One Engineer's Journey with Mental Health
My name is Michael Strutt and I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was first diagnosed in my early teens, and it has impacted my life to a greater or lesser extent at different times since then. As of January this year I have been having weekly sessions with a Therapist. In light of World Mental Health Day and the increasing spotlight that mental health has seen this year, I would like to share my story, as both a person and an Engineer.
I’m going to start with some personal history, both because I’m telling my story here and because I think it adds good context. If you want, you can skip to the part where I start talking about the industry as a whole. Or if you’re only interested in what I’m doing to manage things now, that’s cool too. For the rest of you, this is my story:
Getting in to coding
I got into building websites quite early on in life. I discovered it right at the start of high school and just got the bug. When I started out it was a great creative outlet for me, building something and seeing the results instantly. It was also a very interesting way for me to connect to the world in a way I had never experienced before. An early site I built offered solutions to common beginner problems with Ubuntu Linux. I was amazed that I could put a tutorial or the solution to a problem out there, and it would help a person I had never met living on the other side of the planet.
As I got older I started to notice the way that I felt when I coded. I could get absorbed in a way that I never found with books. I could really focus my mind on a task without it wandering. I could solve a problem and challenge myself to learn and become better. I felt calmer, accomplished and motivated. I didn’t feel the anxiety so much when I was writing code. It offered me an escape (and in a far more productive way than that time at University when I lost the best part of a month to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion). Although I didn’t learn this until later in life, I was dealing with anxiety by engaging the logic centers of my brain in order to think more rationally and feel better. A technique often taught in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
In this post I’m going to talk a lot about some of the things that have impacted my mental health in a negative way, but I want to stress at the start that coding has had an overall incredibly positive effect for me. Some of my happiest times professionally have been when I’ve been getting stuck in and coding all day on some really challenging problems. It has continued to be a creative outlet for me. I love the satisfaction and instant gratification of typing a few lines of code and hitting refresh in the browser to see the results. The sense of accomplishment I felt when after a full day of planning and writing out about a page of trigonometry on a notepad, I finally cracked the equation of how to center an item on the page while it was adjusted to have a shrinking 3D perspective. Please try to keep this in mind as you read on.
Starting a career as an Engineer
I was in a very fortunate situation after high school. Sixth Form was an obvious choice, my parents were there to support me, and the offer I received from my first choice of University was well below the grades I was predicted to achieve. I studied Computer Science, I wanted to specialise into Web Development, but my Dad advised me to keep my options open. On my course, we were highly encouraged to do a year in industry, and again I was fortunate enough to land my first pick of positions. My outlook was really positive. I had found this thing that I loved, that I had an aptitude for, and that now somebody was prepared to pay me a salary to do. It was my dream scenario.
There was an amazing honeymoon period on that first job. I was learning every day, keeping my brain active and engaged, stretching my comfort zones by doing new things. I was very smug to be exceeding the expectations that they had for an intern and receive all of the praise that went with it. I very quickly believed that things would be like this forever. That I would continue to soar and be praised and that everyone who told me they saw me doing great things in x years time was right. I mapped out a highly ambitious (although I didn’t think that it was at the time) trajectory for myself in my head. This came back to bite me later.
Early career progression
Everyone goes through life at their own pace, and each and every one of those paces are completely fine. I write this, and logically I know that it is true, but I still struggle to fully believe it. Career progression is a big area of comparison in the industry.
Caveat: this section is written from memories that have almost certainly been recalled through a lens that favours me. I’ve tried to remove the bias towards myself as much as possible, but I’m sure there will still be some left
I’ve always been "the smart one" in my friend group growing up and at school. That experience translated into expectations of success in the workplace. I was moving from the small town to the big city where I would be recognised with titles and of course money. In my internship I was flying high on the praise of outperforming my position and people seeing great things for me. I had really high expectations of myself.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m just nursing my ego here, and I’m certainly not complaining about the very comfortable start that I had in life. I am fully aware of just how fortunate I am to have two loving and supportive parents who nurtured my abilities and provided me with a safety net to fall back on when I needed it. I know all of this. What I’m trying to say is that the reality of the situation was a really hard pill to swallow for me.
