Anatomy of Stasis
The day I lost my job at Microsoft:
It's always 20/20 in hindsight. I can easily see today that I was spending my time on a project that would never succeed: we were overfunded to create something that was far outside of our DNA.
I can see my own shortcomings and failures with the same 20/20 hindsight. I despised the company that Microsoft had evolved into, but I was too sluggish and afraid to actually leave. So I stayed for a few too many years, dissatisfied but doing little to change my situation. I was terrified by the notion of stepping into the unknown. It was the same feeling you get when you stare at a pool you're about to plunge into and realise the water would be cold. What if I don't succeed? I knew my status wasn't ideal, but I also understood I could work my way around the firm and remain mediocre. I've admitted it: I was mediocre. Low return, low risk. I did nothing to advance in my last two years at Microsoft. Microsoft has devolved from a career to a source of income. I'm not sure why I let myself go so easily. I was supposed to do a lot more with my life than that, but I got sidetracked for a spell.
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I'd want to bring up another point. Despite its flaws, Microsoft was a fantastic place to work. I was still surrounded by incredibly intelligent people. I was still surrounded by excellent educational possibilities. I could have and should have made better use of my surroundings. There was a great deal of privilege that I was oblivious to since I had been spoiled. My miss is that I became complacent and took a lot of things for granted. Here's a thought exercise for you: if I lost my job today, would I be sorry that I didn't take use of the opportunity that this work provided me every single day? Being surrounded by intelligent people is always a privilege; take advantage of it!
Simply put, getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of mental and emotional health. That slap in the face was just what I needed to react, to get back up, dust myself off, and do better.
The irony is that I had just made the decision to leave a month before. Every year on December 31st, I spend a couple of hours soul-searching, pondering what I've accomplished in the previous year, where I've been, where I'm going, and so on. I took a serious look at myself on December 31st, 2008. I reflected that this wasn't who I was supposed to be. I needed to quit the organisation, take some chances, and immerse myself in a new culture. Don't be so terrified of failing. I polished my CV, sent it to Amazon and Google (the other two major employers in the Seattle metro region at the time), and began practising coding questions on a $20 whiteboard I purchased from Target. So, by the time I met with HR and my boss in January to learn that my job had been terminated, I was intellectually and emotionally prepared to move on. Yes, I was terrified. But I'm prepared.
I was also aware that layoffs were imminent. For several months, rumours had been circulating about Microsoft's Redmond headquarters. My team had squandered two years by failing to bring a product to market. We were all obvious layoff candidates. It wasn't about you.
My boss was a pretty nice person. He cried as he told me the news that day. He had fought long and hard to keep me from being killed. We're still great pals.
To their credit, Microsoft did take really good care of me. It's terrifying to lose your job in the midst of a recession. I received a lump sum payment for 8 months of severance pay. That was extremely generous of you. My wife and I were both frugal, so we had some savings and could easily exist for a year if needed. That relieved a great deal of stress. Other microsoft employees who had been living well over their means were desperate to get any job they could as quickly as possible. I took my time, spent a month practising coding interview questions full-time, and completed full loops at Amazon and Google. I received offers from both companies that were much higher than what I was earning at Microsoft.
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I went with Amazon. It was 2009, and the idea of AWS had me enthralled. It was still in its early stages at the time, but I knew it had the potential to alter the world, and I wanted to be a part of it while it was still young. I worked for Amazon for 11 years, rising from a Microsoft low level 62 to a Microsoft high level 67 equivalent, and working hard, having fun, and making history. In 2014, I was promoted to Principal.
At Amazon, my professional advancement was substantially faster than at Microsoft. I worked for both firms for the same period of time, but the Amazon culture suited me better.
In the year 2020, I decided to retrace my steps from 2009... I went to Google and have been a Senior Staff Engineer there ever since.
Reminiscing... As I hesitantly stepped into that room on January 22, 2009, where HR and my manager awaited me, it felt like losing my job, in the midst of a recession, with my future unclear, was the worst thing that could happen to me. But it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. That jolt was exactly what I needed to set me on the path to where I am now. And I like who I am now and what I've accomplished in my life.
If you ever find yourself in a circumstance like mine, I hope this storey inspires you to remember that there is always a silver lining, and to appreciate where serendipity may lead you!