Beware of the Big Tech “Bubble”
My entire 25+ year career in software engineering has been at three out of the Big Tech companies: Microsoft (11 years), Amazon (11 years) and Google (3.5 years). And I have an embarrassing admission. I lived in bubbles. Initially, I was blissfully unaware I did: it wasn’t deliberate, it was simply naive. Today, I still live in bubbles, but at least I’m aware and I take steps to alleviate the negative effects. Because living in bubbles is unavoidable.
I’m NOT using the term “bubble” as in the dot-com-bubble” of the late nineties. I’m not predicting the doom of the tech industry. Rather, I’m using the term “bubble” as in “assuming that most people in the world live and think like you, because most people around you live and think like you.”
Bubbles don’t just apply to the tech world; but this article today explores how I’ve run into them while being a software engineer.
The Exceptionalism Bubble
My first bubble started in 1997, when I accepted a dream offer from Microsoft right out of college and moved to Seattle.
To explain how I easily fell into The Bubble, I need to give some context. I had done high school and college in a small town in Missouri, and when I landed in Seattle I was awe struck. I went from a sleepy Midwestern town of maybe 70,000 to a vibrant cosmopolitan area of 4 million souls. I still remember the night I landed at Seatac, my eyes wide open looking at the skyscrapers around me as I drove to Redmond. I went from a Computer Science graduating class of maybe fifty kids to a behemoth of 40,000 of the smartest computer scientists in the world. My mind was blown. Back then Microsoft went to the best schools in the world and snatched up the top graduating seniors at any cost. The professors too while they were at it. I honestly have no idea why they chose me. I had gone to a decent but not stellar university, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by kids from MIT, Stanford, CMU, Harvard, Berkeley. I was a tiny little baby fish in a giant pond. I embraced what destiny had brought me and worked there for 11 years and 3 months.
And so my first Bubble started.
Microsoft was the first, and really only world I ever knew, for over a decade. It was a standalone micro-world, and so slowly, and gradually, I started ignoring the rest of the world. I lived in Redmond, an upscale neighborhood of Seattle, where the average median household income is 50% higher than the rest of the area. Microsoft benefits included membership at an exclusive high end gym where I routinely saw Steve Ballmer and other Microsoft executives working out. All my friends were microsofties: relatively well-off, well-educated, and tech geeks. I went from an immigrant who came to the US with a suitcase and a hundred bucks to making more money that first year than I ever imagined I would. We all drove Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, Porsches. Our problems were different from other people’s problems.
Microsoft pushed exceptionalism very hard. From wikipedia: “Exceptionalism is the perception or belief that a species, country, society, institution, movement, individual, or time period is exceptional (i.e., unusual or extraordinary). The term carries the implication, whether or not specified, that the referent is superior in some way.”
We’d interview somebody and as we were debriefing on the candidate we would say little condescending things like, “Oh they were nice but not Microsoft material.” We didn’t do this because we were jerks, or arrogant. We did it because others around it did it, and it eventually just became the norm. And we started believing it. That’s how exceptionalism creeps in.
Eventually, that “Microsoft was the only and best place in the world for software engineers” just became an innate assumption, an unquestioned fact. If you were smart, why would you go anywhere else?
This was the nineties, and there was some truth to that. Microsoft was one of the epicenters of software engineering back then and it did attract some amazing talent. Thanks to the stock options the company gave, about 12,000 employees became millionaires in the 90s. Even I was a millionaire by age 25, but sadly only on paper, and not for very long.
I’m mortified to admit this, but I remember a friend of mine leaving Microsoft to work at Amazon circa 2006, and me thinking to myself, “poor guy, that’s a step down…” (oh, how wrong I was).
Then the most amazing thing happened.
Microsoft, big, almighty powerful Microsoft, was hard-hit by the global financial crisis in late 2008. And so I found myself being unceremoniously kicked out of the only world I had ever known, along 5000 other engineers who lost their job that day.
I was in shock.
I was never going to get another job like Microsoft. I was never going to work with people as smart. I was never going to make as much money.
When I got to Amazon, I realized that engineers there were just as smart as the engineers at Microsoft I had been working with. The computer science problems and the scaling issues were just as interesting. Amazon stock shot up to the skies and I actually ended up making twice as much money my first year at Amazon than my last year at Microsoft. By the time I left in 2020, I was making 7 times that. My career grew exponentially faster.
Maybe that narrative of Microsoft exceptionalism had been wrong?
Maybe I had been living in a… bubble???
In fact I found at Amazon an entire world I had never known at Microsoft, and I ended up spending 11 years and 3 months there, ironically, and unintentionally, the exact same amount of days I had spent at Microsoft.
What steps did I take to alleviate the negative effects of exceptionalism?
I traveled the world. Not just the safe and comfortable “first world,” but I backpacked extensively through Asia, Africa and Latin America. I stamped 53 country visas in my passport. I met and hung out with people from all kinds of social layers, incomes, education levels, skin colors, jobs, debated people with entirely different belief systems from mine, and overall embraced humanity with a newly found curiosity and humility. The world is an amazing place.
If you work in FAANG, MAMAA or Big Tech in general, remind yourself regularly: there’s smart engineers and amazing career growth opportunities outside your specific company. I’m so surprised by the sheer number of co-workers who only worked at a single company their entire career, and don’t even have a LinkedIn profile. I’m a strong believer of making some long-term bets, as my history of long tenures at Microsoft, Amazon and Google hints, but moving between these companies has made me a more well-rounded engineer and human being.
But bubbles come in all sizes and shapes.
