I recently tolerated, er, celebrated my 56th birthday. Going by the usual retirement schedule, I have about ten years left in the workforce, give or take a year. I feel ready to take one last shot at a career change, or at least modification. Here in Seattle, it’s inevitable to think of Microsoft, Starbucks, or Amazon as the main choices. They are the top employment “brands,” if you will. Let’s think this through.
I once had an interview at Microsoft for a temp job. One of the interviewers gave me a pencil, a legal pad, and he put this question to me: “Using these tools, how would you build a 747 jetliner?” This was one of those interview questions that’s supposed to gauge how you think. “Well, sir,” I thought to myself, “because I’d be writing blurbs on your website, and not building airplanes, I think that’s a stupid question.” Scratch MS.
What about Starbucks? Free coffee (I’m guessing) and, what else? Not sure. The Starbucks HQ is in the building that once housed the biggest Sears retail store in Seattle. Going there was a treat as a kid. As a middle-aged man, I’d be forever wandering the halls trying to remember where the candy and nuts counter was, and on finding it, hallucinating my mother telling me, “No, those cashews are too expensive.” Scratch SBUX.
That leaves Amazon. For a while, I thought I could survive in the Amazonian jungle. I spent five and a half years at RealNetworks, an Internet software startup founded around the same time as Amazon. Three weeks into the job, my boss, whom I liked, called me into her office. “You need to stay later,” she said. “It doesn’t look good if you leave early.” I was confused as to why 8:00 to 5: 30 five days a week was a slacker schedule. I got all my work done, and folks seemed happy with it. As the new guy, though, I didn’t argue with her, and I stayed until 6:30 or 7:00, and came in on Saturdays for a few hours, answering email and pretending to be productive.
I only planned to stay at Real for a couple of years and go back into radio, my second love, after writing. Little did I know that the stock options offered by Real as compensation would become the golden handcuffs to keep me at the company more than twice as long as I’d planned. The hours remained long, the expectations high, the camaraderie good, and the headaches grew worse. By the time I was laid off, after the Internet bubble burst in 2001, I was getting a migraine every couple of weeks, and taking meds like candy.
I was glad to get out of Real, and I recovered with wits intact. I ran a one-man web development company for a time, wrote free-lance articles, and a non-profit hired me to manage its website and do PR, a job I still have. I applied for a few Amazon jobs, with no luck. Cue the August 15 New York Times piece on Amazon’s “burn and churn” employment culture. I compared my experience at Real with the hellish stories about Amazon. I don’t think Real had a burn and churn employment culture, and its HR policies were liberal for its peers. I admired its leadership and my colleagues were among the smartest people I’ve ever known.
However, seeing Amazon through the lens of experience at RealNetworks, I fail now to understand the motivation of any worker, young or old, for spending 80 hours, or 60 hours, or even 50 hours a week in a cubicle or otherwise walled in via a phone or laptop. After a while, stock options, or cool products, and even cooler co-workers stop compensating for the fact that most of your contribution is making a far-away rich stranger richer. Young man or young lady, you may feel you’re working for yourself, but the math shows you’re probably still working for a version of The Man.
I think about what I would have traded for a job at Amazon, had I been hired. Since 2001, when I left RealNetworks, I’ve managed to work almost exclusively as a telecommuter. I took on the role of stay-at-home dad, watching my two daughters grow up as few other American fathers witness, from doctor appointments to sports practice shuttle driver to flesh-and-blood ATM. I worked at “real” jobs prior to 2001 long enough to know the difference between the two roles, and I wouldn’t trade the latter for all the stock options in the world.
The analysis convinced me I wouldn’t last ten weeks, much less ten years, at Amazon.
Thing is, my younger daughter leaves for college in a couple of weeks. My stay-at-home dad job is done (though the ATM role continues). What can I do next that has meaning, and isn’t only about growing someone else’s mountainous pile of gold? Ideas welcome.