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Ask HN: Is it too much to work AND play with tech?
26 points by dannyism 66 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments
After years of coding on and off as a hobby, I'm starting to gain enough skill that it's tempting to apply for a job in tech. However, one major fear is that burnout from work will kill my motivation to follow my true passions. I have some very specific projects in mind (related to music production / sound synthesis, if anyone cares to know), and they mean a lot more to me than money ever will. I already suffer from some RSI symptoms due to the amount of time I spend working with my desktop workstation at home, which makes me doubly cautious.

Has anyone else faced similar challenges? Is it feasible or advisable to simultaneously balance work and hobbies in software engineering?




The answer is simple; if you do NOT need the money from working as a SE in the Tech Industry, don't go in. You will burnout. It will affect your brain and health in ways whose consequences we do not yet fully understand because the effect is cumulative over time. Even if you don't dramatically break down one day, you will be worn down in ways which you may find hard to reconcile with your past self.

Now Tech itself is interesting and enticing. The problem is that the "Tech Development Industry" has made the environment around it poisonous. Everything is judged according to its monetary value, insane competitive pace and work schedule, no planned time for rest, recuperation and recharge, constantly shifting landscapes, herculean demands on your brain as regards coping with complexity and finally, quite complex human interaction dynamics. For some reason the industry completely ignores the psychological aspects involved though it has been studied from the beginning (see the works of Gerald Weinberg) and we now know more about the human brain and how it works. I have come to the conclusion that working in the tech industry is "death by a thousand cuts" where the cuts are in your psyche/brain draining the "joy of life" out slowly.

Very few people are able to come to some sort of understanding between their work and passion such that the downward decline is arrested and settle down to a comfortable plateau.


> ou will burnout. It will affect your brain and health in ways whose consequences we do not yet fully understand because the effect is cumulative over time. Even if you don't dramatically break down one day, you will be worn down in ways which you may find hard to reconcile with your past self.

This can be said about a lot of other jobs as well. Work in its current 40 hours per week form is generally not good for us in my opinion.


True to a certain extent. However it is not just a matter of labour. The nature of Software Development is so very different from other jobs that we need to study it from first principles. The main issue is the tremendous cognitive effort demanded of Software Engineers (Dijkstra's paper "The Humble Programmer" is relevant here) which exceeds the plasticity/adaptive capacity of the Human Organism. Couple it with the complete lack of physical activity due to our modern sedentary lifestyle and you have a recipe for maladaptation. "Ego Depletion", "Decision Fatigue" are all real disorders.

I have a feeling that as we advance our study of the Science of "Epigenetics" we will understand better the consequences of our current "Tech Industry Lifestyle".


Anecdotal evidence incoming: I once needed to tow a motorcycle and the guy who showed up used to manage data centers for Amazon. He didn't miss it. The "brain drain" he felt at the end of the day was especially painful for him. Altogether, he was much happier towing motorcycles for a living and tinkering with tech during his off hours. He also made more money towing motorcycles, so it was a win-win for him. Although, he quit before the salaries for engineers skyrocketed.


Well, I imagine Amazon is pretty bad with regards of risk of burning out. Meanwhile, you can cozy up at any of the megacorps (large banks etc.) and, with some luck, consistently don't do too much work.


Don't fuck around with your RSI. Get a proper adjustable desk / chair / ergo everything (I like the Rollermouse Red / Kinesis Advantage 2 but you need to find what works for you). See the doc. Go to massage/chiropractor/PT/acupuncture/whatever works for you. Do not work through pain. That should be your number one priority. If you fuck around it's a good possibility you won't be working or having as a hobby anything to do with computers. That's no exaggeration. For a long time I had to stop all non-work computing and cut down severely on work computing. I have optimized the hell out of my workflow. If you're a native English speaker, you may be able to use voice to code, but I wouldn't count on it (I have an accent, so voice recognition is useless). As far as whether you can do both work and hobby coding without losing passion for your coding hobby, that really depends on you. I can't really. Nothing to do with RSI. That's just the nature of work. For me. Others happily do it. That's a question only you can answer and likely only after trying. Good luck. And don't fuck around w/ your RSI if you care about future computing.


I'll say this much: the longer I work in technology the more I loathe it. Every time anything breaks, which it seems is absurdly often these days, I get really angry. It isn't enough I have to deal with esoteric issues brought on by overly complex bullshit at work, no, pretty much everything people use today that runs on electricity has the same damn problem! People are even putting this shit in their light bulbs! Their fucking lights! Famously simple enough to be operated by a switch for, what, over 100 years and now some jackasses who want to sell shit think its a good idea to put more computing power than man took to the fucking moon into it!?

It's enough that I'm seriously considering some sort of technological ludditism. I'll start a new lifestyle, one where we only use technology simple enough for the average 10 year old to hold an accurate model of in their head. We'll trade messages on snail-mailed disks between our Commodore 64s or something.


