I haven’t been feeling much of an urge to write long-form posts of late, partly because I have made a conscious effort to be more consequential in what I do with my free time (hence all the weekly notes) and partly because most of what has been actually going on is pretty boring.
Still, there are a few things I can write about regarding the whole situation and what has been going through my mind:
Work Could Be More Exciting
…in a good way, I mean.
Layoffs, market circumstances and pivoting (at grand, ponderous corporate scale, with its fair share of re-orgs) have made for both the wrong kind of excitement and some unusually slow weeks. But after a couple of years of the pandemic/remote work roller coaster, there were a few attempts at doing international travel and team gatherings.
I didn’t go. Partly because timings and scope were fuzzy (and I just don’t like traveling unless it’s properly planned and scheduled for beforehand), and partly because it’s just not in my headspace right now1.
The crux of the matter, though, is that I’ve definitely been skirting burnout again, and the only thing that has kept my brain ticking are my personal projects. So I decided to reassert control over my wellbeing by completely re-doing my home office–I finally have it almost exactly how I wanted it to be a couple of years ago (more on that later), and in the process I’ve been knocking entire chunks off my to-do lists to the point where I can now tackle a couple of projects I’ve been meaning to come around to for months.
Let me tell you about slow burnout–I’ve had it before (back in the days when the telco industry was swirling around the prepaid drainpipe and telcos groomed their panic towards the looming disgrace of becoming just a bit pipe), and it’s not about overwork. In fact, I’m shocked at how little people actually understand about burnout and how it comes about.
For me, at least, burnout is a direct result of the daily grind of frustrating, unsatisfactory, pointless “make work” that, though it may be well regarded inside your organization, effectively creates nothing you value.
That accumulation of frustration and the realization that day upon day, week upon week, year upon year, you are just doing stuff that doesn’t make you happy at all is what I call the “deep burn”–it eats away at the core of your identity as an engineer and tinkerer, and smothers any passion you might have for the technology you’re “working in”.
An aspect I find particularly grating is the impedance mismatch between the stuff you love doing and the stuff you’re circumstantially excellent at–you may have massive shortcomings regarding the former, but being constantly asked to do the latter kills any chance of self-improvement.
And as someone who loves being hands-on and sees that as the best approach for learning and exploring new things, I’ve found that being effectively stuck doing consulting and architecture practice management has led to my having a deep-rooted bias against doing anything that I don’t see value in and/or can’t turn into a learning opportunity.
The Curse Of Organizational Processes
For instance, for the past few years I feel I’ve been wasting a substantial amount of brain cells creating organizational processes and supporting guidelines that were inevitably swept away or rendered obsolete by the pace of change.
And the same goes for drafting supporting documents for projects–those are typically deemed (circumstantially) critical, but are always much less rewarding than doing the technical work or being allowed to tackle design problems in the long run.
As it happens, I am cursed with being (apparently) rather good at doing customer-facing statements of work and contracts (a by-product of my OCD-like penchant for completeness of scope and some paralegal work I did years back). I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, but that is part of the seniority and responsibilities that come with my current role, so I cannot escape it2.
I’m not learning anything new from any of it (at least nothing I can’t understand inside of an hour), and I definitely don’t love doing it, so I’ve developed such an allergic reaction to that kind of work that I now actively go out of my way to minimize my time using Word or Excel.
The Teetering Recession
Then there’s the industry climate. As long as the Ukraine war continues, and with the looming spectres of Taiwan and the US presidential elections next year, nobody seems to be really taking chances on big foundational projects. Investment opportunities bounced back somewhat in early Spring and are going through an optimistic phase as major corporations trot out solid results, but I see a lot of care being taken.
New projects, strategic team hires, etc., all seem to be either stalled or under very fine (and risk-averse) scrutiny throughout the industry, which is a stark contrast to the boundless enthusiasm we went through on previous hype cycles (Big Data, Kubernetes, crypto, etc.). “New AI” is seen as transformative, but killer apps and use cases applicable to general businesses are still a little thin on the ground (and everyone’s a bit blasé on chatbots for customer support).
I do see a lot more opportunity in “non-technology” companies these days–i.e., businesses that produce tangible goods rather than services, and are less swayed by volatile investment strategies and more by the availability of useful tools. Some may have unrealistic expectations of things like LLMs, but I bet many are full of latent opportunities–the thing is, you need to be either inside their business or in consulting to tackle them.
Return To Office
We are now officially in the post-COVID era, and there are a lot of managerial types trying to put the remote work genie back in the bottle, typically coming from companies where growth (and ready availability of unskilled labor) takes precedence over efficient use of resources and ability to tap into specialized skills.
Technology has a tendency to treat developers (especially web ones) as “unskilled” labor and a maturity cycle where companies evolve by growing channel and sales through close knit, heavily territorial teams, so of course executives and sales managers (who cannot conceive of work being done through anything but interpersonal contact) are very much keen on herding people back into offices, even if everyone ends up spending their days on calls.
That doesn’t play well with the “extra” 6-12 hours a week some people suddenly found to be available to themselves simply from not commuting to the office, or the increasingly global footprint of any business and the need for flexible hours–and many managers (especially newly minted ones caught in a growth trajectory) are lousy at gauging outcomes and discern actual productivity from plain presence, so no wonder tech workers are less than enthusiastic about it3.
Yes, people will eventually adapt, but I don’t think it will be the ones making most of the money.
Plus I still strongly dislike the entire circus around plane travel and what it does to my sinuses–not to mention the jet lag would likely screw me up for a week or so, and I have been sleeping extremely poorly as it is. ↩︎
I might enjoy it more if I had full ownership of the process, but that is impossible at the scale we operate. And yes, I am fully aware this is a highly valuable business skill in smaller companies. ↩︎
I wouldn’t mind some form of hybrid work, but that’s hard to come by in a global role. ↩︎