Being a Tech Employee

How I Tried To Be A Good One And Keep My Sanity

Last month I left my job at Amazon to work for myself. I’m no longer an employee, but if I were ever to become one again, here’s what I’ll keep in mind.

Many things won’t be within my control.

Getting promoted, getting a raise, getting recognized, getting on an important project — these are all things that an employee can never fully control, regardless of the effort made. Some people I worked with made their well-being dependent on these things. I tried not to. It’s normal to be disappointed by undesirable outcomes, but I try to avoid having externally controlled outcomes play a role in my satisfaction and self-esteem.

My satisfaction comes from challenges, not from outcomes.

Most companies function by setting goals and holding people accountable for the outcomes. The problem is, I don’t consider myself to be goal-driven. I don’t set goals for myself; I cannot remember ever setting one. I have targets, but I don’t try to hold myself accountable for the outcomes. Employers, however, care a lot about outcomes, and as an employee I always wanted to do my best to deliver what my employer wanted. So my approach was to mentally transform the company’s goals into small daily challenges. Tackling a challenge, brainstorming solutions, trying my best, finding an easy way out — doing those things can give me satisfaction regardless of the outcome. It’s the journey that matters to me, not the outcome, and the journey is just a stream of daily challenges coupled with my best attempts to tackle them.

Trying to get promoted is the fastest way not to get promoted.

Promotions are usually the biggest carrot that employers dangle in front of employees to “motivate them”. A promotion doesn’t cost the employer anything, which is definitely not the case for other motivational incentives, such as a bonus, or a day off. Luckily for the employer, employees tend to want promotions a lot — probably more than they want bonuses and days off. However, once again, promotions are outcomes controlled by many variables and by random subjective people. They are never really in the employee’s control. My trick was not to desire one. I never asked my manager what I needed to do to get a promotion, I never asked to discuss my career plan, I never looked for a career mentor, I never tried to impress those that would be evaluating me — nothing of that sort. I just focused on the things in my control: doing the best work I could, as if it were my own company, and treating others how I wanted to be treated.

The company’s opinions are not necessarily my opinions.

Being a good employee is like being a lawyer acting for a client. The lawyer’s job is to make the best case for the client, regardless of what the lawyer might think. My job as an employee was to do the best work I could, the way the company wanted, based on the values and opinions of the company. Just like the lawyer, I would occasionally voice my opinion privately when we didn’t see things entirely eye to eye. But it was always on me to disagree and commit. And also just like the lawyer, there were always moral and legal lines I wouldn’t cross. But as long as I held the job, I carried out my duty. For example, whenever I talked to customers, I always gave them the company’s opinion of the products, not my own. That’s how it’s supposed to be. If I were to employ people, that’s what I would want them to do.

Meaningless work is the cost of doing business.

Most policies, processes, and procedures that I’ve been subject to by my employers had things in them that I thought were completely meaningless, and that I wouldn’t do if I were in charge. This work was the hardest type for me to do, especially when it carried on for days, weeks, and months. The bigger the company and the more distant the policy-makers are from the makers, the more of this you can expect. The best mechanism I found to convince my procrastinating self to persevere with this work was to think of it as a cost of doing business, rather than a purposeless task. That simple mental switch suddenly gives it meaning in the complex universe of a company.

Rewards kill my enthusiasm.

I never liked having incentives dangled in front of me, and I don’t trust people that tell me: If you do this, you’ll get that. I’ve hated this for as long as I can remember, because it always feels like somebody is trying to control me or trying to change my behavior. I respond very negatively to the perception of being controlled, so as much as I can, I try to avoid such environments. When I can’t do that, I try to ignore the incentives, and just focus on the things that I can control, such as doing the best work that I can. This has helped me to find peace of mind in environments filled with carrots and sticks.

Only intrinsic motivation lasts.

There are things that I feel intrinsically driven to do, even when there’s no incentive or punishment compelling me to do them. The best kind of work for me is work driven by this intrinsic energy. I might be doing other things, but I would always be looking for opportunities that allow me to spend more time on work driven by my intrinsic motivation. My last job was very good by every measure, but once I discovered an alternative path that would allow me to use my intrinsic motivation more, it became practically impossible for me to stay. If I were to become an employee again, I’d be very careful not to let the extrinsic rewards distort how I measure job opportunities. Once I attain a certain level of financial security, the satisfaction from rewards wears off quickly, and only intrinsic motivation lasts.