Software development can be a mentally taxing profession. It requires intense mental focus, often under heavy workloads, with unclear job expectations and a lack of control. And with recent labor shortages due to layoffs and resignations, teams may also be understaffed, making matters more complicated. These issues can compound and lead to prolonged excessive stress—that’s when burnout hits.
In fact, one report found that 82% of developers surveyed indicated that they had experienced burnout in the last six to eight months. Some top causes of burnout include increased workload, a poor work culture and personal reasons. But whatever the cause, for 73% of these developers, burnout is negatively impacting their productivity or personal life. So, what can leaders do about it?
I recently talked with Randall Degges, head of developer relations at developer security company Snyk, to learn how to address ever-present burnout issues in software development teams at scale. Snyk, which provides popular automated vulnerability detection tools, recently closed a staggering $196.5 million series G funding at a $7.4 billion valuation. With that kind of momentum, they must be doing something right. According to Degges, there are a handful of tactics to consider to prevent burnout, like ensuring developers are heard, not assigning tasks without context and making improvements to the DevOps workflow.
Burnout is an ever-present issue, explained Degges. It’s common within any high-stress job where you’re on the hook for constantly delivering new features to support the business. Specifically, in software development, burnout can quickly arise when developers don’t feel they have a voice. Or worse, when they’re tirelessly producing software they know won’t ever see the light of day.
A paper entitled Burnout in software engineering: A systematic mapping study took an interesting systematic approach and analyzed decades of research into burnout in software engineering. It found the following qualitative work-related factors to be most correlated with burnout. (Interestingly, the paper suggested machine learning might soon help produce more quantitative indicators of burnout.)
7 Ways to Fight Burnout
Since we know burnout is a pervasive problem, how can engineering leaders minimize the issue? Below, we’ll outline some specific strategies to consider and how they might help.
1. Give Developers a Voice
First, Degges encouraged leaders to ensure developers have a say in what they’re building. He recalled working within a large enterprise, sitting in a cubicle and having absolutely no say in the features his team was working on. This often included code they all knew would never make it into production.
Slaving away on irrelevant work is never motivating. Instead, a good internal culture provides a comfortable atmosphere where developers can raise issues early on, said Degges, hopefully before leadership puts targets destined to fail on the roadmap.
2. Provide More Context
On that note, when decisions are made, don’t throw orders over the wall in a vacuum. Instead, Degges recommended providing more context into what you’re all creating. Giving visibility into the reason behind decisions will align everyone on project roadmaps and create a shared purpose. This helps foster a culture of empathy and listening to others, said Degges. (David Shackelford affectionally calls this attitude HugOps.)
3. Optimize Communication Patterns
Optimizing communication patterns for your working environment is also vital to encourage a healthy culture, said Degges. For example, this could equate to optimizing for the physical reality of distributed teams—no one should have to clock into daily standup at 4:00 a.m. If you are working under timezone constraints, Degges recommended adopting more asynchronous communication.
For instance, his team relies heavily on Slack and provides dedicated channels for sharing ideas. They’ve also incorporated automation to summarize verbose Slack communications with a recap of conversations. In general, removing unnecessary meetings and optimizing communication patterns could greatly reduce the baggage an engineer might carry in their day-to-day work.
4. Practice Internal Developer Relations
As they say, practice what you preach. Many tech-driven companies have adopted a developer relations (DevRel) division to build a community with external developer consumers. But are you practicing DevRel internally? According to Degges, DevRel teams should act as a bridge between external and internal teams.
“Our goal is to not only to think and empathize with customers but also to encourage internal people to be authentic community members themselves,” said Degges. This can equate to empowering internal employees with resources like mentoring, blog writing or speaking opportunities, he said.
Additionally, other groups are emerging to help increase internal developer satisfaction. For example, platform engineering and developer productivity engineering (DPE) are being applied by many organizations to improve developer experience around internal tools and processes. Naturally, this will require working closely with internal developers to source feedback and make quality improvements.
5. Automate Away Security-Related Toil
Another method to upkeep engineering morale is through automating away toil. And security vulnerability discovery is one area full of painstaking manual tasks. Half of applications have high-risk vulnerabilities, and new exploits in open source libraries are being discovered almost daily.
As more software supply chain risks emerge, it’s challenging to keep up with the pace of vulnerability discovery and necessary software patching. Therefore, implementing real-time automated vulnerability detection, said Degges, can help remove many manual processes and free up energy to devote to other areas.
6. Hire Based on the Work, Not the Interview
Before developers even get the job, they can be put through high-stress on-the-spot tests during the interview process. Experiences here can set the tone for the entire engagement with the company. But activities like white-boarding algorithms are pretty disconnected from day-to-day work, said Degges. In his opinion, engineers should instead be hired based on the quality of their past performances and the work they’ve produced. This could be artifacts like their personal blog or contributions to open source projects.
7. Apply Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Lastly, what’s a tech blog post in 2023 without a mention of AI? Generative AI like ChatGPT has rocked the programming world and is being integrated into more development environments and engineering workflows. The future of AI looks very bright and is poised to help developers produce more with less time and resources.
Of course, automated code generation will require sanity checks, but these tools can certainly help many ancillary functions. For example, Degges’ team is using ChatGPT to spin up content outlines and automate keyword research, helping support their educational content production.
Soothing the Burnout
Even with new tools emerging and a newfound emphasis on developer experience, burnout is still prevalent. A full 58% of developers and security professionals said they are currently experiencing burnout, according to a 2022 Cobalt study. This is, perhaps, due to the rapid release cadences of today’s software delivery.
“In the past, it took months or years for new software updates to roll out. Now, developers only have a matter of weeks,” wrote Bill Mann, CEO of Styra, on Forbes. “Suffice it to say the stakes are high for today’s software teams.”
Burnout is psychologically taxing and can negatively affect employee happiness and retention. Therefore, it’s an excellent idea for engineering leaders to take it seriously and consider what positive cultural changes they can make.