Tech's Big Problem

️Tech has a problem. A big problem. It annihilates your team. It camouflages. It reshapes and destroys them again.

Tech's Big Problem
A calving glacier, taken last year in Alaska's Glacier Bay

️Tech has a problem. A big problem. This problem creeps in, developing in cycles. It annihilates your team and turnover rates. Just as soon as someone sees it, it camouflages, concealing itself from eradication.

🛑 It’s not economy. It's not layoffs either. It's not even big egos.

It forms in individuals who fight on the fronts of your technology development war. Formed by stress, process, micro-management, & toxic work cultures; sometimes in combination, sometimes not.

Tech & Software Engineering has a burnout problem.

🚨 When burnout reaches a peak, we stave it off by taking a vacation. One roundtrip flight, Airbnb, and numerous Mai Tais later, that feeling of burnout is concealed, now wearing a cloak of dread as you head into the office on Monday morning for your standup meeting. Eventually, vacation doesn’t cut it and you’re thinking about the “next gig”.

🔄 This is the cycle. This is tech normal. This is the problem.

Photo by Jackson Simmer / Unsplash

It’s a fundamental problem that we cloak & conceal. Free lunches, good healthcare, “unlimited PTO”. After speaking to so many about their passions, goals, and entry into software, I feel confident enough to talk about what we all need.

👉 You, myself, and the rest of us got into software as creators, builders, and explorers. Think about your introduction to tech and the joy brought on by the first application you built and deployed. How about the first idea you had and made with your own hands? I can guarantee it was a complete dopamine rush.

When I made my entry into software I started by developing animations and simple flash games. It was rewarding, exciting, and unlocked so many ideas that my brain urged me to work on. After some time, I developed websites for money, and that feeling didn't fade. I tried new technology, new paradigms, new - well I developed my first website in Flash but HTML development was still table-based. No judgment, ok?

After some more time, I started writing C# in Unity3D Alpha, exploring the world of game development. The feeling of creativity and adventure surged evermore. That was until I decided to make it a career. I didn't know it at the time but the burnout cycle had begun. The lows were filled with imposter syndrome, the highs with the want for more vacation days.

🩹 Let's talk about how we can make a change to this normal and how that feeling of creativity, adventure, novelty, & passion can emerge in your day-to-day.

A woman and young boy look up at the entrance of Edinburgh Castle.
My family exploring Edinburgh castle, a familiar feeling in the early days of tech.

1. Autonomy. I'm a proponent of autonomy and have always encouraged my team members and those around me to foster autonomy. At its core, autonomy is a side effect of extreme trust. Trusting your team to execute on goals, to help drive vision, and to develop ideas. This kind of environment is naturally hard to foster in the beginning, but with time and the removal of certain things, we can ensure that it has a place to grow. Get rid of micro-managers, set goals at the top with help from the bottom, and ensure your team has good metrics in place to help harbor accountability.

2. Experimentation. Without an element of experimentation, your organization will flounder, and your engineers are guaranteed to hate their job. Experimentation and R&D are key pieces in a healthy engineering org. Foster this by encouraging RFCs (Requests for comments), and PoCs (Proofs of Concept) with new technologies, languages, and frameworks. Did an intern or junior suggest a technology that you deplore? Let them work up an RFC or show you a PoC with it instead of crushing their exploration.

3. Less process. I have been a supporter of sprints, structured planning, and fleshed-out tickets. Now I suggest you rid your organization of most processes. Create the dots for engineering to connect, don't paint an entire picture. Let engineers ask questions and dig, but don't answer all the possible questions before relinquishing the work.

4. Strong vision. To promote all of the above, you absolutely must set vision and expectations, and make them very clear to your engineering organization. If you are expecting to "throw pasta at a wall and see what sticks", expect your organization to fail. Define clear goals and clear expectations to measure them by. This will require work at the top, but this is the top's entire job. Do it well.

At the end of the day, the tech industry will grapple with burnout until it makes a fundamental change. Stress, micro-management, and strict processes contribute to this cycle of exhaustion. While temporary measures provide respite, they fail to address the underlying issue, perpetuating the burnout norm.

To break free from this cycle, we must embrace autonomy, experimentation, and streamlined processes, while providing vision. Trusting teams, encouraging exploration, simplifying processes, and setting a strong direction can help restore joy, purpose, & novelty to our work.

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