I suffered a pretty hard burn out a couple of years ago. I ended up changing jobs, and only then did I realize just how exhausted I was. I wanted to share my experience, what happened, how I think it could have been prevented, and remind everybody that their mental well being important.
Quick Disclaimer: I’m not writing this to place any blame on what happened. This was mostly the result of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, so no one really is at fault. This largely centers around one project I worked on, but naturally I don’t want to shame anyone so I won’t mention names or specifics.
My old job was at a web agency where we built websites (among other things) for clients. These projects were usually a fair size but complexity would range. Some sites would be simple informational pages and others were complex applications that served lots of purposes. The projects I worked on would usually last a couple of months, and would progress fairly easily.
These projects were usually also assigned to one developer, and they would see the project from start to finish. There was enough other work, and these projects were typically small enough, that other developers would just work on their own things and we’d collaborate only when one of us ran into issues.
This system actually worked really well for what we did. We each had our strengths and our boss would assign us stuff that played to our strengths and pushed us just enough. It was a really great environment to work in.
How It Happened
The last project I worked on broke this model. It was still a website, but was a complex system for order processing. This usually isn’t a big deal but there were a number of complicating factors that caused things to balloon out of control.
The client that ordered this site didn’t have a solid understanding of what their previous site did, so the scope kept expanding. To complicate things more, these extra features were usually discovered to be missing a few days before a presentation that the client would be doing, and the new site needed to be functional.
This lead to many features, some of them quite complex, being written literally overnight. Since we mostly flew solo, and this project had become very complex, there wasn’t much help available from other developers.
On top of all the scope creep that happened, performance quickly became a problem. There was a lot of technical debt that needed to be paid, but just no time to do it because new features kep being discovered and added.
No End In Sight
This project was without a doubt the largest and most complex site I had written. There were a number of measures I could point to prove this but the easiest is time.
Most projects I worked on for a few months, and typically would get breaks to do smaller things as deadlines were usually far enough in the future that nothing was a dead panic. This site, however, drug on for over a year.
During this year, I felt no closer to ending than I did at the beginning. The customer had more features they were adding, more future projects they wanted, and more things they discovered were missing.
When I left, the site was still not “fully complete” and we had a long list of bugs and performance issues that needed addressed, but no time to do any of that.
My last employer was a shop that did custom designed sites for our customers. We utilized PHP frameworks to get things done, but all the design and any custom functionality were all hand made. I don’t think the client in question understood that.
Their previous solution was a pre-built package that they were sold, and they expected a similar set of features to be there by default. Things like integration to third party software were a headache because the customer expected us to “flip a switch” and add this ready made module to their site when in reality all of these features were written from scratch.
Since the customer expected everything to be pre-written, testing was also an after thought. They would deploy critical features with minimal testing and come back when things weren’t working perfectly.
I worked as a developer at this company, and I rarely was involved with project management or customer relations. Most of the communication with customers was taken care of ahead of time and a really solid plan was then just given to me and I worked.
In this project, I ended up being in direct communication with the customer quite frequently. They ended up learning my direct dial number and cell phone number and would call me directly for issues they had. I had to learn on-the-fly how to deal with angry customers, take notes for new features, and communicate budgets and timelines to them. Things I had never done before.
The thing that stuck out to me most was my wife telling me “I had never seen you that unhappy before.”
I didn’t realize I was burned out until I left that job. I left for personal reasons unrelated to any of this, but switching jobs and environments shed a light on everything.
At this job, I would come home and go to sleep. I’d wake up and eat dinner, maybe play some video games, but that’s really it. I didn’t work on any personal projects, nothing computer of software related.
I had a business (Storehouse) that I was trying to build, but my work had basically stopped because I couldn’t find the motivation to sit down and work on anything. The features and costs ballooned there as well, and I tried to mitigate this but ended up just scrapping the current business model and starting over.
You’ll also notice a large gap in this blog of me not posting, for the exact same reason.
What I Learned
I think overall, this was a set of bad circumstances that came together at a poor time in my life. I think it was largely unavoidable, but there are some lessons that I picked up that I think are crucial.
Listen to People Close to You
My wife was the person to tell me I was burnt out. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind because I was so hyper-focused on work that I neglected even paying attention to myself to see the signs.
She pushed me to take my new job and I think that ultimately was the best decision I could have made. I’m eternally grateful for her (for a lot of reasons, but that one especially).
Take Time For Yourself
Between jobs I took a week off to move, but really it turned into a week of reset. I think this was well deserved, as I ended up taking time for myself and just relaxing. I hadn’t done much of that in the time before, as most of my waking hours were spent working.
Learn to Say No
This is something I’m still learning, but I think would have been helpful here too. You can’t please everyone in your life, and you need to be able to take care of yourself and the ones you love before you can help others in any meaningful way.
I hope this helps someone else. I usually write about tech stuff, but I feel like burn out is insidious and can affect anyone, especially those in tech. Taking care of myself is something I’m still learning to do, but this was a big learning experience.
If you’re in a similar boat, don’t just power through. Even employers with the best intentions may not understand what’s going on and add fuel to the fire. It’s not their fault, nor is it yours. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and there are more jobs out there.
Don’t sacrifice yourself for someone you work for.