A Day in the Life of a Senior Manager at Amazon
A representative log of what one day might look like for a Senior Manager at Amazon. Guest post from former Amazon director Dave Anderson
👋 Hi, this is Gergely with a 🔒 subscriber-only issue 🔒 of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover challenges at Big Tech and startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers.
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I’m happy to share that a deepdive on the results, produced by VC firm CREANDUM, is out, and you can read it here. I will follow up with additional analysis and context in the coming months, sharing my analysis with newsletter readers. If you are interested in how tech leaders are being compensated at startups in the Europe – with details on median compensation in the US, Asia and as well the US, Asia, and other regions – see the report here:
Today, there is no The Pulse: I’ll be back covering and analyzing recent events next week! Instead, I’m sharing my favorite reads this year on engineering management. This piece comes from Dave Anderson.
Dave worked at Amazon for 12 years: starting from a junior software development manager in Global Payments, then two promotions in the 3rd Party Selling Marketplace, then AWS, then was promoted to Director of Technology running the Amazon Kids technology in devices, and then became the General Manager for Publishing in the Amazon Games organization. He left Amazon two years ago and writes a weekly newsletter called Scarlet Ink about leadership, interviewing and career growth.
I caught up with Dave a few weeks ago. We had been mutually reading each other’s articles, and we also started writing our newsletters around the same time, and both after leaving our positions at larger tech companies.
Dave published the below article in March, for paid subscribers. With permission, I’m posting the full article. I hope you enjoy this variation in the topic and style!
If you’re in a management position: compare notes on how Dave’s “day in a life” compares to yours - as well as your inbox growing, over the day. And if you’re an individual contributor: you might get a bit more empathy on what it means to be a manager in a large tech company, and get a sense of some of the less obvious challenges with management: the never-ending context switches.
With this, over to Dave:
When interviewing people at Amazon, I was often asked what a normal day looks like. If I was interviewing a manager, it was because they were curious about their responsibilities. If I was interviewing a non-manager, it was because they were curious what the heck managers do with all their time.
The actual answer is hard to give because every day was always different. Particularly as you got a bit more senior.
Some days completely revolved around a particular operational issue. Another day I'd be mostly engaged in some performance management process, such as writing promotion documents, or perhaps trying to balance my team's compensation budget. Yet another day I'd be in a couple of long meetings all day, doing annual planning.
However, most days had a good mixture of focus on product, people, projects, and technology. The dev manager job is not great for those who love to focus for 6-hours straight, but it's pretty good for those who love variety.
I spent quite a few years at Amazon as various levels of engineering management. When I was thinking of writing down a "standard" day for a dev manager, I decided I should pick the hardest dev manager job at Amazon. In my opinion, that's the Senior Development Manager (Level 7). I'll explain some other time why I feel Level 7 can be pretty rough.
This isn't a real day. However, it is a realistic day, and contains components of real days I experienced. With privacy / confidentiality changes as I feel necessary.
7:15 am - 127 unread emails
I really don't like mornings, but traffic is a beast if I get into work much later. I also want to have a chance to go through my important emails before my meetings start. I start my day with email because most of my critical things arrive in email.
127 unread emails. I'm happy to see that number because there would usually be more. But last night I'd gotten down to inbox zero, so I only had the emails for the last 13 hours or so. Yes, 127 emails in the last 13 hours. And I'd made a point of not looking at my email for those 13 hours because I find that too many annoying things land in my email box at night. I have a harder time sleeping if I read email when I'm at home. I figure if there's an emergency, I'm easy to reach.
I scanned down the list of recently received emails, looking to see if there's anything critical I need to look at first.
I see dozens of automated emails. I have various reports on ticket counts, availability of our systems, and employees who didn't take enough vacation days. I have a couple automated reminder emails that I need to baseline (essentially confirm) some permissions for employees, and systems.
I have the usual alerts of a few systems going down, and 1 minute later being available again. The teams responsible insists that they're false alarms, but I make a mental note to try to harass some engineering managers about them when I have a chance. Those alerts have been going on for too long. I want us to either fix our alarms, or find out what's going wrong.
