On Employment, Freedom, Purpose and Happiness
Hey friend! 🖖
Welcome to my newsletter! This is the first time I send out a newsletter after having a signup form on my website for months.
Consider this a form of public journal: I will write about the things I do, the things I am learning, the things I discovered or read that I found interesting. And yes, if you reply I will read it and answer back.
Wall of text alert! This first issue is going to be longer than normal. This is for two reasons: the topic chosen and the fact that I wanted to give some background story on me, who I am, and how I got here. No person's life can be summarised in a few paragraphs, but at least you'll get a glimpse of who I am.
If you follow me on Twitter you may now that I became a contributor for Gitcoin DAO. And even though I am still working as a software developer, it is really interesting and different compared to your normal corporate job. Now it is true that I come from the polar opposite — my last two jobs have been, respectively:
6 years at Amazon
1 year and 4 months at Facebook
Even before that I always have been an employee, even though I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I have had side projects in the past, but I never made the jump.
Life in a DAO is different. And it's not only because everybody is remote. It's the culture. Now I know that every DAO is different, same as every company is different. That said, so far it has been really nice.
But that is not what I want to focus on in this first...issue? of my newsletter. I promise I will get back to that in a future issue, as this is a topic that deserves its own space.
Today I want to talk about employment and freedom, purpose, happiness.
I am a self taught software developer. I started "coding" (if you can call it that) when I was 6, and I continued to teach myself over the years. I was hired for my first job in a small company ― which today you would call a startup ― when I was 16. Why is this relevant? Because I was driven by pure curiosity. I had no idea that being a software developer was going to be a good career choice. At that age I did not care about what my career was going to be, I wanted to have fun like all kids.
Then over time I shifted from doing what I liked to have fun, to doing it to pay for my expenses. And I started optimising for that: I started chasing a better job, more money, and what ― on paper ― looked like a more fulfilling career in bigger companies.
I remember sending my CV to Google and, to my disappointment, never receiving an answer.
Eventually I moved abroad to Copenhagen, working for a local company. Same job, higher pay. Honestly after a while it stopped being interesting. It was something that allowed me to pay the bills, and that's about it.
The Status Game
Then a colleague told me that Amazon was having a hiring event in Copenhagen, and I applied. They hired me, but they couldn't move me to Seattle due to how poorly the VISA system works in the US. They gave me a few options and I chose to relocate to Dublin. And for a while, things were good.
Things were good because of the people I was working with. I was hired in Network Monitoring ― technically under AWS, even though we were monitoring the whole network including Retail. The 3 sister teams were composed by a bunch of nerds that liked what they were doing. Things were fun again, conversations were stimulating, and I was happy.
Then something happen, something awful. The company culture started shifting, and things became a mess of politics and fights between the management in the two sister orgs. A few of the engineers I was close with left, for various reasons. Around that same time, my team was expanding in Seattle and I moved to help ramp up the team ― and in pursuit of a better pay.
While I was working on a new region build, on the verge of rage-quitting because of how poorly the company culture had spiralled down in that organisation, I got a message from a former teammate. He had moved to a different org under Retail (I was still in AWS at the time), transitioned to a manager role, and was looking for engineers to join his team. He was doing what many managers were doing at the time: trying to "poach" employees from other teams. I accepted. I knew him, I knew he was competent and a good person, and it was an easy way of getting out of the boring version of hell that the upper management had created in Network Monitoring (which was not called that anymore after 3 reorgs in as many years ― I stopped keeping track).
My new team was in Payments. "Not that payments", as I used to say. Amazon is big enough (and messy enough) to have two different orgs with almost the same name living pretty close to each other. The org was called Payments Products (I am not a native English speaker but that name always sounded weird to me). The work consisted of building and maintaining integrations with Amazon's partner banks. It's the type of work where you try to use all the new, cool and shiny technology but you end up having to drop a CSV file in an FTP folder somewhere, because banks haven't decommissioned their AS/400s even though it's 2020.
