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I've recently quit my full time developing job at mega-corp, and I decided that I'll look for a part time job. Since then I've talked to half a dozen potential employers, and every one of them had the same reaction when I said the magic words "part-time" - they all closed up and became suspicious. Now, I understand that it might just be me, so as control I asked every one of them what if I were willing to work full time, and they all said I would probably get an offer.

My question is two fold:

  1. Why, as an employer, would you give up a competent, even great, developer, simply because he wants to work 3 days a week and not 5?

  2. How do I sell the story of part time job better? I usually just list my reasons which are that I prefer that balance currently in my life and that I want to work on my own projects, but it leaves them even more suspicious - am I going to start something myself and quit? Am I just lazy?

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From what I hear, a large number of employers would give up a competent, even great, developer simply because he wants to work 5 days a week and not 7. –  OrbWeaver Nov 24 '11 at 13:37
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How can your emplayer forbid personal projects? Working on them during work time is a no-go anyway unless your company explictely allows it... but at home you can do pretty much whatever you want. –  ThiefMaster Nov 24 '11 at 16:17
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It's because 90% programmers are male and male people is not supposed to ask part time jobs. –  gd1 Nov 24 '11 at 18:47
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In the uk, if you have young children or are a carer you are entitled to apply for full time job and request they consider a job share. Companies are required to properly consider this request. –  Ptolemy Nov 24 '11 at 22:34
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Why not just do short term full time contracts and take some time off between them to work on your own projects. –  Rig Nov 25 '11 at 20:00
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16 Answers

up vote 68 down vote accepted

Why, as an employer, would you give up a competent, even great, developer, simply because he wants to work 3 days a week and not 5?

More than one reason (all argued from the point of view of an employer):

  1. As Fred Brooks argues in the book The Mythical Man-Month, the efficiency of a team goes down as the team size grows, because the amount of communication grows faster than linear with the team size. So N full-time developers are far more effective than 2N part-time developers, at the same cost.

  2. If the developer is working on some important system, you want to be able to reach her at least during normal business hours.

  3. A full time employee spends only eight hours at the office five days a week, but his mind is really working for the company 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That's why you sometimes wake up in the morning with the solution to a problem that's been bothering you for days - your mind doesn't stop working the moment you leave the office. For a part-time employee, I would fear the opposite: Instead of thinking about his day-job at home, I'd guess she'd think about her private problems at work.

How do I sell the story of part time job better?

Actually, I think the employers are mostly right, so I don't think you can "sell" it much better. But you could find a small company that doesn't have enough work for a full-time employee. They might be interested in hiring you part-time. Jobs like that probably wouldn't be very glamorous (or well-paid), though.

EDIT: Your comments suggest that your don't have much working experience and that you can't imagine spending 40 hours per week at work. I can totally relate to that, sitting 40 hours a week in the cubicle next to Dilbert and Wally does sound like a horrible prospect.

If that's reasonably close, forget my advice about looking for a job at a company that doesn't have enough work for a full-time employee. These jobs certainly exists, but you won't learn much there (if they have only one part-time developer, who would teach you anything?), and they don't look very good on a resume (why did he start his career doing that? Couldn't he find a full-time job?). They'd probably be rather boring jobs, too, and IMHO spending 20 hours a week at a boring job is worse than spending 40 hours a week working on something you care about.

Instead try to find a full-time job where you get to build something interesting, where you like your co-workers and where you genuinely like going to work each morning. These jobs really are out there, and they're easier to find than part-time positions. There's still enough time to play StarCraft at the weekends ;-)

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I've known many full time employees who weren't thinking much about their employer's problems even during regular work hours. Some even worked on side jobs, using the employer's resources. –  Péter Török Nov 24 '11 at 11:00
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...his mind is really working for the company 24 hours a day, 7 days a week... ...Instead of thinking about his day-job at home... From a manager's point of view I can see the logic. From a human point of view this is very depressing. –  MrMisterMan Nov 24 '11 at 14:44
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@MrMisterMan: If you enjoy your job, I'm not sure why? Our brains aren't computers where you can just switch a task on or off - our subconscious constantly works on things that we care about. Even if we're consciously thinking about something completely different or even sleeping at the time. We're just wired that way. –  nikie Nov 24 '11 at 16:50
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@MrMisterMan, let me add that IMHO this is a very limited manager's view (albeit sadly common). Good managers know that their employees - or rather, colleagues - need time to relax and recharge, otherwise they will get tired, thus start making mistakes, and eventually may even burn out - which is a much bigger loss for the company in the long run, than the few extra work hours gained in the short term. –  Péter Török Nov 24 '11 at 16:52
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I don't think it's depressing that you would think about work on your own time. I often do that because I like my job. It's depressing that management expects it. –  MrMisterMan Nov 24 '11 at 16:54
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Asking for a part-time job without further explanation looks like you don't really want to work for them.

