A Budding Computer Scientist

A Game of Monster: One Technology nut’s 5 ways of dealing with Technology burn-out.

I have had quite a few conversations of late around the topic of technology and role burn-out. It kind of goes with the territory when you are part of two large firms that are in the process of merging and integrating every aspect of what they do together. It is not easy. Everything is in play. Work and tech Philosophies, technology decisions, processes, organization principles and people movement. It is generally a scary time. That is all part of the territory of such things. But one strong undercurrent from many I have talked to revolves around how to stay motivated in such chaos. How to stay focused on the technology jobs at hand. In a few of these I began to get a bit reflective of my own journey of finding passion and the fight to keep it over the course of my career. This is likely going to be a longish read, and maybe more tech professional focused, so turn back now all ye with no stamina and who have abandoned hope. My hope is to at a minimum share some lessons on how I deal with the craziness of work at the intersection of technology, life, and moving forward.

The Monster Arrives…

“Your Uncle John drove up to Minnesota and he brought back your Uncle Richard last night. Uncle Richard will be staying with your grandma until after Christmas.” Said my mom as she roused my brother and I from our beds for school on a Friday morning. “We will be going over tomorrow morning for you to see him.” It was December 1981.

The nine year old version of me was both excited and slightly hesitant. Why? My Uncle Rich was a bit of an enigma. While most of our family lived in the Chicago area, he lived in far away exotic Minnesota. Which as far as I could tell was just a few miles short of the Arctic Circle. Whenever he was in town, he would play a game called “Monster” with us. Monster was a modified version of hide and seek. My brother and I, and my cousins if they were in town as well, would hide in my grandmother’s basement and he would come and look for us. If he found us he would tickle the living crap out of you. We did not have to hide incredibly well, you see, as he was blind. It was a fun game… at least until you got caught. At which point the tickle torture grew to unbearable levels. He could use his heightened sense of hearing and touch to incredible effectiveness.

On one of his previous visits he had removed his glass eye (without our knowledge). As he entered into the room he closed his eyes really tight and his arm outstretched. He then declared that he was still keeping an eye on us. It was then that we saw the glass eye in his hand. Crazy blind guy humor. But you can see why my excitement had just a tinge of hesitancy. He was fun, smart, and half-crazy.

I dont recall the exact specifics, but my uncle had gone blind sometime between the ages of 12-14 years old. He and a friend were in an empty field filling old vanilla bottles with some kind of chemical agents that would react when shaken and ultimately explode. They would fill the bottles, shake aggressively, and throw the bottles watching them explode harmlessly in the grass. On one unfortunate throw, the bottle exploded mere inches from his face, mid-throw, forever costing him his sight in one eye, and most of his sight in the other.

I will spare you the hardships that followed, but eventually he went on to college (the first person in the family ever to do so) where he got involved with the emerging field of computer science. This ultimately led him to Rochester, Minnesota and a position at IBM as a programmer in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The Monster Awaits!

The next morning we piled into the car and headed to our grandmother’s house. Excitement was in the air. The car ride was full of my brother and sharing thoughts around new MONSTER strategies, thoughts of new hiding places, and the occasional terror-filled thought of getting caught.

When we arrived we raced up the porch stairs and rang the bell. My grandmother arrived at the door and despite her small demeanor managed to sweep both of us into her arms in a flurry of hugs and kisses as only a grandmother can do. But our target was Uncle Richard. We wiggled free and bolted past her. As we came around the corner of the front doorway we spotted him. He was sitting at desk in the family room with an eerie green glow on his face. We ran up to him and he turned to greet us. I am sure he said something about missing us or whatever, but my eyes were locked on the strange green television, creme and black colored box, and weird type-writer sitting upon the desk where my grandmother would write letters and do her bills.

It was an original IBM PC. When I say original, I mean, like one of the first few off the production line. By that evening, as he sat there in the green-tinted darkness with his thick bottlecap glasses staring at the monochrome screen it seemed to me that he had brought some kind of alien technology. His screen was full of magical letters and numbers (turns out it was Assembler….Which in its own right is kind of magical and arcane), and by typing and creating more of these combinations into the keyboard you could make the computer do different things. I sat in amazement, wonder, an intense focus. I was totally hooked.

