5 Months of Sabbatical: On Team Spirit, Building Up Answers, & Finding Stability

Image credit to Erol Ahmed https://unsplash.com/photos/9ZWtkOCMxbM

I get this a lot: “Molly, what have you been doing on sabbatical?! It’s been FIVE MONTHS? If you aren’t hirable there’s no help for the rest of us.” There is a significant TL;DR I won’t write all of here. I hope leaders walk away from this with one thing: Team morale is the only thing that matters right now.

Before I joined Amazon I ran a bootstrapped, profitable boutique business for 6 years. Flash had died and it ripped apart games agencies and made business harder. I hired people. I did statements of work. We delivered for clients and in between those agency projects we co-developed original games. I made a business that was significantly different from the business I had wanted, but it made money and it kept me employed.

We were small and I drove 1.5 hours to my office and back on days when I went in. We did hybrid before it was c̶o̶o̶l̶ covid. I do not recommend hybrid. I recommend having a pad you can go into when y’all want to fly people in and providing options. Hybrid tech companies with requirements where everyone still lives in the same city is not inclusive and does not work with contractors, DEI, and global teams. What I hate the most during Covid? Zoom calls where 7 people are in a room but then 15 others are not. If you’re nodding fiercely, you’re probably someone I greatly enjoy being around virtually or otherwise.

If a tech company convinced itself they can’t do fully remote because of team spirit, I’m sorry, but I do not agree. I believe we should fund awesome off-sites (remote or not remote), support teammates on social media when they get slammed by angry gamers or loud egotistical rich people, shut down rumors, approach calls as if none of us know everything, remind co-workers they are great at what they do and that we believe in them whether we are their manager or simply, their friend. We should assume we have no clue what is going on in anyone’s personal lives. We should make space to listen to those we think are most vulnerable before applying our words and making space is extremely challenging if a team grew too fast.

Be exceptionally careful about what we action in environments given how much change everyone witnessed during the great resignation turned potential recession. We must try to credit everyone we remember ever contributed to a project (which is hard at scale, but try), promote their blogs, videos, reference architectures, and tag them when we share their work — including those who gave feedback or testing, not just creators. Take time to learn the history of a team when coming on to it and try to understand what they are struggling with. Share each other’s contributions as teams. Recognize we’re going to try to do all of this together and all fuck it up together and that people across the board have witnessed trauma from incredibly unfortunate business choices alongside an absolute shit world. The worst is when people become so busy trying to recover from trauma, they stop talking to friends who were let go alongside feeling alone.

Focusing on getting headcount or whether that person is more of an engineer or more of a product manager, absolutely sucks. The lines are problematic when we currently live in an environment where the universe says loud and clear “Save money” and then people become accountable for deliverables under approval constraints and systems that were designed for growth.

It is unfortunate that we all must live in a world that is so cruel to put a price tag on people based on our value, ethics, and past. It then holds our futures to it and all of that is beholden to global economics. Retention will be less of a problem if we do the little things listed above over the big things because the little things in the long run, add up to more with regards to mental health.

The savings of investing in yours and others’ wellbeing add up to being patient when hard.

At this stage in my career, which is one where I’ve had to get approvals, I’ve come to recognize some respect “disagree and commit” and some don’t. If you’re a minority in tech you risk getting labeled as aggressive, unsure, or a bunch of other bullshit, when the reality is, it’s possible someone either in your reporting chain or in an org held accountable for revenue does not agree or a customer simply doesn’t actually want to be one and those things are okay. They should be. Saying ‘no’ should be okay. Granted, it’s better to say it and not ignore the impact of that ‘no’ in a system.

Approval rejection can be anything from promotions, to products, all the way to changes in architecture. It can also be completely systemically driven because there isn’t enough money at a wide scale. A lot of companies witness this break down right now in volume and those systems will cause bad managers to make it personal. We’ll see systems put in place that are truly horrific for employees. Some say the quiet part out loud: Have people delete themselves recognizing they can’t meet new performance goals so companies can avoid the publicity of a mass layoff. It may look like additional layers of approval introduced or limitations on goals. Either way, it’s a constraint and environment teams now have to live within. This only gets better by supporting each other loudly, publicly, on the GOOD THINGS that were accomplished within this darkest timeline. Teams aren’t going to need recognition when they are fired or to retain existing employees: Teams already needed it before this terrible because it builds morale and if you already had team morale you come out of this a lot better.

Team spirit is about being there in all sense of the term, celebrating each other, and showing up when it counts. Communicating decisions together. Communicating as a leader “We can’t invest in too much right now and need to focus on saving money” and having good judgement. Celebrating the full set of contributions that were probably not even recognized last year in an effort to move fast, break things, grow. Teams need those now.

Both you and I will mess it up whether we are fully-remote or not. If you’re like me, you know that it’s scary to show up without answers in any capacity. Which is why I have stayed in sabbatical to collect as many as possible. After all, me helping us succeed, means I do best when asked, if I can move accurately.

