Being Present in the Moment Through Balcony-Hopping with Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec

Episode Summary

Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, Vice President of Foundational Data Services at AWS, joins Corey on Screaming in the Cloud to discuss her technique for spending time intentionally and prioritizing work-life balance called balcony-hopping. Mai-Lan explains how she created the concept of balcony-hopping and how it has helped her to be a better leader, mother, wife, and boxer. Corey and Mai-Lan discuss how in today’s age, attention is a form of currency and why it’s so important to be intentional with how and where you spend your attention. Mai-Lan also offers practical insights to anyone seeking to feel more productive, present, and balanced. 

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Mai-Lan

Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec is Vice President, Foundational Data Services (FDS) at Amazon Web Services (AWS) and leads a number of high-scale AWS cloud services that provide storage and streaming of petabytes or exabytes of data and essential building blocks for modern application architecture like queuing and notifications, monitoring, alarming, logging and reliability validation. Mai-Lan’s teams include some of AWS’ first and largest-scale services like Amazon S3 and Simple Queue Service (SQS) to more recent and fast-growing services like managed open source streaming (Amazon Managed Streaming for Apache Kafka).

Prior to joining Amazon, Mai-Lan spent almost 15 years in engineering and product leadership roles at technology companies including Microsoft and early stage startups. She began her technology career after serving in the U.S. Peace Corps in the Mopti region of Africa as a Forestry volunteer after earning her degree from University of California, San Diego.

At Amazon, Mai-Lan is an advisor to Asians@Amazon, creator and sponsor of internal leadership development programs for Amazon employees, and is passionate about AWS initiatives and cloud services that maximize human potential everywhere.

Mai-Lan has three children and lives in Seattle with her family. When she is not working on Amazon cloud services and spending time with her husband and kids, Mai-Lan trains primarily in boxing with additional practice in the martial art Savate.

Links Referenced:


Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. My guest today returns for a third time, and of course, new job titles seem to be something of a recurring theme here. Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec is Vice President of Foundational Data Services over at AWS. Mai-Lan, it’s great to talk to you again. Thank you for returning to suffer slings and arrows over here.

Mai-Lan: Hi, Corey. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Corey: There’s a countless number of topics we could talk about on the technical side, but what’s more interesting to me is an article that you put out—well, I’ll call it an article; it was a LinkedIn post; I’m not really familiar with the variety of different publication terms these days—but it really sent me down something of a rabbit hole and I was hoping you could talk to us a little bit more about it. I’ll link it in the [show notes 00:01:20], but it talked about a concept that was new to me, specifically ‘balcony hopping.’ Where did that come from? What is the overall thesis of what you wrote? And I guess if you tell the story about what you wrote, maybe I’ll be in a better position to explain why it threw me for something of a loop.

Mai-Lan: Yeah, absolutely. So, when I think about the journey that we’re all on, we are people, and we have different home lives, and we have different work lives, but we’re the same person whether we’re at home and we’re at work. And over the journey of our careers, we have to think about how we—in the Amazonian terms—operate, both at home and at work. And Corey, you have kids, my kids are much older than yours. I have a 20-year-old, I have an 18-year-old, and I have a 16-year-old.

Corey: Do they get less cute at that age?

Mai-Lan: Uh, no, they’re just different. They’re just sort of very big forms of the smaller life form that they started off at. But you know, once upon a time I was a working mom with three very young kids.

I came to this, like, realization that all of the tactics that I had used in the past around time management and just trying to be as smart as I possibly could and eke out every last minute out of every day that I could that I was—like, my brain was working because you know, when you’re a working parent, your brain is in a perpetual state of fog, depending on your sleep pattern of the night before. And I realized I had to do something different because I was feeling inadequate. I was feeling inadequate because I was getting what was probably a fair amount of work done, but it wasn’t enough for what I wanted to get done, both at home and at work. And I realized that rather than stretching out as many minutes as I could in the day, or using that hackneyed phrase, you know, “I wish I could find more time in a day,” I needed to be better about the minutes that I did have. And not only the minutes that I did have, I needed to be better in the daylight hours.

