As someone who grew up largely ignorant of mental health, and the situations and resources connected with it, I was completely taken aback when someone suggested that I consider counseling.
Note: This is part of a series describing my story discovering mental health.
Any discussion of my discovery of mental health needs to include some exploration of my career. As I have learned more, I have realized that the industry in which I have found myself is primed in many ways for mental health challenges. Many of the qualities that can contribute to a pathological condition can also be strengths applied to good success in the software world. These include things like attention to detail, logical pattern-based thinking, and a binary (black-or-white) approach.
In the general population, one in five people will suffer from mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In the technology sector, I don’t have official stats, but in my experience, that number is even higher. At a lunch with my team recently, we were discussing being introverted developers. More than one of us commented that since becoming a full-time developer, we seemed to need more alone time and derive more energy from getting work done by ourselves than interacting with others. It can be far too easy to isolate ourselves in this field.
Designer turned developer
Through the first part of my career, I saw a different side of the software world. I started in customer service, and grew a team from two people to fourteen before moving over to training. From there, I got into product management and realized that my favorite part of that job was the user experience design. I dove into that for a number of years and truly enjoyed myself.
Go deep and become more of a specialist than a generalist. At the time, I was working at Balsamiq as a designer, and started taking on more and more projects that involved coding. While in college, the classes that I enjoyed the most were computer science, and I ended up with a minor in that field. After a number of years, I missed coding and wanted to get back into it more. Balsamiq had a generous professional development program, and with their help, I enrolled in a coding bootcamp.
iOS development felt like the perfect fit between design and development. The more I invested, the more I felt certain that I had found the field that was perfect for me. I told our CEO at Balsamiq that my dream job was doing iOS development for Balsamiq, but that wasn’t the right fit for the company. Eventually, I left to join O.C. Tanner as an iOS engineer and made a complete career transition.
One of my favorite parts of being a developer was focusing on being an individual contributor. I loved not having responsibility for anyone and just buckling down to ship cool shit. I remember clearly having a conversation with my manager and telling him that I enjoyed what I was doing, and had no interest in taking on people management. Within a couple of weeks, I received an apologetic phone call from him with some news that he knew I would not like.
I have found that my story of becoming is manager is similar to many other developers’ and I think it is helpful for us to share. I was on a family trip to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary when I got the call from my manager. He informed me that the next day, IT leadership was planning to announce a slight reorganization and wanted to announce me as the engineering manager of my small team of three. I ended up talking with his boss for a while that evening, and realized that if I did not accept, someone else would and I didn’t see that working out as well.
So just like that, I became a manager. Over the next few months, I had to hire a number of people and start to grow our team as our project ramped up. Luckily, I reported to a fantastic director, and learned a ton about how to be a good leader from her. I often felt guilty about not doing more as a manager because I still enjoyed the individual contributor parts of my role more.
In the spring of 2018, I suggested to our mobile team that we attend a conference that was a little outside of our comfort zone to get another perspective and spend some time bonding as a team. We went to the Peers Conference in Austin, Texas, and even found a house to rent with a Tornado foosball table. We went to the conference expecting much of it to not directly pertain to us, but were pleasantly surprised.
One of the most impactful activities for me was a workshop on the first day. It was part of the business track, and started with everyone in the room giving a brief introduction of themselves and sharing a question or problem on their mind. We were put into groups based on similar questions and had a smaller group discussion. I was with the group talking about what’s next in our careers. When it was my turn, I shared about how perfect my job seemed on paper, but that I wasn’t happy.
Our group facilitator told me that he thought my issues had nothing to do with work, and he recommended that I ask my religious leader for referrals to counseling by people who would understand that part of my life. He told me that it seemed that I was struggling with guilt in ways that he had seen before in his life. That recommendation of seeking counseling rang through my mind for the rest of the conference. I had never considered that before for myself, and never thought of myself as the kind of person who might need, or even deserve, to go to therapy.
Processing with team
On the way home from the conference, I spent hours journaling and discussing my thoughts with my team. In particular, I spent a great deal of time talking with the team manager. I realized that my main issue was overwhelming guilt that manifested in different ways. I told him that I had considered the question of what I would change at work if I were to be happy with no guilt, and immediately worried that the changes I wanted to make would affect him negatively. His response was instructive; “Don’t take away my opportunity to do something hard and grow.” I was falling into the trap of deciding something based on my assumptions of how it would make someone else feel.
As we continued to talk, we struck a raw nerve. At one point, he told me, “You are not selfish.” I responded immediately, “No, I am so selfish,” and just started weeping. That was the core issue. My deep-rooted fear is a huge tension between being selfish and fighting hard against that and not wanting to be selfish. Fortunately, we were able to keep talking, and I came to some major realizations. I thought it most appropriate to quote this section from my journal.
The question that I should be asking myself is not, “If I could set aside my guilt, how would I be happy?” Instead, I should be asking, “How can I contribute best? For what am I uniquely qualified?” This is something that can apply at the career level—I should think about where I should really be and what I should be doing. It also applies at a medium level—what is the best way I can contribute to this team? And finally, it applies at the small level—what is the best way I contribute in my current situation?
The very best teams would be those in which we all have the capacity to be completely honest with each other, especially with our abilities and desires, which will affect how we are able to contribute. In order to do this, we need to first get to know ourselves and be extremely clear with our gifts and talents and find ways to share those. This is what I want to think more about. I want to be very clear about my strengths and find ways to shape my career so that I am able to apply those most effectively to make a real difference for others, and help them do the same thing.
As I reflect back on this period of my life, it strikes me as fitting that it took a conversation with a stranger to prompt me to consider certain things about myself for the first time. It is so easy in a professional environment to assume that if there are problems or dissatisfaction, that a work-related change is required to solve the situation.
When we have had no personal experience with mental health, it can be difficult or impossible to recognize warning signs and get the help that we need. That is part of what drives me with this project. The more that we can open up and talk with each other about our circumstances, the more we can learn and benefit from each other. It is more important now than ever to increase awareness and decrease stigma around mental health, especially at work.
I look forward to continuing my story in my next article on back pain and panic attacks.
Note: This is part of a series describing my story discovering mental health.