A Day in the Life of an Amazon Tech Director Poaching a Senior Engineer
Recruiting from internal Amazon teams is a proven way to gain experienced members for your team. If you're careful, and convincing.
Hello all! I didn’t intend to write two “A Day in the Life” articles in a row, but this article popped into my head during a recent trail run. I needed to write it down as soon as I got home. When I get into the flow with these types of articles, they’re so fun to write.
A tiny bit of context for the article below. I use “Level 6” and “L6” interchangeably, because it’s shorter to type “L”, and the common language at Amazon was to literally say “L 6”.
In leveling, L4 (Level 4) engineers are entry-level engineers. L5 engineers are mid career engineers. L6 engineers are senior engineers (a common career stopping point). L7 engineers are principal engineers. They’re also frequently the most senior engineer in an organization. I don’t need to get into the L8 and L10 engineers because they’re rare, and not in this story.
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All About Poaching
What is poaching in this context? Well, let me tell you.
While it may not currently be the case considering the tech job market, Amazon leaders have historically been challenged to hire enough people for their teams. Most growing organizations found themselves limited not by funding, but their inability to hire experienced tech employees into their open positions.
Any successful people manager at Amazon learns about the various ways to fill their headcount. You can let recruiting find you people externally. You can wait until internal candidates apply to your positions. You can get the college recruiting team to find you some recent college graduates. And you can purposefully poach internal employees. See, the definition of poach is about illegally hunting for something which you’re not allowed to hunt. And in this case, I’m hunting for employees to join my team.
The funny thing about poaching employees is that it’s politically frowned on, but also done by most successful leaders. Because you couldn’t be successful if half your open headcount goes unfilled each year. This leads to a strange process where the people manager pretends that they’re not hunting internal employees to join their team. Yet, everyone knows they are, including said internal employees.
The unstated rule of the game is that both sides of the discussion claim ignorance of the real game being played. The manager pretends they’re not trying to recruit, and the employee pretends that they’re not being recruited. At least for a bit.
I heard someone in my organization mention that Yevette, a respected senior engineer (Level 6) at Amazon (in another org), was helpful in a recent cross-team project. She’d stepped up and helped out our team, when the rest of the engineers in her organization had been dragging their feet.
No good deed goes unpunished because that caught my attention. I find employees who don’t dodge work appealing, and our team members liked her. And I had open senior engineering positions.
An instant message chat
Dave — “Hey Yevette! I run the ___ org. I wanted to say thanks for your help last week!”
Yevette — "No problem, I’m glad I could help!”
Dave — “Would you be open to grabbing coffee some morning? I’m working on getting feedback for some of the engineers on my team, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I could send you an invite if you’re up for it?”
This was 90% baloney. I mean, yes, I’d like to see if she worked with my engineers enough to be a feedback provider in their promotion documents.
However, everyone knows that “grabbing coffee” with a hiring manager is code for “I want to sell you on an internal transfer”. Unless you have your head in the sand, or you’re early in your career, this is code that everyone knows.
I see her type, and then stop, and then type, and then stop. I interpret this as she knows exactly what this code means, and is trying to figure out how to reply. Those typing indicators leak private data (I turn them off when I can), but I also think it’s funny to pay attention.
A third typing and then pausing typing. Oh, this is taking a while. She’s thinking hard!
Yevette — “Sure, I’d enjoy getting coffee.”
I interpret that as, “Sure, I will listen to your sales pitch.”
I look at Yevette’s calendar to see when her first meetings are most mornings. It looks like she regularly has meetings at 9am. I find an opening at 9am three days from now, and send her an invitation.
Considering this is a sales pitch, not annoying your sales target is key. I’ve had people try to schedule beer (the internal transfer code for an evening meeting) with me for 7pm (when I’d like to be home with my family), and coffee meetings at 6am (when I was waking up at home). I think the little details matter, and that includes scheduling at a convenient time.
Yevette accepts my invitation 15 seconds later. That’s a good sign.
Coffee meeting at Starbucks three days later
I get there 5 minutes early. I try to arrive 2 hours before flights, stand in front of my daughters school at least 30 seconds before the “end of school” bell rings, and I pay my property taxes at least a couple of weeks early. I have anxiety about being late for anything. I’m quirky like that.
I order myself a coffee, and grab us a table by the window.
Yevette shows up on time. Point for her. I have a hard time getting along with people who are late to things.
I recognized her because our internal “phone tool” system has photos of all employees. Love that tool. She walks over to our table.
I hop up, and shake her hand. She has a good firm handshake. I believe everyone should learn how to shake hands properly when they’re a teenager. It’s a shame when I shake the hand of some newly hired intern, and it’s like holding a limp steak.
Dave — “Nice to meet you in person! Would you like to order a drink? My treat!”
Yevette — “Nice to meet you as well! And no thanks for the coffee. I’ve had my one coffee of the day at home. I’m good!”
We both sit down.
Yet more evidence that taking someone to coffee is code. I’d say half the time people don’t actually want anything to drink at “coffee” meetings. It’s just funny.
I wonder, if you’re in England, and someone wants to poach you, do they ask you out for tea? I assume so? It just occurred to me that part of the reason I translate coffee into poaching is that we’re in the Seattle area, and coffee shops are the most convenient places to meet.
Dave — “I was glad that you were able to help out my team. I don’t know if you looked at our ticket history with your group, but we spent a few weeks trying to get traction before you got involved. It was a relief to have you jump in and save the day. We were getting worried that we’d miss our date.”
More compliments never hurts as a warm-up. I’ve also noticed that energetic, helpful people like Yevette tend to get annoyed with their co-workers when they’re not as helpful as she is. If she’s annoyed at her team, she’s more likely to want to leave. Therefore, I subtly point out that her teammates aren’t great to remind her. This is a social game we’re playing, and it’s important to recognize the available tools.
Yevette — “Yes, I’m sorry about that. Our team really should have done better for your team. Your engineers were quite polite through the whole process. And I felt their request for our team was very detailed, so there was no excuse for us to delay things that much.”
She admits that her team messed up, and compliments my team. A good start. I like her.
Dave — “I’d like to know what you thought about Aimee’s work on that project. I believe she contributed some code to your system that you reviewed? We’re looking at promoting her to level 6 in the next 6 months, and while her promotion is fully written, I’m continually looking for more feedback. I like to make certain that my promotions go through, and more feedback from a senior engineer like you would be helpful.”
I already have enough feedback providers for Aimee’s promotion. But this is a softball opportunity to let Yevette help out my team further. And that tends to connect people emotionally to a team. If Yevette doesn’t agree to join my team right now, I intend to meet with her every few months for the rest of my career. I have a few dozen people I respect who I meet with every 3–6 months, in hopes that someday they’ll join one of my organizations. I keep a literal list because I’m organized like that.
I also purposefully and casually point out that I’m good at promoting people, and that I already wrote Aimee’s promotion document. Because I have a strategy planned out. A secret sneaky strategy.
Yevette — “Absolutely, I’d be happy to provide feedback for Aimee. Her work was excellent, both technically, and how she communicated to the team. I’ll write something up.”