And that’s where I came up with balcony hopping as a concept. And if you’re at work, the minutes of your day are sometimes grouped by meetings or by work blocks, and so that is an easy way to visualize it. If you’re in a meeting to do a review on a product or pricing, your balcony is the name of that meeting or the name him of the role that you’re playing in that meeting, like a decision maker. You know, I do boxing and martial arts—I’ll stand on a balcony of boxing, I’ll stand on a balcony of being a wife.

And for each one of those balconies—each one of them—I’m going to stand on it was two feet, I’m going to be a hundred percent present in the moment of that balcony. And the balcony concept matters because I’ll give you an example where let’s just imagine that you’re a parent of have young kids—

Corey: That’s an easy thing for me to imagine, but people listening, their mileage may vary.

Mai-Lan: Right. So, you can take this even if you don’t have kids. Imagine you’re standing on the balcony where you’re going out and you’re doing something with a friend or your sibling, your sister, your brother. And it’s so easy in those moments where you’re theoretically standing on this, like, one balcony, where you look at your phone—we’re in the world of smartphones, and our work is often on our phones—and you look at your phone real quick because you have that one email you’re going to take a quick look at, and you think to yourself, “My kid won’t notice,” “My friend won’t notice,” “My mom won’t notice. I’m just going to take a quick look at this.”

It’s never a quick look, Corey. Never is. Because the world is a complicated place. That work email is going to take more than a minute. You’re going to have to separate from your moment, process the email, you might start typing, and before you know it, minutes have gone by.

And if you’re a parent, and you quickly glance over to make sure your kid is on the playground or whatever, notices, and they’re not looking at you at that moment, you’re like, “Oh, they’re fine. They didn’t even see me do that.” And that—

Corey: “I got away with it.”

Mai-Lan: Today’s kids are way smarter than that. They are also very in tune with the distraction of a phone. They know when you looked at your phone. And they knew that in that moment where you were standing on the balcony with them, you weren’t.

You were straddling two balconies; work balcony and that balcony. And they know that they’re not the most important thing in that moment. And that’s not okay. Not in today’s very distracted world. And so, one of the things that I always do when I talk about balcony hopping is I say how important it is to stand with both feet, a hundred percent focused on a single balcony at the time. And that means that you’re intentionally spending your best minute at your best self in a given moment like that.

Corey: It feels to me that for a bunch of folks, that it’s easier to maintain balcony separation than it is for some others. I mean, to give a very droll example, my wife’s a corporate attorney and has a work phone with work stuff on it and a personal phone with personal stuff on it. So, it’s not family time, the work phone goes away. Great. Well, what I do for fun on the internet and what I do for work on the internet, the boundaries aren’t anywhere near clear enough.

It’s, “Oh, I’m going to go be obnoxious to Amazon on the internet for something.” Is that work? Is that fun time? Eh, a little Column A, a little of Column B. And I find that the more I look at it, every line gets blurrier and blurrier the deeper you go until suddenly, I’ve been staring at my phone for 45 minutes and my kid is slowly starving to death.

Mai-Lan: Well, I highly doubt that they’re starving to death, knowing you, Corey.

Corey: No, but then from the sounds of it and the whining, oh, absolutely.

Mai-Lan: [laugh].

Corey: At this point, no kid has ever been so poorly treated. But she has a point.

Mai-Lan: So, Corey, this is what’s interesting, in today’s world where your device is often two things, right, or more, that is actually a hard thing to do. And that’s why balcony hopping is kind of a lifestyle. It’s a behavior change, you know, if I’m out with my kids, my phone is actually not visible or really present in that moment, I won’t at home know where my phone is a lot of the times because it’ll be in a different room or it’ll be facedown or it’ll be under five papers or something like that. I’ve worked at Amazon since 2010 and we run some services that are pretty big—

Corey: Slightly on the critical path for a company or two out there.

Mai-Lan: Slightly. And they’re 24/7. And at AWS, we take our operational profile and our responsibilities to our customers very seriously. And so, my team knows that if they need me, they page me. And if the phone is in my purse, if the phone is in my backpack, if the phone is in some corner of the room and I get paged, I will hear it.

