Coping with CAD burnout,Part II: Know thyself

31 Aug, 2001 By: Mark Middlebrook

Many readers wrote to say how closely they identified with the burnout symptoms described in my November 1999 CAD Manager article, Coping with burnout. Though that article explored the causes and some partial solutions to burnout of CAD drafters who are under your charge, many of you told your own tales of burnout woe, a few described how you'd "come through the fire," and everyone requested more musings on CAD burnout.

This month, I'll revisit the subject, with an emphasis on how burnout affects CAD managers and what you can do when it happens to you. I've borrowed liberally from your letters, but left them anonymous this time. Although it sounds like some of you need a change of employer, I don't want this article to cause you to make that change prematurely!


In the previous burnout article, I asserted two characteristics of human nature—sharp people need to be challenged, and human endurance has its limits—and argued that burnout is usually a result of violating one or both of these principles for an extended period of time. The same principles apply to CAD managers, only more so. Most people become CAD managers in part because they are sharp people, and their combination of responsibilities and skillfulness usually ensures many demands on their time. Thus CAD managers are particularly subject to boredom or overwork.

Boredom was a common theme in many of the missives that I received, such as this one: "Though my job includes many functions and responsibilities, such as drafting, full product design, production support, all engineering documentation, CAD management, etc., I have so efficiently dialed in my job [that] I'm suffering from the major side effect of sheer boredom. And there's nowhere to ‘go' here, as we sport a corporate stepstool [instead of] a corporate ladder. I am so bored I can hardly function."

Another frequent complaint was responsibility without authority: "I have been given the CAD manager's responsibilities but have no authority, which makes my job all the more difficult. I can't prevent mistakes or enforce in-house standards, but I am still held accountable."

Some companies now understand the value of good CAD management and are paying more attention to the salary, authority, and prestige that should go along with the responsibilities. But many companies continue to pay lip service to CAD management or neglect it entirely.

The symptoms and causes of burnout, whatever they might be, usually aren't hard to identify. If you're nodding your head in recognition, you probably can recite a litany of problems and complaints. What you want is not to dwell on the difficulties, but to find a way out.

Change tasks or job description

Recovering from burnout requires making a change. The least radical change usually is to modify what you're doing for your current company. Sometimes all it takes is a bit more variety in your normal work: "One thing that helps CAD burnout is different types of work. For instance, I usually work on plans from as-builts all the way through to construction documents—different projects, but the same type of work. One day I was told to take some photographs of the city limits. Our city wanted to install some city signage. I imported the photographs into Architectural Desktop and then created signage on top of the raster images to create photographs. Then I got to create an on-screen model of the signage complete with an AVI movie. The point here is that I was using CAD differently than I had before."

In other cases, you may want to move into other kinds of work that don't directly involve CAD: "I overcame my burnout [in] two ways. First, I have taken a more active role in the engineering of systems, and even designed a few systems on my own when we were overwhelmed. Second, I was approached by one of our competitors, who made me a very nice offer. That prompted my company to reevaluate my position and benefit to the organization. To make a long story short, my company countered with a sizeable raise and (I believe) new respect for me and what I do."

As this reader's report points out, doing other kinds of work in some cases also forces others in your company to reevaluate what you're worth to them.

A common theme in the accounts of those who have successfully spiced up their jobs is that branching out into other tasks required them to learn new things: "I'm one of those who have learned everything I know about computers and software simply by doing. Pablo Picasso said ‘I am always doing that which I cannot do so that I may learn how to do it.' It works for me!"

The obvious impediment to changing your tasks or job description is that you're dependent on other people in your company to agree to it and then to carry though with that commitment. In many cases, CAD managers reach the burnout stage after they've fought unsuccessfully for a change in responsibilities. If you've given it your best shot and the powers that be aren't responsive, it may well be time to look elsewhere.

Change companies

Although the job market is not as hot as it was a year or two ago, in my experience good CAD managers remain in very high demand. If you really have the right stuff and don't see a serious possibility of improvement with your current company, then start looking around. Even if you end up staying put, you'll learn something about other companies and what your prospects are.

In addition, offers from other companies— or simply the knowledge that you're looking—might inspire your current employer to pay some attention to your dissatisfaction.

One of the best testimonials from a reader about the good things that can come from a change of company was this one: "My case of burnout was about four years ago while I worked at an engineering firm with around 30 employees. Within two years at the new firm I became the crutch for many CAD operators to lean on. The CAD manager wasn't on par with my abilities, and it started to weigh heavily in my mind.

