Dec 12, 2013 – It should be noted that things have gotten a lot better for myself since I wrote this post. I’ve been doing a lot to improve how I’ve been feeling and the feedback from the community has been excellent. I want to thank everyone who reached out to me and shared similar stories

I’m going to preface this with the following: This is an extremely difficult article to write and I’m also pretty sure it’s going to be a bit of a rant. I’m afraid of what people will think of me, the implications it will have on my career and  by simply exposing a vulnerability.

I’ve been living with depression for at least the last five years and I am constantly in fear of being proven a fraud.  I normally don’t talk to people about how I’m really feeling and I believe I’ve been sort of described as having two emotions – ‘angry’ and not ‘angry’.

I don’t come from what I’d call the traditional programming background or ever did anything I’d consider amazing. When I was a teenager I was really into Chemistry, I loved it! I was going to get a degree in Chemical Engineering and do whatever… chemical engineers do. During college things changed a bit, while I still really enjoyed Chemistry I wasn’t as thrilled for it. During my last semester a friend and I were building an educational tool that would help people learn chemistry. It was really just a glorified multiple choice test that was written in Visual Basic. I wrote up the questions, my friend wrote the code. While he was working on it, I was watching and thought that was pretty neat. Building stuff with a computer is kinda cool, and with a tiny bit of convincing I had enrolled to join the Computer Science program at a local university.

I had never programmed before in my life and I never really thought too much of it at the time, but to this day this haunts me. The first year was hard. Recursion was confusing, I wasn’t ever really good at the theoretical mathematics such as proofs and formalized logic, the list goes on. I made it through my first year with decent grades and lost my scholarship, but who doesn’t? Those were really just tools to lure in suckers to the University cash machine, right?

Midway through the beginning of my second year I realized that I needed to get more into the industry and actually building software. Until that point I was doing summer contracts/training as a cook in the military. I was afraid that if I stuck with this path I’d get out of school with no skills and be someone with a degree and useful to show for it. I’m pretty sure that when I started my first work term or perhaps my second that my depression started.

I looked at the work of other interns who were both younger and newer to school than myself and were performing drastically better than I was and this really started to bother me. I sort of started trying to learn new things like reading technical books only to put them down. They weren’t the most interesting things to read and made it really difficult to stay interested. After having been working for a few years, some of the harder books to read I can consume, though at a fairly slow rate. I often question whether I’m applying anything I’ve “learned” from them correctly, and still often doubt myself.

Often I find myself with the following logic looping through my mind:

My coworkers are working on cooler things than I am and they are definitely more interested in the things they are working on than I am. The things I’m interested in have no inherent value, so what’s the point of working on this stuff? Am I even interested in the kind of problems the company I’m at is trying to solve? I’m not a top performer and a fraud… why am I still even on the payroll? I can’t consistently find a project I want to work on, I have no commitment.

Those thoughts really get to me and extremely bother me and got to a point where I had to see a doctor about it. I was prescribed anti-depressants and I’m pretty sure they worked. There was a “noticeable change in my performance” and I’m confident it was just because of the medication. With the move to a new city and my laziness when it comes to seeing health care professionals, I simply stopped taking the medication. The withdrawal was interesting, but after it was over things seemed pretty good. I was confident I didn’t need them, or would be able to cope without them. Besides, they felt like a crutch and I’d need to face these problems for real and can’t hide behind induced chemical reactions. Considering how it feels like I’m thinking of how I’m shitty at my job and should probably just leave almost monthly, I’m starting to think otherwise.

A couple months ago I had a bad break down. It was after a tightly crunched project and things were pretty rough I knew that something had to be done. That week I started seeing a therapist and things have been going alright. We don’t meet frequently enough, but I’ve been getting something out of them. It was nice to find out suicidal thoughts are a pretty normal thing. While we’ve only covered a few things, it’s been nice to have an unbiased third part to talk to about what’s been going on and even still I find this difficult.