And I will go spend time on that operational balcony a hundred percent when I need to. And I think it’s by physically making changes like that, by behaviorally making changes like that, you can actually change your life and how you operate in a moment. But it’s hard and it takes practice, and it takes consistency, and it makes your brain hurts sometimes because you’re making a change like that. But in my mind, it is all worth it to be the best person that you can be in a given moment.

Corey: I think it’s easy to think about this, in the context of the clear dividing lines. For example, recording this podcast is a component of my job. Talking to you is clearly the number one priority that I have going on in my work life at this moment in time. But if the phone rings and it is my childcare provider or my daughter’s school or my wife, I will put you on pause to go and validate that there for the kid is alive because they don’t call me willy-nilly. And I don’t think that anyone is going to argue that I should not be doing that.

You just mentioned, for example, when you get paged in the middle of the night due to some exigent circumstance involving work, yeah, that is a clear, “Ooh, something is on fire. We should probably make sure that it’s contained and doesn’t spread further.” Where I find it tends to get sticky is not those clear moments where there’s an emerging crisis, but with the subtle day-to-day, maybe with a bit more of an imperative aspect to it starts to bleed over. And let’s be clear, we’re not talking about personal life bleeding over into work. That doesn’t seem to be the problem that most folks I talk to have. It’s the other direction where you’re out trying to spend a day with your child on the weekend and a work email thread catches fire and you feel that you need to be diving into that and not being present on the balcony as a parent in those moments. It’s the pernicious piece.

Mai-Lan: It is but if you look at your duration of time as the daylight hours of a day and you ask yourself, “What percentage of time am I spending on what balcony during that period of time?” And you do it over seven days a week, and then you calculate that over time, you calculate that over a spread of maybe two to three weeks, and you just start collecting some data. This is a journaling exercise that I actually do with folks. The first thing I do is I actually go to a whiteboard and I draw out—I’m terrible artist, okay, and so these little stick figures on balconies, and I give the pen to the person I’m working with and I’ll say write down what your balconies are. Just start off by documenting your balconies.

And I’ll tell you Corey, the first thing that happens is, there are always more balconies than people think. And before they know it, the whole whiteboard is filled with these little stick figures and many balconies. And you know, your goal is not to hit some magical percentage or count of hours in a given week.

Corey: Yeah. “And that’s five hours. Off the clock, kid. I’m pulling my phone out. Go away, kid. You bother me.” Yeah, that’s not generally how the parenting model should work out, in my mind.

Mai-Lan: It isn’t. But I’ll tell you, Corey, if my kid ever asks time to spend with me, I will say yes. Your kids need to know you’re available to them. And they’ll ask when they’re younger and if you say, “Not now, dear,” or, “Maybe,” and then you don’t follow through when they’re younger, they won’t ask when they’re older. Because as they get older, they’re the ones who aren’t going to have time for you.

And so, knowing that you’re available for them on their balcony when they’re younger and then keeping that over time really matters for your adult relationships with your kids. They have to know they’re the most important thing. And so, the data will be able to tell you over time and then you don’t have to keep your spreadsheet anymore. At this point, I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and in my head, I’m always keeping a general shape of how much time I’m spending on a given balcony. And it gets easier, but you have to practice at it, you have to make sure you use data so you’re not fooling yourself on how much time you’re actually spending on a balcony.

Corey: I’ve always struggled with transiting from, I guess, work mode to family mode and vice versa, so when I find that, oh, something has arisen; I need to transit from one to the other, it’s very difficult—if it’s even possible—for me to transition back in a reasonable period of time. My approach to this has tried to be to, I guess, expand the balcony so that I can effectively where the two hats simultaneously at all times. And that doesn’t work. I asked my daughter last month, just as an experiment because she’s five, “What does mommy do for a living?” “She’s a lawyer.”

