When Your Job Becomes Your Prison

It has been a while since I last posted here, or anywhere for that matter. I have been taking a bit of a break from all things related to packets and frames after my first attempt at the CCIE R&S Lab and doing some interesting things, including looking for a new job.

Cheesy Tourist Photo at Uluru

Cheesy Tourist Photo at Uluru - 44 Celsius at Christmas in Central Australia

I finally left my old job of seventeen years in November, and this led me reflecting on my time there, and on what I am looking for in my next job. My job took a personal toll on me, and it was a good thing that I had seven months of long service leave to detox from the environment, and I wrote a blog post on my personal site about it. I waited a bit until after I left to do this, but now at the risk of poisoning the well for potential hiring managers reading this, I am going to recount some of the problems I faced that led me to finally resign by presenting an edited version of that blog post. Don’t get me wrong, there were organizational issues and problems I had with other people, but what I am talking about here is how I turned my job into a prison for my own mind. I managed to break free eventually, but I waited way too long. I had paid off the mortgage, had no debt and some money in the bank, so why was I killing myself at this job? Finally the penny dropped. So now I am in the nice position of looking for a job that truly has the work life balance every place promises. Perhaps some of you will see a bit of yourself in this story, and try to guard against your job becoming your own prison.

A common term used in organizations these days is “ownership”. Someone needs to take ownership of a support call, ownership of a project, ownership of a service. Ownership not in the mode of the box-hugger of old, but rather the term implies a responsibility, or a duty. A duty to the organization, to the client. This thing we’ve given you ownership of is important dammit, and you’d better make sure that you live up to your obligations.

And there is the heart of the problem for me. Obligation.

For a period of years, I had ownership of the network at the educational institution where I worked (and am still employed for two more months). This was more literal than the term usually implies, because for some of those years, due to budgetary issues, the difficulties of recruiting personnel to regional areas and other factors, I was the only Senior Network Engineer and often the only network engineer period. I designed and implemented two generations of the network, implemented wireless, remote access services, authentication services, maintained DNS, DHCP and who knows what else. I owned the network. Or at least I knew it like the back of my hand – where the old and new gear was, where the single points of failure were, the IP addresses of practically every switch.

As the organizational reliance on the network grew, my sense of obligation grew. Times were that the old HP router would lock up, and the old hands would wait until after lunch before sauntering over and rebooting it. Not any more. The network became critical to the operation of the enterprise, but the budget and personnel were not commensurate to that importance. Now I could guarantee a phone call would arrive within 30 seconds of an outage.

Now many of my colleagues could simply switch off, deal with the issues in the morning. “Hey, the organization cares not a jot for the unpaid overtime you do; they will exploit that. You owe them nothing”. That was something I was not able to do. I built this thing, I owned it, felt responsible for it. I felt that an outage was a reflection on me. Never mind that someone dug up a cable run somewhere, I should have been able to magic up a redundant path for which there had been no budget. My fault. The network was critical to operations at the organization. People started work at 8:00. So I needed to make sure things were working at 7:00. So I would need to get up at 6:00 to check things and get them fixed if needed. What if an alert came in overnight? I began not turning my phone off at night, despite the dread that the ring tone engendered. Any hour, the beep that indicated an email had to be heeded and checked.

This began a repeating cycle of stress and health issues. I was like a deathly ghost haunting the corridors of the IT building at all hours, sending emails to my colleagues at 3 a.m., calling them from my sick bed asking if they had seen the outage alert that had just come in. For the past several years, my life consisted of waking up at 4:00, checking logs, going to work at 6:00, working to 5:00 or later, coming home, logging in, watching the email listening to the phone, and getting to sleep after midnight. My ownership of the network was literally consuming my existence and destroying my health. People would tell me that it wasn’t that important; get a hobby, do something else. But, once you are in that rut, and the psychological pull of the sense of obligation is so strong, it is hard to see a way out.

There are other manifestations, too. An obsession with functionality; not wanting to make changes lest something break. This resulted in a type of paralysis which impeded the forward momentum of projects. An obsession with testing and prototyping and wanting to make any change in the dead of night – heaven forfend that a user was impacted.

