Who wants to work in a fast-paced environment? Not me! I want a civilized environment where people have a sense of balance. Higher quality work gets done that way and work life isn't full of stress and anguish.
It's code for "We change our minds a lot about what we want from the software, and if we hire you we don't want you to complain about it. In fact, we expect you to put in a lot of overtime to implement our latest whim decision because we're fast paced. You've been warned."
In programmer-speak, it means "we have no specs, unit tests, or for that matter, anyone still around who remembers why our software is the way it is."
Many people (think HR since they are the ones who write these things up) equate a "fast paced" with excitement, and if it is not exciting, then it is boring.
Who wants a boring job? If it is boring, certainly "top talent" does not want to do it and it is not really worth doing.
That line of thinking, though prevalent, is wrong.
I disagree with the negative takes on this. When I hear, "Fast-paced environment", I think "lots of interesting responsibilities, because work gets done effectively so you can move on to something else". I would describe my current work environment as "fast-paced", but I would also rave about the work-life balance I get.
I think the issue is that recruiters confuse "fast-paced" with "we have lots of emergencies and make people put in lots of hours" - which is almost the opposite of fast-paced. Emergencies derail and randomize people, slowing down the pace of business. Working long hours is a symptom of not being fast-paced during normal business hours, and trying to make up for it by working more. "Working hard, long hours while being randomized when things go wrong" and "producing great business value rapidly" are two different, often contradictory things.
"Fast-paced", in the sense of "our team delivers lots of business value in a short period of time," is desirable because it leads to an improved work-life balance. You get great resume content and develop your talent without investing lots of time into independent study in your own time, since you are learning so much on the job - meaning your free time can be spent on non-programming hobbies without your skills becoming obsolete. "Fast-paced" is also not boring, since you complete one project quickly and then can move on to something fresh. IMO, constantly dealing with emergencies and "fires", covering for other people's mistakes, coping with crummy tools and poor documentation, and so on, is very frustrating and boring.
Edit: I thought of a few other things "fast-paced" implies that are positive and can be attractive: First, it suggests that the team uses Agile practices; waterfall isn't fast-paced. Second, it implies that the company or team is small and light-weight, and not bound up in miscellaneous process; people who sit in lots of meetings and need to fill out three forms for each bug fix aren't going to be moving quickly. Third, it hints at a growing company (maybe a start-up?) or team that is making strides and delivering lots of value to their customers, vs. a company or team that has already done its interesting work and is now just sitting there doing maintenance and getting money for the work they already did.
One comment below also points out that "fast-paced" is a contrast to "in-depth". A fast-paced environment is one where you pick up a lot of skills in a very short time, but may not become an expert in any of them. A slower environment where lots of experts are needed and things need to be done well the first time is more likely to grow in-depth skills. Having lots of breadth in one's skills and having a few skills in depth are very different career tracks, so "fast-paced" is also a signal that people who want to become experts at a relatively narrow set of skills probably shouldn't apply.
I'm a recruiter in the tech space. Most job "descriptions" get washed by HR before they get out in front of the public. So an engineering manager might be sitting there, and write up a reasonable req, talking about how "TBD" is never allowed when setting requirements, describe their team, the types of projects they focus on that set them apart, etc etc, yadda yadda. Then, HR gets it, and says "but, everyone likes to 'work hard, play hard, right'?? I mean, that's what every other job description out there says. We'd better tell people we're 'fast paced', or we'll look too old school and boring. Google's fast-paced, right? Right?? We have to be like Google!! Oh, and get rid of anything we could vaguely, potentially, 1-in-a-million chance get sued over."
Uggh. I hate most job descriptions. Full of junk like what Chuck described. Plus, they're just a bullet point list of requirements, with no meat to them. Most HR departments go to their competitors web site, find a similar job to the one they need to fill, copy and paste it, change the name of the company, maybe tweak the requirements a bit, and then post it.
They're ads: they should do a good job of communicating what the company's really like (ie, so when you take the job you aren't sitting there in 3 months feeling like you got suckered, and then they have to replace you when you quit); be funny (because, c'mon, who doesn't like funny - again, it's an ad); and not freak people out with "fast-paced" and "hard-charging" types of phrases if they aren't true.
The cliche term here is "young and dynamic team". In other words, a group of people who're too inexperienced to know that putting in 20 hours overtime a week without pay is not normal and a not a sign of a healthy project, that requirements that change several times a day up until 5 minutes before delivery is abnormal and unhealthy, etc.
It's also a way to tell you that you're too old without actually stating so openly (which would be illegal under age discrimination laws).
So far my favourite statement along with the "fast paced environment" was the HR manager trying to make it sound like some sort of fun slumber party type thing to stay at the office til midnight pushing out code.
Personally I want a job that's relaxed and has cookies...
mmmmm..... cookies..... (>^.^)>(#) mmmmmm..... coookies....
But it does seem that most HR folk are wanton to believe that us programming folk want fast, high speed, stress filled jobs, not sure who gave them that idea but it needs to be squashed.
Many people have focused on what fast-paced can mean but I think there's one other reason: many shops are slow-paced to the point of stagnation - picture the kind of place where finding a problem results in either requesting off-site training or filing a ticket and going home for the day. If you're hiring, there's a desire to avoid submissions from the kinds of developers who got into the industry thinking "indoor job, no heavy lifting" but this particular wording is too cliched to actually do that.
Who the hells wants a fast-paced environment?
