9

I've been with my company for three years now. I've been the only developer on a major project with a major client for the previous year and a half. For much of that time I was fine with this arrangement, even as responsibilities increased and the project went into production, as there would often be several weeks of downtime between sprints, for testing, planning, and to allow other teams to build on what I had created.

About two months ago, we suffered several systemic failures of the software in a very short period of time, all but two of which were from outside influences which we could not have anticipated (and, in fairness, I immediately owned up to the ones caused by my code or work). I was removed from responsibility on all other projects to go into full-blown triage mode. I spent the better part of a month finding the depth of the issues and fixing the underlying data in coordination with the client and the rest of the team.

Now we're finding that more and more design decisions we made a year and a half ago are coming back to haunt us. I've implemented and thrown away fixes because we realized they weren't sufficient. We also know there are more issues outstanding which we haven't begun to analyze. On top of this, we need to implement changes requested by the client, and are likely to miss the client's deadline for the second time in a row because my focus has been directed on the more urgent issues. We also know we have more to implement for our internal users, which was agreed before all the issues started coming up, and subsequently put onto the backburner.

Basically, I don't see an end in sight to this project within the next few months. I'm not sure it will transition to maintenance mode within any reasonable time frame. I'm less and less motivated to work on it every day, especially as it seems that every few days a new issue will crop up just as I'm finishing fixing the last one. I fear that if nothing is done, I'll continue in this Groundhog Day-esque cycle of implementing ad-hoc, insufficient fixes, with no promise they'll ever see the light of day. I feel pressure (admittedly of my own creation) to do everything I can to make us look good to the client. It feels like it keeps compounding, and I'm taking longer and longer to work on basic tasks because I just can't convince myself it's worthwhile. I identify strongly with the coworker discussed in this question.

My therapist has suggested that I do two things:

  1. Take a few days off to refresh. Not a bad idea, but I find it difficult to believe that a vacation will motivate me to keep working on this perpetual project. I'll just be back into the grinder when I return.

  2. Sit down with my boss and explain that I feel unmotivated to work. I don't know if there's much he can do, though. I'm not sure any other developer in the company has the resources to take on my role for this project (and I'd feel like a real jerk for pushing this responsibility onto them). But, perhaps something surprising will happen, and a solution could be reached.

I do like the company and position - good culture, pay is fair, and I believe they're well-positioned for the future. But at the same time, it's alluring to change jobs entirely and not have to deal with this any longer, if an internal reassignment isn't possible. I've started talking to recruiters and sending out applications. But I'm concerned that if I do tell my boss how I'm feeling, and then start frequently taking time off (for interviews), he'll realize I'm interviewing and become distrustful of me. I don't want to burn any bridges. I also don't want to look like I'm just running away from responsibilities.

So, my question is: is it unprofessional to seek a new job as a solution to feeling burned out, if other solutions may exist?

  • 2
    Hire more people? Not permanent staff. Outside consultants to take up responsibility in areas that are not your expertise. You need to delegate responsibilities so when things go wrong, you can then call a number and say "Fix this please, within the time frame specified in our contract." – Nelson Oct 31 '16 at 1:51
  • 1
    @Nelson I hadn't considered that. This is a systems integration project which requires a deep understanding of the architecture of the company's internal systems; in my mind the company may prefer to expend the training effort on an FT employee. – user59442 Oct 31 '16 at 2:37
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    I have to agree with @JoeStrazzere that you need to ensure that the problem does not originally lie within yourself. How you put it, though, does seem like a significant change of the situation was objectively happening. – Alfe Oct 31 '16 at 10:50
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    I've been through this a few times. It sucks. I suggest you don't take time off. Because once you come back to work, there will be a lot of stuff waiting for you. The best thing to do is talk your boss and listen to what he has to say about this, – undefined Oct 31 '16 at 13:49
  • Be careful with adding external temporary staff. You need to be wary of Brooks' Law. Adding new people to a late project makes it later. Your comment suggests that you are probably already aware of this. – Masked Man Oct 31 '16 at 19:24
25

It is perfectly professional to seek a new job for any reason. Putting aside all the corporate mumbo jumbo (loyalty to company, career progression, etc.), the employer pays you to do a job, and you commit to doing it to the best of your abilities as long as you are employed there. You are not under any lifetime obligation to serve the employer.