Over the following few weeks (it was a holiday break) we spent a lot of time over at grandma’s house. It turns out that my uncle had quit IBM and was pursing an idea he thought would be a huge success. He was going “Start-Up” before there was such a thing. In the end, like most start-ups it ultimately ended up not going anywhere. But those few weeks had sparked a fire inside me. Over that holiday, whenever the adults would play cards, eat, talk, or do whatever adults do – I would be allowed to “play” on the computer. My uncle had taken time to try and teach me how Assembler worked, but it was mostly out the grasp of this nine year old’s brain (although I did manage to figure out basic calculations with a calculator program he had written to show me the basics). We quickly moved to the Basic programming language. Which is probably where we should have started. In very short order I was creating programs printing stuff to the screen, asking for users input and even getting to conditional checking. “I” was making the computer do things! and it was electric.

Becoming my own Sorcerer

Eventually my uncle went back home to the exotic lands of Minnesota and I lost access to the marvelous machine. We did not have a lot of money growing up but my parents recognized my intense interest and wanted to encourage it. So every summer for the next 5 years they would drive me to the Greyhound bus station, put me alone on a bus with a destination of Rochester Minnesota. I would get picked up by my uncle (who would usually walk there) and he would spend a whole month each summer teaching me computer science and programming skills. Different times. Today that would probably be child endangerment. But for me it was a giant adventure.

Shortly after that magical Christmas season my dad had taken on an extra job and by 1983 they surprised me with my very own computer. I was out of my mind. It was an IBM PCjr. The Peanut. Now, the distance of time has not been kind to the PCjr (nor were contemporary reviews), but it was the first of its kind in many ways. I had had a chance to mess around with other computers in the intervening two years – but they all felt like toys. The PCjr was a “real” computer. Looking back on that now decades later, it makes me appreciate it even more. For my parents, scrimping and saving, and then spending that kind of considerable money on something they didn’t even understand on a policeman’s salary was a real sacrifice and expression of love.

I remember running downstairs into our basement to set it up. After six straight hours, my mother called down and stated that I needed to “Come up for air!”. It’s a refrain I would hear until I went away to live at college. What she did not realize is that the basement had all of the air I wanted. I took apart my PCjr to study the hardware and tried to figure out how it worked. I studied the DOS manuals and made sure I knew what every program did, memorized every switch to every command, and thought about how I could make it better, wrote elaborately complex programs and even wrote my first computer game. I would cash in bottles and cans, search couches for change, do extra chores, and whatever else I could to save up to run to the store to purchase the latest Dr. Dobbs Journal, Byte Magazine, and countless other now extinct periodicals dedicated to the craft but lost to time. My Christmas lists consisted of tech books, programming language manuals, and more. Remember this was before the Internet was a massively commercially viable thing and you had to work to get the information you wanted. But it was a glorious pursuit!

My pursuits continued to expand leading up to setting up my first bulletin board system (BBS). Incredibly it also came with the Pascal source code, so I bought of copy of Borland’s Turbo Pascal, learned it, all so I could modify, recompile, and make it my own. Then not satisfied with that I eventually wrote my own software in C. That then forced me to learn how to program serial ports, telecommunications, hardware interrupts and more. All of this eventually led me to to the Internet and working at hyper scale and widely distributed systems, horizontal scaling and the stuff I call fun today.

A new and Different Monster!

My passion and thirst for knowledge was virtually unquenchable. It still is. But one of the dangers you face when your passion is also your day job is burn-out. When your passion becomes work, you run the risk of dimming your fire just a little, then a little more, then you begin to fatigue. When your job also includes high amounts of stress – that fire is in danger of going out completely.

I have struggled with this on and off throughout my career. I have found myself in gulfs where the very last thing I want to do will involve electronics, computers, programming, or anything to do with technology. These moments are usually combined with times of high pressure or stress at work and I would allow those situations to be projected onto my love for technology. My solution, though far from complete really involves five things to remember.

1. Run away!

First, realize its okay to take a complete break from it and do something completely different. Even at the height of my young passion, I still went outside, rode bikes, played sports, got into fights, played king of the hill and more. With the incredible pace and momentum of how technology moves I often felt guilty when I could not keep up. I viewed time away as unproductive and somehow putting me behind. Its likely some character flaw that I have, but I had to come to the realization that this was alright. The biggest benefit here is that those breaks can lead you to bigger and better things. It can give you the distance and clarity to find ways to think differently and help you solve for issues you have been working on for months. It can change and re-set your priorities in work and life, it can modify your approaches, or force you to change. Some of my greatest ideas, solutions, decisions, and victories have come when I have done this. You may not be able to avoid going to work, just like you could not avoid going to school, but you can choose what you do afterwards and on weekends.

