The traffic jam ended hours ago, the parking lot is nearly empty and fluorescent lights are dimmed at PortalPlayer Inc, where the nightly brainstorming session is about to begin. Instead of gathering the few remaining souls from their cubicles, three managers move into a conference room to dial India, where engineers 12 time zones ahead are just arriving in Hyderabad.
As colleagues on opposite sides of the globe discuss circuit board configurations and debugging strategies for a project code-named "Doppelganger," it's just the start of another endless day for the company. Within twelve hours, Indian workers will end their day with calls and e-mails to California, where managers in the Santa Clara headquarters will just be waking up.
"We keep passing the baton between California and India, and that way we can cram a lot more work into a 24-hour period," said Jeff Hawkey, vice president of hardware engineering, who conducts evening meetings from the office or on his laptop at home. "A lot of nights, I go home, tuck the kids into bed and then get on the conference call."
Executives at PortalPlayer, which makes chips and software for portable music devices such as the iPod, say having 90 employees in Hyderabad nearly doubles the amount of engineering work that gets done in 24 hours. That shrinks production cycles and lets the 6-year-old company stay ahead of bigger semiconductor rivals.
Thousands of other tech companies have similar baton-passing rituals. "Offshoring" -- the migration of jobs to lower-cost countries such as India, China and Russia -- remains politically sensitive because of the tepid US job market. But executives insist that cheaper labor and faster work flow have made offshoring a fact of life for everyone in the industry.
Even the most unapologetic globalization proponents nevertheless acknowledge that offshoring has resulted in longer, stranger hours for white-collar workers in the US. Some business experts worry that the trend could result in massive burnout if offshoring isn't properly managed.
Silicon Valley workers grumble that communicating with colleagues overseas requires midnight teleconferences, 6am video meetings and the annoying "pling" of instant messages and twittering cell phones all night long. Although many techies swapped social lives for 80-hour weeks during the ephemeral dot-com boom, the 24-hour business cycle seems even more stressful than the caffeinated '90s: Today's long hours are less likely to result in windfall bonuses or stock options, and there's no end in sight.
"It's definitely a case of work creep -- everyone in this industry is working harder right now because of e-mail, wireless access and globalization," said Christopher Lochhead, chief marketing officer of Mercury Interactive Inc, a Mountain View-based consulting firm in 35 countries, including Israel, where Sunday is a normal working day.
"You can't even get a rest on the weekend," Lochhead said from his cell phone in the Dallas airport after sales meetings in Mexico. "The reality is that when you do business globally, somebody working for you is always on the clock."
Some executives who ask workers to burn the midnight oil offer flexibility -- longer lunch breaks, telecommuting privileges and complimentary dinner if you work past 6pm. Others dismiss complainers as spoiled or provincial -- after all, customer service representatives in Asia have worked on US schedules for more than a decade, so why shouldn't Americans deal with time-zone challenges as the industry globalizes?