Burnout-resistant life in developer relations


Tara King

Job title

Director of Developer Relations




DevRelCon London 2023

"Portrait of Tara King with short brown hair, wearing golden-framed glasses and a patterned shirt. The text reads: 'Resilience: Building a burnout-resistant life in developer relations' presented by Tara King, Director of Developer Relations at PagerDuty. This is a promotional graphic for DEVRELCON London 2023. The background includes an illustrated London Underground map, a red double-decker bus, and the date '2023'. The bottom right corner has a red banner with the text 'Made by Hoopy'."In this talk from DevRelCon London 2023, Tara discusses the importance of building resilience and managing burnout in the developer relations (DevRel) field.

They share their personal experiences and offer strategies for managing daily stress, fixing learned helplessness, and creating boundaries. Tara emphasizes the need for support from managers and peers in order to prevent and address burnout.

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Key takeaways

  • Burnout is a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed
  • Symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased sense of accomplishment
  • Managing daily stress is the first step in dealing with burnout
  • It is important to set boundaries, say no, and prioritize self-care
  • Building a support network and practicing co-regulation can help manage stress
  • It is important for managers and leaders to listen, support, and create boundaries for their teams
  • When facing job loss or stressful situations, it is important to prioritize self-care and manage stress effectively
  • Leaders and managers should also prioritize their own well-being and seek support when needed.


Kevin Lewis:

We will move on to our next talk. I’m very, very excited for this talk from the impeccably dressed Tara about building resilience and looking after yourself in terms of burnout in a career that often creates it. I’m going to hand off the stage and we’ll have a q and A after this so we have a little bit of time. Goodbye. I’m done. I’m gone.

Tara King:

All right. Thank you. Oh

Kevin Lewis:

Yeah, standing ovation. Thank you. I’m excited. You lot are on it. Way more than I am.

Tara King:

Thank you. Thank you. So yeah, resilience, building a developer, a burnout resistant life and developer relations. I am Tara King. You can find me everywhere on the internet as sparkling robots. I use they them pronouns. I’m here today from Albuquerque, New Mexico in the US and I am currently director of developer relations at PagerDuty. I’m super grateful to Kevin for having me, and it’s been a dream to speak at DevRelCon, so I’m excited and you got this as like a two for one. I’m really grateful to PagerDuty because they wanted to pay for me to come out here and talk about mental health, which is something that’s important to me. I think that the whole company is really sort of dedicated to work-life balance, so I’m just really grateful for that. I don’t think we’ll get into my story a little bit, but I don’t think I’d be able to give this talk if I weren’t working there and able to have some time to recover from previous experiences.

So before I worked at PagerDuty, I worked at Automattic on the .org side. I worked at a company called Pantheon doing DevRel, and then I was very active in the Drupal community and the diversity and inclusion part of that world, all of which I think will lead into some of the story later. When I’m not doing tech, I write speculative fiction and I run a board gaming convention. I guess I’m just like that nerd. So that’s me. I’m assuming you’re here because you’re burned out because you think you might be burned out because you’re running a team that you think is burned out running a community that’s probably full of burned out volunteers or you were looking at the opposing scheduling and I don’t want to think about work anymore. It makes me feel sick, in which case I feel like you might be burned out. So before we jump into the meat of the thing, I would love to take a little breathing break altogether here.

So if you’ll oblige me, let’s all just close our eyes and take three big deep breaths together. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in. Last one, breathe out. Thank you. It helps me as a speaker honestly, it helps me manage the stress, but also we’ll talk a little bit about co-regulation later and stress management techniques, and that’s one of the ones I really like. Before we go too far, I just want to say I’m not a therapist. I have no mental health credits to my name at all. I am not in any way trained for this other than just to share my own experience. So if there’s anything serious going on in your life, I do encourage you to speak to a professional. This is more stress management techniques, some things that are specific to DevRel, but it can get really serious and I just want to be very clear that I’m not competent or credentialed this way.

