14 years ago, I’ve got my first programming job. For 14 years, I worked mainly non-stop. I had some short breaks in-between jobs, but usually I’d end one job, and the next day would start a new one. I was literally waking up, and going to a different office the next day.
I really loved what I do, and couldn’t wait to start working in a new and exciting company. I was unable to understand people who took breaks in-between. I was thinking to myself—“Do people really hate their profession that much that they need to take breaks?” Moreover, any time someone mentioned the phrase “burnout”, I would cringe. I denied the existence of burnout as a concept. Sure, you could land on a bad manager, bad team, bad company, or exhaust your potential in a particular company—but those were perfectly fine reasons to move to a new workplace.
I saw every person who said that they burnt out—as weak. If you hate your profession, then maybe you should do a career change. But life’s a funny thing. It will eventually bring you down in order to teach you a lesson. And here I am—burnt out. Ah, the irony.
How did I get there
Before my last job as software engineer at Forter, I worked for almost 5 years at Autodesk. It was my first big corporate job, although the Tel-Aviv office, where I worked, felt more like a well funded startup. I came to Autodesk as a contractor, and eventually moved to an FTE. I occupied different positions such as senior software engineer, and tech lead. I interviewed people; I mentored people; I helped onboarding new hires; I worked on at least 5 different projects, and changed 2 amazing managers; and I had the opportunity to work with talented people.
But somewhere after 4 years, I was feeling that I reached the ceiling of my growth there, and it’s time to move on. It was also a crucial step for my career, because life gave me the book Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor by Erik Dietrich, which I bought on 7th of October 2021, just 4 months before I’d find myself in a completely different company. It took me 17 days to finish this book, which for me, as a slow reader, is very fast. I recommend everyone who feels similar to what I’ll describe here—to read this book.
After about 2-3 month of interviews with many interesting companies, I found a job with Forter. I handed out my 30-day notice to Autodesk, officially finished my relationship with them on 31st of January 2022, and on 2nd of February same year—I had my onboarding day at Forter. Fun fact, I did not intentionally take one day of rest. If I could, I would start on the 1st of February, but Forter has two days a week when they do onboarding, and 1st of February wasn’t one of them. So I had one day of rest between jobs. Crazy me.
I was super excited to start my new journey. I really wanted to get into Forter, as they have a very strong engineering culture. Furthermore, I got into a new team with a new set of products, in a completely different market. A lot of new projects, and great opportunity to design, and architecture them from scratch. I’ve asserted my position as a strong engineer, with a clear desire to move up the career ladder.
Fast-forward to one month ago, I handed out my 30-day notice, and at the time of publishing this essay—I’m officially jobless. My wife and I sold everything, took essential items, and booked a one-way ticket to Costa Rica. I’ve officially burnt out.
What went wrong
Burnout is hard to diagnose and distinguish from general exhaustion or stress. People change jobs for different reasons. Sometimes they are offered a more interesting product, other times a more senior title. And sometimes it’s about money. Not every software engineer is motivated by passion—for some, it’s just a job that pays well. I get it. It is possible to make these people stay at the company rather than switch, but I’ll leave that discussion to a different article.
However, when I left Autodesk, I had different motives. I started to have a strong feeling of dissatisfaction. I had low energy, and lack of motivation. A feeling of exhaustion, as in “I have given everything I could, and I took everything I was able to take—and there is nothing else left for me there”. I started to distance myself from the company. I started to have dissatisfaction with the profession. I remember when I decided to quit, I had repulsion towards programming in both a professional environment, as well as a hobby. In my free time, I focused more on other hobbies such as reading, or writing—rather than coding.
I noticed that I start to fall behind in performance. Tasks that I would to ace, now take more time to complete. I was no longer excited about my job, and I felt tired from just commuting to the office, let alone being there. And I had a feeling that if I won’t do something about it, I’ll end up in a deep rut, that might even lead to depression. Looking at it now, I was burnt out at that moment.
Each single symptom does not necessarily mean that you have burnt out. However a full house might be a good indicator that you need to change something, either do a break or try a slight career change (for example moving away from high pressure FAANG like company, to something smaller).
