Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Dear Future Me: I Am Not Alone

Dear future me. I'm writing this while being very tired. I am still spending my time and energy on this deliberately, hoping to remind you of a very stressful time I'm still recovering from: the last six months.

Over the past couple of years, I've started to think a lot more about my energy levels and capacity. Especially when the pandemic became obvious beginning of 2020 and life changed, I felt I needed to cut down on what I do and focus on a few things at a time, working at a sustainable pace. Thinking I had achieved that, I promised myself never to get back into a situation with high stress levels over a long period of time, feeling completely overwhelmed. Little did I know, I did not have everything in hand to prevent what happened since beginning of the year. So here's a reminder to myself and anyone who relates to this situation: if you encounter circumstances again where everything ends up on your desk, be reminded of what happened this time, what consequences it had and which strategies helped to get through it.

So what happened? In short, my work load exploded, I went with it and the energy spent left me depleted.

  • Team size exploded. End of last year, my product team consisted of six full-time employees and a working student. With only three full-time developers we were looking for more people to join. Then one of the three decided to leave and the situation became more urgent to solve. As a blessing in disguise, four developers moved internally and one developer came from outside the company to join our team - all within one month. Yay, problem solved, right? Well, this meant we suddenly were eleven full-time employees plus one working student. I guess most people who have worked in cross-functional product teams can understand what that meant. Our communication pathways multiplied with every new person on the team. With me as the dedicated tester on the team still being involved in all stories, the team mostly working in solo mode at that time, and people starting new stories when waiting for feedback, meant that I had at least twelve stories at the same time on my desk. Imagine the context switching effort and waste coming along with that alone. Feedback loops slowed down immensely and our cycle time increased. Everything took long. Working modes that were okay-ish before did not work at all anymore.
  • Onboarding effort multiplied. So overall, in January and February five new developers joined nearly at the same time. With me being one of two persons having been the longest in the company, in the team and on the product, plus having a unique holistic view on everything that's involved with developing it, this meant a lot of the onboarding and knowledge sharing effort ended up on my desk. While I really enjoy onboarding new people - and these five were lovely people to join our team - this really took a toll on me. Yet still, we need to set people up for success and give them the knowledge they need to have impact themselves. I simply can't leave my teammates hanging.
  • Old conflicts reached the melting point. My team from last year was together for quite a long time and it started to dissolve more and more. We had wonderful times together, and also times we did not manage well. There's a lot to learn from that alone, yet the sad fact is that a long and slowly growing conflict took a toll on each and every one who had been part of that old team constellation. In the end, the two other former developers decided to leave the company for new opportunities as well. All these ups and downs took a lot of emotional energy from everyone of us. It took up a lot of cognitive capacity as well and made any interaction way harder than it had to be.
  • Building a new team, remotely. Since beginning of May, we're now finally our new team constellation and starting to shape this team to the one we want to be on, where everyone is welcome, included, safe to speak their mind, encouraged to experiment and collaborate and learn together and everything. Exciting times, yet we need to put in lots of effort. Also, this is the first team for all of us, where nearly everyone on the team only met each other remotely. We need to learn how to grant ourselves social time, get to know each other, evolve our culture, and more - all virtually. We are distributed across four locations, so the remote setup is amazing in leveling the playing field and providing the same access for everyone. I'm curious where this journey leads us, and already very happy to be part of this new team.
  • Upskilling people to enable them to take over activities that usually ended up with me. No matter how often I reached a point where testing was indeed a whole team activity, with the former team constellation it ended up again mostly with me. Especially exploratory testing or testing for any kind of other quality aspect than the core functionality. The same with operations and infrastructure tasks, responding to alerts, user support, writing release news, and so on. Scheduling and facilitating meetings. Cross-team communication. All kinds of glue work to keep the balls from falling to the ground. I strongly believe in the whole team approach and creating a base of knowledge for everyone. No need to become the expert in one area, yet we should be able to help each other out, reduce bottlenecks and waiting time, unblock each other, being able to go on sick leave and also vacation without things piling up for us in the meantime or worrying they won't get done. So with new people on board, this task could only be done by me, naturally. Super thankful that my new teammates are very open and supportive and not hesitating to see beyond their own nose. They stepped up and took over responsibility even if things were outside their usual comfort zone.
