How do I restart my career in IT while drowning in anxiety?
May 26, 2010 1:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I restart my career in IT while drowning in anxiety? In a nutshell, I burned out on IT last year in about August, after the second incredibly toxic work environment I'd had that year.

I'm running out of money, and whilst I am studying a new field full-time (Wine Technology, quite a change), am going to have to go back to work to support myself fairly shortly. And the only thing I really know and have recent(ish) skills in is Ruby on Rails programming.

I have done a lot of volunteer work with events, events organising, and the like, being reasonably active and visible in the .au open source community. I'm also active in my local twitter community, and am trying to overcome my anxiety and get active in my local ruby on rails brigade again.

I find myself in an awkward position. I have a lot of anxiety related to programming, and a lot of bad memories. I don't feel like I can program worth a cent, anymore. I don't know how to start programming again (for fun, even), let alone how to start doing it professionally again. I have been applying for jobs, and seem to be a good fit for most of the positions I've applied for. I just don't know that should I actually get a job offer ... how to get through a working day. Therapy isn't really an option at this time; at least not until after I get a job to pay for it. In the absence of that, what I want to know are the following:
- How do I get back into programming?
- How do I get around my anxiety relating to being in a workplace again?
- How do I get over feeling like a failure for starting a new career?
- How do I address my incredibly negative feelings about the industry?
and lastly:
- Is there some place other than a development job where I could use my skills?
posted by ysabet to Work & Money (9 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
To answer just a few of your points:

If you can get a referral from your GP (and it should't be hard given your situation), you can claim therapist sessions on Medicare. In my case I'm less than $20 out-of-pocket and it really helps.

My suggestion for getting into programming again, is to start off with something small. Just do it for yourself and implement a thing you want. You might think that it will all go wrong, but consider what if it goes right? Focus on thoughts that don't get in your way.

That's all I've got for now.
posted by elephantday at 2:04 AM on May 26, 2010

Could you consider getting back into programming by doing work on a voluntary basis for something you believe in? A charity website, for example? It'd enable to you get back up to speed in a more laid back context, and you'd get the buzz from helping out others.
posted by handee at 2:36 AM on May 26, 2010

I had similar experience, but I wouldn't say I'm in the clear or anything.

I used to do database programming/ASP.NET stuff for this start up about four years ago. I got really, really burned out. Spent a few years as a bike messenger, went back to school, figured I'd never work in IT again.

But then I started doing work for several campus groups and I learned about drupal. Now, drupal is the kind of thing I used to write, but all in all I find it much more enjoyable work. I can get a site up in a day. I know I can always dig under the hood if there's something that needs drastic changing or I need to write a module or whatever.

I'm getting side-tracked here, but two points of advice for you:

1 - Learn something new. It's a great way to fall back in love with IT.

2 - Do something physical. For the anxiety. We programmers spend too much time in seats!
posted by johnnybeggs at 5:02 AM on May 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hi there,

Sorry to hear about your predicament.

Because I am not familiar with your industry I don't know if any advice I can give in regards to your specific questions will be helpful.

In terms of the therapy issue though I have been in a similar place. If you have anxiety/self confidence issues there is more that a good psychologist will be able to do for you than we on the green ever will. Being in Australia there are a number of different ways you can get assistance:
- Seconding the suggestion to talk to a GP about getting a referral to a psychologist under the Medicare referral Scheme. Fact sheet attached. Discuss your need to be referred to a bulk billing provider or someone with a minimal gap payment.
- If you go to uni some universities provide free student counselling services though these can be hard to get into for non-urgent problems. Usually free
- Some university clinics provide counselling at very reduced rates to members of the public with psychologists in clinical training programs. I have had excellent experiences (in Melbourne) with this sort of system. Do not be under the impression you will get some bumbing trainee. I at least got some of the most professional help I could have ever hoped for through this system. Link attached to at least one such uni system: . Obviously we don't know your financial situation but $30 per hour (or $15 if you are a student) seems pretty reasonable especially if you are going once every week or two.

