Burnout

2017/09/01

This is a post about me being taking on too much responsibility and not doing enough to reduce it when I started to crack. I realized somewhat early on that I had taken on too much, but I didn’t see any way to offload the work while continuing to develop products at the pace I’d maintained.

In January 2017 I joined a new team at Pivotal.

Due to a variety of factors, I ended up taking on additional roles on top of my role as software engineer. Leaning on my decade of experience delivering software, I instituted rigorous testing and continuous integration and delivery pipelines. I pushed the team away from existing products that had few or zero users towards new products that better fit the immediate needs of users. These new products became very popular, and became an addictive feedback loop for me.

I was nearly, if not actually the sole creator of products like pcf-pipelines, pg2mysql, and yaml-patch. I also created numerous pull requests to Concourse when I realized parts of pcf-pipelines that I’d designed required them. I also led major refactoring efforts related to legacy code that I’d adopted from people that were no longer on the team.

As many of the products were open source, I also took on the job of triaging Github issues, doing the needful to determine whether reported bugs were actual bugs, and figuring out whether a feature request was something the product should do. I reviewed pull requests, making similar calls about whether or not a particular pull request was appropriate to accept regardless of implementation, and if it was but the implementation lacking, did full reviews to get the original submitter to make changes to the pull request.

In agile software development there’s a process of “acceptance”, where a particular feature is determined to be fully and correctly implemented or if a bug fix actually fixes the bug. Because of my heavy ownership of all of the aforementioned duties, I was the only person with the proper context to be able to know how to accept a new feature conceptualized, prioritized, and delivered by me, or how to determine a bug that I triaged, prioritized, and fixed was actually fixed.

As the months went on I realized I was getting burned out. I still enjoyed coming up with new product ideas and banging them out, but the stress of all the other duties I’d taken on began to take its toll.

I started having issues sleeping. I developed tight stress knots in muscles in my upper back that multiple sessions at a sports medicine therapist made barely a dent in. My mood soured; I started greatly disliking coming to work each day. My relationship with the other team members became strained. The fact that I wasn’t being compensated or recognized for my efforts only made it worse.

I eventually decided it wasn’t healthy and that I had to make a change. I requested to be moved to a different team as a way to force myself to relinquish the duties I’d taken on. At that point it was too late, however, and my request only made things worse. I had distanced myself from the rest of the team pretty aggressively, still doing all the roles that I had taken on but not able to hide the fact that I didn’t want to do them all anymore, and that I resented that I was doing all this work which I should have let others do.

Looking back on things, I realize I made some mistakes. I took on too much work, ending up becoming a one-man product development shop, siloed in many ways from the rest of the team. I had, in effect, robbed others of their duties, which put them in a precarious spot of not fully understanding the products they were meant to own. I also failed to give enough feedback to my manager about the effect my extra workload was having on me. I kept too much inside and focused too much on delivery and not enough on my health and well-being, and the effect that had on my coworkers. I managed not to take a vacation for over a year; it was only after I’d reached a breaking point that I forced myself to take one.

Both of my parents are workaholics, so it’s no surprise to me that I’m one as well. However, I need to better recognize when I put myself into a situation where I’ve taken on more than I can handle for long periods of time, and make changes before the negatives outweigh the positives of doing so much.

This has been a learning experience that, like many others, I have grown from.