how do I get less emotionally invested in my work?

I’m off today. This was originally published in 2017.

A reader writes:

I’m a programmer who is in my eighth month at my current job. I’m a woman in my late 20s and have never held a job for a full year before–while most of the jobs I’ve had have been internships or temp/contract jobs, I’ve quit one that made me miserable and been laid off from another. Because of all this, I am trying to stay at the current job for at least two years before I seriously look for something else.

It’s not terrible. In the context of “I am trying to pay my bills in a way that doesn’t destroy my health or make me miserable,” it is better than most jobs. But I often get extremely stressed out and come home exhausted most days, and I think a big part of it is that I get too personally invested in the work.

I get really emotional about the quality of other people’s work. Although I am the youngest and most junior person on my team, the new project we are starting is in a software framework I am more familiar with than most of my coworkers. In addition, people are used to working on an old legacy site without much quality control and basically no testing, so as they move on to working on the new site, they carry a lot of bad habits and make a lot of avoidable mistakes.

In addition, the project is pretty disorganized–our project manager and our team lead both are busy with other projects in addition to this one, and it’s unclear what deadlines mean or what we should prioritize, and when I try to ask about it I don’t get answers that are helpful. Often people are defensive. There have been multiple times I’ve asked what the status of a project is or what testing will be done before we demo something, and the response I get is some variation of “what, you think I’d put this out without testing it?” When I try to bring up resources people could learn about to save time and prevent errors, I am often met with “we don’t have time for that.” People are often sarcastic or snarky or derail serious conversations with jokes.

I find this all very frustrating. I’ve had varying levels of success discussing individual problems with individual people. Sometimes it works–one of the worst offenders in terms of making jokes apologized to me after he crossed a line and I got upset with him–and sometimes it doesn’t, as with the aforementioned defensiveness, or when the more senior people on the team insist that we don’t have time to write documentation or teach people how the technology works so they can write good code. It affects me because I’ll work hard on something and someone else will change it without understanding what they’re doing and suddenly what was carefully organized code is full of errors and bugs. I try hard to communicate well and listen to others but it feels like sometimes I may as well be talking to a brick wall.

And I tend to get emotional. I’ve cried at work, I’ve cried after work, I’ve been too angry to concentrate, I’ve avoided telling anyone about problems because I’m afraid to get shot down, I’ve spent hours ranting to friends and family about it. The emotional attachment is making me less effective in communicating about the problems. I think I’m coming off as neurotic and nitpicky and out of touch. My concerns get dismissed a lot (I think some of this is rudeness or sexism but it would be easier to navigate if I were less invested and better at picking my battles).

If the circumstances were different I’d be looking for other jobs but as it is I would like to build a solid work history and also, I have no guarantee that the next place would be better. I wish I could stop caring so much, that I could just go to work and do my job and come home and stop thinking about it.

For context, I am diagnosed with anxiety and depression but I am handling them to the best of my ability. I take antidepressants, I have a prescription for anxiety meds to take as needed, I exercise most days a week, and I do talk therapy. So while my mental health issues surely contribute to the problem, I am pretty maxed out in terms of what I can do about them, and so I really want to focus on developing a better attitude and coping skills towards work. Do you have any advice for putting a reasonable amount of effort into my work and letting it be “just a job” to me?

Being personally invested in your work is a double-edged sword. On one hand, personal investment in your job makes work more interesting and fulfilling, and generally keeps you productive and showing up when you’d rather stay at home and sleep.

But when you’re more upset that things aren’t going well than the people above you are, and when that frustration is interfering with your quality of life, you’re too invested. It doesn’t make sense to pour more emotional energy into worrying about problems than the people whose job it is to fix them.

And really, it is someone else’s job to worry about these things. As the most junior member of your team, it’s not yours. That doesn’t mean that you should disengage entirely, but it does mean that you should get really clear in your head on what is and isn’t within your control — and what you are and aren’t being paid to worry about.

To be fair, it can be hard to do that when your colleagues’ disorganization directly impacts you. If you can’t get clear answers about deadlines or priorities, that’s legitimately frustrating. But it’s also true that sometimes there’s a certain amount of ambiguity at work, and you’re expected to roll with it. Sometimes the answer really is “there’s no specific deadline for this but it’s a moderately high priority.” Sometimes the answer really is “the priority level depends on information we don’t have yet.”

Or sometimes it’s just disorganization and bad management. But when that’s the case and you’re in a junior position, often the only thing you can do is accept that this is how your office functions and mentally move on.

That’s going to be a helpful approach to take more broadly too. There can be real relief in telling yourself, “This isn’t the way I would do it, but that’s not my call to make. I’m going to focus on my piece of the work and do that really well, and I’m leaving the rest to people here who are being paid to care about that.”

Speaking of which … it sounds like you might be creating some of your own frustrations when you try to help other people do their jobs better, like when you asked what product testing someone was planning, or when you suggested resources people could use to save time and prevent errors. Those were perfectly fine things for you to do, but now that you know that this particular team doesn’t welcome that kind of input, it doesn’t make sense to keep providing it and thus perpetuate a cycle that feels torturous to you. It’s okay to decide, “For whatever reason this team doesn’t want that kind of input, so I’m going to stop offering it.”