The thing I would say is that although it can be hard my advice is to place a premium on your mental health/trying to sort through these issues. It's no use having another bad experience with no backup or never getting to the starting-the-job phase because anxiety or self confidence issues are holding you back. Addressing the core issues will help deal with all the other questions you ask.

In this sense it may mean looking at therapy as an investment. Training is an investment (even if you defer fees you still have costs). Likewise getting therapy to deal with these things is another one of those things you will have to spend time and money on now for the sake of future opportunities. If you have help to deal with your anxiety over job issues/performance you will be better able to have, continue to hold and get better jobs if the future.

I'm sorry I can't give more specific advice related to your industry. MeMail me if any questions, etc.

Hope that helps.
posted by NeatBeat at 6:12 AM on May 26, 2010

My personal issues do not seem to be as severe, but I've just started doing freelance Ruby on Rails from a similar situation after 15 years of sysadmin and being 2.5 years off from my last job. My only outlay so far has been to spend a little time writing a decent Craigslist "Computer Services" ad. I guess my point here is that you might be able to have your cake and eat it too by using your existing skills for cash money without being in an office.

And looking at your profile, are your misgivings about programming related to being a woman in tech? I'd suggest adopting a healthy "FU" attitude if so. You might also explore the various "Women in Technology" organizations out there. O'Reilly has a blog oriented around this.
posted by rhizome at 9:30 AM on May 26, 2010

1. Define your options, the situations you would like to live, in as specific terms as possible. Commit to one of these.

2. Generate a list of paths towards the goal you have commited to, without judging your ideas one-by-one. Treasure quantity and variety, not perfection.

3. Commit to one of these paths, break it down in really small and concrete sub-steps and perform them one-by-one.

4. Take pride in your progress and enjoy thinking about the future you want to live.

You don't get over your feelings and anxieties, you accept them and act independent of them.
posted by okokok at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got started with computer from a very early age and have been very interested in the field since then. After graduation, I moved up from helpdesk position to analyst programmer to a more full-blown software engineer in 3 years time. I moved around a lot, jumping from company to company each year, and got to know a lot of interesting people and worked on various interesting projects.

All in all, I count myself lucky to have had a pretty fulfilling time at the software industry so far. I realize my secrets of enjoying myself so far are:

1. Managing my time well.

I'd come at 9 and as much as possible, always leave at 6 everyday. During the work hours, I work as hard as I can (without goofing around) and when the time comes to leave, I leave. No overtime, despite what other people are doing, and no carrying your work back home either. This greatly improves the enjoyment of my work, and allow me to take my mind off and focus on other things when I'm off work.

Of course there are always some exceptions to the rule above, you'd have to decide when to give in a bit, but never, never for free. Request for something in return, either in form of money (not possible in some cases), or in time returned.

2. Have an outside interest outside computer.

Anything that takes your mind off the tech stuffs. This is closely related to whether you can pull (1) off or not.

3. Choose the right size of company.

I've worked in companies of small, medium and large multinationals size. The one where I got paid the highest was at the large MNC, but it was also where I felt exploited the most. The one where I made the most of friends was at the smallest one, but I also had to work the hardest. My personal preference would be towards a small-to-medium company where you get to know everyone on a first-name basis, the hierarchy of management is flatter and the roles flexible. This allows you greater autonomy and more opportunities to stretch your skills, which WOULD make you enjoy your work more.

4. Be good in your job

As you gain expertise, people value your opinions and contributions. Your voice carries a heavier weight and you gain greater autonomy and freedom in doing your stuffs. This would actually let you enjoy your job more.

It's hard to give a concrete advice without knowing your backgrounds and experiences, particularly because 'toxic' environments could be many things: the hours, the management, the tasks, the politics, or anything else ?