I progressed from intern to junior very quickly. I secured a job for when I graduated at the end of my internship, and they even agreed to pay me a retainer salary during my studies. I expected this trajectory to continue up, but it slowed and for a while felt like it had stopped. I stayed in that role for nearly 2 years. I became increasingly frustrated at the lack of progression, at the lack of pay increase. I watched coursemates soar and become indispensable at their startup, cashing in vast stock options at IPO or jet-setting around the world to open new offices for the company.
Meanwhile I was taking on more responsibilities, learning new frameworks and practicing new ways of working. I got to the point as a Junior Engineer where I was the unofficial manager of our intern, doing check-ins and goal setting with them, and I was front-end lead on a project for a high-profile project that had 2 seniors on the team. Rather than seeing these things for the achievements that they were, and the foundation of valuable skills that got me to where I am today, all I focused on was how I wasn’t being financially compensated for this increase in ability and responsibility, and how I wasn’t being recognised with a change in title. Why should I put in all this work when I’m being paid half as much as the people I’m teaching? Don’t get me wrong, these things are important. Everyone deserves to be fairly compensated for the work they put in. But for a time it was the be-all and end-all of my career (and, to and extent, life) satisfaction.
These 2 years had a big impact on my mental health, and in the year that followed I reached probably the lowest point that I’ve ever felt for such a period of time. I had a panic attack while out in public. Thankfully it only happened once, I’d always been able to hide them away before, but the fear of it happening again was debilitating. I was so anxious about it that I was quite literally hiding from social interaction with friends. I became very insular. I moved back in with my parents for a while (for various reasons), and tried out a course of medication that I really didn’t get on with. I felt defeated. I thought that there was no escape, and in my mind, resigned myself to feeling like this forever.
The strain of the work
The work is very mentally challenging, that’s part of what made it appeal to me, a new problem to solve every day. But at times, this gives way to some very negative feelings. How do you deal with finding a problem that you don’t seem to be able to solve? Why does everyone around me seem to be solving problems faster than me? Is this code good enough? What will the other people on my team say when I put this up for review? I’m not going to dive into imposter syndrome. It’s something that a lot of engineers have experienced at some point or another in their career, and there is already some very well written content out there that I would encourage you to read.
We all know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. I have a quote pinned to the notice board in my bedroom that reads "the only person I am competing with, is the person I was yesterday". It’s a lovely sentiment, and one I try to keep in mind, but it’s very easy to forget in a career that seems to be set up for comparison and competition. As part of the job, you spend a lot of time looking at other people’s code. Whether it’s a code review for one of your colleagues, diving into the inner workings of a library you’re using, or simply looking for answers on StackOverflow, it will take up a significant portion of your time.
You end up seeing a lot of code that is better than yours. It can be hard to remember that this isn’t because you are objectively worse at coding than the other person. But it’s because this is what that person chose to focus on. They may have learned an entirely different set of things to you that lead them to this place, or may even have had vast amounts of help with it. You also don’t see the struggles that they went through to write this code. You only see the end results. This can be an awesome opportunity to benefit and learn from all the hard work someone else went through to get to the best result, or it can highlight to you just how much you don’t know. It took me quite a while to shift my mindset to the former, sometimes it’s still a bit of both.
Code review is a very common best practice for the industry. Most places have it as an integral part of their workflow. When I was introduced to it I found it really tough to begin with. It felt like I was pouring my heart and soul into my work and offering it up to be shot down and torn apart. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Ultimately the goal is for the best code possible to be in a project, for issues to be spotted and addressed before they make it live, and to raise the overall standard of the team. It took me longer than I would like to admit to see it this way. It was only when I stopped having my code reviewed that I realised I missed it. I wasn’t learning as fast anymore. I actively went and sought out other reviewers and ended up getting mentored by the Technical Architect at the time who didn’t even write the same language as me, but made the time for me all the same (the first of many thanks in this article goes to him). After this it became a requirement for me in all future roles, to be able to surround myself with people who knew more than I did about something so that I could learn it from them. Since then I always try to put the same effort into code reviews that I received back then, and will always take the time to explain something fully to someone who is keen to learn.
