offers what is surely the most sane solution:
I just really wish we lived in a society where we didn’t define ourselves so strongly by our day jobs and where working ourselves to death wasn’t seen as a virtue.