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.