And this is where the status game started.
I remember what my manager friend told me a few days after I joined my new team: appearance matters here. He openly told me that coming in early and staying late was seen as a good thing, because of how it "appeared" to the upper management. If he had mentioned that earlier, I would not have joined. Things proceeded to go south from here.
I don't like playing status games. I want to show up, get the work done, and that's what matters to me. That's not how things worked in that org. I cannot speak for Amazon as a whole, it is a big company, but the datapoints I got from former colleagues that had migrated in other organisations across the company all pointed in the same direction: the company culture was shifting, and we did not like it.
There's a thing called OLR in Amazon, which is what they call the performance evaluation where engineers are stack ranked (they don't call it like that but that's what it is). Then they had a goal of arbitrarily firing ~5% of the engineers ― they called it "un-regretted attrition" ― and almost all managers have to nominate someone from their team to go through the process and potentially get fired. Now, if you are thinking that it would then be better to be in a team with poor engineers, you are not wrong. You might not learn much from them, and you might drawn in technical debt, but you won't get fired. It used to be that you'd have to spend a solid couple of days writing feedback around the time OLR was coming. Real, hard feedback on your peers, with datapoints to back what you were saying about them, linking to tickets and code reviews. That feedback was used during OLR. It had an impact on your career, chances of promotion, and compensation. Then they shifted to "Forte". You were supposed to write feedback in the form of your peers' "superpowers". There was an "areas for improvement" section, but it didn't matter. None of it did. It was not used during OLR anymore, in fact the due date was sometimes after the OLR had happened. It had no impact on your or your peers' careers. You would talk about it with your manager when discussing your rating and compensation package, define your areas of improvement based on the peers feedback, then forget about it because it did not matter ― it was not part of your evaluation, and any goal attached to it was not relevant to your career or compensation. There was no motivation to work on that feedback. Personally I think it was a way of making an opaque process (the OLR and performance evaluation) appear to be more transparent and somewhat fair. Like you were not at the mercy of your manager.
This shift in culture was obvious in the way promotions were given, and being promoted became a status game ― skills and competence did not matter. Being promoted to "your level + 1" as fast as possible was all that mattered.
I hated it.
I don't like status games, I don't want to have to appear in a certain way or have to care about impressions that are not based on the quality of my output.
The Social Game
Fast forward December 2020, I join Facebook.
Little parenthesis here: previously I said that I sent my CV to Google and they never even acknowledged it. While I was interviewing I managed to pass the loop for both Facebook and Google. I ended up choosing Facebook, partially because of the way the team matching process works at Google and partially because they were taking a long time to come up with an offer. I know it doesn't matter at all to them, but as a self taught engineer it felt nice in a way: I made it to where you want to hire me, now I am the one saying no. It's dumb, I know, and it's not what drove my decision ― that was heavily impacted by a few former Amazon colleagues that moved to Facebook.
Back to the story. Facebook was a different game compared to Amazon. Unfortunately, it was still a game.
The social game.
I might be wrong on this, but I think it's even openly said somewhere during the bootcamp: the feedback you receive matters a lot, and you need your peers to like you.
When I was trying to decide between Facebook and Google, I had little information to base my decision on. A good source as always are former colleagues, and I knew a few that were working in both companies. The 3 working in Facebook described it as an heavenly place, and I trust them. I still do. The problem is that they work in Dublin, not Seattle, and they are Production Engineers, not Software Engineers. I turns out that company culture is extremely different once you vary these two parameters. The way Facebook ended up working was not the way I had imagined. I had several 1:1s with one of my friends, a principal engineer, and he almost apologised ― he realised, over time and speaking to Software Engineers out of his wider org ― that Facebook is not what he thought it was. A few months later I then received the same feedback from another one of my 3 contacts, meaning: don't worry if you are being hired by Facebook as a PE. You will be fine if you are in Ireland.
