The developer lifecycle — burning out

Not just your average day job

Since I started my 2nd year at University, I’ve had the bug. You know, the developer bug. The bug that starts with a problem that you know you can solve, but you don’t quite know how, and ends in you realising you’ve not slept for 7 days but you have learned a new programming language during that time.

It’s a bug that once you’ve caught it, you really can’t shift it. It’s a good bug, honestly, the satisfaction you get from “doing development” (if you will) is second to none. I challenge any developer to disagree with that.

I’ve blogged about developing many times before, many of those now lost in the ether. So I thought it was about time to write something fresh, something productive, and hopefully something helpful.
I can’t be the only person in this situation now, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the last.

I’ve spent 9 years now, full time, as a developer. That’s a whopping 2088 days (ish).

Software Development is the equivalent of taking a difficult test 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (plus overtime). (http://www.developerdotstar.com/mag/articles/software_team_turnover.html)

When you start a new development job (either in a new company, or even a new project), you have drive, passion, enthusiasm and a want to learn and progress, and to produce something amazing. If you’re lacking those elements, you’re probably in the wrong job to begin with.

Every project will have its up’s and down’s, that too is a given. But so will you, as a developer.

Eventually, you will suffer from something known as “burnout”. You might be lucky enough not to, but it’s incredibly likely that you will. And when you do, it’ll hit you hard.
I know this, because I’m going through it right now, and have been for several weeks now. And what bothers me more than anything, is that it’s often seen as an incompetence to do your job, and that’s just not the case.

Burnout, for me, is something that happens when the level of expectation becomes so high that the smallest issues escalate in to unmanageable criticism, or when the workload outweighs the size and capabilities of the development team. When “resource” ** hours aren’t matching up with estimates given, due to scope change or something similar, and the blame game starts (and ends) with the developers.

Generically, this attitude comes from a “resource” ** based mindset. From Management / Stakeholders / Directors who see developers as units of time and money, and who think that, from 9-5, developers are sat in a chair, producing code. Nothing more. Nothing less.

There are some key signs that a developer is suffering from burnout. These are, in no particular order:

1: Negativity
Things are no longer exciting and challenging. Tasks are met with a negative mindset, always looking for an excuse to either delay the work, or to pass it off to another developer where possible. Obsticles are easily found to prevent progression with the work, for whatever reason.

2: Risk Taking
Things are no longer important, so the element of risk is clouded. That database migration on a live website no longer requires planning, backups, testing and so on. It just happens, and fingers are crossed, with the mindset being “Ah well, if it goes wrong, I don’t care”.

3: Anger
You know things aren’t going right at work, and this frustration builds and builds, until eventually something snaps. This could be to a colleague, partner, family, anyone really. Someone, at some point in time, is going to feel the wrath of your burnout.

4: Depression
That “bug” for development vanishes.
Development is no longer a passion, or a hobby. It’s a chore, a negative task that you just don’t want to do any more. In fact, to be honest, you just don’t feel like doing anything any more.

5: Sleeplessness
As the workload builds, and deadlines slip, you just can’t switch off when you need to. Things build up, during the day you’re downing Coffee and Red Bull to keep awake / on top of things, and during the night, those stimulants stop you from sleeping. It’s a vicious circle.

Finally……
Burnout is something that should be taken incredibly serious in our profession. It is, in no small terms, an issue that effects both personal and professional mindsets. More importantly, it can make you consider your career.
That “bug” I mentioned, can vanish. That’s an awful feeling. I’ve been here before, **** and my solution was to make a career move in to something that gave me slightly more control over the situation (Project Management), and I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be suffering again (although right now I’m not, technically speaking, in a Project Management position, so should I have seen it coming?)

The solution? Well, there isn’t one. Each case of developer burnout will be unique to that developer. The events leading up to, and during, the phase of burnout, will be different for every person. The key thing to remember is that you have a choice, and, more importantly, you certainly shouldn’t let burnout get the better of you. Personally, I work on personal projects that make me happy, and try and do exercise to distract my mind from things.

And so far, that’s helping.

**

“You should manage your resources better to meet the deadline on that project”

I often hear people refer to us (developers) as “resources”. Deep down, this makes me so angry every time I hear it.

We’re degree educated, experienced, motivated, driven, technical, intelligent people. We have ideas, opinions (right or wrong) and, more importantly, feelings. People referring to developers simply as “resource” shows a complete disrespect.

This doesn’t just apply to developers, I think referring to anyone as a “resource” just seems wrong. Oil, Coal, Gas. Things that burn until they are useless. That, is resource

****

The image at the top of this article is one of me, about 6 years ago, when I felt that the laptop in front of me was a portal to a world of hate and anger. That sounds weird, but at the time, I could barely bring myself to use the internet. Burnout tried to get me, but I made changes in my life to remedy that. I’ll beat it again.

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