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Site Reliability Team Lead at News UK

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1 January 2014

How Much Is Too Much

by Mike

I’ve worked for a number of start-ups and so far have seen about half of them fail. I don’t see this as a personal judgement, more about it being the nature of start-ups.

The failures generally aren’t about the product - although some did suck big-time. It is more about cultural failings.

It is common for people in IT to work long hours. We generally enjoy what we do and try to deliver what the business needs. We aren’t generally rewarded for this, or at least not well, but working harder isn’t the answer to making a business work.

I’m not saying there wont be crunch times when you need to get stuff done by a deadline, or an outage is customer affecting and it needs to be dealt with even if you have already put in a day of work. These are exceptions, or at least should be. You can’t ask people to give their all and not expect them to burnout.

I don’t hide the fact that about a year ago I had burnt-out. I had (along with a friend I brought with me) managed to turn around the infrastructure of the company I was working for in less than 6 months. This is hard to do, especially with minimal downtime, and the stress was hitting me hard and not just because of the long-hours. It is mentally draining to be responsible for so much change in so short a time.

It wasn’t just the stress from work that was the problem. There were a lot of other things happening in my life at the same time. Each of them taking a little bit of my time and attention and adding a tiny amount of additional stress to the mix.

When you burn out you need to deal with these stresses. You need to remove the causes as well as dealing with them far better - especially taking time to relax.

One of the most stressful things I found was commuting on the train every day. It is only an 18 minute trip on the train, but to even get to the train station, I need to get the 2 miles there from home… and once on the train, it was cramped with small aisles, many people trying to get their bags into and out of the racks and pushing to find a seat. All in all, not a relaxing environment.

Once I changed to the bus I found I wasn’t arriving at work stressed from the journey. Yes, it is a longer commute by about the same again, but it doesn’t stress me out like the train did.

Many of the other stresses are still there in one form or another and may continue to be so for a while yet, but I feel I have got a better handle on life.

Even now a year later, I still have the scars to show from burning out, but I still enjoy what I do and want to continue to work in the start-up realm.

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