For what it’s worth, part of the reaction you’ve received to those things may be that you’re coming across to your more senior colleagues as if you think you know better than them. And maybe you do! The things you’re taking issue with sound like reasonable things to be concerned about. But it’s also true that sometimes it makes sense to make trade-offs in one area of a project in order to put resources or time into another, and sometimes things that look like obvious mistakes to one person are actually smart compromises because of time constraints or higher priorities. That’s not to say that you’re definitely wrong about the things that bother you. You might be perfectly right. But it can be helpful to remember that you don’t have the same vantage point on the work that your colleagues do, and they may genuinely know things that you don’t. Even if that’s not the case, though, when you’re the most junior person and no one else sees it your way, and they already shut you down when you tried to make your case, you’re not in a great position to push your point.

Lest you think that I’m telling you not to speak up about things that truly do matter, a good test is to ask yourself: Will this matter to the company or to me personally in six months? In a year? The vast majority of the time, the answer will be no. On the rare occasions that it’s not, that’s when you press the point.

But truly, the biggest thing here is to get really clear on the reasons why you have this job. You’re not there to solve all your company’s problems. You’re there to do a good job on your small piece of the whole, to do decent work that pays you, and to build a stable work history. That’s it! Maybe there can be something freeing in that — in knowing that you are excused from solving your team’s problems. You can finish up your work day and go home and enjoy not thinking about your job. At some point you’ll probably have a job where that’s not the case. But right now it is, and there’s liberation in embracing that, if you choose to take it.

{ 89 comments… read them below }

  1. Hydrangea*

    Oh, I feel this OP. I try to take the mindset of, “I get paid the same either way,” but it’s hard. When you take pride in doing a good job, it’s hard to see your good work become riddled with other people’s errors. It makes work much less satisfying, which is bad for your mental health in the long run. I have no advice, just sympathy.

  2. ursula*

    This has got to be some of the most evergreen, deeply useful advice ever given on this site. If there was a “Greatest Hits” index for this site, of full explanations of generally useful principles that come up again and again, this would definitely belong there.

    1. Ann Ominous*

      YES! I agree!!! Part of me wants to sign up to curate this. Another part knows I would add this and like three other things to a list and then suddenly it would be three months later and no further work would have been done.

      1. ursula*

        Same. I bet the community could curate this, though maybe organizing that would be a nightmare and I have no idea whether Alison would approve. I’ve always appreciated that Captain Awkward has a “New Here?” section that lists some of the most foundational, frequently-linked or -referred to posts from her back catalogue. Incredibly useful resource.

    2. Somehow_I_Manage*

      I am in awe of Allison’s response. Beautifully tactful, empathetic, and fair.

      The paragraph featuring this gem, “But it can be helpful to remember that you don’t have the same vantage point on the work that your colleagues do, and they may genuinely know things that you don’t,” was a beautiful back and fort both supporting the LW while asking them to consider a bigger picture. *chef’s kiss*

    3. Anonym*

      Truly. It’s a long effort to emotionally disengage from work (at least for me), and it was great to see this today. It’s good life advice, too. What is really within your control, and what’s really your responsibility? Yes it might be great if things were different, but there’s a strong chance it’s just either not solvable, or not solvable by you, so you’re off the hook!

      You’ll be happier AND more effective in improving the world around you if you focus your energy on the things you have the power to address and release yourself from the rest. Not easy, but so important.

    4. dwl*

      Allison does have a “My Favorite Posts” link at the bottom of the sidebar, which isn’t exactly the same as “Greatest Hits”, but isn’t a bad starting point (though doesn’t look like this post made it, haha)

      1. ursula*

        Oh, you’re right! I have never noticed that part of the sidebar – I think my brain read it as an ad or something unrelated to the rest of the content. Thank you for pointing it out.

    5. MurpMaureep*

      Yes to all this! I really wish someone had sat me down and said all of this to me 20+ years ago, because I was the OP! I also wish I had this advice when managing people in similar circumstances with whom I deeply empathized. But now I do and this is getting saved forever.

  3. sam_i_am*

    I hear really similar things on software development related subreddits. It’s frustrating when people aren’t following best practices, but 1) you’re not going to be able to change it as a junior member of a team and 2) it’s simply not your job to fix it. Lack of testing, etc, can make your job more difficult or make new features take more time, but that’s something you’re going to live with at most software/programming jobs, I think.

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      I’m not in software but,
      1. it is great and amazing that the OP can see the impact of lack of documentation and wants to follow best practices even if that leads to frustrations, someday it is going to lead to better things!
      2. it is so much more important that things are documented and best pratices are followed in software development and implementation. If one person leaves, the others have no idea what is in the code! It is a bit like, if the tech who runs the x-ray machine leaves, no one knows how to run the machine and it will work for a while, but eventually it won’t and it is almost impossible to figure it out.

      My son is 31 and has worked his way up a bit and is more in charge. He still finds the same issues of lack of documentation and he finds he has less power to fix this across the culture than he hoped. But he does have some power to change the culture around this and they are turning to him more and more to lead projects because they know he will get it done.

      That leads to a different kind of stress! He is leading things that are not in his area!

      Anyway, my point is, this is a problem in software development that matters a lot and is persistenat and common in the field. Your good habits will lead you to better places down the road.

      And since it is widespread, you do have to develop your own inner skills at letting things go. It took me a long time to follow Alison’s advice about these things; it took time to develop my “get out the popcorn and watch the show” midset. But one day, after repeating her advice like a mantra, it just clicked! I’m much happier now! I have, to my embarassment, cried at work! But not anymore!

      Best to you, OP!

