I'm currently a software developer but have not always been one. I joined the US Navy as a linguist where I had to learn a language in a single year to working proficiency. I then had to learn technical systems to accomplish my job. I became a senior operator and then started leading people. I was then selected for my aptitude for leading and became a manager of folks based around research and development, which led to leading more people. After the Navy, I became a coder. I've been doing this for about 7 years now, but it hasn't always been the same work. I started as a frontend dev, then became a teacher. That made me more well-rounded pushing my career towards tooling. Then since I was doing tooling I started to become a professional in infrastructure. These days I've been moving from infrastructure towards AI.
I say all that not to brag but to show a career based on growth. I seized the opportunities presented. I have had pushback against my career trajectory. Some folks like to specialize and dig really deep into something or have a passion for a certain field. Your career doesn't have to look like mine. But I do want to share tactical advice on how to do it if you're interested still.
My dad is an experienced network engineer who has been in the field for many years. When I started out in tech he gave me this piece of advice "There's always cables in the corner". The story goes as a junior engineer when he first started in a data center he was given a manual and told not to touch anything. Well, that was all well and good, we should learn our jobs, train, and onboard. But if his job was to work on the servers then he needed to touch them right? Wrong! After exploring the data center for a while he found a corner where all these ethernet cables were tangled up. There must have been a recent migration? Or maybe they were just thrown there as extras. Who knows, but he just started coiling them up and organizing them. The lesson is that there are always going to be simple house-cleaning chores/tasks out there that you can do. Successfully helping on the simple stuff helps build trust. As you build more expertise things that used to feel complicated become more simple. This is growth, learning, and evolving. Often I've found in my career that I get rewarded for working on stuff that no one else wants to work on. When I was a frontend dev on a frontend team, no one wanted to do deployments, build server work, or dependency management. So I did those tasks in between feature work. I then became the infra and tooling person. Some see it as a grunt work, I see it as an opportunity to be helpful and a place where I can work without being told what to do.
I don't know if it's like this for everyone but learning really hurts my brain. When I spend hours staring at documentation or using flashcards to learn a new skill I can feel drained. I feel like my brain is jelly. I believe it when folks say that the brain is a muscle. You have to take it to the brain gym to make it stronger. But boy it can get sore. When it's your job to work your brain out though, it can get really tired. I've had it where it's at the gym day in and day out. I come home exhausted barely able to think. I walk my dog daily with my wife and we chat. But the whole year I worked at AWS it felt like my brain was hijacked. I couldn't focus outside of work and it just consumed my every thought. I didn't mean to take my work home. But sometimes management can make you feel like you need to operate at that level.
We all want Work-life balance (please leave a comment if you don't, I would love to know why). For me, the problem is that even though I value it, and my work gives me "unlimited Paid Time Off (PTO)" I still find myself burning out. Why you might ask? Well, because there are always "cables in the corner". I've reached a level of expertise in my career that now I look at the data center analogy and see tech debt and toxic culture and just general problems everywhere. On top of that folks are now relying on my expertise to help solve the problems they see. So there's definitely more work than time to do it. So now comes the skill of prioritizing. One of my favorite Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBTs) that I got from my therapist to treat my ADHD diagnosis was to learn how to make TODO lists and prioritize them. Splitting tasks into categories and priorities. That single skill of prioritizing has saved me so much burnout. The reason he gave at the time was that with my ADHD I was focusing on tasks that I could accomplish and get the dopamine hit. So if I have competing tasks and one is going to deliver more excitement, I'm going to do that one first pushing off the other one til a later date. However, by consciously prioritizing I can offload the "what do I do next" internal conversation to a list, which makes that decision so much easier to make. All of that to say that I don't know what Work life balance looks like for you. But I know there is a list of tasks that improve me, my relationship, and my living environment. So I call those tasks life and I consciously prioritize those against my work tasks.
It's all well and good to be excited about task lists and priorities. However, the most dangerous times for me, where I get off task the most is when I just want to flow between tasks. That flow-state feeling is pretty addictive. One of the reasons I succeeded in this tech career is because I historically would hyper-focus on work problems at the expense of my life challenges. I've learned after going through several burnout phases that it's not enjoyable in the long run. I haven't talked with my therapist about this, but my guess is it's the addictive mindset of looking for higher highs, but then dealing with lower lows. You want consistency and the middle road. So, if you've read this long, the reason I'm even writing this is to talk about the day-to-day struggle of how to build a mellowed-out routine. I'm learning when stuck on a tough problem to not bang my head against it. There will be times when I feel like I just need to keep sitting at my computer and staring, thinking that I'll solve it. I've had guilt walking away from my computer during the day. But I've been adding more and more time into my day when I stand up and do other things. I know you've probably heard this from other folks, it's not novel advice. But by working through your priorities you can actually visually see your work-life balance. That practice of getting away from your computer will help you at the end of the day to mentally detach from work and have that balance at home. I know this is coming from a place of privilege. But I hope it is nice for someone to hear that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes I just need to be told that it's okay to stop.
Oh boy, it feels so nice to accomplish tasks. One reason they say to make your bed in the morning is so you can start your day with a win. I love doing tasks. It's quite a bit of work sometimes to break something down from a problem to a series of tasks. Give yourself that space to do that. It's a task to think about tasks. Now to double down on the last paragraph I want to tell you that not only are you learning to walk away but you're also learning to do the bad words CONTEXT SWITCH! I think what triggered my ADHD diagnosis from my therapist was my ranting on how much it felt like context switching was intellectual violence. It honestly felt painful to context switch for me before. A little anecdote, I get vertigo sometimes when I context switch. I organized a conference a few years ago and at the end of it had vertigo for like 2 weeks. Context switching can be rough. But this is the thing, if you're time-boxing your tasks, you don't end up getting into work as deeply and so it becomes easier to context switch. So there definitely are trade-offs there. But just know at least for myself it's helpful to know that context switching can be dangerous. Furthermore, know that some tasks can be painful like when you're in the brain gym. So scoping tasks to effort level and taking rest breaks will help to know when you need to stop and recover.
It's hard to make tasks, scope them, and stick with them. Work about work is important to help you defend your mental health and to consistently move forward. You should be able to report back to your family every day that you learned something new, no matter how small. The name of the game isn't about what you've achieved, it's about the progress you make every day and keep on going.