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Michael DeHaan • The Phoenix Is Not Burnt Out, It Is Just Rebooting

The Phoenix Is Not Burnt Out, It Is Just Rebooting

There’s the great level of unfortunateness about our blog histories being public that means we’re often afraid to talk about how we feel so we can remain employable, and as a result of not doing so, a lot of people don’t really know they aren’t alone in feeling the ways they do. I don’t know all the bad things that can lead to, but it’s unfortunate, as I definitely want to read this kind of stuff myself. Also, I don’t think people like to write.  I like to write, but I don’t so much like to edit, but I digress

Given the internet is a really public place, I’m trying to write this post as empathetically as a I can without making myself sound crazy for having these thoughts, but it’s true that many of us do, and shouldn’t be wrong to talk about them more, and I believe in this industry we all should.

If one of the good things that came out recently out of “DevOps” (still don’t like the term, honestly) was that regular employees felt they could talk about culture with those at other companies and try to change company structures, I think this is a similar thing that needs to be done.  So I’d encourage more of this, to the level of which you feel comfortable given the whole “blog search” thing.

Ok, so yeah, anyway, I’m taking some time off at the moment. Let’s talk about why I had to do that and what that felt like.

And I’m sharing this because when I said I was doing this (needing to unplug for a while) a lot of people stepped up and said “yeah, me too”, and I was very surprised, and I wish I had all heard from them sooner because it felt good to hear that I wasn’t alone in this.

So yeah, there was a period in the last few months where I found myself unable to stare at a text editor. The applications just didn’t matter. I could still do many things, but my efforts in exerting my level of caring and experience over something would only be perceived as argument. Simply put, I was just going through the motions, coasting, and I knew it. To leave ego out of it, I’m pretty darn good as a developer (and many other things), and I knew I was running at 1/10th of my usual. Myths or non-myths of 10x developers aside, there are a lot of people phoning it in at various places, and when I put out 1/10th effort levels I get good reviews. When I put 10x effort levels out, I get stuff like (from one review a long time ago) “you’re brilliant, but a jerk”. Thankfully that manager wasn’t around much longer - he was a jerk.

I’m not a jerk, I just care too much and want other people to care the same amount. And software wasn’t ever living up to the dream I thought it should be.

That’s another blog post in itself, but I experience these annoying cycles of caring and not-carrying that are the cause of one another. When I don’t care, I’m happy, and I do great work. And people like this work, and as a result I start to care. When I care, I try to fix all the broken things and people don’t like being told they are wrong, I am not happy seeing all the wrongness, and as a result, I learn to not care again. Thus I’m happiest when I don’t care and completely incapable of remaining in a state where I don’t care. I’ve tried to change this many times, I will care intimately about everything and make suggestions, and most likely, people will not like the challenge. I’m not sure how many people are this way.

The greatest lesson anybody can learn, I think, is the ability to not take it personally to be wrong, and admit when they are wrong. This makes everything easier in those instances. So few people are that way.

I’ll say I’ve been disillusioned with the team dynamic in software for a long time. When I was in college, I thought it was all going to be smart people standing around whiteboards hacking on world changing problems. Ultimately, a lot of us just go through the motions ourselves, 9-to-5, in problem domains we don’t care about.  Have these folks just been warn down, or was it something they were never into before?  Or did they not think they had the power to make it better?  I don’t know.  While I respect people, I never really noticed authority-for sake-thereof, so I wasn’t one for settling for that.

Anyway, I always wanted to be an architect and team lead of a really great team, but always struggled with people being willing to get me that team.  That never happened, and a lot of software simply grew and wasn’t even planned.  IT was hard to find good green-field projects and you often had to bet on a team or codebase blind when choosing a new job.  Lots of time I chose wrong - I was too good at interviewing, and the other side of the table usually tries to sell you on the company, not the reality of the situation.

I have left so many jobs seeking that team that would inspire me to the level I wanted things to be. (Disclaimer - this doesn’t apply to the company I started, this is more of a historical-up-to-then statement but encompasses all other positions except a couple).  I did this because I wanted to be happy at one of them and was still trying to find that perfect team and situation.

So yeah, I’ve been disillusioned for a while.

One of the things that helped me care for a long time was the open source community. And I drank a lot of the flavor aid (it was flavor aid, not Kool Aid, BTW - be accurate!) at the time.

Let’s be honest, I don’t care much about open source “freedom” now - it’s good to be able to have the guts to certain libraries though. I used to, I think. I used to hate Microsoft. I now have an Xbox. It’s great. (PS4’s a better unit but with a lousy menu system though - and just as closed, so what’s the problem?).  OSS has both good and bad aspects.  The aspects are mostly good in the right problem domain.

Especially in a time where my boss wasn’t really around and I all I had was IRC, the community in those days allowed me to find those people to design things with, that wanted to work with me, and filled a pretty nice void and gave me people to work with.  And that extended into later projects, particularly my most recent large one.