      1. sam_i_am*

        I’m luckily in a position where I have at least *some* power to enforce things like software testing and documentation. But it’s hard! Best practices are simply not always practical, but I have a supervisor who understands that being forward-thinking helps keep things moving in the future.

        > it took time to develop my “get out the popcorn and watch the show” midset

        I can’t have this mindset in a lot of places in my work, since I’m in some way in charge of most of my projects (and therefore the designated fire fighter on the project), but sometimes I get on a project where I can just sit back and watch the show. It was a hard thing to learn, but sometimes it’s just not my responsibility!

        1. Chilipepper Attitude*

          I’d argue that even when it is your responsibility, when you lead the project, you can detach a bit. I see my son doing it. He does a lot of CYA. He says we should do x, are you telling my to do why/not do x? Things like that. He picks his battles very carefully.

          He also does a lot of venting to us; its how he takes care of himself.

  4. ThursdaysGeek*

    With software, sometimes getting it done sooner is more important than getting it done right. It’s also important to realize that what we write might never be used, might be thrown away because something that looks better came along, or it just wasn’t the right thing to do at that time.

    1. sam_i_am*

      And sometimes it would theoretically be better to get it done right, but the technical debt has built up to the point where it’s just not feasible any more.

    2. Lady_Lessa*

      Same thing happens with chemical formulations as well, about developing a nice product that never makes it to the market, even when specifically asked for by a salesman.

      I disagree with Alison about the LW’s questions about the pre-demo testing. When I have changed industries, the tests done before sampling are different, and the targets are different. I see the questions more as trying to understand the process.

      1. Hydrangea*

        Speaking only for myself, seeing my good work get archived bc the project took a different direction is just sort of what happens sometimes, whereas seeing my good work bastardized by my coworkers using poor practices is what makes me wonder why I bother to even do good work.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          So that they’ll at least be exposed to good work, even if they don’t do it themselves? Maybe a slight bit will rub off. Or not.

    3. Gotta get what is needed, not what is wanted*

      This is exactly what I was thinking as a project lead in a different science industry.

      I often have new members join the team and go into crisis mode that their piece isn’t perfect…when really it can’t be – for broad, cross-functional needs that are on time and on budget, everyone is going to have to make concessions.

      Often times that means some components have to get “messed up” in order to make something safer quickly, and that is exactly what my bosses are tasking me to do – determine what tradeoffs need to happen to deliver what is required.

      1. Gotta get what is needed, not what is wanted*

        Also OP, earlier in my career I had a mantra that I would repeat in my head when I was stuck in a mental loop of trying to fix someone else’s work, or putting in additional hours to polish something that my boss had already told me was good to go:

        Perfect is the enemy of the good

        If someone else tells you something is good for your company’s needs, your urge for things to be perfect (or just great) gets in the way from everyone moving forward.

    4. Ellie*

      Its also a fact that most software gets into that ‘too hard to fix, throw it away’ category because of things like poor to no code reviews, lack of testing, and other things that the letter writer explicitly complains about. She is correct to point out these problems, but no-one there will ever thank her for it.

      Its true that the next company may be no better, but you can be picky during interviews, ask what kind of review and testing process they have, what’s their release process like, etc. and only make the move if you’re confident that the new team will be a better fit. People move around a lot in software, three jobs in two years isn’t likely to raise the kind of flags that it would in other fields.

      You can also, for your own mental health, clearly define what is within your purview and what is outside it. For example, if you are the reviewer, you can tell the coder to specify details of the tests that they have run, and if you get nowhere with them, run them yourself and document what you’ve done. If someone else is the reviewer, then its their responsibility, not yours, so I’d stay out of it (unless they’re going to damage equipment or are circumventing safety standards, but in that case, you shouldn’t be taking that on yourself, you should go straight to your leads, and leave it in their hands).

      Also, try to make all your comments impersonal, if you can, even if theirs aren’t. If someone says something like, ‘Are you saying I don’t test my code?’, you can take the emotion out of it by focusing on the work. In six months time, you might have both moved on – anyone fresh coming in is not going to know what tests were run, and they will have to repeat them all over again if its not recorded. Or you can say its important for auditing purposes that its all written down, or that the technical lead won’t sign off on it without some evidence of testing, or that you don’t trust anyone, you know how much programmers hate testing, and how boring it is, or a hundred other things – if you can avoid threatening their ego, it will go a lot easier. Of course its hard if they attack you first, but you need to stay professional, even if they don’t.

      Also, be aware that having to raise bugs to fix issues later on down the line isn’t always that bad. Sometimes you really do need to get something out, and the best you can do is record the problems and push for them to be addressed later. Sometimes that can be the right choice.

  5. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    Alison’s advice is spot on (as ever). I would just add to maybe ask your therapist about some DBT/CBT exercises to help with consciously changing your thinking when it comes to things that you have limited or no control over.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I really like this advice!

      I found it really helpful to zoom in on specific, targeted tactics (as opposed to bigger, more general strategies) in therapy.

      The combo of small tactics is what creates a larger strategy, sometimes.

      Maybe even some exercises or thought patterns to tap into when you find yourself venting at home, etc.?

      1. FallingSlowly*

        Thank you for this link! I’m not who you replied to, but it is looking very helpful to me also!

  6. Ann Ominous*

    I love this advice. I had to implement it myself a few years back when a ToxicTerribleOldBoss (who finally got pushed out after a lengthy investigation) would do things that made my life so much more difficult, frustrated our customers, and demoralized my team (and me).

    It was so hard to mentally turn over the reins to the terrible boss and let him be responsible for his own mess, because I cared so much about the mission we had, and I was really good at it.

