In software development, Agile is the most popular form of project organization and Jira by Atlassian is the most common tool used to keep track of that organization. But two different ideas from two very different places and times have convinced me that Agile is the primary cause of developer burnout.

Most articles on burnout identify six reasons that people burn out. In order, those reasons are:

  • Workload
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Mismatch of work and reward
  • Lack of community support
  • Fairness
  • Mismatch of position and values

Agile directly increases the first three and all three directly lead to burn out.

Most agile implementations have a backlog and a stage of work known as "grooming the backlog." The backlog is a queue-- work goes in one end and developers and management agree that, within a given deadline, there are elements of the queue that must be completed and elements of the queue that it would be nice to complete.

In an article on sight reliability and queues, Dan Slimmon writes that it's a mathematical truth that "As you approach maximum throughput, average queue size – and therefore average wait time – approaches infinity." In a queue system there is the queue and the processor; work units are put into the queue, the processor takes a unit off the queue at which point it leaves the system, and the processor continues until all the units in the queue are processed. In a system in which the system is running at 100% there is never a moment when a newly arriving task is immediately assigned to a processor. A system in which the queue is never empty is one in which the queue is growing infinitely. There is no "steady state" without an empty queue.

What is the backlog? It is an infinitely growing queue of work to do. Developers are working all out to empty the queue because that's what the queue implies. Smart developers have learned to steal some time to themselves and ignore the queue but younger developers don't know to do that and sometimes, with their manager watching every commit and every keystroke, they don't have the luxury of doing so. Coders fresh out of bootcamp are easy victims to this mentality and this treatment. Coders fresh out of bootcamp are being taught that the industry is built on burnout, and welcome to it.

In a much older article, Silence is a Commons: Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets. (1982), the Catholic philosopher and urbanist Ivan Illich writes that we have as a culture failed "the commons" which he defines as "the environment from which most people could draw most of their sustenance." Most of the world wasn't divvied up into "owned" plots of land and there were very local customs and rules that ensured that the commons was self-replenishing.1

A "resource," in contrast, is something that is owned, parceled, "enclosed" in the language of statescraft. More than that, a "resource" is meant to be exploited, profited from and, ultimately, exhausted. Alternate uses for what's left after the resource is exhausted may be applied but that's not the point. A resource is a reserve: it's meant to be used up.

There's a reason the first people you talk to at a corporation are from the office of human resources. Industrial capitalism treats people as something to be used up and eventually discarded. Agile, with its neverending queue of brain filling work, is designed to use up a developer faster. We aren't meant to be "sustained" and indeed the entire attitude of the industry is that older developers are probably burned out and can't learn anything new anyway so don't bother trying to hire them.

I don't know what the cure is, other than these: fight back. Refuse to be a slave to the queue. Take back your autonomy. Find a job where your satisfaction comes from making other peoples' lives better rather than popping jobs of the queue. Make your manager know that the queue is designed to create burnout and come up with a downtime plan. Your queue should look empty 20% of the time even if it really isn't. It should be taken away from you and be unavailable, if that's at all possible. Become something, someone sustainable and if necessary advocate for your sustainability.

1 You might be thinking about the infamous paper, "The Tragedy of the Commons," by Garrett Hardin. Don't. That paper is a lie. Hardin was a white supremacist who crafted the idea of the "tragedy" in order to promote the idea of racialist "lifeboat ethics."