It was often like I was Sisyphus, rolling a giant rock up a hill that WAS going to come back down, but I had friends cheering me on. (And some heckling, which I paid more attention to, which probably also made my software better, if not made me much less happy).  So there was good and bad from it.

Losing those friends by leaving a project - nearly thousands, overnight, was especially hard on me. It was simultaneously relieving (totally not why I left though) - because you could never please the crowd, but more so alienating. Did people even know who I was anymore? Didn’t I create this just to be able to work with all of these folks? I kind of did.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I think I’ll risk sharing the thought.

Sometimes I like listening to the radio vs mp3’s on my phone, because I know thousands of other people are listening to the exact same station. It’s like our minds are in sync. If I’m playing my own playlist, this doesn’t work nearly as well. I’m not so much for organized religion, but it feels like something.  Namely being a part of something, even if that something has no point, is kind of important.  So I missed it very much instantly, as I knew I would, even though there were parts I didn’t like.

I also define myself incredibly too much by work. If I’m not doing my best work, or when people don’t like it, it’s very hard. Right now, I’m not doing much work at all - and I really wonder what my purpose is, and it’s hard to stop looking for it for a while.

But I notice, just a bit, that I’m starting to enjoy things, to feel, to see in 3D and notice things (ouch that’s kind of scary), just a little bit again. I know that’s stupid, to actually realize that you’re noticing parallax and noticing details - or when you notice yourself actually being happy or laughing at something because it’s not normal to be doing that.  (Or maybe you did before and didn’t notice, but I don’t think so).  There’s this thought that there was a you that got denied to make these things, and then you’re not sure those things mattered - of course they did, but really it had a cost.

I kind of feel software makes us too analytical, it’s partly the industry, it’s partly the act of programming, but I feel it.  I’m being too introspective even now.

New topic.  Software changes the way you think from being around it.  We become very logical, I’d say too logical, but that would feel like a heresy as I have grown to value logic and efficiency too much.  There’s a quote from Malcolm in the Middle that, while a little pretentious, I do like:

Malcolm: “I mean for me it’s like when I’m thinking really hard my brain starts making connections and those connections make other connections and it feels like a bomb going off. Is your brain like that?”

Barton: “It’s like a beehive and every bee has a brain like yours.”

While that doesn’t directly apply, I do tend to think that random non-technical people around me aren’t thinking as quickly as they could be. It’s kind of like how if you are slow in New York and don’t get your drink refilled in 1.2 seconds you get yelled at, so you learn to be fast, but here people take 2 minutes to do the same thing and it drives you up the wall. We are, by virtue of writing software, much more logical and possibly better at reaching conclusions than people who do not - at least, it feels that way.  Connections happen quickly. What I’m getting at is this level of amped up brain activity makes us kind of unhappy, especially because of where we are apt to apply it.  That being logic and introspection.

Axiom: I’ve long felt that trying to rationalize something irrational is a sure path to impossibility.  You have to break out of those loops immediately.  Much of the world acts irrationally.  

But yeah, this thinking logically is itself a source of possible unhappiness.  There was that episode of House (probably not accurate medicine here) where a Quantum Physics guy or something was drinking cough syrup so he could be stupid and ended up delivering things from a truck.  He did this because he said he was too smart to be happy, and when we was “normal” he was brilliant but not all that fun to be around. I don’t recommend people do that, as it may kill you, but .. again, I kinda get the sentiment.  Software folks are better when they can occasionally turn it off.

While perhaps not the case for everyone, thinking logically in software turns me into a bit of a weapon that notices things. Not necessarily a nice weapon, but a useful weapon who can see what’s wrong or inaccurate in anything and possibly how to fix it. Most people don’t like people like this at all if they are not in the field. It definitely doesn’t make you happy, and people don’t like being corrected - nobody does. Also nobody likes having to guard every statement with caveats. yet there are plenty that, once corrected once, become impossible to work with. And because you care, you are going to try to make something better and explain a flaw and then it becomes very hard to work with someone.  Not my fault, more their fault, people are naturally wired to want to save face.

I find myself kind of resonating with the “mentat” analogy from Dune - we are sort of turning ourselves into computers, that operate on data. It’s one of the reasons I’m frustrated in places where the data is hidden behind different levels, in places that aren’t meritocratic enough, that do not allow discussion of things. Again, irrational circumstance is something we can become sensitive to.

Running a startup also makes one always on alert as is probably one of the largest amplifiers. As I’ve said before, when I started my last one, one CEO of another company told me “congratulations, it’s horrible!”. He was referring to the rollercoaster, but for me, it was always like being on a balance beam, trying to weigh every decision to do the thing that would keep the wheels from falling off.  What you do defines you utterly.  What everyone says about you on the internet almost as much.

And they say never read the comments, but I always did. I made better things for it.  So you work hard to please absolutely everyone, the best you can.

I pretty much denied a lot of my own interests in many ways, offering myself up to help other people get done what they wanted in the community. But in doing so, my design impulses (which is why I love whiteboards) didn’t really get triggered enough either.

So yeah, you’re thinking about everything at once - what is the correct golden path to save everything - and that is pretty hard.