    But I had to do it for self preservation reasons. In my head I just let him accept all the consequences of frustrated people. If he wanted to make something worse, and rejected my diplomatic feedback, then the product would just be worse and that was that. I had limited control and I accepted that. Giving myself permission to only control what I could control, and to ALLOW him to make a shitshow of the rest, was super freeing.

    And what control I did have, I exerted. I buffered my team as much as possible, stayed a calm presence to them, didn’t implement some of the more ridiculous things I knew he’d forget about, and referred complaints to him. And I also filed a formal complaint with our leadership because someone new was crying in my office every other day and my informal complaints went nowhere.

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      I think this is a really helpful example about what to do when you are responsible for the project and have to take a step back.

    2. Lils*

      “Giving myself permission to only control what I could control, and to ALLOW him to make a shitshow of the rest, was super freeing.”

      I love this. I’m making a note to re-read this sentence each day. Thank you.

  7. Cat Tree*

    Wow, I could have written this letter except I’m in a different industry. I was staying at a mediocre job to make my work history look more stable after two prior short stints. I wish I had this kind of advice back then. I was even seeing a therapist at the time, mostly unrelated to work but the topic certainly came up. She kind of said the same thing, that I shouldn’t care more than management did. But I worked at a supplier to the medical device industry and I worried about patient safety.

    I ended up getting laid off 2 years in when the plant shut down. I then had one more short stint elsewhere then finally ended up at a company with a much better culture where I’ve been for 8 years (in various positions). So I guess my advice is to hang in there and keep looking because you could find the right place eventually.

  8. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

    This is the type of letter where I would *love* to hear an update from the letter writer. I wonder how they would look back on that time? Do they still think that they were correct in their suggestions? Or looking back, did they bring the wrong approach to making suggestions? Were they able to take a step back emotionally from work? I think it would be so interesting to hear their perspective now that five years has passed.

    1. Ann Ominous*

      That gives me an idea for journaling – what if I set a reminder to go back to this particular bookmarked page in a year and see how my perspective/situation has changed (or not).

    2. OP anon*

      Hello, this is me :) I don’t know if anyone will see this since it’s been a day since it was posted. Basically: Alison was right and I was overly invested. I was that way about a lot of things at that time in my life. I had a lot of life skills to learn in my 20s and chilling out about things that either don’t matter much, or that I don’t have influence over, was a big one.

      I did end up getting fired from that job and the attitude in this letter was part of why.

      I’m now in a period of a lot of change in my life and one thing I’m struggling with is the cringe I feel looking back on my old behavior. I don’t know that I can summarize what happened since then but I had a health issue destroy my ability to work for a while and had to change how I approached basically everything. I was super hard on myself (probably fed into wanting to do “good work,” felt I needed to be perfect and prove myself). I grew up with super anxious parents who taught me to be super anxious and perfectionist as well, and unlearning that has been the struggle of the last few years.

      One thing that I do think is relevant to others is that a lot of the “women in tech” and social justice Twitter discourse around tech led me astray here. I really saw everything through the lens of “I’m struggling to get along with my coworkers because I’m the only woman” and just had no framework at all to see how my own behavior was contributing. It’s not that none of that stuff is responding to anything real—it’s that it encourages one-size-fits all thinking and doesn’t account for different situations well.

      I really regret a lot of how I behaved and saw the world in my 20s, and the attitude towards work was just the tip of a big, neurotic, distorted-thinking iceberg.

      1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

        I think it’s great you can see that, even though I’m sure it was a painful experience. It sounds like you are a very thoughtful person.

  9. Ellis Bell*

    I think the snarkiness/rudeness/sexism is the key takeaway here. It’s pretty hard to be generally happy in that sort of atmosphere when you feel besieged by jerks. I think OP should take several steps back, see if their interactions with others improve at all when they withdraw some of their level of investment; if they don’t I’d seriously reconsider staying all that long unless OP is confident about disengaging.

    1. The OTHER other*

      Well, it’s entirely possible, but (and I’m trying to be kind to the OP here) the OP sounds high-maintenance, and coworkers may a)not have time for all these feelings, questions, and proposed ideas, and b)may be right to be skeptical that someone with so little experience has the solutions to make this all run better. OP does not yet have a year of tenure at not just this job, but any job.

      Mark Twain once said something to the effect that when he left home, he was convinced his father was the stupidest and most stubborn man alive. When he returned years later, he was amazed at how much wiser his father had become in such a short time.

      OP needs to focus on what their manager wants them to focus on, and doing THAT well, and let most if not all of this other stuff go. Maybe these processes etc OP suggest are brilliant, but in general employees don’t set their own goals or judge their own performance, their managers do.

      1. oranges*

        Having been at my company for 18 years, I’m equal parts:

        A.) Able to spot inefficiencies and opportunities to improve processes.
        B.) Acutely aware that those inefficiencies will not change, nor will those processes be improved. (At least not by my division.)

        I get pretty eyerolly when new employees come into our group and start proposing sweeping changes or thinking they can influence an embedded process for the whole company. I hate “that’s just the way it’s always been done” as much as the next person, but we’ve been hired to do X. We have control over X. Please spend your time focusing on doing X within the existing confines because you aren’t changing Y or Z today.

  10. FisherCat*

    I just really empathize with LW on this one. My org’s work is full of unforced errors that give me an eye twitch and when raising the fact that we are actively not supported from above my supervisor said “who cares, we get paid the same anyway”. He’s right but man that made me feel worse, not better.