Social games are another thing that's pretty high up on my list of things to steer away from in a work setting. There were other red flags, being constantly told that the number of commits was used to evaluate me was another good example. Why was I doing that to myself?
The problem with all this, was the same: I kept chasing a higher paying job instead of a job that made me happy. The money at Facebook was nice. The job and the culture though... And that's without considering what it feels like to work for a company that lots of people hate and see as useless plain detrimental to society.
Given that lots of software engineers want to work at Amazon and Facebook, why was I not happy? Two reasons, and both have to do with how you define happiness.
I've come to the conclusion that once I reached the point in the Maslow scale where I was making enough to live comfortably, my priorities shifted drastically and more money wasn't going to make me happy if not temporarily ― for a few months. Ah, the beauty of hedonic adaptation.
What is happiness?
My definition of happiness changed over time. If I were to define it now, I would say that it is composed of two things: purpose and excitement.
Purpose is obvious. I need to know that what I am doing matters. While I was in Amazon in Network Monitoring I could justify that saying that, of all our customers, surely someone was using AWS to make something good for humanity. Indirectly, I was enabling it. The work was interesting ― the excitement part ― and that was all I needed. Once I moved out of that though... In Facebook for example, I did not get that feeling. What I was doing didn't matter much in the grand scheme of things. My entire team and the product we were building could have never existed, and humanity would not be worse off. We were not creating enough net positive impact.
As for excitement, I'll drop here a quote from Tim Ferriss' "The 4-Hour Workweek":
The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of happiness is ― here's the clincher ― boredom. Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is precisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all.
I was not only missing a purpose, I was not feeling excited about my work either.
A taste of freedom can make you unemployable
Then something unexpected happened. It was December 2021, and on my Twitter feed I started reading about these things called NFTs. I had no idea what they were. I heard about Bitcoin shortly after it started gaining steam in...was it 2008? I even mined a few Bitcoins ― and lost access to the wallet, but we don't talk about that. I thought it was an interesting concept, but I didn't care much about it because it was mostly speculation and it was "just" a currency. Bitcoin maximalists are going to hate me for saying this, but I was not that interested.
When I started looking into NFTs and Ethereum, things changed. I had not followed the development in crypto over the years, and I had no idea that the EVM (the Ethereum VM) was programmable. That was interesting. That was exciting.
I went down the rabbit hole that crypto is, reading about smart contracts, Solidity, DEXs, bonding curves, NFTs, ERC-721, ERC-20, ERC-1155, Conviction Voting, Quadratic Funding, MEV...
I joined the Buidl Guidl (more on that in a future post), and started connecting with people. Suddenly, I rediscovered the excitement I had when the internet was at the beginning, in the late 90s and early 2000s, before the huge, soulless corporations took over and destroyed the fun. I started building things for the sake of building things, and trying to become a part of the community. Eventually I got a job in a DAO: Gitcoin. The nice thing is that this specific DAO ticks all the boxes: it is designed to have a positive impact on society (purpose), the work is exciting (happiness), and the contract doesn't contain any of the nonsense that is common in US employment contracts, where the company forces you to give up any and all Intellectual Property you create while employed ― even if you create it in your free time.
Which brings me to the last two topics of this story: freedom and employment.
Once you’ve truly controlled your own fate, for better or for worse, you’ll never let anyone else tell you what to do. A taste of freedom can make you unemployable.
Working for a DAO means that I am a contractor with my own LLC. Because of the nature of the job, I can work from any place on Earth that has an Internet connection. I can build and release side projects ― something I tried in the past but was prohibited from doing, both at Amazon and Facebook. I can take on more clients if I want to. I have a lot more flexibility and freedom.
Would I be able to go back to work for a big corporation? I don't know. I could, if I really wanted to, and it is my contingency plan ― for now. But I will try to avoid it at all cost and build a sustainable business and lifestyle out of this starting point that I accidentally created.
Thanks for reading, and see you next week!