And I also want to mention that I am talking about some heavy emotional topics, so I don’t really have a particular content warning. I think there’s a picture of food on one slide, but in general, anxiety and depression will come up and if you ever feel like you want to go outside and have a treat or a snack or get a hug or whatever, the whole point of the talk is really making sure you’re putting your own emotional reaction first, whether or not you even understand what it is and to go take care of that. So please feel free. My opinion of you will not be diminished, and I’m sure no one else here will judge you for it either. So please take care of yourselves. My story, the reason that this talk has come to be is that I got a new job, this job that I’m currently in maybe 15 months ago, and I was onboarding doing the normal things.

I lead a team and I would run into a problem at work and I would talk to my partner about it and they’d be like, just go have a conversation with so-and-so. And I would feel this crushing sense of I couldn’t do that very extreme, almost panicked response that I couldn’t do it, that it was impossible, that there was no point to it even if I managed somehow to do this. And so after two months of having this reaction, every time I had a minor issue at work, something finally clicked for me that this isn’t who I’ve been at my best and at my healthiest. So let’s take that seriously and let’s not just think like, oh, it is just Tuesday and I’m tired. This is a chronic thing that’s happening. And I think at that point I thought, well, everybody jokes about being burned out. The whole internet is like, oh, everyone’s burned out. And that might be true, but most people aren’t taking it very seriously because of the sort of joke and the eternal we’re all burned out context. So I started getting really serious about it, doing research into what it even is. Everyone feels bad is that burnout.

Then the last year has been a lot of me working on different strategies using different techniques. The things that contributed to my personal story of burnout were really bad boundaries with a company giving my face my name, my reputation, my position in a beloved community, everything about me to a company that did not treat me well, did not treat that gift well. That was one of ’em. Working deeply inside of an open source community with marginalized people who were being targeted by harassment regularly and often, even if sometimes it’s happening to me, sometimes it’s just happening to my friends, and that alone I think can be harder to manage than we give it credit for. And then of course there was a pandemic and all of us here, I think if you were working in DevRel before the pandemic, your life changed in really dramatic ways and you still had to keep working through it even though everything was different.

So maybe these resonate with you, maybe they don’t, but I just wanted to give that context of where I come from to this talk. So what is burnout? The World Health Organization describes it not as a medical condition, but as a sort of cluster of factors that cause people to seek, help, seek health services. It’s basically a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. And I feel like it’s really important to zoom in on it’s chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. That was helpful to me to realize that burnout wasn’t like a monster. I couldn’t see it was a very specific thing. So it’s both specific and also kind of like a lot of times we can’t always manage some of the stressors and there’s a lot of it. So the three kind of clusters of symptoms that typically happen with burnout are emotional exhaustion.

This is the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long, for too many people, which I think is very common in DevRel depersonalization, which is the depletion of empathy and caring and compassion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings and negativity, cynicism. And then the last one is decreased sense of accomplishment, the sense of futility that nothing you do can make any difference. A lot of the language you’re using here is from the World Health Organization, but it’s also from a book called Burnout by Emily Naski and Amelia Naski, which I took a lot of information from and I’ve used very heavily, so I highly recommend it. So what happens with all this unmanaged stress is day in you’re having all these experiences. Part of my learning process on this was learning to identify the sources of stress. So I didn’t realize how stressful checking my email was.

I’d be like, oh, I’m just checking my email. And then I’d be like, why am I freaking out? I couldn’t anticipate necessarily what was coming into the inbox. I couldn’t understand what was going to happen from it. So we have our unmanaged daily stress. This is a physiological reaction. I’m not going to go too far down how your brain works, but basically it’s a lot of stressful, literally chemicals flooding into your body over time. If this continues, this unmanaged stress, you enter a state called learned helplessness. And I feel like we use this phrase in many ways, but the way that it’s used in psychology is basically all mammals will do this, which is if you are given a task, let’s say that you were supposed to swim across the entire Atlantic, you might try for a very long time and you’ll keep swimming and you’ll keep swimming and you’ll keep swimming At a certain point, your brain will think about how long you’ve been swimming, think about what it knows to be the future.