    I’d love to tell LW I’ve found a balm for it. I haven’t. I just try to care less. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t, either way I still feel guilty all the time that I can’t sort it all myself.

    1. Hydrangea*

      my supervisor said “who cares, we get paid the same anyway”. He’s right but man that made me feel worse, not better.

      I know, right?

  11. ecnaseener*

    I have had decent success training myself to stop thinking about work outside of work hours. Whenever I catch myself at it, I firmly remind myself that work owns my brain for 40 hours a week, NOT 24/7, and I find a distraction (like a podcast or whatever). I almost never ruminate on work problems anymore, and I think I’m having fewer work-stress dreams too. Therapists probably have a variety of tricks for this, I’ve heard of stuff like visualizing a stop sign.

    In the same vein, Captain Awkward has some good posts about setting ground rules with people about how long you’re allowed to vent about work at a time. Hours at a time is NOT a good idea, ask your friends to cut you off!

  12. kanzeon88*

    This is so relatable, I’ve struggled with this so much at work. I’ve been somewhat successfully at emotionally detaching myself from other people’s decisions. But there’s usually not a clear line between “this has a significant negative impact on me that I should try to avoid” and “this is someone else’s problem”. When you try to step back, it can mean more work for you under unrealistic deadlines, bad performance reviews, negative impacts on your relationships with coworkers (thinking they can’t rely on you, for example), etc etc. It’s so hard to stop trying to prevent that (or stop worrying about it).

  13. bamcheeks*

    One way to survive stuff like this is to reframe it in terms of what you’re learning about about yourself and the kind of work environment you like, and what you’ll do differently when you’re in a senior position and have the power to make change. LW, if your takeaway from two years in this job, “I prefer a more structured work environment with a very clear quality and testing process”, that’s a really useful thing to know! You can go out looking for exactly that in two years. And maybe in five or ten years, that’ll be your USP and how you market yourself when you’re ready to lead projects or set up your team.

    1. TootsNYC*


      I tell my not-doing-well-in-college kids that no experience is ever wasted.

      It might not return the results you intended, but you are always learning something. In this case, learn what NOT to do, learn how to identify what’s missing, learn how and why and when to fill gaps by watching what happens when they’re not filled, and learn how you work best, etc.

    2. Anonym*

      Yeah, this is really valuable. I’ve pulled together a pretty strong “what not to do” list over the years, and while much of it came from frustrating situations, I’ve been able to apply the realizations and be a better colleague / worker / person in general.

      1. Properlike*

        Yes. And one of those things is, “I have the tendency to want to solve everything.” Then I list all the places that did not work, how frustrated I was, and how I felt when I stopped doing that for that place.

        Like any new habit, the more you’re able to disengage taking things personally (start small) and see how much better you feel, the more you’ll be able to “nope!” responsibly and strategically. Know that occasionally you might backslide into overcaring, but it’s temporary. Good luck!

  14. Snoozing not schmoozing*

    One thing that might help the LW is to consider that what YOU are sure is the only right way to do things might not be what other people have found to be the only right way to do things. It’s slightly possible that everyone you work with is incompetent and stubborn and won’t listen. But it’s much more likely that they know what works for them and for the particular place you work, and that being told they’re all wrong by the new and younger person isn’t going to go over well. It kind of sounds like you’re too invested in being right. I have worked with people who think they are the only ones who know how to do something, and it is not pleasant.

    1. learnedthehardway*

      To add to this, it sounds like the OP isn’t seeing the “big picture”. Sure, from their perspective, superior quality is everything. From the business’ perspective, it may be that “okay” quality is just fine, or that the solution being developed is temporary, or it may just not be cost-effective to get the code to 100%.

      1. TechWorker*

        Whilst you may be right, I have also seen cases within my own org where people invest vast amounts of time and effort into *getting around* a quality gate (Eg code coverage). Like, the time is still being spent, just on totally ridiculous things (I couldn’t tell you why, it’s nonsensical to me). It’s possible OP isn’t seeing the bigger picture but actually a lot of software companies absolutely do have pockets of terrible code without the experience or high level direction to improve (or non technical management who treat all programmers as basically monkeys who code and don’t see the benefits of investing in quality). That’s not a problem OP can solve, but from what’s written here I don’t get the impression they are super naive and ‘definitely in the wrong’. (Which lots of letters that summarise to ‘my coworkers don’t care about the same things as me’ I would do. Perhaps it’s mostly because I am in middle/senior management in software and I think she’s right :p)

      2. Gotta get what is needed, not what is wanted*

        Said so much more succinctly than I tried to elsewhere!

    2. Spearmint*

      I agree with this, and part of seeing the big picture is often seeing that it makes sense to do B+ work than work really hard to do A+ work, for many reasons. Sometimes there are other priorities. Sometimes doing a better job would be a ton of work for relatively little gain for the business. And yes, sometimes it simply is they’re not paying employees enough for it to be worth their while to put in 100% when 75% will be enough.

  15. TechWorker*

    I have a lot of sympathy with the letter writer here. There is also a VAST variety of approaches to software, which can depend a lot on the usecase, but also on the company culture. I truly believe that writing documentation and tests will save you time long term, but many companies are not focussed on the long term. Others are, but operate in fire fighting mode and don’t step back to fix their technical debt (can you fix all of it – probably not – should you give up and just keep adding to it – probably not).