It may looks like you will use them until you don't need them anymore.

Here are few issues your employer may see in that proposal:

  • For the same amount of "work", you will duplicate their problems: 2x communication, 2x administative work (sick days, holidays, ...), 2x more risk to have to start the hiring process again...
  • If your colleagues or your boss(es) really need an information from you, the probability to be unable to reach you is 0.5.
  • Your colleague may not understand your particular situation as well.

Working like that will be really feasible if the employer is actively looking for a part-time programmer. One of the most common reason is that they can't afford one full programmer. This may give you hints to make a list of potential employers, such as small businesses not specifically working in the software field.

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Agreed, if they're not already looking for a part-time employee, they're probably not interested in a part-time employee. –  Dean Harding Nov 24 '11 at 10:21
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Plus, you will be unavailable almost half of the time your colleagues need you. –  user1249 Nov 24 '11 at 13:51
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@Mikle: Hmm, that does seem unusual then. If you've explicitly said you're looking for part-time, and they interviewed you anyway, it kind of indicates they're not really paying attention... or maybe they think they can convince you otherwise after the interview? –  Dean Harding Nov 26 '11 at 0:26
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One reason is that, as a manager, you get an ok to recruit one "head". Not fractions. One. This means, if you recruit someone part-time, you'll have to all effects one person in your team that does 3/5 of the work he/she's supposed to do or you will have to hire another person who wants to work the remaining 2/5. However you see it, this turns quickly into an organizational problem in terms of coordination, effort, communication... I think your best chance to work part time is to work as a consultant and do only the specific hours you need on the projects you're hired for.

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Sad but true, bureaucracy over people –  Łukasz 웃 L ツ Nov 24 '11 at 15:49
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@lechlukasz - it is not "bureaucracy", it's management. Just because something looks simple and trivial to you doesn't mean it is. Just because something looks free to you isn't necessarily so (e.g. a marginal cost to the business to have an extra employee) –  DVK Nov 26 '11 at 3:01
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Great question.

There's some good answers hereabouts too, but overwhelmingly they appear to be taking the employers' perspective, so let me redress that a little.

Firstly, I think it is great that you are wanting to take a better work/life balance than an ordinary 9-6 job will offer you. We who live in advanced capitalist economies often need reminding that our society has created a 'normal' workaholism that takes from most people most of their useful waking hours. You may therefore need a bit of encouragement in your quest, and I would start with recommending How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson. In it he argues for a de-stressed society that lives cheaply, works less, makes more merriment and relies less on expensive/pre-packaged food and entertainment (I believe his How To Be Free is on similar lines, and I forget which one it was that I have read).

I'd also say that you shouldn't mention your part-time intentions until you've got through first-stage interview. You can then ask at second stage interview, or via email/telephone contact, if your application progresses.

Consider also only asking for four days/week. For some reason, I sense there is quite a gulf between three and four - maybe because Friday tends to be a wind-down day, and a good programmer cannot be expected to run at full productivity five days a week anyway. So I think you'd be more likely to get a nod if you start asking small.

Also, would you consider taking a flexitime job on with full-time hours? That would be nine-ish hours per day rather than seven-ish, but would mean that your employer gets the benefit of a full-time developer whilst giving you the win you're after. That of course presumes you'd be happy with just one extra day off per week. Incidentally, some while back I noticed a tasty-looking advert on StackExchange for a four-day week dev based in San Francisco - so they are out there (edit: I wanted to link to it but cannot find it - it is probably gone!).

That last point brings me to my next one: apply to small companies or start-ups. Small firms don't often have the budget to pay good developers handsomely, so they may offer non-remuneration benefits instead. Also, there are less layers of middle-management to get unusual requests rubber-stamped.

My path has been somewhat similar to yours - I used to work for a large company as a PHP/Oracle web programmer, and they insisted on my commuting to the office every day, resulting in 300 miles per week of pointless mileage. I requested flexitime and home-working at various strategic points (reviews and the like) and they were repeatedly "considered" and turned down. I enjoyed the job and the people, but a couple of years later, I gave up asking, found a small UK company that offered both flexitime and telecommuting, and resigned from the corporate job. It is my hope that in leaving over it, I have very slightly improved the chances of others who want to do the same.

