Is Burn Out Why IT People Change Jobs So Much?

The positions I have held as a network engineer have had a predictable life cycle. I’ve been through it 3 times now. Thought I’d share, and see if others have had similar experiences, or if it’s just me. I do know a lot of IT people frequently change jobs, and my suspicion is that burn out is a big part of the problem.

Phase 0 – The Search

The first part of any employer relationship begins with the search. You look online, talk to friends, talk to vendor reps, and feel out where there might be opportunities. I do a lot of this “feeling out” when I’m looking for a new place to hang my keyboard. I want to hear from someone that knows a bit about the company I’ve heard has an opening.

If all sounds reasonably promising, I’ll try to land an interview. Assuming I can get one, I’ll ask at least as many questions as I am asked. I find that usually, the people interviewing me do more talking than I do, which suits me just fine as long as they got out of me what they needed to know. If that goes well, then there will be a second interview. And maybe a third. Or more.

And if things are still going well, it’s compensation package negotiation time! Before I’ve gotten to this point, I’ll have already groked that the salary can work for me. From there, it’s just getting it to a point where I can make the jump.

Phase 1 – Honeymoon

When starting a new job, I think of the first few months as a honeymoon. You’re getting to know your new employer, your coworkers, your way around the building, discovering the network, getting a handle on what the company actually does, determining what’s important vs. not-so-important, office politics, who can scrounge you a proper monitor, just how demanding the after-hours on-call is, and what sort of projects you’re going to be involved with.

This phase tends to be low-stress. You barely know enough about what’s going on to be stressed about anything. There’s the emergency that lands in your lap once in a while, but you can shake those off. You have time in the morning for leisurely coffee and a doughnut (or two), you can read the daily networking industry news, prepare effectively for meetings, draw network diagrams without interruption, and handle whatever provisioning, escalation, or other requests come at you with aplomb.

Phase 2 – Reality

After several months or perhaps a year, you’ve settled into a busy groove. You’ve groked the projects, and have a role in them. You’re probably leading some of them. You’ve met all of the people that are likely to need to know your name. Your co-workers know who you are and what you can do. You have due dates for projects. You’ve had some meetings with vendors. You get CC’ed on a number of e-mail threads that don’t represent action items for you, but people just think you should be “in the loop”. You contribute to the local wiki. You stay late some days to keep up. Alternately, you come to the office early once in a while to stay on top of your workload.

In this phase, you are busy. You’re still eager to please, and are getting good feedback from people you work with. You feel competent and challenged, but pretty spent by the end of the day. Fridays are more of a delight that perhaps they ought to be. On paydays, you might make a special effort to go out for lunch with friends, just to get out of the office.

Phase 3 – Insanity

After 3 or 4 years, you have become a raving lunatic. Your project load is obscene, because you’re never given the opportunity to finish anything before something else comes along that’s the new number one priority. You’ve discovered dozens of things that you know should be done to improve the network. Some of them are subtle. Some of them keep you up at night. You make lists of them so you don’t forget to address them when you have a chance. When you have a chance, you’re usually so stressed out from everything else that you’ve been working on, that you don’t bother much. You are summoned to more and more meetings. Being double-booked is not uncommon. You actively seek to be removed from meeting rosters, but people keep inviting you “just in case”.

You multitask almost constantly, managing real-time situations while also doing work on projects. Your whiteboard is a muddy marker haze of erased diagrams, disconnected lists, ticket numbers, part numbers and phone numbers. From time to time, you erase the whiteboard bits that you can’t remember why you wrote them down to begin with so that there’s room to scrawl something new. Your inbox is completely overrun with incoming messages, and you give up hope that you can keep up with it. IMs and text messages become the preferred communications medium for anything important, because anything sent via e-mail is likely to be ignored or simply missed.

In this phase, you’re tired, moody, forgetful of promises made, fearful of what your forgetting, constantly distracted by immediate issues, planning and designing in ten minute rush sessions, managing far more projects than you can reasonably keep track of, and just generally out of sorts. Every day is a fresh source of anxiety, pressure, and confused priorities. You live in fear of being asked about project progress you haven’t had the time to make. You rationalize your inability to keep up despite your best efforts with the fact that there’s just too much to do. You tell yourself you’ll be able to get through it, once a few things get crossed off the list. But somehow, sleep is still fleeting.