    I agree with the overall thrust of the advice to focus on what you can change, as a junior developer you are unlikely to greatly affect company culture. But there are so many companies that DO value testing and documentation (& you can/should ask them about their processes and workflows in the interview) that I really hope in the last 5 years the LW has found somewhere that suits their working style and values their input.

    (I know that yes it is possible the LW is just missing context as to why their coworkers don’t do these things. It is also absolutely possible their team is a mixture of ‘don’t know better’ and ‘don’t care’… team culture makes a huge difference)

    1. Daughter of Ada and Grace*

      “…you can/should ask them about their processes and workflows in the interview…”

      I just wanted to pull this out, because in software development, these are reasonable things to ask about in an interview. And from the interviewer’s side of the Zoom call, if you know enough to ask these things, you’re going to impress me because you’ve considered not just what you need to do, but how you are going to do it. (And if the company can’t or won’t answer this sort of question, well, that’s information in and of itself.)

      Some sample questions, for anyone wondering:
      – How do you handle code reviews?
      – What is your usual testing process? (Follow up questions to this could include things like unit tests, or how the devs work with QA.)
      – What is your approach to documenting your code?
      – How do you deal with technical debt?
      – How do you balance fixing bugs versus adding new features? Who makes the decision on this?

  16. Rarely comment*

    I’ve worked on a software development team as a QA Engineer and while they are never perfect this one sound particularly dysfunctional! If the process is poorly defined the company is wasting time and money. One of my favorite things about that job was the collaborative nature of it. I think the OP will continue to be frustrated as long as they stay with that company. I would look at other companies and ask about how team collaboration works during interviews.

    1. Whattheactualeffisright*

      I am with you. i think the OP should start putting their resume out there and see if they can find a better team to be on. the possible explanations for why things may be the way they are make sense but the letter reads like the management there is bad and the environment is toxic and those are good reasons to cut your stay short. Seems like the solution would be to quiet quit until they can get out of there.

  17. All Het Up About It*

    Tied in with this, sometimes I think “Why?” as in “Why do I care about this?”

    If the why is because this is directly effecting my job/work – i.e. it’s taking me six hours to do something that should take me two… Then yeah, let’s address it.

    If the why is “Because Brian’s work is going to be so much better if he just listens to me!” Then unless I am Brian’s manager… time to pull and Elsa and let it go my friend! This can also be used to think about bigger picture things. Could you want something changed because your 20 person team would get more recognition from the company? Sure. But does that recognition actually mean anything in the long term… probably not. Now if it comes with t10% bonus, then yeah, let’s try and get more members of your team on board.

    Thinking about what’s the benefit and what’s the DIRECT benefit to you personally might sound selfish, but it can be useful to really consider what needs your attention and you can label as “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

    1. oranges*

      I say, “not my circus, not my monkeys” SEVERAL times a day.

      If it’s something egregious, I’ll tell my coworker/friend, “let the record show, I think this is a bad a idea!”

      And when I’m inevitably right, I get to feel very smug. That’s the best part.

  18. Hiring Mgr*

    OP mentions that they’re taking meds for anxiety and depression. Wonder if they’ve seen their prescriber since they’ve started this job. I know they are looking for something beyond that they can apply specifically to work, but it’s hard to see how they’re not intertwined..

  19. Purple Cat*

    I recently started a new job with a company that has so.many.issues.
    And I knew that, it’s one of the reasons I was excited to take the role, BUT I have to constantly remind myself to stay in my lane and focus on the things that I can and need to influence and ignore all the other issues that pop up. I’m a “fixer” by nature, so it’s hard to step back, but necessary.

  20. Lacey*

    I try to remind myself that I cannot care more than the people who own the business.
    Or my manager. Or the client.

    And it’s a bummer, because I want to do a great job.
    But if everyone above me makes it clear that they’d prefer their project be below average…
    It’s a waste of time and energy to try and do something better.
    It won’t be appreciated and I will just be irate.

    And sometimes I still am angry about it. I’m not entry level anymore. I’ve been doing this 20 years. That doesn’t stop people waving away all my expertise with, “But I love comic sans and primary colors!” But they’re appropriately punished by having the worst accounting logo ever.

    These people didn’t listen and now they have buggy code. That’s on them.

  21. operations wizard*

    Definitely feel this one! There are two things that I find myself repeating to myself constantly. a) I can’t care more about this than the people whose jobs it is to care the most, b) The weight of keeping this project/department/organization running is not on my shoulders (if that’s true, sometimes it is on my shoulders although not really in my current job).

  22. Weird IT Girl*

    I am woman in tech working in software development and have faced similar issues in my 25+ year career. The following things have helped navigate your career.

    1) Is the issue a hill you are willing to die on? Basically evaluating the issue and determining if want to invest my time and energy.
    2) Is there a regulatory requirement? I work in a highly regulated industry. So sometimes the answer is the regulations require this.
    3) Lead by example. When I was a programmer I commented my code, did a lot of testing. etc. I am also a big fan of documentation. This has served me well moving into implementation, validation, and project leader roles. Others will see how smoothly things can run and sometimes leadership will recognize the value and implement new standard procedures.
    4) Start small. You can’t change everything at once. Focus on the things you can resolve. Often big changes are made up of many small adjustments over time.

  23. Awlbiste*

    “It doesn’t make sense to pour more emotional energy into worrying about problems than the people whose job it is to fix them.”

    I need this tattooed on my forehead.

