How I burned my burnout

Disclaimer: in this article, I relate to my personal experience. My opinions are my own.
I don’t want you to mislead this post for another rant about big companies, such as Amazon. People can hide their true nature during the recruitment process. Make their way to a position that does not suit them.

I woke up on Tuesday, March 10th, 2020, 6 days before my 30th birthday, and I told my wife: I am going to write about the shitstorm I went through in 2018 and 2019. Just like that. In this post, I talk about my experience of burning out after over six years of working corporate jobs, working for a worldwide tech giant as a Software Development Engineer (SDE) since June 2017.

It took me a while to refer to this period as a burnout. To be frank, I never really called it a burnout until writing those lines. Whatever you want to call it, that period of my life, that experience, was a pivot point. I managed to turn it into an opportunity to learn, resource myself, and grow. Here is my story.

I am no burnout expert. To me, what led me to that state was the lack of visions and goals in my life. And the lack of solutions to insurmountable obstacles. The feeling of being stuck. Alone – even though I wasn’t. And amongst everything, the feeling of emptiness. Apathy. Without a single bit of energy left. Drained.

I wouldn’t have done it if that wasn’t for my wife, Erwan, and my kids. I can’t stress enough the need to have someone to talk to. I knew that as soon I’d walk my front door, my kiddos would drop anything they were doing, rush to the door and hug me (well, Matti, my son at least, since Tia wasn’t born at the time!).

Why even sharing this? Writing helps heal and allows us to make sense of things. Put things in perspective. Writing results in something tangible. It’s there, black and white, in an otherwise grey time. I want to inspire as many of you out there, to get through this. I want you to get clarity on what’s vital for you in life. If not getting a path forward, get a starting point towards a solution.

I believe we can’t build honest, healthy, and lifelong relationships if we are not honest with one another. Be vulnerable.

The highs, cruising

I have been working in the field of software engineering in a corporate environment since January 2011. Here is my LinkedIn profile if you are interested. I was career-driven and wanted to make a name for myself. I’ve worked for big corporations only. I got a BMW 318 for my first job at 24 years old. That car was a sign of success. I flew first class overseas. I stayed in luxurious 5-stars hotels. I identified myself through my work, my career. I learned a lot since then.

Young Andrew driving his first car

I worked in Belgium for about two years before moving to London for a year. Then New-York for two years and I have been in Canada ever since.

Look at this guy! How successful! He moved from Belgium to London and then, New York. Wow! He lives in a beautiful apartment with a water view and has a six figures income. What can possibly go wrong?

Back in 2017, I studied for about two months before applying to a tech giant: Amazon. I received an offer from Amazon and moved to Vancouver, Canada, in June 2017. I was thrilled, and so freaking proud! Amazon paid for all the move-related expenses (movers, extra cash, food, hotels, planes, three days trip in Vancouver before moving, closing the leasing of my car back in New-York, etc.).

I spent the first few weeks on my own going through the self-service onboarding process. The team was relatively new, so they just needed time to get to know each other. Not everyone was extrovert. While the work was boring as hell, my team was awesome.

September 2018, 3 months after joining Amazon, my wife and I got our first child, Matti. I was entitled to 5 days of parental leave as I had been at Amazon for less than a year. Paige, my first manager at Amazon, gave me extra time to “work from home,” as she said, smiling.

Paige was one of the best managers I’ve ever had. She knew the importance of work and life balance. “Family first,” she used to say. However, she expected commitment in return during crunch time. Young father, it suited me well.

I tend to give my opinion when I have the opportunity. I strive to be constructive in my comments. Paige and I would frequently argue on different subjects. We’d be mad at each other for a few hours and then wipe the slate clean.

December 2018, I entered in the questioning of my whole life. A late quarter-life crisis or early 30 years old crisis. The kind of question that makes you doubt everything you had taken for granted. I felt trapped in a life that wasn’t how I had imagined.

During our one-to-one meetings, Paige’d always ask: “How do you feel on a scale from 1 to 10?”. If you know me or followed some of my webinars, I am an open book; you can tell how I feel looking at my facial expressions. I worked as a consultant for a top management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, for about five years before joining Amazon. I was missing the fast pace of my consulting days.

