Last week’s story about my ridiculous trip from LAX to TLV by way of most of the airports of Europe reminded me that travel crises can have a silver lining. In some cases they can lead to a romance, or at least a fling, or (let’s be honest) a quick introduction to the mile-high club. And sometimes they can help get you a job.
There’s no single reason anybody gets hired at a big corporation where you’re going to interact with a dozen people before you get the offer, and where any one of them might throw a wrench in things. But sometimes, things just work out right.
AWS called me out of the blue. I had been working on my AWS skills and pushing multiple clients of mine towards AWS for a while before I decided that I was sick of running my own business and updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect that. But I hadn’t applied for a job at AWS or sent them my resume. I had no notion that they would be even remotely interested.
A phone screen
I got a call from a recruiter, who I guess thought I was good enough and passed me on to the hiring manager.
At least that was what I thought at the time. I’ve been at AWS long enough that I’m now fairly certain, that a person within my (then) hiring manager’s team found me on LinkedIn, passed me along to recruiting, and had them take it from there. That person also did my phone screen, later interviewed me in person, and has since been both my strongest backer and my most vocal critic. It’s AWS, the two go together.
All of which does point out one obvious fact that nothing in the interviewing classes and official procedures will address: the best thing you can have at AWS (or most companies) is somebody who believes in you and is backing you up from the start. If you’ve got this for whatever reason, you’re a few steps ahead of anybody else.
AWS puts as much work as any company I’ve worked for into having a process that’s fair, open and objective as possible. But no system will override human nature and no process will ever completely eliminate it. I’m still not sure I have a clue what that person saw in me at the time, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t lived up to it, but thanks anyway…
The request to interview me came down during the 2018 AWS re:invent conference in Vegas that I was attending. I used the “AWS certified people’s lounge” at the Venetian to figure out the timing and the travel. I was going to be visiting my family in New York in the middle of that December, had another job offer in play, and wanted to get everything squared away before I left for the family visit. That made for the best option being a Monday in mid-December. We booked it.
Travel was relatively easy: I called them with my info, they booked the flights, got me my frequent flyer points, put me in a hotel near the office, etc. Interview scheduling was a bit more hectic. The assistant who was arranging it all seemed regularly overwhelmed. From the very start, she was always late at getting back to me, getting me answers I needed, and so on. Thursday ahead of my interview rolled around and I still had no idea where I was going on Monday morning or who I would be talking to.
So Friday morning I sent an email to her and everybody else I had a good email address for: the recruiter, the HR rep, and I think the guy who had done the phone screen. I told them I needed to have the information before I left, and also that it was a Friday of a very long week and I would be mostly offline by 2pm.
The recruiter responded quickly, telling me that everything was confirmed and that I’d receive final instructions by the end of the day. At about 2pm, I still had not received anything so I sent another email, stating that I was looking forward to the details, that I would be out for the rest of the day, but that they can consider me confirmed for Monday.
I later received the interview details from the assistant. Everything was set. Or so I thought.
I arrived at LAX for my flight to Seattle on Sunday afternoon, and was told that the reservation was cancelled. I called the emergency number for Amazon’s travel agency and was told that yes, my itinerary (including the hotel) had been cancelled by Amazon at 4:50 on Friday and that in the absence of instructions from Amazon, there was nothing they could do.
At that point, my sole concern became to get on that plane. It was Sunday afternoon, so I was going to have to own that problem myself.
Almost everybody treats airline employees like shit. I endeavor not to and it’s paid off in difficult situations in the past. I endeavored to be especially nice. I knew that I had a non-refundable ticket in my hand, and that even if the reservation had been cancelled, Delta Airlines still had the money. They could do something, I just had to make them want to.
I explained the situation to the person at check-in, who had previously told me to contact the agency. The ticket I knew still had value. It was from one of Delta’s largest corporate clients, and it was very important to me to be able to get there for a job interview that could change my life. I did everything I could to make her want to pick up the phone and call somebody who could do something about it. It worked.
Maybe I was being nicer to her than all the other people waiting in line. Or maybe she just related to somebody doing whatever he could to get a better job. Or perhaps it was something else about how I presented myself and addressed her. She had no special reason to go out of her way for me under the circumstances. But she made the call, and got me on with somebody who could do something.
I lost my preferred seat, but I got on the flight.
Before I got on the plane, I contacted the HR rep I had spoken with previously, as well as everybody else in the chain of emails and phone calls I previously had, leaving both voicemail and email. I told them the problem, reservation cancelled; my solution, I got myself on the plane anyway and I’m booking myself a hotel at roughly the same price as theirs; and the request, to please confirm that we’re still on in the morning, and get me any changes that I need to be aware of.