However, I failed to recognize this in time, and I’m bad with communicating my feelings to my manager. So I ended up in a corner, where quitting was the only sensible solution to me. And so I did. I found myself in a new company, and the excitement came back. I was devouring knowledge, proving myself in a new environment. The passion to coding came back. I’ve given talks to the community, I’ve learned new tools such as
tmux in order to improve my workflow.
But quickly enough, I was back at the same place I’ve been at for the last 5–6 months in Autodesk. I got dissatisfaction with my work. I hated being in the office, and would feel sick there. I started to fantasize about having a different career such as: car mechanic, police detective, movie actor, podcaster, DJing or music production. Anything, but please not writing code anymore. Eventually it grew into apathy, and it took me a lot of mental energy just to care.
I didn’t plan to quit, but life gave me an opportunity I couldn’t pass. Looking in retrospective, I probably had burnout by the time I left Autodesk. Switching jobs always creates this feeling of newness. But your wounds remain untreated.
What causes burnout
It’s hard to understand why burnout happens. In the end, some people stay for 10, 15, or even 20 years in a company. They do, usually, move through the career ladder, but nevertheless they stay at the same company. However, I believe there are two main factors that contribute to burnouts.
Work, today, is glorified. What do you do in life?—is often the first question we ask new people we just met. And you better have an answer other than just traveling and enjoying life, or you will be labeled as lazy, unmotivated, indolent child. We live in a hustle culture. If you don’t have a job—you are an immature adult.
Hustle culture is on the raise. Wherever you look, you get the message that you need to hustle. Become someone. Work harder than anyone else. Stay up late. Show up earlier. In the end you will be rewarded for your hard work. Truth is—meritocracy does not exist. I used to believe it does, but the ones who are getting promoted, are rarely the ones who work the hardest.
We also live in an era, of what I call, toxic positivity. We tend to avoid negative emotions, and try to avoid people who share their struggles. While I never felt it directly, its societal existence had an impact on me. The desire to run away from negative emotions, leads us to believe that the problem is external. It’s not me, who burnt out, but rather the company that is not valuing me, promoting me, appreciates me, etc.
Moreover, there is a societal judgment toward the ones who make good money, by doing, what seems like, an easy job, in-between playing ping-pong, and drinking beer. You often hear, or read phrases like “oh those poor developers who complain about the fact that have to carry their shiny MacBooks on a Saturday evening, because they are on-call—there are people who are stuck in a dead end jobs, getting paid minimum wage.” And I agree, the latter is terrible. But it does not deduct any pain, or suffering, from me. My feelings can’t be ignored because somebody has it worse than me. No one should have his, or her feelings—ignored. That’s not how we create a healthy society.
And so we are not allowed to feel bad, or express struggle. And we find someone else to blame—an external entity, such as an employer. Therefor, the solution is also external—change job. By changing jobs, I’ll get a fresh start to prove myself, and get what I deserve. And I better make the change ASAP, without any breaks in between, because I don’t want to be labeled as lazy, unmotivated, and indolent child who is just enjoying life, while figuring what to do next. Yikes!
But in the end, work is just work. Recent layoffs, and economic recession, proved—once again—that people, at large, are a disposable resource. When times are good, we will be partying in Hawaii and posting inspiring pictures in LinkedIn, promoting our fun office vibe. But when times are thought, we will be hoping that we won’t be laid off, because being able to pay mortgage is, apparently, way more important than drinking Piña colada in Hawaii.
Apart from those two factors, there are other, unique, factors specific to the tech industry. Because this industry is extremely fast-paced, this leads to a situation where one could be working on a project with no clear definition. Companies like to put can work in an uncertain, fast-paced environment, in their job descriptions, and while it is ok to have such environment for a limited period of time—if an individual works on an unclear goal, or his project gets canceled every time, this might create a situation where he or she starts to feel disengaged, and unfulfilled at work.
And this puts on a lot of stress on the individual. He can’t fulfill himself at work, which in turn leads to a feeling of emptiness, which slowly creates detachment from work. On a professional level, he could feel stress because on the upcoming performance review he has nothing to show, since his project got cancelled again.
