Help me find a job that doesn't break me.
August 17, 2010 10:09 AM   Subscribe

How to find a tech job that doesn't make me crazy?

I'm a 29-year-old male computer programmer (web design mostly, right now doing IT consulting with various technologies). I'm also a diagnosed depressive, and work is my big trigger. How can I find a job that fits my skills but doesn't screw up my brains?

Here's the pattern: I start a job, make a great early impression. I'm actually really good at what I do, and I quickly become the go-to guy for any problems, questions, or development emergencies. Then the dam bursts... I get tasked with something that I can't solve in the timeframe they want me to solve it in. I lose perspective, focusing on perfecting the parts of the problem I can handle and putting the parts I can't out of my mind until it's too late. Emergencies become catastrophes and I fall apart emotionally and quit. GOTO 10, sometimes after months of being a depressive vegetable.

I'm working on the parts of this cycle that are my own failures, but so far I haven't had any luck. The pattern always seems really obvious in hindsight but at any given moment during it I can't see the big picture.

Maybe that's something I'll eventually solve, maybe I'll mature past this stage, or maybe it's just not in the cards for me. In any case, right now I'm doing a lot of damage to my reputation and resume (and psychological well-being) getting into these types of work environment.

So here's the question in slightly more specific terms: are there any tech jobs out there for folks like me... ones that focus on short-term, achievable tasks but are skilled enough to be challenging and interesting? Are there any steps I can take to mitigate it, things I can say to management that might avoid the problem besides "I suck and you shouldn't count on me"? Has anyone had experiences like this and found a way to break the cycle?

posted by my name is irl to Work & Money (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Why can't you say "Hey, I've looked into this project. You want me to do X, Y and Z in three weeks. To do X right alone would take me three weeks. Am I misunderstanding the project? Can I get some help?"

Why can't you ever say that you can't do something? I mean, I know, I've worked with devs like you, and I get it but you see the pattern so why can't or won't you stop it?

What do you say to the PM during weekly check-ins or daily standups? Do you always say that everything is fine and that you have it under control? Do people just dump projects on you without quantified milestones? Do you not have any input into the schedule? Are there no specs or outlines or business requirements that you can read before you start (or that you can insist on getting before you start) that would allow you to flag all the potential issues in advance? I know a lot of companies are "agile!" now and they think that's a shortcut to no documentation, but at least if someone's pretending to be agile they've got daily standups. That's the place you're supposed to say "I bit off more than I can chew".

I can't believe that no place you've ever worked has had a project manager or a tech lead or someone who was checking in on you before the project exploded. I know some places suck organizationally, but not all of them. There's parts of this story that are missing and make no sense. Where is the rest of your team on this?
posted by micawber at 10:23 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to work with an EDI programming consultant like this. He'd come in charge exorbitant rates, work 80 hours a week for 6-9 months, and then take 3 months off getting his head straight - generally partying on his 60' power yacht. Repeat. It worked for him, may not work for others. I'd have hated to see what a dry spell of consulting work would be like for him.

I'd rather make the capital investment in therapy, get tested for ADD/ADHD and get on some meds that would help me prioritize, learn to cope and otherwise re-learn how to work without blowing it - or learn to manage my own expectations at work.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:48 AM on August 17, 2010

"There's parts of this story that are missing and make no sense."

To me, this story sounds complete and coherent. I work on the business side of IT, and I found myself at a company where I was expected to manage everything myself - timelines, contacting stakeholders, status updates, and actually doing the work. The only thing anyone else cared about was whether I would deliver on time, and if I escalated an issue it was met with indifference and exhortations to "just get it done." It's entirely possible that there is no "rest of your team." "What do you say to the PM..." What PM? There were no internal PMs at my company, and we had 3,000 employees. What I'm trying to say is: you're not alone, and you're not dreaming this up or telling an incoherent story.

my_name, work is a trigger for me, and I wish I had a nicely packaged solution for you. But I don't, just a few ideas. First, look at your environment. At my last job I realize that while I could great things there, I couldn't take the environment: the expectation that I would be all things to all people, the utter lack of management support, the insane 6-10 PM meetings. My mind wouldn't let me put in the hours required to advance there. So I took a lateral move into a job where I can gain more experience and earn my keep while looking for ways to move up the ladder. It sounds like you're enthusiastic and competent, so I don't necessarily advocate a step down, but you can look into moving to a better environment. You might also evaluate how ambitious you are and whether you really need to bust your butt to impress people. If you want to move up, probably yes. If you want to keep doing what you're doing for years, maybe not.

