Making Space for Burnout

December 12, 2019

In December of 2018 I told my manager that I planned to leave Blue Apron in pursuit of another job in the next few months. The company had gone through a round of layoffs and culture was at an all-time low, but I wanted to be transparent about how I felt so that there would be no surprises. I booked a flight to New Zealand in March for my prematurely scheduled “funemployment” (on the expectation that I would find another gig before then). What happened in the end was actually quite different.

I figured I would look for a job in January and settle on a new role by February, but what I found was that a change in scenery wasn’t the solution that I needed. I was tired of trying to convince myself that I was happy leading the mobile team, something I thought would re-engage my interest with the company. We were losing product and engineering leaders left and right - so much so that by the time I left in September of this year, I had four different managers who all left before I had. As the iOS lead, I got a chance to help plan the roadmap, add my perspective to features earlier on, and settle any high-level challenges that would arise for the team. I gave it a few months, and while this experience was invaluable, I realized that it would be a disservice to continue to mask my internal frustration with the organization as a whole.

Instead of leaving the job before my trip to New Zealand, I stuck with it and returned refreshed. Bright-eyed, I tried to channel my enthusiasm for building experiences our customers love toward moving fast and solidifying a product roadmap. With all of the ongoing departures, however, timelines began to shift as we were bottlednecked by not having enough people on staff to work on certain projects. While there were some features that did not necessarily require backend work, like a re-skin or utilizing existing local data to build something new, getting approval to “run with it” was constantly a challenge. It got to the point where preparing for sprint planning would consist of going through the backlog of bugs and one-off fixes and assigning them to teammates until we filled the “point-count” for two weeks. Not to speak for all engineers out there, but working on bug fixes weeks on end without an exciting project in sight is not how I would want to spend my time.

When I first joined the company, I was stoked to go to work with and learn from talented peers. Now, going to work was a chore and it became difficult to get myself up in the morning. I had never experienced such heaviness in my career before, so addressing this was foreign to me. Although I wasn’t working around the clock and burning the midnight oil, this type of burnout is what I classify as “emotional burnout.” Something that I realized about myself is that I need to work on something I am passionate about, and while I supported the mission and values of Blue Apron, I was no longer passionate about the value I was personally adding. I love when I love what I am doing and I prefer to be with people who feel the same about the mission we are working towards. While I felt that for some time during my tenure there, this was quickly lost with the slips in culture.

While recognizing burnout took me a bit of time over the course of the next few months, I planned my departure for the beginning of September. I did not know what I wanted to do next, I just knew that I needed a break. Even interviewing did not appeal to my interests, as I couldn’t see myself at another company in the same role. Thus, I decided to leave New York for South America to get a real break from the tech bubble. I had the itch to travel for a while, and this time seemed like the best of any time to drop everything and go. With no hard feelings, I left New York on September 9th and returned on December 2nd.

Over the course of 10 weeks I visited Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Some highlights include scuba diving in the Galapagos with my sister, eating fantastic Peruvian food in the Gastronomical capital of South America, hiking the Inca Trail, visiting the Amazon, hiking up a 6,000 m volcano, biking down the “world’s most dangerous road,” seeing the Bolivian Salt Flats, biking through the Atacama desert, and hiking the W Trek in Patagonia. I had done some solo travel before, but not for more than 3 weeks at a time, so I experienced some new challenges this time around. While there were certainly some ups and downs, I am glad that I went - albeit the timing could have been better, as certain parts of South America seemed to be going through some civil unrest while I was there. I did my best to disconnect from the tech world and introspect about what I truly want to spend my time doing. While I did not solely focus on which companies and industries I wanted to work for, I can say that I have a clearer idea of what I will find fulfilling.

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to do this trip and come back healthy, reenergized, and excited to work. While there are a plethora of ways to deal with the mental state I was in, I happened to use travel as the outlet for me to process and heal from my burnout. If you have gone through something similar and found this interesting, I would love to hear about it.