“My engineers want to code at night! Oh no!” Oh yes!

Coding at night

I was talking to someone who was concerned about one of the engineers on his team. This chap was writing a lot of code on the side for a hobby project, and it didn’t feel right to this manager. After listening in to the group for awhile I had to insert myself and ask some questions:

Is he performing his job to a satisfactory level?

In the information age it is hard to measure impact based on the number of hours. At some point the engineering manager has to set the expectations for the engineers job performance. This typically happens already, where it is clear how to meet expectations, exceed them, and more. Putting in the effort to clearly define these levels gives you the tools you need to be much more loosely coupled on items such as time input.

If the engineer is at least meeting the expectations of their role, you shouldn’t be too concerned about what else is going on, but there is always the opportunity to talk about what it means to get to the other levels. At some point the employee may take the trade off to do more in their personal life at the expense of being a role model (not that time is the only way to become a role model).

Measuring the impact that a person has on your business is hard. There are so many complex variables at work, with a myriad of side effects. There is the notion of individual contribution, and also the leverage that you get with the team. A great leader has a huge leverage effect beyond himself, and that is true for any employee.

If he instead spent the same time on a hobby very different to work, how would that make you feel?

The manager didn’t like the engineer writing code on the side, but why? Why does it sometimes make people feel weird if they use the skills they have at work for a hobby, when if they spent the same amount of time on a very different hobby it wouldn’t feel as weird?

If the engineer was cranking away putting hours and hours into becoming a scratch golfer, how would you feel differently?

In some ways you should feel very excited that an engineer on your team loves software so much that he continues to explore it “off hours”. The passion is a great sign that they enjoy their craft beyond a pay check. Understanding the motivations is of course key. The context is what matters here. What are they working on? Is part of the hobby project a way to explore different tech stacks? A different domain? There is a good chance that this “free time” work is a gift. The engineer is growing and you are getting the benefits of that growth, while he is with you.

Is he being paid for work on the side?

It can feel different when someone is hacking on a fun open source side project vs. a paid gig. The incentives are different. On the one hand the golden rule of “as long as they are doing their job” can be applied, but it is still a warning sign. Do they feel they need the money and don’t like what they are doing other than the pay check? Or, is the pay check a happy side effect of working on something genuinely interesting?

When money is changing hands there is another person in the equation: whoever is paying them. If it is consulting work, someone is managing that work. If they are selling an app on an app store, there are customers. When this happens loyalties can be split, so the salient point is “where is the primary focus?” When shit hits the fan and you need this guy, is he around?

In the 24/7 world that we live in, when is it OK to work on this vs. that. Chances are you have had people work for you at all hours of the day. In fact, it may be that some of your engineers work best coding at night, so you should let them do that at times for their day job!

Expectations

As with seemingly so many things in life, it probably all comes down to expectations. You should be able to have an honest transparent ongoing conversion between engineer and manager. You also need to be fair across your work force. You may have some fear that the engineer will leave to work on this hobby, or get another job due to the open source work, but is the alternative of trying to capture someone better?

If you can find a passionate engineer that is creative and wants to explore his craft no matter what, you should probably consider yourself very lucky. If not, what kind of culture are you creating? Whatever you do: don’t just tell them they can’t be creative and put them in a box. If you want obedient fulfillment workers, this is one way to start down that path.

As one of my kids often remarks: Are you FORCING me?

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