I’ve been reading recently a story on Hacker News about a programmer who (depending on who you ask for a diagnose in the thread) was suffering from burnout. Some commenters even suggested depression. There were many advices recommended (unfortunatelly I can’t find a link to the discussion right now) but one certainly spot my attention.

Change technology - completely

The advice was to completely change the technology and start again with something new. If you are Rails backend developer, switch to frontend or even go with gaming. People said the money doesn’t matter, it’s your mental health that is the most important and earning 2x or even 4x less is not the thing to focus and not the most crucial factor.

Well, I don’t know if that’s going to help, if that’s a good advice. I’m not a psychologist nor psychiatrist. Although I am guilty of dreaming occasionaly about switching to gaming and releasing my own 2D platform game based on Unity probably. However, that is not the most important here. What got me thinking is Do we really need to change a job to try out new things?

Does it mean I need to change my job?

If we do need to change the job, how did it happen? How is that despite being well paid, having a sophisticated job, that many would like to have, we still suffer from burnout? Well, we might start as let’s say C++ programmers, but do we wanna die as C++ programmers? I don’t think so. So ask yourself, do you sometimes have a feeling that you are doing the same thing over and over? That you were categorized (internally by yourself or externally by your agency, boss, coworkers, head hunters…) as X technology-developer and you can’t escape this? My guess is, that you are probably not alone, feeling like that.

If you want to switch from Ruby or Java or .NET to gaming (which i guess is prefering C++ and C#) then yeah, you probably need to switch company. Even using the same language might not be enough because of the customer that your company has, the nature of the business and the tribal knowledge that you need to finish project. I guess web companies don’t take much gaming gigs.

But when you are already a web developer (probably strongly oriented towards either backend or frontend) then why the hell would you need to change a job to try out something else? Can’t backend developers help with frontend, learn Angular or React, have fun and help with the project? Can’t frontend developers learn node.js and finish backend features as well? I don’t get it. And maybe we all can do mobile just fine as well, especially when we have background in desktop apps?

Could it be that way?

Could it be different?

I don’t think there is a silver bullett for burnouts but excuse me I think we can as industry do way more to minimize the scale of the problem. Here are few ideas:

  • Small stories
  • Team Rotations
  • Products
  • Microservices

Let me elaborate a bit about each one of them.

Small stories

You know one reason why people get stressed and tired? Because bosses give them huge stories, huge features to work on alone. People got something to do for a week or a month or even longer (i know, speaking from experience and from hearing from others) and they have no reason to talk and discuss and cooperate on it inside the team. Technically, you are part of a team. In practice, you are on your own doing the feature. And don’t think someone is going to help you. Everyone is busy.

And you know why your backend developers never asked for a frontend story. Because they know it would too big for them and they are scared. And they don’t want to overpromise. They are not yet confident.

What could help? Small stories. Split everything into small stories. Get people to track bigger topics/features (but not implement them alone) and let everyone do frontend and backend stories. Of course we will be afraid and a bit slower at first. But then, we will get more confident. We will better understand what our coworkers do and how much time it takes. We will have plenty of reasons to talk about code and how to write it so that everyone understands each others intentions. We will have better collective ownership.

Team Rotations

Ever joined a company and got stuck in a project for like… how about… forever? Yeah… That sucks. If you are a member of a company which has more than 10 people, chances are, you could theoretically switch to another project. Of course your boss would have to let you do it. And it would have to be approved by the client. But switching the project and getting to know new domain, new people, new client, new problems and new challenges is refreshing. Problem is (as almost always) the inertia. Sometimes customers even fall in love with their developers (not literally, but you probably know what I mean) and don’t want to let them go. They fear that the replacment won’t be as good. It’s understandable. But that shouldn’t be the major factor for the decision.

Team rotations are easier if your company is having fewer projects but of bigger size. If there are 20 of you, then it is easier to convince customer to let developer go when you are working on 3 projects with about 7 ppl each one. Or 4 projects with 5 people. If you have 6-7 projects with 2-3 people working on them, you customer might not be willing to let one of the developers go. After all, that one developer is 50 or 33% of the entire team. So they tend to worry a lot about consequences. If one developer is 14% of a team, then there is high chance that domain knowledge will still remain in the team and can be passed completely until next person leaves a team.

Products

Consulting can be exhausting. As everyone who ever did knows. One thing that can help is letting people work on their own projects. They don’t necesarly need to be open source ones (although that is nice as well). But that can be products that your consulting company intends to sell. As Amy Hoy said When you get paid to do a thing, you’ve already got three built-in markets to tap:

  • People who would want to hire you — including those who want to, but can’t
  • People who are like you & do what you do
  • People who want to be like you & do what you do

Why not let developers target those people as well? That can be challenging and as refreshing as getting another project or another technology. Except that instead of learning new tech, you need to learn research, marketing, prioritizing and much more. With your own products you always want to do so much but your time is so limited. And sometimes our ideas fail. Just like our clients. Getting better with skills in those areas can help us be better in consulting and prevent our customers from making mistakes. When you launch at least one of your project suddenly you are well more aware of many limitations. And you can question and challenge the tasks way better. You are inclined to ask customer for reasons and goals behind doing the tasks. You are not just building feature X, you are improving retention. You get the sense of all of it.

Microservices

There is so much hype recently for microservices. A lot of people mention that with microservices you can write components more easily in the languages better suited for the task. But have you ever considered that with microservices you can give people some playground for their ideas without much risk. It’s not that you need to rewrite entire app in Haskell. But one, well isolated component with clear responsibility. If they want to? Why not? Uncle Bob says we should learn at least one new programming language every year to expand our horizons. And if we do? And if we expanded our horizons, where are we to apply that knowledge? In a new job?

Last word

Let your people work and learn at the same time. You might not know it but you probably hired geeks who would like to know everything there is in the world. They are never going to stop learning, whether you let them or not. If they need to, they will change a job for it. But it doesn’t mean they want to do it. It’s just, you might not leave them much choice.