Today I invested way too much of my time contemplating my future. These thoughts were primarily based on these pieces by Ed Finkler and Matt Gemmell. Both of these articulate men spoke about feeling burned out.
Ed has at least 15 years of web developer experience and Matt recently left software development to become a full time writer.
Here is my story.
I began programming in earnest in March of 2012. I began going to school for programming in 2010, but I was working at the time and I didn’t have the time or energy to really immerse myself in programming. By March 2012 I had unofficially dropped out of school and had walked away from programming feeling defeated.
I began a new job. The second week I was there our team lead walked in, closed all the doors, and told all of us under no circumstances were we to tell anyone in the company that we had no work to do and that we were to pretend to be busy.
Along with looking for another job, I also started working through the tutorials on Code Academy. It looked kind of like work and it was something to occupy my time. Ever tried doing nothing 40 hours a week? It’s living torture. Doing those tutorials kept me from having a complete nervous breakdown.
Miraculously, I discovered that if I spent 40 hours a week coding, I actually was able to learn it. Before I embarked on this experiment I had to look up how to write a “for” loop. I got to a point where I could just code. I didn’t feel stupid, I could do things and make stuff work. I felt amazing.
I was eventually fired from my job, but I actually finally understood what I needed to do in order to be a programmer. I needed to code. A lot.
I went back to school and I was on unemployment. It was going to take a year and a half to finish my programming degree, so I set out to code a lot. I gave up everything I used to love doing to learn programming. I would wake up at 7:00 in the morning and code 10-12 hours a day. I would code tutorials over and over again until I understood them.
I assumed this was temporary. I figured I would learn enough to find a job and that eventually I would be able to get some of my life back. I would be able to read fiction books. I would be able to cross stitch. I could learn to make candy. I would be able to take a weekend off. Hell, I would be able to go on a vacation!!
None of this has happened yet.
I have never been able to get back to the feeling I had when I initially mastered the fundamentals of programming. There has always been another obstacle to overcome. I learned object orientation. I learned to build user interfaces. I learned design patterns. I’m learning a whole new fucking language.
The only thing that gets me through all of this is the idea that somehow, some day I will gain a critical mass of knowledge where I will be able to take a break. I am not talking about never learning another new thing ever again, I am talking about being able to go on a cruise for a week without bringing my computer and having a panic attack because I am wasting time I could be spending reading programming books. I am talking about being able to think about possibly having kids without thinking that it would completely and utterly derail my career. I am talking about being able to write and produce an application without having to immediately go back and redo it because everything changed a week after I finished it.
I regularly work myself to exhaustion. I will be laying in bed completely incapacitated feeling guilty that I am not working. I give myself migraines where I have to have my Kindle pried from my hands because I feel like I should be reading a programming book when I am about to throw up from the pain and I should be asleep.
I don’t want to be Sisyphus. I don’t want to get so close to getting that boulder up to the top of the hill only to watch it fall back down to the bottom. It is fucking demoralizing to see everything you know crumble to dust before your eyes and having to start over.
There is a chapter in one of Anthony Bourdain’s books talking about how when you go to a celebrity chef’s restaurant, like Wolfgang Puck’s, your food isn’t being prepared by Wolfgang Puck, it’s usually being prepared by a guy named Jesus or Jorge. He says being a chef is grueling and you don’t have guys chained to their kitchens into their sixties. He pleads that these guys put decades of their lives into their craft, don’t they deserve a break? Why should programmers be any different?
Everyone has a certain number of times they can watch their life’s work go up in smoke before they say fuck it, I give up. I am not there yet, but I can seriously see a time ten, fifteen years from now when I am there. I don’t think it is healthy for us to just accept that everyone is going to either get career burnout or career obsolescence. There has to be a healthy, sustainable way for everyone to be able to adapt to change at a pace that is reasonable. It isn’t right to treat people like resources to be used and discarded when they can’t take it anymore or want to have some semblance of a normal life. This isn’t too much to ask.