Belonging to a place I’d never been
The challenges of bonding with a new company during covid times
My New Year’s Resolution, December 31st 2019, was to leave Amazon, after more than 11 years there. Back then, I just expected it to be a simple job transition. I was blissfully unaware that in a few months a deadly pandemic would shut down the entire planet. I didn’t know I would be forced to work from my spare bedroom for two years, while learning an entirely different culture and tech stack.
I wanted to take a minute to acknowledge that the reduced ability to interact with the rest of society has been challenging for all of us, not just me. My struggles pale in comparison with the struggles of many around me. I hope you’re well, physically, mentally and financially, in these tough times.
The past: Bonding with Amazon
I was happy at Amazon. My decision to leave was a fairly unexpected one that surprised many (including my own wife). But I had been growing increasingly restless as 2019 progressed, feeling I needed to do something different with my life. 11 years in one place is a long time. I wanted to defy my own inertia and complacency. I wanted to put myself in an entirely different culture, and learn a thing or two about a different way of looking at the world. As a parallel: I’ve spent the past 30 years of my life in the US, but I was born and raised in Argentina, so two cultures live within me. I think it is the mix of both my Latin and American upbringing that gives me a unique perspective on things.
Yet I loved Amazon. I loved nearly every aspect of the culture (minus the day I almost rage-quit). I joined in 2009, when the company was just 3k engineers (by the time I left in 2020 it was a 60k engineer behemoth). The intense work environment energized me and Amazon super-charged my career. While I was there I was quickly promoted to Senior Engineer, then Principal Engineer.
I thoroughly bought into belonging at Amazon. “Belonging” describes many things; I’m referring to an affinity for a place or situation. Often we feel it towards family, country, a group of friends, and sure, also likely for a company where we spend 40 hours of our lives every week for over a decade.
I created, and grew, what became the internal load and performance testing platform at Amazon. By the time I left, it was used by tens of thousands of services in business critical applications, running at hundreds of millions of transactions per second. It prevented hundreds of operational issues, and saved millions of dollars. This gave me broad exposure to all kinds of teams all over the company. I flew to two dozen amazon engineering offices in five continents, teaching courses on load and performance testing.
My passion for making Amazon a better place went beyond tech. One of my proudest achievements is that I started and grew a community of grassroots volunteers that provided talks, conferences, consulting and training to thousands of engineers, changing the culture of the company around software testing. I was also one of the individuals who re-wrote the ancient job description and ladder definitions for my role, got it blessed by HR and rolled out company-wide. I made it a point to speak at every internal conference (and some external ones too). I believe who you bring into the company matters deeply, so I conducted 813 interviews at Amazon. And I was very involved in the company-wide Principal Engineering community, which again exposed me to all kinds of little corners of Amazon.
I’m proud of the time I spent at Amazon, and of the mark that I left. The company has a weird way of imprinting its culture into your reptilian brain to the point that there’s always a little amazon in you, even years after you’ve left. But I felt ready to welcome a different culture.
The present: Bonding with Google
I like Google. A lot. I’ve always admired the company, the products and the engineers. I was honored to get the offer. I could see myself spending 11 years here. So from day one (June 1st, 2020), I was determined to get to that same level of strong bonding. Google was back then (and is still today!) a place I would be proud to belong to.
But I also quickly realized that it’s extremely difficult to belong to a place you’ve never been to. You already come with some degree of impostor syndrome, and not being physically there exacerbates it. Am I really a Googler? I asked myself a time or two. We all worked remotely: I didn’t set foot on a Google building for a full year (buildings were closed due to covid). My Google badge was a desk ornament for 12 months, and I didn’t even know if it would work or not. I had two managers and many coworkers that I never met in person. I’m sure many of you were/are on the same boat.
Google offices and perks are legendary in the industry. I envisioned fabulous lunches I was going to have every day at the famous Google cafeterias as I bonded with my coworkers. Instead, I ended up cooking some quick, crappy fast thing at home for my lunch break. It was lonely; it wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when I interviewed at Google in early February 2020, when the prospect of a worldwide shutdown was not even a thought.
Before you think this is superficial: I’m not referring to the “free food” part (ok that’s nice too…). But humans have been bonding with each other over food for millennia, since our ancestors were cavemen. So many conversations, agreements, and friendships were forged over coffee or lunch. Now, I didn’t have that. This is not to say I didn’t make friends: I did develop deep, meaningful relationships with many of my coworkers. But it was harder — much harder.
Google has a pretty amazing onboarding program for “nooglers” (“new googlers”) called GTI, where you spend a few intense weeks learning about the culture, tools, developer practices, and bonding with other fellow nooglers, while wearing ridiculous hats. Wearing those ridiculous noogler hats is a rite of passage that I was looking forward to! Doing GTI remotely did not quite have the same appeal, energy and chemistry, and I received my noogler hat via FedEx 3 months after my start date. I did a “noogler photoshoot” with a sign my 11-yr old made me as a joke, to go with his “First Day in 6th Grade” photoshoot.