  • Taking up product work and sharing its responsibility in the team. Our product owner had great news: his family got a new member! I really appreciate him going on a long parental leave and also preparing the team for it. He is still working one day per week, yet we all agreed to spread the product responsibility across the team and see that we all carry a bit of the load so it's not too much for anyone. Still, with me being the one longest on the team and product, I ended up as natural contact person for most people outside the team, even though it was communicated differently. So many requests coming in! While I am only seeing a fraction of it, I'm in awe of product owner work. Also, we all in the team are now learning how to tackle user experience in a better fashion, how to spread UX knowledge in the team and how to support our researcher better with his work, and how to fill the gap of other UX roles like design or writing. A lot more to learn on this path!
  • Our team's domain got lots of fresh people. Since beginning of the year, a lot more new people joined our domain, including two new persons on the domain leadership level. New people bringing new energy and lots of ideas! Naturally, onboarding needed to be done on domain level as well. Again, as being one of the persons longest in the domain and also having the "Principal" seniority level, sharing a lot of knowledge and experience ended up on my desk without the possibility of delegating this work. Giving feedback to new initiatives, doing my share helping to drive them forward, new sync meetings, participating in domain workshops, and more.
  • Seeds planted over the last years in my colleagues' minds finally began to sprout. I really don't know what exactly happened, yet since beginning of the year a lot of people reached out to me. Suddenly they were taking me up on my continuous offers to give workshops or talks, to listen and give advice where wanted, to support their own experiments and initiatives, and more. I love seeing people this energized and acting on their ideas and I'm happy to support. "People first" as a principle does not only apply to my own team, so I didn't turn them down. Yet all these requests added up for me.
  • Mentoring, coaching and an accountability partnership. Over the last years, I had about one mentee at a time, sometimes one or two more without the formal relationship. This year I got a new mentee to nudge further on her journey - which is great! Also, this part of the job comes with the seniority as well: growing more senior people. With my mentee from last year we had agreed to continue the relationship as accountability partners - on the topic of saying "no" (imagine). In addition, I took on my very first coachee as an experiment for both our growth as well. Each and every of these relationships have clear boundaries and don't take up much time - yet overall they do add quite a bit. Yet again: people first.
  • Co-creating and running a series of six leadership workshops. I'm in a hybrid role as a principal engineer who's embedded on a cross-functional team. This means that I spend part of my capacity on cross-team initiatives to drive change on a different impact level. Over the last years I've found a rough rule that worked nicely for me: one third of my time I spend on everyday work on my team to evolve our product, one third for thinking ahead and driving innovation within said team and product, one third for initiatives outside my team, usually on a global scale. Worked pretty well last year, helping me to focus on less work in progress and also keep a sustainable pace. For this year, the main initiative I chose to do outside my team was to pair facilitate a series of six leadership workshops together with our coach Shiva Krishnan. I had participated in these workshops in the previous year and found their content to be very relevant and valuable to spread further. My experiment was to build quality on yet another level here, setting the base line and culture for good things to emerge. According to my experience, driving specific testing and quality initiatives mostly failed when they clashed with the existing culture. This year, I wanted to work on the mindset part from yet another angle and also build awareness on diversity, equity and inclusion topics as part of these leadership workshops. Well - long story short, Shiva and I ended up reworking each and every one of the six workshops, pulling them to a higher level and building yet a better framework by doing so. The magic of pairing! Any one of us alone would not even have imagined the end result. Together we put in a lot of effort yet also had a way better outcome in the end. I don't regret any moment working on these workshops - even though it was way more work than anticipated, and we had put ourselves up to keep hard absolute dates with each workshop.
There might have been more things that I've forgotten to list here. Yet you can already see that there's no way that all of this would ever fit into a 40 hours work week when everything needs to take place at the same time and the goal is to achieve all that in five to six months. Some colleagues reached out with lots of requests, and when I explained my situation they shared they can really relate and things can wait; while giving me yet three more tasks. Sigh. My task list of additional "small things" to work on grew to 40 tasks that all would take at least 15 minutes to 1 hour and I just didn't know when to ever do them, while me being the only person who could work at them. I felt I was set up for failure and adding to that myself. Believe me, on each thing landing on my desk I pushed back way harder than at any time in my career before, challenging every bit of work if it really needed to be done, be done this way, be done by me, be done by me alone, be done by time x, be needing my attendance - and yet way too many things ended up with me anyway. Way too often I was in back to back calls the whole day (with follow-up tasks coming from them of course), while in the meantime I received so many chat messages with way more tasks waiting for me. Yes I can pull through this, and yet it will drain my energy levels completely. Way too often I felt I'm playing a game of "Whac-A-Mole" without being ever able to win - at least not on my own.

