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The Testing Show: Dealing with Tech Burnout

September 24, 2020

Tech Burnout

It’s safe to say that 2020 has introduced challenges into people’s lives in unprecedented ways (at least in our current times). Some are thriving but many are feeling the results of burnout. Raj Subrameyer joins Matthew Heusser and Michael Larsen to talk through common issues of burnout as it relates to tech workers and some approaches and methods that can be used to deal with said burnout if not banish it entirely.









Michael Larsen (00:00):

Hello, and welcome to The Testing Show. Glad to have you with us. We are heading into fall, which in some ways, feels amazing, sad, unnerving, fill in the blank. It’s safe to say for most of us, 2020 has not been a normal year and it’s going to basically continue to not be a normal year. But part of that is if you are feeling somewhat weird, out of sorts, not sure what to do next. We think we have the antidote for that. So we would like to welcome to the show. I believe this is the first time having him on our show… like to welcome Raj Subrameyer.

Raj Subrameyer (00:39):

Thanks for having me, I am really excited to be here.

Michael Larsen (00:43):

And of course we also have our consistent MC… I was going to say all the time MC but that’s not a hundred percent true… but Mr. Matthew Heusser. So Matt, go ahead, take it away.

Matthew Heusser (00:54):

Thanks, Michael. And welcome to the show, Raj. Raj has been a real friend of the community he’s been around forever. We first met at CAST in 2011. And if he hasn’t been on this podcast, he’s been on a podcast we were doing five years before that. I don’t know about setting those expectations, Michael. We will probably come up with some tips and tricks that might help you to manage burnout, I hope, but that’s really up to Raj to do. You’re giving a talk at Agile TD, Agile Testing Days in Germany. Are you flying there?

Raj Subrameyer (01:28):

No, actually, because the current situation, I opted out to do my talk remotely. So…

Matthew Heusser (01:38):

I don’t think you could fly there if you wanted to, right? I think Germany might be locked down for Americans right now.

Raj Subrameyer (01:43):

Exactly. I think right now, except for, what, three countries… Americans are not allowed to travel anywhere. So that of course is the first part. The second part is, I want to be safe for obvious reasons. And I’ve been doing all my talks virtual right now, which includes Agile TD as well.

Matthew Heusser (02:02):

I guess that means you’re in Chicago now and that means that you’ll be staying safe and presenting this wider idea out there but I’m so glad you agreed to come on the show and give us kind of a preview. First of all, what motivated you to get serious about doing a talk on burnout?

Raj Subrameyer (02:21):

Yeah, so this issue of burnout has been really personal to me. Socurrently, we are living in unprecedented times where everyone is working from home and then you have to work in the midst of your family being around you, and then you have to manage work and life balance. And that is a whole level of stress. For example, for me, for the past six months, I run my own business. I have a coaching business where I help people land their dream job and become successful leaders in the tech industry. So I have to do that on a regular basis. I do writing and speaking. And then on the other end, we have my wife who works full time. And then we have my 10 month old infant who is there with me as well. It has been really stressful. I had times during these six months where I kind of lost my creativity and excitement and interest to do anything because of burnout. That also took me back to a couple of episodes with burnout that I had in the last six, seven years as well. And it’s not only me facing it right now. Everyone is going through the same issues. And I thought I have to talk about this. And I have to let people know how I’ve been able to manage or write this way while managing all these things, which I just mentioned, because in midst of this pandemic, I managed to write my new book, which is coming out. And then I’m still somehow sustaining in terms of doing my writing, speaking, and coaching, taking care of my personal life as well. So in this talk, I’m going to share different tips, tricks, and tools to help other people survive these kinds of situations and to prevent burnout before they occur. But yeah, so that’s why I came up with this talk as well. And that’s what I’m presenting.

