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Why I Quit a $500K Job at Amazon to Work for Myself

dvassallo profile image Daniel Vassallo Originally published at danielvassallo.com ・5 min read

Only Intrinsic Motivation Lasts

Last February I left my cushy job at Amazon after 8 years. Despite getting rewarded repeatedly with promotions, compensation, recognition, and praise, I wasn’t motivated enough to do another year.

I spent my entire time in AWS building tools for developers. I liked that field so much that I would have been satisfied working in it for the rest of my life.

I joined Amazon as an entry level developer. Within 3.5 years I had been promoted twice to a senior engineer, and I was practically guaranteed another promotion to principal engineer this year if I had stayed. My potential at the company was high, I was told.

My esteem within the company grew along the years and I was regarded an expert and a leader in my field. People looked up to me and respected me.

I made $75K in my first year and that gradually grew to $511K by my last year. I could have made another $1M if I stayed another couple of years.

My work–life balance was good too, despite Amazon’s reputation. I didn’t need to prove myself anymore, and I could get everything done in 40 hours a week. My team worked from home one day a week, and I rarely opened my laptop at night or weekends.

Also, the people I worked with were exceptional. I had three managers in total, and all were generous people with lots of empathy. I’m very grateful to everyone I worked with.

Everything was going well and getting better. But despite all this, my motivation to go to work each morning was decreasing—almost in an inverse trend to my career and income growth.

It would have been foolish of me to expect my motivation to start increasing if I got yet another promotion, or another compensation bump, or another big project. But there was something else that was trending down with my motivation. It was my freedom.

The Motivation Decline

For the first couple of years my motivation was off the charts. I was mostly working with another person on an internal tool, and there was very little scrutiny around it. It was a time where I had a lot of independence in choosing how to work and what to work on—at least relative to more recent years. It was just me and the other person improving this thing, talking to users, releasing updates, testing it, and everything else. Whatever we felt was important, we generally got to do. We did the best work we could for its own sake and we were mostly self-directed.

The last couple of years, however, were quite different. I was leading the most important project in the history of my department, with many stakeholders and complex goals. What I could do was always bounded by my ability to convince all the people involved that it was the best way to navigate our goals.

I was always going to be working on somebody else’s terms at Amazon. The terms were simple in the beginning (keep fixing the thing), but kept getting more complicated as the years passed by (maximize all goals; satisfy all stakeholders). Then there were other restrictions inherent to working in a large organization about how to do the work, what work to do, what goals to set, and what business was worth pursuing. This situation was squeezing me into doing things that I’d rather not do, and vice versa.

Finding New Motivation

What kind of work would I do if I had to do it forever? Not something that I did until I reached some milestone (an exit), but something that I would consider satisfactory if I continued to do it until I’m 80. What is out there that I could do that would make me excited waking up every day for the next 45 years that could also earn me enough money to cover my expenses? Is that too unambitious? I don’t think so. Because there are two types of drivers that get me out of bed in the morning.

One comes from the outside in the form of a carrot or a stick. For instance, I’m not automatically driven to do my tax returns every April, but I make sure I do because I don’t want to go to prison. Or I might not want to work on something I dislike, but I do so anyway because I may need to pay the bills, or want to buy a fancy car. These are the extrinsic motivators.

The other comes from within. This is what drives me to do things when there isn’t a carrot or a stick. Hobbies are one activity driven by this. But what I was looking for was something that I could do for a living that was also driven by this type of motivation: the intrinsic kind.

Back to the question of whether this is too unambitious. See, I realized that extrinsic motivation doesn’t last. Whenever I got promoted, it felt good for a week, and then it was as over. When I first hit $100K income, I would take a peek at my W2 for a few days admiring the six digits, but then it wore off. When I hit $200K, $300K, $400K, and $500K, it was the same thing. I would be delusional to think that earning $1M, or $10M would suddenly make it different. And I feel the same with every other extrinsic reward or material possession. Getting them feels good for a while, but this wears off quickly.

The things that don’t wear off are those that I’ve been doing since I was a kid, when nothing was forcing me to do them. Things such as writing code, selling my creations, charting my own path, calling it like I saw it. I know my strengths, and I know what motivates me, so why not do this all the time? I’m lucky to live in a time where I can do something independently in my area of expertise without requiring large amounts of capital or outside investors. So that’s what I’m doing.

What’s Next?

I’m going all in on independence, and I’m going to try to make a living with my own bare hands starting from nothing. I don’t expect to only do things that I like, but it will be on my terms. My target is to cover my family’s expenses before I run out of savings while doing something that intrinsically motivates me. What more would I ever want to be satisfied with my work?


UPDATE: This is what I settled on doing next. You can follow me there as I continue to document my journey.


Originally published at danielvassallo.com on February 9, 2019.

Discussion (21)

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Holy shit

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aviaryan profile image
Avi Aryan

Exactly my reaction 😬

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Francesco Napoletano

Come on, you can be now indipendent because you probably stockpiled on money and Amazon stocks.

You have the privilege to try to find your way with a huge comfortable pile of money on your bank account.

You’re not trying to make a living. You’re just trying to find a way to not get bored ;-)

I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that’s not really how you write it down ;-)

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Daniel Vassallo Author

I think the biggest privilege I have is actually not my savings, but the knowledge that it probably shouldn’t be hard to find a job that covers my expenses if things don’t work out. It’s unlikely that I can get in the same position I left with the same compensation, but I’m okay with that.

