Cate Huston of DuckDuckGo on building a high-aspiring career without burnout

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Cate Huston is the Director, Mobile Engineering at DuckDuckGo. Prior to DuckDuckGo, she was mobile lead at Automattic. Cate admins the New-(ish) Manager Slack and writes regularly for Quartz. You can find her on Twitter at @catehstn and at cate.blog. Currently living in Ireland, she shared with us her experience as a leader dealing with burnout, distributed teams, finding work-life balance, the importance of friendships, and more.

Cate Huston
Cate Huston, Director, Mobile Engineering at DuckDuckGo

ON USEFUL PRACTICES TO STAY WELL: STRUCTURE, FRIENDS, BOUNDARIES AND FUN

A while ago I was like “I have a life debt!” because I was working so much. Now, I have a Trello board, that’s my life-admin board and every aspect of my life has its own list: a financial list, a house list, a travel list, Cate-as-a-person list. I put everything on there and try to keep it somewhat under control. 

Mornings are usually for workouts, or I take myself out for a nice breakfast before work, I like having some time for myself before I have to start caring for everybody else. Before sleep I might curl up with a book and a skincare mask on. 

Exercise helps me a lot, honestly, and trying to make sure that I prioritize my own life which is a thing that I’ve started to do a bit more systematically, starting last year and especially this year.  

Also, having friends who get it, who have similar jobs that are also high-stress/ high-reward, and making sure that I have that community both at work and outside of work. 

I also try to take a week off each quarter, I plan downtime and I tend not to work on the weekend, it’s very important for me to have unstructured time, trying to disconnect. I play non-violent video games like Lego because I can devise a strategy, and it tends to be the right level of distraction: distracting but not stressful and you can complete them 100%. I have a strategy for doing it relatively efficiently,  there’s always this end in sight,  there’s a percentage counter  of where I stand in a video game, and I find this great. 

Video games are helpful because sometimes I designate something like “this is how I’m going to recover from this thing”. 

You need to find things that inspire you. The thing that I find the hardest to do when I try to systematize this downtime is finding a sense of creativity, and reconnecting with that. Like wanting to create something, that’s the hardest thing, so I go to a lot of art galleries and stuff like that. Sometimes I’ll go and I’m not really feeling it and it doesn’t help, but other times I’ll go and I’m like “oh this is really good I want to write about this or I want to do this”. 

ON EXPERIENCING AND AVOIDING BURNOUT

There were two big times when I’ve been burned out. After I left a particular job I felt pretty burned out, in the tech industry in general. I found this framework about the five causes of burnout that are not overwork, so I ended up writing a talk about it, but I ended up kind of using it in personal projects to systematically address those.

And the last time was about a year ago, it was when I did three back-to-back team turnaround projects. There’s a blogpost I wrote called The cost of fixing things and the emotional toll it takes. And that’s been a bit of an ongoing thing ever since. I learned those five causes of burnout that are not overwork a long time ago and whenever I feel burned out I go back to it and I go “what is this hitting for me? Which one of these causes?” But sometimes it is straight overwork, or that sometimes I find work that doesn’t seem to have the leverage that you’d hope it would. A sense of futility about it. 

ON USING BURNOUTINDEX.ORG TO START MEANINGFUL CONVERSATIONS

I found that it was a conversation starter to do the test, compare the burnout scores, and then use it to find a frame for the conversation, and particularly which of the indices people were struggling with.

I remember with friends, people were showing their scores, and some of them more privately. It was kind of like a wake-up moment for me because one of my friends said that she was surprised that my score wasn’t higher, and that there were other people with higher scores that she was worried less about. She thought that I had been so ground down, but I wasn’t worked up about things anymore. And then I realized for me there were things that the score captured, but there were things that it didn’t capture.  My friend said that I kind of reached this point of “you know what? it’s okay I don’t think  I deserve anything better than this” or I didn’t expect any better,  so I was kind of resigned to things,  and she said that other people were still feisty, so that’s why she was less concerned about them.

Nobody’s winning here, it’s not like people should be proud of it “my burnout score is higher than yours“. My friend Camille tweetedmy burnout was super low“, so it’s possible to have a job in this industry that doesn’t burn you out.

ON THE CHANCES OF HAVING A HIGH-ASPIRING CAREER WITHOUT BURNOUT

Yes it’s possible, but I think it’s complicated. There’s this Harvard Business Review article about how much companies thrive on insecure overachievers, and there are a lot of insecure overachievers in tech, and when someone is secure and confident, especially women, it’s shocking. I just think that there’s this idea in tech that we’re too special, we’re too unique, and I don’t believe that it’s true. But I think that special-snowflake-mentality does lead to reinventing things and not investing in things that normal companies have, and then we wonder why things aren’t going well.

ON TEAM MANAGEMENT DURING PANDEMIC

Before we logged off today we were talking about how people were doing. Since it’s an international team, nobody knew what anyone else was experiencing at the beginning, so we talked about how they should ask rather than assume. Not everybody wanted to talk about it and that’s fine, and we talked about just being kind to each other and giving people a little bit of space with it. But I think it really depends on the team, there are decisions that go beyond,  that are made on a company level  and not at a team level. 

Other companies have set down their series of expectations and try to track it down more closely so they could measure the business impact of it, which I think it’s good in some ways but in other ways it’s harder for people to be quantifiable on things because two things happen: one is, people need to for example figure out child care and it’s a very concrete thing then the child needs to be watched out at all times, and they need a certain amount of hours in the day and how are they going to figure it out. 

There are less concrete things like not feeling productive or feeling stressed about things, and then there’s another aspect of I guess logistical things, there have been a lot of things that used to be quick and easy, or flexible, that have become more time consuming and rigid. I don’t know how you quantify the stress and emotional toll there.

ON WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS MORE RIGHT NOW

Kindness,  because a lot of niceness is passive and it’s great but being actively kind is like “I really like that for these reasons and I thought that maybe this could help or maybe that you could think of it this way or I could be better in that way“. There’s a lot of hate and I don’t understand why some people have the need to tear someone down.  If people were kinder to each other it would be helpful.

I just try to be kind to myself.  I was feeling kind of low earlier this year because my birthday was coming up soon and I had planned to go on a vacation and it got cancelled because of lockdown. I told myself I would feel better if I was doing something nice for other people, so I showed up at a couple of friend’s houses with a bag full of things from Marks and Spencers and flowers.  I thought “I’m just going to be nice, I’m going to put out in the world what I want right now“. That worked well enough that I started being more systematic with it, it was one of the things that helped me a lot during lockdown.

ON WHAT MAKES HER FEEL PROUD

I wrote this algorithm that it turned into a book chapter, and then I made an iOS app although I didn’t release past beta in the Android app, and that was probably a favorite thing. It was something I used in my talk about burnout and because it had to do with color, I called my burnout talk “Some things I learned  about color“. It was an image-processing app, it was this one really deep piece of work, and I was able to create so much from it. That’s probably my favorite thing on a personal level.

On a professional level, when I took over the mobile team in my previous job: it was this disconnected non-team and it was a mess, I was the first woman on the team, and there were  24 men. Now it’s a 60-person plus organization, it’s run by another woman, there are like 25% women on the team now, multiple women in leadership positions. It’s a much better team to be a part of, they deliver really well, and it’s a really good work environment.  

ON WHO INSPIRE HER THE MOST

My biggest work influence comes from some of my friends. I just ask them anything I want at any time, but if I had to pick someone I would pick Camille Fournier and Eli Budelli.

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