How I burned out at Amazon after 10 years, and why I went back later
I had the good fortune of joining Amazon in 2001 right after graduating university. Back then, the 23 year old me thought I might stay for two or three years before moving onto the next thing. I never would have guessed that I’d end up staying for 10 years. But in 2011, I had reached the end of the ropes and quit. Now, another 10 years later, I sometimes reflect back on that decision. What led to it? Knowing what I know now, would I have made the same decision again?
My first role at Amazon was software engineer. I had majored in computer science so I was thrilled to be doing a job that I had been trained for in school. Looking back, I realized I didn’t internalize many of the computer science fundamentals until I started coding in a professional environment. I made mistakes early on. One of my first projects was writing a simple helper function to be used by some front end code on the Amazon.com website. I thought it would be handy to have my code print out some informational statements into the logs. However, when your code is running at the scale of Amazon.com, an info statement that’s supposed to happen only occasionally ends up printing a lot. The production log files were getting full quickly and I had to fix the problem. Another time, I was responsible for merging code from my team into the main code branch, to prepare for the next release of the Amazon website. There were some conflicts from the merge and I broke the build, delaying the entire release. I promptly got a nasty-gram from a VP who was notified of the breakage. Those early mistakes were incredibly humbling and I realized just how much there was for me to learn on the job.
It took some time for me to feel like a fully competent software engineer. I needed a few big projects under my belt and I needed to gain confidence by knowing my team’s code base inside and out. Next thing you know, I had been at Amazon for almost five years. I had been promoted to a level 5 Software Development Engineer (SDE II). I was one of the most productive engineers on the team. I contemplated whether I wanted to continue on the SDE track, or do something else. In 2006, I decided to take on a new challenge and switched to a technical program manager (TPM) role. I also moved to a new team at the same time. It wasn’t like starting over, but I did face a new set of challenges. I went from someone who knew how everything was built and was responsible for building the next thing, to someone who has to organize the people who are building the next thing. This transition took sometime, but luckily after a year or so, I felt comfortable in my new role.
In 2007, another big change happened in my life. I became a mom. I had to figure out how to balance work with my new demanding home life. I was glad to have Amazon as a constant in my life during that time as I was wrestling with my new identity. I still enjoyed my role and I loved my team. While I was a total newbie to being a mom, I drew my confidence from the fact that I was still a highly productive employee at Amazon.
In 2008, When my first son was around one year old, things at home were settled enough that I had the courage to take on the next challenge. I moved to my third team at Amazon with aspirations of becoming a product manager. I wanted to go from someone who was in charge of building the product well, to someone who decided what product to build. Then in 2009 I became pregnant again and welcomed my second son in early 2010.
Some people might tell you that having a second child is not 2x as hard, but rather it’s exponentially harder. Just when I felt like we were getting the hang of things as a family of three, this new addition truly added more chaos. First, my older son was always a hearty eater. I never worried about feeding him. With my younger son, Max, it wasn’t the case. When he started on solid foods, he only wanted to eat avocado. And if he didn’t get what he wanted, he just wouldn’t eat. There were some nights when I found myself making three dinners. Dinner one was for the whole family. Dinner two was for Max, because he needed something softer. Dinner three was also for Max, because he refused dinner two and wouldn’t eat anything else. My older son Jalen wasn’t to be left out of the action. When Max was about 5 months old, I went back to work and we had a nanny at home for Max. Jalen was three years old and going to daycare five days a week. When Jalen realized that Max got to stay at home with a nanny, he rebelled. During morning drop off, he refused to get into the car seat and to be buckled. After I would wrestle him into the car seat and get him to daycare, he would cry and scream to the point that he would be sent to the director’s office so he wouldn’t bother the other children.
