Here’s Why Alex St John Is Wrong About Development

If anything, the one positive about the recent furore over Alex St. John’s views on development and working conditions has been its ability to unify most game developers against crunch time, overworking junior employees, and a management ethos that demands workers sacrifice their lives for their jobs.

In response, the creator of DirectX and founder of WildTangent further clarified his philosophy — by being even more inflammatory than before.

The clarification is prefaced through a lens that says the creation of video games isn’t real work and therefore not worthy of the same benefits and conditions that apply to other jobs.

“One of the biggest themes of a lot of my recent talks and posts has been about modern wage-slave mentality that has become increasingly endemic in the West-Coast technology corridors,” St. John writes.

According to the former technology evangelist, many modern developers today believe they are victims of their bosses; they’re emotionally fragile and prone to flying off the handle; they believe their job constitutes “real work”; their situation in life will never improve; and they, once again, are “too fragile to be challenged”.

For someone that advocates so strongly in having passionate employees, the implication that passionately disagreeing with St. John’s views is tantamount to having a bad attitude is bizarre.

He continues, saying that “fragile lazy millennials” can be converted into “useful fodder for the machines of industry” through the following means:

  1. You are NOT a victim and you should spend your energy fixing the things you control instead of blaming things you don’t. You control what YOU do and you can choose to have some control over your attitudes. You are banned from having excuses for anything!
  2. Being emotionally fragile is something you train to overcome, not embrace. Instead of listening for opportunities to be outraged, try just listening.
  3. Doing something of “Value” is not the same as doing something “Strenuous”. Modern tech jobs are not “Strenuous” if you experience them as such you need to develop some emotional fortitude.
  4. It’s only true of people who accept it, stop accepting that you are a victim with no further potential. The sad thing about this belief is that people who embrace it are always 100% correct, it’s self-full-filling. Nothing will ever challenge this world-view once you embrace it.
  5. Embrace adversity and being challenged until you become confident that you can always handle it successfully.

It’s largely a rewording of his previous writings: working 80 hour-plus is part and parcel of development and those unprepared for such a lifestyle should find work elsewhere, because that’s the devotion the industry requires. It’s not hard work. It’s not stressful. This is what “real engineers” love to do.

Thing is, it’s rubbish. Researcher Erin Reid found that workers capable of upholding the 80 hour work week were only pretending to do so, thanks to a variety of tricks that made it seem like they were meeting their slavish schedule. They were encouraged to do so, because the research found those asked their managers for help in coping were often penalised and marginalised.

It’s an important distinction, because it proves that working long hours isn’t necessary for success. “The experiences of those men who passed show clearly that, even in a client service setting, it is possible to reorganize work such that it is more predictable and consumes fewer hours,” she added.

And let’s not ignore St. John’s argument that being a developer somehow isn’t stressful. The very nature of working long hours leads to stress and other complications for your health, regardless of what industry you’re in.

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that working more than 55 hours a week contributed to less and lower quality sleep. Scientists from the University College London found that those who work more than 55 hours had a 33% higher risk of stroke and a 13% higher risk of coronary heart disease.

There are other elements to his hiring strategy, some of which makes sense: you’re more likely to retain staff if you find a way to make their family part of the company fabric.

And then there are others which are outright offensive: saying female engineers won’t achieve their potential if they point out discrimination in the workforce, which seems a bizarre position given their very job is dependent on them solving problems. (Just not cultural ones.)

But I want to focus on the core tenet of St. John’s philosophy: namely the long hours. It’s what the best coders are born to do, and if you don’t love it you’re not a true developer. Here’s one of his bolded quotes:

It has always baffled me that people who want to be successful athletes understand that sacrifices, long hours of training to failure without financial rewards is the path to EVENTUAL success, but everybody in the technology world is completely mystified by the suggestion that the same is true of people who want to pursue success and rewards for the products of their minds.

In Australia, the kind of hours that St. John advocates is illegal. Employers can ask their staff to work “reasonable overtime”, but not if that overtime results in any danger to their health and safety. It’s not uncommon for developers in Australia to work long hours. But they have to be compensated, they can’t be sacrificing their well-being to do it, and their personal situation and the responsibilities of their family have to be taken into account.

Safe Work Australia, an independent statutory agency established in 2009 by the federal government, warns that working more than 50 hours can lead to a higher risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety, reduced fertility, depression and gastrointestinal disorders. Overwork isn’t just bad for your mental state — it manifests in very real, very physical problems.

They’re problems that, for whatever reason, St. John believes have no place in game or technology development. If you have them, you’re simply weak, a victim, someone looking for attention. It doesn’t matter that healthier employees cost less in the long run, thanks to higher retention rates, lower turnover, less mistakes (because your staff is getting the right amount of sleep) and improved productivity.

And it apparently doesn’t matter that St. John himself exemplified the symptoms of burnout, despite proclaiming otherwise. But that doesn’t matter when you subscribe to a school of management borne from the 1980’s, a time when the vast psychological, emotional and physical demands workers go through were poorly understood and appreciated.

Times change, and so does our collective understanding of how humans work. Reid found men often lie about how many hours they work. Working more than 54 hours a week can contribute to alcohol-related problems. Burning out can suck the passion out of your work and the hobbies you love. Medibank Private found it costs Australian businesses $14.81 billion a year in 2008; stress-induced sick leave and presenteeism cost $10.11 billion a year.

But that’s how St. John has built his career, being the voice that goes against the grain. He says it’s bad for employees to know their worth, that staff should realise working in development is a reward in and of itself, and that arguing for better conditions is symptomatic of a poor attitude.

He has every right to his views. But the studies above show this philosophy is physically unhealthy, creatively damaging and bad for business.

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