So, I wish you the best of luck - if you are successful in this endeavour, you also may help out other developers who feel the same as you do. If you get there, do document somewhere on the web some tips to help others!

Edits: an interesting article and comments on this topic, and another from 37signals. Here is how companies can set up four-day working weeks. Less on-topic but very interesting - remote working by the chap who set up this very website!

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Depends how far you go back in history - you're only going back to the Victorian age. I recommended the Hodgkinson book as he examines the work patterns of the Middle Ages - some farm labourers worked one or two days a week! I'm not arguing that other periods of human history have been idyllic, however. But I am saying that (a) 40 hours per week is a lot of day-time to give up, (b) it would be great if some people could choose to work less hours for less money, and (c) we should all spend more time with friends, family or on hobbies. My view is that we would benefit societally from it. –  halfer Nov 24 '11 at 18:33
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"some farm labourers worked one or two days a week". Sure, but they were hungry the other 5-6 days... –  nikie Nov 24 '11 at 18:43
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No, but I sense that we have political differences emerging, which is straying quite off-topic. Happy to agree to disagree :) –  halfer Nov 24 '11 at 18:50
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I can think of a couple of reasons.

  1. Companies that employ software developers recognise that they are developing a product to give them some sort of business advantage (eg: direct revenue, a process, etc...). Regardless of the specifics of the advantage, the company is going to want to jealously protect their intellectual property. Yes, company execs can be a very suspicious lot when it comes to this sort of thing, so in their minds they might be thinking, 'why does this person only want to work for me part of the time? Is this person working for someone else? Could this person become a risk to my IP?'

  2. Companies are generally hiring people because they have determined a resourcing requirement that entails the need for a person to be working on a project for a certain amount of time in order to meet specific deadlines and targets. The view therefore is that someone working part time will not allow them to fulfil the resourcing requirement in it's entirety, and;

    a) The employer doesn't wish to face a need to employ additional staff,

    b) There may be additional costs associated with hiring multiple part time staf in terms of benefits, payroll taxes, etc.

  3. You are asking for a part time position when an advertised job may have specified full time. Sometimes people think it strange that a candidate does not seem to have understood the requirements specified in a job description, and that this might suggest if such simple directions are not followed, perhaps the candidate won't pay attention to specifications.

  4. You may have unwittingly presented the option in a way that makes it seem suspicious.

  5. Perhaps the interviewer has already decided not to hire you, and unwittingly gives away a negative reaction to a question they feel is no longer relevant.

Just a few thoughts... realistically speaking, most jobs in software development require full time staff. You may later earn an option to shift to part time work, or you may find one of the rare roles out there that allow this, but it's likely to be hard.

As to specifically answering your first question, I'd answer that with, why would an employer give up the option for a programmer working entirely for his company's benefit full time for someone who the employer feels will only be putting in an effort for part of the time?

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There's lots of things that may factor in, such as the longer the time between working, the more you've forgotten and the longer it takes to figure out where you left off, reducing the productivity.

There's also the widespread (and largely justified) view that great developers want to develop - that the issue is preventing them from burning themselves out, and that developers who want to work fewer hours are not great almost by definition.

Probably the key factor, though, is that you're basically asking employers to pay the full cost of bringing you up to speed etc, despite only offering around 60% (at best) of the payoff. Would you pay the full price for a 60% share of the ownership of a computer (excluding Apple owners).

Of course in real life it's a more complex formula than that, as productivity depends on a lot of factors and is never constant through all your working hours unless its constantly zero - but the complexity of that formula argues against at least as much as for your position. For example, less intensive learning is usually slower learning - bigger gaps mean more is forgotten between times.

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I like your second point (about developers being expected to just love coding so much that employers are basically doing them a favor when giving them some more work for the weekend) –  Paolo Falabella Nov 24 '11 at 10:21
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I love coding. I also live riding bikes, playing Starcraft and being out while the sun is still shining, something full time jobs lack. I also have tens of ideas of my own I want to work on. –  Mikle Nov 24 '11 at 17:12
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The explanations are important.

