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Blog October 17, 2019

Burnout in Technology Leadership (and what to do about it)

For all the ways in which technology dominates business news and business blogs, it’s surprising that people are not talking more about a very pervasive problem: Burnout in technology leadership.

Here at Connectria, we feel strongly that solid leadership is needed in order to maintain a “No Jerks Allowed” company culture. It’s also key to sustaining a tech company in a highly competitive and fast-changing market. Burnout puts a sizable dent in that leadership.

It has been our experience in the industry that technology leadership burnout is way more common than reported. Few people talk about it. But it’s there. For this reason, we thought it important to pause a moment to identify what burnout is, how to spot it (in yourself or others), and what to do about it.

What is Burnout?

“Burnout” is not a technical term, and there are many ways in which it can manifest itself. Still, it helps to have a working definition:

Burnout is a state of exhaustion, which can be physical, mental and/or emotional, usually brought on by prolonged periods of stress.

Burnout has become more and more common in the culture at large, but it appears to affect the tech sector much more frequently. And while no one is immune, people in leadership positions tend to experience it more often. This is likely because people in leadership positions have lofty goals and set high standards for themselves, both personally and professionally. They want to do more and achieve more but also must struggle against the realities of changing markets, finicky and fickle users, shrinking budgets, and perpetual pressure from the competition.

Why Burnout Tends to be So Rampant in Tech

That leaders have enormous amounts of pressure on them is not surprising. What is surprising is the level and intensity of the pressure in technology-related fields. In popular culture, it’s professions like lawyers, stockbrokers, and police officers that are portrayed as having the most stressful jobs for leaders. Tech, on the other hand, is often seen as being filled with lofty visionaries, bearded gurus, or quiet engineering types.

But let’s peel back the stereotypes and actually look at the work demands involved in tech leadership:

  • Technology needs to be up and accessible 24/7
  • Most business workflows rely critically on technologies
  • Teams thus need to be accessible 24/7 for fixes and improvements
  • Fast turnaround times are expected

All of these mean there is a huge pressure to deliver. Andy Skipper, freelance CTO writing for CTO Craft, describes it this way: “This perpetual call and response effect requires CTOs (and their teams) to be forever ‘switched on’ over and above other highly pressurised environments.”

That by itself is stressful enough, but consider that these factors can make the situation even worse:

Toxic work culture. Politics, drama, and in-fighting can make it difficult to get work done, and difficult to get needed resources and talent. Poor company cultures also add their own layer of stress on top of everything else.

Many people don’t understand the “black box” of tech. For non-technical people, technology often works as a “black box”—they understand roughly what it does when the user does thus-and-so, but they have no idea how or why it works. Which means they also don’t understand the complexity involved in fixing it, keeping it running, or making changes.

The competition is innovating, too. Internal demands are bad enough; but consider that the competition is constantly innovating and disrupting as well. The pressure of competition can take the usual pressures on a tech leader and turn them up to 11.

And Yet it Goes Unreported

If burnout is so rampant in technological industries, and pressure on technology leaders come so readily with the territory, why don’t we hear more about it?

That’s hard to say. Part of it certainly stems from the fact that people in non-technology roles don’t know fully what is involved in building and perfecting functioning technologies. Then again, the general idea that “people outside of a profession don’t understand what’s fully involved in that profession” is true across the board, for any profession, from actuaries to zookeepers.

We suspect that another reason has to do with social contact. Technology roles require engagement with the technology and teams working on the technology. There’s less human contact expected; indeed, such contact can be seen as getting in the way. And so fewer people naturally notice burnout when it happens, and fewer tech professionals have the opportunity, motivation, or even “people-skills” to talk about it frankly and openly.

Signs of Technology Leadership Burnout

So burnout is common but drastically underreported. How do you spot it, then? How can you discover if burnout is a problem in your technology company or department?

Let’s look first at how you can spot leadership burnout in yourself, and then how you might be able to spot it in others (in your own leaders, teammates, etc.).

Warning Signs that You, Yourself, Have Burnout

Many people know when they have burnout, even if they don’t have a name for it yet. But sometimes burnout has a way of sneaking up on you, and it takes some awareness of your own behavior (or the help of a colleague) to recognize it for what it is.

Here are some commonly reported symptoms:

  • Low energy (physical, mental, emotional, or any combination of these)
  • The feeling of “groundhog day”—the same stressful day just repeating endlessly, without joy or a feeling that things are improving
  • Trouble getting to sleep (because your thoughts are racing)
  • A constant feeling of irritation
  • A constant nagging feeling of inadequacy or defeat
  • Feeling “lost”
  • Feeling as if “this will never end”

Sometimes these feelings are not obvious, but they manifest in the kinds of things we catch ourselves saying, to ourselves or others. For example, you might find yourself thinking or saying:

  • “At this rate we’ll never be ready to go to market.”
  • “It doesn’t matter how hard I work…I’ll never catch up.”
  • “Nobody can do this as well as me, but I can’t do it all!”
  • “The competition is eating our lunch and I need to work harder.”
  • “I wish I could just retire and travel the world or something.”

Warning Signs of Burnout in Others

Maybe you’re not the one you’re concerned about. Maybe you’re worried that your boss has burned out and is therefore making some bad decisions. Or that the team lead you put in place is buckling under the pressure. Sometimes burnout in others is obvious, but most of the time, it isn’t—at least not without taking a good, hard look.

The challenge is that, unlike with ourselves, we don’t have direct access to the feelings, thoughts, and perceptions of others. We can only observe their behavior, listen to what they say, and draw our conclusions from there.

