This article comes with disclaimers.
Based on the title alone, I assume many experienced readers know exactly how this will go. Working somewhere with prestige will make any future job search easier: it’s not a secret, or difficult to figure out.
Big Five tech companies, Big Four consulting firms, etc.1 - when you put a resume in front of someone, or when you walk into an interview, having worked somewhere with a titan reputation smooths out the experience. Big things are more impressive. “I do [something cool] at Amazon” sounds like I do something more unique, exciting, and challenging than what’s expected at other companies. Minor issues get dismissed. “I didn’t work with that specific [vendor/technology/etc.]” doesn’t matter because people already believe I have the technical skills to succeed. Similar treatment can be expected for many sources of prestige or privilege - having recognizable awards, going to well-ranked universities, you name it.
I knew that having a Big Five company on my resume would help my future career when I joined Amazon. I was counting on it, but only dared suggest that Amazon’s prestige would start to impact my job prospects after one or two years. In reality, it only took about two weeks to notice major changes, and within only months I went from:
- Being turned down for junior roles, to turning down senior and lead roles regularly.
- Applying full-time to find ten new opportunities, to exceeding that without applying once.
- Struggling to find roles with average compensation, to routinely seeing roles that pay double that.
I believe that the career growth I experienced is due to hiring practices in the tech field that are neither fair nor meritocratic. This article isn’t an impostor-syndrome-soaked woe-is-me post, though - I am a qualified engineer and believe that I operate at a level appropriate for my role at Amazon. My argument is that I was also a qualified engineer before I joined Amazon, and hiring practices that are biased towards hiring “the best” talent off titan companies exclude competitive candidates from smaller companies or different backgrounds.
I struggled to find much data on how working in Big Tech impacted peoples’ careers beyond bland comments like “you get the benefit of brand association,” which means fuck-all. To explore this more thoroughly, I’ve compiled data on a few key hiring areas which have changed for me: from the jobs I get called about, to how often I get called, even to who does the calling, and how this all has impacted my career prospects. Finally, I’ll provide a closing argument on why this is not good for the tech field, and propose how companies could be better in their hiring practices.
I just spent three paragraphs saying, “oh, you should know this” or “oh, you should be able to figure this out.” If it’s so obvious, why spend any time on it?
Since there’s little tangible data about this, publishing this helps inform the workers within our field, democratizing some tacit knowledge about career development. I hope this contributes to broader discussions about hiring practices in tech and how that impacts workers’ prospects, pay, and more.
This should be especially relevant to people in similar positions so they can evaluate their own experiences. I am a cisgender white college-educated man in tech - my cup runneth over with privilege. Is this the experience of all people who come to work at Amazon, or am I an outlier? To what extent is this from Big Five clout versus my specific professional situation, appearance, etc.? This is not possible to answer conclusively by comparing anecdotes, but we should still collectively look for trends. If you are someone in similar shoes and find this article valuable - whether your experience matches mine or not - please consider writing up something of your own. I’d love to hear about your experience.
Pre-Amazon: About My Last Job Hunt
I started interviewing at Amazon around the middle of May 2020. I was freshly laid off from my first “true” cybersecurity role2 after only six months due to a COVID-related priority shift.
I knew many other companies had enacted hiring freezes or laid off staff amid growing financial concerns. LinkedIn’s June 2020 Workforce Report shows a dismal state of hiring overall, though the Software & IT Services category avoided the brunt of COVID-related freezes with only a ~28% drop in people taking new roles. I’d need to find new work before my funds ran out, so I got started quickly. All in all, here’s what I managed after sending ~200 applications:
- Out of all the applications sent or opportunities I received, I had 25 screening calls.
- Of the 25 screening calls, ~9 matured to a technical interview.3
- Of the ~9 technical interviews, 5 continued to the final round.
- Finally, I received 4 offers, and took 2 jobs (one temporary, one ongoing).
Generally, the big problems for me were converting a resume into a screening call, and converting the screening calls into technical interviews. Several recruiters I talked with criticized how little time I was employed, and many suggested roles or responsibilities which would be a significant step down from the role that I held previously. I also frequently struggled to pass screening calls based on arbitrary criteria - such as not having experience with a particular vendor’s tool, despite having experience implementing the same controls with a competitor. These often - but not always - stopped my candidacy for a given role.
From my discussions with other early-career professionals, this was “about normal.” While it was disheartening at the time, I adjusted my resume and job search, and kept applying. I eventually found companies that were more interested in the skills I brought as a candidate and how I solved security problems - who thankfully didn’t disqualify me based on arbitrary characteristics not tied to actual performance.
In the end, I accepted a time-limited contract with the ever-phenomenal Luta Security, then excused myself for most of my second day there (whoops) for finals with Amazon, where I eventually became a Cloud Security Engineer.