There’s another relevant TV show scene in a later Season of Showtime’s Weeds. Which your kids shouldn’t watch, but … anyway, Shane gets shot in his hand or arm or something and grows to enjoy the pain of the gunshot wound because he can just think about that and nothing else, and decides to not even take painkillers for it for that reason. I’ve had the exact same thought at the dentist, and it’s a pretty shocking thought to be actively enjoying pain for that reason because it’s distracting.

What people also don’t tell you about stress is that this probably hits us all eventually.  We can pretend that we hold up, and we mostly do - but it’s not what you think it is (some sign of weakness), because it’s really that fuel that you are consuming the whole time - the same biological triggers that would fire if you were being chased by a bear or something (get a slow friend to outrun, etc, etc).

When I left my last position just recently at a mid-size software company, I was surprised at the number of executive level folks who I really respected coming by and saying they too had to take some time - and for a lot longer periods than I was planning.

That’s when I realized this does happen to everyone, and that’s why we need to talk about it.

It’s normal.  Maybe not the same feelings and causes, but it’s normal.

Right now, I’m still getting used to things, but I’m starting to kind of feel things again, and my brain is enjoying not being on complete high alert. I still have problems with checking twitter somewhat compulsively.  What your brain does when it has nothing actual to worry about after say, holding up what you thought was the universe, is kind of interesting.

There’s a Jason Isbell song “Soldiers Get Strange” that talks about how a guy returns home from battle and he’s different. I haven’t done anything like that - and respect for troops and all that, it’s a bad analogy, but it’s a well written song. What I gather from it though is that when all your senses are in “attack” mode for so long, keeping a startup or project up, knowing any mistake could cause it all to collapse, you really don’t know what to do when it’s all over. Those same senses remain on high alert, you miss battle, and they will actively go out and target other things.  I believe this is the point when you feel it - beforehand, it was just adrenaline applied to a cause.

Withdrawing from a big thing will make you feel it, and while there was an initial hit, the second hit took several months to actually get there.  (Partly enabled by the knowledge that I actually could take some time off, I think, let me relax enough to feel it and actually let burn out catch up).

I did really feel stress while I was running things with that venture, but I was also addicted to it. It hitting you like a 10 Ton Heavy Thing doesn’t really happen (for me anyway) until that source of stress is removed. And even then it comes in phases. It can be quite delayed.

I won’t go into detail, but it’s there. I tell people that running a startup is like living 9 years in 3. There’s that “Wheel of Life” thing from the Princess Bride that sucks out all of Wesley for a while (though there may be hope from Miracle Max and his wife living in the woods). It’s apt. I also would like to tell everybody you can pretty much achieve anything if you want to put forth that level of effort - but I’m not entirely sure it’s always going to be worth it for everyone.  There is a cost.  However, you can all make it happen if you want, though some stars aligning probably help.

Anyway, this is all not directly related to startups, much of it is just about our industry.  This happens.

Software development is in a weird place where it’s not quite art, not quite science, and this thing that really resonates with your brain isn’t really like it is in industry the same way it is if you are hacking on something with a couple of friends. 

Libraries we touch break all the time, tech is fickle and changes constantly, we deal with anonymized voices on the internet that are all angry for exactly the same reasons, and instead of saying “yeah, I feel like that too”, we just yell at each other and make it worse. 

Just like working at a grocery store, your line of customers (or, in this case, releases) does not end.  The analogy of “sprint” is so bad, because everybody knows  you cannot sprint forever.  It’s an endurance race.  We don’t stop to celebrate victory (or even strategize) enough, but instead charge in again.

So yeah, it’s a messed up place. I keep saying “Corporate America sucks”, and that’s not quite true as a lot of orgs have a lot of good people, but it’s hard to do what we do outside of it.  A lot of the stuff we do matters, but a lot of the releases, deadlines, or problems we face are arbitrary and don’t.  

Anyway, yeah, so burnout. It’s real. 

I’m personally quite ok now. I’m even building some interesting computer side projects that might or might not be something (but maybe that’s just part of the detox program where I can’t give some old habits up yet?  Nah, I still want to build things). 

But so far, I’m kinda trying to figure out what life is like, I don’t know what to do with it completely or what’s next (I still have this huge urge to create things that will never go away), but it feels pretty good to be feeling things again.  Which is also a bit of a shock to realize I wasn’t feeling things before. And that’s why I wrote this.

The internet and the software industry is a place that lives on little screens and in your phone.  Beyond this world, the sun comes out and there are squirrels, and people that do things like make food and paint and build non-computer things.  It’s important to at least taste this other world occasionally, but also realize people creating the things that live in the digital world - all of us - also inhabit this other world, and are, you know, people.  So we have to treat all people like people first.

I’m not sure how many people feel these ways, and circumstances are always different, but if you think you need to do something else for a while, I’d encourage you to do it, it’s normal, and you aren’t alone in feeling that way. And it takes a while, and it’s very very hard getting used to withdrawing even a bit, and that’s ok too, but I think it’s good.

It is ok to admit that no, we are not supermen.

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