Aaron's Blog

Tech, tinkering, and occasionally, a banjo tune

How Homebrewing Saved Me from Burnout

It's weird to say that beer saved me from depression. Let's face it, it's not exactly the most common thing for someone to claim as having a positive impact on one's life. But beer saved me, in a weird sort of way.

Last winter, I was miserable. My wife saw it, my coworkers saw it, and after many conversations that highlighted my incessant complaining about my former employer, I finally admitted that I was in fact, a bit of a mess. My symptoms included:

  • Being a bit of an ass to my wife, whom I love fiercely
  • Being a outright ass to some of my customers
  • Complaining about the lack of necessary change occurring in my department
  • And generally complaining about anything I could find a reason to complain about

In short, I was bitter, overly critical, and no one wanted to be around me...including me. I'd woken up several times during the winter months and thought, "Not again. I can't do another day of this. Why in the hell did I move 1,100 miles for this?"

That's when one of my dearest friends and mentors suggested that I take up a hobby. He and I'd been talking over Slack and he asked me, "Do you have any hobbies?" Dumbstruck, I couldn't recall having anything to do during my free time other than study for certifications and try and bone up on all things *NIX-y. That night, I decided that I was going to take a week and learn how to homebrew. That was the best decision for my mental health that I'd made in a while.

I'd mentioned to a coworker that I was going to take some time to homebrew. He generously gave me his kit, noting that he wasn't using it. After a month, I had a passable ESB. Mind you, it was a bit watery, but it was by no means terrible.

In that watered-down, bubbly bit of brew, I found a hobby. I found something that would keep me from being completely burnt out.

I'm particularly interested in why brewing staved off the burnout. After all, it wasn't that I chose brewing as a hobby with the express purpose of keeping my sanity. I had chosen homebrewing on a whim, namely because I like good beer and wanted to make my own "good" beer.

It wasn't until Christmas that my mentor hit on something in a SysAdvent post that he wrote. To quote him: "Brewing beer is a mixture of being methodical, something that is near and dear to all our hearts, and art." I'd found a medium of expression that allowed me to still be methodical (something that was required in solving the types of problems a systems administrator solves), and be creative...the element that was missing from day-to-day duties.

As an INTP, I need space to create. Relentless break-fixing is something I've since discovered contributes to a regular cycle of burnout for me. If I'm stuck in that constant cycle, I'll inevitably start becoming a bit of an ass again. Thankfully, I've got a few hobbies now, and one that I've found that I love doing.

PS: If you're struggling with burnout, head over to burnout.io. The site has a great list of ways that you can mitigate burnout.

So You're In Customer Success, Now What?

Starting Out

Back in April, I started a new role as a customer success engineer with DigitalOcean. Admittedly, I didn't know what to expect coming from being a systems administrator. During the interview process, I got the impression that the role was a mixture of account management, solutions engineering, and support.

Now three months into the role, I can confidently say that with regard to duties, my impression was more or less spot on. But in practice, the role is so much more than that. It's more than taking care of discounts, payments, and other account level issues. It's more than specing out a solution for a customer, or writing scripts to provision that solution automatically. It's more than just making sure that an issue is fixed, or that you have the answer to every technical question.

There's a relational element to customer success that's hard to quantify. The best way I can explain it is like this:

Suppose your grandmother, significant other, or best friend suddenly starts up a company. They come to you and ask you, "Heya! I want to use for my startup and need your help. Can you help me out?"

What would you do? If you're invested in that person, you'd likely do everything you can to help them out. In practicality, it might look like:

  • Taking a hands-on approach to managing their account to ensure that they have a butter-smooth on-boarding process
  • Take an extended time to understand what they're doing with their business and what they're looking to do on the platform
  • Advising them about any pitfalls that they might encounter along the way
  • Making sure that they now about everything on the platform that will help their business grow
  • Showing genuine concern and empathy when things aren't going so smoothly
  • Being transparent about the platform's shortcomings/weak areas and suggesting ways that they might be able to work around those weaknesses

In short, you'd do everything you feasibly can to make sure that their company grows and succeeds. So yes, being a customer success engineer (or customer success manager, in other industry-specific parlance) is different than being an admin.

So how does one make the transition from being an admin to being a customer success engineer/manager?