The consequences of all this?
  • Being the bottleneck. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed being the bottleneck. A long time since I said goodbye to that mindset and never wanted to look back. From time to time I still ended up being the bottleneck (e.g. being the only one knowing how to do a certain thing), yet I usually took this as an indicator to change the situation. Having bottlenecks and knowledge silos is neither resilient for the system nor fun for the individuals. It just increases waiting times, triggers unhelpful behavior (like taking on a new task while waiting) and more. Believe me, I'm totally happy with not being the bottleneck and I'm way better able to contribute then.
  • My cognitive load exploded. With all the points above I had to keep way too many things in mind. Way too many context switches. Way too much balancing and juggling. If one thing dropped, way too often it cascaded into other things. Once more I realized what 100% (or more) utilization really means: a catastrophe. So many times I simply could not think anymore; you know, deeply think, really think something through. Staying too superficial just to cope with the situation led me to make less fortunate decisions. I lost focus on what's actually important and what can wait. Trying to make all these switches slowed my thinking to a halt. And yet I tried to pull through instead of taking breaks.
  • The more stressed I got, the more I fell back to bad habits. Like solo work, trying to solve everything myself (so it's "faster" and just "done") without pulling others in (so more people could help out in the future). Especially in the first months this was a missed chance. Another bad habit: being unable to say no. I know I'm a people pleaser, a learned behavior from childhood years, so I'm aware I need to work on this. I do have an accountability partnership specifically for that reason, so we can keep each other accountable on keeping an eye on our load. Practicing saying "no" to opportunities, or "not yet". Trying to delegate things, sponsor other people instead of taking on more things that are not in our focus, outside the area where we want to make the biggest impact. End of last year this worked well, yet this year I learned that the higher my stress levels, the lower my boundaries to accept new work load. This is something to keep in close check.
  • Getting angry with myself and the example I set. Angry with myself that I let this happen to me (which was not helpful at all but just added another layer of energy spent and capacity used up). Angry with myself that I felt the need to pull through all this and cope with the situation - despite me never wanting to take on as much anymore. The contradiction alone. Also, I was well aware being in a position of leadership, and leading by example taking on that much and not being able to delegate or take breaks, this is setting a really bad example I did not want for our culture. Working late or on weekends? I was always the first one telling my teammates that this is not the way to go (unless where really needed to balance with life), and that it's not good to set this bar for the rest of the team who might start thinking it's expected from them. All this while I was doing exactly that, just trying to hide this from my team. While I am also the one who advocates for transparency! Oh my.
  • My body alerted me of the elevated stress levels. I mean, more than usual. I started developing new physical responses to stress to a level that my body actually made me notice - a first timer for me. This was something I could not push away yet really got me thinking. It made me realize I really need to stop this. Get out of this situation as soon as possible.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, helpless, anxious. Way too many times I broke into tears or screamed in frustration or wanted to throw something. Anything. All this took up again time and energy that I felt I needed to spend to resolve this work situation and get out of it as soon as I can - while still being aware that this would mean months. Several colleagues and friends repeatedly reached out to me sharing their concerns that I'm stretched too thin and that I really need to get things off my table. Yes, I know. I don't know how though, and I'm sad it shows. I really appreciate you all for reaching out - I still couldn't see any other way out than pulling through.
Of course that's not everything. There's more to life than work.
  • We're still living in a pandemic. I learned that I am totally happy with continuous change at work and drive improvements actively, yet especially in private settings I need a constant to hold on to and give structure, like my schedule. Any change in my daily routine takes a long time to establish new automatisms around it - costing lots of energy. The constant change of rules what's allowed and what not in the pandemic really drained me. Rather give me a more restricted set of rules and keep it for longer, I can live with that way better than having it change every few days or weeks.
  • Family and friends having a hard time. People were needing me in many different ways. We went through lots of ups and downs. Having to solve a lot of things remotely with people who are not used to work that way is a challenge in itself. Solving problems I never had to solve before while conveying that knowledge at the same time took a lot of energy from my side.
  • My personal projects and endeavors came to a full stop. At first I tried to make time for them nonetheless, then I realized I had to stop whatever I could. The last years I took on a lot and I'm aware of that. At the same time, my personal projects served as a sort of boundary for work, any hours outside working hours were simply reserved for other things already which helped me to keep these boundaries. They also gave me a lot of energy and allowed me to learn a lot of different things. Yet they had to go - during the past months I simply didn't know anymore how to ever manage that load otherwise. Slowly, I am now taking up a bit of public speaking again, yet mostly around existing sessions with the least effort possible.
  • Crossing my own boundaries for self-care way too many times. I failed to keep up my personal goals to do things only for myself (like games, sports or reading). Feeling guilty here as well and trying not to.
  • Way too many private messages and communication. While I heard many people struggling with the reduced connections during the pandemic, I so often wished for a lot less. I am usually receiving around 40 to 50 private emails every day, with around 10 I really need to respond to. Usually I'd be fine with that, I learned to get them out of the way quickly whenever I can. Also I'm happy when people are reaching out! Yet in above situation over the last half year these messages were way too many! Hence, seeing any kind of new email or social media notification immediately made me cringe and increased my stress levels.
If I've ever felt burned out or getting real close to it, it was over the last months. A really scary place to be that I wanted to get out of as soon as possible. So I did work on finding my own way out. Oh yeah, this came on top - yet I felt this would be my saver. I tried a lot of things, yet here are strategies that indeed helped me on the long run in my specific context and situation. They mostly resolve around setting boundaries and spreading the load by enabling people to help out.