Summarizing Data & Personal Factors
To explore the changes that I experienced after joining Amazon, I compiled two data sets. One explores the immediate impact of my new role, and assesses forty opportunities I was afforded immediately before joining Amazon, and the forty opportunities immediately after. The other explores hiring trends that I observed from June 2021 back to the start of my full-time career in tech, approximately two and a half years prior. You can read the full criteria for both in the appendix.
Aligning the data samples with personal factors that changed during that time, we get this timeline:
- January 2019 - Data sample B (long-term, hiring trends) starts, alongside my career as a Software Engineer @ Datto in Rochester, NY.
- December 2019 - Pivoted to Product Security @ Datto.
- January 2020 - Data sample A (short-term, forty jobs before and after joining Amazon) starts with 1 month experience in Product Security @ Datto.
- May 2020 - Laid off, started job search referenced above.
- June 2020 - Started new role as Security Engineer @ Luta Security, remote in Rochester, NY.
- July 2020 - Concluded job search, started new role as Cloud Security Engineer @ Amazon, remote in Austin, TX.
- October 2020 - Data sample A stops, with 3 months experience in Cloud Security @ Amazon.
- June 2021 - Data sample B stops, with 11 months experience in Cloud Security @ Amazon.
The only factor that changed outside of my title is my location: Rochester, NY changed to Austin, TX. I did not get any new degrees or certifications during this period and did not have significant professional development outside my main workplace.
Now, let’s dig into the changes that I saw in the opportunities I received.
Change #1: Percieved Qualifications
After starting with Amazon, the change in tune was drastic, and I felt some of the largest impact in what recruiters felt I was now qualified for. Just over the short term data that I collected - assessing forty opportunities before and after joining Amazon - we see the following change in titles:
I want to reiterate that “forty opportunities that I was contacted about after joining Amazon” translated to about three months of real-world time. So, in three months and three months only, how did my career trajectory change?
- The worst-case4 changed from decreasing my responsibilities, to staying at my current rank.
- The best-case changed from becoming a Senior Engineer, to becoming a Lead or Manager.
- The average-case changed from staying at my prior rank, to becoming a Senior Engineer.
This didn’t start slowly over those three months, either. I received emails about senior roles in two weeks - a lead role in four. I had hardly finished onboarding, and hadn’t delivered anything interesting. What gives? I’ve found it best to think of different things as “pulling” your career in different directions. In the past, my career prospects were “pulled” back by my lack of experience, undervaluing my skills. Suddenly, my career prospects were “pulled” forward by virtue of being an Amazonian, potentially overvaluing my skills because I am part of a respected in-group. This continued in conversations - I took interviews out of curiosity,5 and nobody raised concerns about the little time that I’d spent in the field.
Sure, some of this paradigm shift can be attributed to my unique position. Doing Cloud Security @ Amazon puts me in a great position in the job market, and I’m proud to have turned a tough situation into something that elevated my career. However, I chose this time sample to show that my skills had not substantially developed in the interim. I was in almost every regard just as qualified as I was when I was interviewing at Amazon - having picked up only a few months of experience (but no new certifications or degrees) - hell, I hadn’t even joined the on-call rotation yet. So far, my Amazon experience mainly served to attest that I was qualified to work at Amazon, a known den of engineering prestige.
Change #2: Increased Marketability
Alongside that, the number of cold emails, cold messages, and even cold calls about possible opportunities skyrocketed. Despite putting my LinkedIn as “not open to opportunities” (where I last saw around 1 per month), I started getting opportunities in my inbox almost as often as when I was actively applying for roles (just under 10 per month). At least, until the number of opportunities that recruiters reached out about exceeded how many I was able to find when applying full-time:
If this were all a single line representing a single state of my opportunity-seeking, I could probably accept it as “normal” growth for the tech field. It’s common knowledge that your interest from recruiters increases in the tech field based on your experience, and especially if you reach a senior role.6
However, I have to wonder what would happen if I opened my LinkedIn to opportunities - would I see a comparable increase even from here? It seems almost certain that my recruiter interest would increase by at least 2x - where previously, it increased by over 4x until the hiring freezes started across the USA. Honestly, I don’t have the spare time to handle all the contacts I get as it stands.
