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Silicon Valley's 24-Hour Clock

Outsourcing is helping companies run nonstop, but fielding calls from India throughout the night is raising concern of employee burnout.

May 13, 2005|From Associated Press

The traffic jam ended hours ago, the parking lot is nearly empty and fluorescent lights are dimmed at PortalPlayer Inc., where the nightly brainstorming session is about to begin.

Instead of gathering the few remaining souls from their cubicles, three managers move into a conference room to dial India, where engineers 12 1/2 time zones ahead are just arriving in Hyderabad.

As colleagues on opposite sides of the globe discuss circuit board configurations and debugging strategies for a project codenamed Doppelganger, it's just the start of another endless day for the company. Within 12 hours, Indian workers will end their day with calls and e-mails to California, where managers in the Santa Clara headquarters will just be waking up.

"We keep passing the baton between California and India, and that way we can cram a lot more work into a 24-hour period," said Jeff Hawkey, vice president of hardware engineering, who conducts evening meetings from the office or on his laptop at home. "A lot of nights, I go home, tuck the kids into bed and then get on the conference call."

Executives at PortalPlayer, which makes chips and software for portable music devices such as the iPod, say having 90 employees in Hyderabad nearly doubles the amount of engineering work that gets done in 24 hours. That shrinks production cycles and lets the 6-year-old company stay ahead of bigger semiconductor rivals.

Thousands of other tech companies have similar baton-passing rituals. Outsourcing jobs to lower-cost countries such as India, China and Russia remains politically sensitive because of the tepid U.S. job market. But executives insist that cheaper labor and faster work flow have made outsourcing a fact of life for everyone in the industry.

Even the most unapologetic globalization proponents nevertheless acknowledge that outsourcing has resulted in longer, stranger hours for white-collar workers in the United States. Some business experts worry that the trend could result in massive burnout if outsourcing isn't properly managed.

Silicon Valley workers grumble that communicating with colleagues overseas requires midnight teleconferences, 6 a.m. video meetings and the annoying "pling" of instant messages and twittering cellphones all night long. Although many techies swapped social lives for 80-hour weeks during the dot-com boom, the 24-hour business cycle seems even more stressful than the caffeinated 1990s: Today's long hours are less likely to result in windfall bonuses or stock options, and there's no end in sight.

"It's definitely a case of work creep -- everyone in this industry is working harder right now because of e-mail, wireless access and globalization," said Christopher Lochhead, chief marketing officer of Mercury Interactive Inc., a Mountain View, Calif.-based consulting firm that is in 35 countries, including Israel, where Sunday is a normal workday.

Some executives who ask workers to burn the midnight oil offer flexibility -- longer lunch breaks, telecommuting privileges and complimentary dinner if they work past 6 p.m. Others dismiss complainers as spoiled or provincial.

The staunchest advocates say whiners should find new professions.

But some worry that the extra hours and unrelenting pace could have dire consequences -- namely, fatigue and brain drain in the technology and financial services industries.

"You simply can't keep working a full day, put the kids to bed, take a call from Malaysia, then go back fresh the next morning -- it's one thing to do it for a couple weeks, but it's another to put up with this pain in the neck permanently," said Peter Morici, an international business professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

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