Moving from Admin --> Customer Success

The last three months have been a challenge, I won't lie. I'd developed some bad habits in my last role, and it comes down to two big ones:

  • Lack of empathy (largely due to ticket crunching...when your team addresses hundreds of tickets a day, it's hard to have enough time to be empathetic in every one)
  • The aforementioned being myopic when addressing issues/tickets

In short, I didn't care. I didn't have time to care. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I didn't want to care. The last thing I think anyone wants in their job is to come off as apathetic and disinterested. However, high volumes of support tickets don't lead to an environment that engenders empathy and a holistic focus on customer accounts.

So how did I get past that? Well, for one, starting a new role helped. I didn't feel as burned out, and being in a new environment was refreshing. Also, accountability is another HUGE help. When you're part of a team that calls you out for not being empathetic, or showing genuine care for your customers, you learn quick that you need to change your behavior. The other thing that's helped is being involved in the customer success community. For me, that's looked like:

  • Reading up on customer success literature (So far, the book that's helped with the transition the most has been Farm, Don't Hunt)
  • Being present and (somewhat) active in the Support Driven Slack channel
  • Reaching out to other customer success organizations, like Glide Consulting to see how they do Customer Success

Also, it's taken asking myself the hard questions about how I approach customer issues and taking a step back when I realize I'm defaulting to a break/fix mentality. That's definitely not fun.

Now, I'm prone to wanting to make everything repeatable and testable. I blame it on my training as an academic researcher. I love patterns and I love it when I can make something fit into a pattern that I just automate and set on autopilot. I've found that's not how Customer Success works. Why? Relationships. Like I mentioned earlier, Customer Success is more than fixing a single problem. It's about establishing trust and rapport with customers and being invested in their growth. There are patterns and methods that I've found in some of the interviews I've been doing, but they're certainly well-suited to a "one-size-fits-all" approach. They take tweaking, adjusting, and above all, the ability to admit that those methods may just not work for a customer success organization. All that to say the journey into Customer Success requires hard work and for me, quite a bit of introspection to reflect on what I do on a daily basis to see if it fits within a Customer Success mold.

So if you're just starting out in Customer Success from a more technical role, and you're finding it hard, don't worry. It's not an easy transition. But if you take some time to reflect on your default habits, get involved in the customer success community and be open to the fact that it's going to take some time to make the transition into the new role, you'll be off to a good start.

A Little Bit of Banjo

I promised the occasional banjo tune. I'm delivering. Whaaaaaat! For your viewing pleasure:


Blog Refresh/Coming Back from Burnout

It's been a while since my last post. In between the old day job, travel, and looking for a new day job, I've been helping out with a project called Burnout.io, which is focused on providing resources to help mitigate IT-related workplace burnout. I became involved with the project after my friend Mike Julian pointed me to the site.

A little over a year ago, I found myself in a bit of a bad place and to be honest, was there for the last couple of months. My time at my previous two jobs had been spent ticket crunching and burning through the never-ending firehose of requests that come with being a support tech. The last several years at Rackspace have been a delicate balance between being able to learn and grow, and do the day-to-day work of customer requests. It left me tired, bored, and disengaged, both at work and home.

I took the time during Christmas vacation to reconnect a bit with the project that helped center me this time a year ago. I started digging through the issues on Burnout.io's GitHub repo to see what was needed to be done--we'd had a backlog of things that just hadn't been done. Everything from moving away from the Pico php framework the site was using, to adding more resources for people to use.

As I started working through the issues, making my changes, and engaging with the site maintainer, I started reading back through the resources page. I was reminded that if things aren't going to change, it's a good idea to move on, or take a break. Unfortunately, the work of a support tech just wasn't piquing my interest, and multiple breaks didn't seem to solve for my being disengaged.

I started searching for a new role, both internally and externally. I wanted something that would offer more time to tinker, to create, and demand less of the "crunch through these hundreds of tickets." That search has led me to the Customer Success Engineer role at Digital Ocean. I'm excited about what the role entails, and can't wait to start digging in. The eagerness and newness of the role has brings with it the freedom that moving on typically brings, and the funk of the last couple of months has lifted.

That said, I can't wait to share what I've been working on the last few months as I've tried to mitigate my burnout the last couple of months. You can look forward to me sharing some of my extracurricular non-technical endeavors. Namely, some pipe-making and shave-brush making, as well as continuing to brew beer. After all, it was homebrewing that brought me out of burnout the last time, so I'm a bit loathe to give it up.

I'll try and share some of those in the coming weeks. Until then, cheers!