A couple months ago, I sat on the beach in Hawaii with nothing but disdain for all things tech. I stared at the watercolor sunset, feeling empty and drained thinking that a career change was in order. I was complete burnout in the tech industry.
The first tech job I landed was as a freshman in college 11 years ago and I absorbed everything. No blogs, books, documentation, tech courses, or tech talk escaped my notice. By the time I graduated, I was already bringing a lot to the table. I helped build out our Site Reliability Engineering team (SRE), and took on work I later learned was a few levels above a new grad. You might have even called me a “rockstar/ninja/wizard/10x/<insert some other bs term>” engineer.
I was an unstoppable freight train racking up accomplishments left and right.
Fast forward to 2018. Work was a burden. Waking up? Cumbersome. Want me to coordinate migrating a data center for 500 engineers? I’ll look at some postings on LinkedIn instead. Another incident? Another security issue? Yawn. Who cares. It’s just a job.
I became bitter and at times cantankerous. Work wasn’t interesting. Drowning in my depression, I started Googling for an interesting non-tech job. I needed something else because…
I was completely… and utterly… burnt out.
About the end of 2018, I reach out to a friend that had tried to recruit me a few times before then. He proceeded to tell me about the emphasis his employer put on life balance and taking care of ourselves. I took a shot and applied.
There wasn’t much to tell about the interview process except that they just wanted to hear my experience – no tricky code questions or anything.
They gave me an offer! The compensation was way more than enough to lure me over and even get me a little excited about the job. That burst of excitement didn’t last.
By the end of my first month I knew I was going to be fired. I had not accomplished much and I was desperate for a win. Just one simple win was all I needed to hold me over until I found a non-tech job. Then came my month 1 on 1 with my manager.
My bullet list of small steps forward was not anything to gloat about, but I figured I could sugar coat it just enough. The response shocked me.
“You’re doing great! Lots of real steady progress there! Yeah, let’s get you started on these projects now.” My jaw dropped and a small bit of tension relaxed in my mind.
It only got better from there. I was encouraged to attend and help out at conferences. They gave me all the flexibility in the world to take care of life things mid-day. Need to schedule a doctor’s appointment? Pick up kids from school every day? Np. Just let you lead know when you need to step away. We’ll make it work. Life happens and we need balance.
I had heard their philosophy and approach to work-life balance and even now it still boggles my mind, but I love it. Maybe I could do this tech thing still – if only I was still interested in it.
Jumping ahead a few months, my tech lead reminded me that I hadn’t yet taken a proper vacation this year. I scheduled some time off and she said “No, take 2 weeks. Trust me – you’ll feel so refreshed”.
Since I had not taken anything beyond a staycation or family visit in at least 6 years, I decided to pamper myself. After looking for a nice vacation package I settled on Hawaii. I had heard great things from others who had visited and the idea of sitting on a beach with a book sounded divine.
The time in Hawaii was exactly what I needed. It was as if I had popped a healing potion and I was ready to code my brains out again. I was still in a fragile position though and I need to adopt a better balance in my life. I could still code late into the night if I wanted, but would need to make time for other hobbies. My brain clearly needed a break – and still does!
This year I have started reading more (non tech things), taken up kickboxing, painting, hanging out a farmer’s markets, and whatever else sounds remotely interesting.
One realization I had is that I look forward to each of these activities as much as I look forward to coding. Learning Rails and Preact so I can contribute to dev.to? When can I start? Kickboxing 3-4 times a week? Yeah let’s pummel that punching bag! Carving off 30 minutes of reading before I go to sleep? I love my local bookstore and it’s endless supply of fabulousness. Spending more time with family, teaching my dogs new tricks… YES PLEASE!
I love learning about how our brains work and I am happy to chat anyone’s ears off about what I learn. By no stretch am I any sort of expert so I’ll make sure to refer you some reading material to tie into my experiences.
Burnout causes all kinds of health problems. Everyone has unique experiences, but there are some very common results. Loneliness, depression, anxiety, and exhaustion to name a few. What’s upsetting is that this is on the rise. Not only is burnout damaging to your health, but it will take work to dig your way back out which is hard because you’ll already be exhausted.
I am both socially awkward and fairly introverted. At the same time I love people and making friends. However, when I try putting myself out there, I will swear on my life that something is wrong with my face. “Why are they looking at me? Oh because we’re talking. Doh.” At work it’s no different. I often focused on trying to impress the people around me by burying myself in my work and producing amazing results. Being social can be hard, but it’s even harder if you allow yourself to absorbed into the bottomless hole called “work”. If it starts to consume you, not only do you socially isolate yourself, you mentally, emotionally, and physically isolate yourself.
Here’s some reading material you should thumb through if you want to learn more:
Something short and sweet from Pyschology Today on Burnout – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/burnout
A bit from the World Health Organization – https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
Negative effects of Loneliness and Isolation – https://www.sciencenews.org/article/loneliness-isolation-brain-changes
Another detailed article on burnout from Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them. In a nutshell… it can get bad. Think about it. Is your life balanced?
More details from NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/
Here are 3 things that may help you recover from burnout:
- Take a vacation. A real one. Seriously. What do you want? Ignore the taskmasters you work for and ask yourself, “What do you want?”. Me? I needed that stereotype beach with a little umbrella in my drink to let myself unwind mentally.
- Look for balance. Are you working 20 hours a day? 16 hours a day? 12 hours a day? Take it easy. You’re actually becoming less effective by repeatedly throwing yourself at your work. Seriously, your brain cannot sustain processing that much information long-term. It needs time to recover. Find some hobbies. Some of the most effective and brilliant engineers I know have an active after-work life.
- The corporate rat race is a soul destroyer. There are lots of good companies for you to work at. If you are able, run like hell from a job that is misaligned with your values, goals, or life balance.
Here are 3 things to watch for if you think you’re burning out:
- You’re more irritable, cynical, or negative than what you used to be.
- You’re putting in a lot of effort for things you have little control or autonomy over.
- You start feeling dull, empty, or like you’re wasting effort and time – in my case this tied to depression.
It’s not easy and I realize many people are stuck in certain bad work situations. If you have the flexibility to make the needed changes though… do it.
Burnout is an ugly monster. If it comes for you or if it has found you, I’ll see you on the beach. We can bitch about “the man” together and sip on some smoothies.
Cool off and stay balanced! Reach out if you want to chat.