Don’t call me a ‘5:01er’, For one thing, I leave at 4. If that bothers you, feel free to stop by my office any day at 7am and we’ll talk about it.
I was introduced to this obnoxiously disparaging term by this Stack Exchange discussion in which the term was being used to criticize people who leave work everyday at consistently precise times. This blunt insinuation that leaving exactly one minute after 5 should be regarded as a sign of laziness, disloyalty, or disinterest in work, is a stupid mis-guided generalization and a grave insult to those of us who have families or other personal obligations for which precision and timeliness is an absolute necessity. It is highly discouraging to find that this attitude continues to be prevalent, and sad that I need to waste my time justifying my choice of schedule to an industry catering to juvenile showmanship and outmoded notions of what it means to be at work.
Let’s parse the rhetoric to make sure we agree on what’s being said here. There are numerous discussions scattered around the internet about ‘9 to 5’ programmers, the ‘5:01er’ crowd who punch the clock and leave work exactly when their contractual obligations have been fulfilled. There was even a ‘501 manifesto’ which surfaced as a backlash against the negative perception that I am arguing against here. Even Michael O. Church, whose writings I generally respect, makes the mistake of equating those who leave at 5:01pm with poor performance. He refers to “the archetypical ‘5:01’ mediocrities” in a discussion of programmer productivity, as the ones who hit a ceiling of productivity that more dedicated developers should shun. While I understand that the implication is more around the mindset rather than the actual physical hours being spent on the job, the criticism does more damage than good and should be rephrased not to focus on the actual time as an indicator of one’s dedication.
A few months ago an incident occurred which made me realize how sensitive I’d become to implied accusations that my family obligations could be interpreted as slacking off at work. A co-worker caught me in the hall as I was rushing out the door with my bag one day at a quarter of 4. “Half day, huh?” I knew it was a joke, but I was late and in no mood for snark, no matter how good-natured the intentions, so I gruffly retorted, “half my day was over before you even walked in the door.”
I know it wasn’t meant as an attack – when someone says “half day, eh?” It is usually meant ironically, as a tacit, sardonic acknowledgment in commiseration of the reality that no matter how much time you put in the office, the work is only ever half done. I’ve even made this joke to people as we were leaving together at 8pm, and the effect is the same. So why did I react so strongly?
Empathy is one if the more hard-won of human traits, which may perhaps be the reason underlying most of the conflicts throughout human history. I came to fatherhood rather on the late side, so I’d had a good 20 years of my career before my son came along. I fully admit that I once, too, looked disdainfully at peers who so casually leaned upon their base selfish urge to propagate their genetic material as an excuse to burden the rest of us, who were less inclined to further augment our carbon footprint by irresponsibly overpopulating the earth, with all of the extra work they left behind so they could have their precious cuddle time with their methane-producing offspring. I simply could not understand the degree of entitlement, wrong on so many levels, that new parents felt they could get away with. You can’t stay late for a client call, but I, fortunately childless for you, can be asked to clear my schedule to spare you the trouble of calling a babysitter, which, had you a modicum of dedication to your job, you should have had the foresight to reserve in advance. Just because you decided to have a kid, I’m the one who has to stay late to clean up your mess—and I don’t even get any cute cuddle time as thanks for my efforts! What brazen disregard for the feelings of others, I decried, that these parents insist on dropping everything that gets in their way, with no concern for the added burden and stress they blindly impose on others!
In August of 2013, my perspective on the matter began to take a dramatic turn. Knowing full well how co-workers and managers must hesitatingly, cautiously, defensively offer their congratulations for the birth of a new baby, I was extremely nervous and guarded from the onset. I wanted to do everything I could to assure my team that I was in no way going to let this event unduly burden them or impact my productivity and availability. Even though I took more than the average for paternity leave (though the average is a pathetically low 2 weeks), much to my dismay I did not feel comfortable taking the full amount of leave allowed by law (12 weeks here in California [unpaid], those of you in more forward-thinking countries are free to laugh at our plight). When I came back to work, I was paranoid of exhibiting any sign that my new parent status was affecting my work. I was tired and defensive. Now after 2 years, I’m just tired of being defensive, so I’m openly going on the attack. This is why if you call me a 5:01er, I’m going to give you a solid smack down you won’t soon forget.
So here is what I’ve learned about being a parent that my inability to be empathetic failed to teach me. When you’re a parent, things need to happen on precise schedules. Feedings, nap times, nanny shifts, day care pickup and drop off, doctors appointments, all these things need to be choreographed with little room for error. But can’t you just get a full time nanny or day care? D’uh, of course, but think about it: nannies and day care providers don’t work for 10 to 12 hours. 8 if you’re lucky and usually 6 or 7. So if you and your partner are both working full time, you have to split the pickup and drop off duties. My partner will usually handle the morning shift. This enables me to go to work early, but also requires that I leave exactly at 4 to either relieve the nanny or pickup from day care. There is no flexibility in this schedule, it needs to be rigid and precise because there is a cascade of downstream dependencies that will be impacted if I’m late. If I’m not home in time to relieve our nanny, for example, then she will be late picking up her son from preschool. That’s not simply an inconvenience, she will get charged extra for that. Same story if I’m late picking up my son from day care.