** raises hand **
A 'fast paced environment' can either be an environment from hell, or one where technological challenges abound. I stay away from the former, but I purposely seek the later. Obviouly one should seek a balance (specially if you are like me, with family and kids). However, if your job doesn't challenge your skills and passion, you are not learning. And that is the worst you can do to your professional career development.
To assume a fast-paced environment is always bad reveals a particular outlook to life and the type of technology-oriented career we have chosen for ourselves. Every job has its warts. What you make of out them, even the worst environments, it is solely and squarely up to you.
There are some 'fast-paced' jobs (on the bad sense of the word) that were just horrid, and I would never set foot on those companies again. But the experiences themselves taught me how to handle pressure in a professional manner, and how to get things done as much as humanly possible. Those jobs were horrid not because of the technical and requirement challenges, but because of horrid personal dynamics and management style.
On the other side of the coin, the best jobs I've ever had were also 'fast-paced', in terms of changing requirements and technological challenges. That's where you really learn how to rise to the ocassion and deliver, which is ultimately what every programmer (or any professional) ought to seek.
Difficulty of something is not an excuse for avoiding its accomplishment.
Just people change their minds when it comes to software is not a bad thing. It is a reflection of world dynamics, and we in software, we are the business of creating realistic executable models of the world. I'm amazed at how many programmers actually fail to understand this.
The challenge is in knowing how to manage the continous (and usually chaotic) rate of change. And there are two sides of the coin in this: there is non-technical management and there is technical management (your part as a programmer and software engineer). And the later is as important, and perhaps more so, than the former.
Ultimately, you want to stay away from bad working environments, but for the purpose of cultivating your professional career, you should always look for legitimately fast-paced enviroments. Otherwise, we might just look for a 9-to-5 job maintaining COBOL/RPG reports.
Wow, your all looking deep in to the exact meaning of that phrase :-)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor says "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
Why do ads for s/w engineers always say they “offer a fast-paced environment”?
Because the job ad was written by a someone who can't actually write, has no imagination and so has to fall back to tired old phrases like this?
I mean come on, we all know how good programmers are at writing documentation :-P
The answer is because good developers get bored easily and when they get bored they leave. Saying that you offer a fast paced environment is an attempt to find good developers. Actually offering a fast paced environment is a good way to reduce turn over.
Also, I saw someone mentioned 'lazy programmers' I agree with that too. Fast Paced means that you'll have no time to learn how to be a dev so you should already be one.
Also, most of the time the ads that people write are from HR or someone who doesn't know anything about the position. "We require expert levels in [insert alphabet soup here] and BA and 10yr Experience and [insert other insane requirements here]". I hate those ads.
When I hear it, I think of this blogpost from Coding Horror. Fast-paced can certainly be a huge advantage when it comes to iterations and development. Unfortunately I doubt the "fast-paced" in job ads refers to the speed of iterations.
As someone who recently wrote a job description, I was tempted to use that phrase but not really for most of the reasons that everyone has mentioned above. It's not because things are out of control and it's not because everything is a mess or because we need you to put in a boat load of unpaid overtime. That's not fast-paced. That's just mismanagement.
Fast-paced to me is: We have a lot to do and you'll need to keep up. If you want work at a relaxed, government-job pace, it's not the right place for you.
This is a positive because it means there is a lot of opportunity to create value for the company, which will translate to more growth for the company and higher compensation for you.
Isn't the English language brilliant. A simple two word statement can stir up a great debate based on interpretation, ambiguity and personal experience.
I don't think there's anything wrong with "face-paced" provided it's qualified. Having said that given a lack of a qualified statement, I'd favour an alternative synonym or more detail. If your trying to say "frequent, fortnightly iterations" or "lots of work enthusiastic programmers who want to spend 80% of their programming" say it, don't say "fast paced" as it's ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Far too often jobs add are kept concise with buzz words that recruiter think you want to hear.
In my experience, fast paced has often meant fire fighting, or working on projects against deadlines with not enough time to deliver everything to the best of your teams ability. This has at times been to poor management, and unforeseen circumstances, but I'd choose a more relaxed balanced (yet efficient and streamlined delivery) approach over "fast-paced" one.
I once read a job ad where the recruiter put something like "the best job you'll see this year". Immediate reaction, nonsense, it's a sales pitch, why? because I put recruiters in the same group as estate agents (there in it for the commission and they can't afford to be honest).
I have a friend, which is a self-taught developer. You know, the only language he is somewhat proficient in is C#, which is not a bad thing, it's OK to know just one language, but to know it good. He had no professional schooling, aside from Microsoft certificates (MCSE or something), no college degree or anything, he barely made it out of high school.
Now, he keeps posting on Facebook about his latest idea for an Android app, for a new twitter client, URL shortening service, image hoster...
He wanted to develop a new browser in C#, but stopped mid way.
He keeps making videos on youtube about TFS, and how cool project management is with all those nice Microsoft products.
Now, he has another startup, a social networking integration client for use with MS Office products.
The kind of "Start-Ups" and Software he develops, is exactly the kind I picture behind those ads. Brain farts that sound exciting, but lose are pretty quick. They plan to make the software freeware and charge for support. It all seems kinda vapor ware. It seems like working for them is putting in some work, of which most stuff won't be used eventually, and then the whole thing shuts down and everyone is looking for the culprit, the lazy ass, that didn't get the work done.
It's their way of saying "the sh*t will flow downstream faster than you can paddle against it.". Requirements will change faster than you can finish coding the previous version, and features will be added whenever the RedBull-fueled project manager thinks them up.
I'm so glad I no longer have to deal with implementing other folks' "shower visions".