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Ed Frauenheim

Staff Writer, CNET

Microsoft software developer Adam Barr usually eats dinner with his family these days.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s, Barr often missed dinner with his wife and young children while regularly logging 50 to 60 hours per week–occasionally having to put in 70 hours for several weeks on end to hit project deadlines.

Now he regularly works from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. “Microsoft tolerates this pretty well,” Barr said. “There were definitely cases in the past when, for certain stretches, it wasn’t tolerated.”

Barr’s ability to sup with his family more frequently underscores a shift in the software world: Many employees are working less punishing hours. Production workers in software publishing–most are computer specialists–worked an average of 36.4 hours a week last year, down from 41.4 hours in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Possible reasons include the reduced allure of dot-com riches and programmers putting greater emphasis on life outside of work. Also, observers say some software houses have learned to manage projects better. In effect, software makers are concluding that productivity suffers when employees work extended days month after month.

“In companies that have a lot of overtime, they waste a lot of hours during the workday,” said Tom DeMarco, a consultant at The Atlantic Systems Guild who has written about human resource issues in the technology field. “A normal workday has come to be selected over time because it is productive.”

Complex projects and macho coders
Long hours long have been part of software development. Explanations given for programmers frequently toiling into the night include the complex nature of many software projects as well as the need to meet shipping deadlines, especially in the video game world that relies on large holiday season sales.

During the Internet bubble, the prospect of a lucrative initial public stock offering helped fuel the legions of geeks who became famous for sleeping under their desks.

A tough-guy culture among coders also seems to have been a factor. Last year, the International Game Developers Association cited this as a reason for horrible working conditions in the computer game world.

“Developers are sometimes just as much to blame for submitting themselves to extreme working conditions, adopting a macho bravado in hopes of ‘proving’ themselves worthy for the industry,” the professional group’s board said in a statement.

In the fast-growing computer game industry especially, long hours continue to be commonplace. A survey last year by the game developers’ association found that almost three developers out of five reported working 46 or more hours in a typical week.

More than 95 percent of respondents said their company experiences “crunch time”–a period of intense work prior to a product release. More than 18 percent of respondents to the survey reported having experienced crunches of two months or more, and more than a third of respondents said they work 65 to 80 hours a week during crunch time.