DevOps and burnout – it’s a real thing

Today I woke up to the news that one of my favorite heroes in the food world, Anthony Bourdain, was found dead in his hotel room – an apparent suicide. He leaves behind an 11 year old daughter and a longtime girlfriend and anguishing questions that will likely never be resolved by those that love him. It’s the second suicide I’ve heard of this week. It seems like now is a good time to talk about burnout and job stress. If “DevOps is compassion”, as John Willis is fond of saying, we really need to do a better job in our industry of protecting our people from the stress that is claiming so many lives.

Note – these aren’t my words – they come from my cowriter and good friend Knox Lively. The stories he’s telling below are real and exposes a real problem that’s causing a hidden but very real emotional and physical health catastrophe in our field. Please give this some thought, and spend more time with the ones you love.

Burnout in our industry is common, and it often impacts the brightest, most positive contributors to the team. The symptoms include feeling exhausted, cynical, or ineffective; little or no sense of accomplishment in your work; and feelings about your work negatively affecting other aspects of your life. We’ve all seen the impacts on the lives of people around us; broken families, severe depressions, and even suicide.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us have at least one story related to the topic of burnout, illness, or even death as a result of misaligned work ethics and objectives from the individual to the organizational level. I have a couple of personal anecdotes I’d like to share surrounding this topic.

The first of which involves a brilliant architect at a software company I worked with at a startup in Austin, Texas. Some of you may have a similar person in your organization, they are always the last person you call. Whatever the issue, whatever the time, you can count on them to fix, or at least know how to fix the problem. This particular person was involved in a very tedious, multi-month port from one application server to the another. All at the recommendation of a C-level exec who talked to another C-level exec on a plane who happened to mention “application server x is n percent faster than application server y”. You’ve heard these kinds of stories too I presume? Anyways, right in the middle of this port, this person was asked by management to not ride his brand-new Ducati bike that he’d recently purchased. For those unfamiliar, Ducati has a reputation for being an incredibly powerful performance motorcycle. He was asked this, as no stretch of the imagination is needed, because if something were to happen to him, g-d forbid, the company would be in dire straits. This was just one of the many ways his job impacted his life in an unhealthy way. He often got to wear the hat of the hero, this, coupled with his uncanny expertise and the fact that the organization had allowed unhealthy work habits to remain unchecked, he had unknowingly begun to build himself a prison. Neither he nor the organization is at complete fault here as we are dealing with something even larger, a cultural problem.

The second anecdote I’ll share with you highlights the real dangers of stress, even when handled appropriately and in accordance with the best and current practices for handling said stress. This person had everything a software engineer could ever want. He was highly paid, found great satisfaction in his job, and worked for a company he believed in. The trifecta in terms of a career. In addition to career success, he had a very happy and fulfilled personal life. He had a wife, kids, was an avid lover of the outdoors, as well as ate right and exercised. He seemed to have all of his bases covered in terms of having a holistic and balanced life, and most would agree. None of this, however, prevented him from collapsing on his mountain bike and dying of a massive heart attack. It came as a shock to the whole company. How could this person have a heart attack? Everyone mentally checked off the boxes they’d read dozens of times for how to have a healthy heart. He met them all. The one thing that wasn’t accounted for was the great deal of stress this person had been under. Remember the earlier anecdote about the architect? This is the same person. He’d become indispensable to the companies’ daily operations, which meant 60+ hour work weeks for years, because without him often things did not get done. This on top of the side projects he had worked on over the years meant he spent most of his time working and relatively little time to decouple his stress.

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In the book we’re writing, we’re proposing DevOps as a solution in part to a life spun out of control. We believe – and experience shows – that moving more work from the “have-to” drudge work to more creative, automated, and sparkly-techy side of the page will help over time in reducing our stress load and improving our quality of life. But there’s no denying it – sometimes teams get hooked on the endorphins and rush that comes from the long nights getting a release fixed and out the door.

Think of the unforgettable character of Brent in the Phoenix Project – the one person no one could live without, the single, irreplaceable point of failure – and bottleneck – for everything the team did. Brent and the people like him are locked in a state other authors have called “full catastrophe living”, a prison they’ve built themselves by failing to see the need to improve processes and share information with others. In this case, they’re getting a short-term payoff in several areas – the warm glow of feeling respected and irreplaceable, and a certain amount of job security. This heroism comes with a high price though in terms of the team’s overall capacity and ability to learn, and over time inevitably on the health of these enterprise Atlases. Convincing these heroes of the value of DevOps is often a hard and long road; often it takes a top-down commitment to change behavior to a more sustainable pattern to overcome resistance from this point of view.

This topic of burnout and stress in the tech industry is worthy of a whole other book, and one that we can barely even begin to scratch the surface on. In terms of general tips for reducing stress on a personal level here are just a few key tips to begin your journey to a healthier work/life balance.

The first is to talk, whether it be your partner, your boss, or a therapist. Don’t assume you’re the only one under such pressure or that to talk about it is weak. We often assume that others are going through the same so we should just “suck it up”. The truth is, no one knows what’s on your mind unless you tell them. Don’t let pride take you down a one-way street to loneliness and depression. Did you know loneliness, isolation, and depression are bigger killers than obesity? (Malito, 2017). This factor alone greatly increases your risk for “premature” death. A pretty sobering fact if you think about it.

Two, create barriers between your personal and work life. This can come in various forms such as leaving your laptop at work on the weekend, or after every workday if you can manage. If you must have your devices with you at all times, try not checking work email while at home, or at a minimum not checking it one hour before going to bed, nor within the same hour you awake in the morning. These are just a few of the many ways to decouple your work and personal life.

Third, establish barriers within your organization. Most of my career I’ve been at the mercy of what I call a “push” workload. Meaning work has always come to me, whether I want it to or not. It’s expensive on many fronts. It causes task switching, induces stress, and is inefficient in design, or lack thereof. At the heart of DevOps is the idea of designing inefficient workflow issues out of your organization. The same can be done on a personal level. Find small ways to create tension, the good kind, between you and those who summon your work. Establish protocols and command chains for who and when is pinged for certain tasks. In the same realm improve and utilize internal documentation tools to empower others to solve problems for their selves. These are simply a few of many ways to “shield” yourself so that you can stay focused and knock out more work with less effort.

For more on burnout and the impacts of stress on our environment, please see the following.



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