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IT workers and caffeine: A high-octane affair

Mar 15, 20045 mins
Enterprise Applications

Sometimes coffee, soda and ginseng candy just don’t give Ben Robinson the boost he needs. That’s when he turns to the heavy stuff: caffeinated soap.

“It wakes you up right away, before coffee could be kicking in,” says Robinson, a business and technology student at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

“I already knew that a lot of chlorine gets absorbed into your skin when you take a shower, so it seemed reasonable to me that you’d absorb a significant amount of caffeine if you took a long shower and lathered up well,” he says.

Robinson resorted to ThinkGeek’s Shower Shock (200 milligrams of caffeine per shower – twice that of the average cup of coffee) during a near-sleepless period of working long shifts at a tech support center and helping a friend get a Web site online. He’s still not quite sure whether to credit the candy or the caffeine in the soap for perking him up, but his attraction to caffeine would seem to make him fit right in to the high-tech industry once his school days are over.

While few still drink Jolt Cola, the beverage that emerged in 1986 with the slogan “twice the caffeine” and played a big part in the romanticized image of developers pulling all-night codefests, caffeine remains a staple of many an IT worker’s life. A quick scan of the recycling bin in any office where developers work will likely turn up more than your average collection of empty bottles and cups of Dr. Pepper, Diet Coke, the “energy drink” Red Bull, Arizona’s iced Ginseng Tea or Starbucks Frappaccinos. Not only has the range of highly caffeinated beverages expanded, but also a new market of caffeine “accessories” has emerged – from the aforementioned soap to Timmy’s Torrid Tonic hot sauce, which blends caffeine with habanero peppers.

An informal poll posted on Network World’s Fusion Web site showed of 50 respondents, 55% drink one to four coffees or sodas per day, 32% drink four to eight cups of the beverages daily, 8% drink a whopping nine servings or more each day, and only 4% don’t drink coffee or soda at all.

“We get coffee for free, so all of our developers are hard-core coffee drinkers,” says Jason Sosinski, IS security administrator with ARS Service Express, a heating and cooling services company in Houston. “It closely resembles mud most of the time, but it doesn’t cost anything so we’re happy.” CTO Allan Vermeulen says the company keeps coffee pots brewing around the clock and has “pop” machines scattered about. Plus, being in Seattle, his team can access half-a-dozen coffee shops within 200 feet of the office. But Vermeulen says his philosophy is not to rely too much on caffeine to keep developers going.

“We find giving our developers really cool interesting work, then letting them push themselves to do their best is a much more effective way of keeping them awake than caffeinating them,” he says. “I use caffeine as a way to take a break from my computer, so I can come back refreshed.”

In part, it’s the deadline-driven nature of writing code that has fostered a dependency on caffeine for many, developers say. “When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen you want something to drink. And after long hours, a bit of caffeine can get you going again,” says Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda, creator and editor of, a news and resource Web site for developers and engineers.

Even though the computer industry has matured and product development no longer takes on the frenzied pace of the 1980s and ’90s, programmers still spend countless hours in front of their screens trying to perfect their code. “Developers are a unique breed; they’re under a lot of time pressure to get things done and at times are forced to work long, strange hours. They’re put in situations where, in their view, caffeine helps,” says Scott Testa, CEO of intranet software company Mindbridge, who is also a developer.

“The salesforce generally can’t call someone at 3 a.m. and sell something, where as you can code anytime, anywhere,” he says. According to Testa, developers at Mindbridge drink roughly four times the caffeine as other employees.

The caffeine-addicted image also helps create an air of irreverence toward corporate norms that many developers embrace and often get away with. “Most programmers are highly independent and highly intelligent,” says Harry Weller, a partner with venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. “They’re allowed to wear what they want, do what they want, and even work when they want, but they have to make their deadlines.”

As anyone who has experienced a caffeine crash knows, the substance also has its downside. Caffeine stimulates certain neurotransmitters in the brain and increases production of adrenaline, which makes a person more alert, says Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and brain-imaging specialist. “It can increase productivity in the short run. The problem is you always pay for it . . . it’s like giving someone a stimulus: They’ll [eventually] crash,” he says. “And for someone who is anxious or obsessive, the more [caffeine] they drink . . . they can concentrate better on the things that bug them.”

Much like surgeons, developers tend to adopt tunnel vision when trying to solve problems, says Dr. Pamela Brill, a psychologist who has worked onsite at technology companies to help computer professionals change behavior patterns. “When you get really focused and have tunnel vision associated with a high level of energy, you become stupid from traveling at such high speeds,” she says.

What’s important is that developers walk the line between being energized by caffeine and abusing it, Brill adds. “Life is not one size fits all. We each have [our own] tolerance for certain chemicals, and caffeine is one of them,” she says.