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Are sleep-deprived engineers hurting the Web?

Industry Standard

June 12, 2000
Web posted at: 10:35 a.m. EDT (1435 GMT)

(IDG) -- The new economy may be in the hands of people incapable of operating heavy machinery -- or even walking. Just ask Peter Troob, co-author of Monkey Business: Swinging Through the Wall Street Jungle, who once witnessed a fellow investment banker fall asleep midstride and walk face first into a wall. "Falling asleep while standing is ridiculous enough, but doing it in motion takes a special sort of exhaustion," he says.

While not always so extreme, exhaustion is common in an economy where employees, VCs and executives are continually burning the midnight oil. In the frenzied startup phase, Internet workers often go with minimal or no sleep for days at a time -- a habit that can wreak havoc on more than just their motor skills.

But many suffer in secret. "Everybody working in new media knows they're not sleeping enough, but nobody wants to admit it's affecting them," says Tristan Louis, CEO of startup Moveable Media.

Michael Montero, CTO and cofounder of the online community firm Community Connect, says that when his site launched, "at one point I had to stay up nine straight days working to fix a bug in the database software." He adds: "I just got the odd hour or so of sleep beneath my desk. For my birthday that year my co-workers bought me a pillow for the office."

"You can't function when you're that tired," Troob says. "People make typos, mess up Xeroxes or show up at the airport six hours early because they can't read their tickets correctly."

James B. Maas, Ph.D., sleep researcher at Cornell University and author of Power Sleep, says that "when people are severely sleep-deprived, they lose verbal and problem-solving skills, can't concentrate and undergo rapid mood swings." Many disasters over the past 20 years have involved worker exhaustion, including Chernobyl, the Challenger explosion and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And while no major technology failures have yet been attributed to sleep deprivation, the Internet Economy seems to demand that people make vital business decisions, requests for funding or technical fixes in such a state.

A programmer who asked to remain anonymous says that late one night, after working for two days with very little sleep, he inadvertently erased his company's Web site server, including the operating system. It took him four more sleepless hours to get the site running again. "But I don't feel too bad about it," he says. "I know at least five other people who've done the same thing."

Many tech workers don't have a choice about how much they sleep. "The technology field is developing so quickly that you sometimes have to sacrifice sleep to take advantage of a market opportunity," says Bruce Green, president of Greenhouse Technologies, a software development and consulting firm. "The most common question I get from my clients is, 'How quickly can we move on this?'" Green often works a 36 to 40 hour weekend.

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Some companies are trying to help employees adjust to irregular sleep. Fremont, Calif.-based portal targets the global Indian population, which means employees have to stay conscious during daylight hours in India, as well as in the United States. India is 13 hours ahead of the U.S., so conversations usually start around 8 p.m. says Suneeta Krish, VP of business development. Krish says that so many employees were asleep under their desks one time that the cleaning staff thought street people broke into the building. To encourage employees to get enough rest, the company recently converted some of its offices into sleeping quarters.

Krish says GoYogi's employees have not only learned to cope with the odd schedule, but they also have benefited from it. "Working hard through these conditions has actually helped us bond," says Krish. "We work together much more cohesively now."

There's no doubt that sleeping less provides several extra hours to get work done, and some clients may be impressed by the kamikaze "we'll sleep when we're dead" attitude. One source, who declined to be identified, says, "Saying anything about sleep deprivation means losing business to companies who won't even acknowledge it as a factor."

However, making decisions while deprived of sleep hurts productivity. A National Sleep Foundation study found that people who work more than 60 hours a week make almost 10 percent more mistakes on the job than people who work less. Entrepreneurs Dan Harley and Carlton Smith learned this the hard way. They were putting together a startup business plan while working full-time jobs when their attorneys told them they needed to quickly come up with a name for their company and incorporate it.

"We stayed up all weekend long tossing out ideas and finally agreed on one just before midnight on Sunday," says Harley. After going through the incorporation process, registering the URL and ordering business cards and letterhead, they realized their new company name could easily be confused with a prominent media company. "We spent the next weekend doing the exact same thing, and finally came up with Focint," he says. "The second sleep-deprived decision wound up working out a lot better than the first."

A former employee of British e-commerce apparel company blames sleep deprivation for one major crash during the site's testing period: "This database administrator had been working 17 hour days for over a month, and at 11 p.m. in London he erased the site's entire product database." The launch had already been delayed, and site testing screeched to a halt for one more day.

One's business plan and disposition aren't the only things that suffer when workers are sleep deprived. Andrew Brown, a former investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter found that working long hours affected his health. Brown, who now works as a VC for Austin Ventures in Austin, Texas, says "My immune system was completely run down when I was there, so I was frequently sick. Others in my group were often just as fatigued. When one of us would catch a cold, it would usually spread like wildfire."

To workers intent on ignoring their exhaustion, Maas says, "make sure you finish all your projects now because you're not going to be alive very long." Maas cites a recent study from the University of Chicago in which researchers found that healthy young adult males getting four hours of sleep for six consecutive nights showed medical disorders similar to those of senior citizens. "We know that sleep deprivation does two things: It shortens your life and it slows you down mentally," says Maas. "Neither of those effects will be particularly helpful for business leaders."

Be that as it may, many tech companies won't be changing any time soon, says Green. "In any high-tech position, you're going to find the same sorts of demands for your time," he says. "Unless you change what you want to do professionally, you're going to find it's hard to make sleep a priority."

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