  24. Olivia*

    The one thing that stood out to me as something that the OP might not want to give up on is the part where she’s making code and then other people are messing it up. It seems to me that this is almost certainly not a situation where she might just not be aware of the bigger picture. She’s tasked with making code to do something, she does that, it works, someone else comes and adds their bit, and then…it doesn’t work. It’s not like that other person’s additions are going to change it from code that is good at doing A that OP thinks is important, to code that is good at doing B which is actually more important in the scheme of things. The errors make it so now the program doesn’t execute properly; one of its functions is simply broken. My best friend’s a senior software engineer and they’ve talked about this happening to them. The other person adds stuff that they didn’t know enough to realize would mess up the part of the work that my friend did. And guess who is tasked with fixing it?

    If the OP is tasked with fixing it after someone else messes it up, then I think she definitely has standing to bring it up with a supervisor, but she shouldn’t offer up a bunch of suggestions of how they can do it better–even if she’s right, this is probably coming off poorly. Instead, I would go with the kind of open-ended questions that Alison often suggests in different situations. Talk to their supervisor (their actual supervisor, not the project or team lead) about this thing that has happened a few times, giving examples, and ask if they have suggestions for how they might go about trying to prevent that in the future. If everyone’s always saying they don’t have time for XYZ, then pointing out the time it took, delays that happened, etc., when you had to go back and fix it is key. You’re not trying to solve a thing that’s a nuisance for you, you’re trying to see if there’s a way to make it easier on the team and allow people to get more stuff done or not miss deadlines or whatever. But definitely ask more senior people if they have ideas instead of suggesting how one could do this, that, and the other thing differently. (And this can help undo the impression that may have been forming that you think you know better than other people who have been doing it longer. Which you might, but will turn other people off.)

    However, this only works if OP is the one who has to fix what other people messed up. I’m guessing she is since she’s the one who knew how to do it right in the first place. If she’s not, then it’s not her problem to push for a solution to.

    1. Olivia*

      Okay I totally forgot that this was an old letter by the time I was done reading it. Ah well.

      1. Emily*

        Olivia: I think this is great advice even if the letter is old, because that part stood out to me as well and seems like at least that part of it is truly affecting OP and her job. As someone who has often experienced the “curse of competence” at work and has had to fix other people’s errors because it truly affects my job (and it’s easier for the boss to make me do it rather than make the incompetent person fix their mistake), I do think this piece of it is something OP (or anyone in a similar situation) should raise to their boss, but more in a: “These are the ways this affects my job and how do we handle it?” and not “This affects my job and I think this is how we should handle it” (unless the boss specifically asks for suggestions for solutions).

  25. Joanna*

    I really needed to see this today as well. I’ve raised my concerns, but it’s not my problem to fix. The situation does have a minor impact on my work, but this one really belongs in the hands of the manager.

  26. mkl*

    This is such freeing, such helpful advice. A few other ideas for reframing…

    1) Bad workplaces can be harder to deal with in your first few jobs because part of you is doubting your judgement. Rest easy- this is truly a badly run workplace. You are not imagining it.

    2) See if you can reframe this as a grad school project in assessing workplace inefficiencies- without the fix phase of the project because you won’t have the authority to do that. I’d swear I’ve learned more from badly run workplaces than good ones. In some ways, well run workplaces can be so smooth you don’t notice the framework underneath. Here you’re going to walk away with a crystal clear understanding of why QA and process matters- it will make you much more authoritative and effective when you get your next job at a company that is ready to improve.

    3) Learning to disengage and focus on your own work stream will be a life long skill for someone who tends to be anxious. Think of this as a place to practice. It’s the perfect place because, unlike a lot of companies that reward overachievement, these guys don’t WANT you out of your lane. Awesome! Tell your therapist that you want to work specifically and deeply on practicing boundaries at work. If you don’t have a therapist who focuses on anxiety consider getting one. Use each weekly session as a chance to reframe this week’s aggravation, review your progress from last week and create a plan for next week.

    You’re going to be a fantastic contributor to future workplaces. The very skills you’re wrestling with will make you invaluable at a company that wants to improve. In a way, getting some time at a place like this will let you harden your boundaries and practice your anti-anxiety coping mechanisms. Make the most of it and good luck.

  27. Brian*

    If I could travel 15 years back in time to speak to myself at work, this is the adivce i would give:
    “That’s not to say that you’re definitely wrong about the things that bother you. You might be perfectly right. But it can be helpful to remember that you don’t have the same vantage point on the work that your colleagues do, and they may genuinely know things that you don’t.”

    Such important context, but so easy to dismiss when you haven’t had any experience in an organizational leadership role.

    1. Whattheactualeffisright*

      a good manager would give a young junior person a pass on this kind of thing though

  28. TheOldParalegal*

    I feel this so much! I had these frustrations when I worked as a paralegal. Often I would prepare documents very carefully, correcting mistakes that attorneys had made, only to have them make changes in an older document – which meant that I had to do the corrections all over again. I tried to implement standardized methods for saving documents so that we were working with the correct versions, but was told “we don’t have time for that” or “just fix it” or just silence.

    One day I found myself crying in frustration at my desk over an attorney who had wasted so much of my time that we nearly missed a deadline, and I was unable to complete other work that day, which made the client understandably upset, but I got the brunt of that. I quit a week later and found a legal field where I feel valued and listened to.

    I applaud your commitment to excellence. They don’t deserve you. Good luck!

