A Project Death March

For the last month or so my team at Shutterstock has been going through a death march. It has negatively impacted my blogging, personal life, and open source contributions. Also, it has only increased my commitment to the company and strengthened our team's dynamic.

So, what is a death march in this context? Well, I've thrown around the term when talking about rather arduous hiking adventures, and it's not that different from a project perspective. I define it as having at least two of the following criteria:

  • arbitrary completion date that does not reflect the scope of work
  • increasing resources to meet deadlines instead of changing definition
  • accumulation of technical debt is ignored by managers

All of these will sideline team member concerns in order to push the project at a quick pace. Which, without going into specifics, is how my team has been operating under the last month. We've been tasked with a large project with a deadline of, well, today, and all of us have had to put in extra hours in order to get it done. And as much as it doesn't sound like fun, it's actually done a lot to focus and align everyone.

Death marches are nothing new to me. We used to have them regularly at DealerFire - late nights in the office that involved company-sponsored pizza and k-pop - and that team was stronger for it. Each of us cared about our projects because we self-managed. If a project was in risk of missing a deadline it was because someone made a mistake and we all chipped in to help. Or maybe a client had too-high expectations. Either way those late nights were a lot of fun and were usually followed up by some long lunch breaks over board games after.

When they become less fun is when the pressure comes from outside the team. At another job I was merely one of several programmers led by a single, often inexperienced, project manager. When scope creep occurred, or extra client requests rolled in after the timelines were agreed to, we were the ones to put in the extra hours. None of us cared deeply about the product and the manager rarely put in the hours with us. It got to the point where every project would run over resources and every week was a new death march.

This is where Shutterstock's style shine. At the start of each two-week sprint the team members agree to the amount of work they would complete. So while we had this large, ambitious project hanging above our heads, we only bit off what we could chew. We knew that the project was big, so we decided to bite a lot off this month, making a self-imposed, if somewhat-induced, march.

I'd hold off on calling regular death marches healthy, though. The DealerFire case was special. No one had kids, we were all young, and it was a very chill environment. Now I (and several others on my team) have kids, we're getting old, and we're working for a huge company. There's a three-day weekend coming up (a well-timed one) for a reset, and next week we'll probably meet up and chat about being more reasonable moving forward. While I enjoyed this month I'm looking forward to a more normal July.