Stresses of the job
There can be a lot of time-related pressures in software engineering. Deadlines might be looming, sometimes moving closer. It can be very difficult to account for every possible thing that needs to be done to build a finished product. You can run into issues or constraints that suddenly add more to your workload, or the simplest of tasks on the surface could end up taking the longest amount of time due to hidden complexity. It can be very hard to explain all of this to someone who ultimately doesn’t really understand what it is you are doing, yet gets to have the final say in budget and timeline. It’s been this way in the industry for years. My Dad would laugh at some of my stories from my first job because of how familiar they sounded to his experiences 30 years before me.
I have on rare occasions done some crazy hours to get a project finished for the agreed launch timeline. I have started working on a launch blocker after dinner at the office, and pushed through until I had to catch the last tube home. I was then back in the office the next morning for a successful 8am launch. I’m completely okay with this. In fact I’m proud of it. But this is very much the exception and not the rule. For some this is not the case, and even for me there was a time (with a past employer) when it felt like the only reward for finishing ahead of schedule was starting the next project early, but if the timelines ever slipped it was the team’s responsibility to get things back on track by whatever means necessary.
There are a lot of things that are changing in favour of team health and reducing these kinds of pressures. From the processes we use to run projects, to the way we try to sell a team with an objective for a period of time rather than a fixed scope of delivery. Even big companies are moving the launch date of huge game releases to make sure things are done properly without putting the team through hell.
I know that I am very fortunate not to have experienced the worst of these stresses myself. I’ve heard horror stories from others in the industry (some I’ve known, some from around the world) that are far worse than anything I’ve experienced, and I count myself lucky to have had people around me a lot of the way who would fight my corner and make my well-being a priority. But even with all of this there have been times when the pressure has taken its toll on me, where I’ve felt completely overwhelmed by everything I have been juggling, and when the stress I have been feeling has resulted in some serious burn-out and even pretty serious illness.
This past Christmas, I was burning the candle at both ends pretty hard, feeling the added pressure of a new role and some pretty big shoes to fill. I was so burned out when I finally stopped and took some time off, that it was only then that my body was able to recover enough to start fighting a virus I had picked up, and I was ill for a full month. It was a real wake-up call to start making my well-being more of a priority than I had been. Also, a big thank you to the Coach at Potato who helped me slow down when I was in danger of doing this the year before when I got stressed out about all the complications in my house purchase. She made time in her busy day just to sit and listen to me and allowed me to get things off my chest and just take some time to breathe.
The mental load
Being an Engineer can both help and hinder my mind. In the same way that a really complex problem at work can be a really great thing to occupy your mind, it can also be really hard to let go. When the work you are doing is physically in the office, it’s easy to leave it behind. When the work that you are doing is happening in your mind, it’s very hard to leave that behind (something that has been exacerbated by lockdown). I have had many nights where I was laying awake problem solving, either consciously or subconsciously sifting through the details and trying to find a better way. I’ve even woken up in the night with a sudden realisation of how to re-architect something and been scrambling for pen and paper to write it down before it fades away. If this is something that happens to you, I strongly recommend keeping a pen and paper on your bedside table so you can get these things out of your head.
I very recently put a lot of work into trying to fix my sleep by following the advice of Sleepio. If you’re having trouble sleeping and are willing to make some serious adjustments to your lifestyle to improve it, then I would highly recommend their course.
Opportunities for growth
I don’t want this post to be all doom and gloom. I have a huge amount to be thankful for about my career and the industry I have chosen to work in, I really can’t see myself working in any other. There are a lot of upsides to it.
Tech industry jobs generally offer a greater degree of flexibility than jobs in other fields. You get some companies with amazing benefits packages that these days often include support for your well-being and mental health. Being entirely cloud-based and working on laptops has been extremely useful for being able to work from anywhere in the world too. Something that has been especially useful this year.
There are also a lot of opportunities to move outside of your comfort zone. Early on in my career, I challenged myself to slowly increase my confidence in being more client facing and took the opportunity to learn how to participate in, then lead, technical interviews.
I can’t say for sure how typical this is of the industry for lack of personal experience, but working at Potato really helped to normalise the idea of mental health for me. A couple of my colleagues were very open in talking about the fact that they had been to therapy at some point in their life. In the time I have been here, I’ve listened to 4 lightning talks from people about their experiences in topics such as therapy, mindfulness, meditation and personal stories with mental health. It was really eye opening for me that people talked about these things as if they were normal, because they are normal. I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to ask for help without this experience normalising the idea for me.
