I’m Old, Part LI: Hacking Sleep

When I was working on the Acrobat team, the work was intense and copious. It didn’t help that I came onto the project late so for search tools, I was way behind. I found myself working 10-12 hours a day and frequent weekends. This is the pattern that you’d expect from a project that falls into the “land grab” scenario. At the time that Acrobat was being built, there were a couple of other competitors and we had to ensure that we dominated the space. The way to do that in land grab is to be there first and to be a dominant force that can’t be dislodged. That meant big goals, high standards, and long hours to meet them.

At the time, I decided that I was going to try to hack my sleep pattern and see what the minimum amount of sleep I could get and still be a functional engineer. I did a basic divide and conquer approach and found that I was good at 6 hours for months at a stretch. I wasn’t happy or healthy, but nobody else was either so I was in good company.

I would come home, take care of dinner (if it hadn’t been supplied at work), took care of my cats, watched some TV, read, and then went to sleep at midnight until the alarm went off at 6. I got up, took care of my cats, had breakfast, showered, and headed to work and got in around 8:30. Then I worked until 6:30 or later.

One hobby I fit in at that time was baking. There were wonderful farmer’s markets in the area with incredible produce. I would buy all kinds of fruit when it was in season and that which I didn’t eat or can, I would use for baking experiments. About once a week, when I got up in the morning, I would put together a quick bread, pie, coffee cake, or cobbler and put it in the oven while I was showering. When I got into the office, I put it out at Karin Jurcevich’s desk. Karin was the department admin and ray of sunshine. Her desk was a focal point for a lot of the group. I would set up the treat along with some plates, napkins, and utensils, cut myself a serving then walk the perimeter and give the people who were at their desks the simple message, “Karin’s desk” and watch the hordes descend.

At one point, I started doing more extreme baking experiments. I made two checkerboard cakes – one from box mixes and one from scratch using Joy of Cooking recipes (IMHO, the Joy of Cooking recipes tasted better, had better texture, and were closer in overall size. Also, the difference in time between making them from scratch or mix and cleaning up was negligible). At one point I made a cherry pie that included the Acrobat logo sculpted on the top in dough. It was fun. Somewhere there exists a picture of that pie. I thought I had scanned it, but I couldn’t find it.

Of course, I later found that the amount of sleep I needed in order to remain productive is far less my 6 hour experiment. That number changed when I had kids. I routinely had weeks on end where I had 4 hours a night on average. I looked like a wreck at times and there were days when I came in and announced that I’d had 8 hours of sleep. Over the past 3 days.

At one point, Rick Minerich and I went a conference in Las Vegas. Our flight out got canceled due to heavy thunderstorms and we got put up in a cruddy hotel and rescheduled for a flight early the next morning. We didn’t get into the hotel until late and we hadn’t had dinner, so we ordered from a nearby delivery pizza place and shot the shit until entirely too late. We had to set an alarm for around 4:30 in order for both up us to be able to shower and make the shuttle. I woke up before the alarm by 5 minutes and used that time to bring all systems on line. The alarm went off and Rick stirred and started trying to fiddle with the coffee maker. I got in the shower and was out, dry, and ready to go. Rick just got his first cup of coffee and was in a state of shock that not only was I up and, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I had done all of that without coffee (hate the stuff). The answer was simple: my kids ruined my sleep patterns and getting four and a half hours of sleep was a luxury.

To be fair, Rick was decidedly not a morning person in general, so I don’t blame him for being out of it that early.

And while the sleep experiments were intellectually interesting to me, I can’t say that I recommend them. Over time, I’ve come to believe that land-grab mentality is dangerous for both the health of the employees and the precedent it sets for corporate culture. Since Acrobat, I have only ever done one all-nighter and have done my best to protect my teams from having to do the same. How do you do this? By planning better, making better estimates, and if pulling the extra hours looks tempting, quote the holy trinity of late software:

  1. Lose a feature
  2. Ship later
  3. Lose quality

Pick 1 – and if you don’t pick one, you’re going to get at least 1 and likely all of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.