Phase 4 – Collapse

After a few months of an insane work life, you completely give up. You realize there’s no point in trying to do everything you should be doing, so just try to keep up with what management has deemed is most important. You try to relax as best you can, and work within the confines of what you can do. The problem is that you’re not especially good at leaving something partly done.

In this phase, you’re stressed to a point, but because you’ve given up hope that you’ll ever be able to keep up with the job the way it should be done, you’re less worried about it. You’re slightly less wound up, but the taste of bitter dissatisfaction bathes your mouth constantly.

Phase 5 – Rejection

You’re at the point where now, you don’t like your work. You don’t hate it. You just don’t like it. There’s too much to do, there’s not enough people to get it done, cloning technology is both unavailable and of questionable legality, and the demands never stop coming. Everyone knows who you are (even people you’d never suspect), and so you’re pulled into an endless number of conversations and meetings, whether you really need to be there or not. Your lists of things to do are as long as ever and as relevant, but you don’t actually anticipate getting any of them done. You flit from today’s most important thing to tomorrow’s, monitor deadlines, and blast through whatever you absolutely must to meet those deadlines. At the end of each day, you just leave, because you’ve rejected the idea that this network, finally, will be the one that’s set up like you know it should be. You start thinking about other employers, and on particularly depressing days, you begin to search for other opportunities. You wonder if you could do something other than IT stuff, and still make the sort of income you need to make. But that’s really a fantasy, because you love networking too darn much.

In this phase, you’re stressed to meet your deadlines, but mostly, you’re apathetic. You feel badly about that, because you’re the sort of person that cares. That’s why you’re good at network engineering to begin with. A network needs someone to care for it. Interfaces need tending. Configurations need standardizing. Routing protocols shouldn’t be allowed to configure themselves. And sysadmins don’t know a tag from a trunk. But when you know the caring is killing you, you have to stop caring, and seek another network where your care will be rewarded.

Next time, it will be different.

Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, has been managing networks for higher ed, government, financials and high tech since 1995. Ethan co-hosts the Packet Pushers Podcast, which has seen over 2M downloads and reaches over 10K listeners. With whatever time is left, Ethan writes for fun & profit, studies for certifications, and enjoys science fiction. @ecbanks
Ethan Banks
Ethan Banks
  • Iamjeffvader

    Good post, I cant relate to all of it but I’m pretty sure you cycle through phases 2-5 viciously if you don’t make it through to 0. Phase 2 and the apathy of phase 5 generally only last a couple of days in my experience. Insanity/collapse/borked co-exist endlessly until you burn out and end up on meds.
    I just love the optimism of an engineer who says ‘things will calm down after this project, it can’t go on like this forever’. Sooo naive…

  • http://northlandboy.com/ Lindsay Hill

    Seems fair enough, although I think the timeframes are a bit shorter than you have listed above. For me, anyway.

    I think that the people who go through this sort of cycle are the ones who care about the quality of their work in the first place. I’ve seen plenty of people who just come to work, do what they’re asked to do, stay within their bubble, and go home. They never look ahead, never take initiative to try and improve things, they just do what they’re asked. No more, sometimes a little less.

    In some ways they’re happier, but you can come back and find them still there in 10 years, still doing more or less the same thing.

    Of course, if the industry or business changes, they’re also left high and dry, with nowhere to go, and no idea of why they’re finding it tough to get a new job.

  • ericleahy

    LOL that is my career all over..I have only recently moved to a new job because of everything you describe in phase 5!! Now my time frame is a lot shorter between moving jobs.

    I know this new network will make me happy again ;)

  • http://twitter.com/radzima Ryan M. Adzima

    Sadly this is dead on. Great post.

  • http://twitter.com/cjinfantino CJ Infantino

    Nailed it. I think timeframes can be shorter. It really depends on the place and the job. I find that it’s possible to cycle through phases 2-5 while working in the same company. You get to the point of burn-out then something comes along to rejuvenate you, or help you justify the insanity.

    I also find it is hard to leave because you don’t want to feel like you giving up. The greatest source of reality, or the best gauge for how bad it is getting, is your family.

    Typically, if you notice your spouse starts stressing out about your job – then you either need to talk to your manager, or start looking elsewhere.

    When work becomes a legit source of interference with your marriage/family life there is nothing that should keep you there.

    Just my two cents.

