About 7 years ago, I moved back to Atlanta. The cloud thing was just getting started and I decided to start a local cloud meetup group. One of the earlier attendees was a gentleman named Walter. Walter was one of the more passionate participants in the early days of the meetup. It turns out that Walter was a hardworking independent consultant that had worked in the Atlanta area for some time. He was trying to build a consulting company with an interesting idea where he would recruit graduates from rural universities that had strong CS departments. One of the universities he was working with was Valdosta State University (VSU). Walter had invited me to give a talk about Cloud Computing to the faculty and graduating seniors at VSU. Walter volunteered to pick me up in downtown Atlanta and drive us to Valdosta. The total driving time from Atlanta to Valdosta and back was around six hours. On the way there he gave me the gory details of his business plan. Valdosta was the first of about 4 cities he and his business partner had identified for his new consulting business opportunity. During the ride down to VSU, I asked him a lot of tough questions, as one does. He had strong answers and it was clear he had a great idea that he was extremely passionate about it.
On the way back we drifted the conversations into things like Roman history, family and just life in general. It was one of those rare conversations you have with a person were you feel like you could or should have been friends with this person all your life. After the trip, a few months went by and I hadn’t heard from Walter. Then out of the blue on a family road trip to Disney, in fact not far from Valdosta, I received this strange message in a voice mail. It said “Please call me back. It’s about Walter.” I called the number and it was Walter’s business partner. He asked me if my name was John Willis and I confirmed. He said my name was on Walter’s cell phone and that he had recently passed. I told him how sorry I was, then he proceeded to tell me that Walter had committed suicide. This was the first person I had ever known that had committed suicide. At the time I was around 49 years old, and by the time you are 49, you have seen a lot of death. Both my parents had died, a few very close friends and a ton of aunts and uncles had died as well. I’m not going to tell you that the death of a loved one is not hard; however, I can tell you that at some point in your life, unfortunately, you get kind of use to it. However, even though I barely knew Walter, this really, really bothered me. I’ve lost loved ones from heart attacks to drug overdoses and car wrecks, but the idea that someone could seem so full of life and then take that life by their own choice … well it still bothers me to this day, actually as much or more than the lose of life long friends. When someone involuntarily (takes their own life) passes, you typically say things like “I wish there was something I could have done.” However, in almost all cases, the rational mind tells yourself that you know there was nothing you really could have done. In the case of a voluntary death, like Walter’s, you wind up playing the “what-if” game over and over again. However, even here it takes a higher order of rational to convince yourself that the answer is … “There is nothing I could have done.” You still wish that you could have just received one phone call from that person so you could have literally helped talk that person off the ledge. Years later my “what-if’s” for Walter have wained off, but I do try and remember to say a prayer for Walter whenever I can.
Two years ago another friend of mine gave a presentation at the Devopsdays Tel Aviv event called “How not to do Devops. Confessions of a Thought Leader.” The speaker was Stephen Nelson Smith (@lordcope). Stephen is one of the early pioneers of the Devops movement and I was really looking forward to this presentation as he always gives a great show. This time, about 8 minutes into his presentation, Stephen admitted that his previous year had been so stressful from industry burnout, that he seriously contemplated suicide. Everyone in the room was shocked. Here is a very successful consultant and industry leader saying to the audience that he almost called it quits due to burnout. It was an incredibly moving presentation. In our industry a lot of young IT professionals use the term “burnout” as a badge of honor. I often hear things things like “I put in a few 100 hour weeks over the past month” while others respond in kind with things like “I know, you’re a bad ass.” After the presentation I hugged him and told him in very strict words, thinking about Walter, “Please, my friend, if you ever get close to thinking like that, you HAVE TO CALL ME…NO EXCEPTIONS.” I talk to Stephen on chat quite often and I think he has his life well under control. He has a beautiful and lovely wife and although I have never met his kids, I am sure they are wonderful.
Stephen’s catharsis made me think about Walter again. I wondered if Walter had those same industry burnout feelings. I also, for the first time, started thinking about the term burnout as something other than bravado and bragging rights. I started thinking this term burnout might be used more as a warning sign or maybe a way to be better at the “what-if’s” game. Stephen, in his presentation, described a Japanese term called Karoshi – literally as “death from overwork.” I have seen this hundreds of times in our industry and I also have come close enough to understand the brink of Karoshi myself. Fortunately, my wife being my rock…she never let’s me even come close to becoming lethal, and in most cases walks me through the tight rope back to sanity. Since Stephen seemed fine over the years, I kind of forgot about his presentation; however, never forgetting a little place in my memory for ongoing prayers for Walter. All and all, I was not on the lookout for any other friends, even though I knew of this thing Stephen and the Japanese call “Karoshi” loomed large in our industry. In the 1980s there was such a concern about Karoshi in Japan that the Japanese Ministry of Labour began to publish statistics on it. While most of the discussion around Karoshi deals with older workers dying from heart attaches and strokes, the Japanse have also identified “Karōjisatsu” as someone who commits suicide due to this kind of mental stress.
