Beyond the Code: Fostering a Healthy Environment for Software Developers to Succeed

Discover how engineering leaders are turning the tide against burnout with strategies that emphasize well-being, creativity and personal growth.

Written by Lucas Dean
Published on Mar. 25, 2024
 Beyond the Code: Fostering a Healthy Environment for Software Developers to Succeed
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The tech industry’s breakneck pace of innovation brings massive financial investments and significant technological advancements. 

However, this environment can sometimes overshadow the crucial role of human creativity and resilience, favoring profit and product over the people who drive it. 

Despite the clear link between prioritizing the well-being of skilled professionals and progress, burnout remains an all-too-common occurrence, hindering growth and achievement for companies and individuals alike.

According to annual workforce surveys conducted by Aflac, 57 percent of employees said they felt at least moderately burnt out in 2023. Perhaps more alarmingly, only 48 percent said they were confident their employers cared about their mental wellness, a 12 percent drop from 2021. 

Burnout is even more common among software engineers; 76 percent of developers surveyed by JetBrains said they had experienced burnout in their careers. 

Open communication, proactive support and personalized growth opportunities aren’t just nice-to-haves but essential for a thriving workplace. Likewise, prioritizing mental health and personal ambition ensures bright minds remain vibrant and creative. 

Companies like SciPlay and ForeFlight exemplify this approach, offering stretch projects tailored to individual interests and creating an environment where developers feel valued, understood and motivated.

Their engineering directors offered insightful tips on promoting work-life balance and growth while avoiding burnout before it impacts the team.

 

Daniel Glover
Director of Engineering • ForeFlight

ForeFlight streamlines aviation with its integrated flight app by enhancing safety, efficiency and decision-making for pilots and flight crews globally.

 

Developers will always face some difficulties in the workplace, and sometimes these challenges lead to burnout. What warning signs do you look for in your software developers? What actions do you take when you see signs of burnout?

One of the best ways to handle burnout is to do our best to prevent it. We emphasize consistent, open communication between our developers and their managers. We openly discuss current challenges developers are facing and try to handle any kind of burnout as soon as signs might show someone leading in that direction. Processes like weekly one-on-one meetings help with this, but they have to be baked into the culture to facilitate productive communication in order to have the most effect.

 

One factor contributing to developer burnout is observability, or checking that apps and systems are working correctly to prevent bottlenecks or bugs. How do you help developers identify issues at their source as soon as they occur so they don’t have to sift through a slog of information downstream?

We have to set our developers up for success. To do this, we need to provide them with all the tools necessary to deal with these types of situations and help them gain the confidence to handle them by giving them mentoring and training. 

We use various tools to monitor our systems and are able to gain insight into the details of performance issues and errors, and what might be causing them. We put in well-understood processes for reacting to alarms, triaging, creating incidents and working through them. We also do team retrospectives on incidents and have developers shadow as incidents are handled. This all helps to provide developers with confidence that they have the tools and the training to handle situations they will face and that they are not dealing with situations without a safety net.

 

What sorts of creative stretch projects or meaningful growth opportunities do you offer developers on your team? 

By encouraging and enabling our developers to grow both in their technical skill set and career, we create a feedback loop that benefits both the developer and our company. We encourage all of our developers to take initiative, and we try to instill a sense of leadership in everyone. 

 

By encouraging our developers to grow in their technical skill set and career, we create a feedback loop that benefits both the developer and our company.” 

 

Nobody is put in a box. We like to throw new challenges at developers with the confidence that we have the teamwork and management to mentor and set people up for success. An example would be to expand a web developer’s skillset to be a bit more full stack and get started working in our server stack. By starting them on small tasks and providing mentorship from other team members, we can start them on a journey to broaden their areas of expertise and enable them to contribute to the team in an expanded way.

 

 

Joshua Tigner
Director of Engineering • SciPlay

SciPlay develops and publishes engaging digital casino games, offering millions of users free-to-play casual and social gaming experiences.

 

Developers will always face some difficulties in the workplace, and sometimes these challenges lead to burnout. What warning signs do you look for in your software developers? What actions do you take when you see signs of burnout?

Leading the talented engineering team for Bingo Showdown at SciPlay has allowed me to build strong relationships with each member. Beyond managing, I genuinely care and observe their well-being. This proactive approach allows early identification of potential issues, like decreased participation or increased errors, before reaching burnout.

Communication is a cornerstone of SciPlay’s strategy. We prioritize open and honest dialogue, actively fostering an environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing themselves. This involves identifying changes in behavior and initiating early conversations. Questions like “Are you feeling overwhelmed?” help address concerns like workload or engagement before they escalate.  

However, if burnout is a concern, we immediately shift focus to understanding the root cause and explore tailored solutions, such as time off or offering new challenges. Fostering open and honest communication remains crucial for identifying potential issues and developing effective solutions. By prioritizing both individual well-being and proactive intervention, we create a thriving team environment where everyone feels supported and valued.

 

One factor contributing to developer burnout is observability, or checking that apps and systems are working correctly to prevent bottlenecks or bugs. How do you help developers identify issues at their source as soon as they occur so they don’t have to sift through a slog of information downstream?

To empower engineers and minimize developer information overload, we prioritize immediate issue identification through a multi-layered approach, including development-stage testing and live service monitoring. 

Through comprehensive unit, integration, and author testing, we gain valuable insights into the source of failures. This allows for efficient investigation by pinpointing the specific layer within the technology stack requiring attention. Through live service monitoring, when issues arise in the live environment, we have various tools for rapid response:

 

  • Infrastructure alarms: Proactive alerts for anomalies in database load, endpoint response times, and cache utilization.
  • Application health monitoring: Tracking key metrics like in-app purchase frequency, user logins, and core loop engagement enables us to identify potential issues pre-escalation.
  • Vendor dashboards: Leverage insights from Apple and Google to monitor crash rates and application behavior within their respective platforms.

 

This data-driven approach equips our engineers to tackle issues head-on, reducing wasted time spent digging through information and fostering a more efficient and less stressful work environment.

 

What sorts of creative stretch projects or meaningful growth opportunities do you offer developers on your team? 

We champion individual growth and offer unique stretch projects tailored to each developer’s interests and aspirations. While we don’t have standardized programs like “Personal Project Friday,” SciPlay actively fosters a culture of exploration and contribution. For example, a senior engineer expressed interest in our build and deployment infrastructure. We involved them as a stakeholder in changes, providing exposure without direct tasking. Months later, we needed short-term infrastructure support. Their familiarity made them the natural choice, contributing quickly and minimizing workload while fostering growth.

 

When a developer expresses interest in a specific area or proposes an idea, we engage in a collaborative discussion.” 

 

When a developer expresses interest in a specific area or proposes an idea, we engage in a collaborative discussion. We delve into the potential impact, the estimated effort involved and how it aligns with their current workload. If an opportunity emerges that aligns with their goals and enhances their impact or knowledge, we leverage our prior conversations to determine if it’s the best fit for the project. This personalized approach ensures developers receive meaningful growth opportunities that are truly relevant to their individual aspirations.

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Shutterstock and listed companies.

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