What to do when you're stuck in a death march

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If you've never been part of a project death march, consider yourself lucky. The death march is generally defined as a project in which employees are asked to work insane hours on something that is doomed to fail. This is not to be confused with “crunch time,” which involves working insane hours toward the end of a project that actually has hope of succeeding, or “startup mode,” in which a startup company just assumes that everyone’s life should center around work and only begrudgingly accepts the possibility of going home occasionally for major life events.

What causes a death march?

Why companies expect, and employees accept, working insane hours under any circumstance is a subject for another time. Right now we're going to focus specifically on why death marches happen and what you can do about them. Death marches can occur for all kinds of reasons, but no matter where the fault lies, death marches almost never start out as inevitable failures. At the beginning they seem challenging, interesting and, hopefully, fun. But then the day comes when you suddenly realize (and probably everyone else involved realizes, too) that the project is in serious trouble. Any attempts to convince management that there is a problem are failing. More time and resources are being thrown at the problem, with nobody having any real idea of how to use them properly. You're suddenly spending all of your time fixing bugs created by the bug-fixes on the patches of the kludges that were added because of a last-minute requirement that was never designed. It starts out with your supervisor asking you to work late now and then. After that, it’s an occasional weekend. Then, it's every weekend. Before you know it, you're tired, stressed, and overall morale has dropped to nothing.

How to handle a death march

The first thing to do is to make sure that the project really is a death march (one that is doomed to fail). It’s easy to bash managers and assume the worst. Sometimes your assumptions will be correct, but usually managers have information that you simply don't. And their definition of success may not match yours. Step out of your own task list and look around, ask questions. This will help you get a sense of whether the project is destined to fail or if it's just very difficult. Once you know for sure that you've got a death march on your hands, you need to assess your own situation. Long hours of work and stress are unhealthy. Doing so without any additional compensation can add resentment and anger to the mix. Only you can evaluate the level of sacrifice you're making, and how far you're willing to go.

You always have options

Finally, you have some choices to make. Here are the main decisions you'll face in a death march:
  • You can stay. If the project is truly doomed but you aren’t working too hard, you can see it through to the end. Do your best, draw your pay and plan your next move for when the project finally dies.
  • You can try transferring to another project. In most cases the company will resist this. However, if you have friends in high places and exceptional political skills, you may pull it off, especially if you’ve recognized the project as a death march before others have.
  • You can leave. When all else has failed, you can explore your options for moving on.
There will be pressure to stay. You’ll be told the project needs you, that you should be loyal to the company or the team, or that your friends and co-workers will have it much harder if you leave or see you as a traitor. They will appeal to your professionalism; that a pro would not abandon a project mid-stream, or that it will look bad on your resume. If you can, ignore these arguments. When you're already overworked, it's the last thing you need. Remember, your health is important and probably not worth the additional stress of dealing with a death march. Of course, leaving isn't necessarily easy. Finding a new job can be tough, especially if you’re older, in a higher-paying position, or not well versed in a hot technology. And that's perhaps the worst thing about the death march; feeling trapped. Fortunately, it’s much easier now to get out of that trap. At the time of this writing, the economy is strong and several technology jobs are in demand. It's now possible to work remotely and engage in consulting work through a number of sites that match companies with consultants. You may not immediately be able to reach your current income level, but you shouldn't have a hard time generating some income quickly. Access to training is inexpensive and widely available (have you checked out Pluralsight's course library?). Additionally, plenty of us are no longer trapped by our benefits. In the U.S., for one, leaving a job used to mean either losing your health insurance or paying a fortune to keep it for a short period. Unemployment or self-employment could literally drive you into bankruptcy in the event of any illness or even a normal pregnancy. But, thanks to new options like the Affordable Care Act, you can get reasonably priced insurance regardless of pre-existing health conditions. This is worth mentioning because it reduces some of the risks associated with leaving a secure job.

Takeaway

Working long hours is often part of almost every tech career. Much of the time we don’t even need to be asked; the work is fun and satisfying, so why stop? But if you find yourself on a true death march -- overworked, stressed, exhausted, miserable and trapped -- take a second look. You may not be as stuck as you feel, and the cost to escape the trap may still be less than the fate awaiting you if you stay.

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Contributor

Dan Appleman

Dan is a well known author, software developer and speaker. Currently the CTO of Full Circle Insights, he is the founder and CEO of Desaware Inc., one of the co-founders of APress publishing, and is the author of numerous books and ebooks on various topics (technology and other); most recently Advanced Apex Programming.