Programmers Burnout

IsXpOverclocked and FitnessIsntLinearEither says that in ExtremeProgramming projects programmers feel tired after some years of constant pace. Is it similar elsewhere ?

Different notion can be seen in PhilipGreenspunOnOvertime.

In IsXpOverclocked AlistairCockburn wrote:

The reason I resuscitated this page is that both Ward and Ron have mentioned some of the same effect to me. Ward described something like burnout in the team members. "After two years of delivering every few weeks, without any variation in the pace, we just felt tired..." or something close to that (Ward, you are welcome to add to or edit, since I am recalling your description). At the time he said that, I didn't have any place to file the sentence, so I just left it in some storage bin in my head. Something about variation and change of pace being needed for healthy happy programmers. Makes some sort of sense.

The overclocked chip analogy is strikingly similar. Indeed, if you drive a chip at a higher clock frequency, the chip gets hot and things start to happen.

So I would like to keep the analogy alive, and see what people think. Ward's and Ron's two projects are the only projects I know of that have this characteristic, of delivering regularly, every month, for several years in a row.

I wouldn't ascribe this as a failure of XP, rather, I would ask something about the human need for change of pace. Any takers? -- AlistairCockburn

I'd say that any designed process or tool that doesn't take into account the physical, physiological, and mental limitations of the human body suffers from "failures," whether it be a poorly designed chair or a software design methodology.

This makes the assumption this method of operation is not by design; the account below bears a striking resemblance to brain washing techniques, removal of self determination, strong group pressure, highly regimented environment, long hours, creating mental exhaustion and using sleep as a reward for 'success'.

FWIW, this reminds me of something I've seen in the past. A consulting company I was involved with in the past that did custom business applications using a fixed-time/fixed-price model used to overclock people.

They had different phases of the project lifecycle. Most of them were sales tools that sold the client to the next phase, except the development phase where they truly had to deliver something.

One of those phases was called a rapid solutions workshop. A team of about eight people spend a week with 6-10 clients in a conference room hashing out a prototype that's displayed to executives on the final day. Parallel to this is a sales process going on behind the scenes by executives on both sides.

A week prior to this, the team spends all week trying to get their hands around the problem and in determining which key scenarios they would use in that demonstration. They work an average of 80 hours that week.

The next week, if they went home the night before and caught a few hours of sleep, they show up at 7am and prepare for the day until the client arrives at 9-9:30am. The meeting goes on all day with facilitations [You mean felicitations? AnswerMe], note taking, prototyping, etc. When the client goes home, the consultants stay and work till midnight, 1, 2, 4, or all night and all the next day.

My point is that you can do this workshop but your clock is running over speed. By the end of that second week you are a punchy, babbling idiot. Usually you go home and sleep almost the entire weekend in an attempt to reset yourself. I think it's all by design.

-- PhilipEskelin
I quote the great Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus "As above, so below". Or in other words patterns and rules can and should be applied at all levels. Just as we are MovingPeopleAround with in a project we should also do so at a meta-project level. Move people to new projects, move entire teams between projects. If there were more than just a few projects using ExtremeProgramming such that people could move around at the meta-project level perhaps less burn out would occur. --DonWells
To answer Alistair's challenge- the European solution is to take 2-4 week vacations every summer. Ron and Ward- what were the vacation practices on your projects?

I can't remember the last time anyone I know ever took a 2-week or longer vacation. One week summerish, and one or less around the Christmas holidays is more common. The Christmas one isn't much like an actual vacation, in my own experience. -- rj

And the Silicon Valley solution seems to be to change jobs every two years or less, sometimes with a break in between to overcome the burnout. This seems suboptimal, and was a surprise to me. In Australia we have more European-like habits. -- SteveHayes

Americans don't realize that you InventAtLeisure. -- PeterMerel

Now that we're back on this topic, I'd like to comment on RonJeffries not remembering when someone took a greater than 2 week vacation. Wow, you guys must really be in a vacuum up there. I work with people of many different cultures and from many different countries. Sometimes I travel to their country, and many times they work with me here in New York.

What I see is a common theme amongst people from Asia -- and to a lesser extent Europe -- who take three weeks up all the way up to two or three months of vacation at a time to go back home and visit the family, or travel around the world, or spend an extended amount of time cooling off in an exotic location. They seem to be more comfortable doing this than the stereotypical American. So perhaps these are popular cases that thwart ExtremeDiscipline. -- PhilipEskelin

Excuse me, I wasn't coming out against vacation, I was reporting the fact that in most of the environments I recall, most people didn't take two-week vacations. I'm all for vacations, they clear the mind, replenish the soul, and fatten the belly. -- RonJeffries

Philip, perhaps I misunderstand your point, where in the ExtremeDisciplines does it say: work till you drop? The point of FortyHourWeek is to go home when you've done a day's work that day, a week's work that week.

In our shop, as well as taking "long" European vacations (and even longer Indian ones, depending), and moving people around between projects as DonWells suggests, we also require everyone to spend half a day each week doing something useful and interesting but not directly related to any of the projects in hand. This has the beneficial side effect of mixing up the pairs on each project.