I notice an email from Blanca, a trusted senior engineer. She sent an email a couple of hours ago. The subject reads, "all good now." Curious, because I didn't know that things weren't good, I click on it. The body of the email reads, "I got it working, I'll figure out why it was down later." I don't see an email from her manager, Orville.
I wonder what was down, and suspect that I probably have other emails about it. I hope it wasn't anything serious. Since no one called me, it's likely to not be a huge deal. I decide to look through my inbox to see if I can figure out what went wrong.
At that moment, someone knocks at my door. It's my manager, Glenn.
7:21 am - 129 unread emails
"Hey Dave. I heard that there might have been an outage with the notification platform. Do you know if that's fixed yet?"
Ah, mystery probably solved.
"I'm reasonably confident that Blanca got it fixed, but she's still investigating. I'll double-check and let you know asap."
A successful manager can do two things particularly well. First, they keep their team shielded from distractions, so they can get things done. Second, they make certain that they shield their manager from worry and stress, by being competent, and convincing their manager that everything is completely under control at all times.
This means I instant message Blanca as soon as Glenn walks out.
"Hey Blanca, thanks for the updates this morning. Just a quick question. Was the 'all good' message about the notification platform? I wanted to double-check because Glenn was asking about it, and I wanted to make certain I wasn't wrong."
Blanca thankfully replies a few seconds later. "Yes".
Well, maybe she uses fewer words than I'd prefer, but she's a good engineer. That's enough confirmation for now. I message Glenn that I was right, the notification system is fixed. I assure him that I'll make certain he'll get a more complete update by the end of the day.
I often phrase things like, "you'll get a more complete update" instead of "I'll send you a more complete update" because Orville owns the notification system, and he's the one I'd expect to send updates to everyone. However, Orville has a bad habit of not communicating well, which is likely why Blanca messaged me directly. I get the impression she doesn't respect Orville much.
7:38 am - 132 unread emails
I double-check my inbox. Now that I'm looking closer, I do see some emails about the notification platform going down. I also see nothing from Orville, and no other messages about that outage. After any major outage, I'd expect someone to send an update out. If you're not proactive, people worry.
I email Orville, and ask him to please send a summary of what happened with the notification system to myself, Glenn, and anyone else he feels is appropriate.
I emailed him because we usually used email for non-urgent messages (sometime in the next few hours), and IM for urgent messages. I also feel that people read their IMs at home, or in the car, and then forget to do what they were asked later. I know Orville gets to work later, and this can wait until then.
As a manager thing, I made sure to add "anyone else he feels is appropriate" because he does have a set of internal customers. I, personally, know that he should add them to the email. Orville should know that as well by now. I added that hint because if Orville doesn't email them (and I give it a 50/50 shot), I have a specific instance I can give him feedback on. It sounds sneaky, but you need clear examples of someone making mistakes to be able to coach them. And you can't have a manager who can't independently manage things.
7:59 am - 124 unread emails
I read through every email I could find about the notification system, read the event trouble ticket timeline, and looked at a few online dashboards. I didn't feel comfortable going to my first meetings without knowing what happened. Which means I spent a bit over 15 minutes researching the outage that I should have been able to trust Orville to deal with. Bah humbug. But at least now I understand what happened.
8:04 am - 125 unread emails
I sit down in my first meeting of the day. Almost every meeting consistently starts 5 minutes late. Unless it's with an important executive, in which case everyone shows up 5 minutes early. Even if the executives are often late. I remember Bezos would show up 15 minutes or an hour late, or often you'd sit in the conference room for an hour, and then someone would let our conference room know that Jeff can't meet today, but they'll reschedule.
This is an hour-long meeting where the product team is reviewing a proposal for a new feature for our system. They said they're showing a few stakeholders an early draft of the document for comment.
I'm the only engineering representative. Once I look at the invite, I see that Lillie, the engineering manager for that team, was not invited. I suspect it's because the product manager and Lillie don't get along well. Regardless, I forward an invite to Lillie, and message her if she's available to meet now. She is, and heads over to the conference room.
The product manager looks surprised and disappointed when she shows up a couple of minutes later. Yeah, he probably preferred it if she didn't attend. It's hard to make two other people be polite to each other.
We all read for about 30 minutes. I read quickly, and so I'm done in around 15. I open Outlook, to catch up on some email.
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