  • Take breaks. Really, I need to take breaks even if I feel I don't have the time for them. Sometimes just getting away from the table helps, like when making myself a new tea even though I didn't need one yet.
  • Take time to reflect and think. Sit down and reflect on what worked in times that resembled the current one, like back when I was working on big teams. The past months I continued reflecting and taking note of my thoughts in a journal. In hindsight this helped me a lot to unload myself of emotions or thoughts as well as to clear up my thinking. I had discovered over the last years that writing helps my thinking, so journaling is a great way for me to get my thoughts straight. If you wonder, I mostly just take bullet points, as little as needed, and sometimes thoughts are just flowing and filling up the white space.
  • Reduce the load in progress. Making principles like "stop starting, start finishing" very explicit again so people start looking around if they could help out someone else before starting something new, or just not start something new not to increase our work in progress even further. Cut down what you're working on, and then cut down even more.
  • Remember you are not alone. As shared, I'm a people pleaser and this often drives my behavior. I am using an "allower message" as antidote, so whenever I perceive being a failure (meaning I cannot please all people), I remind myself of a specific message to ground myself again. "Please yourself first" worked well for me last year. This year I changed it to "I am not alone". This reframing allowed me to break out of my solo overwork behavior (that helped no one), reach out to others earlier, and accepting their help better.
  • Refrain from solo work. My current team is not yet familiar with ensembling, yet open for pairing. So I paired a LOT. To the point where I committed to testing only together with other people - if we didn't find time together, well this thing did not get done. Giving myself permission to use that time to finish other things instead, and not to use off hours to test something. I deliberately went slow here so we all could go fast in the future, together. When things are valuable to us, we need to own them together. Sharing knowledge is one thing, sharing activities is key.
  • Focus on unblocking people. Teach people how to help themselves and the team and then let them do it. Let them be responsible of follow-up tasks instead of grabbing any little further todo in addition, like setting up meetings or taking notes or checking in with another person.
  • Invest in upskilling people, continuously. Pairing added to that goal just as much as sharing knowledge in a fun and realistic way. For example, I gave two operations and support trainings that put my team in the actual situation of an incoming user request or an alert by our product, while also enabling them to investigate the situation and go through it. This helped a lot with sharing why this work is important, why we need to bring our pieces of knowledge together, and how to do it without making it a tedious burden yet allowing us to learn from it.
  • Explain your situation and manage expectations. Share your context in any interaction. Being open and transparent with people helped a lot with their understanding and us seeing the full picture. It also allowed us to find alternative ways to accomplish things faster or with less effort.
  • Find sympathetic ears. What really helped me was talking with a lot of people - people who listened and I'm ever grateful for that. Sharing your situation and speaking out loud helps reflection and becoming clear that this is not a situation to stay in. It sometimes triggered other ideas what to try, or re-established my confidence in doing my job; yet even if it only helped make the other aware of my situation, talking already helped.
  • Refrain from taking on more on top. Saying "no", "not yet", "not me". A lot. If you can't (as priorities change, right?) communicate what goes instead - you can't do everything at once.
  • Connect people. Instead of taking things on your own desk, empower others to do so. Sometimes all there's needed is to make people visible and connect them.
  • Reduce your cognitive load and singletask. Wherever possible. Do one thing at a time and complete that one thing at a time before tackling the next one. Sometimes more stuff comes in on which you can't decide right away, yet instead of keeping this in the head just park it in a todo list or similar. Anything that freed my thinking capacity to focus on the current task at hand helped. Sometimes it also meant getting rid of a few smaller and less important things just to free my mind again for the big important impactful one. Anything to get calmer or stay calm enough and maintain thinking capacity. If I'm drowning, my biggest value is gone: being there for people, going deep thinking in different perspectives and creating bridges and connecting people, driving experiments and inspiring change. So I'd rather should help 10 people not 100. Spreading myself too thin does not work.
  • Consider unplanned work. No matter what we do, we will discover new things as we go. Whether it's the tooling that suddenly does not want to work with us anymore, or incidents taking over priority, or a personal crisis. Some things will happen and shift previous plans. We need to keep this in mind and enable us to act on new insights quickly.