There are plenty of factors that may go into this, but the dominant factors I believe contributed are my new employer’s prestige and my unique market position (explored in #1). Location - while a factor - doesn’t seem to have been a big contributor to the increased number of opportunities I received. Austin, TX is a growing tech hub, and the number of open opportunities did help secure it a place on CompTIA’s Top 20 Best Tech Cities for 2020. But reviewing data from Ben Kane about his experience with recruiters after moving to another tech hub indicates that the change of location alone couldn’t explain the magnitude of the change I’d seen.7
Change #3: Changing Opportunity Sources
On top of receiving more opportunities, the opportunities I receive now tend to come from more prestigious sources. Before starting at Amazon, the vast majority of opportunities came from less-specialized third party recruiting firms (e.g. IT staffing firms). While I received more interest overall from all parties, companies tried to poach me directly much more often, as did cybersecurity recruiting specialists:
This also tends to expose me to opportunities with better pay, higher company reputation, and so forth. This relies again on the short-term sample, but I can confirm that the change continues into the current state of my LinkedIn conversations. This creates an ongoing cycle of privilege that is hard to break. I got connected with a great opportunity, which leads to me getting connected to great opportunities in the future.8
This is perhaps the most “normal” growth that I experienced - at a surface level, it makes sense that tech companies would want to hire from other tech companies, who are more likely to share skills and specific technologies. But to remind you, that wasn’t my actual experience with getting hired - before I worked at Amazon, I was routinely disqualified for not working with the “right” technologies, even if I had demonstrated experience implementing the same desired security controls. Now, the tech stack that I work with is internal-only - and knowing the “right” tools hasn’t come up in a single interview since. With my parent company’s reputation backing up my perceived skills, my lack of tool-specific experience is seemingly a non-issue.
Change #4: Increased Compensation
Finally, and perhaps predictably, the mean and maximum total compensation (TC) for potential opportunities has substantially increased. Excluding jobs that I took or received an offer for:
Of course, many factors go into compensation, two of the largest currently being the location and specific role - both of which changed for me. As noted before, my location changed on LinkedIn from Rochester, NY, to Austin, TX. This certainly contributed to the increased compensation on offer, and it’s hard to say precisely how much, but let’s estimate based on Glassdoor’s data (current to September 18, 2021):
To be generous, let’s take the highest of those and estimate that ~25% of the mean compensation growth is attributable to my location change. Checking on Glassdoor again for the difference between Product Security Engineering and Cloud Security Engineering roles, the mean difference is so negligible that it doesn’t merit a graph (CloudSec reports between 1% and 7% lower compensation). You can review the Glassdoor data I used for calculating the impact of location and titles in this CSV.
This leaves ~60% of the mean compensation growth in opportunities I see attributable to other factors, such as ones that we’ve discussed throughout:
- Being sought after for higher rank jobs per #1. Based on Glassdoor, the percent change of mean compensation for graduating to a more senior role is between 13% and 35% for roles similar to mine.
- Increased marketability and better market position per #2 likely contributes as a major factor, but there’s no way to directly calculate its impact on my compensation.
- Receiving more interest from specialized firms, per #3, and the higher prestige or higher competition roles that exposes me to. I found Gergely Orosz’ dissection of how competition impacts tech salaries to be very insightful, and while I think the data above implies this, I want to confirm that I’m contacted much more frequently about “Tier 3” (highly competitive) companies after joining Amazon.
Analyzing all factors is not possible, but as a final note, the compensation listed for opportunities I see may also be influenced by recruiter awareness of roughly how much people in my position make from sites like levels.fyi. While this works in my favor now, the same reasoning (“pay an attractive % over their current role” instead of “pay based on the value the role delivers”) is used to underpay other candidates who may not currently have as-competitive compensation. Unfortunately, I can only speculate how much this happens at this time.
It feels weird to complain. Here I am, sitting in my little castle, with a stable job, great pay, great team, great manager, excellent prospects, working on unique and impactful work - all seeming to say “hire me less.” But that’s not it - coming from my concerns with getting a new job before I joined Amazon, I’d want the takeaway to be “consider hiring other people more.”
Recruiters are looking for motivated and effective workers to bring into the company. That’s obviously very difficult, and it may very well be convenient for companies to try hiring Amazon employees - or other Big Five tech companies, Big Four consulting firms, etc. - because they’re part of an in-group with a rigorous selection process. But that’s an unhealthy shortcut for our field to take - it vastly increases competition for the “prestigious few” while largely shunning or ignoring skilled candidates from other companies and backgrounds, limiting their career prospects.
After all, I was an Amazon-quality candidate before joining Amazon, and Amazon recruiters were willing to give me a chance to prove myself against that bar.
If you want industry-titan-quality candidates, industry titan hiring processes are not industry secrets - these processes are designed to be efficient, to select for candidates capable of delivering the best solutions, and to avoid bias during selection. I would ask that recruiters apply those techniques in their hiring processes directly instead of relying on other companies to implement good hiring practices and focus on poaching off those companies. This would help build more equitable hiring processes in tech without sacrificing candidate quality. It holds candidates to the same high bar but can significantly expand the pool of candidates that companies could choose from, creating more equitable career prospects for the tech workforce.
I think this is a critical discussion to start. As it stands, I feel that my experience was not equitable, based on a false sense of meritocracy. However, my experience may be an outlier - if so, I hope that’s for good reasons. Perhaps my experience has been some perfect storm, and the average impact of prestige in tech is more normal or acceptable.
