I would sit at my desk, look at the interesting topic in front of me, and blank out. It was time for a more radical change.

Photo by Tangerine Newt / Unsplash

Living at Alo Land follows a 15 years stint as a software engineer – most of it in SRE, for those in the know – at a tech company. In hindsight it was a great change, but at the time it felt miserable. I had burned out.

I first noticed something was off in the autumn of 2019. It felt like I was more easily getting irritated with the kids, sleeping less, and generally in a more sustained tense and anxious mood than I remember ever being. Inês had of course noticed before I did and had tried to gently point it out, but I didn't listen.

The Company had an employee assistance program that made it easy to talk to a therapist, so I did. Multiple sessions across the months led nowhere: I was not obviously depressed and I did not have ADHD. It was suggested, but I was certainly not keen to experiment with antidepressants to see if it would make a difference.

By spring of 2020, things had gotten significantly worse. The pandemic and first wave lockdown had arrived. After more than a year of technical and political work, I had not made progress on carving a clear, useful purpose for the team I was responsible for. It felt like I was letting down the people in the team, but I had to find a new role. At this point, leaving the Company hadn't even occurred to me. They made it easy to switch teams and I was fortunate enough to find another suitable one.

In July 2020 – after a 5 week vacation – I started what was in theory an ideal role for me:

  • It had a high-level, open ended mission that I was free to pursue as I wished.
  • The goal was worthwhile to the Company and its users.
  • Everybody I talked to was eager to answer my questions and help. Nobody felt like I was stepping on their territory.
  • I had a great manager, whom I knew well from previous roles. His manager used to be my own manager for the longest time at the Company and had always been my supporter and partner in crime.

The first task was to take a couple months learning about the complex systems involved and the issues I was supposed to help solve. This is amongst my favorite things to do: reading about and learning new things, poking around, asking questions.

It quickly became clear that I wasn't managing to do much at all. This was not the usual imposter syndrome: I would sit at my desk, look at the interesting topic in front of me, and blank out. I kept at it, knowing that I sometimes have periods of less than ideal performance. Days and weeks went by, but things got worse instead of improving.

It was time for a more radical change. I took all of my remaining vacation time – almost 5 months of it by that point, accumulated over the years – knowing that it was unlikely to be enough and that I'd probably not return.

Inês and I spent some time considering our situation. The pandemic had reminded us that we had no social safety net in Switzerland. Without a steady income, it would also have been financially irresponsible to stay there. We decided to move to Portugal to be closer to family and to make our savings last longer, then figure out a longer term plan once we'd settled. The rest was just logistics and a long drive. I quit my job once the vacation ended at the end of the year.

It took a while before I felt like things were starting to get better. I was still very tired, still too grumpy too often, still irritable at the kids. One of the most helpful things I did was to start riding my bike almost every morning, pushing myself physically and enjoying the surrounding nature. Bit by bit, I started feeling better. Things are still improving as I write this.

A few months later I read something a former colleague wrote:

burnout = (responsibility without effecting change) * time

That felt like it was describing my situation at work in the second to last role. I had the ability to effect change but did not manage to do so. I kept trying, ignoring the warning signs until it was too late. It was a painful experience, but that's how we learn. Right now, I'm just grateful for the changes it led to.