Managing Burnout

This is not strictly an information security post, but the topic likely affects a decent proportion of my readership.

Within the last few years I experienced a profound professional “burnout.” I’ve privately mentioned this to colleagues in the industry, and heard similar stories or requests for advice on how to handle burnout.

I want to share my story in the hopes that it helps others in the security scene, either by coping with existing burnout or preparing for a possible burnout.

How did burnout manifest for me? It began with FireEye’s acquisition of Mandiant, almost exactly five years ago. 2013 was a big year for Mandiant, starting with the APT1 report in early 2013 and concluding with the acquisition in December.

The prospect of becoming part of a Silicon Valley software company initially seemed exciting, because we would presumably have greater resources to battle intruders. Soon, however, I found myself at odds with FireEye’s culture and managerial habits, and I wondered what I was doing inside such a different company.

(It’s important to note that the appointment of Kevin Mandia as CEO in June 2016 began a cultural and managerial shift. I give Kevin and his lieutenants credit for helping transform the company since then. Kevin’s appointment was too late for me, but I applaud the work he has done over the last few years.)

Starting in late 2014 and progressing in 2015, I became less interested in security. I was aggravated every time I saw the same old topics arise in social or public media. I did not see the point of continuing to debate issues which were never solved. I was demoralized and frustrated.

At this time I was also working on my PhD with King’s College London. I had added this stress myself, but I felt like I could manage it. I had earned two major and two minor degrees in four years as an Air Force Academy cadet. Surely I could write a thesis!

Late in 2015 I realized that I needed to balance the very cerebral art of information security with a more physical activity. I took a Krav Maga class the first week of January 2016. It was invigorating and I began a new blog, Rejoining the Tao, that month. I began to consider options outside of informations security.

In early 2016 my wife began considering ways to rejoin the W-2 workforce, after having stayed home with our kids for 12 years. We discussed the possibility of me leaving my W-2 job and taking a primary role with the kids. By mid-2016 she had a new job and I was open to departing FireEye.

By late 2016 I also realized that I was not cut out to be a PhD candidate. Although I had written several books, I did not have the right mindset or attitude to continue writing my thesis. After two years I quit my PhD program. This was the first time I had quit anything significant in my life, and it was the right decision for me. (The Churchill “never, never, never give up” speech is fine advice when defending your nation’s existence, but it’s stupid advice if you’re not happy with the path you’re following.)

In March 2017 I posted Bejtlich Moves On, where I said I was leaving FireEye. I would offer security consulting in the short term, and would open a Krav Maga school in the long-term. This was my break with the security community and I was happy to make it. I blogged on security only five more times in 2017.

(Incidentally, one very public metric for my burnout experience can be seen in my blog output. In 2015 I posted 55 articles, but in 2016 I posted only 8, and slightly more, 12, in 2017. This is my 21st post of 2018.)

I basically took a year off from information security. I did some limited consulting, but Mrs B paid the bills, with some support from my book royalties and consulting. This break had a very positive effect on my mental health. I stayed aware of security developments through Twitter, but I refused to speak to reporters and did not entertain job offers.

During this period I decided that I did not want to open a Krav Maga school and quit my school’s instructor development program. For the second time, I had quit something I had once considered very important.

I started a new project, though — writing a book that had nothing to do with information security. I will post about it shortly, as I am finalizing the cover with the layout team this weekend!

By the spring of 2018 I was able to consider returning to security. In May I blogged that I was joining Splunk, but that lasted only two months. I realized I had walked into another cultural and managerial mismatch. Near the end of that period, Seth Hall from Corelight contacted me, and by July 20th I was working there. We kept it quiet until September. I have been very happy at Corelight, finally finding an environment that matches my temperament, values, and interests.

My advice to those of you who have made it this far:

If you’re feeling burnout now, you’re not alone. It happens. We work in a stressful industry that will take everything that you can give, and then try to take more. It’s healthy and beneficial to push back. If you can, take a break, even if it means only a partial break.

Even if you can’t take a break, consider integrating non-security activities into your lifestyle — the more physical, the better. Security is a very cerebral activity, often performed in a sedentary manner. You have a body and taking care of it will make your mind happier too.

If you’re not feeling burnout now, I recommend preparing for a possible burnout in the future. In addition to the advice in the previous paragraphs, take steps now to be able to completely step away from security for a defined period. Save a proportion of your income to pay your bills when you’re not working in security. I recommend at least a month, but up to six months if you can manage it.

This is good financial advice anyway, in the event you were to lose your job. This is not an emergency fund, though — this is a planned reprieve from burnout. We are blessed in security to make above-average salaries, so I suggest saving for retirement, saving for layoffs, and saving for burnout.

Finally, it’s ok to talk to other people about this. This will likely be a private conversation. I don’t see too many people saying “I’m burned out!” on Twitter or in a blog post. I only felt comfortable writing this post months after I returned to regular security work.

I’m very interested in hearing what others have to say on this topic. Replying to my Twitter announcement for the blog post is probably the easiest step. I moderate the comments here and might not get to them in a timely manner.

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