Prevent Burnout : Continuous Integration 2.0
Into - What am I talking about now ?
In a previous blog post, I talked about burnout from my own perspective of having experienced it, an overview of it after the fact, and some techniques for getting though it.
The two main pieces of feedback I received were firstly “get a proof reader” and secondly “how can one stop or mitigate burnout in the first place?”.
The first I've done (and I’ve also signed up for a writing class), so hopefully my writings will get better and be easier to read. The second point I have been thinking about for eons, and performed as a job, so will share my thoughts in this post.
To frame the topic and post, I'd like to share an anecdote from my counselling schooling:
I remember discussing the ethics of being a counsellor in class, and causing some commotion as I stated "Surely it's our aim to put ourselves out of a job".
I didn't mean that I wanted to see the whole class (or profession) jobless and destitute, more so the manner that care is predominantly provided, i.e. remedially.
It makes no sense to me, to wait for something (a person, a system, a server, etc) to be overwhelmed by challenges and then do something about it. Especially when you know the challenges are coming. Be that life challenges in general (personal skills), lots of clients to a web site (performance engineering) or anything where you have cause and effect.
I say “Prepare and be aware as you go”, and drastically lower the chances of it happening in the first place.
I would like to explain what I've learnt from building resilient software and technical systems, and combine it with some counselling theory, then apply that to a team as a whole, be that a development team; or any creative group.
Hence, the meaning in the title: Continuous Integration 2.0, continuously taking care of the team and it’s integration, during the process of building.
Most people like me now build software such as SaaS, web sites, etc., which is continuously worked on, and is only ever “done” when we never work on it again. It’s a marathon, not a sprint to the finish, though in either case you have to be up to the challenge.
The thought of running a marathon with no training or support boggles the mind, so why do it in life and work?
What is CI (Continuous Integration) and why do it?
CI is an approach to building (software) systems that involves the continuous checking of what is being built. This is to ensure that it's doing what it is designed to, and not exhibiting the kinds of symptoms that you don't want, i.e. bugs.
I've done this for years with software and have tried to extol the virtues of “the output reflects the way in which you do something” in places I've worked (with various degrees of understanding and acceptance from those involved, I must admit!)
Ironically in some places, CI is ignored or sidelined in favour of chaotic rushes to an arbitrary deadline. And upon reaching that dead line, the output is... well, chaos. That kind of project and management truly get what they ask for.
Quality and speed of development go hand in hand, now and in the future of the project. Remember the majority of the work starts when you launch, so lay good foundations.
Catching issues early saves so much time, energy and cost, be that in software or with people and teams: “A stitch in time saves nine”. Read up on “technical debt” and the costs of bugs, they are both well documented.
Not only is there financial cost to a project, though there is emotional cost (leading to burnout) for the people working on the software. Which is the part I’m more interested in.
In practice (for software and technical systems) this typically involves pieces of code called “test units”, that continually (i.e. automatically) test the code as it changes, i.e. to make sure that two plus two still equals four.
Being predominantly a PHP person, I use phpundercontrol.org which in itself comes from CruiseControl, which I'm a big fan of.
So what we're doing is checking in often to check things are okay. The approach being a lot of a little opposed to a little of a lot.
What is the “team leader's” role to help stop burn out ?
Also I believe that “once-a-year team building” isn't as effective as doing it continuously, as it's the integration of the team you're hoping to facilitate and achieve. Curious, there are those two words again.
I believe the once-a-year approach or “when it seems necessary”, is done more out of a sense of obligation, or to copy-cat other companies, inferring truth by constant assertion. I think it should be done all the time, opposed to sporadic knee-jerk reactions.
Team building is a facilitation role, and has more to do with supporting people than telling them what to do. Some projects use an Agile technique of daily stand ups, though these can seem forced a lot of the time. Also they tend to interrupt people, and force a rigid working structure irrespective of what is actually going on in the project.
I suggest it is a role of the team facilitator to take care of the people, usually they have titles such as “project manager”, “team leader”, “technical director” etc. Unfortunately they usually loose site of the fact that it's their responsibility to be focused on the people and then process, so the people can focus on the project.
Don't constantly interrupt to ask if they are okay or be forced in what you are doing, humans know when they are being dealt with in a inauthentic manner. The specifics of people skills and how you check on people are down to personal style and technique, I'm just saying make sure you're doing it.
Do less better, remember a lot of a little opposed to a little of a lot. It’s the responsibility of this role to continuously integrate the care of the team, into the daily project.
What can the individual do ?
In brief, keep all things in balance and perspective for mind, body and soul, in all areas of your life.
Yes, I know, it’s a lot easier to just write on a blog than to actually put it into practice!
Though in practical terms, I believe that any situation we find ourselves, we are 50% responsible for being there. Now that doesn't necessarily mean when something is done to us, we are responsible for that. Though how we choose to react, or act is up to us. As is how we choose to prepare ourselves for situations we enter into.