The express bus leaves from my stop at 4:05, with a standard deviation of about a minute, biased in the direction of being late. It takes me on average 4 minutes to walk briskly to the bus stop, depending on the wait at the elevator, and how lucky I am with crossing-signal timings. The next bus doesn’t arrive for another 20 minutes. This means when I see the clock hit 4:01 I need to leave my desk immediately. No matter what else is going on.
This is not easy to do, hence the reason I get so defensive at the accusation of being a 9 to 5 er, taking a half day. I’ve had to walk out of meetings with the CEO. I’ve had to leave in the middle of writing urgent emails (“…to be continued from the bus”). I’ve had to leave in the middle of countless crises, apologizing profusely, and quickly trying to explain what needs to be done because I know once I leave I won’t be able to do anything related to work until 9pm. I’ve had to leave in the middle of writing a complicated regular expression—mind fully in the zone, complex structures in my head, the cursor blinking a painful reminder that each second is incredibly precious. This is not easy. It’s very difficult to tear myself away knowing it will be hours before I can revisit the work and by then I will be tired and will have forgotten all the details I spent the past 9 hours building up in my brain. No this is not easy at all. But I do it because those are my responsibilities, and dammit, the work simply has to wait. Period. Full stop.
An Alternate Hypothesis
The next time you call someone a ‘5:01er’ keep this in mind and think about what you’re saying. In addition to it being completely insensitive and displaying a total lack of empathy, why should it be so important to measure someone’s dedication by how late they stay at work? How can you honestly correlate quality of work with quantity of hours spent physically in the office? Clearly you cannot, and I’ve got a few alternate hypotheses to explain why you feel the need to chastise people who happen to leave the office early. Try these on for size:
You came to work hungover and couldn’t even look at a computer screen until well past 11. Of course, you were at a “Meet-up” so it’s ok to get faced if you’re arguing about Rails.
You spent 75 minutes playing ping pong. Of course, you were thinking about minimum spanning trees so that’s ok too, right.
You can’t FizzBuzz your way out of a paper bag which is why it took you 3 hours to CR something I finished at 8am.
You complain about all the time you had to waste in meetings but meanwhile you kept Facebook, YouTube, and Hacker News open all day.
Clearly the fact that you stay at the office every night until 9 reflects your hard work and dedication, but doesn’t at all suggest that maybe you just suck and that’s how long it took you to figure out how to use a class method. And you’re going to snark at me for leaving at 4? After 9 hours, the first 3 of which I was already at the office before you even opened your bloodshot eyes and rolled out of bed?
The best response to ‘5:01er’ scorn (besides the one I’ve written here, of course), is made in this comment from the afore-mentioned Stack Exchange post:
I consider myself a 8:59 to 5:01 worker and I freely admit that I am looking down upon 9:00 to 5:00 programmers because it is obviously obvious that working less than 8:02 a day is obviously not only a sign of laziness but also shows a giant lack of attention to detail.
This is a brilliant illustration that you can disprove, by induction, any argument that relies on quantity of time worked as a measure of quality. When faced with such counter-arguments, purveyors of the ‘5:01er’ criticism are quick to deflect attention away from the timestamp and recast the argument by saying what they really mean to criticize are people whose “enthusiasm for programming” ends at 5 o’clock. In this recast version, it’s not so much the actual physical leaving at 5pm that bothers them, but rather, someone who doesn’t care about programming except as an ordinary job that pays the bills and about which they only think during work hours.
If that’s the case, then don’t use the language of ‘5:01er’! By doing so you are unfairly accusing people who have to leave work at specified times as being unenthusiastic. I hope I have made it clear that just because I leave at an hour that some may consider early, I most certainly don’t think of my work as a daytime-only punch-the-clock job. I love my work, but I love my family too and I’m not going to stand for any bullshit accusations that I am not productive or dedicated because of it. By using the language of ‘5:01er’, you are subjecting all of us to an arms-race where the only way we can prove our enthusiasm is by being in the office 16 hours a day. That’s ludicrous. It’s equally ludicrous to suggest that just because someone needs to leave work at precise times everyday, that automatically makes them suspect. My enthusiasm is not going to be measured based on when I am physically in the office. It is very often the case that while I am enjoying my cute cuddly time with my methane-producing offspring, I’m also thinking about regular expressions and minimum spanning trees :)