Your health is a damn good reason for almost anything. It should always have a higher priority than finishing some project. Your employer's world won't come to an end if a project fails, while your world most certainly will if your health fails. Also, if your performance drops (due to poor health or otherwise), your employer will not hesitate to fire you after their patience runs out. Burning your health to keep your employer's flame alive is a massive mistake.

Even so, you don't need to (and shouldn't) pull off a Screw This, I'm Outta Here, as you can easily manage the situation better. Seeking help – from your therapist – was the right thing to do. I cannot emphasise this point enough. A lot of people don't find solutions to their problems because they keep fighting alone, and don't ask for help when they need it.

Sit down with my boss and explain that I feel unmotivated to work. I don't know if there's much he can do, though.

It is your manager's job to manage your workload and to keep you motivated. Let your manager do his job.1 Your manager can certainly do a lot more than what you think he can do. He has more authority and responsibility than you to get things done (and gets paid more than you for that reason). However, he cannot solve your problem if he doesn't know it exists.

I'm not sure any other developer in the company has the resources to take on my role for this project (and I'd feel like a real jerk for pushing this responsibility onto them).

Hate to put it so bluntly, but you are completely wrong here. Continuing from the above paragraphs, it is completely acceptable to seek help when you cannot handle a problem alone. You don't need to shoulder all the burden, let your manager deal with who can take your role, because that is his job.

I'm concerned that if I do tell my boss how I'm feeling, and then start frequently taking time off (for interviews), he'll realize I'm interviewing and become distrustful of me.

I understand (and empathize with) your pessimism, as it is a natural feeling when you are already burned out. However, it is unfair to assume that your manager won't be able to help when you have not even asked. You need to give your manager some time to change things. Taking time off to attend interviews starting the day after you discuss your issue may certainly burn a bridge, as it would signal that you don't trust your manager to help you.

If things don't improve after a month or so, then it is fair enough for you to look for other solutions. You gave your manager enough time to resolve your issue. He tried solving the problem but failed, so any reasonable manager shouldn't hold it against you, and it doesn't count as burning a bridge, in my opinion. If he does hold it against you, then that bridge is not worth preserving.


1 One of the best managers I have reported to once made this remark which I will never forget: "If the company expected you to solve all your problems on your own, why would they pay me more than you?"

  • 2
    +1. While you can always leave, I've known too many engineers whose career is full of this hero/martyr/burnout/quit/repeat cycle, and it doesn't reflect well on them. Develop the skills to break the cycle for a more effective professional career. – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 31 '16 at 16:38
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    "Your health is a damn good reason for almost anything". I am always amazed at what people will suffer through for their jobs. It's a relationship like any other but seems to have a hold on people unlike any other. People will put up with things work related that they probably never would outside of work. – camden_kid Nov 1 '16 at 15:57
  • @camden_kid A lot of employers guilt employees into having a bad work/life balance. – Qix Nov 18 '16 at 19:30
3

There are several aspects to talk about in this situation.

  1. The environment isn't ideal. As you put it here, this is mainly not your responsibility. Your employer should (try to) improve the situation. They should reduce the stress level by ensuring that no employee feels as stressed by being irreplaceable as you currently do. A good management always ensures that any employee can drop out without endangering whole projects.
    They also should keep a close relationship and talk to their employees regularly and personally to ensure they know about such situations. If they don't, they endanger their projects, but to my experience, many managers skip this as soon as they come to the conclusion that they couldn't do anything about it anyway. But even if that is true, being noticed and understood is very important for any individual and reduces a lot of stress.
  2. If the management isn't approaching the problem appropriately, it would be professional for the employer to seek communication with them to inform them about the situation. This is supposed to them acknowledge the situation, especially if they are closing their eyes due their feeling of lack of influence (see above) up to this point. As a professional, give your management all chances to do what ever they can about the situation and urge them to do something. Leaving without trying all options in this direction lacks professionality.
  3. If all this fails and does not improve the situation, make sure the management is informed about your growing wish to leave before you actually decide to leave. This applies mostly to the irreplaceable people of course, and I know that this sounds like a tall order; a true professional finds a way to make this clear without it sounding like the decision is already made. It's a matter of communication, choosing the proper wording, phrasing, also choosing the situation when to say it is important. I cannot give more detailed advice on this because it is too dependent on the personal relationships between the people involved. With one boss it might be necessary to shout at him through the room, "I can always quit!", with another the weakest innuendo could be enough ("I've got that friend in that other company, and yesterday she called me.").
    It might also be okay to relay the message through other people.
  4. If nothing helps, it is professional to leave the company. In this case, try to ensure that you will have enough time to hand over your work, either by documenting everything properly or by instructing other people on how to do it. Make sure you can make a clean cut at the end, do not expect to be available "in emergency cases". As a professional, you should prepare to concentrate on your new job completely after the switch over has taken place. Also consider your remaining vacation days; in Germany it is often possible to drop them and get them paid instead; I don't know about other countries. Dropping them is a last resort in my eyes.

