Death March Values

The rest of the Washington, D.C. area was resting at home, enjoying a warm cup of hot cocoa, comfortable that all the necessary preparations had been made to survive the latest winter storm to hit the area. Everyone that was, except three developers. Three developers sitting in their fluorescent lit cubes, working furiously to eradicate the latest roach to take up home in their soon to be released system. This ritual was not new to our heroes: it had been repeated every night for the last four weeks. But, despite history, these three developers still believe that with enough fly swatters this system, their new home, will soon be roach free.

In the midst of the latest midnight session, the three developers start discussing what would later be termed DeathMarchValues. DeathMarchValues is the concept that there exist societies that are developing a set of values that treasure long nights at work over personal time and heroism over getting it right from the beginning. While some may argue that long nights and heroism are normal and acceptable, one of the developers thinks (myself, of course) that this new value hierarchy is inverted and, if continued, will lead to the collapse of those societies. Further, these societies exist globally, be it regionally co-located, bounded by political borders, or bounded by company doors.

Now the questions become: Is this really an inverted value system? What makes a society this way? And, the ultimate question, can one person or a small group of people change the value system of a much larger society? Do you have experience with DeathMarchValues (if so, please share)?

-- HankRoark

P.S. As a software developer, I assert that a development organization that has DeathMarchValues (and, as a symptom of those values, does the same thing that didn't work last time) will continue to develop software using the same failed methods. Only once that organization has developed NonDeathMarchValues? will they begin to look for new ways of working.

P.P.S. Maybe these values are the reason that organizations that use a process that fails over and over are reluctant to try other processes (e.g., ExtremeProgramming or ScrumProcess).

Actually, it seems like XP and Scrum come directly from such failures. Necessity being the mother of invention and all that.

If you are abused, you tend to blame yourself instead of the abuser. If you were trying some specialist methodology, like ShlaerMellor?, that can't ever fit your space, and you failed, you'l just say "We were doing it well enough. We'l learn from our mistakes and do it better next time." --PCP

I just read a quote -- unfortunately not the complete quote or with a citation -- from John W. Campbell saying that people want "magic" -- "product without process". DeathMarchValues, I think, are the result of such a desire. Someone wants something -- they want it immediately, or they want something beyond the capabilities of the organization -- and they don't want to go through the process. So, "clearly" the problem is that the company isn't organized exactly right, someone's not putting in enough hours, or someone's not a "team player". The result is another reorganization (I'm 28, I've been in industry 5 years, and I've been through eight reorgs at two employers), "team" training (I've been through three team training programs), and have been arm-twisted into cancelling vacations and working sixty-hour weeks.

I agree that DeathMarchValues are destructive -- personally and for organizations. On the personal level, eventually you burn out or self-destruct. On the organizational level, you lose good people, can't keep anyone, and end up in a continuous training mode.

DeathMarchValues are the enemy. What's insidious about them is that they do work, to an extent. Not, as their pushers seem to think, because people think better under stress.

Rather, they work because shared vision and teamwork are effective ways to get thigns done, even if they come from "we're all in this together against the world".

And because young programmers are like young soldiers: they don't know any better.

Death March is hard to beat because the things that are better are harder for a manager to understand, and harder for a young hotshot to recognize.

DeathMarchValues work because (American) companies reward heroes with praise and visibility, and those who did it right the first time are ignored. Who gets the mention at the next staff meeting - the guy whose code never had problems, or the gal who stayed all weekend to fix the bug in the update system? -- PeteHardie

Rename this to HighSchoolFootballValues?, perhaps?

OrphansPreferred captures some of the attitude, as well as HeroWorship?. The attitude comes from more that USA Football though.

