Why I left my software engineering career to prioritize my health

My body, rather than my mind, made me quit working in the tech industry, and it pisses me off.

I just can’t work with screens anymore, because it causes eye pain and major headaches. It could be a combination of repetitive stress injury (RSI) or burnout, or an inconclusive medical issue – I’m not really sure. My pain reminds me of a memory:

Early in my repetitive strain injury journey (ulnar nerve pain/carpal tunnel), I met a hairdresser who had developed carpal tunnel syndrome (probably RSI, IMO). I asked him, “What did you do about it?”

And he said, “Well, I’m not a hairdresser anymore.”

It was terrifying to me at the time. I had just started my career working in technology and I wasn’t ready to stop. During this time, and for many years, I found ways to rest while working so that I could pursue this career.

It is therefore to share that I have already had these points with a computer injury. I thought about using accessibility tools to learn how to program without a view. But this time I chose not to and chose the path of rest and change instead.

What happened

Earlier this year, I decided I had to quit my second most recent engineering job. It was time (after about two years) to see where I would go next in my role in this company, and this process made me realize that I didn’t want to continue working there. So I did a bunch of thinking, looking what i want in my next tech joband I also started interviewing and studying.

In the story I tell myself how the problem and the pain developed, I was spending many more hours on the computer I was already spending so much time on, and this was further exacerbated by the pandemic where a much of life had moved online.

I’d like to clarify this part of “life online”: I don’t know if other people are talking about how there are many different experiences of the pandemic. For me, living in a big American city and working from home meant not seeing my friends inside. So we had conferences, events, performances, baby showers, all online. I say this to emphasize how much screen time I’ve spent, and if you’re reading this, I encourage you to think about how much of your life is online.

I signed an offer for a new job at the end of March and around that time I started having headaches. It was also two weeks after getting the COVID vaccine, so that could be it, I thought. I didn’t worry too much about it and I also worried way too much because I didn’t want to report any symptoms that might mean people wouldn’t get this vaccine, which was my only ticket out of my house. Anxiety can lead to paranoia.

At the new job, I tried to work through the pain, but it was so, so bad. I wonder now if it was just really shitty timing, that if I had had those crushing headaches while still at my last job, I would have handled them differently.

Consider burnout

I really don’t know the cause of what happened, and burnout can also lead to physical symptoms, but I think eye strain from screens played a big part. I recently went back to the eye doctor after being fired in the spring (they said the state of my vision couldn’t explain how bad the pain was) and found that my prescription needed to be corrected after all.

I spoke about my headaches at my new job towards the end of May and spent the month of June “taking the time I needed”, following the instructions of my superiors and the advice from a therapist.

Towards the end of June, work began to ask, “You seem to be taking a lot of time off. Are you OK?” Which no, I wasn’t. After a few days of work and some time to think about it, I decided to help ship what I was working on, then I quit.

Making the decision to quit my job has dramatically reduced my stress levels, and visits to a chiropractor have helped eliminate tension headaches. Today (more than two months after the technical work) my daily pain is quite low and I hope it could go away.

Exit Technology

I don’t think I’ll ever go back to software engineering, but never say never, as they say. I love getting paid (very well) to solve puzzles with computers. How many jobs consistently pay well for doing things you can’t do? (“We need X.” “OK, I’ll figure out how to build it.”)

But I don’t know if IT makes the world a better place, or even neutral. These days, the planet is in a dire state. Working with people who are still doing the Silicon Valley “writing software” dance while trying to survive triple-digit heat waves is a level of cognitive dissonance I can’t stand anymore.

I also can’t handle the performative behaviors of companies with the “We care about you!!” But in fact, it’s a job, you take too much free time”, that’s bullshit. If you have unlimited PTO, test its limits, because I promise you they are there.

For performative companies or companies that think they are not performative: you might feel like you are afraid to say the right thing. Or, I guess, you know what to say, so that’s what you broadcast. But by saying the “right” things unintentionally, you compromise your integrity. People will notice it, and they’ll leave, or hurt their own integrity by ignoring it – and that’s a hard wound to heal.

Do your employees know what to do if they have a serious problem that needs to be fixed? Do your employees even know who their “HR partner” is? (I didn’t, at one company, until I quit.)

If your employees quit, don’t say, “Wow, a lot of people are quitting. “How are people doing? Do you need to slow down? Make sure you keep what you promised? Apologize for missed notes and make better commitments?

And if you’re thinking “We can’t slow down!” “Well, sometimes, at least in my case, you don’t really have a choice.


Gordon K. Morehouse