I grew tired of the work I was doing at Amazon. It wasn’t the first time I felt that way. I really struggled the first year I worked for McKinsey back in 2014. I wasn’t passionate about the product I was building. And my first manager was a complete asshole. He would humiliate me in front of other team members (“Are you dumb? It’s right there! In front of you, Andrew!”). To the point, some colleagues had noticed it. Because I was new to the industry, I let it slipped. I felt like I needed to show what I was capable of at any cost. So took it all in. I remember daydreaming, looking at the gardeners outside trimming bushes! “They must feel so happy being out there. They can’t bring their work back home”. Apologize if you are a gardener. I understand there are many ways you can bring your work back home.

To be frank, I never really liked the work I was doing. Many Amazonians I talked to felt the same way. And not just Amazon, McKinsey wasn’t better in that regard. People tend to focus on negative things rather than focusing on positive things. I will elaborate on this further down.

That’s how my first two years felt at Amazon: “Let’s build a new service that calls 100 other services, then get paged for issues unrelated to our service for the rest of your days in that team”. Or, “Here is a product no one wants to take ownership of, the codebase is a mess, ten teams worked on it before, there you go.”.

January 2020, Paige said: “In comes a time when a leader has to choose his successor, I could see you moving to manager Andrew. It will require some work; it won’t happen overnight.”. I gently turned down her offer as I wanted to move towards a consulting role at Amazon (AWS Professional Services).

After that, the idea of becoming a manager grew in my mind. How so? I have had a desire to help others in my life. I like connecting with people and play a role where I get to impact others. That’s why I loved consulting so much. I’d be the point of reference for the customers—Building and nurturing a relationship with them. And I’d help them achieve their goals. I excelled at those things.

February 2019, Paige had offered me to take time off to be at my grandmother’s bedside. One would hope that this is what I did, right? I was too busy at work, too busy at home, too busy in my head. And the planes are so expensive! Aren’t they? Bullshit. I regret not to have dropped everything I was doing to fly and hold her. One. Last. Time.

On the 21st of February 2019, my grandmother passed away. I was about to ask Paige to take the next two days off when I burst into tears walking in her office. She stopped what she was doing. Closed the door and listened to me. She waited for me to calm down. She then offered me to take as long I needed to grieve.

My burnout, highway to hell

Monday, March 18th, Paige announced that she was leaving Amazon end of the week.

That is where my hell began at Amazon. One of the hardest period of my life, so far. My grandmother, when she’d feel down, would say: “Life is like a shit sandwich that you eat one byte at a time, every day.” That is how I felt for months.

The upper management had it all planned for weeks. They had a new manager in the pipes for our team. The codename I used with my wife to talk about that new manager: Twix or “you-know-who.”

April 1st, Twix joined our team. I was working towards transitioning to be a consultant for Amazon (AWS ProServe) at the time. I was studying every night for this. My first 1:1 with Twix, two weeks overdue, felt like an interrogation. He had noticed I was easy going, social, and he questioned me about the team and my observations on some of them.

April 8, 2019, AWS ProServe came back to me with a potential offer.

You could be based in Vancouver with the understanding that this may require significant travel for the foreseeable future. 50% – potentially week on / week off. We could arrange for relocation for you, to your choice of Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto.

I decided not to proceed further as we were expecting our second child (Tia) for October 2019. We had already experienced moving cross coast during our first pregnancy from New-York to Vancouver, which was way too stressful. Being away from my family was not conceivable, either. While I was still questioning my career – I knew one thing: I wanted to be there for my family. You see, I grew up without a father. I don’t want that for my children.

I shared with Twix that I had reflected on Paige’s offer to move to management. I had taken the liberty to talk to other engineers who had been through the same path. I also envisioned the role of Technical Project Manager (TPM). I spoke to different people to gather diverse experiences.