Finding Answers on Sabbatical

Managers survive the delta of having answers and saying “I don’t have answers but I am going to get them.” So do individual contributors — you’re just responsible for different questions at any given time.

When I “sudo closed” (typo intentional!) my business to index full into an engineering persona and join AWS as an independent contributor, I had only handled 60% of all the things that needed to be done for my business. In ’20, I job hunted while closing it down. I spent 3 months also picking up new knowledge. I did this time-boxed:

  1. I focused on analytics for games because I knew that it was a significant problem based on the business I ran [Success]
  2. I learned Redshift, Kinesis, API Gateway, Python [Success]
  3. I learned more deeply AWS and got 2 certifications [Success]
  4. I captured this in videos and released something “simple” [Success]
  5. I needed to figure out how to get it to work in Unity [Got hired, then figured this out. AWS approached the problem from the other side.]
  6. If got to it, Personalize [Got hired and figured this out.]

I investigated only one company: AWS. It was the only place I wanted to work. I had great admiration for the problems Amazon was solving, saw the gaps, and knew I had answers to questions I knew they probably had.

I then prepared for the loop for 3 weeks which is why I don’t want to do it again. An industry colleague who I am indebted to for life referred me. I was not recruited without referral: I fully expected no recruiters to find me and acted accordingly by posting what I was looking for on social media to my games industry network who has always been there for me. When I left AWS and decided to take a longer, objective sabbatical I had an opportunity on the table I created, I knew would take a long time to attempt to land and may backfire. I went after it (Plan A). A lot of recruiters may read this and say MISTAKE, but I’m not in agreement. If I was, I would be in a job already. I didn’t like it when there were 7 offers on the house I tried to buy. I want to be known as that type of person.

I did plan for the fact that choice could blow up in my face. This is good because, thanks to NASDAQ, I had to execute Plan B in May and worked on C,D,E, and F as backups. In this universe presented darkest timeline, I’ve approached this May-driven pivot this way:

  1. Meet with 3-5 people a week to lower cultural context switching. Opened up new doors slowly.
  2. Keep those I considered true mentors and mentees informed of what was happening in real time in order to make sure I make a good choice.
  3. Learn infrastructure as code more deeply — spend time coding again.
  4. Focus on learning Kubernetes and 3Ps in the ecosystem around it
  5. Read a LOT and investigated a lot of repositories
  6. Remind myself I was actually great at being people support instead of an IC, but where could I improve?
  7. Focus on letting go things that I never got to in ’20 and processing what it meant to have a business and not really close it down fully.
  8. Deal with my hormones being all over the place not hitting the magical egg-laying fertility target. The only thing we haven’t ruled out yet is endometriosis. Friendly, reminder that Roe vs Wade repeal was terrible.

I didn’t have a concrete set of deliverables like I did in the first go around — my objectives are different. I’ve written several blogs at this point and also some custom jobs. I’ve been asked “Do you plan on monetizing your writing? Creating a personal website?” Maybe, but it’s not my immediate goal. I also have no idea what to call the domain this time if I do, but I sure as shit know I’ll be using Route53 because I used to have 12 on GoDaddy and no thanks. Maybe you have some suggestions — something along the lines of “moral compass” and “darkest timeline” would resonate quite well with my readers.

In any case, I’ve greatly enjoyed this time. I keep asking myself everyday “Do I regret this? What would I have done differently?” but I realize when I am not happy it’s because of other people, not even in my own family, pressuring me to be done. I know full well I can accelerate that timestream. The only two aspects that mattered to me when job hunting is:

  1. The team
  2. Stability

In fact, as of posting this, I don’t have a new number yet or anything for my attorney to review. I’m sure I will soon.

So many who job hunt run at the number and that is ABSOLUTELY okay if that is what you need. I’m simply too tired of working for different leaders, that reporting to the same person for longer than 6 months quite frankly became P0. I think it probably contributed to my stress and that may have impacted my body and I still don’t know so I have to rule it out. It’s offensive to call it anything else. After all, I’m the one who has to look at the stupid data in Flo that the world is telling women to delete.

It’s not great when you can look at your own resume and say “I was the single most consistent person I had when I ran a business.” At one point I considered an offer that was a $100K pay difference lower based on the math for the shares I would have received because I trusted the person at the table that I’d report to be exceptionally stable and responsible with their team (I still do).

I have no plan to leave once I say yes and click a button. I already was this way when I didn’t have any direct reports at AWS. But my colleagues there never met the person that has had them and she’s even more so. I pontificated going back to work for an old manager because it means that much to me, but we’ll miss because of timing most likely. The older and more experienced I get, the less I’m willing to risk with regards to my career path because the more people I rope in as part of it and the wiser so inclined know, that with regards to leadership: Stability matters more than too much bias for action in this kind of market.

So I guess, the world can judge sabbaticals (I’m looking at you, person who laughed at someone else being on one), but for me, knowing what I’m looking for and what I already have, well I’m willing to pay myself to find it because I hope that team stays together for a really long time in what is an exceptionally challenging environment.

I’ll be really excited to digitally pen it.

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