"At the end of the two years I received an offer from an individual who had his own business designing automation equipment. I considered my position at the firm, and it was apparent to me that I was performing the duties of a CAD man ager. [When I spoke to my boss about it,] he said I could possibly move to that position in a few years.

"It was about this time that I knew burnout was starting to occur. I was headed nowhere for the next two years until I could possibly take over as CAD manager and start earning what I was worth. I finally decided that it wasn't worth sitting on my butt for two more years just to hear the big ‘no' when the two years were up. I took the other guy's offer to join his company, and I have been here four years now. It is just the two of us so I am pretty much my own boss, and he treats me more as a partner than an employee. I will never regret taking such a big leap—going from a secure large company into a two-person venture. I realize this whole story sounds more like a career decision rather than a burnout issue, but I guess it's a matter of not knowing I was tired of the same old routine. I didn't realize how burnt out I really was until I stood back and analyzed my career. I decided to share this story with you in hopes that maybe someone else can see that taking the big leap of faith can lead to something better!"

Change industries or fields

Many people who change companies do so within the same industry. Often this is a good strategy. Presumably, you're intimately familiar with the work, conventions, and needs of your industry. But if you're the adventurous type, don't neglect the possibility of looking outside your current industry. It may be that companies in other industries offer more enlightened management, better salaries, or a more salutary change. For example, one reader described his change from a pharmaceutical engineering firm to a telecommunications company: "For a while, I was jazzed to go to work every day. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep the momentum going. The company I worked for already had a CAD manager and folks with more seniority who did not share my enthusiasm. I tried to motivate others and share what I was learning, but everyone else had different agendas.

"After another year of this type of resistance, I decided to look for something more challenging... I posted my resume on 12 different job boards, and the calls and e-mails started to come in. I was offered a position as engineering CAD manager with a growing telecommunications company with good benefits and a starting salary of more than I thought I could obtain. They gave me a laptop, a cell phone, and even sent me to a couple of management classes. It sounds too good to be true—but it is. Anyone can achieve his or her dreams by keeping at it and working hard."

This reader's experience highlights an interesting job change phenomenon in the modern economy. These days, CAD users and managers (as well as other technical personnel) often hone their skills while working for companies in traditional industries and then move on to jobs in the high-tech sector. High-tech companies often pay a lot more and provide a more "hip" working environment, although sometimes at the cost of longer working hours and less secure employment.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, near Autodesk, and I've seen lots of CAD people leave engineering and architecture companies to go to work for Autodesk or other software companies. In many cases, they give up drafting or CAD management entirely to work in technical support, technical documentation, or even software development. There's a lesson for the "old economy" companies here: To hang on to your most talented CAD staff, don't forget that your competition isn't limited to other companies in your industry!

Know myself

The topic of burnout has particular poignancy for me, because I've suffered from it several times since I began doing CAD consulting in the late 1980s. Before that, I was a structural engineer. My burnout in that profession began while I was completing my Master's degree in engineering! It seems that I'm cursed to be an expert on this topic. I've dealt with burnout in the past by branching out into related but different work, such as writing and custom software development. At various times, I also got serious about some of my avocations, including playing music and learning foreign languages. Hobbies usually don't make your work life any bet ter, but they can take the edge off the annoyance—for a while.

More recently, I've taught classes that have nothing to do with CAD or computers. My undergraduate education was in the liberal arts, the study of which has remained an important part of my life. For the past two years, I've been teaching one class per semester in literature and philosophy at a local private college. This activity fulfills my desire to do something completely different with part of my working life. There's nothing like discussing Don Quixote with a bunch of 19-year-olds to make you realize that the world won't end if compliance with company CAD standards remains a bit haphazard.

All of these measures have helped, but I've known for some time that I needed an even bigger change. That change has arrived in the form of involvement in a friend's restaurant. I will be the general manager and "wine guy"—food and wine being two of my other passions. I plan to keep one foot in the CAD world for now. I'm completing a major book revision (AutoCAD 2002 For Dummies) and will continue writing articles for CADALYST.

I make these confessions not because my choices should be a model for anyone else. My lurching approach to burnout probably lies at the extreme end of the spectrum. "There's a fine line between Renaissance man and dilettante," I keep reminding myself. But I hope that my experiences and those of the readers I've quoted will inspire those of you suffering from burnout to do something about it. Life is short, so don't just sit there.

About the Author: Mark Middlebrook

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