A question I’ve fielded more than a few times lately has been some form of: “I’ve received a job offer from AWS; do you think I should accept it?”
As you might imagine from the fact that this is a long-form article instead of a one-word tweet, the answer is nuanced.
The Corey Quinn disclaimers
I want to start by bounding my perspective with a few qualifiers.
First, if you currently work at AWS, none of this is intended for you. It’s not a critique of your employment choices nor a passive-aggressive way of calling you out. People have reached out with this exact question, and I’ve given what I believe to be a balanced and honest response. If you enjoy working at AWS, you do you. I’m thrilled for you — really!
Third, I’m assuming that if you’re asking me this question:
- You already know that, full disclosure, I’ve personally turned down a job offer from Amazon in the past.
- You have multiple competitive options that are generally within the same ballpark as the AWS offer.
- You’re asking in good faith as an actual question, not asking me to affirm your decision when you’ve already made up your mind. If you’ve made your choice one way or the other, disregard me and follow your heart!
The downsides of an AWS job
Let’s be real, you’re here for some brutal truths about AWS. So let’s begin with those.
You get the compensation package of a retailer, not a tech company
The reason to take any job is generally at least in part due to a sincere desire not to starve to death. If you happen to be independently wealthy and money no longer matters to you, congratulations. You can skip to the next section.
Amazon is first and foremost a retailer. Cloud computing came later. Viewing what feels an awful lot to you like a tech job through the lens of an e-commerce store may seem counterintuitive, but the stock market clearly sees the company that way since its stock price basically ignores AWS but cares very much about how many underpants shipments there were last quarter. (As an aside, in my opinion, this further bolsters the argument for splitting AWS into its own company, but that’s a topic for another day.)
With stock grants comprising much of the value of Amazon’s compensation packages, paying attention to the macroeconomic environment the company finds itself in is important to understanding the offer.
From 2011 through 2020, Amazon’s stock price soared almost 1,800%. In other words, every dollar of equity you were granted in 2010 would have been worth $18 at the end of the decade. That’s not too shabby!
Those times appear to be changing, however. I’d be remiss not to note that in 2021, a year beset by a global pandemic in which people had more items delivered to them at home than ever before, Amazon’s stock ended the year up 2.38% from where it started. Meanwhile, Google’s stock price soared 65.3% over the same period while Microsoft was up 52.48%. Let’s be clear however–in 2022, stocks are plunging across the board, which neatly illustrates my point at a more macro level. Whatever the proximate cause, the period of meteoric growth for Amazon stock grants is, if not over entirely, at least no longer anything approaching a guarantee. This slowdown almost certainly played a factor in the compensation changes in February 2022.
Being a retailer first and foremost also plays into Amazon’s benefits and perks, which are notorious for lagging behind those enjoyed by employees at tech companies of similar size. After all, every perk and benefit Amazon offers has to scale to the workers in the distribution centers as well. Understanding that basic fact goes a long way toward understanding the culture you may be walking into.
But money is clearly not everything, and past results are not indicative of future performance. Just bear this perspective in mind as you do the math for your own offer.
It’s Day 2 at AWS — and it has been for a while
A core belief of Amazon’s culture is that “It’s always Day 1,” as outlined in the now-famous 1997 Amazon shareholder letter. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Amazon has an entire page dedicated to the Day 1 culture on the AWS website.
In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos outlined his thoughts on Day 2.
“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like?”
That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
Bezos goes on to add, “Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly.” This aligns mightily with what I’ve observed from my outsider perspective of AWS.
In my view, there’s been a noticeable slowdown in AWS’s baseline ability to execute around anything that isn’t a hair-on-fire emergency. In fact, everything Bezos said about a Day 2 company looks a lot like the AWS of recent years.
I get that that’s going to be an inflammatory statement that’s likely to evoke a lot of sentiment in both directions, so let me back up my point a bit.
Take a look at Jerry Hargrove’s excellent History of AWS Services and start scrolling down the list. See how long it takes you to get to a service that materially and meaningfully disrupted the way you or any company of which you have significant knowledge conducts its business. There was a time when services like S3, SNS, DynamoDB, CloudFormation, Systems Manager, and oh-so-many more were revolutionary. They clearly transformed the way a huge swath of companies conducted their business online. There have even been feature releases, such as S3 Intelligent Tiering, Systems Manager Parameter Store, and EBS multi-attach, that dramatically altered the way we all build systems.
But over the past few years, the emphasis has shifted away from launching new, transformative things. Instead, the focus is on quality-of-life features, services targeting specific niches of specific industries, the Amazon Basics versions of other companies’ open source offerings, and, frankly, multiple repackagings of the same basic capabilities.
It feels an awful lot like “maintaining the status quo” has taken over an Amazon division that at one time was far more dynamic — one that excelled at forcing the rest of us to examine, to really THINK, about the actual goals of what we were trying to accomplish, because it was clearly showing us a better way to get to those outcomes.
AWS has an attrition problem
Taking a step back from the big, sweeping picture of Amazon’s place in history and the industry at large, let’s instead focus on what day-to-day life at AWS is like.
