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2021-08-28

Next "Dot" in Journey: Curiosity-Driven Job Change in Canada (Aug 2021)


After five years of dramatic days at Treasure Data (TD), I decided to leave the company and join Amazon's Personalization team in Vancouver as a software engineer. When I first entered TD as an intern back in 2016, I didn't expect such a long, complex, and fruitful journey. I was influenced by the great corporate culture & colleagues literally on a daily basis, and I'm sure the 5-year experience will remain as a core of my life for a long time.

Importantly, while I changed my role from Software Engineer to Product Manager 1.5 year ago, now I'm back as an engineer for the new position in the field of recommender systems, where I have worked for a few years in the past (e.g., Google Scholar, CV). What I really like about personalization systems is how theoretical aspects1, engineering problems2, UI/UX design concerns3, business impacts4, and ethical challenges5 are strongly tied to each other. Thus, I'm curious about working in the domain at Earth's most customer-centric company.

Notice that I keep living in Vancouver. It's been only half a year since I relocated to Canada from Japan to experience living abroad, and hence it's still not the time to move; I want to try the four seasons through an entire year at least.

path

Post-pandemic "painful" days

The reasons why I changed my job at this point of time are as follows.

First, TD is "too comfortable to stay", seriously. I can list a number of positive reasons to remain in the organization, such as good people, outstanding compensation, rapid career growth, and flexible work environment. However, as time went by, all the facts simply made my day less stimulating. Of course, it'd be nicer if I could easily earn more money and organically get promoted, but accordingly, the individual responsibility and difficulty of day-to-day job become limited (and even decreased) as the company has grown from <100 employees' early days to the growth stage with 500 people; especially after the pandemic, my life was like routinely picking a low-hanging fruit, and falling into the situation without getting a sense of accomplishment made me feel guilty.

Secondly, "Are You Creating Products That *You* Love?"—I wasn't able to confidently answer YES to the question due to the lack of the company's strong mission/vision that I can empathize with. In particular, the pandemic gave me an opportunity to rethink what the most important thing for my life is, and it was questionable for me to keep working in the marketing domain, which doesn't necessarily have to be categorized as "essential" in my definition. I rather want to leverage my skills for making positive social impacts in a hands-on fashion. That's why I dove deep into the following topics lately and started thinking to be an engineer again:

Do note that "growing the company and being profitable" isn't a vision. What do *you* want to accomplish in the post-COVID world?

As a consequence, the comfy but unenthusiastic work was psychologically painful for me, and I made the decision to forcibly put myself to somewhere more uncomfortable/unpredictable where I can interact with what I'm passionate about.

Curiosity along with pessimism

So, why did I choose Amazon? In short, it's simply because of curiosity.

I'm curious about... Motivation
The life in a big company To be honest, I'm not a big fan of large companies, and I don't have a concept of "dream job" in my mind. Meanwhile, the need for visa sponsorship disabled me to be picky if I want to keep working in Canada. Thus, I believe this unique situation is going to be the first and last chance of validating its pros/cons by experiencing how a big company operates.
How the big company takes social responsibility As I mentioned above, my current focus is contributing to making as many positive social impacts as possible by any means. In that sense, the giant must be responsible not only for internal employees' satisfaction but also for external situations caused by what they develop. I know Amazon is already committing to ambitious goals for sustainable development, so I want to be a part of the initiatives and consider what I can do as an individual.
How they become Earth's most customer-centric company One of the most valuable findings from my past experience is the importance of customer centricity. In fact, when I first came to the industry from academia, I completely overlooked the existence of end users and focused only on the technological sophistication. Unsurprisingly, the mindset didn't work, and I was struggling with the gap between what I build (as an engineer) and something truly usable for the customers. In contrast, I recognized Amazon is one of the most customer-focused companies as their Leadership Principles state. Hence, I want to verify the fact by myself and see how they made it possible at the excessive scale of organization.
The inside of Amazon's recommender systems As stated at the beginning, the field of recommender systems is complex, and it's a mixture of technological and social aspects. The fact naturally surfaces the importance of diving deep into the outside of my technical expertise, and I expect that the combination of Amazon's customer-obsessing culture and industry-leading personalization systems gives me an opportunity to rethink how we can apply advanced technology in a positive way.
How Amazon's product managers work After changing my role from Data Science Engineer to Product Manager, the experience told me a lot about how products can be successful (e.g., spending enough time to communicate, understanding customers deeply, having a core of products in the form of mission and vision, designing and storytelling in an effective way). That said, the experience is limited at the single company, and I might be biased. Therefore, I'd like to gain different perspectives by working with the other product managers at the leading company.