2. Hide and embrace the Quiet!

Those who know me best know that I oscillate from intensely private to enthusiastic extroversion. Essentially – The quiet time recharges my public “on-air” time and brings me to a level of calm. It’s a cycle I have had for as long as I can remember. I call it my No Think Time. The amount of “No Think Time” I need always differs depending upon the day, the situation, and the things in front of me. The challenge here is that I do not try and “think” at all. I am not advocating new age transcendental meditation (but if thats your jam, have at it!), or deep breathing exercises, or anything like that. I just sit in my home office, listen to music and veg out. I sometimes do it in the car on my drive home (Atlanta traffic allows for multitudes of such opportunities). I do not purposefully think of anything. I try to just embrace the quiet. Thoughts come. Thoughts go. If something interesting does float by, write it down. I always have my handy Moleskine notebook at the ready. The most dangerous thing here is that you may fall asleep. While probably fine while sitting in your office, I would not recommend it in Atlanta traffic.

3. Seek Ye Odd Folk for Protection

Diversify your friendships outside of work and away from those that look, sound, and play with the same things you do. This is easier said than done and will take some time. Being insular in who you surround yourself with is just another way of building high walls which may keep you bound to the things that are burning you out. You will need to put yourself out there, tap into your spouse or significant other, friends of friends, childhood and high school friends, college friends, and more. Finding folks with intersecting but different interests can be a boon to recharge you, but like all friendships it takes a little effort from you too. Over the years I have collected a menagerie of odd folks and associations that have kept me guessing, learning, and giving me experiences that have allowed me to take interesting breaks from the things that normally dominate my brain. My last big party had an attendance list that included a builder, a financial analyst, a retired professional athlete, a police officer, a manufacturer of gourmet pickles, an actuary, an elementary school teacher, a heating and cooling guy, a college professor, a dry-waller, a nurse and their respective better halves. That was one crazy party.

4. Stay On-Passion, but Off-Topic

This is one of my main go-to solutions when I start to feel the burn-out. Force yourself to go learn or revisit another area or topic that has nothing to do with what you are doing now. Maybe it is something that you know nothing about but want to learn, maybe its an area of technology that has changed significantly over the years since you last looked at it. It allows me to engage my passion in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with what I am doing at work. Even getting yourself set up to be able to do this can be empowering. While people joke about the fact that I effectively run a hybrid cloud environment for those things I do exclusively for me. The assortment and Hodge-podge of technology projects scattered across my home and cloud environments can all be boiled down into a desire continuing my to pursue my passion. None of it is work related. One of my most favorite things to do is to pick up a new programming language or refresh an old one. It really has nothing to do with my work or how I lead a technology organization. Its about feeding that inner passion. It is absolutely critical that I do things that are not aligned with what I do at work. There is no feeling like success getting a complex piece of code to work in a new programming language to, or to build projects with technology I have passing or no knowledge at all. Go sign up for EDX, Codecademy, watch Youtube videos, if you prefer instructor led education go to a bootcamp, enroll in a local college course if your life allows. Give yourself other technology vegetables to eat.

5. If you find yourself in the Monster’s clutches – Laugh even when it hurts.

Sometimes the burn-out just sneaks up on you and hits you hard. Despite your best intentions. Despite all of your efforts to distract yourself. Sometimes you are caught by the Monster. It could be accelerated by a bad leader or manager. It could be ridiculous hours at work. It could be unrealistic deadline expectations. It could be that you are just fed up with the normal corporate processes of ineptitude via the office of progress prevention. Whatever it is – sometimes you get caught.

It is important when this happens to remember that the condition of this pain is temporary. One way or another it will resolve itself. Either the Monster will move to its next target, you will beat it, or the game will end. While it’s hard to do so, laugh, enjoy it, and learn from it in the way that only you can. Remember, to even be where you are you have had to already master incredibly powerful magic. The only sorcerer who knows or does what you do, is you. That struggle gives you a great opportunity to explore new magic, to give yourself the gift of clarity, to reach out and build new relationships, and most importantly to grow. At the end of your career you wont remember the victories as much as you remember the challenges and struggles you had. They are personal. They make you stronger and once you have overcome it, you will be stronger for the next monster.

\Mm

Comments 3

  1. Mike – great perspective, advice and slice of personal history. When opportunity presents itself, we should all be an Uncle Richard/mentor.

  2. Loved this origin story so much. Substitute “Apple ][+” for PCjr and it could be mine. Thanks for sharing.

    For me, my burnout comes from frustrations and bureaucracy. If I refocus my attention on what I love most, which is “to make the computer do what I say” (as you mentioned), and just build software and products I think are cool, the passion comes back rapidly. Awesomeness heals a lot of frustration.

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