Burnout is a common topic in our industry. I’m thinking about it right now because I got burnt out fairly badly recently and as a result stopped blogging for a while. It broke the commitment device I had formed by posting weekly. I think I’ve recovered and want to take this opportunity to discuss what happened and how I think I could have avoided burning myself out.
My team got split in two, some people left to form a new team with a new mission and some stayed in the existing team to continue the existing work. This meant that there was roughly the same work to do and fewer hands to do it. Also when this happened we started reporting up to a different executive. All of this change together was a bit of a shock to the team; our overall output took a hit from the loss of people, but our productivity stayed good. We lost our leader and most of the other senior engineers. The other remaining senior engineer moved to management, like he had been hoping to.
This left us with myself and two junior engineers to commit code day to day. It was a slow process, we got an experienced front end engineer relatively quickly to complement my skill set. Overall the majority of the work we had to do was on the backend and the new management was putting the pressure on schedule-wise. We also had an influx of QA automation resources to the team, which we sorely needed to build out our suite of API and UI automation. This build out of the test suite did, however bring to light a number of edge cases in the API that hadn’t been accounted for, which needed to be cleaned up. I felt this influx of bugs and the schedule pressure as a weight mostly on myself. I tried to take on too much, and let my newly promoted boss try to handle the new executive.
Retrospectively, I should have pushed back sooner and taken a more active role in dealing with the new executive. It’s not that my new boss was doing poorly, he was definitely doing better than I had the first time I was put into that situation. It was just that being thrust into that situation of the first time isn’t easy for anyone.
I ended up reading The Truth About Burnout to try and get a better grip on what was happening to me. It suggested that the path forward was to take more direct control in what is happening, essentially that the cause of burnout was a lack of control, not the situation itself. This is an interesting idea, but in the situations where I have experienced burnout it wasn’t a lack of attainable control, it was the lack of any mechanism to take control and fix the situation that did the most damage.
It’s a weird sort of mental knot, the lack of being able to fix the problem is the real problem not the initial problem itself. On one hand it feels like victim blaming – you are unhappy because you aren’t fixing your own problem. On the other hand it’s a much more powerful statement about what you can do.