Of course, changing a job was definitely a big decision, but I'm not serious that much. I'm optimistic about my life in the long run, whereas I'm pessimistic enough about uncontrollable events that could occur in the near future.

For example, since it's a big company, something undesired could easily happen such as reorganization forced by a leadership decision. Or, the job might not be enjoyable and challenging enough as originally thought. In an extreme case, my employment or immigration status may be suddenly jeopardized due to external factors by chance, but who knows? Everything will eventually be okay—The things are still in an understandable range of uncertainty, and I believe everything ultimately contributes to my future in the positive sense.

Life is unpredictable. Hence, as long as my curiosity listed above is satisfied, I wouldn't be surprised if I encountered any unforeseen obstacles. With that in mind, now I'm really excited about working at the new position and entering the next chapter of my life.

Moving forward

So far I have spent my first two weeks at Amazon, and I already have numerous insights including both positive and negative ones. What a big learning curve!

On the positive side, I'm so impressed about how the company seriously cares social impacts (e.g., diversity, equity, and inclusion and sustainability), and I feel I'm very proud of being a part of the organization. Meanwhile, even for a newbie like me, there is no doubt that the Leadership Principles are REAL. It's certainly different from typical, ambiguous mission statements, and it's something more actionable; everyone, including engineers, truly cares about customers, and the culture is widely and deeply fostered across the organization.

Speaking of Amazon's culture, I'd also like to highlight the fact that my interview experience with them was superb. In my opinion, they are the only company who seriously listened to my personal story (i.e., behavioral questions) and fairly evaluated myself without unnecessary (unconscious) biases. On the other hand, a couple of different companies I was interviewed gave me a final decision based on my past job titles without having a deeper discussion; one company I originally applied as a machine learning engineer ended up with proceeding to a product management position, and another one recommended me to re-apply as an engineer after rejecting my application for a product role. The frustration motivated me to write-up "Why Your Job Title Matters", and Amazon did a great job to eliminate the issues as much as possible.

No matter how I grow my career from now on, I have a strong impression that the new opportunity becomes a key stepping stone that I don't want to skip. Stay tuned for what happens next and how the dots are connected.

1. As partially listed in my Google Scholar, I studied recommendation algorithms when I was in universities, and there are hundreds of techniques ranging from heuristics to complex machine learning.
2. Not all recommendation algorithms fit your software systems. We have to consider multiple trade-offs to come up with the most reasonable solution. "What I Think About When I Talk About ML Product" highlights the thoughts more.
3. Technology itself is useless unless a good storytelling design comes together, and that's why I took a series of UI/UX courses and try to be mindful about how designers think, and how other people work in the broader sense.
4. Problem finding and ideation are the crucial steps toward the successful execution of business. Although a recommender is NOT built purely for the profitability sake, looking into the application from the lens of business enables us to build a life-changing product and make a larger impact in the real world.
5. In "Reviewing Ethical Challenges in Recommender Systems", I reconsidered how modern intelligent applications should be, and I personally think going beyond profit, accuracy, and evil habit-formation is highly important.

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  See also

2021-08-07
Why Your Job Title Matters
2021-05-26
Hi Product Managers, Are You Creating Products That *You* Love?
2020-02-07
Why a Data Science Engineer Becomes a Product Manager

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  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a software engineer based in Vancouver. I have worked as a full-stack software engineer, OSS developer, data scientist, machine learning engineer, and product manager for 6+ years.

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Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.

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