Matthew Heusser (04:19):

Okay. I got to jump in on this one. Since you’re talking about the fact that you wrote a book in the midst of this pandemic, I think a lot of us probably did stop to think to ourselves, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to use this time. I’m going to be productive. I’m going to…”, I remember telling that to myself too. I was going to be very, very focused and I was going to really forge ahead and use this time to my advantage and no, it just didn’t happen. I realized I went back to my blog. I literally broke out of the mold today and said, “no, I’ve got to stop this.” It had been five months, which I think is a record for me. I usually don’t go that long, but it’s because a lot of the things that I personally react to, I’m not going and doing, I’m not going to meet ups at this point in time I’m not going to conferences. I’m not necessarily interacting with various initiatives because they haven’t been there to react with. It’s trickier. You have to dig deeper in these situations than you would normally. It seems like a lot of time passes and I’m not aware of it. Every day just… blends. And you think to yourself, “no, that can’t be right. I had to have written something sooner than…” No. It’s right there. It’s staring you in the face. You haven’t done anything with this. I want to know, how did you manage to get the motivation to write a book while the rest of us are treading water?

Raj Subrameyer (05:44):

[Laughter] That’s a great question. I just have to take a step back first and set some context here. Luckily for me I faced burnout, even before the pandemic, and it goes way back in 2015, when I was managing a team of 50 people that had to work on so many things simultaneously, my chest used to hurt because of anxiety. And then I got panic attack once, but then I was telling myself, “you know what, just suck it up. You’re fricking manager right now. And you need to handle your team because people are counting on you”. So I started taking anxiety medication. Somehow I had a temporary relief there. Second episode was in 2018 where I joined a startup company as part of the leadership team. And I was in charge of a lot of initiatives, which are going to bring million dollars to the company. So I was tasked with really big things. And of course, as a developer evangelist speaking at various conferences, traveling, just focusing on the next thing, next thing. And then what happened June, 2018, it was midnight. And I went to the bathroom a couple of minutes. I just, all of a sudden passed out. I hit my head against the bathtub actually. And then my wife, she didn’t see me return for 15 minutes. So of course she got curious on what the hell is happening. Then she came to the bathroom and saw me unconscious and I was also bruised on my head. So she started putting water on me and then she was shouting and shaking me so that I regained consciousness. And then I told her, “honey, I could not move”. She somehow dragged me, laid my back on a wall so that decent can sit upright. But to cut a long story short, I went to the ER and they had diagnosed me with severe exertion, anxiety, depression, and burnout. That was a turning point. I started implementing different strategies, tools, to have a healthy work life balance, no matter what happens around you. So I took that same strategy during this pandemic, and that’s how I was able to write a book. I was able to coach people. I was able to continue writing for different magazines and technology companies. I was able to continue speaking. I was able to take care of my infant son from nine to four during the day for four months. And then I plan my work and schedule around m infant son and my wife. So that’s kind of the brief story so that I can share the tools, tips, and tricks I’ve learned over the past couple of years to handle any situation you name it.

Matthew Heusser (08:33):

Wow. I don’t know that anyone’s been quite that honest and vulnerable on the show yet.

Raj Subrameyer (08:38):

The funny thing is a lot of people go through these episodes, but they’re not open about it. They feel that showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness, but being a contributor and trying to impact the testing community. I think we need to open up about burnout, mental health, because a lot of people are going through the same situation. And if you have gone through the same situation, you can at least help at least one other person to prevent the pain which you have gone through.

Matthew Heusser (09:13):

So give us some of these tips and tricks. What did you learn? How do you do it?

Matthew Heusser (09:16):

