How do Software Engineers cope with stress?

The typical sources of stress for software engineers are not caused by technology. They’re caused by managers and projects.

Work tasks are not described clearly.

If I’m given unclear work requirements, I ask for more details. I make it clear that I can’t give an estimate for the cost or the time of completion until I know the full scope of work. In a professional software engineering environment, a significant amount of time should be spent estimating the work based on complexity of the task. You can get yourself into a stressful obligation if you agree to a deadline before knowing the requirements of the project.

Be careful about this. Managers often insist that the software engineer decide on the estimate much too early, and then they use that against the engineer later, saying it was an estimate that the engineer had made, so they can’t claim it was imposed on them.

When you are asked for an estimate before you know the scope of work, remember to use this standard response: “I’ll have to get back to you.”

Schedule is too aggressive. Deadlines are impossible.

At one job I joined, I was hired to get a software project back on track after it had fallen behind schedule and the previous team lead had quit. I knew generally what the project was, but I didn’t know how much was done and how much still needed to be done. On my first day, a marketing person told me he wanted to present this software to customers at an annual conference, which was happening in two weeks. He wanted me to promise to finish the software by that time. I told him I would need two weeks just to learn the current state of the project and make an estimate for the completion. It was a little bit stressful to tell him no, but it would have been much worse to make a promise and then fail to deliver.

Finishing on schedule requires long work hours and few breaks.

Don’t fall into the trap of letting management bully you into working until you are exhausted. If you do that, you will make more mistakes, and your code will need to be scrapped and written over. You are not a machine — and even machines need time for maintenance, cleaning, repair, etc. If you keep yourself healthy and your mind fresh, you will be able to concentrate better and produce better quality work. You will have a better chance of finishing the work on time.

New requirements are added late in the project, but the workers are held to the original schedule.

When they want to add more features, tell them you’ll evaluate the new requirements to see if they can be added with minimal interruption to the schedule. Do your best and make an honest effort to do that. But sometimes the new feature is requires major changes to the current code design, which is partially implemented already.

Approach the product manager and let them know this. Present to them the following options:

  • Postpone their new feature idea until “phase 2” (that is, a future revision of the software).
  • Cut some other requirements from the current project that are time-consuming and not yet implemented.
  • Make a compromise to reduce the complexity from one or more features, to make them take less time to implement.
  • Extend the project deadline to give enough time for the extra features.

If they still demand that they want all the features and no change to the schedule, that’s not realistic. Politely tell them that they need to choose one of the options or they will be disappointed. This makes the tough choice their responsibility, which reduces your stress.

Unscheduled work and alerts interrupt and spoil concentration.

This is a great source of stress because it’s difficult to resume work that requires concentration after an interruption. This has been studied a lot. It’s not just the time it takes to do the unscheduled task. It also takes time to shift your focus between tasks. If this happens several times per day, you can lose all your productivity for the whole day.

If software engineers are expected to be oncall or to help with unscheduled analysis or troubleshooting or technical support, then they should make it clear that any schedule estimates are in unpredictable. Your stress comes from uncertainty that you can be productive enough to meet your deadline. You can mitigate this stress by insisting that the deadline must be extended every time you are interrupted.

Software engineers are expected to understand and be productive with any type of technology with no time for training.

The best way to cope with this is to fib a little bit and add some time to every estimate, to allow for research, self-training, debugging, and getting answers from technical support. It’s unfortunately a reality that management can’t justify budget for training time, if they are already paying high salaries to software engineers. So you have to include the necessary training time with engineering estimates.

One way to hide training as engineering is to schedule part of the project to implement a “prototype” or a “proof of concept.” These basically mean you’re going to be practicing, and the result will be an unoptimized implementation, intended to be scrapped and redone before the final deadline.