[April 10, 2019, 9:55 AM] Andrew: I have a few meetings today scheduled (for TPM and SDM). I am currently leaning towards SDM, to be frank.
[April 10, 2019, 9:56 AM] Twix: cool
[April 10, 2019, 9:56 AM] Twix: will support you as much as I can

So far, so good.

Apr 15, 2019, soon after our last conversation, I was on-call for a new service our team had inherited 1 or 2 months ago. I got paged repetitively at night. It took me two weeks to investigate the issue and come up with a new design proposal. Twix questioned my ability to “Dive Deep.” He was stating that I “should have resolved the issue sooner.” Saying that “I didn’t know how to answer all the questions of my teammates during the design review.” In his words, I wasn’t meeting the bar for my role at Amazon anymore.

As of that time, he’d criticize my work in every single meeting. He’d summon me to come to his desk. Here are a few quotes from our internal chat:

[April 18, 2019, 10:42 AM] Twix: can you come for a min plz
[April 18, 2019, 10:42 AM] Detiffe, Andrew: Hi, sure.
[April 18, 2019, 2:59 PM] Twix: Andrew
[April 18, 2019, 3:00 PM] Twix: can you come for a min plz
[April 18, 2019, 3:04 PM] Detiffe, Andrew: Hey, sure [he wasn't at his desk!]
[April 18, 2019, 4:05 PM] Twix: Yes
[April 18, 2019, 4:05 PM] Twix: now
[April 18, 2019, 4:14 PM] Detiffe, Andrew: I left. Talk to you tomorrow.
[April 18, 2019, 4:15 PM] Twix: you left!
[April 22, 2019, 2:26 PM] Twix: ahh I see. So you normally leave that early in general?
[April 22, 2019, 2:27 PM] Detiffe, Andrew: It depends - I try to. I do arrive around 8:00 AM, though.

After a few weeks, it got worse. He was aggressive in his way of communicating. He would lecture me about the consequences of “not performing enough at Amazon.” Not meeting the bar. I’d shake when coming to his office. My stomach would hurt when I’d seem him in the hallway. My teammates and I were even trying to avoid him in the hallway by taking longer paths.

I started doing nightmares about my work situation every night. I couldn’t get this mess out of my mind. It started impacting my family. My relationships and my self-esteem. I felt devalued. I can’t even put words on it. I’d randomly cry at night. I guess I had to release that pressure, somehow. I would be sitting at my desk, wondering where to find the strength to do that heap of work. It became a struggle. Twix was pressuring the team to deliver.

I witnessed from my own eyes (and ears) Twix paging one of my teammates while were having a burger during lunchtime because he wasn’t replying to his messages.

May 16th, one month a half after Twix joined our team. He was furious. He gave me an ultimatum of a month to “fix all of my issues,” or he wanted me out of the team. It was no question to transition to a management role anymore. He wanted me to move to another role (such as TPM) or to accept the offer to move on to the other coast. I had no interest in different positions, and clearly, moving was not an option.

He was positioning himself as “The Oh-Mighty Twix” above any rules. Below are a few transcripts of conversations I had recorded back then. I had no idea what he was capable of. Recording the conversations was my attempt to protect me. To be used as evidence of what he had said.

[May 16th]

Twix: I will see how you perform in Dive deep. If no improvement for that time, a month or so, which is difficult as you will be in Belgium, we will be in that situation.
Twix: For TPM I was getting the green lights.
Twix: Then you don't give me any option then.
Andrew: No matter what you want me out of the team within one month. That is what I am reading between the lines.
Twix: Yes.
Twix: I don't need you in the team if your performance is degrading. People not meeting the bar is a problem, Andrew.
Andrew: I feel this is totally unjustified. You joined this team over a month ago. I have had no issue for the past 2 years.
Twix: it's your call.
Twix: My only data point is: Dive Deep and maybe ticket handling. Do whatever you do to improve what you need to improve. Don't take it personally.
As a manager, I have to evaluate this situation. And tell you if those things kept this way you will be in a bad situation. if you want to continue this path let's take it and it may be risky. The other path which is your passion should be going this way and I can help you.
Andrew: Which is SDM? [SDM = managger]
Twix: "NOT SDM" [raising his voice]
Twix: This is the discussion I had with P. You need to fix the gaps for SDE first before you go to SDM. Don't stress yourself, when we are in that point, I will let you know.