So the first thing you need to start with routines in your own life. I have a strict morning routine, which I’ve been following for the past couple of years, wake up in the morning, brush my teeth, pour myself a cup of coffee. Then I do 10 minutes of meditation. That has been the norm for the past couple of years. No matter what happens, then I just take a paper and pen and do what is called a mind dump. You’re writing all your tasks in your mind on paper. The main problem for people who are stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious. If they have all these facts in their mind and then constantly haunts them, prevents them from sleeping at night, prevents them from performing at their optimum level. You have to take those thoughts, put it down on paper and visually see things. So that is the mind dump. Then what I do is I prioritize all the things which I put on paper. Mainly it’s my to-do list and different things, my mind, which I want to accomplish as well. All the things which I want to accomplish. I rank them from one to 10. My goal every day is to finish the top three things which I set out to do during the day. You have only so much time. It’s impossible to work on 10 things at a time. I picked three things which have to do during the day. I read this great book, actually two books, which I have to mention. One is called Deep Work by Cal Newport, who’s a professor of computer science, I think at Georgetown University. And there’s another book called Procrastinate on Purpose. Those two books were really influential for me to get my day routine right. So first thing is in Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about deep intense work and time-boxed sessions where you focus on one particular thing with no distractions. On my Google calendar, I blocked time for the top three things, which I have to do. So for example, it could be writing this article for this company. I literally on Google app calendar, put agenda saying, “writing for this company, this content.” I have one hour blocks spread out during the day. You do that one particular task, one focus thing in that particular time block. That way your mind does not waver thinking about, “Okay, what to do next?” And finally you have what is called end-of-day routines where at around 5:00 PM. I just spent minutes of my time to go through whatever I accomplished during the day. Sometimes I accomplished all three things which I set forth to do. Sometimes I accomplish four things, because I already finished the three things. Whhatever be the case, you go through what you have accomplished and whatever you haven’t accomplished gets carried over to the to-do list for the next day, which you will see next morning when you do the mind dump. So literally just following these three strategies on a high level, it gives you control over your life, your time and what you work on during a day to day basis. And outside this, I just wanted to mention two more things. And then I can mention other small things which is going to help to get more focused. As I have mentioned morning routines, what we could do during the day where you have time blocks and do focus sessions, similar to session based exploratory testing. And then you do end of day routine. That’s what I’ve discussed to now. Just two more things. I wanted to talk about power of focusing and defocusing. And next one is the weekly planning routine. So let’s first talk about focusing and refocusing. So based on research, it’s found that the human mind can concentrate only at a stretch of 45 minutes to about 75 minutes at a time. If you try to do something for more than the time, then you start losing productivity. So you have to make sure every 45 minutes to one hour you take mental breaks. So what I usually do is in my time blocks were put a task which has to be done. Then immediately I take a 10 minute break where I go for a walk or drink water or physically get out of that workspace. So it gives me a feeling that, okay, I’m taking a mental break. In fact, I go ahead and do 10 pushups in the middle because you also help get the juices flowing again, especially when I’m doing creative tasks like writing or videos. I like to do that. So focusing and defocusing is really, really important. Finally, I do what is called the weekly planning routine. So every Sunday, usually Sunday evening for about half an hour or Monday early morning. What I do is I go over all the stuff that you have to do in the next upcoming weeks. Usually do it as a two week period because my schedule is really crazy. For two weeks. I see what things are coming up. And then I started scheduling time blocks on my calendar for the entire two weeks where I block my calendar. And for example, Monday, Tuesdays are my writing blocks. Wednesday, Thursdays are my meetings. Fridays is about creative stuff, which I want to do in terms of business. That’s how I classify it. I already know I have to do learning, reading then coaching, speaking, and writing. Those are the five things have to do no matter what happens. I block my calendar like I do eight time blocks for coaching, because what that means is that eight hours, maybe three hours would be actual coaching calls. And the next three hours, maybe lead generation two hours, maybe trying to support existing clients or come up with new ideas. And then I have like two time blocks for reading two time blocks for learning and you get the picture. So overall, these are the basic things which have kept me sane and has helped me produce at a really high level in the midst of all the things which I just talked about, which I’m trying to manage. So that’s in a nutshell what people can do right now, to get back control of their work and life.

Michael Larsen (15:37):

I love the idea that you have of meaningful procrastination. If I know that I can’t get to doing something, or if I’m frustrated about doing something, I have 1,000,001 other things right. Immediately around me that I can focus on. So if, at least, if I say, all right, I’m going to be focused on something else. There are many things that I can do, but at the same time, it’s a real struggle to be able to make sure that I’m making the main thing, the main thing. So I’ll ask you on a coaching level, what would you suggest to someone like me? All right? Here’s some things you might want to do.

