Burning out. Rising up.

tl;dr update

Tired of sharing advice to management only for it to be ignored or shelved. I think too much and that’s hard to change. Career wise leadership position is hard to achieve since road to Team Lead, Head of Delivery and, of course, VP of Engineering and CTO is closed for non-developers (I’m a QA/ScrumMaster person). Even more, those position balance between business/owners/investor requests on how to manage people resources. I’m tired, new job options are scarce (too experienced they say OR process is hell as current, so why bother). Seems like I need a break and switch to consulting or taxi driving?


I don’t quite understand why I want to write this (and about what in particular): to speak up, to find fellow sufferers and understand that we are not alone with our problem, to gain attention and likes, or it’s just Valium removing my shyness and anxiousness. But I know that I want to – so fuck it. It might actually be fun and useful exercise πŸ™‚

Let’s meet first. I’m Sergei, you can read about me here and here.

I’m burnt out, struggling with sleep disorder, anxiety (walking in circles, getting out of bed at 2AM to scribble some work related thoughts to my Moleskine) and fatigue. I’ve took 4 days off during this month, because I couldn’t get up from bed and just said “fuck it”. I work in a good company with good understanding manager (I was always lucky with managers!) and I’m switching to 4 day work week for time being.

Atm I’m inspired by this essay by Pieter Hintjens , this tweet by Kent Beck

andΒ  this video by Greg Bauges I watched a dozen of times.

For last 5 years, especially last 2, I have moments when I’m already in bed trying to fall asleep for hour or two and then some work related thoughts pop up and I scribble them to phone or notepad. Thoughts for possible conference talk or some idea to share/apply at work. I just can’t leave the office and leave work there. Work is everywhere with me.

During last months it got worse as minor thoughts of work (and certain people there) raise my heartbeat to 100 and I start WTFking (there are a dozen great people too! it’s not all bad). It sucks. Insomnia gets worse, I know that other places are no better and here I am prescribed Valium, because this stress and sleep deprivation (supposedly) cause tinnitus which I have now.

And I want to speak about it.

Burning out

Burning out sucks. Especially when it feel that you’ve been in stress for a better part of your career. It seems that anxiety and stress are just natural in software development. But I don’t want to die from a hear attack, stress induced cancer or simply go mental.

Usually when when we hear burn out, we think of a person sitting long hours in office doing hard cognitive work without proper rest. A developer, a reporter, a lawyer, a scientist, a doctor.

As I work in IT and mostly IT people will read this – burn out also might come from additional pet projects after work, volunteer open source work , not only long office hours.

I think burn out also comes from toxic environments. Toxic doesn’t only mean abusive or hostile. Nice and kind environments can be toxic too – people grin fucking you or people saying empty hollow words causing important issues staying unresolved for too long causing pain. For last 3 year most people I know left because they were fed up with situation at work, not because of salary. They get fed up, leave, get fed up and leave again. Of course, there’s plenty, if not most, people who are zen like and just work. I can’t say they don’t care, but they for sure are passive in organizational problem solving.

Meaningless or poorly organized work is definitely a toxic environment too. You can read more here how to achieve great results, of course watch this famous video and probably read Re-work too (I still didn’t). Several fellow devs quit recently because they found their job meaningless, not seing results when they put a lot of effort into something that simply is not delivered.

People working on something they know is incorrect and broken from very beginning, something that will never go to production or something that will definitely need scrapping and rewriting – it’s a toxic environment (unless you’re there for a salary check only).

So you don’t need to spend long hours and weekends in office, but still manage to burn everything inside of your brain and soul. I’m one of them and it didn’t happen over night.

Some background

As you could read from Who is Agile interview I mentioned above (very first link), I always think in “Plan A, B, C. What happens if…“. It’s really cool for being a good tester. It’s bad for being a good in a company of friends – you often will dismiss, refute and prove something wrong. Friends always say – you know how to ruin a joke or a dream. Β―\_(ツ)_/Β―Β  it’s me. Lucky I have good friends who share my dark sense of humor.

I think as time goes such “what if…” behavior causes anxiety disorder, insomnia, depression. That’s a dangerous nature. Unfortunately I didn’t learn how to keep it under control and I know that I feel bad and empty when I ignore these “ifs”.

James Bach – one of the gurus of software testing wrote in his Buccaneer Scholar book that if you have interest in computers but feel suffering from attention deficit disorder – see it as endless curiosity and go to software testing. Again, wandering mind, anxious mind, what if… questioning.

