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Tough Money: Technology

The Programming Life

The hours are loose, the dress code is lax and the soda is free. But the pressure is intense.


The ultimate example of employee ingenuity at Netscape Communications Corp. may not be the company's latest Internet software, but a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge made from 1,700 empty soda cans.

The bridge, on display in the company's engineering department, took about seven months to assemble, if you count the six months it took to drink the soda.

Visitors who see the elaborate structure often ask, "How can they be doing any work here?" said Margie Mader, director of staffing at Netscape. "But the employees here did that as a release."

That says a lot about working in the software industry. In many ways, it is everything that employees of the staid, 9-to-5 world have heard about and come to envy. The hours are loose, the dress codes lax, the salaries high and the soft drinks free. But it is also a job so pressurized that employees often require extravagant periods of release.

"There's a misconception about the software industry that it's easy," Mader said. "But it's mentally draining and involves constant problem solving on tight deadlines. The average workweek around here is anything but 40 hours."

The job market in software is one of the fastest-growing in the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 478,000 people were employed in computer programming and prepackaged software jobs in 1996, up 70% from 1991.

Of course, programmers can be found almost anywhere these days, from General Motors to the local school district. But the mainstream software companies are the ones that get most of the attention--and are responsible for the industry's footloose reputation.

Many programmers and others in the industry say they were drawn to their jobs by a lifelong fascination with computers and that the big paychecks and other perks are just icing on the cake. But they also say there are drawbacks to the business and that the intense, demanding work is not for everybody.

Mark Ackerman, a computer science professor at UC Irvine, was at the top of the computer game profession before he grew weary of the monotony of programming and switched careers.

As a programmer with a Massachusetts-based company called General Computer, he was a key creative force behind hugely successful 1980s games such as Ms. Pac Man, Galaxian and Moon Patrol.

"There was a time when every other house had Ms. Pac Man, and that's an amazing high, like having a book on the bestseller list," he said. "But it's also burnout city. I got tired of always trying to learn new stuff while working 60 hours a week."

At age 42, Ackerman would be a senior citizen if he were in the software industry today. The average age of employees at Netscape is 27--fairly typical among large software companies. Is it possible to age gracefully in the software business?

"I have many friends who are asking that very question," Ackerman said. "One friend said people who are 25 look at him like he's over the hill. He can't compete with the hours they put in because he's got a family."

Now, after five years of graduate school, Ackerman makes $60,000 a year, less than half what he made as a programmer. But he said he is certain he made the right choice.

General Computer "had an espresso machine and free TV dinners," Ackerman said. "What does that tell you about the work life? That you can have all the caffeine you want and that they'd like you to stay through dinner."

For unadulterated software atmosphere, few companies can match the environment at Interplay Productions in Irvine. Until the computer game company completed its recent move, Interplay's offices had the distinct aroma and appearance of a college dorm, with slasher movie posters tacked to the walls and empty pizza boxes strewn across the floor.

Even now, in the company's newer, larger digs, the dress code can be summed up rather simply: "Wear clothes," said Rusty Buchert, 29, a top producer at the company.

With his stocky build, beard and smoking habit, Buchert looks more the part of biker than programmer. But he is also one of the hardest-working men in Southern California.

"Last week I was in the office 125 hours, and I'd say at least 60% of that was working in front of a computer," he said. "I sleep in the office sometimes, but I'm also the master of non-sleep. I once spent four days working straight through."

The demands of the job squeeze what little exists of his life outside the company, and he said he often finds himself struggling to find the time for basic tasks such as mailing bills.

Producing games, as in most consumer software, is a race that begins with each new product. "The first week it's fun," Buchert said. "Three weeks in it's a job, and three months later you're just about ready to throttle somebody."

Alleviating that kind of tension is a key reason so many software firms shower employees with elaborate perks. As Mader said, "Every neat, unique thing we do for our employees is grounded in a business reason."

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