Just remember that you got to stand up for yourself, and in interviews, you have to interview them as much as they are interviewing you. You can drop me a message if you want to talk about more specifics.
posted by joewandy at 12:46 PM on May 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the info about therapy, people - I didn't realise options like that existed. Most of my past therapy has been the $100ish a pop out of pocket after medicare variety.

To respond to some comments specifically ...

@handee I've considered doing some volunteer work for witqld, once exams are over. Depends a bit on whether I have a job by then, though.

@johnnybeggs Hm. I'm not sure what's new left to learn, paradigm-shift wise. That aside, recently joined up with Brisbane Bushwalkers, started a couch-to-5k, and already exercise fairly regularly. Yes, it helps with the anxiety, except when I get anxious about performance ... yeah. I have issues.

@rhizome well, one of my prior burning was due to definitely sexist behaviour, amongst other things, so that is something I'm wary of. That said, it's more the 'You're going great' one day, 'You're fired for being a bad person' the next thing that really, really hurts. Freelance ... I'm not sure I have the self discipline for something as unstructured as that, or the skills to give myself the structure. Any resources on that you can throw me a link to?

@okokok I'm not really sure how your advice applies, here. It's possible I'm just being dense. But ... I've committed to a path of study, which I'm having to work for, and well, getting help for my work anxiety is one of the steps I'm trying to overcome. I'm not sure what else I can do, really. Ideally, I'd like to stop having that anxiety niggling at me all the time, but failing that, day-to-day coping strategies would be sufficient.

@joewandy Unfortunately, your 1. point got me fired in my last two jobs (although it was more like 7.30am to 6.30am). Apparently it doesn't show dedication or some bull like that. 2, fortunately, I have always had. 3, well, the only one I haven't tried so far is big corporate - exploitation central, perhaps, but at least I won't be visible enough to be as specifically abused, I hope. Small companies have been various varieties of hell on earth for me, maybe I just need insulation for management or something. 4, well, I thought I was on my way there ... and then everytime I got close, I got fired ... in one job, for being too popular and too good at working with the team. I'm not looking for answers as to why that happened - I've long ago made peace with the fact that they were some combination of idiot and/or jerk ... but I have to wonder what it is about me that seems to hit on those sorts of employment situations.

Thanks all for your comments ... it's given me food for thought.
posted by ysabet at 4:10 PM on May 26, 2010

- How do I get back into programming?

Start with projects that you enjoy to get your passion back. RoR is probably a bit heavyweight for that. Maybe start out with a scripting language like Python or Groovy. Do some simple but gratifying projects like Project Euler problems or low pressure projects for yourself, friends or family that challenge you a bit.

- How do I get around my anxiety relating to being in a workplace again?

You don't talk much about what your concerns are. It sounds like you have a low level of confidence in your programming skills. That can take a while to get over. When you get to the stage of interviewing, I suggest you be as upfront as possible about what you're looking for and don't be afraid to grill the company (what is a typical day like? how do they protect programmers from administrative BS? how do they manage customer requests and deadlines?).

- How do I get over feeling like a failure for starting a new career?

Not sure if you mean restarting programming or getting into a new career. Don't worry about what others think about you. Often when you think you've taken the wrong path, you'll find that it gives you skills and insights that others in the field don't have.

In my opinion, if you were once active enough in programming to do open source on your free time, Wine Technology won't be interesting enough for you. "What Color Is Your Parachute" might be a good place to gives you some techniques for figuring out what your passions is and how to get paid doing it.

- How do I address my incredibly negative feelings about the industry?

Do some programming just for yourself, probably with something less heavyweight than RoR (e.g. Ruby, Python or another scripting language). There is a huge amount of variation across organizations you might work with. If you decide to get paid for programming again, treat your interviews as if you are interviewing them. You might have to accept less responsibility, pay (and stress) than you think you deserve for a while but you'll be happier in the long run. Then, once your confidence is up and the work starts getting boring, start interviewing again.
posted by cmccormick at 4:14 PM on May 26, 2010

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