I studied IT systems development, but programming micro controllers in C wasn’t fun at all, algorithms were boring for me. What’s the point if there’s a library for sorting arrays and I for sure don’t want to turn LEDs on and off. Bigger J2EE programs were fun, but I was bad at debugging, not attentive and not calm. It was too much effort to achieve something I found acceptable. I’ve spent one New Year’s Eve writing this J2EE project in university – that’s how committed I was.

Systems analysis, requirements gathering, good documentation, scripting – that was fun and it seemed there were about 5 people out of 100 who enjoyed this more than code. I learned about testing and started looking for a testing job. My test task was “spectacular” and instead of summer internship I was hired right away. All thanks to curiosity, “what if…” attitude, knowing linux, writing this linux blog and reading plenty of linux manuals and wikis.

From 9,5 years in IT, 7 years are in testing. My last two jobs were Quality Lead and Test Architect.

Testing as an anxiety amplifier

Testing is hard – often you are a second class citizen. Literally, in Skype you were one level below regarding stock options and so I never got any. Often developers see you as inferior developer who never mastered the skill, although it’s getting better.

Still, often testers will be blamed for bugs in production. Rarely someone will ask why developers introduced the bug, why code-analysis tools didn’t catch it (or why there are no such tools in the first place), why there are no automated checks for this. Testers are often scapegoats, testers are always threatened to be automated away or pushed to write automation.

It’s hard to be a well educated tester – it’s like an endless war against total incompetency about impossibility of complete testing (pdf 1, pdf 2 (figures are in the end of the pdf)), misuse of unit tests and coverage (pdf); against desire to automate everything as if it will solve all problems, catch all bugs all the time and won’t need endless hours supporting the suite. I’m saying that a test manager is one of hardest and in my opinion often useless jobs (because you have no power on things you are responsible from and expectations are completely off towards your job).

Knowledge brings disappointment

As you grow to learn more – about software development process, agile, scrum, testing, architecture – it’s getting harder to ignore the problems you see in teams. I was lucky to meet really smart people during my 9,5 year career, get to lots of trainings. Most of these in first 5 years actually (thanks Skype!). As my colleagues joked once before one training – be careful, knowing too much will bring disappointment and sadness. Indeed, Woe from Wit.

I was burn out several times. Both times I was fighting managers 15+ years senior of me, one time as a ScrumMaster, one time as just a tester/quality engineer. They both ignored my warnings and teams fell apart, people were leaving, managers got fired or appalled in some way. If only they would listen… I took it personally – I told you! Why didn’t you listen! Why did you destroy great teams! Great things were not done, great teams fell apart.

It’s a pattern

Programming sucks , all things are broken , most incompetent people are promoted to management, or great developer are promoted to managers and we have -1 great developer and +1 mediocre manager.

So what’s wrong in many places?

Pieter Hintjens summed up (it’s a fantastic read, spare some evening and read it. Also support his family by buying some books or make a donation. He’s very ill) something up nicely for meΒ  :

It took me decades to realize that technology is a slave to personality. It doesn’t matter how good the design, when there are unresolved problems in the organization.

And so gradually I shifted from technical architect to social architect. From caring about technical designs to caring about people and the psychology that drives them. Because in the end, this is what seems to make the difference between a working project and a failure.

Same topic covered by legendary Jerry Weinberg

No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem

Same learned from Jim Coplien

(scrum) is about people, it’s about finding a human inside you

It’s all about people. People who hide issues in automobile safety systems. It’s people who force long hours and poor coding standards. It’s people creating political webs. It’s people who plan work as if Fred Brooks never wrote The Mythical Man-Month, as if Scrum Patterns never existed to clarify Scrum principles.

I won’t even speak about requirements ambiguity and miscommunication on meetings, don’t get me started πŸ™‚ But I do recommend going to a Crucial Conversations (Microsoft provides one for its employees for free) and Spec by Example training.

So what’s my point?

My point is that you can burn out by working in an inefficient environment without long hours. Constant miscommunication, re-work, slipping deadlines and no releases can cause burn out.

People who ignore proven advise (if a book can be cited a proven source that is) and organize poor working conditions, even when you have snacks, fruits and masserus on site – it can cause burn out.

Knowing too much, seeing problems, warning about them and making suggestions only to be ignored and commenting “told you so!” some time later – that can cause burn out too. Some people even get blamed “well you didn’t try hard enough to convince us!”.

How to you fight collective stubbornes and ignorance? How do you influence your boss to move into right direction? How do you avoid subordination conflict?

Where do we go from here?

Reality is that:

  • there’s no perfect company and it’s always a compromise
  • most smaller companies suffer from same issues and owners don’t want to learn
  • that one good company might be too far away in a place you don’t want to move to
  • you lack skills to join that good company (you’re a PHP dev, they do C++; you’re a tester, they hire only devs)
  • they are already good and don’t need your advise and knowledge
  • your attitude and previous stubborn bosses might label you as a trouble maker and close many doors for you

People suggest taking a gap year (which I’m actually considering) or changing jobs (but are Uber drivers less anxious and more happy?). But what after a gap year? Same shit?