  29. Ann Nonymous*

    “I’ve spent hours ranting to friends and family about it.” OP, please stop doing this. To yourself and others. It just brings job stress home and increases it, both for yourself and those around you. You’re adding fuel to the fire. Pour water on it and leave work problems at work. I work several jobs and I do not let myself think about the others once I’m on to another. Get some outlets for yourself outside of your job. Join community groups. Volunteer. Be happy.

    1. Dragon*

      OT, but leaving work stress at work can be tough if one WFH, and doesn’t have a separate area to keep work out of one’s home space.

    2. Professor at the University of No*

      Seriously. I have a friend who haaaaaaaates his job so much that he’s about to burn his life down. One thing I appreciate A LOT about this friend is that he does not talk to me about his job hardly at all because he does not want to saddle me with his bitter discontent.

      @ Dragon below, for WFH folks, they don’t have to commute. They can enjoy that benefit, and find a way to get some head-space so as not to spill problems all over friends and family for hours.

  30. Alan*

    So in disclosure, I’m a software team lead for some very critical applications. I have indeed had people working for me who obsessed about documentation or other stuff we simply didn’t have time for. It’s a balancing act, cost/schedule vs risk. But if failure to follow good process is creating errors, that’s not what you’re dealing with here. I’d love to have this woman working for me! I need people who have skills and care obsessively. That said, as a junior member of the team, she simply can’t take more responsibility than everyone else. As much as this pains me to say, she should put in her hours, document problems in e-mails to her team lead and/or supervisor, and then it’s their responsibility to deliver a working product. And BCC your personal account on those e-mails so that in the future, worst case, you’ll have a record that you tried. You’ll feel better about yourself.

  31. Stuckinacrazyjob*

    Nod like some people just cry easily. I’ve cried because I’ve missed breakfast. I’ve cried because I fell in the street and skinned my knees. Better an easy crier than some other worse thing.

  32. TLC*

    Quite frankly, I’m not a huge fan of this answer. Granted, it’s five years past and I hope OP is in a much better position now… but reading this I felt like OP was blaming herself (too emotionally invested) for issues that are highly situational (a dysfunctional workplace).

    I’ve been in the kind of role. I’ve been told that “we don’t have time” for very basic best practices that would make everyone’s life better. It’s maddening. Not only do you feel like you’re Sisyphus everyday trying to make things better, but the alternative (caring less) leads to some really bad work habits.

    I think OP (or anyone in this position) would be better placed in a job that values her talents and has the same values as she does.

  33. Sr Dir of Chaos*

    This advice is absolute gold. GOLD, I SAY!

    I work at a Fortune 50 in a role that requires extraordinary cross-departmental collaboration on difficult projects involving the business, engineering, and IT, with multiple delivery teams sprinkled throughout.

    Success in this role is not doing things well but doing anything _at all_. To do anything at this level means ensuring the thing is worth doing even if it gets done poorly, and knowing what battles to fight and what trade-offs to make, and with whom, to ensure it gets over the finish line.

    Now, I find this kind of work fun but I didn’t start here. I spent years coaching myself out of the latent perfectionism that led to unmet, unrealistic expectations from myself and others. And I went and learned a LOT about business so I could really know and believe that a trade off is sometimes a very good thing that makes more business sense than exact perfection.

    TL;DR. Great advice, every high-achieving latent perfectionist should be told this advice as early as possible.

  34. GG*

    It’s so interesting this was posted today because I am having a major issue with this employee at my own work, so writing in from the manager’s perspective: I agree so much with everything Alison wrote. This employee needs truly excessive time to discuss her emotions/cries at work and it is wearing on management to deal with it. I believe she’s well intentioned but she refuses to drop ideas when we have told her we will not be implementing them (because while they satisfy immediate needs she sees, they don’t make sense in light of our highest objectives, so exactly what what Alison hit upon) and even jumps levels of management to complain about not being heard. I won’t pretend there isn’t some management dysfunction here too– I don’t think our structure does a great job of supporting people– but this is the absolute hardest type of employee I’ve ever had to deal with.

  35. Connie-Lynne*

    OP, FWIW, I had a similar situation but from the other side at a job 8 or so years ago. I was the newly hired Senior Release Engineer (and only releng), and one of our jr developers was continuously breaking the code by merging to master when it didn’t pass my tests.

    He was very offended, because I was new to Ruby whereas he had like two years experience with it. What he didn’t realize was that, while upgrading ruby gems was likely a good idea and a generally good practice, _being the only person releasing with a newer package wasn’t good_. He literally would respond to questions in PRs with “works on my machine” rather than using the test bracket I had specifically developed for him. He also didn’t realize that (a) upgrading to a newer package company-wide wasn’t a good use of the team’s time and (b) while I was new to Ruby, I had 30 years of incident/release/dev/ops/etc/etc/buzzword experience, so I was more aware of larger issues than he might be.

    Eventually I had to speak to his boss *and* HR to get him to stop just plowing through any validation requests and merging, because as Sr Releng, that was in fact part of my job. He was an extreme case, and I’m not saying you’re like he was (he also had sexism issues and a serious case of “I worked for Amazon, I am godlike” going on) but my story might give you some perspective on how this sort of thing goes.

    I’d say, take a step back and figure out whose actual jobs it *is* to care about testing and maintenance (because dang if those aren’t important), and think about how you can discuss your concerns with them. As for the constant editing your code in a way that breaks it and adds bugs, that’s a reasonable thing to talk to your boss or the person who did it 1:1 about — you might phrase it as “hey, can we pair some time so I can learn why you made these changes and see how to adjust the code better in future?”

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