A big thank you to everyone at Potato who helped change my perspective on therapy and personal development. In particular my former manager, Adam, who challenged me to confront my professional fears as well as sharing his own experiences. He also recommended to me a book that I’ve bought about 5 copies of for friends and colleagues over the past year: Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Quick plug for Adam’s new start-up FidlLeaf: Wellbeing + Personal Growth Platform.
My turning point
The turning point for me was public speaking. It’s something I have had a fear of for as long as I can remember. But at the same time it’s something that I have always wanted to be able to do.
There were a lot of things I knew I could do to make it easier, from how to find the right subject matter, an event with a supportive crowd and how to practice it until I was confident I could deliver. With the help of my manager at the time and one of our Coaches we broke down all the things I could do into a plan and a series of small steps to get there.
I started small, a lightning talk with one other Engineer that was mostly a demo. Then another shared talk that was more of a technical explanation. Each time these were practiced and rehearsed, they were delivered to an audience of friendly Potatoes (not literally, that’s just how we refer to ourselves at Potato) who were supportive and gave feedback when it was asked for.
The next challenge I gave myself was to take a ridiculous subject and still try to make a 5 minute solo talk about it engaging and entertaining for the audience. I delivered a lightning talk titled "Crumpets and Crumpet-Based Life Hacks" and to this day it’s probably the best received talk that I have delivered.
Finally I found a suitable event to deliver my first public talk at. Potato were hosting DJUGL’s lightning talk events, so the location and a good proportion of the audience would be familiar to me. I prepared a talk about the work experience programme we’d been running at Potato that year, why I felt it was so important, and trying to encourage other companies to give it a go. I practiced a lot (both solo and in front of others), refined it with their feedback, and got to the point where I had learned my speech off-by-heart. I knew I could do all of these things to help myself feel more prepared for it and take the edge of the anxiety. But the thing that really surprised me was that after all of this practice, I no longer felt anxious about the public speaking. I was actually excited to share what I had learned and possibly encourage others to do the same.
This is why it was such a turning point for me. I realised that I was capable, through a bit of hard work and perseverance, of no longer experiencing anxiety about something that used to cause me significant anxiety. It made therapy seem like a much more viable option for me.
Asking for help was possibly the single hardest thing I had to do. I was in a very fortunate situation at Potato. We have access to NABS who, among a whole host of other services, offer a series of free therapy sessions to people who need it.
As part of this you have to ring up and speak to someone on the phone and explain the difficulties you’re experiencing and why you would like help with them. I have always found it difficult to talk about my anxiety. I think for me there’s a real sense of shame associated with it, and feeling like I’m failing at something that everyone else is coping fine with (which isn’t true). I get choked up and emotional when I talk about my experiences. In part I relive them as I talk, and getting choked-up for me made it even more difficult, because I was terrified of someone seeing the crack in the facade.
I’m working on this one in therapy, still. I know it’s okay to feel and to express my emotions. I’m sharing a lot more openly about it. But I notice how much my view was shaped by the world I grew up in. This bullshit concept of "big boys don’t cry" that was perpetuated in 90s pop-culture, where a man who expressed his emotions was either a woman or gay. It’s wrong on so many levels.
I hid myself away in one of our smallest meeting rooms in the office for that call, and I’m not ashamed to say that I spent the 15 minutes I had after it ended bawling my eyes out. Then composing myself so that nobody else would see. I’ll throw in a quick thank you here to the person who dropped everything they were doing to get me through that evening, and their ongoing support in my journey. I won’t name them, but it’s an easy guess.
Ongoing support at work
Talking about my mental health in a professional context felt like a really big deal at the time, but it went far more smoothly than I thought.
I spoke directly to our Tech Director and Head of People about it, and honestly the reaction was incredible (thank you Luke & Steph). They told me to make my well-being the top priority. We’d reduce my workload as needed, and I could be completely flexible with my working hours. I was given the freedom to fit my work in around the way I was feeling on any given day and take time out for my therapy sessions in the middle of the day. I was encouraged to take more breaks. We already have an uncounted paid leave policy at Potato, but being told to make more use of it really helped to eliminate any of the guilt I was feeling for taking a week off just to recharge at home without going anywhere.
