The Burnout — An Engineer Becomes Disillusioned

Read­ing Time: 4 min­utes

The Burnout

You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and get­ting bored.” — Cliff Bur­ton

I used to won­der how a per­son can “burn out,” get bored, or oth­er­wise grow tired of doing some­thing they absolute­ly love. I real­ly nev­er under­stood the premise, and I did­n’t under­stand the peo­ple to whom it hap­pened. Until it hap­pened to me.

To be fair, after hav­ing been diag­nosed with a pret­ty rare form of can­cer mid­way through last year, it’s not ret­ro­spec­tive­ly sur­pris­ing that my focus would change; that I would want to spend more time with fam­i­ly and less study­ing to the nth degree the var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies I love. That was­n’t it, though.

I felt tired. An almost depressed kind of tired, to the point that I was just going through the motions but with no par­tic­u­lar excite­ment about any of it. The books from Cis­co Press and INE, the stacks of RFC print­outs, and the hun­dreds of pages of white-papers on this or that tech­nol­o­gy sat in my office only occa­sion­al­ly mov­ing when one of my odd­ly over­weigh cats clum­si­ly knocked some­thing over in a vein attempt to gain high­er ground.

In short, I was done; done with the argu­ments about Apple vs. Microsoft, or Android vs. iPhone, BSD and Lin­ux, Emacs and Vi. I start­ed spend­ing my free time watch­ing more tele­vi­sion with my fam­i­ly think­ing that meant qual­i­ty time, when it most­ly just meant pass­ing time. I began a cou­ple of hob­bies, start­ed plan­ning more vaca­tions to warmer places, and gen­er­al­ly found myself just being.

Just recent­ly, how­ev­er, I had a rev­e­la­tion. It was­n’t that I was burned out on the whole of IT, I was burned out on two things: stuff that does­n’t mat­ter, and main­te­nance. To wit:

The lit­tle things that I was burned out on were all of the lit­tle, pet­ty, fair­ly unim­por­tant things that every­one in IT gets hung up on at some point: the “this vs. that” argu­ments that inevitably devolve into qua­si holy wars. To be hon­est, I could­n’t care less which phone you have or which oper­at­ing sys­tem you use; if it works for you, great.

That’s a minor point, though. The big point of burnout for me was the maintenance–the dai­ly grind of reset­ting pass­words, look­ing at end­less streams of alerts, sched­ul­ing main­te­nance win­dows, nego­ti­at­ing with man­age­ment, bud­get­ing, re-bud­get­ing, etc. This is what I’ll call the cat-herd­ing part of my world. This is the part that was burn­ing me out.

I sat down one night and start­ed read­ing one of the clas­sic self-help books–which one escapes me this sec­ond, but prob­a­bly Dale Carnegie or some such–and I start­ed think­ing about what it is that I actu­al­ly enjoy about IT. What is it that drew me in when I was much, much younger and sus­tained me for so long?

The short answer? Projects. Fig­ur­ing stuff out, imple­ment­ing new tech­nolo­gies, mak­ing some­thing work that solves a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. That’s what gets the prover­bial juices flow­ing. That’s what I need­ed to get back to.

Through­out most of my career I’ve been a bit of a des­ig­nat­ed hit­ter. What do I mean by that? I mean that I’ve done a lot of post-sales imple­men­ta­tion, and pre-sales engi­neer­ing, and a lot of evan­ge­liz­ing of dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies. In short, I’ve been the guy who helps a com­pa­ny fix a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem.

For the last few years, how­ev­er, I’ve got­ten away from that. I’ve become a suc­cess­ful Sr. Net­work Engi­neer and IT Man­ag­er of a mul­ti-nation­al com­pa­ny and I’ve spent almost 7 years rebuild­ing an entire world wide net­work from the ground up. It’s been thrilling, chal­leng­ing, and frus­trat­ing all at the same and dif­fer­ent times.

Now, how­ev­er, the net­work is almost all done. It is built. The prob­lems have all been solved, and now we’re in a main­te­nance mode–where the focus shifts from expand­ing and prob­lem solv­ing to main­te­nance and cost-cut­ting. And there­in lies the crux of the issue.

It may be that I’m some sort of masochist, or extreme type‑A per­son­al­i­ty, but I have an almost nar­cis­sis­tic, obses­sive need to be fix­ing some­thing. With me, it is not a case of “if it’s not broke, don’t touch it,” it is more like “if it’s not broke, I don’t care about it.”

To wrap it up for now, it seems as if what I’ve been deal­ing with is not a case of burnout at all; it is bore­dom. And that, my friends, is much more insid­i­ous. I’m much more aware now of all that bore­dom can do: It drags you down, it robs you of the joy of mov­ing for­ward, and it takes the fun out of what used to sus­tain you.

The good news, how­ev­er, is that with this aware­ness comes a bet­ter, move revived focus, and I’m start­ing to come alive again. I’m start­ing to look for­ward to the con­ven­tions, to the new tech­nolo­gies, and to some of the inevitable argu­ments and tech­nol­o­gy holy wars. In the mean­time, I’m off to reset some pass­words and work on some bud­gets… at least until the next big thing comes along.