The timetable was ambitious to begin with, and you’ve been playing catch-up from the start. A blur of skipped lunches, pizza, cola, whiteboard doodles, reams of code, and late nights is behind you. You feel as though you live in your office—there’s a spouse, child, or pet at home who remembers you only vaguely. If you hear Joe the usability guy whine about the tab order just one more time, you just might shoot him….

Every developer has had an experience like this, stressed out with the big push to finish a project at the expense of whatever personal lives, hobbies, and sanity we may have had. Sometimes, we wind up annoyed with teammates, nursing grudges against them, or even actively hating them if the road has been long and filled with compromises. How do you retain sanity, let alone a team mentality, under those conditions?

Most employers I’ve worked for have had some grasp of an employee’s need to blow off steam, and they would try various ways of rewarding long hours and relieving employee stress. Usually, the solution was a sort of understood comp-time system, where management knew when you’d worked a late night and would let you cut out early or come in late in exchange. But the smaller, younger organizations sometimes arrived at more interesting solutions.

Nerf guns and beer bottles
For example, one of my previous employers, FAST Software, provided Nerf dart guns to all developers and encouraged shootouts to settle disagreements. Our modular workstations turned out to be great forts. After fighting among ourselves got old, we started turning the guns against our tormentors, targeting trainers, testers, sales staff, and even the company president when he invaded our turf. Part of the initiation process of new developers involved ambushing them, and when people left the team, a ceremonial “passing of the gun” was staged.

On one occasion, even though everyone was fighting to meet a deadline, we had an after-hours beer-drinking contest between a developer and a member of the training staff at an area bar. Bets were laid on which competitor could down the most beer in a set time period. The day of the contest, the competitors were paraded around the offices wearing hooded robes and tape on their wrists, while the theme from Rocky played over the PA system. Sadly, the developer (who incidentally is writing this article) failed to defend the honor of his department and lost the contest.

A trend forming
Providing distractions, services, and allowances for employees who put in long hours is a new facet of doing business that was unheard of a short time ago. But as workers are asked to put in longer hours and to do more with less, they’ve begun to view such allowances as a mandatory part of their compensation packages. Developers are no exception. Competition for skilled developers is typically fiercer than for other IT talent, and enterprise applications are becoming increasingly important to an organization’s operation. Throw in the typical coder’s fascination with toys and games, and it seems likely that the trend will continue.