Cutting Back Not for Everyone

Opinion: Ruby on Rails' creator says not to work so hard, but I can't afford not to.

One of my favorite industry icons delivered a keynote speech in Portland, Ore., that while it sounds good on the surface, just would never work for me. The saddest part about it is that he's absolutely right, but I just can't do it. I can't afford to. It's just not in my makeup.

David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of the popular Ruby on Rails Web development environment, told an audience of Rails developers to basically take time out to smell the roses. Hansson was talking about how the head start that Rails has over other development environments is not bound to last and that for Rails developers to ensure they're up to their game, they should code less, sleep more, read more paper and do things other than try to bill as many hours as possible and work superhuman hours.

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Now I agree with all of that. The biggest takeaway I got from Hansson's talk was that folks, particularly developers, ought to learn to work smarter. That was one of Hansson's pieces of advice-that folks learn more about different aspects of the business and even about doing design rather than just development.

But the problem I had with the talk was that it seemed to smack of contentment, of having arrived. I am not content and I have not arrived. If staying up an extra hour gets me ahead of my competitor, I will. Hansson's right in saying you pay for it the next day, but I'm willing to pay.

I guess a lot of my views on Hansson's presentation stem from the fact we're in different businesses. I don't have a Ruby on Rails story template that helps make me more productive than the next reporter. I have to work at it and put in the time and the legwork and schmoozing, etc. My business is largely about being first, and being first often means being connected. And being connected-in order to be first-is often about being awake, so I have my BlackBerry with me at all times.

Of course. it was obvious that Hansson was talking to an audience of primarily well-paid geeks who could afford to take time off and whittle or whatever. Yeah, I ought to do that. I really ought to. And someday I will. Maybe when my son's in a nice college and about to graduate and I won't have to worry about paying those bills anymore. But until then I have to hustle. As they say in the streets, I have to grind.

Working 110 percent? My people have had to do that for generations, and not always for pay. I don't have time to smell the roses. I just have to make sure to plant, water, prune and care for them. I gots to work.

I do, however, invest in being better at my gig. I read everything I can get my hands on-particularly paper. Much of the RSS stuff is just a nuisance to me-too much noise amongst the stuff that's really useful. I'm right with you there, DHH. Fact is, I'm with you on most of your ideas. Our situations are just different.

For instance, I live in Baltimore, the home of the HBO show "The Wire." Perhaps you've seen it-it's all about life in a gritty urban world. I have family and friends that live smack dab where some of the hardcore scenes were drawn from, let alone filmed. I go there to visit my peeps and give back. That's my investment. While a quick-fingered entrepreneurial geek can rave about how keen it is to stop and think about it all and go learn to fly a plane, I ain't got time for all that. Sure, I could leave the 'hood and all that behind and go stay in my suburban bubble somewhere and feel like I've arrived. Or I could take it another way and try to make those "investments" parlay into whatever return I might get and start some sort of business where I might be able to do even more for the folks. But that's not where I am. I don't have any "surplus." And if I stop putting in the time, or wearing my game face or staying on the grind, either one of two things are going to happen. One is y'all are gonna read about me as a statistic, or the other is you won't be reading me at all any more because I'll have lost my job to the next hungry reporter who is willing to do what I do for less money because I stopped to smell the damn roses.

Ironically, one of my favorite characters from The Wire is a homicide detective who whittles and makes miniature furniture for doll houses. And he's like 10 times the average detective. So maybe I do have something to learn, but I'm just too stubborn. I need somebody to teach me, because all I know is to work. My father worked until his retirement and never missed a single day of work. That's what I come from. So I need somebody to teach me this new way.

I'm willing to grudgingly give it a try. My thing is gardening, but roses are a bit too fancy for me. I'll have to settle for being proud of the grass I've put down in the bare spots in my yard.