Also, as micawber suggested, communicate. I told my manager that I was overwhelmed, but I could have said more and escalated more. Don't make my mistake - if things are really bad, let people know they're really bad. You can do that without complaining, just calmly let people know how swamped you are.

You say you're consulting. I'm going to assume that you're hourly. I can't say that I have been in that situation, but I recall reading in a consulting-related blog: "if you're too busy, your rates are too low." You might want to think about that one - if clients are happy to throw anything at you, maybe you should rebrand yourself as a more 'valuable' (expensive) resource.

Finally, you may be a stress procrastinator. I definitely have problems with not starting tasks that seem overwhelming, and parts of your post sounded familiar. The Now Habit is a perennial MeFi favorite that I refused to read for years, but I recently picked it up and it really resonated with me. Read it sometime when you're not overwhelmed, and it might prep you to deal with those crisis times in a more positive way.
posted by Tehhund at 11:02 AM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Those are good questions, micawber, I wish I had good answers.

I can give you an example from a project a couple of years ago. I was doing consulting back then as well, and I was positioned to the client as an expert on Technology X when in fact I'd never used Technology X at all and just had a two-week crash course before showing up onsite. I hate that kind of stuff, but as far as I can tell it's fairly par for the course in IT consulting. At first I could pad my schedule to cover for my inexperience, but as people gained confidence in me I found myself with more and more advanced tasks.

I couldn't say "no" or "I don't know how to do that" because my immediate employer had upsold my skills. I couldn't hand anything off to other members of my team because none of them knew anything about Technology X. And no, I didn't have any input into the schedule... the hard-and-fast deadline was decided before they even knew what features they wanted in the product and before I got there.

Every project where this has happened has had variables like that... they've been managed with a closer eye on the schedule than on actually getting things done. I don't lie on status reports but I get flak when I say something's going to be a lot of work or will take time to investigate, so I focus my reports on good news and everyone goes home happy until the bad news spills out from under the carpet.

Certainly bad management is a part of that, but I can't help bad management. I'm trying to find ways to keep myself sane regardless of the execution of the project, and keep from making bad situations worse for everyone involved.
posted by my name is irl at 11:18 AM on August 17, 2010

If your employer likes to upsell your experience, you can either push back or leave. Your original question indicates that you've chosen the latter, though I agree with micawber that you should at least try raising these issues. Sure, you may get flak, but you just have to remind yourself that you're saving the whole team from stress down the line.

I assume you've been doing this for at least a little while. You probably have a larger network of business acquaintances than you realize. I'd start reaching out to those people you've met (even in passing) and asking if they know anyone who's hiring. When I was ready to move, none of the listings seemed to apply to me, so I reached out to people who had left my company. One casual acquaintance said his fiancée's company was hiring - it turned out to be an excellent fit, and she (the fiancée) was a built-in reference for me.

The best part about reaching out to people you know is you can ask them about the job. If they use terms like "fast-paced" and "learn on the job" and "exciting opportunities," their company probably throws them into situations where they aren't totally ready. If they talk about managerial support and work/life balance, that job may be closer to what you want. This is easier to get from acquaintances than from recruiters.
posted by Tehhund at 11:30 AM on August 17, 2010

I don't lie on status reports but I get flak when I say something's going to be a lot of work or will take time to investigate, so I focus my reports on good news and everyone goes home happy until the bad news spills out from under the carpet.

This strategy is not working for you. You are enabling them to live in denial when what you have to do is make them confront reality early and often. The fact that they want 2X done in the time it takes you to do X should be their problem, not yours. By "focusing on the good news" you're making it your problem until you finally say SURPRISE! here's a huge stinking problem for you!

In an ideal world, you would get a reasonable schedule that you could just stick to. The world is not ideal, so you need to come up with the schedule yourself.

Estimate how long you think it will take you, double that estimate to account for all the bugs and setbacks, and hand it off to your manager or client for approval. If they come back and say that it's unacceptable, you need to hold your ground. Explain that this is how long you estimate the work will take and that artificially shortening the schedule will probably lead to missed deadlines. Suggest that you can remove features X, Y, and Z from the schedule to meet the desired deadline and that you are willing to work together to come up with a schedule you can both agree to.

If at some point in the future, manager/client wants to add something to your schedule, tell them that it will set back the finish date by X time. Again, you are willing to work with them to rearrange priorities and perhaps put off some other work in order to get the new feature done in time.

