February 5, 2012

Jeff Bezos Taught Me When to Quit

I never actually met Jeff Bezos. But he taught me an important career management lesson.

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Jeff Bezos taught me when to quit.

It was fall 1999, the height of the Internet bubble.  A few months earlier I had graduated from business school.  In the months leading up to graduation I had done my best to land a job with a dot-com.  I was convinced then that the Internet would change the business world.  I wanted to be a part of that.

I got one dot-com job offer — Amazon.com.  The trouble was it was in their finance group, not my main interest.  And the salary was so low it would be difficult to put food on the table and pay my student loans.  I so wanted to join the Internet biz, though, I convinced myself that I should just get in the door.  I could switch groups later.

I moved across the country to Seattle.   A month into my new dream job I was miserable.

“Finance” sounded glamorous.  But my job was anything but glamorous.  My main responsibility was sitting in a small office all day and maintaining a monster spreadsheet to track and administer the  salaries of thousands of Amazon employees.  [Yes, even mighty Amazon had problems managing its internal systems.]

Sometimes I would pull data as requested by the Product or Marketing teams as they ran analyses to measure marketing and product sales results.  The low point came when an undergrad summer intern gave me an especially painful data request.  I spent most of the day figuring out array formulas and tracking down small data irregularities.  I thought “Damn, I want to be the one doing cool business case analyses, not being a data monkey so others can have fun!”

Then there was my boss, Bill.  His leadership was textbook terrible.

Bill didn’t sit with us in our small grunt office.  As far as I could tell his job was to take the analyses I did and present them at the meeting with Vice Presidents of different departments.  Then he would come back and tell me to modify my analysis based on feedback from the meeting.  He didn’t even know how the spreadsheets worked.  Not once did he invite me to one of these meetings.  I came to see him as a zero-value-add messenger between me the the Vice Presidents.

As sucky as things were I thought I could tough it out for a year and then figure out a way to move to the Product or Marketing teams.  I still loved the dot-com biz.

Then the last straw hit.

Another new MBA was hired in my group.  I found out her salary was higher than mine, although I had been told that my salary was “standard for new MBAs.”  Adding insult to injury, I had deeper financial experience and skills than the newcomer.  I asked my boss to raise my salary to match hers.

“No.  You accepted your salary when you accepted the offer.”  He wouldn’t discuss it further.

I was fuming.  Then Jeff Bezos showed me the way.

It was at Amazon’s quarterly “All Hands Meeting” to announce and discuss results for Q3 1999.  Everyone in the company attended.

Bezos led the meeting like the master leader he is.  He exuded energy, enthusiasm and confidence as he discussed results and Amazon’s bright future.  At the end of the meeting he took questions from regular Amazonians.

Someone asked “What do I do if I have a bad boss?  I’ve tried to talk to him but he won’t listen to me and things aren’t getting better.”  The questioner added a few more details.  It sounded like an unpleasant situation, and the boss did indeed sound like a bad boss.  Just like my situation.

Bezos surprised me with his blunt answer in front of thousands of people.

“You should quit.”

I was upset at first.  Then I realized that Bezos’ leaders were the leaders, not me.  No CEO wants to babysit disputes between leaders and staff.  Either the CEO figures out the leader is no good and fires the leader or the staff should quit and find something better.  Bezos probably didn’t even know Bill, and as far as I knew the higher-ups thought Bill was doing a great job.

I realized that Bezos was right.  There was only one solution.

The next week I marched into Bill’s office.

“I want a raise.  It’s fair.”


“Ok.  I quit.  Today is day one of my two weeks’ notice.”

I had just quit my first post-MBA job 6 weeks after starting.  I had student loans to pay back and only a few dollars in the bank.  I had no idea what I was going to do.

And still I left Bill’s office feeling like a million dollars.

It turned out to be one of my best decisions.

Later I landed a much cooler job at Yahoo!.  A better position and a higher salary in the world’s center of Internet business, Silicon Valley.  Oh yeah, and better weather.  If I had stayed at Amazon I don’t think I would have done as well.

I learned that knowing when to quit — and having the courage to quit — is a necessary part of managing your career.

Thanks Jeff!

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