When I was young, I never understood why my dad liked splitting and burning firewood so much.
Every summer, my brother and I would play our parts. We’d haul large logs cut by my dad’s chainsaw from some fallen tree in the area (with permission, of course) in his pickup truck to our backyard. Then we’d split them by axe and hammer and stack the pieces at the bottom of the hill to season. Lastly, we’d take a previous years’ stash from the other side of our wood stack and place them in a large red wheelbarrow and haul them up the hill to then re-stack in neat piles against the side of the house next to the patio door for the coming winter.
When the extreme Minnesotan cold set in, my dad would then burn a fire nearly every evening (and sometimes, morning) in the wood burning stove to heat the house, just needing to lean out the patio door for the season’s wood supply.
Almost all of my friend’s families either didn’t bother utilizing their fireplace (you could just turn up the furnace, of course) or had gas ones. With the latter you could just touch a button and a nice fire magically appeared! No dreaded hauling of firewood all afternoon on summer weekends. No having to build a fire with the previous week’s newspaper. No scooping out old ash from the stove or getting on the roof every year and sending a brush up and down the chimney to clean it out.
What’s more is that my dad looked genuinely happy to be out splitting firewood.
He seemed very pleased in the winter evenings with a roaring fire going and a beer in hand, but that was easy to understand. It was the splitting and the hauling and all the overhead in the summertime that I was baffled about. When I was older (and my brother went off to school and I was left to pick up all his slack…) I finally asked him about it.
He explained that being in IT, things like wood burning and fishing and the outdoors were the antidote to his technology filled workweek. After a full day of sitting in front of a computer screen and working with people and their endless computer issues, spending quiet time outside in the sun and fresh air, either alone or with his boys, provided a balance to his life that was important to maintain.
After becoming an experienced software developer I’ve come to understand my dad’s insistence of balance between technology and the simple things in life more and more over the years. It needn’t be burning wood or even the outdoors at all - but I now firmly believe that having something that grounds you and doesn’t involve staring at a liquid crystal display whatsoever is vital to feeling balanced in day-to-day life.
I enjoy bonfires, and when I moved back to Minnesota last summer I had to use some (gasp) purchased firewood from the gas station (Yeah, we have that here. Is that weird?). The wood burned incredibly poorly; it was obvious that it was newly split wood and completely unseasoned. I would have to take time and build the perfect structure to start, and constantly shift things around to get it to burn evenly.
This experience was “frustrating”. But in an amazing, I’m-so-happy-it’s-not-another-software-problem sort of way.
I wasn’t digging through stack traces trying to find where some 3rd party library accidentally made a breaking change in their latest patch release. I wasn’t mulling over the best approach to make some major change to the core architecture of an application to avoid breaking things and pissing off untold numbers of customers (with said major change being a precondition to implementing the feature said customer had been asking about, of course).
I wasn’t continuing to ask for minimal examples of that phantom issue that multiple people have reported but no one can narrow down. I wasn’t getting DM’d about remembering some small caveat from code written years ago regarding that one thing that kept me up all night or all weekend and I’d rather just forget about forever.
I wasn’t doing any of those things. But I was debugging! I was debugging something completely and utterly different, applying all the same logical processing of thoughts. I was trying to make some pile of shitty wood burn. Which piece should I add next? Is this one too thick? Does it seem drier than that piece? Maybe I should wait until the fire is hotter to burn this bad one. Where on the fire would it burn the best? Is there enough airflow there? Will the structure collapse if I try and move that corner?
Debugging under the stars with a bottle of bourbon and the sound of crickets and loons as my work playlist. It’s this sort of disconnection from our always-online society that keeps my balance.
I love technology, software, and the communities that support it. I work remotely, and while I try to keep a healthy separation between work and home I’m too passionate about what I do to completely evict programming from my mind the moment the clock hits 5pm. I might merge pull-requests and read emails after a typical work day. I talk shop constantly on the weekends and speak at conferences. I check Twitter too often. I do all these things because I’m fortunate enough to be paid to do something that I really love doing a lot.
If I do nothing but these things for too long, I become a mess. It’s not something I even notice (which is the worst part), not suddenly. I just begin to become this zombie of a person, only caring about getting that low priority bugfix I wrote merged or some issue closed or some CFP submitted. Slowly but surely the road to burnout begins.
But disconnecting and concentrating on other things is my antidote. I’ve developed a huge affinity towards hiking. I play organized hockey twice a week. I love burning fires and getting lost in the night sky. And as a former orchestral musician, I enjoy reading some old charts every now and then.
Find something that you love that has absolutely nothing to do with software and technology. Learn a skill that uses your hands beyond touching keycaps. Pour yourself in to it. I think you’ll find that it will give you a balance that makes you all the more concentrated and effective as a software developer when you open up that text editor in the morning.