  • I would hope that a modern employer would recognise work-life balance as a reasonable goal. Especially if you have a family or some similar responsibility.
  • I would not say that you want to work on your own projects, which will make the employer suspect that you might goof off and work on them when you should be working for the employer, or that you might quit soon to work on them full time.
  • You could say that you already have a part-time commitment and you need some more part-time work to build up your income. Make the part-time commitment sound commercial. For example "I need to do a little support for some existing clients" is good, it gives an impression that you have some business sense. "I want to work on my own projects" is less good, it gives the impression that you might goof off to work on a pet open-source project.
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I'm sure most employers recognise work-life balance as a reasonable goal. As long as you do it in your spare time. ;-) –  nikie Nov 24 '11 at 13:54
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A thought that strikes me as I read the other well thought out answers is that if you want part time work, why aren't you considering short term contract positions? In this area, that is the norm for developers who want free time to work on their own projects.

This way you can usually work off site and manage your own time, be confident in your earnings and still know that you'll have time to work on your projects. Work 3 months full time, take the next 2 off. During that 2 you line up your next contracts.

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Working as a freelancer is a hassle. You need to actively seek out clients, advertise yourself and deal with clueless managers. Also, it is quite lonely, while I want to work with a development team to learn from. –  Mikle Nov 24 '11 at 17:08
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@Mikle You can't have everything. Stephen gave you a good answer. I had a difficult time finding my first part-time job as a programmer, as a contractor. I did get something, 20 hours a week, for $50/hr for 6 months. And I actually ended up working around 30-35 hrs a week to get the job done. I couldn't bill all that time, cause the company didn't have the budget for it, and I wasn't going to just quit. There are lots of agencies that will actively seek YOU as a freelancer, if you are skilled. –  Feral Oink Nov 24 '11 at 17:13
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@Mikle - I'll put it as nicely as possible. When a green newbie shows up at my team, I have to spend close to 50% of my 10-hour-long work days for a couple of weeks (and 25% for months) to teach them and bring them up to speed on stuff. That's a VERY expensive proposition to be wasted on "team" member who'd like the easy life and would not bother contributing to the team full time for a significant period of time (and your part time stance screams "will quit soon"). So no, people don't want to teach someone like you. –  DVK Nov 26 '11 at 3:09
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@FeralOink Thank you. dvk: Do you know me? If not you have no reason to talk about people like me. I think you are assuming too many things. I'm sure that if you'll work 8 hours a day you'll be happier and less condescending :) –  Mikle Nov 26 '11 at 20:21
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You may think of yourself as a programmer who wants to work 3/5 of a week. If you are applying for jobs at a company large enough to have a HR department then here are a few of your problems:

It's a tight market and you are responding to a full-time position with a counter-offer for part-time work. Resumes are being thrown away for lack of "optional" requirements and you just wasted their time by interviewing for a job (full-time) that you didn't intend to take. From their point of view - you lied.

As previously mentioned they have a 1.0 programming unit requirement and you are 0.6 programming unit - bad fit.

If they hire full-time employees and full-time contractors you don't fit HR systems - payroll, insurance eligibility, real estate (do you get 3/5 of a desk? do they waste 2/5 of a desk?).

From the manager's point of view you are just as big a headache - dress code, email appropriateness, late arrivals, sexual harassment - as everyone who is doing 166% of the work you do.

The previous comments about project complexity (and things like company limits on the number of direct reports) hold true. Imagine a project that requires 1 developer. Now imagine running that project with five 1/5 developers. It's an exaggeration but it points up the issue.

If the ad or referrer doesn't say "part-time", don't bother. You're wasting everyone's time. You might consider a serial part-time career. Work for nine months then take three off. You'll need to find something to put on your resume to cover the three months though.

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That's probably a form of supplier induced demand. As long as there will be lots of programmers willing to dedicate their whole day (and night) time to work, there is no reason for the employer to accept any extra-effort with uncertain extra-outcomes by following uncommon employment policies.

So unless a growing fraction of developers starts recognizing the benefits of part-time employment and start demanding it from their employers, it is unlikely that these change their policy for those reasons stated in the other posts.

I think this isn't a specific programmers issue. Most employments that are traditionally assigned to the male gender are full-time by definition. Because, traditionally, men care for the cash flow women care for the family. While women nowadays also claim a work-life, the male role model is yet a full-time work, spare-time private projects model. So, up to now the emancipation of women came at cost of the family aspect of life. Decreasing birth rates and increasing public child care tells a story.

The point of this, the emancipation of men, that will allow men to prefer family over the job, is the next step of the emancipation of women. This step will follow, yet in question is when? To relate back to part-time programmers: this is a matter of role models and society, and not a question of what extras the employers are willing to grant to their employees.