During this period, I had an especially challenging work schedule. At the time, I worked on the team that was in charge of the specialized shoes, handbags and jewellery websites for Amazon, similar to Zappos. We worked closely with the business teams that managed inventory and merchandizing. They were located in the US, Japan and Europe. This meant that at least once a week I would have to wake up early to talk to the European team, then have late afternoon calls with the Japanese team. On top of that, we had recently added an engineering team in India. India and the west coast of the US had a 12 hour time difference. This meant that I would either have to do calls at 9am (when it’s 9pm for them) or 9pm my time. I chose to have 9pm calls after my children have gone to bed. All of this took quite a bit of juggling. I recall one morning when I was leading a 7:30am call with the European team, and I could hear Jalen throwing a huge tantrum crying and screaming while my husband was trying to get him to daycare. A woman on the call sent me a private chat message saying “your baby is crying”. I just metaphorically threw up my hands. I was in a constant state of anxiety, fretting about my children and my work and didn’t feel like I was handling either very well. My manager at the time likely wasn’t at all aware of the situation, or at least he never noticed or asked about it. There were times when I would be online at 9pm prepping for my call with the Indian team, and he would send me messages on chat asking about project status updates. And I would dutifully answer them. I didn’t know how to say no.
I remember those moments of distress better than the exact moment that I decided I had had enough. I knew that I was ready for a reset. I also knew that I could have had a fresh start by switching teams within Amazon again. But after 10 years, I said to myself, shouldn’t I try something else? The thoughts and emotions I was going through was almost like processing the break up of a romantic relationship. After 10 years, I was no longer the same person I was when I first joined Amazon. I was really grateful for all the opportunities and experiences I had, not to mention the financial compensation. But Amazon didn’t seem to get me anymore now that I was a mother of two. Amazon was like the college boyfriend that I had outgrown. I was utterly exhausted and overwhelmed and I didn’t feel mentally strong enough to tough it out. This was not necessarily the final goodbye. But it just didn’t feel like a good fit anymore.
I accepted a product manager job at an ad technology company in Seattle. It was a 400 person company focused on selling software solutions to advertisers, ad agencies and media companies. I appreciated being at this smaller company where I could see the entirety of the business, technology and operations. The work life balance was much more manageable. I actually started to travel for work to meet with clients. If you’re a mom, you know that a trip to Target by yourself is like a trip to the spa and a 3-day business trip is like a freakin’ vacation!
By the time my children were five and two, my parents retired. They would come to visit and babysit so that my husband and I could take mini vacations as a couple. When Max was three years old, we took our first family trip to Hawaii that felt like vacation. We no longer had to plan our entire day around nap schedules, or lug around giant diaper bags. The boys played together on the beach while the parents relaxed.
Fast forward to 2016, one of my former managers at Amazon came knocking and asked me if I was interested in rejoining Amazon. By then, I had been away for five years. My children were much more self-sufficient at age nine and six. I decided I had little to lose by interviewing and I was delighted when I got an offer as a L7 Principal Technical Program Manager. Before I left Amazon, I had been stuck at L6 for five years despite getting strong performance reviews year after year. This offer for a L7 position was a personal victory for me and a validation of my additional experience. I accepted the offer.
Coming back to Amazon felt a bit like a return to an old relationship. Some things were different and better, like improved paid maternity benefits. But others stayed exactly the same, e.g. only free coffee and tea, not free food. At the core, Amazon’s culture, cemented by its Leadership Principles, stayed the same even as the company got a lot bigger. I looked around myself and saw that quite a few of the people I worked with previously were still at the company. Many of them had been promoted over the years and were much more senior than I was. Don’t forget that the Amazon stock price also rose dramatically, it was $196 in May 2011 when I left and it stood at $721 in May 2016 when I came back. I realized that I likely forgoed the chance to be promoted, and I definitely left money on the table in terms of stocks.
But looking back to the five years that I was away, I don’t remember being anxious and burned out. I remember only the face to face user research sessions I conducted. I remember doing a product launch where I had to give a product demo on a livestream. Because I had worked for a couple of smaller companies, I remember thinking how different it was when you’re not the leader in the industry you’re in. There’s this constant struggle for survival and it’s not always so easy to take the moral high ground. I also remember the great people I met during my time away from Amazon. Ironically, many of them later ended up joining Amazon (three were referred by me). And incidentally, one of my managers outside of Amazon eventually hired me at Google (where I now work). It may be a case of confirmation bias where I’m simply looking to justify my past decision. I also know that had I felt more supported when I was going through those big life changes, I certainly would have stayed at Amazon. I actually don’t think about the money much because hindsight is always 20/20 when it comes to stock prices.
One of the Amazon leadership principles is called “Bias for Action”. It’s described as “Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.” For me, I will never know whether I should have stayed at Amazon instead of quitting in 2011. But I had made the best decision for myself and my family with what I knew and how I felt at the time. And the decision turned out to be reversible as well.