There’s no end in sight and we’ll shut down your attempts. And that’s sort of where you get this feeling of futility and distance from the work. And that’s really the trouble zone because that’s really what leads to burnout is the sense that no matter how hard you try, nothing ever gets better, nothing ever gets fixed, the pain doesn’t stop, and then you sort of enter burnout. So we just learned burnout isn’t a medical condition, so we’re not going to cure it, but how can we manage it? I don’t think it’s important. I actually just really hope that you don’t enter the fire pit at the bottom of the chart because ultimately all burnout is from stress, but not all stress is burnout. And if you can continue to manage your stress, then maybe you don’t have to enter down here. So let’s talk about some derail specific problems. So this is my poor sad avocado. We care too much for too long, about too many people. We’re inherently working usually at scale. There’s one of us to hundreds of them, and typically we’re in the job because we love it. For some reason, that community, that role, something about it really calls to us. And so we really, really care a lot.

We’re the helpers and not the doers. So we don’t always have the power to fix the problems. So we’re kind of always the ones swimming across the Atlantic. Someday we’ll fix the relationship with product and marketing. No, you won’t. It’s not going to happen. So we’re often kind of sounding the alarm bell, but nobody’s listening. We’re public facing, so we have to put on a happy face. We’re going to events, we’re representing the company. We can’t just have our emotional reaction to a situation because eyes are on us and we know that and our employment depends on it. So it’s not like a small thing. It’s a pretty important survival moment. A lot of the actual day-to-day stuff is just high stress travel is high stress, public speaking is high stress. Dealing with community management, all of this can be really, really high stress and it’s core to the job.

Many, maybe all DevRel teams have extremely unclear scope. So even if you’re like, I’m working on this thing, you’re often working on 10 things and people are coming to you with more things. So there’s just never a real clear sense of the 10 things I’m going to do this week. I’ve made progress on seven. It’s like, of the 10 things I’m going to do this week, I have 300 that I didn’t touch. There’s always this sense that there’s more to be done. And then the last one is just social media. I think we’ve gotten a little better as DevRel about social media, but I’ve certainly talked to people who expect the team to be growing their Twitter followers to be constantly active. And it’s many reasons why social media is unhealthy. So yeah, it’s just a few. I’m sure that y’all have more that you would add to the list.

So the first thing, right, if we have all that stress, the first thing we have to do is kind of like the oxygen mask. Put your oxygen mask on first. You have to manage the day-to-day stress before you can fix any the long-term stuff. You really have to dig in just like, how am I going to get through today? How am I going to get through this week? I’m not going to spend too much here. I feel like there’s a lot of stress management stuff out there. But the two things I really wanted to call out connecting with others, I’ll talk a little bit about co-regulation later as well, but I think this was one that I, because I burned out in DevRel, which is a very social field, I didn’t see how it could help me, but there’s actually a bunch of studies done that if you go to the coffee shop and have no human interaction, you put your order in online and you just grab your coffee and you walk away.

Versus if you have to say, hi, I’d like a latte, here’s my money. The people who have to actually talk to someone are generally happier. If someone on your plane seat sits next to you and asks how you’re doing, generally people are actually happier with these small connections. So that’s one thing that I think was a bit counterintuitive to me was that I feel like I burned out by being around people too much, but I wasn’t getting the type of restorative connection with humans. And then I feel like a lot of this meditate, exercise, rest stuff can be captured by this framework called Everything is awful and I’m not. Okay, questions to ask before giving up. If you’re not familiar, it’s maybe 20 questions. I just put a screenshot here of basic body needs. Are you hydrated? Have you been outside? Have you showered? Have you had a snack?

And I find that usually if I’m like, everything’s bad and I don’t ever want to work again, and I’m just going to lay on the floor here, this checklist, I don’t usually get even that far down because just taking a break to sort of acknowledge my body and acknowledge my situation typically helps. So the first step to dealing with burnout is managing your daily stress. But if you have a leak in your basement, no amount of bailing the water out from your basement is going to solve the problem. You need to fix the leak. This is something that I think is really, really challenging because we get into the role thinking you want to help people, you want to be part of this community. If I do less, no one else is going to pick it up. If I do less, that’s part of my job. It’s a real bind for those of us who I think really love being part of this community. But do less try to find ways that you can say no more often practice. That’s a big one because as you’re judging yourself, you’re actually kind of leaking away your own energy as well. So notice negative.

