As engineers who work for early-stage startups, we tend to prioritize getting products into the hands of customers quickly. In my experience as both an engineer and manager at four startups, that led to work sessions that lasted through the night. But as routine as all-nighters may be, they run counter to a culture in which we enjoy coming to work each day, let alone a workplace that promotes sustainability and inclusiveness.
All-nighters come from the dorm-room culture of many startups and engineering teams. Some practitioners believe the shared struggle that all-nighters entail brings your team closer together and allows tasks to get done ahead of schedule. I have found the opposite.
All-nighters were a fact of life at every engineering team I belonged to prior to joining LTSE. Only in retrospect do I realize the wide-ranging negative consequences — the long-term toll on morale, creation of an exclusionary culture, and the removal of incentives to plan — that all-nighters had on my team and me.
The harm of all-nighters and the adverse consequences they create became clear to me only later, after I became a manager, a spouse, and father of three. This realization led me to ban them at LTSE. Instead of devolving into working around-the-clock, we have a rigorous cycle of planning and execution that allows us to stay on top of our deadlines and flag problems early on.
I have heard advocates of all-nighters argue that engineers in a state of “flow” can make amazing leaps in their thinking or punch out an unbelievable volume of code in the run-up to a deadline. Both are illusions.
The longer you go without sleep, the more difficulty you have making smart decisions. I’ve seen engineers become stuck in a loop that entails pulling all-nighters, followed by spending time cleaning up their code, then having to stay up late again to catch up on their deliverables. This cycle depletes engineering resources, jeopardizes deadlines, and leads to a culture that promotes the wrong behaviors and penalizes the correct ones.
Benefits beyond sleep
At its core, a culture of all-nighters elevates values inconsistent with a healthy culture. It places endurance over everything, including planning and writing clean code that’s easy to work with. It leads to unpredictability in performance and decision-making.
Moreover, a company with a culture of all-nighters rewards behavior that has nothing to do with how well someone does their job. It values those who can stay all night to work on a project over people who can address business needs more efficiently. At the same time, a culture of all-nighters marginalizes parents, caregivers, and, quite frankly, those who plan well.
Since starting our engineering team in early 2016, we have never needed to disregard our “no all-nighters” policy. What’s more, the policy has produced some positives. When managers and teams know that engineering resources are strictly limited, they ask hard questions about what customers really need. It forces our managers to find new solutions and be more creative in order to move faster rather than fall back on a mantra of “work harder.”
The policy also enables us to hire very qualified candidates who, for whatever reason, cannot, or choose not, to join a team that works through the night. It has helped us bring in engineers with a diverse set of ages, skills, and backgrounds.
Banning all-nighters is just one of the steps we take at LTSE to ensure we can hire the best people, build great products, and preserve our sanity in the process. We are constantly reevaluating our culture and organization to achieve these goals. It’s the only way we can build both a team and a business for the long term.
Will you join us in banning all-nighters at your startup?