After that previous meeting, on May 16th, I had no clear action items. I had no idea what to change to improve my ability to “Dive Deep”. When I got out of his office, I was shaking. I had cramps in my stomach. I tried to find a room to calm down, regroup before reentering in the team room. I was picturing myself, getting fired. How would I pay for the rent? How would I pay for food?

The day after, I insisted on talking to him.

Andrew: Can we decide to have a list of things to work on then?
Twix: If I give you a list it will be official. I am trying to avoid this.
Andrew: Isn't it the job of a manager to tell his subordinates what they can work on to improve themselves?
What can I do to improve myself? Dive Deep is not enough.
Twix: [sighs]
Andrew: So how can I improve myself?
Twix: I think you will come up to me in a month and say that you found another opportunity such as ProServe [ProServe = the offer that required me to travel to the other coast].
Andrew: I can't there are no opportunities in Vancouver for ProServe right now.
Twix: You will find it. I know.
Andrew: What do you mean?
Twix: I told you everything. That's the problem. Whoever likes something he'll run or it. This is how it should be. If you like something you will go and get it.

Another meeting a few days later:

Andrew: You want me to improve myself in 1 month and if I didn't improve myself you will start this dev plan, Twix.
Twix: Yes.
Andrew: The only thing I know is for me to work on Dive Deep. But you won't give me any other items to work on.
Twix: Ok we can work together on this.
Andrew: For this next month, I have to show you that I can Dive Deep.
Twix: yeah at least this is very important. yes, what are the other options?
Andrew: If I am given that opportunity. I am on-call this week and then I am working from Belgium as it was agreed with Paige before she left.
[he cut me off]
Twix: I will be so happy if you give me the thing that I'd really like to see.
Andrew: "what do you mean?"
Twix: [...] take a bad ticket as an opportunity to dive deep.
Twix: you need to go for other teams to get that manager opportunity.

I found comfort knowing others were facing hard times with him too. After one standup, he and a team member started arguing with each other. Twix raised his voice and lost it. We could hear him yelling across the hallway. Another day, he openly criticized how one of my teammates was “looking at him.” She was shy and didn’t dare to respond.

At the time, a teammate told me: “I am mentally damaged. He is a psychopath and I have to get out of here”. That person left a month later. Another colleague sought comfort in medicine to cope with the pressure.

You see, that’s how you could end up crying on your desk, like in a famous article from the New-York times. If you think this can’t happen in modern corporate environments, think twice. I cried because I feared for my future. Because at that time, I didn’t know what to do. Because at the end of the month, I still had to pay our rent, I had to provide food and shelter for my loved ones.

A few of us called out the situation of our team to our skip level. Nothing happened. “I will talk to Twix about his growth area,” he said. Writing these lines, it makes me think about this episode of the Simpsons where Wiggum says: “Well, your story is very compelling, Mr. Jackass, I mean, uh, Simpson. So, I’ll just type it up on my invisible typewriter!”.

The shift, break free from the despot

The Shift, as Wayne Dyer calls it, happens for some people when you are in adversity. Where you just can’t handle it anymore.

Earlier that year, in March 2019, my mother had flown to Vancouver to visit us. I talked to her and said that I “felt that I was meant for something bigger.” I felt like my current career and mindset, was not how I was supposed to live my life. Like “a calling”. She advised me to settle down. To be careful about people, I may upset with my actions. She reminded me that I had a family to support. And that I was soon to be a father for the second time. As much as I love her, I didn’t listen to her.

On May 17th, after Twix had given me his 1-month ultimatum. If it was coming down to this, I needed an immediate escape plan. With my wife, Erwan, we listed all of my options.

  • Change team before the next yearly performance review (February time frame).
  • Leave Amazon and loose 6 weeks of paid parental leave. Also, loose all of my unvested stocks (thousands of thousands of USD).
  • Change career.
  • Change role.
  • Buy a floating home in Vancouver. How would this solve our issues? It wouldn’t. But it got me distracted for a few days!

