16 Aug

Working Without Quite Working – Avoiding Burnout

Every software developer suffers burnout. When Matt Gemell, a pioneering iOS figure, walked away from writing apps to focus on blogging and his novel, he filmed himself ceremoniously dragging his programming software into the trash. He’s since blogged about creative burn out. At times, I’ve spent 60 or 70 hours a week on development for months. In order to stay sane, I take walks through a nearby park. I lounge in coffee shops trying to not look like I just emerged from a cave. And sometimes I go for binge-watching TV, playing video games, or reading something light.

A trick I recently learned is that I could avoid burnout and enjoy the downtime without sacrificing productivity. When I do those light things, like stare at a TV, play Super Mario 3 for the hundredth time, or thumb through a magazine just looking at the pictures, I try to consume things at least partially related to what I do. I’ll explain with two examples that also count as recommendations for late-summer entertainment.

Halt and Catch Fire just wrapped its first season on AMC. The show follows a team of people at Cardiff Electric, a fictional computer company based in Texas in the 80s. I pitch it to friends as Mad Men with computers. However, that’s just my attempt to get them to tune in. It’s probably better described by explaining the four main characters and their motivations. There’s a married couple, nerds with great bone structure, who suffer financial failure and the occasional spat in front of the kids. There’s a cocksure, punk rock coder, both wildly talented and charmingly naive. Looks like a model with a platinum pixie cut. The show’s fulcrum and star is a mysterious business man who never stops trying to build Cardiff into an empire – knifing people in the back, waging emotional warfare, smashing windows, and shoving men and women into walls for all kinds of reasons. Beneath the nods to the time period, office makeouts, and furious smashing on typewriters, there’s a lot of sincerity that spoke to me. In particular, the moments when these four characters are confronted with difficult choices. That binary, pick-A-or-B, branching structure gives the show its power. My favorite moment in the entire season is when one character has to make a judgment call on the day of a conference, and you can see on his face when he realizes that his choice will either destroy his career or his personal life. So, while the show can be campy, nerdy, and straight out of a soap opera, I find myself thinking back to particular scenes and their lessons. Should I scrap a feature I truly believe in, just to keep the boss happy? Should I risk significant sums of money when failure could cost me for years? How should I treat coworkers, when I know that they’re not pulling their weight? In this way, I’m not burning out because my elbows aren’t on a desk and I’m not clacking away at keys, and just letting my mind rest a little bit, but still thinking a little bit.

Console Wars is a beefy book by Blake Harris that covers the forces behind Sega, Nintendo, and Sony during the era of the Genesis and Super Nintendo. I picked it up expecting a rehash of a lot of the famous stories of the era, but what I found is that the book’s author wrote in the style of Moneyball. He conducted hundreds of interviews, wrote a long narrative story with some paraphrased quotes, and gave his subjects the right to see those quotes and suggest changes. So, as with HACF, at times it’s over the top, and almost soap opera-ish. But what I realized halfway through was that it’s slyly a book about management, branding, creativity, and business ethics. At work, it’s been suggested that I read some books that teach management skills. Every coder must eventually do it. But to me, those books read like posturing, written by people who never actually had to make hard choices. In Console Wars, Sega claws and scrapes and baits Nintendo into a battle. The company puts on daring publicity stunts, like hooking a Genesis up to a gigantic screen in Times Square, makes tough choices like allowing edgy games not appropriate for kids, and witnesses stubborn and fawning clients and vendors. A personal highlight was when Sega was vetting creative agencies. They’d picked a favorite, but had one last meeting, which they took as a courtesy. The pitch by that last agency included a humorous video of the agency workers showing their proximity to Sega by hitting golfballs off their roof into Sega’s lot and an ultimately successful effort to learn every intricacy of every game that had been released on the Genesis. The book was stuffed with marvelous moments where execs made the same tough decisions, either harming the business or their reputation.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s value in not even thinking about tech for hours on end. You’re right. All I’m suggesting is that if you pick up the business section of the paper before you read sports, and leave HBO on after Game of Thrones for Silicon Valley, it’s possible to work without working, and avoid burnout. Might keep you from dragging your favorite software into the trashcan.