I visited a psychologist our company provides. My first psychologist visit actually. It was so bad, I thought “well it would be a nice moment to shot ones self in the head right hear at the door”.
I was looking forward some advice on how to ignore some disturbing situations, how to hold back negative feelings, how to self control better and keep work thought away in the evening, how to care less. There is no such pill or exercise  😦

On the contrary I was advised to not hold the anger, express it (can I hit someone in office now? or act like this on a meeting? ), go to boxing or start a punk rock band. It’s right and ridiculous at same time. Quite hard when you’re very exhausted. I don’t want to become as aggressive as James Bach is now, but silence is not an option too.

Speaking out is hard. One of my e-mails last week refuting “complete testing and catching all bugs” was deemed inapropriate and I was asked to refer to my boss before sending such company wide e-mails. When everyone including janitor thinks you’re (tester, test architect) is a quality bringer – how more can you tolerate this? All information I can provide is – we’re very screwed alright. My next e-mail remained censored and unsent, althouhgt I voiced it at a meeting and everyone liked the thought.

I was kicked out of a team once for speaking out (but there were other stupid mistakes in the game too).

I’m puzzled.

As I grow more knowledgeable about software development, about communication with business stakeholders and engineers, the more I see the need to coach people, to be social glue, fixer, flashlight pointing to obstacles and an encyclopedia pointing to possible solutions (kudos to my boss, who in part actually hired me as an encyclopedia artifact!).

ATM several colleagues salute me for glueing business speak and engineering speak, for noting important social architecture issues, process issues and speaking up about them. I’m bringing value. Interesting part is that it comes at price of my main job and I like this new role better (what is this role actually? Meetings fairy? Agile Coach? Social Architect?)

But for fucks sake, how energy consuming it is. For how long can and should one wait for change to happen, for people not only to acknowledge what is right, but to do this right. How not to give in into anxiety and hopelessness. That I don’t know. I envy people who can calmly wait for months as if it’s business as usual.

Quitting is a really bad option the more senior and smarter you become – the harder it’s to get a job (my last job search was mostly rejection by “too experienced for this position”). Especially with testing background, because Head of Delivery, VP of Engineering and CTO require great coding skill even though quite often they are in the past for many of them.

So how does one help build great teams and products if he is not a Head of Delivery, a CTO or a team lead? How does one not burn out? How does one stop quitting and starts helping build an atmosphere where people can achieve something?

Consulting? Starting own business working for same insane unaware clients? Start a startup working for a VC ? Start own business… when you’re burn out?

PS writing this I feel like Pieter Hintjens said “finding myself on the wrong side of history”.

8 thoughts on “Burning out. Rising up.

  1. TLDR; I did not read it all. First few paragraphs said it all.
    (will read more later, it’s late now)

    agile is a very dangerous place for people with risk of burn out.

    it risk burning out the good people . even in good environments. especially the good ones in good environments. as they want to do good, and no body pushes them. so they keep pushing themselves.

    as a coach, I see this a lot. even today I said to someone if you don’t go home tomorrow afternoon as you promissed, I will drag you home. I’m not sure how serious I am.

    a big hug. take care.


    1. Thanks Ives. All true expect that it’s not only in agile world. Besides agile is not the problem / context here, more of lack of agile πŸ™‚


  2. I’ve committed my life to helping smart people be happy. Why? Because so many smart people I know are (mis) using their brains to think up “reasons” to make themselves miserable. As are you.

    Ted Williams said, “If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much.”

    You’re thinking too much.

    When I get myself into this state, I stop thinking and honor my body by doing physical things. Hike. Bike. Swim. Play. Anything that gets you out of your misguided brain.

    Maybe that will help you. I hope so.

    Jerry Weinberg


    1. Yes, Jerry, exactly like this. I’ve read Carnegie’s “Stop worrying” and found it a useful book. I remember back in university my friends jokes “Sergei, you think too much! Don’t!”. That’s one of the root causes.

      I do hike sometimes and it helps. One week this summer I took long walks every working day. It has a downside that then I’m not at home for most part of the day, miss dinner and family.


  3. I picked up a hint in your opening paragraphs. I think it might be useful to think about who you are, and what you want to become. Do you really want to be a team lead, or head of development, or VP of Engineering or CTO?