I think in a healthy society there will be an equilibrium state where both (or all, whatever) genders are equally doing a bit of work, and a bit of family, and a bit of private projects. Up to then, I recommend consulting the Idler by Tom Hodgkinson to everyone who has read this text so far.

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A development team can be considered a fully connected network, which means there are n(n - 1) / 2 "interfaces" between the developers. In practice this means that going from five to seven developers, the team suddenly has more than twice the opportunity for friction, communications failures and misunderstandings.

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Most of the bases have been covered. You could try looking for a company that allows more flexible working. For example, my company allows 2 people to share a job. You agree with a colleague doing the same job which days you work and get paid on a pro rata basis. I have considered taking advantage of another scheme that basically allows me to work only during school hours on school days to allow me to care for my daughter. That said, however, they are only open, so far as I know, to established employees.

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Regarding "How do I sell the story of part time job better" you might think of a two stepped approach: First find a small company where HR policy is flexible. Work there for a year as a full time.

After a year, when they had a chance to get a positive impression of you and your work habits, ask to reduce your workload (e.g. 'I plan on doing a degree part time')

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You haven't specified the sector you're looking in, but I suspect there's two main reasons:

  • Suspicion about what you're doing the rest of the time (are you there to steal data, ideas, or other intellectual property (IP))
  • Concerns that other employees will also want to work part-time (and the difficulty of denying parity)

There is a per-employee overhead in any business, and whilst one part-time postion may not break the bank, the overhead from a 20-person team turning into a 40-person team could be prohibitive (if no more hours are being worked) - there'd also be additional management costs coordinating such an environment.

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I think your point about denying parity is well made: +1. I suspect that was one reason my requests for flexitime and home-working were turned down at my previous employer. Other people had also asked, and permitting one might have opened the floodgates! –  halfer Nov 24 '11 at 20:09
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Everyone seems to be quoting Brooks and making efficiency arguments, none of which are particularly wrong, mind you, but I think they've missed a rather essential point. Programming is, generally speaking, a lot more art than science. Oh sure, you can get a CS degree and learn a heck a lot about algorithms and solving "typical problems" at a good school and thus increase your knowledge of the science side substantially, but the only CS grads I've ever seen go on to truly become Software Engineers (vs taking detours into marketing, sales or non-engineering management) were the ones who truly loved it and considered 40 hours a week to be insufficient, if anything, because they loved to create things and writing software was a particularly satisfying way of doing just that. I'm not saying that all software engineers need to be artists at heart, but the very best ones are, and no employer will ever say "I'm looking for the 2nd or 3rd best over here! Keep those resumes coming, please!"

By saying you only want to work part-time, you're essentially telling a prospective employer that you're just not that into it in comparison to the other candidates who are devoting every waking hour to software and contributing their work to various open source projects when no better outlet for their creativity is available. If an analogy will help, imagine your next restaurant meal: Who do you want to make it? Somebody who doesn't really care about cooking and is just slapping your meal together or a chef who really loves cooking?

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@Mikle Stereotype or not, how it looks from the perspective of the employer is all that really matters here since you're still competing in the workplace against people who don't have that stipulation. Perhaps in 20 years or so, the notion of a fixed work week will be dead and you'll have simply been ahead of your time. :) –  jkh Nov 27 '11 at 2:35
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The points about efficiency and overhead (both bureaucratic and in the N^2 interpersonal effects) seem valid, but here's a more jaded take: employers of coders don't want any limitation at all on the hours they can ask of you. They're used to being able to ask developers to work 50, 60, in my experience as much as 80 hours in some weeks for no extra pay (and on hourly contracts to lie about your hours, or it's go look for another job...which eventually I did do, but many can't or in any event won't). Someone who starts by limiting their hours to a nominal (say) 24/wk doesn't sound like someone who will be willing to work 40 for the same wages when asked to so do, for reasons decent (deadlines) and indecent ('We need the shares price to rise a few pennies for a few weeks, so let's fire a few people and let the others, cowed by the firings, take on the work their former colleagues performed, ').

Note: if you've a reputation as a wizard, you can in fact get part-time work, as some will feel blessed that they get any of you at all---this is related to why rock-stars tend to have a lot of casual sex (because they can, because enough potential partners value such so, and because social norms are actually enforced by allowing exceptional people to violate them---'Sure, Steven Tyler [or rms] can act that way, but you're not in his league, don't get uppity,').

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