Support is a burnout job. Within the industry, this is a known fact. Good companies have programs to reduce burnout because it’s expensive to replace skilled workers who leave. My company was doing no such thing. We were getting ridden until we broke.
Two or three months into my third year, I recognized it was happening to me. Although I’d had been fighting it for a long time, my natural human urge to punch back was leaving me, replaced by something closer to despair. I wish I were kidding or exaggerating about this – I take little pleasure in revealing personal weakness.
The trigger for me was travel. I’d been promoted to ‘back-line’ support and also ‘on-call’ duty. In my company, the next step in career development for a support engineer is to fly directly to customer sites to fix the toughest and most politically dicey issues in person. My manager, Mr. Data, made it clear that this was the expectation.
So I did it. My first trip was to ClientSoftwareCompany, in Texas. The first two days I got nowhere with the problem. The second day was more of the same. I was in meetings all day with various technical teams within the company, tracing and analyzing. After a ten hour day, we were no closer to resolving the problem than we were prior to my flight down. Fingers were being pointed and wagged. The Blame Game was in full effect.
I still remember getting back to my hotel room that second night, my head full of defeat, reeling. No one was happy. Mr. Data was upset that we weren’t done yet. The client was upset that we still didn’t have any viable theories. People were getting hostile. They were paying a lot of money for the on-site service, this special visit from support, and so far they had nothing to show for it.
The failure gnawed at me. I didn’t want to eat or watch television or do anything at all. Instead I stayed in my hotel room and let the time pass as slowly as it liked, laying on top of the comforter, tears streaming from the corners of my eyes, looking at the blurry popcorn-textured ceiling above. The more I made the minutes drag out, the more time it seemed I had between me and going back into the client’s office.
I wasn’t sure I could go back at all. Maybe it’d be best if I just went back to the airport and flew home. Yep, that was the best plan of action.
My brain started mapping out my future life. Trip after trip of this. Even if, by some miracle, I fixed the issue, I’d shortly be dispatched to another customer to resolve some other problem (a pattern of endlessly repeating discomfort.) These thoughts didn’t exactly make me feel better.
Somehow, I picked myself up and made myself go back in the next day. And the next. And the next. By the end of Friday, we’d resolved the problem — a complicated son of a bitch, which required a tremendous team effort to ultimately pin down — and sanity had been restored to my world.
But I when I got back to my apartment in San Francisco, I knew that I had to start thinking about making life changes. This current model was not working. There was too much pain and not enough pleasure. I was averaging over 55 hours of high-stress work a week, and the vast majority of those hours were miserable.
I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t exercising. When I did manage to power down for six or seven hours, I dreamt about troubleshooting. Sometimes I’d wake up, exhausted, with an answer to an issue; I was working while unconscious.
Unfortunately, when I looked at my bank account and student loan balance, it didn’t seem like there was much I could do about the situation.