I look forward to finding out, and I hope that this convinces more people to share more information and data about how their careers matured over time. Please feel free to share your stories publicly or privately with me here - my DMs are open.
First, the views and opinions expressed in this article are my own, not necessarily my employer’s (past, present, or future). This is true of anywhere on my blog, but I feel compelled to reiterate this here, as I mention some employers by name.
Second, this only covers my own experience and shouldn’t be assumed to be perfectly representative. I’ll give relevant context so you can pick apart the other factors that contribute to this change - but this is my life, not a laboratory test, and plenty changed outside of my employer. I will do my best to cover significant factors which could also contribute to the changes observed.
Finally, I don’t want to see any clickbait news articles or Reddit posts “work for [company] for [some] years for [many]x the job offers!!11!1!” with this cited as a source. Seriously, I will add notes at the top of this page roasting them. That’s not what I’m writing here - not even close. Location, experience, market positioning, and more had an impact on my career outlook. Don’t misrepresent my data for clicks.
About Data Sample A
This data sample is qualitative, used for #1 and #3.
To build this sample, I assessed the 40 jobs that I was contacted about before I started at Amazon, and the 40 jobs that I was contacted about after I started at Amazon to extract approximate traits about them - such as the source and rank. This includes jobs that I applied for and received any positive response about, such as a screening call. Jobs that are volumetric/non-tech (ex. recruiting for a call center position) have been excluded.
In total, this covers approximately from January 2020 (employed as a Product Security Engineer @ Datto) to October 2020 (employed as a Cloud Security Engineer @ Amazon for three months). It is used in this article to show immediate or near-immediate changes.
About Data Sample B
This data sample is quantitative, used for #2 and #4.
To build this sample, I collected the jobs that I was contacted about over the lifetime of my LinkedIn and email history, again excluding volumetric/non-tech jobs. This includes jobs that I applied for and received any positive response about, such as a screening call.
I then added any job that mentioned compensation to the compensation data. To protect some of my privacy, this does not include jobs that I accepted; to protect the privacy of companies that reached out to me, this is scaled up to six-month bins and only includes a mean where I have >5 data points per bin. For opportunities where a compensation range was stated: I used the range’s minimum to contribute to the minimum advertised TC for that bin, the range’s maximum to contribute to the maximum advertised TC for that bin, and the range’s midpoint to contribute to the mean advertised TC for that bin.
Thank you to everyone that helped review this as it progressed through several disjoined drafts, specifically:
- Rachel Wenzel for reviewing my data & presentation,
- Josh Bicking for suffering through sentences with dashes and colons,
- Rebecca Mahany-Horton for the thoughtful takes throughout,
- and my anonymous reviewers for their collective wisdom.
Your candid advice and feedback helped shape this into - hopefully - something productive.
Thank you also to Ben Kane for chatting with me during the development of this piece, offering insight into your experience, and connecting us all with more data!
There are plenty of smaller workplaces that also have a reputation for excellence, especially in a given domain. In my field, security research and security consulting firms would have strong recognition and reputation as well. I don’t mean to posture this as “wow, you need to work somewhere big to be special” - just that Big Five/Big Four/etc. are recognizable options. ↩
A “true” job in this context being “salaried, full-time.” If you are interested in breaking into cybersecurity and are curious about building security into software products, you can read about how I got started in Product Security here. This contains a lot of information about the role, how I broke into cybersecurity, and candid advice from my journey. ↩
Unfortunately, I don’t have a firm number for how many roles progressed to a technical interview as I cleaned out my mailbox and didn’t track this at the time. After reviewing my calendar, I’m sure it was a minimum of 8 and probably didn’t exceed 11. ↩
To be clear, Analyst, QA, and Junior Engineer roles are extremely valuable - they aren’t “bad” or “undesirable.” However, they would have been a step down from my responsibilities and demonstrated career path, therefore less desirable for my next role at that time. ↩
I’m delighted with my work and my team at Amazon; I only wanted to see what recruiters would say about my experience now. I’m not looking to leave at this time, and I wasn’t then either - while I was candid with recruiters about that fact, it’s possible they thought I was just reticent. ↩
I don’t personally believe that it’s a good thing that new entrants to the security field are so underserved, and while I do write this to help highlight that, it’s not something I can get sidetracked on here — another article, perhaps. ↩
Performing a 1:1 comparison of our experiences is impossible, so this is an oversimplification. Ben also started a job at LinkedIn, a company that certainly has name recognition within the tech industry, explaining some of the changes he experienced. That said, this still leaves a wide moat between our experiences. ↩
I’m also deeply suspicious that this would allow me to fail upwards trivially: by moving out from Amazon to another company of relative prestige, doing something flashy, and then leaving for yet another company of relative prestige. But I’m not going to be trying that anytime soon. ↩