Google had a huge amount of empathy during covid times and there was one thing it did that was extremely kind and helped immensely. It offered an additional 14 weeks of paid leave to take care of family. I had two boys at home dealing with remote school, and neither school really had their stuff together, so helping them was a part time job. I very much appreciated Google’s generosity.
Working remotely did have positive aspects. It was an equalizer: no matter where we were in the world, we all were a little square on GVC of the exact same size. I routinely worked with people in Sunnyvale, New York and Bangalore, and most of the times I never ever thought about their location. And in the past year and a half, there’s 500 hours of my life I didn’t have to spend in traffic. Working and studying remotely also gave my family some interesting opportunities, like renting a beachhouse in Hawaii for a month in the spring, or spending long stretches of the summer in our cabin in the woods in the Olympic Peninsula. As long as a place had wifi, it was fair game! But most importantly, remote work allowed me to spend more time with my wife and kids than I ever could before, and that was extremely special. I treasured that time.
As for ramping up on the tech side, one thing I realized very quickly is I had significantly underestimated the cognitive load required to learn an entirely different toolchain of developer tools. Large software companies like Amazon or Google have a complex ecosystem of internal developer tools and CI/CD processes that are optimized to work extremely well with each other. I knew Amazon’s like the back of my hand (I worked in the org that created it!), and had all the tribal knowledge and background history on why things were the way they were. I knew that X wasn’t going to work well with Y, and that Z was a poor technical choice for a particular problem. But I had acquired that knowledge that made me so effective in that environment over the course of 11 years. The minute I handed in my amazon badge, all that knowledge lost its value, and I found myself back to square one. Learning about tool A meant I had to learn about tool B, which meant I had to learn about tool C, so I found myself constantly going down the rabbit hole. If I had been onboarding during “regular” (non-covid) times, I would have simply turned to the person sitting next to me and asked “how the heck does this work?”. Doing this remotely meant having to use email and chat a lot more than I had been using before, or setting countless video-meetings with co-workers. A lot of things I would have learned organically, I had to learn deliberately.
These things weren’t unique to Google, and I would have faced them no matter where I went. I underestimated the mental toll this was going to take on me. It was also frustrating: I did not feel as productive as I wanted to be. I was a high performer at Amazon, but now, every day, I peppered my peers with what felt like an endless string of dumb questions — thankfully they were all kind and empathetic.
Another thing I learned about working remotely is that I’m personally a social animal. I get energy from interacting with others. There’s few things in life more awesome than two passionate engineers “in the zone” standing in front of a whiteboard brainstorming on some cool thing they want to do — and then building it together. It was extremely difficult for me to feel that same level of excitement, of energy, or chemistry being remote.
Your relationship with your manager always matters, but when you’re put in challenging situations, it matters exponentially more. I had an amazing manager that first year. She was both genuinely interested in [a] learning about how I viewed the world given my background, and in [b] teaching me how google viewed the world. We had countless 1:1s where we exchanged opinions, and learned from each other. That too made a huge difference to me. She’s no longer my manager, but remains a dear mentor of mine.
The buildings eventually opened with limited capacity (you had to make an appointment to come), so on my 1-year anniversary (June 2021) I masked up and I went to my building. That very first time I scanned my Google badge, to open the front door, I must have had the biggest smile on my face. I know it’s silly, but I needed to see my badge actually working. A badge that had served as decoration for a year, today had a purpose.
Eventually I started going to the office more frequently. The mere fact of physically being in a Google building made a huge difference to my mental health. Most googlers were still working from home, so it was a bit lonely. And with the buildings running at reduced capacity, the reservation system assigned a random desk, different every time, so I didn’t quite get to sit near any actual coworker. I felt like a nomad, bringing everything with me every morning and taking it home with me every afternoon. But it was a step forward.
Recently, we got assigned desks. I realized for the first time in nearly two years, I have a tiny little piece of Google real estate that belongs to me, and only me. Maybe I’m just weird, but again, psychologically, that matters to me. I can call it home. Another step forward.
2021 ended on a high note. Before omicron hit the US, the covid numbers were looking promising, so we had a hybrid leadership summit. You could either join in person if you were comfortable, or join remotely. I got to fly to New York and spend a glorious week in the Google offices there, meeting all the people that had been little squares on GVC for months, now in 3D. That was like finding an oasis in the desert, and it energized me for 2022.
Bottom line is I think what we all tried to do in the last 2 years was hard, and unusual. We all had to develop an entirely different toolset to cope with the new challenges, and we had to do it quickly. We didn’t all perform at our best at all times. Sometimes we had to put one foot in front of the other and just move forward. But we’re resilient, and I’m optimistic about where we’re heading.
As for me, I finally feel like I belong. I had a perilous journey, but every day, I feel just a little bit googlier.