As to vacation habits varying across the Atlantic, I recall recently reading an ad for a job in the US where three, I think it was three, weeks of paid vacation was listed amongst the outstanding benefits of the post. I don't believe there is any such thing as a programming job in the UK with less than four weeks payed leave plus public holidays.-- KeithBraithwaite
Hmm... sounds familiar. I recently took a job where "three weeks paid vacation" is something I considered to be a huge benefit.

Something I've been interested in lately: how the United States has developed an ethos toward work that seems to overshadow every other aspect of life. In my personal example, I have many relatives that are (or were) farmers. Farming is more of a lifestyle rather than a job; there is a constant dependency on weather, and tending animals is something that needs to be done, no matter what the "hours" are. I suppose that's why we in Middle America view our jobs as lifestyles.... most conversation with strangers begins "So, what do you do for a living?" (or the stricter "So, where do you work?") I've been struggling with trying to come up with more interesting answers than "Well, I work with computers..." In some ways, being a simple physicist was much easier! -- ChadThompson

I would suggest that it's not so much "developed" as "had all along". The ProtestantWorkEthic has been important since early in this country's history. Regarding trying to explain your job to nontechnical people, I have a piece of what I consider crucial advice: don't; it'll only make you feel more distant from them. -- DanielKnapp

I wouldn't agree that the ProtestantWorkEthic explains the current American obsession with working over forty hours a week. I've always understood the ProtestantWorkEthic to be an overall ethic ("Productive work is good"), not a rule for every moment of every day ("Be at work at all times"). Did the Westerners in the past who spawned the ProtestantWorkEthic believe in an obsession with work similar to ours? I think that question needs to be answered. -- BrentNewhall
This brings to mind a saying my grandmother often quoted, "[A man may work from sun to sun], but a woman's work is never done." (Sources differ over the first part of the saying.) -- AnnetteTruong
"After two years of delivering every few weeks, without any variation in the pace, we just felt tired..."

It's probably more a case of boredom than of exhaustion. Programmers don't tend to last longer than two years doing anything. After that, they yearn for something different. They want new problems to explore, discover, and conquer; new people to meet; new things to gripe about. When they get bored, even working at a SustainablePace seems dull and tiresome, and every other job out there seems new and exciting.

Heck, we can't even stick with a development model for more than a few years. Change is good.
That is happening to me. What used to be an exciting job, now it's boring. After three years working on the same thing I'm really good at it, but I don't like it. I'm just quitting. I'll finish my degree (it's virtually done) and travel, and then get a phD in no-computing. I used to love programming. I hope that in a few months I start to like programming again, because I have a lot of hobby projects that require me to program. I don't know if I'll ever go back to programming again (at least, full time). I would like to know if I'm alone in this. What are your experiences?


I've experienced it several times, the latest I'm still recovering from. I think it happens for different reasons. However for myself I've isolated it to the following causes:

1. TooMuchTimeAlone? both at and away from work. I've never been married or had a serious relationship. This is one hell of a factor. No way to relieve stress, no life away from work puts too much burden on the work part;

2. Drive to succeed good. Steadily increasing amount of systems to write, maintain, and people to answer questions to and for inevitably leads to TooMuchWork?;

3. (this one courtesy of being a contractor) About 3 years without regular holidays, sick day, rest period, or vacation.

4. A swift change in both work and life that increases stress by some amount enough to, I guess, activate the shut down of whatever equates to a burnout.

For me, the result was about several weeks of not wanting to be on the computer, followed by a couple months of feeling desperately lonely while blaming myself all while noticing the best and worst of what was going on around me and making that part of my trauma/drama. Eventually I started feeling better (last week) but still did not go back to work, instead started working remotely (kept finding reasons).

Now I realize I don't WANT to go back to the job that slowly eroded my drive, passion, and that because of budgetary concerns was not willing to address the shortage of manpower after way too many rounds of cuts, but instead increasing our workloads higher.

So in short. No life + Careless shortsighted executives + sudden increase in daily stress = ProgrammersBurnOut?

Last time, it was the same formula (didn't touch a computer for 6 months there). Before that was a similar equation where the boss thought I was a ProgrammerOnDrugs?. In reality, it was his son and he was projecting onto me. That after 4 years of dedicated service. That little number screwed me for about 6 months too.

So is the answer to GetaLife, GetABetterJob, or GetManagersToCare??

Guess I'll find out tomorrow when the boss confronts me on why I was gone for 3 months.


From elsewhere...

Maybe I should have a break. A few weeks spent building a log cabin or something would probably do me a world of good.

A classic case of burn out is from burning the candle at both ends (like having a "personal time zone"). Along with the log cabin, you could try doing traditionally healthy things, like sticking to a regular sleep schedule, taking vitamins, and I'd say "exercise" except then I'd be such a hypocrite. :-) I read some novels last month for the first time in ages (they've been piling up); it was a great change of pace.

When some damn old project comes for you to debug, when you didn't make the initial version. -- by

See: GetaLife, BurnOut, FeelingGood, ProgrammingProfession

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