The Tech-Island Bubble
Amazon (Google and Microsoft as well, as I’m sure all large software companies) has a huge ecosystem of proprietary internal tools that you use to do your job, from building, to code reviews, to testing, to deploying. Some of those were externalized, and essentially became AWS services, some are still internal. Need storage that’s scalable, reliable, secure? No problem, just use AWS S3. No need to reinvent the wheel. Literally just 3 lines of code. And like this, Amazon has dozens of little boilerplate building blocks that make developing your service easy.
The problem comes when you leave.
What I underestimated was just how much Amazon-internal knowledge I had acquired over the course of 11 years there, that allowed me to be hyper-efficient. As useful as this knowledge was within Amazon, it was utterly useless once I left. When I got to Google in 2020, I had to unlearn a decade of Amazon internal tools and learn the equivalent Google tools. A lot of it came to undocumented tribal knowledge like, “don’t use tool x for this specific case scenario, use tool y!”, so acquiring it was a long, painful and frustrating process.
Now, I’m aware that a lot of that knowledge that I so painstakingly have acquired my last 3½ years at Google will be utterly useless the minute I leave Google.
That too, is a bubble of sorts. It’s an island. It’s a Tech Island. All big tech companies have it. It often keeps you blissfully ignorant of what the rest of the world is doing. And sometimes, the rest of the world is doing something significantly better than what you’re doing in your tech island.
What steps do I take to alleviate the negative effects of the tech-island bubble?
I make a point to watch talks from external conferences, and constantly read books and blogs about the way companies other than where I’m working do things. I also frequently chat with friends who are in other companies, particularly curious about how different places think about developer productivity. I spend as much time learning how Google does things as I do learning how the rest of the world does things.
The Culture Bubble
This is similar to the Exceptionalism Bubble but there’s subtle differences. Let me illustrate with Amazon. Amazon has a unique, almost cult-like DNA, narrowly defined by Leadership Principles (“LPs”). These strongly define the culture, and are used thousands of times per day, to hire, fire and promote people, and to make business decisions. Two random amazonians or even ex-amazonians can find each other in a remote cafe in Tibet or Timbuktu and immediately have the same language to speak to each other, quickly and efficiently. When I got to Google, I wanted to understand what being “googley” was, so I asked ten people around me to explain googliness. Every one gave me a different explanation. It very much felt like the blind men and an elephant parable. What I eventually realized is that by being a narrowly defined culture, Amazon is a cultural bubble (whereas Google is a melting pot).
To be fair: I love Amazon’s LPs and I use them today still. I think they’re an extremely powerful framework for decision making and human interaction. But you either fit (and love it and thrive in it) or you do not (and leave the company or stay in a miserable situation).
For me, they fit like a glove. The minute I got to Amazon I felt I had been Amazonian my whole life, just didn’t know it. But this is not true for everybody.
What steps did I take to alleviate the negative effects of the cultural bubble?
Perhaps a bit drastic but I actually left Amazon and went to Google, quite possibly the exact opposite culturally in almost every way. I wanted to dare myself to work in an environment that would challenge all the assumptions I had built over the course of 11 years at Amazon. By Amazon standards, some of the processes at Google seem very broken. But they miraculously work (it is a very successful company after all!), defying every bit of Amazon indoctrination I received. For example, for an Amazon Bar Raiser, the Google hiring process is a hot mess, but we do have great hires. How such a deeply flawed process yields solid outcomes defies my logic, but I can’t deny that it does.
The Perks Bubble
There’s lots more bubbles, but this is the last one I’ll talk about today. Tech companies are notorious for some crazy perks. Microsoft in the nineties was surprisingly cheap, and Amazon is quite possibly one of the most frugal companies in the world, so I never really had “perks” until I got to Google.
Google’s perks are legendary. Free breakfast, lunch and dinner, in not one, but dozens of cafes, often multiple cafes in a single building. You’re never too far from free food and drinks. Don’t want to go up or down the stairs to get your free food? No worries, every floor has a “microkitchen,” stocked with snacks and drinks. Got some extra energy after all that free food? You can hit the free gym, with top notch work out equipment. Want to relax? Schedule a free massage from a friendly massage therapist. Feeling sleepy after your free massage? Take a nap in a comfy nap pod. Want some fresh air on a nice sunny day? You can check out a free kayak or paddleboard and take it on South Lake Union or the Fremont Cut here in Seattle. Need to head over to Bangalore for a business trip? Just book your own suite on Qatar Airways (Amazon flew us Economy!). The list goes on and on. For somebody who worked at frugal companies for 22½ years, joining Google was infinitely amusing.
Oh, how easily you take things for granted though. I realized I had entered the Perks Bubble when I caught myself whining to a co-worker that I had to go down one flight of stairs to get my morning (free) coconut water. Yes, I had grown accustomed to getting to work every morning and starting my day with a refreshing chilled coconut water, and sip it as I caught up with my email. And to my dismay, the microkitchen in my floor was out of coconut water that day, so I had to make the immense and humiliating effort to go down a flight of stairs to get my free coconut water from the next microkitchen.
These perks are fantastic. But it’s easy to fall in the trap of entitlement. No, companies do not HAVE to give you free coconut water to start your day. It’s a business. You’re there to accomplish a business objective, not to get pampered. I find the “one day in the life of a (googler|other-company-with-awesome-perks)” type videos extremely offensive. They’re so superficial. Even my recruiters were stressing the perks when trying to convince me to join Google. Don’t choose a company because it feeds you free food. Choose a company because of the growth that your career will experience if you work hard and take a few chances here and there.
At this point of my life, I’ve been exposed to so many of these bubbles that I can at least spot them and be deliberate about how I mitigate some of the negatives. Social media algorithms decide what information to show you, retailers decide what products to recommend to you. It’s everywhere and it’s unavoidable. But at least, if you go through life with your eyes wide open, you’ll know how to deal with them.