There are also big ones that you can’t change necessarily. So you might have to change jobs or roles. There’s some big decisions that if you’re really suffering from burnout, it’s worth looking into these big things that are big sources of stress for you. So maybe dere isn’t the right place or maybe a different kind of dere is the right answer. And of course for some of us, for many of us, there are great systemic stressors like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, that there’s no managing that away. I can manage my reaction to it, but I cannot deal with, I can’t stop it. So some of this is just going to be admitting that you can’t win, you can’t win, but what can you do to get to the next day in a healthy and happy way? And then the last one I put down here is draw boundaries, which I think is super hard for us in Dere.

I talked earlier about in a company that I gave everything to, I gave my name and I gave my face because I thought that was the job. So I want to talk about the bubble of love. This is from that book Burnout. And they talk about the bubble of love is the people in your life with whom you can fully be yourself with no stress, no fear, no doubt that they love and support you. These folks might be your partner or your family. They might be, I dunno who they’re for you, I’m not going to judge for you. But what I found when I was doing Dere is that the community, I was very close to the community and I had a lot of people I would call friends in the developer community, but because of our various relationships to various companies, people who I would have very intimate conversations with in some contexts would be very combative in other contexts.

And it became very confusing to know who was in this. I didn’t have a conception of this bubble of love or bubble of trust. And so I didn’t know who was in, who was out. I gave things to some people who should not have had access to my state in that way. And then the other part was I was spending so much time at conferences and with large numbers of people that at the end of the night I would call my partner and be sort of too exhausted to get the benefits of that bubble of love. So I think it’s really helpful to look in dere at our, who really lifts us up and consistently always lifts us up, not sometimes always. And then to really start to draw boundaries. It feels very unnatural. We’re natural community builders. There’s many good things to being connected and I think we have to be connected, but we don’t always do a good job of it.

And then the other piece of this is co-regulation, which is what we did at the beginning where we all breathe together. People talk about emotions being catching, and I think that’s very much true. I mean there’s a lot of studies that show how people’s physical proximity affects us. So also watching out for each other, asking people how they’re doing and sort of checking in physically as well as on whatever social media side of choice. So then the last piece, if you can kind of manage the daily stress, you still have to fix the learned helplessness part of the deal, which I won’t go into any of the kind of grotesque experiments that have been done on animals, but you can unlearn it. So ways that have worked for me and that people suggest are to work on something different. So if you’re really struggling with a certain kind of task, doing something small, really doing anything at all is going to be helpful. Just that feeling of progress is going to start to teach your brain that it’s okay to try that. It’s not dangerous to try.

You want to change the wind conditions. Like I said, we can’t fix a lot of the problems that we’re dealing with, whether they’re internal alignment problems or massive social problems, but we can sort of decide on a new wind condition for ourselves. We can decide what we think we can achieve. And then that’s kind of what I think of as your big bad, figuring out what that is, what it is you want to achieve, and then just being able to take small steps every day. Or if your big bad is, I dunno, ending climate change, taking small steps every day or often can be really helpful. That said, I find that this last one of fight the big problems really didn’t work for me until I had done a lot of the other work and really started to do some of the small steps of getting small wins and managing my stress every day because it’s still kind of big and overwhelming to fight something, even if you’re just doing a little bit.

I don’t have time to talk about cake, but we can talk about it afterwards if anyone wants to talk about cake. Okay, alright, I’ll talk about cake. So when I was putting this talk together, I was having a bad day and I went and got a piece of cake and I was like, well, I’m going to give a talk about burnout and healthy coping strategies, but I’m just eating cake to deal with it. And then I was like, but cake actually really works for me. The cake break works for me. And so I started to think about what were the elements of the cake break. That cake break also sometimes is like cheese break, but I call it cake break. It sounds nicer. That really helps me deal with stress, right? It’s not just like the sugar. The first step is that I have to go get the cake.