  • Maintain your own space. I need space to drive testing and quality topics in my team. I need space to contribute pro-actively. I need space to help other teams and people in the company as well. I need space to be helpful. The safer I feel and the more space within constraints I have, the more ideas I get and think positively about my work and the impact we can have together. Sometimes I just needed space to tackle a few things on my todo list - so I'm really thankful for my team giving me this space. Yet remember: filling the day with back to back calls is the opposite of maintaining space.
  • Make space for others to step up. My new team achieved a lot of things I wanted to drive forward just by getting the space to do so. Together, we finally tackled some long waiting improvement points. We introduced integration tests for consuming Kafka messages, added template testing for our frontend, increased the level of observability of our backend, introduced actual feature flags to decouple deploying from releasing, integrated first accessibility testing to tackle this increasingly important quality aspect, and introduced user tracking with Hotjar to get even more data and make more informed product decisions. Yes, I nudged a bit on all these topics, yet most of this was achieved by my teammates with me getting out of the way.
  • Reclaim your calendar. Setting my work and private calendars to tentative helped me a lot. This can serve as a signal to others looking for free slots and having them reach out to me directly, yet it mostly served as a signal to myself when looking at my calendar. Screaming in my face: "no more extra meetings during this time, don't schedule or accept if not absolutely needed".
  • Reclaim your inboxes. Responding to private emails only on weekends; just because this way no further response could come in between and add to my load.
  • Prioritize sleep. This grew very important, especially after my body made clear my stress levels are too high. Cutting on sleeping hours is never the way to go.
  • Make space for "me time", no matter what. Canceling private appointments to get a little me time here and then. Even if I just used it to watch another episode of my current series. Anything to distract my mind from work.
  • Accept what you cannot change. We don't have everything in our hands. Accepting this can be hard, yet many times I can only change how I cope with what comes.
  • Be okay with being not okay and focus on finding a way back to okay. As soon as possible. In the end it boils down to that. I cannot be of any help to others, especially on the long run, if I don't take care of myself. Remember the oxygen mask and why we need to put it on ourselves first.
  • Take time to socialize and have a good time with people. With my new team starting to grow together, I drew a lot of energy from any social moment we had, great conversations as well as having fun playing a game together. I desperately need the bonding and building these relationships on more than just work topics.
  • Celebrate achievements. I sometimes really need to acknowledge what I managed to do and allow myself to feel not only overwhelmed but also take in good energy from these achievements. The trick is: even if I don't feel like it, celebrate nonetheless. With the responses the good feelings come along. Looking back I'm thankful I did and can now feel more proud than at that point in time.
With all that, after half a year, I finally feel I'm in a better place again. Most of the topics on my desk that had absolute dates attached are done, people around me are finally enabled to help out, and I have capacity again to deal with what's still there while remembering not to take on too many new ones at a time. The rest can wait, there's a time coming for that.

Huge kudos and gratitude to my new team - I really appreciate you for stepping up big time, feeling responsible for the whole product and team, for more than your own area of expertise. For being ready to take over unfamiliar things outside your comfort zone. For sharing the load and helping each other. For learning every day with each other. For experimenting. For really having my back when I went on vacation or spoke at a conference. For listening. For sending me on vacation early. I know some of you feel you're just doing your work - yet let me make this clear again: yes, you are doing your work, and I appreciate you for doing it well.

Huge kudos to so many people of our lovely communities - thank you all for listening to me in this time or for bearing with me canceling appointments, not accepting pairing requests anymore, and not being there for a lot of things. I am coming back to all the lovely community stuff, yet I need to remember to use my energies wisely and look for synergies where I can.

Huge kudos to my friends for reaching out, and especially to my best friend and sister Marlene Guggenberger - thank you for honoring me as first listener of your first novels (which are amazing, so people who understand German should definitely check them out!). I loved the live reading as the story progressed, it was the time off my head that I needed on many of these days and hence a real life saver for me! Not taken for granted.

The one most helpful thing I've learned to prevent a situation as described above worked also as the way out of it. Dear future me. I am not alone.