Raj Subrameyer (16:14):

The three things I wanted to mention for that first thing is you have to block your calendar and it’s a family affair. Saturday, we have what is called the Subrameyer family meeting. Me and my wife every Saturday from 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM. We actually talk about what are the upcoming meetings for both of us in the following weeks? And then she will block her calendar saying “Carlene, working”. Then I’ll block my calendar saying “Raj, working”. So we already know what time is my time. And what time is your time. So for your situation, Michael, you have to do a podcast from there. You have to do presentation from there. Then you have kids coming along and then so many things happening. What you need to do is have the clear expectations and set clear boundaries with your wife and your kids saying, okay, during this time, it’s dad’s time during this time, it’s your time. During this time, it’s my wife’s time. Setting the boundaries and putting it on Google calendar. That’s how we can at least have some level of control. So I would advise you to share that with your wife and your kids, and then lay down clear expectations. Second thing I want to mention was you kind of talked about all these multiple things happening in the same location. That’s where it’s really important for you to have me time. What I do and what my wife does is during the evening, after we work one day, Carlene, my wife gets her me time where she blocks, two hours, and she can do whatever she wants. And then I take care of my kid. The next day, I have me time for me, me time is watching basketball because I’m a huge NBA fan. Then working out. Then reading. I read a lot of books. I listen to a lot of podcasts. That is my me time. Having those boundaries is the number one thing you need to do right now for you to have some sanity and also not burn yourself out by trying to manage everything with your work and life. So those are some things that you could do. I would say to get you some level of clarity in your current situation.

Michael Larsen (18:37):

I love it. Thank you.

Matthew Heusser (18:38):

And if I could, I think that Raj… In three minutes, you’ve laid out a strategy for managing your work day. I think it’s great. And I think it’s important and valuable when people talk about it. And I think you got to do that. You got to do that because if your Workday is multitasking and not managed well, you will end up procrastinating. And at the end of the day, if you had a stopwatch, you spent five hours on the internet and you’re stressed out because you can’t get your work done. I’m not exaggerating by much, to be honest cause of work avoidance solid got to do it. I would add if it’s all right, it’s outside of that time. And I think the family meeting is great. The simple basics; diet, exercise, sleep, and maybe vitamins. If you’re not getting into the right sleep, if you’re not exercising, you won’t be able to sleep at night. And if your diet is jacked up, you’ll feel terrible about yourself. If your diet is messed up, you’ll feel terrible about yourself. You won’t then exercise because you feel terrible and then you’ll get a bad night’s sleep. And then everything in the world seems so much worse, which is really easy to lose sight of. The one thing I always recommend to people is B12. As a supplement, it does have some mood regulating effects. It’s documented it’s over the counter. It’s like 25 cents for 5,000 milligrams or whatever, you know, 5000% of your daily recommended. There’s some data for some people. I think it also could have a placebo effect. I’d love to get your thoughts on diet, sleep, exercise, and vitamins.

Raj Subrameyer (20:15):

That’s a great topic. I believe diet exercise is so important for your mental health as well, because if you are overeating, which I was doing, if you are not mindful of what are you doing, then that’s when you start spiraling down. And then one thing leads to another, you get super anxious, depressed, or burned out. As I was saying, in terms of the time blocks, I have two time blocks for running. I sure I try to go for a run twice a week. And then I have one time block for stretching and I do stretches and abs during that time, that’s how I carve out time for my physical health as well. For me, physical health is really important because I can relate to it because I grew up as a really fat kid that was always obese. I was ridiculed for my weight. In 2016, January 1st, 2016, I decided that I wanted to take back control of my physical health and I lost 50 pounds in six months. Since then I’ve been maintaining my body weight. That’s because I went through the lowest point of my physical health as well. So I carve out time for exercising. And then in terms of the supplements, yes, I’m not a doctor, but I do similar kind of thing of what Matt does, which is I take B12 supplements, especially for Asian folks, of course, from my Texas accent listeners… Do you know that I’m probably [laughter] not born here? So I grew up in India and there it’s tropical climate and there’s a lot of sun always, but now I live in Chicago where you have winters and it gets dark really fast. So to supplement that I have to take B12 and then I take vitamin D supplements as well for that. And then I take probiotics. The science behind probiotics that it helps for your gut health. It helps to keep your pH value stable in your body as well. So yeah, I’ve been doing all of those things. That’s how I take care of my physical health. Yeah, I think it definitely helps. And I just want to mention one more thing because I just remembered talking about burnout… a slight diversion from the physical health aspect but I think it’s really important for your listeners to hear. Currently, if you see everyone is working remotely, probably 99% of the people, every freaking thing is a Zoom call. Zoom call this, Zoom calls that your continuously on video calls, video calls, video calls and Zoom fatigue is a huge thing. Especially say, if you’re a manager leading teams, you constantly have to be on Calls like fricking eight to nine hours a day. Right? And for, and for me, I am on a lot of calls, but I try to avoid fatigue because of Zoom calls. Right? And how do I do that? You have to be super anal about your schedule. Don’t attend unproductive meetings. Don’t let other people’s schedule over your meetings. Things which you have scheduled for your productivity, for your wellbeing. You have to be really strict about that.