The cake can’t be in my house. It means I have to get away from my desk, I have to get out of my house. Which then just immediately will take the scale of the problem, which has undoubtedly become world ending in my eyes and just remind me like, oh, I guess there’s still cake out there. Everyone I can go get the cake so I have to leave my desk. That helps. That’s one thing. And then when I get outside, there’s fresh air, often sunshine where I live trees, I get a lot of just happy feelings from that that may not be your speed. All of this is thank you dependent on you. And then I have to go for a walk to get the cake and that gives me that exercise, helps start processing the stress hormones in my brain. I have to talk to the cashier, which goes back to that sort of small friendly interaction.

They’re always like, wow, how interesting. You’re getting a piece of cake at two in the afternoon? And I’m like, yeah, it’s great. I have a good life. It helps me remember, despite my world ending problem five minutes ago, I have a life where I can go get cake. I also get to help a local bakery, which I love and that makes me feel good about the big picture problems. And then I do try really hard to not just go back to the desk in front of the laptop, but to really sit and use the time that I’m having the cake or the cheese or whatever it is to reflect on what the day has been like, what I’m feeling at the time. Just slow down a little bit and start to feel it. So cake break may not be your thing, but I do think the last year of working on all of these questions has sort of led me to this.

Let’s all make kick break a thing, I guess. I dunno, it’s up to you. The other thing about this is because it’s unmanaged work stress, we kind of need help. It’s not an individual problem. We like to pretend that individuals can fix their own burnout if they would just chill or not be so intense or whatever. So as managers, and I think this is also as community members, as peers, we can start to do better. We can listen for signs of loneliness or hopelessness. This will often not be manifested in that way. Nobody’s going to come to you and say, I feel lonely. They’re going to say, I’m angry, I’m sad, I don’t feel like I’m good enough. My sister manages a team and she’s got a report who was wearing lipstick one day and she said, wow, you look so great. I love your lipstick.

And the person said, I keep it by my desk because when I’m having a hard day I can put it on and it helps me feel better. And now my sister is like, when I see the lipstick, I need to ask some questions. So you’ll learn about your team or your peers over time about what their signals are. Remember that a conference is not a vacation. I feel like I’m constantly reminding my peers as a leader of my DevRel team that yes, so-and-so is in Taipei and they’re working their tails off. It’s not fun times. They’ve flown around the world to give a talk and know we’re not going to put a bunch of meetings on their schedule while they’re there. Proactively check in during heavy travel seasons, it’s so easy for someone who’s just bouncing event to event to not realize how tired they’re or how burned out they’re getting and build in recovery time after events. Whenever I’ve been able to do this, I typically will just mandate that if you’ve traveled on weekends or had a big event, you just take the Monday off. And I defend that to all the other managers who are like, why is your team never here? You will have to do that. People wonder where are they?

Help your team see where they’re succeeding, right? It is a big picture goal and you’re the one who has that perspective over all the work that’s happening. And if you can help them see the small stuff that will help them feel that sense of accomplishment and not feel like they’re swimming across the Atlantic forever and ever. And then yeah, create boundaries around time off and weekends, social media boundaries, slack boundaries. I feel like I’ve had to work really hard with some reports to encourage slash force the boundary of like, no, I really don’t want you on slack on weekends. I really don’t want you doing this. And to not push social media beyond what they’re interested in. And then lastly of course, help your team say no, right? When I’m standing up here saying, oh, manager’s stress by doing less work. It really helps if your manager is on board with that plan. So make sure you’re giving them the leverage they need to say no. And with that, we got time for q and a.

Audience member 1:

Hello, first of all. Thank you. That was a really great talk. Oh, thank you. I guess my question is, as someone who struggles with stress in everyday life, how do you decide when it’s an environmental stress as opposed to your own kind of characteristic stress that is taking on that situation?

Tara King:

Sure, sure, sure. I think for me it’s been a lot about talking to trusted peers. So when I’m having the same stress in different contexts, sometimes that’s a clue that it might be me over emphasizing something or over doing something that isn’t necessary. I have a coach who points out that I always work way too hard and when I say no, but I have to, she’ll ask me, who asked you to? Who will care if you don’t? And so some of it is just having a trusted companion get back to you on it. And then also I think some of it doesn’t matter if you’re stressed, you’re stressed physiologically, it’s all the same thing. And so managing it first, I think the more you manage the stress, the more it becomes clear what the source is. I think so, I dunno if that’s helpful. I hope it’s,

Audience member 2:

Hi Tara. I’m someone who is not in developer relations directly myself. I work a lot with dere people. What can I and other people do when working with dere people to make your lives easier and less stressful?

