Depression and the Software Developer (part 3)

(This is a continuation from part 2 of “Depression and the Software Developer”.)

[Note: This is a recounting of an experience from several years ago. Read the story from the beginning in order to catch up.]

According to psychologist Joe Griffin, the cycle of depression starts when innate needs are not being met. Among these are a sense of achievement and knowing that we are valuable to others. Setbacks like this, however, are just a part of life. What turns setbacks into depression is when they dominate one’s thoughts, they overwhelm him, and he loses hope.

Unfortunately, if my previous work situation epitomized camaraderie, this one did the opposite:

  • Teams of engineers never got comfortable working together, because each was expected to show continuous progress on several projects at once. Therefore, one spent only a fraction of the time working with the same person on the same project.

  • People working together on a project lived in cubicles long distances from each other, making communication a continual chore. The person I worked most closely with lived a 30-second walk from me, and I had to make a daily effort to say drop by and say “hello,” or else I might not see him for days at a time.

  • We didn’t have motivational posters hanging on the walls–Thank God! But my manager would append would-be inspirational quotes to his weekly department status reports, such as “A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it. – Alistair Cooke” Oy vey!

  • Shortly after I was hired, the company re-adjusted its pay-scale, to compensate for the dot-com years, they said. The end result was to cut the salaries of some of the most senior engineers. They soon thereafter resigned. Morale? Who needs it?

And then there was the fact that I got shot down over and over again, whenever I stepped out on a limb. The company that I thought should have been supporting me was instead shaking the tree.

Some of the poetry I composed during that time reflected my melancholy. It was then that I penned “Living Inside a Top,” a poem which begins:

I’m not leaving.
But my resume is up to date.

I also wrote “A Tribute to Lorelai,” which compared my situation to that of a spider’s dinner, as the spider performs its natural function, sucking the life-force from its prey.

I was miserable, because I felt like I could accomplish nothing, and I blamed my employer. I asked one of my coworkers, who was also a personal friend, “How long does it take before you get used to it?” He replied sadly, “You never really get used to it.” Some days, I would sit in my cubicle, browse job listings, and send out resumes and queries, just to make myself feel better.

I was wrong. I felt like I could accomplish nothing, but during my one-year stay there, here are a few things I accomplished:

  • I took an out-of-control diagnostic-software project, and I brought it back under control, and I delivered it on time and within budget.
  • I successfully figured out how to end-run around the corporate bureaucracy, in several cases.
  • I learned a great deal about working with kinds of people that I never would have encountered anywhere else.
  • I successfully turned an antagonistic relationship with one engineer into a friendly relationship.
  • I successfully adapted XP-style project management to the project I was working on.
  • I successfully negotiated with my manager to work on only one project at a time, for stretches of at least a few days.
  • Even though engineers were (I was told) expected to put in massive overtime hours, I held my ground and worked at a sustainable rate, and my performance reviews didn’t seem to suffer as a result.

But my perfectionist thinking wouldn’t allow me to be happy with that. If I got shot down even once, it made me feel useless. This is why perfectionists are more prone to depression, because they think in blacks and whites and tend to overlook the silver-lining. I never considered that just because the company was screwed up in some ways, that didn’t mean it was also workable in some ways, and that I could still accomplish something, and that I had proven it by actually doing so.

Fortunately, I did find another job, and my depression lifted, because I had a renewed hope and vigor.

(Continued: click here for part 4 of “Depression and the Software Developer”.)

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