Apart from the uncertain environment, and unclear goals, another stress factor could be the abundance of meaningless rituals like daily standups, weekly retrospectives, and monthly status updates—which create a mental fatigue that feeds this cycle of inability to do any work, which leads to stress, and eventually burnout.
How to prevent burnout
I remember we had a Tech Lead forum at Autodesk, where all tech leads would gather, on a weekly (or it was bi-weekly) basis, and discuss tech lead stuff. Sometimes it would be struggles from inside the teams, other times we would talk about software architecture.
I remember one session where somehow we came to the topic of problem prevention versus problem solving, and the entire forum got split into one of two camps. Long story short, I don’t believe in prevention. This is simply not how life works, in my experience. However, I can shed some light on how to identify and cure burnout.
One pretty accurate model, that I read about on HackerNews, says that there are 5 phases to burnout. First, you have the honeymoon phase. You join a company, everything is pink and chocolate. Then comes the realistic phase—you realize that not everything is good, and there are bad sides as well. The next phase is team-isolation phase—my team is great, but everyone else is stupid/lazy/ignorant. The fourth phase is self-isolation—I’m doing my best, but everyone else is stupid/lazy/ignorant. And the last phase is apathy—I don’t care anymore.
This model was described by
sz4kerto on HackerNews, and I think it’s very accurate, based on my experience. That’s exactly what I felt when I quit Forter. I remember the apathy. I just scheduled 1:1 with my manager and told him that I quit. No emotions. Funny thing is, he told me he had a feeling. When I asked him why, he told me I had an attitude change.
Each stage by itself does not indicate that you are going towards burnout. It is possible to feel that your team is good, but other teams are not supportive. It could just mean that you’ve ended up in a bad company, and not that you’ve burnt out. And it is only when you look back, and you are able to identify all the 5 stages—you realize that you have burnt out. That’s why it’s so hard to prevent burnout.
At that point, I’d recommend a change of some sort. Maybe a break, or downgrade to a less demanding job. Also, try to take care of yourself. More often than not, burnout at work, also leads to deterioration in your day-to-day life. You eat shit, because you are working all the time (or try to appear like you are working). You don’t take care of your physical state. And during any free time you get, you feel exhausted, and unable to do any hobbies. Your mind is occupied by the future thought of going back to work tomorrow, or on Monday. Stress levels are also high, so read about stress management, and apply it.
If you are unable to take a break, and don’t want to or can’t find a less demanding job, then maybe you do need a career change.
And please talk. Talk to your manager. Talk to your friends and family. Reach out to a professional therapist if you can’t handle it yourself. Unresolved burnout can lead to depression.
What is next
For the first time in my adult life—I’m jobless. I got my first real job when I was still in college, and since then I’ve been working. It’s a weird feeling, to not having to go to work. And there is a strange post-traumatic syndrome. I remember a day or two after I was already jobless, my wife asked me if I want to go watch a movie midday. My first reaction was a mini panic, as-in: “How am I going to disappear from work for 2 hours, in the middle of the day?”. Work is an important part of our life.
As for me, I’m going to go inwards. The problem was never Autodesk, or Forter, or the industry. The problem—is me. And accepting that is not a shame. I’m going to focus on projects that excite me. I have few interesting ideas for tools for developers. I’m going to focus on this blog, as well as my second blog—Jiko Kaizen. I’m going to focus on my health, both physical and mental. And I’m going to spend time with my wife, exploring together new places. I’ll see where all this takes me. I might return to a traditional workplace, however I plan not to.
I lived in denial, looking from above at all those people who burnt out. In denial of the existence of burnout. But it’s real. And I want to raise awareness to that. You, yes you! You might be experiencing burnout right now! But the societal norm—or the story you created to yourself, about yourself—are preventing you from realizing it, because you need to be strong, quit whining, and work hard to become someone in this world. But the truth is—you don’t. You deserve to be happy.
Stay safe. Take care of your mental health. Nos Vemos!