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#BellLetsTalk and Mental Health in the world of Software Development

Today in Canada, it’s “Bell Let’s Talk Day”. A day of national recognition and awareness of mental health issues set up by one of the country’s big three telecom and broadcasting companies. On this day, if you tweet with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, send a snap on Snapchat with Bell’s “Let’s Talk” geofilter, or send an SMS from a phone subscribed to Bell’s mobile carrier service, Bell will donate five cents to various mental health initiatives. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but last year the #BellLetsTalk hashtag was the top-most trending hashtag in Canada. Bell also puts some serious star power behind Let’s Talk Day. Canadian Olympic Medalist Clara Hughes was instrumental in kicking off the first campaign years ago, and it’s now attracted names like Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Smith, and even Alice Cooper. For my five cents, it’s possibly the most effective awareness campaign since people started dumping ice-cold water on their heads in the name of ALS awareness.

With all that said, I’d like to talk about how all of this applies to my own experiences with mental health, and how working in my field can lend itself to serious challenges when it comes to mental health.

Working in software development can be extremely stressful and demanding, and I don’t think people outside our community understand how quickly and easily it can be for someone to burn out, and how common mental health issues can become as a result. Society has come to a point now where we depend on technology like an infant depends on its mother. We cannot live without our smartphones, our day-to-day financial transactions are almost completely digital now. And at the heart of all that technology, lie the people who build it, and make it all work: Developers, Sysadmins, DevOps Engineers, Security Engineers, and more. With that in mind, as a Developer, Sysadmin, DevOps engineer, or as a Security Person, you are essentially tasked with keeping the company you work for running; you are the gears that power the machine.

In the software world, aside from normal project deadline stress, you’re also often dealing directly with clients. Aside from dealing with clients, you’re also often dealing with fixing stuff when it breaks, sometimes at crazy hours because you’re on-call. And sometimes, in nightmare scenarios that happen more often than you might think, those all converge. Here’s a fun little scenario to demonstrate a little of what I mean:

So you get that crazy-hour on-call page; it’s your manager, and they’re telling you that a client’s service has gone down. So you look into it, and while looking into the problem, you discover that a developer managed to push some bad code into production, which caused the outage. So now you’re worried that your manager is pissed, that the client is pissed, you start realizing that you’ll have to take time in lieu in order to catch up on sleep so that you don’t fall asleep at your desk the next morning, but that means you’ll have less time to work on the project which is due next week, you start having thoughts that all (or part) of this could cost you your job, you’re worried that the dev you just called out because of their bad code is going to lose their job and you don’t want that on your conscience. Meanwhile the dev is worried about the same things, your manager is worried that this will make them look bad, that they didn’t provide you with everything you and/or the dev team with everything they needed to prevent this scenario from happening, that they could lose the client, and the client is worried about losing money because their goddamn service is down, and everyone is starting to fantasize about running away to a small thatched roof hut on a small, remote island off the coast of Borneo…one little mistake has now resulted in a tumult of potential mental health triggers.

Oh yeah, there’s that too…the constant dread that “one little mistake” will set off the very scenario I just described. Sure, companies nowadays are striving to put processes and tools in place to help take some of the pressure off, but that still doesn’t eliminate nightmare scenarios like the one I described…far from it. Nor does it eliminate the constant dread and anxiety. To sum it up, working in software is a constant juggling of chainsaws, but the gasoline from those chainsaws all too often makes you want to sneeze.

With all that said, I will say that I am glad to see and hear about growing numbers of companies really making an effort to build cultures around their software teams that are committed to dealing with stress and mental health in a constructive, supportive manner.

I’m also glad that the community itself has come forward to provide places where people in the industry can talk about mental health within the context of the industry; because it’s one thing to go to a therapist, or talk to a friend…but unless those friends and therapists are also technical or work in the same field, you often end up feeling like you need to generalize when describing stressful situations, which can lead to you feeling like you weren’t able to express yourself fully, which can be really frustrating. So, to be able to bounce ideas and feelings off of colleagues and other people in your field can be (pardon the pun) just what the doctor ordered.

So to all my friends outside of the software field, now you’ve had the chance to see a little of what we deal with in order to keep your shit working. You’re Welcome. Also, encourage us to talk about what we do. Take an interest. Even if you don’t understand all the technical stuff at first, you’ll discover how much we appreciate immensely the simple effort of TRYING to understand what we do. If you’re already doing this, thank you. It really does mean a lot.

To my friends/colleagues WITHIN the industry, don’t ever feel like you have to suffer in silence. There are resources and people out there that can help, and if you can’t find those people, start a group of your own; because I can assure you, you’re not alone. And if all of that fails, I don’t mind personally lending an ear…so Let’s Talk.