I stopped positioning myself as a victim. I worked on my EGO (Ego is your enemy!). I dragged my ass to work. I found the willpower to get the job done, knowing that I was working towards a solution. I could see the end of the tunnel. I knew I could count on Erwan to support me.

I was studying to pass interviews until late at night. I didn’t have the luxury to take extra time off with my second child due in a few months. I spent my evenings and weekends studying. We left for Belgium the whole month of June 2019, 4 weeks. I worked two weeks remote and I took two weeks off to study for upcoming interviews.

However, I have got to say; it was hard to promote and sell myself to a team while my self-esteem had been shred into pieces for months. I must have talked to 15 different teams at Amazon and waited until I felt a good vibe about a manager and a team.

I dealt with rejections from other teams.

[May 22, 2019, 5:30 PM] Saket: Hey Andrew
[May 22, 2019, 5:32 PM] Saket: So I have been in constant touch with the recruiter... We have given offers for both open positions to people coming from abroad... I was trying to swap one for you
[May 22, 2019, 5:32 PM] Saket: But it seems once we give offer it's not possible to revert
[May 22, 2019, 5:33 PM] Saket: And mark [his boss] doesn't have any open req for the rest of the year... He tried really hard but it seems he can't get a head.
[May 22, 2019, 5:35 PM] Saket: That's what it is for now... So I will not block your move... Feel free to search for other teams I will keep trying to get a req... If I do I'll contact you, and if you are still available for the move, then we will make it work.
[May 30, 2019, 12:25 PM] Bard: Hi Andrew, We completed the debrief. Overall, we felt that there was not a good fit at this time. I appreciate your interest in the service and wish you the best of luck.
[May 30, 2019, 12:57 PM] Detiffe, Andrew: Thank you, Bard. Any actionable comment I could use for other interviews?
[May 30, 2019, 2:29 PM] Detiffe, Andrew: To clarify: I just want to make sure I know what to work on for interviews with other teams.
Thank you.
[May 30, 2019, 2:30 PM] Bard: Yes, sure thing. Overall, the result felt that you met the bar as an SDE2 for coding and design, but didn't raise it based on what we are looking for. I can go back and get some more specific feedback. Let me circle back on it tomorrow.
[May 30, 2019, 2:32 PM] Detiffe, Andrew: This is already useful. If you get a chance to get some more specific feedback, it can be useful too. Thanks

I just felt like screaming when I read those messages at first. I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach again. But I remained opened. And optimistic. It just wasn’t meant to be.

I have met some great people in my journey to seek a new team. How is that? They helped me slowly regain trust in myself. The first one, Saket, was ready to fight for me to get me on his team. Then, the second one, Bard, said: “you met the bar as an SDE2”. It felt so good to read! Up to that point in my life, I had always been seen as an excellent Software Engineer. I found opportunities to move across countries because of the value I was bringing to the companies I worked for.

My luck is that Twix didn’t flag me to HR. Paige had flagged one of my previous teammates, without telling him. He was then unable to change of team, stuck.

End of May 2019, I met JJ. He took me out for a coffee. To talk about his team and the position. Something no manager ever did before! He seemed to genuinely care about his team. We scheduled an interview after my trip to Belgium. Guess what, I started on his team on July 22nd!

I started healing. I was delivered from Twix, the despot.

The recovery

Breaking free was one part, but it wasn’t it. Not yet. I was broken after these months of struggle. I was tired – both emotionally and physically exhausted. On top of this, I still had not solved the questioning I had started with Paige.

I started watching a lot of motivational videos on youtube. This allowed me to increase my circle of influence, as mention in 5 things leaders do.

Learnings

That experience shattered my illusion of having a secure job, forever. I promised myself 2 things:

  • I would never be in that position again. To not solely rely on my 9 to 5 job to pay the bills. “And how on earth would you do that?” you must be thinking. Well, there are many ways in the modern digital economy. This is what I share with my members.
  • I would never be that kind of leader. I want to lead people to success. Guide them throughout adversity. Help them reach their goals and grow. I want to build truthful and honest relationships with others. I know the leader I want to be.