  • Petter Bruland

    Yupp, dead on. For me it’s always been an issue with management. People who just worked their way up in the tech field, then to one day find themselves as managers. I’d much rather have a manger who can manage resources and time and not be a tech person, than a tech person who has no clue about management. The worst thing is when you have a team that is already fairly busy, then one person leaves because of the madness. Then the “manager” decides that the remaining people would easily be able to pick up the slack without consulting the team. Great way to make things worse.

    Anyhow, I’m very happy that I found the PacketPushers blog and podcast, It’s awesome to hear stories from other engineers and what issues they deal with both tech and non tech.

    Thanks again.

    -P

  • Marc

    Overall a pretty fair assessment. As long as the majority of companies view their IT as a necessary evil and not a strategic tool to drive business success, it will not get the necessary funding to operate in the manner we envision and long for. The challenge is that there are very few managers technical enough as well as intelligent enough about the business to demonstrate tangible ROI to justify the investment levels necessary to run IT strategically as a business itself. I see this everywhere I go. Even when you can justify the strategic expense for longer term gains, the budgets still get tightly limited where only fractions of what is really needed can ever get done. The business is constantly looking in the rear view mirror wondering why the heck they never seem to get what they want and when they want it from the IT organization. I’m going through this very same process right now at a company that has consistently doubled revenue over the last several years, is growing 30% annually, and the stock has risen 50% in 9 months.

  • erickbe

    Good post, not really what I’ve ran into though. I haven’t changed jobs that much but first one was due to mergers and our group and company having new managers and doing re-orgs every 6-9 months and our group staying same and such since they didn’t know what direction they were going. Left after 2 or so years of waiting and now am caught up with current tech and most is all good. Now my problem is I feel I’ve reached the top I can be where I am and am seeking something more challenging on a day to day basis. I have no interest or desire on going to into management.

  • opennetworkguy

    A thought provoking post. I have found that there can also be three reasons that one can also change jobs. Those reasons are monetary, professional, and what I can only describe as the “other side of the fence” mentality. In my networking life I am on my third job in 14 years. Quite honestly I hate changing jobs but after this most recent change I realized that it is a necessary aspect of career growth. There are many reasons why we change jobs and many reasons why we stay. From my one point of view, changing jobs is a lot like a marriage, divorce, and remarriage. My last two positions I had the pleasure of great co-workers and managers, plus a laid back culture. Let’s face it, being able to take off during your lunch hour to ride the back roads on your motorcycle does have a certain appeal to it. But reality bites in the the rear that you realize that you are not going anywhere. In a former post on this site the writer summed it up by stating “do not sacrifice your career for the sake of your job.” That has stuck with me. You see, in my current career I made monetary increase and who could argue with that? The grass is somewhat greener but face it, you are never going to have a perfect environment, manager, etc. What keeps me up at night is I keeping asking myself is ” Where is MY career going in all of this? “Am I growing professionally?” Many positions can be a springboard to a position and careers that are better suited to you. Some positions can be nothing more than a career resume enhancing bullet. When I took my current position I told myself I would evaluate myself and my current position within three years now I find myself doing this after 6 months. Why so soon you ask? To thine oneself be true someone once said.

  • Alexandros Tsourakis

    Damn! For a moment I thought I had written this. You just nailed it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1554840083 Derick Winkworth

    ACCURATE.

  • http://etherealmind.com Etherealmind

    I wonder how many of us are bitter with disillusionment and unhappiness during the cycle.

    On the other hand, are we any different from any job or position within an organisation? Ultimately the company is the greater service and you are just an individual and you have to find your own self worth.

    That’s something I’ve learned after 20 years in the business.

    • http://northlandboy.com/ Lindsay Hill

      Yup. Took me a few years to properly understand that no company really cares about your long-term development, as much as they like to say they do.

      A spell of contracting was good for me – made me think more about my skills, their marketability, and what I wanted to do over the longer term. Once you separate your own personal goals from those of your employer, you can make better plans.

      • Originull_Networks

        I’m not exactly sure that’s true ALL though time. Though I’d imagine it’s true most of the time. For my firm, Originull Networks, it is an absolute necessity that my staff’s long-term development be a top priority. As a company you are your staff. I want to make sure my staff if well taken care of financially, emotionally, and career development wise. When they are happy, customers are happy, and everyone in the office is happy.