Though I have my own inside sources on this topic, I’m not here to betray confidences. Instead, I’ll point to a January 2022 piece by Bloomberg’s Brad Stone. He highlights a statement from a recently departed senior engineering manager, who said “turnover … was over 20% in 2021 and over 50% in some major AWS units.” AWS, of course, gave Stone a nonspecific denial, but the article’s claim aligns perfectly with multiple reports from friends who’ve left AWS or considered it. When turnover is that high, there are two concerns.
1. Say hello to a heavy workload
The raw number of people who are leaving leads to concerns about your future work. If you join a team that has experienced 20% to 50% turnover and is having difficulty filling roles, exactly what do you imagine your individual workload is likely to be? AWS works its staff hard at the best of times. I have a hard time imagining that being in an organization with large numbers of open roles going unfilled resembles anything approaching a sustainable work life.
2. Say farewell to institutional knowledge
But it’s not just about the raw number of people who are leaving: Collective institutional experience is walking out the door. A brand new hire may very well bring in a wealth of novel ideas and fresh perspectives, but they’re backfilling someone with seven years of institutional knowledge and historical context who just walked out the door. Something critical is lost, both in terms of culture as well as operational insight into the organization.
Those darn noncompetes!
I’ve been very public about why I turned down an AWS job offer myself, and that was due to its ridiculous noncompete agreements. AWS has since sued its former VP of product marketing under the auspices of such an agreement, as well as threatened to enforce it an unknown number of times against folks who weren’t nearly so well-positioned in their careers so as to be able to fight it publicly.
As a quick refresher, in every jurisdiction that allows it, AWS employees are required to sign a post-employment noncompete agreement that’s bound to “any company that competes with Amazon.” It’s ridiculously overbroad and can put a severe dent in your future career plans post-AWS, should you go down that path. Be sure to consult an employment attorney before signing anything. I also want to congratulate Microsoft on this one; they’ve stated they will no longer enforce or require post-employment non-competes for anyone who’s not in an executive leadership position or at least approaching that level.
As always, your position on this may differ wildly from mine on this point, and that’s OK. I don’t begrudge anyone who signs this agreement for their decision. I absolutely do begrudge Amazon leadership for putting their staff in this position.
There is no other tech company that scopes its agreements so broadly. Many, if not most, don’t require post-employment noncompete agreements whatsoever from their staff.
The good parts of taking an AWS job
I don’t want to come across as giving a litany about not working at AWS being the right answer. There are, in fact, some benefits to taking an Amazon job.
AWS is a truly unique experience
For a long time, the reason to work at Amazon has been “you will work incredibly hard (despite potentially being paid marginally less than you would elsewhere) and learn an absolute ton that will be very hard for you to learn anywhere else, while having an incredibly massive impact on the world.”
You’ll work at a scale that most folks have a hard time even imagining and that you won’t find virtually anywhere else in the world. That’s no small thing for teaching valuable architectural lessons that are borderline impossible to get any other way.
Work with some of the smartest people I’ve met
Amazon is where some of the best engineers in the industry work and some of the best people you’ll ever meet call their professional home. Amazon operates at a scale that few people can effectively imagine, much less work with. And of course, no matter what area of industry you find personally interesting, it’s a sure thing that Amazon is either active within it or actively serving customers in that space.
Let’s be honest, it looks good on your résumé
You’re not going to stay at Amazon forever, unless you’ve already gone whole-hog into the realm of Corporate True Believer. So there’s a lot to be said for having a company with AWS’s cachet on your résumé. It’ll open the doors to future opportunities for many folks, particularly those early on in their careers.
Team culture at AWS is probably better than you’ve heard
I’d caution you to take stories about Amazon’s work culture, such as the one that appeared in The New York Times a few years back, with a grain of salt. Large companies don’t have a culture so much as they have thousands of distinct internal cultures. I’m loath to take that article as an accurate description of Amazonian employment culture across the board. Even the most disgruntled employees with whom I’ve spoken don’t recognize a lot of what that article describes.
Day 2 companies can make a comeback
Amazon has been a fascinating company to observe for a long time. Its evolution along multiple axes has been a case study in redefining markets, disruption, vertical integration, expanding into new business areas, and a couple dozen other things. In business lifecycles, companies can reinvent themselves. So while Amazon is living that Day 2 life right now, who’s to say it won’t see a Day 1 again?
What’s the right answer for you?
There absolutely is no wrong answer to the question of whether someone should accept an offer from AWS.
There are things that Amazon absolutely excels at. On some level, I still regret not having the opportunity to experience being an Amazonian firsthand. I often wonder what it would have been like and whether it would have aligned with my external understanding of the culture and the company.
If you’re sitting on an Amazon offer, I simply suggest that you consider the points I’ve outlined here as an input to that decision — and this final thought. My snark about “Opinions My Own” aside, Amazon’s actual motto is “Work hard. Have fun. Make history.” If you look at those three things and don’t see that the AWS job offer is likely to fulfill those for you? I’d probably pass on the opportunity. But if it does, AWS has an awful lot to recommend it as your next employer.