I’ve been spending a lot of time asking myself what I want out of my life and career. I’ve also been trying to figure out what I truly enjoy and love doing. It’s been difficult because I’ve always had a hard time on self-reflection and personal goal setting. Goals feel so far away and the path there feels like it’s a smooth vertical rock face. I’ve tried breaking them down and figuring out how I’d get there. If things are going good, it’s not too bad but a trigger will happen and I’m back to dwelling and depression.

From my reflections I’ve been able to figure out the following things:

As such I chose a few and tried to do more of them.

I’ve been lurking in IRC channels and trying to help out wherever I can. I can usually only answer the simple questions though I look at is as taking the burden off common questions of the smarter peoples shoulders. I do know that in the past I’ve always like when some random guy even tried to help me.

I’ve done some volunteering for a local exposition and have started learning how to make games. I’ve been looking into virtual and physical game jams to participate in to test myself and see what kind of game I can get done in 48 hours.

Finally, to I’ve been trying to get involved in pairing more and sort of teaching. I’ve been inviting people to do remote pairing with me, though I’d love it more if I could pair with someone far smarter than I am on something that’s actually cool. I’ve also been paring with some co-workers on things to fix bugs in various systems.

All that being said, I’m hoping that things get better in the future and that I’m able to either not have depression anymore or have it under control such that I’m actually able to enjoy my work, my life and everything else that encompasses those.

If you’re curious what depression is like, check out Zoe Quinn’s game Depression Quest which gives a pretty good example of what it’s like. I didn’t play all of it, but after a few minutes in the game it really resonated with me.

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2 Responses
  • anonymous

    Many of us in the industry have the same feelings about “being a fraud”. Myself included.

    I don’t like pairing for exactly that reason.

    kudos to you – takes strength and courage to lay it all out like that.

  • Robert Ziehl

    Whilst this post does display vulnerability, it also displays strength too. I applaud you for the courage it took to not only write this but publish it publicly too. Anyone who mocks you about this is naive and most probably suppressing their own mental struggles in the tech industry and life behind an unhealthy addiction like substance abuse or getting caught up in the elitist circles that programmers often form to assert their pseudo superiority on others. Don’t let the opinions of those people have an impact on you. They are the less genuine people in tech, not you, you are hardly a fraudster Chris. You are openly honest, willing to learn and willing to give back. You are one of the few people I have met in life who truly understand company culture, you care about people and not superficially like management generally does.

    Initially, at Zeebu, I did see you rather naively as two-state Chris who is either angry or not but I realized that this is a very shortsighted way of seeing you. You are passionate about your beliefs and good practices and you express your frustration regardless of what others may think or want to hear. It might not always be well received but your feedback will more often than not be much more constructive than those who constantly speak optimistically or compromise their own beliefs to please others.

    I was impressed when I met you at first because you only started programming during your tertiary education, stuck with it and saw it through. I had never met any other developer who had finished a computer science degree without having coded before university. This is an achievement in itself (that considering how far you have come since), you should look back at it proudly.
    Comparing yourself to others in tech can be a very de-motivational exercise but my consolation to this mental dilemma is that everyone follows a different path to success. I would highly recommend watching Zed Shaw’s talk on Peddling Success, it highlights a key point and that is success is hard to reproduce even for successful people. But on a deeper level, we need to understand that we should not define success as what others have done and strive to emulate that exactly. This applies not only to the paths of celebrity programmers but to those of fellow co-workers too.

    Your preference for maintaining and refactoring code over just creating new code is a healthy one to have. You will get a deeper understanding of all the subsystems within a codebase and you will be able to implement cleaner and more elegant solutions for new features purely because you know the implications of each potential change based on your exposure to the intricacies of the system. I found that the initial key to success is this deeper understanding of code that you have to work with on a day to day basis, not passion contrary to what others often believe. Passion will give you longevity at your job on a personal level but understanding will make you invaluable to your team and the company.

    Chris you are one of two developers who I would ever recommend for a job regardless of whether there was a monetary reward or not and out of those two developers you would still be my first choice. I hope this response helps put you at ease, you are far from a fraud. Stay strong.

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