This takes me to last weekend at SCALE13x. SCALE is a one of the largest regional US based Linux conferences and it is held in early February every year in LA. This was my sixth year at this event. In fact a little bit of trivia, my first event was after I had only been at Opscode (Chef) for only about 3 weeks. I gave my first Chef presentation at SCALE then, and I am pretty sure the first Chef presentation ever at SCALE. Last Friday morning, I was having breakfast at the Marriott LAX restaurant and I ran into another good friend of mine, Chris Webber (@cwebber). We were catching up all things Devops and Chef, and he asked me if I had heard that Carlo Flores had committed suicide. I told him that the name sounded familiar, but I wasn’t sure who he was. At 55, faces and names don’t seem to work as well as they use to; however, I’m not sure they ever worked that well for me. I told him that sounded horrible but because I didn’t “think” I knew him, I wasn’t that moved. I just went into my jaded thoughts regarding death. In all honestly, I forgot completely about it by the time the opening session started.
During the opening session of “SCALE13x Devops Day” Lars Lehtonen (@alrs) gave a tribute to Carlo Flores, and then it hit me….my heart dropped. I felt a terrible sinking feeling. Did I actually know Carlo Flores? Oh, don’t let it be that young man that I have been talking to the past three years here at SCALE. Not that young man who has always been so awesome to talk to. I realized that Carlo might be that young man who in fact the previous year was asking for a bunch of advice about doing a startup. I remember specifically telling him if he does a startup to please call me because I have a lot of tips and I like helping people I like. And I really did like this young man. He was technically awesome, personally friendly and unbelievably respectful to me. I scrambled to look for his picture on LinkedIn; however he didn’t have a picture on his LinkedIn profile. With my heart racing I then did an image search with his name with Devops and SCALE. I kept saying to myself “Please God, don’t let it be the same young man.” Before I even rendered his picture, there were tears in my eyes, thinking that he would have been in the room that morning if it wasn’t him. Then his picture rendered and it was confirmed … it was the young man that had become one of many SCALE friends. I literally started crying in the back of the room. I had to step out to call my wife. This was the second time I had known someone who had done this, and it was way worse this time. I kept thinking “Oh my God, I wish there was a way he could have called me.” I literally would have flown out to LA to sit with him for a week or whatever it took. I know this sounds silly, but that’s the way I felt and it’s the way I still feel now. I am not saying that Carlo and I were great friends but I really liked this kid. He had made a strong impression on me. Even now as I am writing this story, I wish there was some way to turn back the clock. I know that suicide is a very complicated disease and it’s not as simple as all that, but damn…I wish something…
Later I took a look at Carlo’s twitter stream, and to me it was pretty clear Karōjisatsu had reared it’s ugly head in the case of my friend.
The International Labour Organization has listed (from Wikipedia) some causes of overwork or occupational stress that could lead to Karoshi and Karōjisatsu:
- All-night, late-night or holiday work, both long and excessive hours. During the long-term economic recession after the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1980s and 1990s, many companies reduced the number of employees. The total amount of work, however, did not decrease, forcing each employee to work harder.
- Stress accumulated due to frustration at not being able to achieve the goals set by the company. Even in economic recession, companies tended to demand excessive sales efforts from their employees and require them to achieve better results. This increased the psychological burden placed on the employees at work.
- Forced resignation, dismissal, and bullying. For example, employees who worked for a company for many years and saw themselves as loyal to the company were suddenly asked to resign because of the need for staff cutbacks.
- Suffering of middle management. They were often in a position to lay off workers and torn between implementing a corporate restructuring policy and protecting their staff.
Sound familiar? All-night, holiday work, excessive hours, excessive sales efforts, bullying, fear of losing one’s job, and of course screwed up management. Most of the modern day startups have all kinds of tales of employees and ex-employees telling stories related to these stresses. A quick Google search on Julie Ann Horvath tells a of a horrific gender bullying story. As I am writing this story, I am now starting to think about some of my newer Devops friends who are women and their camaraderie about gender issues in IT. Another form of fierce bullying that needs to stop.
A few years ago I joined team Gene Kim (a wonderful friend). Gene has this vision of improving the lives of millions of IT professionals and he has been doing incredible job starting with his novel “The Phoenix Project.” Gene is a leader in this industry and in fact I reached out to Gene just the other night to tell him about Carlo’s passing and sent him this picture.
(Brandon Burton, Gene Kim, Lars Lehtonen, Carlo Flores, Chris Webber)
Here is what Gene tweet’ed back to me…
The last 10 years of my career have been extremely fulfilling mainly because I have been able to meet some some incredible young men and women in the IT industry. This family called Devops has given me wonderful access to all facets of culture and technology. I’m not trying to pull the hero card here and say that I am going to be an advocate for all things Karōjisatsu, but I will say, if you are someone I really like (and there are a lot of you out there), I might be watching you.
I’ll also go out on a limb here and say that anyone who is in arms length of this story who happens to feel overwhelmed, I beg of you to please CALL ME. I’m only a tweet away (@botchagalupe). Again, I know that it’s not simple and there is no way anyone can be a beacon for this horrible disease called suicide. However, I would really like to figure out a way to beat this dang Karōjisatsu thing at least for all the awesome young people I have gotten to know over the past 7 years in this wonderful family we call Devops.