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Friday, 30 October 2009 06:10

When hackers get the blues


Hacking is often a lonely profession: the wee hours are generally the most productive and communicating with an inanimate object often results in people being unable to interact in a regular manner with their human counterparts.

One of the results of this lack of personal interaction is the black dog. Something we call depression and something which is all too common in society at large and equally or more so among hackers.

Depression is an intensely personal thing and most people are often too scared to even admit that they are prone to it. Thus, when someone opens up and creates a forum for sharing about this malady, it tends to garner plenty of followers.

When Arjen Lentz decided to give a short talk about depression in the hacking community at the Open Source Developers' Conference in 2008, he wasn't sure about the kind of response he would get.

Lentz, a senior member of the Australian free and open source software community who for a long time was the face of MySQL Down Under, says he decided to talk about depression as a form of self-therapy.

"Yes, it's personal," he told iTWire in an interview. "Because people don't talk about it, and try to be a functional human being, they don't necessarily realise that others are dealing with the same thing. It's that form of 'being alone' that is extra nasty for someone who is dealing with depression.

"So, my reason... self-therapy. Doing this helped me too, as much as for anyone else in the room (and beyond). It's just good to be able to help in some way - I just happen to have gained 'stage confidence' over the years. So this allows me to use that acquired skill for something else that benefits others, along the  way also helping me. Others would not speak out (or get on stage), and that's fine too - it's just something that I am able to do.

"The original lightning talk with 'raise hands' was as far as the original idea went. I didn't expect it to end up being a group or website, or that I'm now  the defacto figurehead of it. But if it's helpful, I'm fine with it."

Out of this was born the website bluehackers. "Everybody had a look around, and thus knew that they weren't alone," says Lentz. "Afterwards, there was more positive feedback which continued over email in the days that followed. Someone suggested starting a group, and the same day was born."


Lentz runs a company called Open Query which provides training and consultancy for MySQL and employs eight people. He travels a great deal inside the country and meets a lot of peope during his travels.

He says the objective of bluehackers is to publicise the fact that "there are many fellow geeks among us who are intimately familiar with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder

"It helps to know you’re not  alone. And it’s not because we’re geeks, but because we’re human. The Australian BeyondBlue site is, of course, an excellent resource, but,  because geeks have a specific work environment, there are also particular challenges in dealing with these issues, and that’s where we feel our group can help with additional insights, tips, and posts from others with experience.

"Using the logo, we can also make the topic visible at meetings and conferences around the world, ensuring that indeed no geek need feel alone in this, or feel unsupported. They can simply look around and  see. Anybody will be able to show their support and understanding, in a kind and non-intrusive manner."

Lentz says that nothing is planned beyond the website. "We're not trained professionals. Australia actually has good medical infrastructure for this, including specific government funding for treatments," he points out.

"People just need to get to their GP who can run an assessment with them, and go from there. And there are the other sites that bluehackers links to, such as BeyondBlue and workingwell.

"Gatherings have been discussed as people have asked, but we feel it's  a bit indulgent, we don't want to wallow - that's not helpful.

"Education... that comes back to comfort with public speaking, and actually speaking at a conference is not the same as talking in a classroom (I've done both, although not on this topic). If a local school/college were to ask me I'd probably have a chat with the teacher and then do it, but that's just me.

"The current limited objectives have proven their value, there's no intrinsic need to expand. It's good as-is. We do aim to create more stickers and possibly other things."


Lentz' own experience with depression is something he is not reluctant to talk about. "It can be very disruptive for your life, family and social environment, and of course people's work. If left untreated (or even completely unrecognised), it can destroy some or even all of those.

"The ways in which that works are probably different for everybody, but just talking about work for now in my 'bad times' I'd sometimes have days where I wouldn't be able to concentrate and get a sensible amount  of work done. It's important that within a company there is sufficient understanding about depression - that person is not slacking. By understanding I don't mean knowledge, a company cannot be expert on  the topic, that's what medical professionals are for.

"From experience I know that many managers and companies have this 'if you don't have a broken leg or are in hospital, you're not sick' attitude, which is akin to a 'don't whinge, just get on with it' approach. I'm not disagreeing with a 'don't whinge' approach, but it's  not quite that simple.

"Apart from depression, there are many things that can affect a person's ability to function. Not acknowledging that doesn't help the person or the company, and given the numbers it is almost certain to hurt businesses. Every business will have one if not many more people who have or have dealt with depression, and other illnesses, and a bit of enlightenment would help them be more effective.

"Also, by not acknowledging a company sends out a message that people cannot be open about any problems they are having, and thus in effect create a dysfunctional company culture. Many readers may recognise this for past or even current employers.

"What I'm saying is, you can get on with it, but understanding is still important or your business will suffer. You cannot cherrypick your way around the problem: (prospective) employees don't have to  tell you, depending on the atmosphere they won't tell you, and you can't fire them for any of this. So deal with it already by creating a healthy working environment.

"In this context, I actually have to compliment my manager at my last job (before I started my current company). While the  environment was stressful for various reasons, the manager was understanding and thus we could find ways to make things work."

Lentz has his own antidotes which he recommends. "Give your day structure, get a decent night's sleep, get daylight, daily exercise and fruit. These are not cures, and everybody needs this anyway. It's just that for someone with depression, they're especially important.

"For some people, medical intervention and medication is essential. If there are chemical imbalances causing problems in your brain, just wanting to be better may not be enough. But similarly, just taking meds and not changing the lifestyle aspects is no good either.

"Stress (and anxiety) has a lot of influence on all this too, if you are dealing with depression, and work in a stressful environment, it's not good. Companies often inadvertently create stress. It' s not easy to resolve as it's embedded in company processes. But it can be avoided as well as changed. But some jobs are just stressful, and for an employee, changing jobs can be an important health choice.

"Also, like some other illnesses, it's not always something that has a permanent cure. For instance, I'm doing alright now, but if I neglect my routine, don't  get enough sleep, and cause myself stress, then I can recognise the warning signs as I won't be functioning that well during the day."

He says the site has got responses mainly from Australia and New Zealand but has attracted traffic from around the globe and had some feedback outside its immediate neighbourhood as well.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.





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