W/r/t your employer lying to clients about your schedule, again, you want to make it their problem, not yours. Tell your manager immediately that you will not be able to accomplish all the work in the timeframe but you are willing to work together to come up with a realistic schedule. If your manager insists that you stick to the unworkable schedule, then you need to give him constant, HONEST reports on where you actually are w/r/t to the schedule so that it doesn't all show up at the end. If he constantly makes your life hell about it, you need to just decide if it's worth it to you to keep working for him.

All managers need some "managing upwards," *especially* in IT. It sounds like you need to learn to be more assertive and honest and really learn how to push back at unreasonable demands. However, some managers are just unreasonable and aren't going to change, and so it's important to find good ones to work for.
posted by callmejay at 11:47 AM on August 17, 2010

I didn't realize you were a consultant. That's a completely different dynamic. If you're a consultant, you need to say "NO" a lot more than you do. I know there are environments where everything's totally fucked, but that's where you, as a consultant, don't have to stress it. You're not worried about your review or politics as much as a FT employee.

If you're a consultant you have to learn to take flak. But you also have to offer solutions. You can't just say "it's going to be a lot of work". You have to say 'This is a complex task. To do it right will take X weeks. I propose that we scale down version 1 and iterate up to the full featured version. This will allow us to gather feedback and make sure we're building something that actually works for people."

Focusing your reports on good news isn't a bad thing, but you have to start with the good and then lead into the bad. Good news! This is a very good idea. Bad news! To do it right we need X, Y and Z.

I only ever get angry at developers who lie to me, who don't come to me when they're stuck, who try to be a hero and then leave us all hanging when they pull two weeks of all nighters and then come to me the day before launch and it's not done despite their promises that it would be. I've had developers come to me on day three and say, "Micawber, we're really in trouble. Did you see this? Did you know X about Y? I didn't either but it seemed funny so I looked at it closer. A big part of the spec is missing." On day three, I can win the battle that we need more time. On day 52 of a 55 day project, I can't do anything except duck and make sure you're in the line of fire.
posted by micawber at 11:48 AM on August 17, 2010

This is the hardest part of this kind of work: you have to be willing to be the asshole. You have to be the guy who says "This is not possible in this timeframe" and "Which other task will I be de-prioritizing in order to take your urgent request" and "By Friday, I can have X done, but not Y or Z" and "You getting mad about it doesn't add another three days to the week. I can't start on this until next Wednesday." In other words, you have to say no. Say it with reasons to back you up, but say it anyway.

Eventually, you will find the volume of these demands will decrease. You will no longer be the doormat, you'll be the asshole who says no but delivers what you say you will when you say you will. You'll be the one who requires documentation and justification for changes, and therefore no longer the guy who will do stuff if you just lean on him hard enough.

I am guessing you are the same kind of consultant I am - employed full time by a company that then sells your time to other people, which means you cannot just not take work that you know is stupid and is going to be bad. And that saying 'no' feels like refusing to do your job.

There are project managers (intentional and unintentional) who understand the space-time continuum and the eventual cost of lying* to customers. They are rare.

*I find it's the sales team that does this the most, and is worth pitching an almighty fit about it up their chain. But a lot of professional services companies do it as the normal mode of doing business. The best way to deal with that is to not work at one, or wait for them to all crash and burn and get replaced with slightly less dishonest people.

Unless you find work in a place that is already ultra-regimented, the kind of place where users have to sit in front of a dead monitor for two days because IT isn't allowed to just go grab her one, you will have to be the asshole. Everybody who isn't IT thinks all that stuff is easy, all of it takes 5 minutes, it's all priority 1, all of us can do anything. And you know why they keep thinking that? Because we make it seem true. Push-back means boundaries, and boundaries mean respect and sanity. (Most of the time. There's always something.)
posted by Lyn Never at 1:08 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everyone is giving you good advice so I will address the part of your question about what tech careers could you go into that won't be so stressful. Consider going into state or federal government work. It may not be sexy but usually, you do not need to take work home especially if you are in non-development side of the house but maintainer of systems. Also, as a consultant I assume you are are good at doing presentations and analyst reports. People at my university who can half way decently query and write analyst reports are considered highly valuable.

Now the work maybe tedious, not cutting edge or necessarily relevant but it is steady, has benefits and an understood enough structure that one can melt in or circumvent to be creative.
posted by jadepearl at 5:23 PM on August 17, 2010

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