Do Developers Ever Get A Real Vacation?

Monday Aug 8th 2011 by Eric Spiegel
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The ever-present cell phone/laptop has essentially vanquished the now quaint idea of a developer going on vacation.

Is there anything better than lying on the beach, shades on, with an icy drink, listening to the waves crash and kids playing in the surf?  The smell of salty sea air does something special to the mind. The sea air clears it of all the junk that piles up in the brain during every working day.  Nothing is more refreshing.

Ahhhhh.   Being on vacation can be so wonderfully relaxing and blissful.

Then the phone in the beach bag starts blaring. That ringtone that can only mean one thing.   Someone from work needs something and in their opinion (not necessarily my opinion) they need it right now

All I can think is “Damn it!”

So why wasn’t the phone left in the hotel room?   And why is the beautiful lady laying next to me shooting daggers at me?

“I told you to leave it in the room.”

I just sigh, and dig out the blasted contraption (that I can’t seem to part ways with).  Sure enough, it’s my boss. 

I reluctantly answer. “Hey Stan, what’s up?”

“Hey buddy.  So sorry to bother you.”

Not as sorry as me.

“The reports for the Finance Department are all wrong this morning and we have tracked the problem to some confusing logic in your code.  Do you have a minute?”

No.

“Sure. Not a problem.”

In talking with Stan, I realize that the easiest way to resolve this is to get online and look at the reports and walk through my logic. 

As I end the call and stand up, I take one last look around at the idyllic scenery – including the gal next to me.

“Sweets, I have to go back to the room and fire up my laptop.  Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”

I’m sure she is rolling her eyes behind her sunglasses as she lets out an exasperated sigh, rolls onto her stomach and buries her gorgeous self back into a trashy romance novel. 

I trudge up the beach, clean the sand off my feet with the outside hose and head up to the hotel room – all the while running snippets of code through my head trying to envision where the problem might be.

The one question that doesn’t occur to me at that moment: what kind of vacation is it if you can’t truly disconnect from your job?  Maybe it is more realistic for other professions to completely unplug, but is it realistic for a software developer to actually take a true vacation?

I recently had a boss scold me for checking email while on vacation and it was quite refreshing.  But I’m not writing code anymore.  I actually think it is easier for a manager to go on vacation, because the developers back at the ranch can fix any problem that arises – especially if they are empowered to do so.  

The pressure for a developer to stay connected while on vacation seems more intense.  If something goes wrong that might be related to their code, it is so very easy for their manager or teammates to pick up the phone, send a text message or email.  This is because they know that developers have their phone with them at all times. 

It’s a techie gadget thing. 

Today’s cell phone isn’t just a phone to a developer. It’s a high-powered device that is also a status indicator in the world of software development – the cooler, newer, more powerful a developer’s phone is, the more they want to show it off wherever they go.  These days, a developer’s phone may even be integrated in their tablet, like an iPad.  So in many cases it’s also an entertainment device ­­­-- which of course would be brought on vacation.

But that shouldn’t matter.  If a person wants to keep their phone close by, does that mean they must respond to calls for help from their workmates? 

I don’t think so. 

What if they were abducted by aliens?  Would no other developer left on earth be able to complete a root cause analysis and fix the problem?

The fact is that it is usually not the fault of the developer on vacation if a problem arises that can’t be fixed.  There should be processes in place as part of the development and implementation process to ensure code is tested, walked through, and documented. 

If knowledge transfer isn’t baked into the process to educate the support team, developer peers and users, then you end up with unnecessary and annoying phone calls on vacation.

Why not keep the phone and simply leave the laptop at home?  I know I felt pressure to bring the laptop with me on vacation.  Even if your manager says to disconnect while on vacation, there is always a nagging feeling in the back of your mind that it will reflect poorly if you do not bring it and something goes wrong. 

For many developers, a vacation also means a chance to play around with technology.  Evaluating new gadgets, software and development concepts are actually fun to true techies.  And it’s becoming more common to be writing code on your tablet because it’s an all-in-one device where work and pleasure can’t be easily separated.

Plus, in the difficult economy of the last few years, you don’t want to let your guard down and seem less committed than your teammates.  If they are all staying connected on vacation, you feel indirect pressure from your peers as well to improve your job security. 

I have found as a manager that it is up to me to set the tone.  This is more than making sure processes are in place, it is also building a culture of accountability.  When one developer goes on vacation, it is expected that their team members will cover for them. The team (in theory) has the confidence in the established processes so that they know they can solve problems without disturbing their teammate’s time off.  

The hardest part for me is walking the walk – not checking in while on vacation.  I have to also put trust in the system and my team.

Remember when I told my wife I’d be back in about an hour?  Do you think that was a true statement?  Even when I said it I had my doubts.  Once you get sucked back in, you may find yourself going deeper and deeper down the rat hole.  Before I knew it, hours had passed and the problem was still not fixed.

Working on the Beach?

I had a brilliant idea.  Just take the laptop down to the beach!  Although the beach didn’t make my list of coding happy places, as long as I had battery power, I could use my local test environment to keep troubleshooting.  And I was sure she would be thrilled to see me.

Back then it seemed like a good idea. But now that I have been married 20 years, I realize how ridiculous that idea was. 

As I kicked off my sandals, laid back and fired up the laptop, my wife stood up and started packing up her stuff.

“Where are you going?”

“I am going somewhere I don’t have to look at you doing work when you should instead be paying attention to me and enjoying your vacation.”

I was mad.  I mean, I was just doing my job, right?  How selfish of her! 

What I have learned is that I was the one being selfish. Life requires balance and the world will not end if I take a week of vacation.  

I also learned that sand and laptops are not a great combination.  

Next vacation, the laptop stayed home and the cell phone was mostly turned off.  My attention was fully where it should be – enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach, spending time with my family and reading “XML For Dummies.”

Ahhhh!   True bliss!

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