For me, the key to not burnout (fast) is to have separate mindset for hobby and work.

Say, my hobby will not relate in anyway to my work (that's quite obvious) but also not about personal development, nor about maximizing my "potential", nor about peer pressure, nor a way to make passive income or how it'll help me in my life in the future, because that'll be the best recipe for burnout. Those business/self development jargon words can stay within 'work' realm. Your hobby can have those features of course, if it comes naturally, but I will not put it as priority as to WHY I choose something as my hobby.

Hobby for me is purely hobby. Things I can lose myself into and not worry about ANYTHING ELSE except things in front of me.

P.S. My day job is high-precision graphic designer, my hobby is clay sculpting. There's something calming and relaxing about its low-pace nature — unlike digital hobby though.


Could not agree more.

I'm not sure if it's a recent phenomenon or if it's something that makes itself apparent in young adulthood, but I can't help but notice how many people frame their hobbies and extra-work activities in terms of their ability to maximize personal potential and provide some measurable personal profit. I'm certainly not exempt from this thought-pattern, and I think it takes a serious toll on one's mental well-being. When every bit of your free time must be driven towards some worthwhile pursuit that will provide some measurable benefit, you rob yourself of actually cultivating a genuine hobby: an activity that you pursue for its own sake and enjoyment, and not for some additional gain as a result of practicing said activity


It can be. Certainly for me, the joy I got from experimenting with tech pretty much declined in the decade or so since I started working full time with computers. Now, after the working day, I try to avoid computers, preferring instead things like cooking, walking outside, or playing piano.

So I can’t give you any advice, other than to say your fears are well-founded.


I used to be a gamer, then started to code (age 13) Age 21, got first job coding, stopped gaming. Age 25, stopped using tech or computers after work. Age 35, working remotely (coding), want to go off-grid, live a more subsistence lifestyle.

I _still love to code, have a deep passion for it_, i love to create; but anti-tech in general. I call out my phone-abusing friends, and have become very cynical to the whole tech-pr0n-bro-startup hype machine.

They used to call me a nerd at school, because i would skip sport to game/create websites/do infrastructure for pocket money (1998). Now everyone is the hopelessly addicted tech addict they looked down on, and im the only one that apparently can see it.

I will not be letting my child interact with tech until they are sufficently capable of understanding the marketing behind it. Seeing babies who cant get a nappy change without an ipad in their face makes me wonder if the future of tech is anything more then bodyless entities interacting in vRooms with 1000s of companies tapped into your thought streams tailing your dreams to suite their next product launch.


> have become very cynical to the whole tech-pr0n-bro-startup hype machine

Like most people probably I change my job every 1.5-2 years and have become increasingly better at spotting companies where this culture is in place. At the same time I notice there is increase in non-toxic cultures, I think there is hope... ;)


Consider trying an ortholinear split keyboard like the Ergodox EZ for your RSI.

I was starting to experience wrist pain after several 12-hour days of vim. Ergodox solved the problem for me.

The learning process is annoying and you'll probably be tempted to give up during the first couple weeks, but the benefits are worth the learning curve.


> Ergodox EZ

Wow. This is basically a mashup of my two favorites—the Kinesis Advantage 2 and the Kinesis Freestyle Edge!

I'll definitely consider trying one of these out, too.


An ergonomic mouse can also be very important.

If you travel a lot, the microsoft sculpt keyboard+mouse is great. It's not the most ergonomic, but it's alright and a lot more compact than anything else I've seen.


The Ergodox was like a magic solution for me too. Another plus is having the arrows on a layer which means I can use any editor/ide and avoid emacs-pinky at the same time.


I made a very conscious decision to refocus my creative energy from hobby projects (I was busy with making music/bands/production) into my "tech" career 10+ years ago. This was one of the most dramatic multiplier decisions of my life. Everything is still revolving around tech in some way, but in fantastic manifestations … community building, non-profit founding, teaching at a college level, co-working, art/design residencies/exhibitions/publications, and a handful of companies … it’s been very enriching, and easily one of the top 5 good decisions I've made.


Get a truly ergonomic keyboard. I like the Kinesis Advantage 2 for home, and the Kinesis Freestyle Edge when traveling.

Both are more expensive than the somewhat ergonomic keyboards made by MS or Logitech, but both are well worth it!


Unfortunately, I never found those truly ergonomic keyboards available with a QWERTZ-layout, which isn't just a software problem, since German has four letters more (äÄ, öÖ, üÜ, ß) and those ergonomic QWERTY keyboards never account for this, so the value is diminished.


Both keyboards are programmable, and it's extremely easy to do so with the Freestyle Edge.


You cannot program missing buttons.