        • Me

          Please…

  • Paul

    This hits the nail right on the head I’m at phase 3 already and have only been with the Company 2 years! I Try to prevent phase 5 from happening by doing extra hours ect I live in hope that its not the same everywhere else, but also think having a Great Team does wonders…

  • burneeed

    this is the truth about my last job. You could not have said it any better.

  • David Caddick

    So have you ever heard the expression – if you want a job done, give it to a busy person – that’s who we all are, unfortunately this is the down side for “giving a shit” and wanting to make a difference ;-(

  • Alexandra Stanovska

    Spot on. It takes longer in SP world and huge corporations, but it’s still there.

    But there are certain types of jobs, i.e. helldesk support where first 4 stages last couple hours and stage 5 for rest of employment.

  • Originull_Networks

    This article was great. I totally agree with Peter regarding management. At my firm we don’t think being a senior IT person necessary qualifies you to be a manager, so we have some managers who expertise is management without an IT background. So far it has worked out well.

    http://www.originullnetworks.com

    • Merchant_Of_Truth

      “expertise is management” So, they approve my vacation request and attend to the catering details for the bi-weekly mumbo-jumbo meeting? Real managers are techies who naturally evolve into the position and therefore have the insight and experience to ask the RIGHT questions and provide the RIGHT support. Career managers propagate the nonsense because that’s all they know how to do.

  • Kevin Gray

    Massive stars eventually burn out and collapse into black holes at the end of their life cycle.

    The better you are at your profession, the more likely you are to attract all of the problems for you to resolve leading to your eventual burnout. Your every waking moment surrounds work and the problems at work that you need to solve. You’re irritable and quick tempered from keeping the train on the track for years and management is indifferent to your situation. The only sane option is to leave.

    Great post.

  • Venkatesh

    You wonder if you could do something other than IT stuff, and still
    make the sort of income you need to make. But that’s really a fantasy,
    because you love networking too darn much. This simply outstanding!! You read my mind :)

  • Geek

    Damn, I seem to be in transition from phase 2 to 3 and I haven’t been here two months yet :-)

    Great post.

  • http://twitter.com/sudhi_11in sudarshana

    Damn perfect !!

  • infosecsamurai

    This is spot on. Not just for network engineering either the security positions I have held are the same cycle.

  • GregW

    thats a great post ethan, i think you got IT as a whole. Interestingly I find that most if not all guys in IT, want out of IT – have been in this game for many years now as have many of my colleagues, and, time and time again – the same theme recurs – get out.
    i cycled through many of those phases during 13 years with the one employer – i work as a contractor now in the architect space and have for some time, while i’d like to go back to a permy role i’m still looking for that ideal place that pays enough and has a collaborative environment which wants to succeed that doesn’t just pay lip service.
    above all else ; as someone here has written, you need to be fixated on your own goals ; your job is a means to an end ; these lines blur from time to time which is OK ; solongas you remember that the goals you are striving for (and ultimately the only one responsible for) are your own.
    these days i move from role to role my longest iteration has been 18 months ; many of them are 6 ; i find that the internal political battles tend to overcome the real work so its time to move on….

  • Vin Weathermon

    This is remarkably close to my career as an IT/Software development PM. Doing it for 18 years and finally coming to the realization that it will never get better, only worse as I age and the economy causes the market to go poof. I truly wish I could change careers out of IT altogether but it is too late to start from scratch…so I stress out yet again knowing it will be exactly the same…again.

  • Adam White

    Excellent!…I only push back on one point.

    The hopelessness of the cycle, I reject. I view the responsibility of maintaining a manageable and rewarding job as split equally between employer and employee. It takes two to sustain misery.

    I make it a point to have a 1:1 with my manager when I find myself somewhere between phases 3 and 4 (that’s every 3-6 months lately) and we work on it. We re-prioritize, hire more help, postpone projects. It’s amazing…and it happens because I wouldn’t work somewhere it didn’t. Employers create the exact environment their employees consent to.

    More than I want to be a network engineer, I want to be an effective network engineer. It is just as much my job to make sure these things don’t get out of hand, as it is to get my “real job” done. I’ve been to phase 5 before, not again.

  • CCNPAndy

    Get out of my Mind!

  • mak

    How true .. as if you are writing about me. great article.

  • Steve

    My blood pressure was 140 over 90 before I read this article. After reading the article, it was +160 over 10. Thanks, I’m glad I’m not the only one

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