It's not just a case of employees following DeathMarchValues to get attention from management. Indeed, it seems like more companies are actively encouraging DeathMarchValues to all their employees, even to the ones who get it right. Benefits like onsite gyms, lunches, laundromats can be seen as perks or insiduous means to coerce employees to work longer hours, because there is less reason to leave. Some managers have been rumored (if FuckedCompany is to be believed) to threaten employees who don't work 10 hour days, regardless of quality of work. Some people seem to think that OverTime is just part of the job. -- JakeHarris

That's my point - the companies reward DeathMarch behavior, making it more likely that new graduates adopt the attitudes -- Pete Hardie

Apologies for any misunderstanding. But I just wanted to point out that now it's not just companies rewarding the squeaky wheel and indirectly reinforcing DeathMarchValues (as Pete Hardie has noted), but some companies actively pushing DeathMarchValues onto their employees. Maybe this letter is a hoax, but [1] illustrates how scary DeathMarchValues imposed by management can be. -- JakeHarris


There are two kinds of managers forcing mandatory OverTime. The first kind is plain stupid, they want employees to stay for 10 hours a day even if they have nothing to do!. The second kind is illustrated by the above email, they like to say "we cannot succeed if you don't put in exceptional effort!", which may sound like reasonable at first, but if you think deeper, it is telling you that his business plan is based on wishful thinking -- that his employees can do more than his competition's. Unless he has specific mechanisms to achieve that, such as hiring 2-3x as many people to work shifts, or he pays 2-3x more to hire top performers, his business plan only has as much chance at succeeding as playing lottery. -- OliverChung

It should be noted that, the company whose management sent the above letter, is now out of business--yet another case study in the DotComBubble.

I trust you guys have read DeathMarch? You'll find plenty of amplification and documentation of these sentiments there.

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

A newspaper advertisement placed by Ernest Shackleton for one of his Antarctic explorations. The ad is possibly apocryphal (see, and Shackleton supposedly received 5000 replies from people wanting to join the expedition. It sums up DeathMarchValues quite nicely. -- MichaelShane

Except that the point of these expeditions was exactly to go and come back. To encounter, by choice, and survive these extreme but natural conditions. A death-march values project has as its claimed goal the production of software, and the punishing conditions are synthesized where they need not obtain.

By the way, notwithstanding the wording of the supposed ad, Shackleton was well known for his excellent preparation, great resourcefulnes in the field, and bringing everyone home alive. Strangely (or is it?) this made him much less of a hero than the flamboyant incompetents like Scott who wasted men and materiel at a shocking rate. -- KeithBraithwaite

See also OrphansPreferred.

As a programmer I had been through a few so-called "death marches" before I learned the story of the Bataan Death March, from which the term as applied to marathon programming sessions must derive. I have not been able to use the term "death march" for even the most intense forced programming effort since then, as I think it dishonors the memory of the soldiers who suffered and died during that terrible episode. I know quibbles like this are doomed to fail, "death march" is already as entrenched as using "architect" as a verb, which also grates. -- DezMoleski

While a development "death march" is certainly not like Bataan, there are significant human costs. The people involved sacrifice months or years of their personal lives, lose contact with their families and friends, often suffer from depression or nervous breakdowns, and sometimes lose their careers or marriages. I agree that the term "death march" is hyperbole, but it is important to acknowledge the fact that it is more than just the normally expected amount of hard work. --KrisJohnson

I ended up over weight with high blood pressure. I often wonder how many of us ended up with strokes or heart attacks after sacrificing our health for a stupid piece of software for a company so screwed up it deserved to fail. At the least the soldiers who died at Bataan were trying to protect the Phillipines and the US from a war of aggression. How many of us have died for nothing? Bitter? You bet I am

The DeathMarchValues is an emergent property of large systems. The overall values or ethics of a large system is the GreatestCommonDivisor? or intersection of the goals all of the subcomponents. The subcomponents of a company may not be able to agree on the methods used, but can agree on the shortsighted goal of 'work on it until it is fixed'.

See also:
From experience in the IT support field, many situations where the impossible is asked and OverTime become necessary are due to MarketingVsEngineering.

A subspecies of this is TheCustomerIsAlwaysRight?, and its malignant variant, TheCustomerNeedsItRightAway.

See also: The last entry in GreatBooksListJasperPaulsen is Caged Dragons: An American P.O.W. in World War II Japan. This book is by a survivor of the Bataan Death March.

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