I did manage to save about 5.5 years of expenses before leaving. But I’m 35 with 2 small kids (2 and 4), so I definitely need to earn a living. Having a decent amount of savings definitely helped with the change, but I believe I would have still left if I had less or no savings. If that was the case, I would have probably tried to find a part-time remote job (or contracting) that would have allowed me to do something for myself while still paying the bills.

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Ben Sinclair

I think the biggest privilege is being able to say

I’m going to try to make a living with my own bare hands starting from nothing

while also recognising that you are richer than 99% of people in the world.

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Christian Lopez

Not gonna lie, I would of done the same shit tbh. Why? Because misery leads to depression and ultimately our downfall. But in all honesty since I am a family man, I tend to keep myself motivated and busy by contributing to FOSS projects. 15-20k a month is...I really don’t have any words other than I’m flabbergasted! I wish you the best on your endeavors and hope I can get to that peak myself and find out where it’ll take me in the end. Thank you for sharing your story with us!!

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Daniel Vassallo Author

Thank you. To be fair, I wasn’t in a miserable job—which paradoxically made it harder to leave. But at one point I realized that a career as an employee wasn’t the ideal one for me, and I’m happy to sacrifice my income potential for a chance to work for myself. If I can earn enough to cover my expenses while working for myself, this move would have been a great trade off for me, even if I never get to earn the same amount as I did working for a big company.

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Gerasimos (Makis) Maropoulos • Edited

I am younger but I had to leave a job twice, the loses from the last one was 60K Euro in shares if I stayed one more month and 48K Euro salary. A small amount of $$ for west but in Greece is considered a decent one, especially for a 25years old person and for such short time. I feel that both of my decisions were correct. A company must keep the developers motivated on interesting projects and push them to their high potentials otherwise the developer can leave and continue by starting a project of her/his own and be more succeed and competitive. I am lucky because for the past three years I maintain a project of 15k stars on github(you can check it out at: iris-go.com) with very high number of installations per day so I speak from a "safe" place but I really mean it, without risks you can't fill your dreams.

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Phil Ashby

I'm with Daniel on this one (well, ok not the silly money part - although I'm paid enough that I don't have to worry about short term finance), my career has been through a few of these cycles, and I know friends and colleagues who intentionally avoid interesting things because of where they may end up (the "nobody admits to being a DBA" rule). Right now, I'm planning my exit from commercial work, retiring in fact, to get that independence back. I might come join you just for fun :)

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lg543 profile image
lg543 • Edited

$500k?? How on earth is that possible?

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dvassallo profile image
Daniel Vassallo Author • Edited

Here’s my full income progression:

2009: $40K - My first full year as as programmer. Worked for a small company doing GPS vehicle tracking in Europe.
2010: $30K - Left my job in April, moved to Dublin, and joined Amazon in November, as an SDE-1 (entry level) in the AWS CloudWatch team.
2011: $75K - Still at Amazon, same team.
2012: $120K - Moved to Seattle with the same team. Promoted to SDE-2.
2013: $150K - Still at Amazon, same team.
2014: $185K - Promoted to SDE-3 (senior level), same team.
2015: $230K - Still at Amazon, same team.
2016: $390K - In April I got a competing offer from Oracle at $370K and Amazon matched it.
2017: $470K - Still at Amazon. I led the development of CloudWatch Logs Insights: aws.amazon.com/blogs/aws/new-amazo.... Income increase over 2016 was mostly from AMZN stock growth.
2018: $511K - Helped the team launch CWL Insights at re:Invent in November. Income increase over 2016 was again mostly from AMZN stock growth.
2019: Left Amazon last February.

All figures are gross income as shown in my W2. My last 3 year-end (Dec) paystubs here for those curious: imgur.com/a/EgIVQln

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lg543 profile image
lg543

Thanks for the response.. What is R.S.U Vest? Does everyone get that at Amazon?

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dvassallo profile image
Daniel Vassallo Author

It's a payment in AMZN stock instead of cash. Amazon, like most public companies, has a cap on cash compensation, and pays the rest in stock. Public companies prefer to do this because stock compensation doesn't come out from the company's bank account, but comes out from diluting their total shares. But to the employee, these end up as cash in the bank account, just like regular cash compensation. They are taxed the same as well.

At Amazon the cash cap is $160K. Anything over that amount gets payed in stock (RSUs).

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rhymes

Salaries for juniors (college grads) in Silicon Valley are around $100/120k.

He's clearly a senior and worked at a company whose revenue is 232 billion dollars and pays no federal taxes in the US.

500K a year, if you're really good, is not insane if you put in this perspective.

Still is a lot of money, that's true :D

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lg543 profile image
lg543

True. I've heard the same about devs in Silicon Valley. These pay figures are definitely not the same across the world. Many factors to consider there, of course, like cost of living.. In Nairobi, such salaries are reserved for those in management.

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rhymes

I don't think 500k is a normal salary even in SV but it's more likely to be reached in big companies than in startups.

It's a lot of money everywhere!

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Ben Sinclair

If someone paid me half a gazillion dollars for my last years' work, I'd probably quit and become an artisan cheese sculptor too.

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designitsecure

Thank you for sharing your journey! I can definitely relate in some ways. I'll be following your project as I think it has immense value. All the best to you!

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rhymes

Good luck Daniel! Welcome to DEV!

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Julio Galindo

Thanks for sharing your experience, I´m a middle school teacher, would you mind if I translate your article to spanish to share it in a parents meetin? We will be talking about motivation.

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Daniel Vassallo Author

Absolutely. Go ahead.