There has been another resurgence of talk about “working hard” versus “working smart”. On one side there is the straw man setup of the evil horrid slave driving American work ethic. On the other side stands those who say we need only work smarter not harder. 35 hours a week is plenty, take vacations when needed, and so forth.
Now those arguing for working smarter do have some valid points. There are still aspects in American industry that, through one means or another, encourage long hours of drudgery that could be reduced greatly. Examples of this abound in the software industry, oftentimes preceded by the phrase “we don’t have time to invest in infrastructure.”
In these cases, yes, if a weekly test pass involves scrambling around to run a bunch of manual tests in a disorderly fashion, with steps frequently missed causing bugs to slip through and necessitating slews of developer (and test!) overtime then indeed, in that case an organization does need to work smarter and not harder. Engineering Excellence (Microsoft’s term) best practices exist specifically to avoid these types of scenarios.
But there is another reason for why a team may be putting in really long hours: they are solving really hard problems. This is especially true when attempting to gain first mover advantage in a market, or when trying to out maneuver one’s competition.
Finding people who can solve difficult problems is itself no easy task, combine that with ramp up time and it may no longer be viable (or possible within a reasonable time frame) to hire more people. At this point asking someone to work Saturdays becomes the only possible course of action.
Now this by no means excuses projects that fall behind and do death marches to catch up, especially when crunch time extends month after month. But I am arguing that poorly organized projects are just one reason why extra hours may be put in.
All that said, I also believe that the American Work Ethic (or at least what survives of it) is qualitatively different then the work ethic of other cultures. Most.importantly I would like to make a distinction between the American work ethic and the frequently compared to work ethics of countries such as Japan and Korea.
Specifically I propose that America’s unique background has created a culture in which has provided America with a competitive advantage in the world economy, and what’s more, I also propose that very cultural advantage is America’s primary competitive advantage, far exceeding any other competitive advantages America may have.
So first in contrast to the work ethic of Japan The stereotype, that does seem to have a good deal of truth to it, is that Japanese businessmen (and from what I can tell, sexism makes it mostly men, if I am wrong about this please correct me in the comments below!) are expected to work long hours at the office with their overtime often spent doing make work, hours being put in just to keep up appearances. To this end, the expectation for extra hours do not come with an expectation of extra productivity, nor are the hours strictly a result of project mismanagement (although I am sure that does exist, as it is a potential within every human run endeavour).
I believe that trying to say that the American work ethic is comparable to the above description is a straw man argument. The American work ethic most certainly does come with an expectation of extra productivity. This in turn provides a competitive advantage as salaried employees are basically paid a reduced rate (when converted to hourly compensation) for their labor. 20hrs of overtime is half the salary of an entire new employee, not counting all the other costs a separate employee would incur upon an organization. Basically our advantage here is the expectations of extra productivity without the toxic aspects of expecting hours be put in just for the sake of appearances. (Though again that does exist in some American work environments, it is not universal to American culture)
With that straw man defeated, we can move on to other ways in which the American work ethic serves as an economic advantage.
One thing the work ethic allows for is the completion of difficult tasks at both reduced cost and in a reduced timeframe. Productivity may not scale linearly with hours, but to a certain extent (for at least some duration of months before exhaustion sets in) it does scale. This does allow projects to be completed in less time, at a lower cost (in terms of both time and employment) than they would otherwise be under a strict 40 hour (or less!) work week.
An example of this serving as an advantage is getting a minimum viable product out to market rapidly, the hard facts remain, putting in the hours is the best way to get a job done, especially if racing against competition!
If you put two equally talented teams together, plop one down in the Bay Area and one down in a well off EU country with strict labor laws, the American team is going to get done first, flat out. 6 day work weeks and no vacations will get a product out the door and into the hands of customers before 35 hour work weeks and vacation time ever does. (Just please give the American engineers a break after launch!)
So now to move onto another area in which I believe the American work ethic provides an advantage: Pride in work done.
I am not claiming that pride in one’s work is a uniquely American trait, nor will I claim it is universally shared by all Americans. I will however claim that it is a component of the overall American culture and part of the expected American work ethic in many places.
The honest fact is, people who take pride in their work will put in however many hours are needed to do a job properly. The result of this is a qualitatively better end product at no additional cost to the employer.
Again this is often just a matter of some problems being hard to solve and needing time invested in them. If a product ship date is fixed then more hours may be the only viable solution. With salaried employees and no overtime, quality becomes doable at a lower cost, and cultural expectations means one is looked down upon for merely doing a “good enough” job. This is especially true within many areas of the tech sector (not all obviously, lots of crappy American made software and designed hardware exists)
Giving an example of this, the previous project I was on we had a button on our product. There was a group of people (two or three) dedicated to making this the best damned button you had ever used in their life. When feedback came in that the button didn’t quite have enough of a solid feel when fully depressed the engineers in charge of the button ordered slews of new buttons manufactured with different springs to do comparisons on, when feedback came in that the button wasn’t quite grippy enough, multiple coatings were tried out, different rubber and plastic edges were experimented with. Over the course of the project I lost track of how many different variations of buttons got tried out.
All that effort for one specific button on one project.
I don’t even know the names of the engineers who worked on that button, but I have a lot of respect for their pursuit of perfection.
In contrast, the tablet I have has horribly loose buttons that are trivially actuated on accident, frequently resulting in the screen being turned on during travel draining the tablet’s battery.
The pursuit of perfection and taking pride in work done are the final aspects of the American work ethic that give us our economic advantage.
While all the different cultural traits discussed above exist in other cultures, they are uniquely combined in American culture. Expectations of high productivity, pride in work, and lack of expectation for compensation of overtime.
Of course other aspects exist within the American work ethic that I have not described here, many start ups exist because founders initially maintained 40 hours a week at work then went home to put in another 40 on their own project. These other aspects also greatly contribute to why America is so successful economically, but, well, I am typing this on a cellphone and I feel this post is long enough already!
 I have seen the same comparisons made between the American work ethic and Korean work ethic as made in comparison to the Japanese work ethics but I have not read up enough on Korean business culture to feel comfortable making any comparisons myself).