On the right side to the '0' and 'P' I need two more buttons, right from the 'L' and the 'M' three. (Also, on the left side of the 'Y' which on QWERTY is a 'Z', I also need another button. Without those buttons in those places all ergonomic advantages will be lost, since I have to remap those buttons somewhere not especially ergonomic.

The buttons in question are btw: ß´ü+öä#,.-< and it would be fantastic if there were even more buttons for stuff like []{}, which I can only reach via ALT GR. Maybe Capslock could make way to two buttons '[' and ']' which then could become '{' and '}' with one modifier key.

I'm on Linux, so I doubt the hardware will be easy to program.


The Kinesis Advantage 2 ist available with a QWERTZ layout (including German umlauts).


Which shop? Couldn't find it on amazon and local stores don't have stuff like this in stock.


I write software as both a career and also a hobby. I’ve been doing this for many years and I still love it.

My advice to you is to go for it.

About your RSI — I have suffered with this for many years. I found that switching my keyboard to a new one would bring instant relief. The only problem is that the new keyboards were lasting me shorter and shorter times. I remember I was getting down to switching my keyboard every 11-13 days!

And then I found a permanent solution. I now go for a massage every 3-4 weeks with the focus being on my arms, neck, hands. Since I started this, I haven’t replaced my keyboard in 2 years!


I find that if the angle of my forearms is downward, I get a creeping RSI brewing on top of my hands. Adjusting my seating and/or sitting position so my forearms are horizontal and my wrists are resting and my hands can relax gets rid of the constant tension and creeping pain. YMMV


I know people who do both, and I know people who do one or the other.

A lot of whether this can work depends on your work environment. If it's one that fits you well, and one where what they require of you isn't totally draining, it's likely you will find yourself willing to follow your passions.

Should it be draining, or a tough environment, the cost may be those passions.

Why do you want a job in tech?

That's as important as the potential risks to your current passions.

Are you able to follow those passions without a tech job?

Could you potentially find one with more synergy? It's always good to find work that resonates in this way. Many of us have.

There is also the fact that any burnout could put your passions at risk. Are you at risk in your current job?

Factoring all that down, you are most concerned about burnout, and you are not entirely sure where your burnout level is.

Physically, you've got some warning signs. Regardless of how you proceed, it's advisable to address those right now.

Do you have access to health care? (I have to ask in the US, because large numbers of us find that expensive, inaccessible) Bring this up. Make a plan.

You seem young. Deal with the very basics no matter what.

That's all I got.


It depends on the person. I have found that as long as the work you do at home is different enough, it could boost your productivity at work. Ideally, it should relax you and lower the odds of burnout - if it doesn't, perhaps it is not a good idea.

RSI is a more serious problem, I suggest sorting it out as soon as possible. The split keyboard suggestion is an excellent one.


Yes. This was the key for curing me from burnout. Vacations didn't help. My "non tech hobby" was spending time with the kids.

This was fine but I went out of touch with what I loved about tech. Teaching helped a little, but lost the edge when my students didn't continue down the SE path.

So I built things. I built them ruthlessly. No plan. No career goals. Just free fall hacking.

Join random online games, then hack together solutions that help you beat them. Don't just limit yourself to MySQL, NoSQL, etc, try making databases in Google Sheets or plaintext. Maybe try optimizing things for no reason. If you feel curious about something do it without planning, unless you're in a planning mood.

Basically you should actually enjoy the hobby.


"No plan. No career goal. Just free fall hacking"

Hell yeah. Your word sums up the 'play' spirit we all used to have when we were young (that somehow got lost when we entering adulthood)


You only have so much energy in a day. You will just have to be cognisant about how you feel during the day so you don't go home tired all the time.

I have been in tech for eight years now and I still go home and code on my side projects every night.

I say go for it. I was starting school for mechanical engineering because I thought I was done with software. That was after doing consulting for a couple years (first job).

I think that was about seven years ago. I only did one semester before things happened, I moved and ended up at my first office job. No regrets.


It's more easily said than done but not every software programming job need to lead to burnout, especially of you are not looking for maximizing earnings.

It may vary individualy but switching context/environnement/project is enought for me to avoid feeling being at work while doing hobby project, so I would advice you to go for it if you like coding, more practice will lead to improvements on your side project productivity.


For some it is too much, for others not. A lot of people work from 9-5 as developers, and when they get home they put in a couple more hours on their side projects. Others can't stand even looking at a computer afterwards. In your case, you will have to find out, but if you're already asking and have that doubt, I believe that it MIGHT be too much.


I was wary myself before commiting to a techy job, decided to get into sys admin shit. Haven't felt passion doing anything tech-related in a long time, so probably wouldn't recommend. Software development might be different, though.


All work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy.

Call it discrimination, but when I interview people for my team I filter out those who don't have lives or a multitude of interests / passions. I just don't want to be around robots 40-50 hours per week. I apply that same discrimination in my personal and romantic life as well. After 25 years, a computer is just a burden.




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