Last week the New York Times semed to skewer Amazon over the stress it places on its workers. I read today that Dustin Mosokvitz confirms such high stress work environments and confesses that his health deteriorated while at Facebook as a result. I don't work in IT but I hope to eventually. However, I absolutely DO NOT want to work in that type of environment. I have already done that in my first field of study and do not intend to repeat those experiences.

My questions for those who work or have worked in IT is: Are these articles truly an accurate description of life in IT? Are there any opportunities for IT work that is not so subject to what Moskovitz called 'unrealistic expectations'? Are there specialties within IT, (say security research?), where the work environment might not be so high intensity? Thanks in advance.

In my experience your boss determines whether your workplace is heaven or hell, or somewhere in-between. In my 29 years at one corporation I had four different bosses (for the same job). I was part of a group of 5-7 real-time system software specialists.

My first boss (male) tried to get us all fired (so he could set up his own consulting company to take over our jobs). My second boss (female) was better qualified and much nicer but couldn't handle the office politics (too many people to report to above her). My third and fifth bosses (male) were the same guy. He was the boss from hell. He was a hostage taker (he loved to talk). Any meeting with him present tripled in duration. He never missed an opportunity to belittle and his operating principle (I have him on tape saying this) was "you're going to get shit no matter what you do." The boss I had in between 3 and 5 (female) was the ideal boss. Qualified, intelligent and actually concerned about feedback on how she was doing as a boss. She fostered co-operation and preferred positive rather than negative feedback. Except in rare cases she saw no reason for any meeting to last longer than 20 minutes. She actually started as a co-worker at my level (she is about 30 years younger than I am) and when she was promoted to a position as my boss (as a buffer between me and the boss-from-hell) I was ecstatic. When she took maternity leave after a year and a half I managed to hang on under my former boss until the minimum allowed retirement age (55).

I have been asked by more than a dozen people, "how can you work for that a$$hole." My response was usually "he told me I was going to get shit no matter what I did so I just do what I want." As long as my users were happy with my work there wasn't a whole lot he could do (unionized shop).

Thanks for the quick reply.

It seems to me that being in a union protected you and the work environment. That is what unions are for. But the rate of unionization is much lower in 2015 than in, say, 1985. I would guess that there are only a handful of unionized workplaces in the tech industry.

If a programmer cannot find a union workplace, then he/she is subject to the whims of the boss. In my experience, a worker cannot choose who the boss is, only who the boss isn't (by resigning). Do you have any suggestions as to how to read a potential IT boss during the interview process to get an idea of what it will be like to work under that person?

Union busting hasn't been the problem up here in Canada like it has been in the US. Also, while unions can protect you against certain things like unfair dismissal and outright harrassment, it cannot do much about systematic abuse of the type I got from boss 3/5. A boss can make your job miserable without actually doing anything actionable. Going over his head to complain would have made a bad situation worse. Fortunately, the closer I got to retirement the more I could get away with effectively saying "fuck you". Not literally, but in my attitude and my actions. He got the message. As long as I was doing my job and keeping the users happy I was basically untouchable. Since I wasn't interested in career advancement at that point he really had nothing on me.

I'm really not the person to ask about how to size up a potential boss. I am really bad at reading people. The only thing I might suggest is to talk to people who have worked for him and moved on. If the boss is an a$$hole, thos employees still under his/her thumb might not want to be candid.

don't know about where you are, but here unions are utterly useless. The ONLY thing they care about is their own power as a union as a political entity (they're all tightly bound to certain political parties).

Anything they touch the work environment gets highly politicised, productivity plummets, stress increases (as a result, because deadlines and targets of course remain the same out of economic necessity), insane demands for huge pay increases irrespective of the financial results of companies lead to a high number of bankrupcies and layoffs.
The only people benefiting from this all are the union bosses and their friends in those political parties, screaming how "evil companies don't care about workers".

People have called out Amazon for its high stress environment in the past, those claims have regularly been proven to be (largely) incorrect.
And where they were shown correct it was very specific periods. For example black friday weekend or just before Christmas when sales are at an insanely high level while at the same time a lot of employees are on leave. While Amazon hires temp workers to help out during those periods those can't replace the more experienced ones who're on leave AND cover the increased workload fully.

As to IT jobs, I've never had one completely free from stress, and I doubt they exist.
However the levels vary greatly between jobs, companies, and projects.
If you see a requirement like "no 5-9 mentality, must be flexible", it's an indication that they're used to overloading people, forcing them into high levels of overtime (usually without pay), impossible deadlines, etc..
While not universally true (it's now so common to see those lines it's got to where it's pretty much meaningless) it's something to keep in mind during a job interview. And that especially if the people you're meeting seem rushed, uncomfortable to be away from their desks where the work is piling up while they're secluded with you.

don't know about where you are, but here unions are utterly useless

I've never had to approach my union to resolve a problem but I do know that the one time I attended a union meeting (to try to defeat a proposed motion) I realized how corrupt it was. The motion had an amendment that we spent two hours discussing until we (the group I came with) decided to just get on with it, pass the amendment then vote against the motion. Here's what happened in the space of 15 seconds

  1. "All in favour say aye"
  2. "By approving the amendment you have approved the motion"
  3. "Move to adjourn"
  4. "Approved"
  5. "Meeting is adjourned"

We couldn't appeal the vote, call for a show of hands on the motion to adjourn, or even lodge a protest because the meeting was over.

My wife, however, had a discrimination matter resolved by her union in her favour. Same union (CUPE) but differrent branch and different employer.