Matthew Heusser (23:37):

So block off your time and then make it so when people schedule meetings, you are unavailable at that time. So you can focus. If you’re going to go to a meeting where, you know, you’re going to be screwing around on the internet, 90% of the time, just skip the meeting.

Raj Subrameyer (23:51):

Exactly! Research suggests that $213 billion is spent in the U S alone in unproductive meetings and about 93% of the people in meetings usually are multitasking. And they’re not focused on the current meeting. That’s what research suggests. I would highly encourage your listeners to check out this Ted Talk by David Grady and Jason Freid. Jason Freid is the founder of Basecamp, which is out in Chicago here. And they talk about unproductive meetings and how it sucks out time, productivity, and money for the company as well. The point is, unproductive meetings are the number one cause of people not being able to do their tasks. And number one cause for Zoom fatigue, number one cause of people getting into… yeah, burnout or anxiety. That’s why I wanted to mention that to avoid Zoom fatigue, as Matt clarified it even further, you need to proactively block your calendar so that other people don’t block your calendar. And if you get invited to meetings, you have to see are you really needed in that meeting or can it be delegated? And if you really have to be in the meeting, then you have to make sure the meeting has an agenda. And then there are only seven to eight people in the meeting. Because more than that, it’s not a meeting, it’s a conference. Then you need to have follow up and action items and you have to be really methodical in the way you proceed. Just wanted to mention that apart from the physical health, which we were talking about

Matthew Heusser (25:37):

You know… Thanks, Raj… I thought about a different way to kind of reframe what you’re suggesting in terms of time management. Tell me what you think of this. During COVID, I’ve been doing a lot of this… make a to-do list and it’s huge. And I actually do get a significant amount of work done. I get seven things crossed off that list, but it’s never ending. And some of the things at the bottom are low priority, so they almost never bump up to the top. And it’s just, the next day there’s a bunch of new things. And some days I don’t get much done and it’s almost like a neverending treadmill, but what if I thought of it differently in terms of blocking off my time, I’m gonna spend three hours a day heads down testing every day. I’m going to have two hours of meetings. I’m going to have an emergency hour. However, I structure my day and that’s going to include some checking of emails. Yeah, I did do the to-do lists, but now I can say, gee, my head’s down testing is growing. I need to spend more time per day doing heads down testing. So what do I cut to get there? And then the conversation with my managers, “here’s how I’m bucketing my time. Here’s how the lists are growing. Is that okay?” Maybe it’s okay. That we’re a little bit behind in testing because whoever is next in line and operations is batching the work anyway, and we’re not going to do a big release for a week or two, so maybe it’s not. Okay. Well then this is how long things are taking. What do I do? Can I get out of this meeting? Can I get out of that meeting? Can I get out of this project so that project can flow properly? And then we just present that to leadership and let them decide. And you said disconnect from the, “Oh no, I’m not all getting my work done” or, “Oh no, it’s a big treadmill.” And instead I’m managing pipelines of work, similar to a portfolio, the same way that frankly, three levels up the director of the PMO manages the teams. And then I don’t feel bad that I didn’t get the big long list done. And I’m not managing the big, long list. I’m managing three pipelines. I think that’s similar. Maybe not the same language, but similar to some of the ideas you’re advocating.