I owe those promises to my family and myself.

Digital entrepreneurship

On Jul 16, 2019, I started mocki.co. Mocki.co was a result of one of the two things I promised myself. My attempt to generate online income on the side WHILE HELPING OTHERS. Money is the byproduct of what you bring to society. Remember that.

Helping others helped me tremendously during that period of my life. Here is one of the many testimonials I receiving from people telling me that I had helped them nail their interview and get the job they wanted.

Thank you so much for all of your help! I was feeling very lost and overwhelmed. Our session helped me evaluate myself and gain confidence.

I had big plans for Mocki.co! Unfortunately, after multiple reviews with the legal department of Amazon, I was forced to pause Mocki.co.

This business appears geared towards helping you independently profit from your Amazon experience […]. As a result, Amazon legal cannot approve it.

I didn’t stop there.

While I was watching my motivational videos, Google Ads gathered data on who I was, what I was struggling with in life, and the questions I had. One video ad showed up on my mobile, one night in December 2019. A random guy called Valeriy was explaining how he was making money online. And how he left his job after ten months. How he had changed his mindset. And how he’d spend most of his time with his kids.

Valeriy made me discover a community of online entrepreneurs, which made me realize that you don’t have to go through this alone. You shouldn’t. Because you are not alone struggling in life.

Anna, a fellow member of that same community who went through a rough time:

I would like to say goodbye and thank you for all the good feelings I have had from you. My burnout has been burned thanks to this community, and thanks to all the people in it. I love you all. Bye, bye

We all have different stories out there, but we all want the same thing: happiness and fulfillment in one way or another. I joined and embraced that community in December 2019. Being surrounded by people who are driven to the same goals: find their purpose and get through a difficult period, alive.

Writing this post, in March 2020, 4 months down the road, I can testify how it has helped me grow personally. It helped me overcome many challenges since them. And I can say I am a better person now. I know what I want in life. I know what my goals are. And I am more determined than ever. It has helped me set my priorities straight.

A clear example of something we changed as a family and that impacted many aspects of our lives: positive thinking. Cultivate gratefulness. My son, two years and a half started joining our evening grateful ritual. We’d ask each other, “What are you grateful for.” This helps us focus on the positive.

Why didn’t I proceed with a career change? Because I needed a sustainable income. Pay the bills. This is why I promised myself never ever to rely solely on me working to make a living. This is where digital entrepreneurship came into place. The unexpected side of it was the personal growth I extracted out of it.

Retrospective

At the time of writing this blog post, several months “post-Twix” as I say to my wife, I am still healing. His name again comes up in conversations with my old teammates. Out of a dozen people that were in the team, only two stayed. An engineer who had joined Twix after I left the team, burned out and left Amazon after a couple of months.

To me, what Twix put me through was some sort of harassment. However, with a step back, it’s clear I already had started my almost-30-years old crisis before he joined. But instead of supporting an employee through a difficult phase, he dragged me down. Not only that, but he also pushed me down. One important lesson: don’t make yourself expendable. Retrospectively, I shared too much about what I was going through with Paige.

I am now aligned with my goals, visions, and values. I won’t set them in stone in this article as they continuously evolve.

I am still a full-time engineer at Amazon. This time, in a team where I can see myself evolve and grow in. Under managers who care for me. And I still work on my digital business on the side through andrewdetiffe.com

It may look disconnected at first. But it’s not. My full-time job as a software engineer and my digital entrepreneurship complement each other entirely as long as I keep my goals and values at sight. I am focusing on helping others. They both make me grow as human, father, husband, son, friend, colleague. Being part of a team, a community, and rock it TOGETHER.

Reading this article, if you are going through a storm right now, don’t stay alone. Talk to folks around you. Friends and family. If there is no one to listen to you, join a community. I’d be more than happy to talk to you offline on Skype or Facebook. if you need someone.

I am a burnout veteran. I won this war, but NOT alone. This was my story. To be continued.

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