Still, if I hadn't belonged to a union I could probably have been fired just because my boss didn't like me, and my only recourse would have been to self-finance a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. When that happens only the lawyers win.

that's why people have insurance for legal aid :)
And of course here an employer needs to apply for a permit to fire you, which they won't get unless they have a strong case (and "I don't like that guy" isn't enough).

Sure, unions used to do good, but that was in the 1930s-50s, from the 1970s on they've devolved into corrupt, useless, political pressure groups.
Several years ago here there was a case where a union decided to lay off 500 of its workers, and thought they could get away with not giving them any of the compensation and stuff that that same union always demands companies provide their workers in mass layoffs...
Workers went to court (union of course, of which they were mandated to be members, which here is illegal, refused to cover the legal cost the workers were entitled to under their union membership, not that they'd have trusted a union appointed lawyer in a lawsuit against the union) and won, giving that union a major bloody nose.

Getting back to the original topic, let me cite an example of "bad boss behaviour". I retired in August of 2008. In the three months or so before I retired my entire group was moved out of our current area to workspaces about thirty feet down so that our area could be rearranged with slightly smaller (but still spacious) cubicles to accomodate another person. The work was scheduled to be completed two weeks before my retirement so I requested that I just be allowed to stay where I was rather than pack/unpack for the two weeks. My old space was a prime window cubicle so a junior person asked our boss if she could have my window spot on the return move. A "good boss" response would have been "No. I've already allocated the spot to someone else." The "bad boss" response was to

  1. tell her "no"
  2. not give her a reason
  3. make her feel like a time-wasting moron for even asking
  4. taking the next 20 minutes to make her feel like an idiot

Note the irony in berating her for wasting his time but taking 20 minutes to do it. You can imagine that she left the group for another position as soon as she was able resulting not only in lost productivity while she learned her new job, but lost productivity for the person they had to bring in to replace her. Unfortunately, at this corporation Engineers are considered gods who can do no wrong, and my boss was an engineer.

One other little anecdote. Because he and another group member were not comfortable doing "command line stuff" he told me that all of my maintenance stuff should be done using only GUI apps. I basically told him to get bent.

ah yes, or the manager who NEVER gives praise to the tech people when something goes right (when things work well, a job's completed under budget, delivered on schedule for example) it's marketing and management who get the praise.
When however something goes wrong, even if it's caused by external factors to the tech team, the techies get blamed.

Prime example I've of that is a project where we had given off a realistic estimate of 500 man hours to get the job done. The board and sales had signed off on that, and we had those signatures on paper.
Sales markets the project to the customer for 250 hours to get the contract.
We complete the job in 400 hours, 20% below our own original estimate (and thus well within the budget we'd calculated we'd need). Because the project was now delivered 150 man hours over the budget as sold by sales, there was of course no profit left. Our team of course gets blamed for going way over the planning, even though we were well below the planning the board and sales had signed off on and that we'd agreed to do the work in.

In another instance a customer called that "the system isn't working". This was instantly elevated and by the service desk logged as a software bug without any supporting evidence (this was standard, all incoming support requests were logged as software bugs).
When we analysed the very sparse data provided by the customer it was clear it was a hardware problem most likely (the workstations could not communicate with the server) so we sent over a hardware engineer who found the customer had unplugged a network router, he found a vacuum cleaner plugged in to the wall socket where the router should have gotten its electrical power from.
The call was never updated to a status of "not a bug" or whatever, which was also common, so at the end of the year we'd end up having a massive paper load of "bugs" that were hardware problems, user errors, and things like that.

In that company such things were common.

Have programmers developed an intelligence database of firms that one should avoid working for and firms that one should try to work for? Is it a good idea to work on a project as an independent contractor first? Sort of test out an employer before deciding to become an employee? Many firms do that for potential employees.

no, as such conditions change over time, and sometimes rapidly.
For example the "guilty" manager leaves for elsewhere, company culture changes. Or the person responsible is an outside consultant and complaints from staff after you leave cause a shift in attitude from management, the consultant's contract is cancelled, etc. etc..
I've seen it happen. Company had a great culture, fantastic place to work. CEO retires, financial results go sour (this was around the time of the market collapse), an "interim manager" is brought in whose idea of a healthy company is one where everybody is constantly on edge because there's always the threat of being fired for the least mistake. Company culture goes south, from a place where people solve problems together to one where everyone is constantly looking for scapegoats in the blink of an eye. Several years later, after I leave, that guy leaves and from people still working there I've learned that now that climate is gone and it's once again a pleasant place. But people rarely state on such shame and name lists that things have shifted, that things are now no longer as bad as mentioned, so they tend to fill up with bad reports that by the time you read them are no longer accurate.

Also, the legal fallout of such a system could be severe, companies and individuals listed on it could successfully sue whomever is running or hosting the system for defamation and character destruction.

My company was regularly listed as one of the best companies to work for, and rightly so. I just had a bad boss. It can happen anywhere.

If you are an IT manager you must think how will you make more money out of people. You prefer people that really love what are they doing , are proud for their work , will say no when you ask something really stupid or dangerous and like when their co-workers consider them at the edge of technology. So we create a four goal reward system , money + position , recognition + acceptance of coworkers , goal of life (always to anticipate something more), ethical fulfillness. The people that the IT manager will target is those that are acceptable to those four goals in the reverse order (the money goal should be , but in the end). Those people (I am one of those) tend to work more than 12 hours a day plus weekends because they don't feel like you have awful working conditions but because they feel like chasing. If you find the right amount of those the others will feel like they should keep in some level with those rhythms because they will understand that are staying behind (remember that programming changes each day). You shouldn't have to enforce people to work 12 hours or weekends , they should do it by their selves.