Nov 18, 2016 - James Watts

Practicing stress management skills for software engineers

Software engineering is seen by many people as a pretty cushy job. After all, we spend most of our work time sitting at desks quietly staring at computers, how hard could it be? As professional developers we know that our job can actually be very stressful at times. The new build is late, the production site has gone down, large amounts of revenue and people’s livelihoods (including our own) are on the line, and everyone now turns to us for the answer. Dealing with this pressure from customers and managers while continuing to make good decisions and perform effectively is a skill, and like every other skill we learn in our careers, is something we can improve on.

And just like any other skill, the best way to improve our ability to deal with high pressure situations is to practice dealing with them. However, given that we *probably* don’t want to intentionally blow up a production site just so we can practice dealing with upset customers, how else can we prepare ourselves for the inevitable 2 a.m. crisis pages or broken code that somehow made it to production?

The answer is to find hobbies or activities during our time away from the computer that allow us to place ourselves in stressful situations and practice managing them. My personal favorites are challenging outdoor activities like downhill skiing, backpacking or climbing (nothing creates the motivation to make a decision like the imminent prospect of falling off a cliff), but you don’t need to be an adrenaline junky to get the same effect.

The trick is to find an activity that you both enjoy and is very challenging for you. Everything from trivia groups or table top games (playing chess with a timer is really good) to sports leagues or even volunteer or community work provide chances to test decision making under pressure. Even expanding your existing hobbies to areas that really challenge you (dusting off that difficult strategy game or dense classic novel) can work.

Once you spend some time dealing with these sorts of controlled but stressful situations, you’ll probably find the next time you walk into work and everything is broken that you can more easily take a deep breath, clear your thoughts and attack the problem with focus and ignore your boss glaring towards your desk. Just remember that soon you’ll once again be the hero for fixing everything.