“That’s right. What do I do for a living?” And she looks at me, dead in my face, five years old, and says, “You are a prolific shit poster.” And she’s not entirely wrong, but I’m realizing I’m bringing way too much of that snark and sarcasm home with me. And that doesn’t work in, I guess, to my mental model of the person I aspire to be, the parent I aspire to be.

Mai-Lan: When you do martial arts or boxing, it’s all about balance. And in fact, if you actually watch a boxing match, you’ll have two equally skilled people in the ring and the one that has better balance will often have the advantage because of their ability to move around and create angles and do different things, okay? So if you have two different balconies and you have one foot on one balcony and you have another foot on another balcony, there is no way that you have balance at that moment.

And if you don’t have balance, you can’t do what you’re best at in that moment. And whether that’s being an awesome dad—because I have no doubt that you are—or really looking at a situation in the cloud or in a technology from a different angle, which is something that you’re good at too, you can’t be good at either one of those things when you’re trying to adjust, right? You’re off balance. And so, the key is to try to get yourself onto the lawn balcony that you’re on in a given moment. Get your footing.

Corey: One of the things that really stuck with me about your post was—it’s just one of the things that you sort of mull over in the idle moments—I saw something recently about the science of why people come up with some interesting ideas in the shower. Well, yeah, because it’s the one time of the day where you’re not surrounded by distraction constantly. We’ve learned as a society to never tolerate being bored at any moment. You’re waiting in line for something? Pull out your phone and stare at it.

And I feel like, on some level, we have internalized a lot of this as focusing on screen time. Well, how much time are you spending staring at your screen? It has nothing to do with the physical mechanics of staring at a screen and everything to do with the fact that you’re a million miles away, craving another dopamine hit or focusing on something that probably doesn’t need to be addressed right then and there. And, as a result, I’m starting to look around and wonder just how much of our lives are passing us by.

Mai-Lan: Yeah. The currency of today’s world is your attention. And you can tell because when you’re looking at your phone, you get all these, reminders and notifications and things like that. Ding, ding, ding. Everything is trying to get your attention. That is the currency of today’s world. That’s a fact.

And so, if you think about that, and you’re like, “Okay, if I think about my attention as currency, if I think about it as something that’s as good as gold, as good as money, how am I spending it?” Am I spending it foolishly? Am I spending it without attention? Or am I being super intentional about where I put my attention? And if you are being intentional, you’re using your time, you’re using your minutes, in those daylight hours in the way that you want.

Corey: I can’t shake the feeling, on some level, that there’s not as much awareness as what you just highlighted, that the currency of today is attention. And I’ve felt that since the very beginning, when I was starting this business out and writing a newsletter, and I talked people asked me, “Well, who do I find my competitors to be?” And I mentioned a whole bunch of things. And they’re like, “Oh, that’s not a competitor in the least.” Well, what do you mean?

That there’s only so many hours in the day people are going to read their email or listen to podcasts or go on Twitter, et cetera, et cetera. On some level, we are increasingly competing for a vanishingly rare commodity, you have to, on some level, present novelty to deliver value at the same time, and ideally, be entertaining and engaging enough to cause people to prioritize this more highly than other things. But even just focusing on what AWS puts out is a more than full-time job at this point of the cycle, where there’s so much that is all coming at once, no one can focus on everything. And it leads to inherent points of blind spots, it leads to areas where we wind up getting stuck almost in our own bubble, just based upon what has been able to force his way to the top of our attention stack. It’s one of those nefarious things that when you start thinking about this, you start to wonder, “Oh, God, how much of this is happening everywhere and we just don’t see it?”

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Corey: I see this manifest a lot in the technical sense as well, where what are the most dangerous things that can happen to someone who works with technology is having learned something because once you know something, it’s unlikely you’re going to go back to confirm that what you learned is still accurate, especially when it comes to AWS. Some things that are not possible today will be possible tomorrow because the services don’t get less capable with time. One of the more fascinating things that I’ve noticed from the customer side of the world is that the lies that they tell, not just to me, but to themselves because a thing that they knew to be true at one—point, the common example I give is that the majority of their cost drivers has been their development environment was true at one point. And then they succeeded. They found product-market fit and now it’s 90% production.