This all had a detrimental effect, not only on me, but on the team around me, and on the organization. Projects dragged, and I could see that people were reluctant to engage with me for fear of making things worse.

Even five months into a seven month long service leave, the pull of the place was not quite gone. And even now, I feel a bit lost and purposeless after leaving. The sense of attachment is getting less and less, but it is still there, lurking in the background. The projects I started which I didn’t finish, the documentation I didn’t complete and the knowledge that is locked in my head; all the little details and foibles and twenty years of history. And it can all come back to the front of your mind when you get the phone call five months into your leave that starts, “Hi – sorry to bother you, but…”

So ownership is not necessarily a bad thing. In my case, the confluence of a misplaced sense of obligation to the only full-time employer I have known for most of my working life, a proprietary feeling towards that which I built and some underlying personal psychological predisposition to stress conspired to turn that ownership against me. When I started new employment this year, I hope that I am able to recognise the signs and guard against the temptations to take ownership too far.

I waited far too long to wake up this time. I am determined to not make the same mistakes again.

Matthew Mengel
Matthew was a Senior Network Engineer for a regional educational institution in Australia for over 15 years, working with Cisco equipment across many different product areas. However, in April 2011 he resigned, took seven months of long service leave to de-stress and re-boot before becoming a network engineer for a medium sized non-profit organisation. At the end of 2013, he left full-time networking behind after winning a scholarship to study for a PhD in astrophysics. He is on twitter infrequently as @mengelm.
Matthew Mengel

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  • Phil Sykes

    I think most high-achieving people probably empathise with this more than they’d care to let on. Thanks for writing about it; good luck with the job hunt, and the mental reboot.

  • http://twitter.com/CharlieClemmer Charlie Clemmer

    Great post Matt! Best wishes on the new job search, and your next employer will be lucky to have you … and hopefully you’ll finally have the balance you’re looking for. It’s tough to find that line sometimes.

  • Charles Hill

    I suppose it’s okay to be the subject matter expert in a company or department, but “on call” duties must be distributed, documented procedures complete, and hours when one is unreachable defined and understood by all, to prevent burn out.  Been there, done that.

  • http://twitter.com/MrsYisWhy Mrs. Y.

    As a recovering, former member of the EDU tribe, I admire and respect the emotional authenticity of your post. Hope you do well in your future endeavors.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic post. I think posts like that is what separates this site from the ordinary in that this place discusses all kinds of topic related to network engineering not just the technical. And at the risk of sounding a bit kiss ass, I think posts like this which talk about topics often overlooked elsewhere, are every bit as important, if not moreso, than a technical post on how to configure Etherchannel or something…

  • Devinator

    Good grief. This is like reading about myself.  :(

    Thanks for the excellent read.  I need a reboot.  It’s 2am.

    Devinator

  • Thecandymancan

    Awesome post dude. I was in a similar place around this time last year, unable to let anything go and full of rage should anyone dare to question or criticise my network. A colleague and friend killed himself (not due to work, he was messed up) which i took as a wakeup call. I felt that I was heading down a destructive path, impacting my family life with my networking obsession, work on the brain 24/7. Luckily (I guess) my doctor certified me off for 3 weeks stress leave so I downed tools, didn’t even pick up a book to do some study (that was really hard!). I went back to work refreshed and my boss altered my job description to suit a more laid back approach, I was guilty of taking WAY too much on. Now my work phone goes off when I leave the office, webmail links and work apps removed from my i-things. Now I focus on my family and my health. While work isn’t just a job it has it’s boundaries I won’t allow it to cross anymore.
    It’s a funny ol game, networking. Brings out the obsession in people but sometimes perspective is all you need!
    Best of luck in your search, I hope you find your holy grail

  • Gavin Hamill

    Respect to you, sir.; that level of openness is a rare find.

    I can relate since I am soon leaving my post of 8 years at a successful UK travel services .com – built multiple generations of the network – head full of IP addresses, knew every server + service, bla bla bla..

    I’m moving to an ISP which looks to be everything I need – more relaxed, time to do R&D, little operational involvement. However, I’m still waiting for the ‘Sorry to bother you, but….’ call!

    Here’s hoping the grass really is greener on the other side for both of us!

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