So we have a duty to ourselves to take care of ourselves. Also being aware of those around us who might be overwhelmed is no bad thing. If I’m in a team of 10 and I’m mindful of the rest, and they do the same, that means there are 9 people keeping an eye out for me.
I believe that it is unethical and unprofessional to work when compromised in an emotional manner. You are not going to doing good work, be happy, or doing anyone any favours including yourself. You are likely just compounding the negative issues.
Here are some topics and activities to think about to help mitigate burnout out. I’ve combined what I do, what I've been taught, and what I've found in my studies :
This is where we start, as this is where the embers of burnout will flare up from and affect the rest of our lives. Great skills & activities to read up on and explore here are :
- Meditation - Not for everyone, though having chilled downtime is no bad thing
- Hobbies - I do lots, they distract me from work and allow me to reflect & socialise
- School - Learning different skills and topics good outlet, broadens the mind and outlook
- Self talk - I’m my own worse critic, I have to watch being negative, and see the good too
When we have no energy, are lethargic, are experiencing poor nutrition this will obviously effect our ability to function. As well as being prone to illness and injury. I’m not a gym rat, or advocating that everyone should be, though making sure we take care of the physical sides of our beings is just important as the others. As we have to be in balance, It’s how well functioning systems work.
- Food - Volumes have been written on the benefits of eating well and cutting out junk
- Exercise - In a sedentary job that most in offices have this is vital
- Check ups - Not being a hypochondriac, though a health and eye check is no bad thing
- Sleep - Exercise helps here, also natural sleep not 10 beers at the bar type of sleep
- Massage - After training as a masseur, I extol the virtues of it to everyone !
Not always the easiest topic to talk about with a target audience who, in my experience are typically not so spiritually inclined. Though I don’t necessarily mean just religion, but include meaning, purpose, a sense of being and belonging. Having studied psychology and worked for a company who’s mission it was to ease the effects of social isolation (and they are harrowing believe me ), I think not paying attention to this area is a big mistake.
- Friends & Family - Including personal relationships, ensure you give them time & attention
- Spiritual - I like reading about Daoism, though this is personal to each person, obviously
- Cat - The benefits of caring for a pet are well documented, as well as fun
- Volunteering - What do you give back ? Doesn't have to be formal or organised
As an experiment, I suggest you keep a record for a week just to see what time and effort you put into each of these areas. Then ask yourself is that what you consider balanced, and is it how you want to be ? What could you do more or less of ?
What are the warning signs, and what shouldn’t we do ?
An absence of the things noted in the previous sections, I suppose. Be aware of the environment you are in, are you being supported or pushed? Be aware of how you feel, is the pressure relative to the reward or investment you have, or are you killing yourself for someone else’s profit.
By way of a personal example, here is knowing you’re not cared about :
In a previous job I ended up working 3 weeks straight including evenings, posting on forums doing customer relations and support, on top of the “day job”. In a meeting I mentioned I was looking forward to an upcoming holiday as it was also my anniversary. “The boss” laughed and said I’d likely being working as he had profit targets to meet, and that I had to sort out the technical problems he’d introduced to the project before I got there.
I decided to leave that job at that very moment.
That is just an example of an external bit of proof of the environment you are in, personal ones to watch for include :
- Stress - Personally I feel it quite physically,
- Lack of sleep - I ether can’t sleep, or can’t get out of bed
- Constant tiredness - Related to the above, though adds to lowered performance
- Self medicating - Be it alcohol, substance, sex, etc, you’re treating a symptom
To continue on the self medication point above, there is also prescribed medication from doctors. Though personally I’m not a fan of the “pop a pill” mentality and culture, I would never advise anyone to stop who’s on medication, as I’m not a doctor. Though I’ve found there is a constant focus on treating the symptoms and not the actual cause (good for drug companies, bad for people). Though there is an argument that if the drugs can alleviate the symptoms enough so the person can deal with the cause, then fair enough.
Being a fan of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) I always try to deal with the presenting symptom, but also find out the root cause, which is creating the presenting symptom, much as is done when debugging software. Then the cause can be addressed so you don’t have to deal with the symptom continuously.
“Why is this happening, how can we deal with it and how can we prevent it next time”.
Conclusion - What am I saying
Try to stop it happening, don’t try to “fix it” once it’s over whelmed. It’s the principle of continuous integration, be it with software, teams or people.
Much the same as the saying “It’s about the journey not the destination”.
Take care of yourself, it’s professional and ethical. We can't do anything else properly without doing that first. It’s not at all selfish, to not do it I would suggest is selfish.
Don't work for abusive companies, or greed-focused ones (i.e. beholden to shareholders). Easier said than done obviously, though when weighing up two job offers, which one is really better, given the points above. I recently just ended a very lucrative contract, as the bad far outweighed the good.
I sleep rather well now.
Take care of yourselves, keep and eye on others, and keep on building good things in good ways.