Raj Subrameyer (27:49):

Yeah. So it is pretty much the same concept when I was managing teams. And currently my coaching clients are like VP of engineering, CEOs of startup companies. It comes down to two things. You need to have regular checkpoints. It could be one on one meetings. It could be a team meetings where you constantly talk about different things, which are happening, different things which have to be accomplished. But in the given timeframe, if some things cannot be accomplished, let’s talk about how we can handle it. That kind of conversation should happen on a weekly basis, at least, so that people do not have unrealistic expectations because the number one problem which I’ve seen in the past five, six months is people having unrealistic expectations of things which are going to be done in the midst of millions of other things that we have to think about right now because of COVID. The second thing, give yourself some grace because everyone knows that you’re trying to work in the midst of having a family around you, in spite of working in the kitchen, it’s part of trying to take care of your infant son. Everyone knows. So you, as a manager, it first comes from you from a leader that it is okay to give yourself some grace in between Zoom calls. If your kid is running around, that should be okay. You should set those expectations as a leader. That those things are okay. And sometimes if there’s some tasks have deadlines, if we cannot meet it because of these external circumstances, you have to plan accordingly for it as a leader, lay down those expectations as well. It’s okay. In fact, the other day I was on a call with one of my coaching clients who’s director of quality at a startup company. She said she started doing one thing with Zoom meetings, for example. Instead of every Zoom meeting getting straight to the agenda, she spent the first five minutes to go around the room and each one talks about what they’re looking forward to doing that week. What are they proud of in that week? They talk about those two things that they go around the room and they spend the first five minutes. And she, as a leader has said the expectations that for the first five minutes, this is what we’ll be doing. And next 55 minutes or 25 minutes, then we talk about work. So having those things, setting those expectations as a leader, especially currently where everyone is distributed, everyone’s working remotely is going to help teams. It’s going to help managers. It’ss going to help leaders run better organizations and build more high performing teams as well.

Michael Larsen (30:34):

Much as I am enjoying this conversation and I really do feel like we could talk about this all day… I hate to be that guy but I’m going to have to be that guy and say, “it’s probably time for us to bring this episode to a close.” Raj? I think it’s only fair that we give you the last word. Any final thoughts?

Raj Subrameyer (30:54):

So overall, this is what I would say. We all are living in unprecedented times. No one would have ever thought that our life would change like this when we were in 2019. Be mindful that everyone is struggling. Everyone is trying to work through this. And give yourself some grace. Just figure out what things work for you and try to see how you can manage your work and life, given your current situation. It’s like incremental process life. Life is not going to change in one day. But we definitely can put an effort to do that. For people who do not know already, I did write a book during this pandemic. The book is about how to advance in your career under any conditions. People feel anxious about their job security. They feel stuck in their career. They’re afraid to make the leap to a better job because of the fear of the unknown. And finally, the millions of jobs have already been lost. I was in the exact same situation in 2008 in the midst of a recession. I applied for 1,293 jobs, one, two, nine, three, and then got one internship out of it. So I know how it feels. So that’s why I wrote this book, Skyrocket Your Career. It’s coming out mid October. Be great if you could check it out because I think it’s going to be really impactful. And if you want to connect with me, check out my website, which is rajsubra (dot) com, which is r a j s u b r a (dot) com. And also I’m super active on LinkedIn because LinkedIn is my community and that’s where I hang out. So just connect with me and I would love to have conversations on any topic. AI, testing, productivity, leadership, beer, basketball. I love connecting with people and that’s how I found Matt. That’s how I found Michael. And that’s how we build the community as well. So thank you so much for this opportunity.

Michael Larsen (32:57):

Fantastic. Glad to have you with us, Raj. And on that note, we are going to say, “thanks for joining us. Thank you for listening to The Testing Show. We will see you again in two weeks. Be excellent to each other.”

Matthew Heusser (33:08):

Thanks man. Thanks for being on the show. Raj, always nice working with you, Michael. Thank you for listening.

Michael Larsen (33:12):

That concludes this episode of The Testing Show. We also want to encourage you, our listeners, to give us a rating and a review on Apple podcasts. Those ratings and reviews, help raise the visibility of the show and let more people find us. Also, we want to invite you to come join us on The Testing Show Slack channel, as a way to communicate about the show. Talk to us about what you like and what you’d like to hear, and also to help us shape future shows. Please email us at thetestingshow (at) qualitestgroup (dot) com and we will send you an invite to join group. The Testing Show is produced and edited by Michael Larsen, moderated by Matt Heusser, with frequent contributions from our many featured guests who bring the topics and expertise to make the show happen. Additionally, if you have questions you’d like to see addressed on The Testing Show, or if you would like to be a guest on the podcast, please email us at thetestingshow (at) qualitestgroup (dot) com.