tl;dr ① Don't be secretive. ② Don't let yourself be eaten up. ③ Leave after giving hints if you decide that is best for you. After all it is your employer's responsibility to handle the situation of a leaving employee, not yours. You get paid for your work, your employer for the success of the company.

  • One general aspect about communication (hence I don't put it in the answer): There are always situations possible where communication is disrupted, complicated, or not possible at all. If you feel that giving information (like about your growing wish to leave) might making working together impossible ("don't stop a rolling stone"-misjudgement), even if you then decide to stay, then you have no choice but to stay secretive until your decision is done. – Alfe Oct 31 '16 at 10:57
0

As said in other answer if you want to find a new job and leave that is your right for any reason. But this problem will recur because these problems recur. It will be a different problem and have different stressors, but the reality is this is the field you are in and this is how it goes sometimes. If you quit your job every time it recurs you will end up unhappy with your career choice.

So instead I think you should try to figure out what the problem is that is causing you to burn out quickly. Is it that you are basically the only person working on this? Or maybe its the fact that you have no road map for success on the project. Maybe its because you feel like you are failing. There are solutions to each of these problems or what ever the core of your problem is. I would bet it is all 3 and maybe some others.

If I was in this situation I would try to step back and evaluate what is going on, what is failing and/or causing me to feel like I am failing. I would try to arrange my thoughts on this and come up with some things I would like to see changed to may the situation better.

It is important to stay professional and evaluate the failures not as someones fault but just as challenges to overcome. It is easy to fall into the trap of this is not my fault but I am being blamed for the whole problem. The reality is it is no one's fault. It is something that happens when trying to implement a new process. I doubt anyone is intentionally blaming you, but your manager may have decided that your role in the project was key, and that you are the person most likely to succeed in resolving the issue. If your manager did not think this, then their assigning you to solve this problem is a huge failure on their part. But I would go into the situation assuming the best, that your boss thinks you are the best option.

Then I would meet with my manager and discuss what I see and feel with them. Make sure you are on the same page and that yes the goal is to succeed with the project, and that this in not intended as a punishment for you.

If it is intended as punishment or penance for your part in the original project failures then you are probably right in your assessment that it is time to move on. Just accept the outcome of the meeting, then start your job hunt, while doing what you can to make your situation better for you, what ever that is.

Assuming it is not punishment and that the decision was made to that you were the best choice to fix the bad situation, then you and your manager should have the same goal. Discuss your ideas for making it better, and see if your manager has any ideas of their own. Establish some recurring meetings on a fairly short basis until you feel confident there is an end to the tunnel you feel like you are in even if you cant quite see the light yet.

It might be that you need to back up and bring in a project manager or process engineer to help set the course. You are right that fighting the fires over and over again is not going to get you to a point where you are in maintenance mode in any foreseeable future. It is ok to not know how to solve the problem. It is not ok to refuse to admit that and not ask for help in figuring it out.

-2

For me it will make you even a better employee. Because if you're feeling burned out your performance will be less. So leaving will be a good thing for both, you and your employer.

  • 1
    That is an interesting perspective and I can understand why you say so. However, I would not recommend the "burnout, leave, repeat" routine. – Masked Man Oct 31 '16 at 18:42

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