Here, then, are some signs to look for:

  • Moodiness (oddly angry one moment, detached the next, giddy the next)
  • Actively avoiding people (to escape new requests, questions, etc.)
  • Working late hours or odd hours frequently
  • Silly or careless mistakes become more frequent
  • Seems uncomfortable talking about future projects or vision (or doesn’t talk about them at all)
  • Appears drained, less animated

If you notice multiple signs in one of your leaders, it might be time to have a talk with him or her, or possibly bring the issue to the attention of a supervisor.

Five Ways You Can Fight Leadership Burnout

Most of the advice for fighting burnout is, well, cliche. It’s true that everyone needs to spend effort to maintain work-life balance, and that goes especially for IT leaders. But there’s enough out there about that approach that there’s no reason to rehash the information here.

What is worth a closer look are the specific tools, tips, and techniques that tech leaders have special access to that can be used to fight tech leader burnout specifically:

#1: Remember why you were hired.

Before we address any other advice, we need to call out the elephant in the room. A common refrain from CTOs and CIOs is that they would love to do all the activities they know they should do to avoid burnout…but they don’t have the time or bandwidth to do it! Thus fighting burnout is a catch-22 where they would do things to give them time and energy, if only they had the time and energy.

To be honest, many IT leaders put this kind of pressure on themselves. They worry that the organization will fall apart if they take a long lunch, get a full night’s sleep, or spend an extra day to organize their team. Of course, this isn’t true. Organizations are actually much more resilient than highly driven tech leaders give them credit for. Leaders who take the time to fight burnout are often amazed when, not only do their teams and organizations stay intact when doing these things, but overall efficiency goes up and they find themselves with even more time on their hands.

If you are in a position to help a tech leader facing burnout, remind them of why they started their role in the first place, and how they are valuable to the organization right now. Sometimes, simply knowing they are appreciated goes a long way to re-energizing a person.

#2: Learn maker time vs. manager time.

A now famous essay by Paul Graham makes a distinction between “maker time” and “manager time,” and it is one of the most important things tech leaders can learn about in order to make sense of their own schedules.

Most tech leaders come up through the ranks in departments where they become accustomed to maker time. Now, as tech leaders, they must become accustomed to a different style of managing time. Here how Graham puts the difference:

“The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour. When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

“…there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

Much of the stress of a tech leader’s schedule comes from making the adjustment from one kind of schedule to the other. In this case, understanding the difference itself can go a long way to reducing the stress tech leaders put on themselves, and toward making improvements.

Graham also suggests ways to accommodate the two kinds of time. For example, those used to (or who need to maintain) a schedule according to maker time can hold “office hours,” concentrating their business meetings in a single block at the end of the day. Or they can schedule their “maker time” at night, when they’re less likely to be interrupted, and use the day for “business stuff.”

#3: Automate what you can reasonably automate.

Today, there’s almost no excuse to not automate what you can reasonably automate. As one engineer once wrote in a set of guidelines for his staff: “If you ever need to do any one thing more than twice, it’s worth finding a way to automate it.”

Here are some typical projects that IT professionals are often called on to manage but that can be safely turned over to automation with a little thought and planning:

  • Updates and patch management
  • Compliance management
  • Routine security scanning
  • Resource management
  • Shifting workloads in the cloud
  • Monitoring and spinning down unused processes in the cloud
  • Ticket management
  • Cost tracking and reporting

We ourselves took a hard look at automation when we built TRiA, our multi-cloud management tool. We had feedback from clients stating that their largest concerns when managing their cloud assets revolved around cost containment, compliance and compliance reporting, and security. The tool we developed helped to automate these things as much as possible without asking the client’s team to give up visibility into, or control of, their cloud assets.

#4: Get qualified professionals to help you.

If you are a tech leader, your job should be to lead people—not do the work yourself.

That said, the trouble most tech leaders have is that it is hard enough finding good talent with the skills you need, and that is a fit with your organization…let alone onboarding them, bringing them up-to-speed, and handing off vital projects.

But why do people make the assumption that talent needs to be hired full time? Sometimes, the best time savings come from getting a services vendor that already has the needed talent in-house.

For example, does your enterprise run on older IBM AS400 servers in a data center? You’ve probably found that there are fewer and fewer people familiar with this technology, and so finding a new hire with the needed skills is difficult and expensive. But you can hire a group of experts specializing in IBM AS400 and IBM i and have them remotely manage your data center. In fact, that’s one of the core services we offer here at Connectria, and we’ve saved IT leaders countless hours, both by avoiding the need to find internal hires and by taking everyday administrative tasks off their plate.

#5. Find what replenishes your energy.

Everyone is different when it comes to what replenishes them. For example, some folks might cringe at the idea of a crowded venue and loud music…but for some, that’s a way to unwind and be themselves. For some people, a walk in nature does the trick. For still others, it’s lunch with friends. Or hugging a puppy. Or just staring out the window and thinking about the future.

You get the picture: Everyone has some activity that helps them push the “reset” button. Find out what that is for you, and make time for it during the week. What you lose in terms of time in your schedule will more than be made up for in terms of a more efficient work week.

Further Reading

Our article “Are IT Leaders Giving Up Too Much Responsibility?” discusses the shift that CTOs and CIOs have experienced in the past few years, from strategic decision-making responsibilities to tackle activities (“putting out fires”)…and why this is bad for companies.

For more on attracting (or outsourcing) IT talent for digital transformation, see our article “Catching Up in the Race for Digital Transformation.”

For more about TRiA, our multi-cloud management tool, see our TRiA product page.

Finally, contact us if you have further questions about IBM i managed hosting, IBM AIX hosting, or managed services in general.

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