During interviews at Amazon, we allow five minutes for questions at the end. Some people ask about the team they’ll be working with, while others inquire about the technology they’ll be using.
Occasionally a candidate says, “I’ve heard Amazon can be a really hard place to work. Some people thrive and some people fail. Why is that, and how can I avoid joining the ranks of those who fail?”
This is a great question. I have heard a variation of this statement at Amazon dozens of times over the years:
I’m going to lose my mind! I have 14 direct reports and one critical project on fire, and my calendar is completely packed. The only way I can make any progress is by working after my team goes home. I’m not sure how much longer I can take it.
My usual answer to the interviewee is this:
Amazon has an infinite amount of work. The fire hose of work will never abate. No one will throttle your work for you. If you have a hard time saying no, or a hard time prioritizing your tasks, you are guaranteed to drown. You will work more and more hours until you eventually quit. On the other hand, if you aren’t terrible at your job, and you can pick the right things to work on and say no to everything else, you’ll love it here.
If you put this advice into practice, it will pay dividends for the rest of your life. You can replace “Amazon” with any modern company, a side business, or even your personal life. Your time is your most valuable resource. You can’t make more. You can’t pause it. You can only allocate it. Here’s how.
Identify your most important task
Early in my career at Amazon, I received approval to hire five additional engineers for an important project with a tight deadline. I opened the positions in Amazon’s internal system and talked to a few people about transferring. I also began writing up a project plan, creating the major stories to begin working on, and scheduling design review meetings with our engineers. I had a discussion with my manager a few weeks later, which went something like this:
Manager: How’s the hiring going? As you’re aware, you have a tight deadline.
Me: It’s a bit slow. I might have one position filled.
Manager: Are you treating this as your most important task?
Me: I’m spending as much time on it as I can, but I have a pretty full calendar. I have this critical project, my existing work, and a pretty big team. There’s a lot going on. I’ll try harder.
Manager: I assume you agree that you can’t finish the project without those five engineers. There will always be a lot going on. Trying harder is not a mechanism. If you’re not literally spending at least 50% of your time on this, you’re planning to fail. You need to spend at least four hours a day on hiring. Coffees with potential hires. Meetings with recruiting. Updating job descriptions. You can’t succeed without this. You can succeed without almost everything else.
My manager taught me a very valuable lesson that day. I was looking one level deep at the seemingly important things I had to do right then and there. But I needed to take a step back and assess whether I was allocating my time to take me to where I wanted to go. I was pedaling my bike as hard as I could, but I wasn’t looking at the street signs.
I internalized what my manager said. I recognized I was making progress in general, but not toward my most important destination. I was broadly focused on the bulk of my work, but I needed to focus narrowly on my most important work.