Apparently one of them saw the email Sunday evening and this lit a small bonfire under the whole team while I was en-route. By the time I landed in Seattle, I had multiple voicemails and instructions to contact them. Apparently my entire interview schedule had been cancelled out as well so they got busy re-instating that. But I had gotten to where I needed to be, had a place to sleep, and everything else was being addressed.
I spent that evening in the hotel, going through the 14 leadership principles yet again, making sure I had stories to tell for each of them (or, rather, that I had 4-5 stories each of which illustrated at least two of them). I had dinner. I got to bed and got up early. That was a good thing because I received an early call from the recruiter to update my schedule and let me know that I would be starting half an hour earlier than originally planned.
I didn’t need all the stories I had thought through, because as it turned out, I was walking in the door with the prior day’s events speaking for themselves. The interview loop had to be re-scheduled at the last minute, so everybody involved knew exactly what happened. As my first interviewer and current colleague said to start the day “we’re all shocked that you’re here. Anybody else would have just gone home and rescheduled for a different day.”
I walked in that morning, slightly worse for wear, but with 4 out of 14 LPs unquestionably covered: I earned trust, took ownership, showed a bias for action, and delivered results, just to get to my interview.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but that was quite possibly the difference that put me over the top. We interview so many people at AWS, and hear similar answers to all the questions so often that it’s the things that really stand out that makes your ears perk up and causes you to think “yeah, this person isn’t just talking, this is real.”
I blew the technical section of the interview. It didn’t matter. The technical interviewer was an engineering manager from a related group and the way things were rescheduled at the last minute, he may not have had time to set expectations with the hiring manager, so I found myself struggling through a bunch of questions about how SSL certificates work and other such engineering trivia that I think is best remembered by having a StackOverflow tab open at all times.
I punted through that, then made my way through the final interview with the bar-raiser, then left for the airport feeling awful about the blown tech piece, sat down at a bar, had dinner and a beer and tried not to throw up.
Four days later I was in New York City at my mom’s place when I got the call to offer me the position.
I never did find out exactly what went wrong, but I have my suspicions. The email that I received on Friday after I was gone for the day was a form email. It stated at the bottom that I needed to reply and confirm by end of day the business day before my departure. Everything had been delayed so this notice arrived with only about 3 hours to go in the day, and I had already confirmed and left.
I didn’t think about it when I finally saw the email with the schedule the next day because I had already sent multiple emails saying “I’m going to be there, what’s my schedule?” and a final one that ended “look forward to receiving the schedule later today, see you Monday,” so it didn’t even occur to me that anybody would not consider me confirmed.
But that particular person apparently did, and cancelled out the whole thing. Probably so late in the day that nobody else in recruiting noticed.
The day after I got back from New York I received a beautiful fruit basket from recruiting thanking me for my patience. I sent a thank you to everybody involved. Hers bounced with a note that the email was not valid. I’ve always felt really bad about that.
Have as screwed up a travel situation as you can on the way to your interview. They’ve already dealt with cancelled flights, screwed up hotels and last-minute interview rescheduling, so maybe figure out how to make your way through a war zone, tornado, earthquake or fire. Something that’ll stand out.
Oh, actually, we mostly do virtual loops these days and probably will going forward, so figure out something else.
Realistically, I’d advise that when thinking about your stories and situation, remember that there are lots of ways you can demonstrate leadership principles and they don’t all have to be technical. One of the reasons I think people with some military background tend to do well in these interviews is that they are often not talking about technical decisions and achievements, rather they’re talking about more challenging and less clear-cut problems.
When asked about a decision I had to walk back, I didn’t talk about one of the dozens of times I’ve done that with an important technical design, I talked about the guy who I hired and then had to fire six months later. It was a far more difficult situation and has had a far greater impact on my career. (It’s still the #1 reason I am reluctant to take on direct people management, though I do love mentoring.) I think I got strong points for that answer, because it’s not the kind of thing I’ve heard in close to 50 interviews for people in roles similar to mine.
Amazon says it’s a peculiar place. I think that is probably less true today that it was when the company was a fraction of it’s current size. But there are an awful lot of rather odd people in the organization. It’s OK to stand out. It’s OK to not answer the questions with the most obvious cookie-cutter scenarios that every engineer, TPM or engineering manager will face. Being yourself matters as much as anything.
And be nice to the airline staff. They can really make or break your life.