Tara King:

The first thing that comes to mind is don’t ask them to do things when they’re traveling. But also I think there’s two common frustrations. I won’t say this is all of them. One is that nobody listens to you as dere. And so if you have the power to actually fix a thing, that’s great. And if you don’t, to be clear about it so that it’s not this constant eternal ringing of the alarm and just be a compassionate human being. I think it’s not that complicated. It can be complicated, but we’re not that special. We just need affection sometimes.

Audience member 3:

Hi. Hi. I have a question. It’s rather related on the current economic crisis, a lot of DevRel folks are facing layoffs and we are working our butts off to get a new job. Some of us do not have the ability and the luxury to wait for a great job and kind of reflect on that hard hit in our lives. So we just have to move on and get a new job and then we have to hit the ground running in a new company, which means usually for six months probation, which causes a lot of stress. So what would be you as a leader, I would say, what would be your advice to dev folks facing this kind of situation where they have a very stressful moment, a shocking moment maybe in their lives, then running through a very stressful situation of uncertainty and sometimes being laid off is more work than actual work and then hitting the ground running and what would be your

Tara King:

Yeah, no, it’s a very relevant, very timely question. I think that part of it, especially when you have a four to six month probation, right? A job search is a little different in the sense that it doesn’t have a known end date. There’s a different kind of stress there. But I do think that we talk a lot about work-life balance as all the time it should be like this and I think there’s a utility in for the four to six months of probation just acknowledging that you’re probably not going to do all these other things. That’s where you’re changing the wind conditions where you’re like, okay, for the four to six months of probation, I’m not going to work on my garden or whatever. You need to balance whether these things are your stress relief as well. But kind of allowing that time to be dedicated purely to the job, but then also the stress recovery of the job, which is going to take a lot more than I think most of us want to give to it.

We want to be like, I’ve got a new job and I’m going to go to dinner with my friends and I’m going to live my normal life. I think it’s helpful to when things are really intense, and this applies actually if you have a heavy event season as well, to kind of go deep and just be really focused on your own recovery and letting some of the not as essential things slide as for a job search because those don’t have an end date. I think you really have to, it’s so, it feels so cliche, but it’s really true. When you think about your list of values, you have to look at where are you on that list when you’re looking for anything, you have to figure out where are you on the list of things that you care about. No one’s going to take care of you for you.

No one’s going to give you the break for you. And so even if it lasts nine months or a year, you kind of have to continually fill your own well so that you can continue to have hope, right? Because otherwise you will give up. I’ve seen people give up and just decide, okay, I’m going to go do this job. I like less because I’m tired of searching. So I don’t mean to make it sound just that simple or anything because it’s very hard. But I do think that putting a lot of structure into that and proactively managing your emotions and your stress is probably the best way. You might also end up burned out. I mean unfortunately that’s the reality of this economic situation.

Audience member 3:

I think we are out time, but we have a few minutes. So Tara is great. It, it’s great that your industry has leaders like themselves that have brought empathy and have been on the journey yourself to look after your teams. But what about the advice for other managers, other leaders, maybe they’ve moved into their first leadership role, who’s looking after them? Any quick soundbites on how you would advise them to look after themselves?

Tara King:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, it is still ultimately the same thing. And I think what I always talk about when I’m pressured at work, about like, oh, this is taking too long, is to think about how hard it is to hire a leader, the right leader for the role. If you just immediately burn them out, you’re just going to be back at square one, but the team under them is going to be unhappy because now they’re having this boss turnover situation. So if anything, I think as a leader it’s more important so that people can really see that it matters and really take care. And you just have to learn to take the space for yourself. I think as part of becoming a leader, my experience. Thank you for the question

Audience member 3:

And thank you

Kevin Lewis:

Very much for your talk and the Q&A, another huge round of applause. Thank you.

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