Well, yeah, your knowledge is outdated, but you haven’t gone back to reconfirm that and figure out whether your assumptions around the way things work that were once true still hold. And I feel like we do that even more so and more perniciously when it comes to areas about ourselves and how much time we spend on things. “Oh, I’m a great parent. I spent plenty of time with my kids. Why, just six months ago, I did this nice dinner out with just my child.” Well, yeah, six months is an eternity when you’re growing up. What have you done lately?

Mai-Lan: It’s a great point. It’s a great point. The data will always tell you that. That’s where that whole exercise of just understanding where you spend your attention on what balcony during the daylight hours, it’ll tell you that.

Corey: That gets further complicated as you advance in your career, either in terms of actual hierarchy at a company or in influence that you wield for the variety of different means. I’ve gotten that one sincerely wrong from time to time where I forget the weight that words can carry and just giving feedback as if I were talking internally to a peer can wind up setting some people back months, as far as trying to understand the impact of what I said. “No, I was just letting my jaw flap in the breeze.” It gets increasingly dangerous to do that, as we progress professionally, and on some level, personally. Now, some folks don’t seem to have a problem with that. I don’t enjoy working with folks in that scenario most of the time.

Mai-Lan: Everybody has their own interior journey, Corey. And you look across the room and every single person in that room has their own interior journey going on. To be the best person you can be on that balcony, is to take into account the interior journey of the individuals.

Corey: From your perspective, if someone is taking a look at where they are and realizing they’re not being fully present in the way that they want to be, what’s an actionable thing that they can do? What is the next step? A lot of us often need help to get moving in a particular direction of where do I put my foot first, and then inertia starts to take over.

Mai-Lan: Well, as I said, Corey, a lot of what I’m talking about with balcony hopping, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of thinking, it’s a way of living, it’s a way of living at work and at home. And if you want to try to adopt this as a way to be fully present and intentional about how you spend your daylight hours, the first step is that cataloging of what balconies you have in your life and do the exercise—you can do a visually, you can write it down in words, whatever works best for you—of all the different roles that you play, and you know, decision maker, mentor, mom, sister, brother, child of your parent, friend, if you’re an athlete, write down what you do as an athlete.

And ask yourself, in these balconies, where am I spending the most time? And where am I spending some time but maybe not enough? And where am I spending no time at all and that makes me sad? And then once you have that list, go to that second step of cataloging, through data, where you’re spending your time today.

And be ruthless with yourself to understand if you are or you aren’t. And don’t try to fudge it. Don’t try to count the minutes where you’re straddling balconies. If you’re straddling balconies and you know it, you’re not on either one of them. That’s a big fat zero for both of them.

And then look at your data and say, “Where do I want to make a change?” And then you just have to practice it. And a lot of people will just practice one balcony first, Corey. And for folks that I’ve talked to about this concept, the one that many parents do is putting their cell phone down when they’re with their kids because it’s a very concrete thing. You can just, like, put it face down, spend your 30 to 45 minutes along with your kid, and then check in with yourself. How did that go?

And then persist that behavior over time. So, pick one thing, practice at it, get better at it, you know, assess what the impact was, and then just see how you can generalize it. And whether you generalize it across all your balconies or you just generalize it to the ones that matter the most, you’ll be really focusing on the minutes of your day in the daylight hours and making sure you have the impact that you want.

Corey: I really want to thank you for being so generous with your time as well as your insight. If people want to learn more, where’s the best place for them to follow you?

Mai-Lan: If you’re interested in this particular topic or other ones, I think the best place to go is to check it out on LinkedIn. That’s where I’ll continue to write an article or two about topics like this and also share some thoughts on services in the area that I own, which is streaming and messaging, storage monitoring, and other areas.

Corey: Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

Mai-Lan: Thanks, Corey. It’s good to see you and have a great day.

Corey: Mai-Lan Tomsen Bukovec, Vice President of Foundational Data Services at AWS. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, along with an angry comment telling me that you absolutely can stand on two balconies at the same time and then hit send right before you plummet it three stories down.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit to get started.

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