I was able to do this for as long as I felt I needed to, with no pressure at all from work. I’m mostly working as normal again now, although I still finish early on Tuesdays for therapy.
What I’m doing to manage things now
I’m in a much better place than I was this time last year. I remember on the previous World Mental Health Day wanting to simply tweet out that anxiety was something I was dealing with, and even the thought of that filled me with dread at the time. Now I feel (mostly) comfortable sharing my story publicly, and more than that, I actively want to. Through sharing, I hope to be able to help others in some way, or at the very least normalise the idea of mental health a tiny bit more.
I’m still going to therapy. I started with CBT, learning some skills I can use to manage my anxiety when I experience it. Now I’m doing Psychotherapy with the same therapist to look at some of the underlying reasons that I’m experiencing it and work through them. I don’t see myself stopping this any time in the near future, and I’m totally okay with this.
I have formed a bunch of healthy habits that are helping me to manage things:
Journaling - I journal very often, most evenings. Just writing down all the things that are on my mind, challenging my overly negative thoughts and occasionally writing myself a letter as if I was talking to a close friend who was going through this (we can be way harsher to ourselves than we would be to anyone else).
Gratitude - I keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day I try to write down 3 good things that happened, or that I’m thankful for that day. I’m up to about 700 entries now.
"Yay me" book - This is something I’ve only recently started (the name inspired by a former Coach Community Lead at Potato). Essentially I’m gathering some of the nice things or successes that either I have thought about myself or have heard from others. I’m grouping them roughly into areas (like professional, personal, relationships) so that if I’m feeling negative, I have a source of positivity to balance things out.
Exercise - I’m a big believer of "healthy body, healthy mind". I used to say that I went a little crazy if it had been more than a week without riding my bike. Last year I took up running as it’s a bit easier to fit into the day. Until I started therapy, doing some hard cardio every couple of days was my crutch. Then I got quite ill and everything fell apart. These days I try and fit in a couple of runs and a couple of workouts each week.
Mindfulness / meditation / yoga - Definitely something I’d like to do more of. I meditate only really when I want to calm down, but it’s effective. I started the 30 days of Yoga with Adriene early in lockdown but haven’t finished it yet. Mindfulness is a huge topic, but for me focusing on my breathing is really something that helps bring me back into the moment when I’m spiraling. I’m a big fan of box breathing and count out the seconds by tapping on my finger tips in turn to add extra mental focus.
Being more open - this was a tough habit to form for me. I have generally been quite guarded and have spent many years absolutely terrified of people finding out about my anxiety. But hiding it away reinforces the idea that there is something to hide, that there’s something wrong or to be ashamed of. There isn’t. I took baby steps to begin with, I would answer truthfully if directly asked. Then I made the therapy block in my calendar visible to others, I started mentioning it in conversation when relevant. Now this post. It’s something I’m still working on, but I’m really proud of the progress I’ve made.
On that last point. I want to thank the two guys at Potato who really changed my perspective on this. It was late January, we were in a coaching triad, I had just started Therapy and wasn’t in a good place at all. When I was asked how I was at the start of the session, I pretty much just broke down into tears, the mask I wore at work came off completely. They handled it really well. At the end of the session one of them commented on how they had no idea I was going through something like that. That it helped them to see that other people had bad days too, and see someone else finding things tough. It helped to normalise what they felt at times. That conversation was probably the biggest inspiration for this post.
Also, I highly recommend the free mental health chatbot app: Woebot. It encourages you to check in, teaches you about various little techniques you can use for self-care, helps you form healthy habits and generally is packed with great little bits of information and encouragement.
There’s a lot more I could write in this post (there are also many more people I would like to thank), if there’s interest then I’ll gladly do a follow-up. Mainly this was an exercise for me in sharing, and reinforcing to myself that there is no shame in the journey I have gone through, that it’s nothing to hide. I tried to give it a reasonable narrative so that it flowed a bit more naturally than the jumble of thoughts that I wanted to get down. If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: It’s okay not to feel okay, but you don’t have to stay feeling like that, and you are not alone.