Sure, Change Jobs!1/9/2009
Programmers get burnt out . Like the end of "Office Space," some find more fulfilling careers doing something completely different. Reasons vary but the result is the same. I know, I left programming to join the Marine Corps.
Now, I can see many of your faces scrunching up as you get ready to shout, "What!?"
First, let me answer a few common questions. No, I'm not a Republican (at all), or a fan of President Bush, for the war, and I was not on some crazy death wish. There are many great reasons to join the Marine Corps. Here are some of mine:
- They were hiring.
- I wanted to work outside. (Said while shoveling sandbags, in the rain, in ankle deep mud. I got to shovel a whole lot more for saying that.)
- Why not?
- I got sick of programming in a heated office where people never yell and we get off at 1700 (or get paid overtime!), for a boss who never once asked me to wear 150 lbs of gear and climb the side of a mountain. It was horrible.
As my Drill Instructor said, "Everybody joins for a stupid reason." Okay, that decision was more personal, and I won't discuss all of it here, but certainly burn-out was a factor.
Doing it wrong
As my former platoon is now readying to leave again, it's hard for me to remember all the things that lead up to quitting programming. I had a great boss who was very technical and who shielded his team from most company politics. I was implementing a new webapp that'd manage a portfolio approaching a billion dollars, and I had pretty much carte blanche to implement systems the best way I could.
In the early days there was just so much to do that I spent nearly every waking moment working. I'd wake up on a work day and login. I'd read syslog messages and overnight reports and put out any fires that sprung up. Then it was time to rush through a shower and head to work. I was always the last to leave, too. Not that it mattered since most nights I could be found home at my desk, hammering away at something until midnight or later.
I lived for work.
This probably went on those last four years. I wasn't required to do any of this but I felt a great need to prove myself with the massive task I'd been given. I never seemed to have enough time to implement anything. The more I finished the more work I saw ahead.
I was crazy productive. I'd not only managed to write large parts of the financial system, several supporting webapps, but also migrated most of the servers to Linux, created NIS servers and then replaced them with a home-grown LDAP system, JEPP , replaced a crazy expensive proprietary firewall, and on.... And on.
For some odd reason I felt trapped after a while. I felt that if I lost my job it'd simply take too long to sort through the ridiculous stuff most job posts require and I wouldn't find another programming position. And after a while, I was tired and wary of proving myself all over again. I figured I'd never leave that job, which spurred me to work even harder.
It wasn't as if I had a reason to leave, really. I had no personal life to interfere with work. But all of this lead to a deep desire to do something, anything else.
I think the real break came when I began to gain weight. I was like looking down and not recognizing yourself. I'd grown up in the mountains of Colorado. I'd always been athletic. I hiked Mt. Elbert and other fourteeners. I was on the football and track teams. Gaining weight was not something I was ready for and I flipped. There was a lot of time spent on the treadmill after that.
So I decided to join the Marine Corps. I come from a family with a lot of military background, so it wasn't as unheard of as it seemed to be around San Francisco (go figure). They say boot camp changes you and my Drill Instructors quickly set about fixing me.
In my interview with the company I was quiet and unsure of myself. They told me later that they barely understood what I was saying. I don't think anybody meeting me after the Marine Corps would have that same impression. My girlfriend tends to elbow me when I'm being too gregarious. Before I was self- absorbed but afterwards I would joke that I'd willingly walk down main street naked if it wouldn't get me arrested. Other Marines tend to laugh knowingly at that. There's just some things you stop caring about after boot camp.
After boot camp and schools, Marines are placed with their platoons for training. Even in a time of war you end up with time off. Like most I spent a fair amount of time drinking away the day in the off-hours, but it turned out that my programming itch hadn't died at all. Every time they'd scream at us to, "Go to the barracks and standby," I'd sit around and hack for a while.
It wasn't the hours I'd spent before. It was for me, for fun. I worked on TOra after the original author left, played games and still got in plenty of time at the bar with the guys.
So, even though I was in the Infantry and my job involved a somewhat different set of skills, I was still a programmer at heart. I love coding.
I once worked for a product design firm that had some fantastically creative people. The designed many of the sexy computers and gadgets any geek would recognize on sight. What is interesting though, is that they allowed their senior engineers to take sabbaticals.
This company realized that even though they were engineers, they weren't on the manufacturing line. In fact, their jobs required enormous creativity. It was expected that all of their employees would burn out given enough time.
But they had a way out, a way to take an extended time off and return, refreshed. Now I think of my time in the Marine Corps as an odd kind of sabbatical. I don't think it's necessary to live without stress to solve burn out or I would be a bottle of nerves. Instead, maybe the important thing was to turn off the creativity spigot for a while.
After long enough, that creativity burst out of me.
Now, I'm not recommending that every one struggling with burn-out go join the Marines. You'll regret it while you're in and miss it after you leave. But there was all this discussion lately if one could really leave programming. What, are we whining too much?
No, burning out is perfectly normal. Especially if you did everything wrong like I did. So I would encourage people to take all of those vacation days you've saved up. Or take a job that's radically different. Maybe writing programs for a different industry would do the trick.
Now I'm purposefully trying to work smarter. No more crazy hours unless absolutely necessary. I'm writing again. I keep a personal life now, and I cannot wait until my danged Android Dev Phone gets here. In my own time I do things I like. And you know what, I think I'm writing better code than ever.