    I’ve just been working with Jeff Sutherland on the MetaScrum pattern for the community Scrum patterns effort (https://sites.google.com/a/scrumplop.org/published-patterns/product-organization-pattern-language/meta-scrum). Most of it is about mechanics. But the golden insight is that great agile teams institute MetaScrum as a way to give agile people an escape from needing to climb the management ladder, and a means to get back into the satisfying work of being a PO if one has accidentally (in terms of life and fate) fallen into a management role.

    You strike me as a relatively agile guy β€” at least, our conversations seem to align around those principles. I have not seen a side of you that aspired to management (and, he said cynically, power) but maybe I’m just getting to know you better. Or maybe these are just substitute goals that you blurted out as spots over there on the other side where the grass may be greener, with a foundation that the unknown might be better than a present that sucks. Think carefully about this. What do you want to be when you grow up? πŸ˜‰

    Also, your mail has a hint of “life has dealt me this hand by making me a tester, so I’m kind of stuck.” Not everyone is as stupid as our former mutual employer. You can always change to something else. Yeah, life has constraints, but you probably have more flexibility than you think. I suspect you’re a good tester and maybe you enjoy it β€” but I recently saw a great quote that anyone who aspired to being a tester probably shouldn’t be one πŸ˜‰ . I don’t know. If you have this agile bent and a heart for people then maybe traditional team leadership or being a VP or CTO aren’t for you. Maybe it’s testing, maybe development, or maybe being a social worker or going into third-world charity work, or a circus clown. Maybe it takes some time off to reflect on that; maybe you can just wake up some morning with the inspiration to do something else.

    If you do take time off, let me just propose you do something constructive with your time, like working with a public agency that helps the poor, or working with children, or working in a third-world country. Getting in touch with that level of humanity can probably help clarify one’s thoughts.

    No matter what your station there will always be people like the two testers of our mutual acquaintance who have recently embarrassed us all with their interaction styles, and that drags us into their wake even in those situations where we’re not materially involved. It’s easy to just be exasperated and to just conclude that the world sucks. In these situations I might infuse myself as a coach, approaching the individuals individually. If that doesn’t work over time, I might make the problem visible. Maybe that will lead to a resolution and, in all cases. I learn something. And I know I’ve done my best. When our favourite tester lashed out at me in the past with a completely ludicrous and unfounded set of screams, I spent a little time using the tools we both know to settle down the situation but eventually shook the dust off my shoes and moved on. I can’t change them β€” indeed, we can only lay the signposts that help others change themselves β€” but I can change me. Do you feel you’ve done your best? You certainly have the integrity and outlook that suggest that you do. It’s not about perfection and you’ll be disappointed if you measure yourself accordingly. That would fit what Jerry said about “thinking too much.” Choose to work most with people who give you energy, and learn to re-channel the energy in other situations, or to distance yourself from those situations as much as you can. Do you feel that you could be better at doing your best if you were a VP? Hmmm.

    Anyhow if you want to come and visit me, I’ve got a nice summer house where you can crash for a week or so and we can spend some time walking in the woods and chatting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really don’t know what I want to be πŸ™‚ I understood that I don’t want to be a Test Manager, because usually developers with wrong expectations seek a test manager who will inflict quality with properly managed tester. Which is bullocks!

      I thought of becoming a developer and even got a job offer for junior position with university grad salary. May be I should have taken it. Now I don’t have brain bower to learn. BUT looking at my developer friends in different companies – there are all the same problems with how work is organized. And even if I’ll become a developer – I’ll start blowing up like I did in Skype πŸ˜‰

      I agree that VP, HoD, CTO are not for me. I do see and understand that often bad organizational decisions come not from them, but from business owners and CEOs.

      This leads me to a thought of becoming a process / quality / testing consultant or something. Probably need a rest, save some money and search for clients. I have little idea how this works πŸ™‚ Only advice I got – create a website for your services.

      Frankly, I was thinking of going as volunteer somewhere and I thought about it today in the bus to work – about going to some soup kitchen or something.

      Thank you for writing back, it gave me some thoughts. I’ll keep your invitation to summer house in mind too. I’ll write back in a week or so (I’m slow) πŸ™‚


  4. I’ve done the burnout thing and it sucks. Badly. Only remedy that I know is to completely change the scenery for an extended period (months, not days). Like Jerry said. Kudos for being open about it. Lots of people all over the place suffer burnout or near-burnout in silence. Talked about it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8DTUYfUOa0
    The first and most important step is admitting the problem, so congrats on getting that far at least! Good luck, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hei! Thanks for replying. I’ll watch the video a bit later, I know it is great as other your videos are πŸ™‚ It seems it’s a universal advice to take a few month off and it’s something I feel too for last few months. Need to plan in that direction πŸ™‚


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