This as-told-two essay is based on a conversation with Alexander Nguyen, a software engineer who moved from New York City to Seattle for a job at Amazon. It was his first job out of college, and he says it was the loneliest time of his life. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I spent four years in New York City studying computer science at New York University. I always had fun and often explored the city all day long and well into the night.
During the day, my friends and I got bubble tea from Boba Guys, hung out in Greenwich Village, and people watched. At night we went to the White Oaks Tavern, the warm and comforting speakeasy bar popular with college students.
After graduating, I started looking for tech jobs. That the job search process was very draining and demotivating — I went through at least 300 software engineering problems on my own, trying to figure out how to present myself in front of an interviewer. I got rejected about 40 times, which made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
Finally, after a three-month job search, things started to look up: I received a software development engineer position job offers from Amazon in 2020.
I sold everything I owned on Facebook Marketplace and moved to Seattle. Amazon put me up in a hotel near its main campus as part of its relocation support package. After a week, I moved out to a place in the University District neighborhood of Seattle.
I was surprised at how much people in Seattle liked to talk to each other; they asked me how my days were going, which was not something I usually experienced in New York City.
No one tells you that making friends is hard. At first, I was really excited to be surrounded by like-minded engineers and have conversations about system design. At NYU, the CS community seemed small in contrast to the larger corporate-focused crowd.
I believed that I would have so many opportunities for professional growth, writing great code and building business software for millions of people.
But when I came to Seattle, I found myself in a technological environment that I didn’t get to enjoy or make the most of. I was under the impression that I would be surrounded by either a bunch of recent graduates or a bunch of people my age coming out of college, but that wasn’t true.
It was definitely the loneliest time of my life.
My daily routine fell into a pattern: I woke up, hopped on my computer and had my standup meeting with five people on my team. I then spent four or five hours either working on coding tasks or having several sit-in meetings just to hear what other people’s design or software thoughts were about. After work I was often too tired to socialize, so from 17:00 to 22:00 I ended up cooking dinner alone or doing household chores.
At Amazon, there is a strong emphasis on being independent. Even for new hires, there is an expectation that you will be self-sufficient and find solutions on your own. It would have been nice to have conversations with my colleagues in the hallways or at the water cooler – maybe we would talk about different programming languages - but that never happened. I have actually never met my colleagues in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once every two months we had virtual online poker, but it didn’t last long.
I really wanted to get to know my colleagues, but I had a hard time getting in touch with them. Many of them were in their late 20s or early 30s with extensive industry experience, and the more senior colleagues either had children or were already married. Mostly the only thing I could talk to them about was the weather. I still remember when the hit Netflix show “Squid Game” came out. I asked my colleagues if they had seen it, but it turns out they didn’t even know what the Squid Game was.
I think that’s what really made me lonely: the only people I knew in Seattle were my coworkers, and I couldn’t relate to them—I had a hard time getting to know them on a personal level.
In college, people often discussed how competitive and difficult it was to break into top tech companies. The idea of making $200,000 a year made this career super appealing and special to me.
But dating in a tech hub gave me an identity crisis. It wasn’t until I met a few women on dating apps that I realized that being a software engineer in a tech center is far from special. Working in companies like Amazon or Microsoft is just not interesting; that’s the norm here.
I remember a certain date I was on. It was a nice warm day in July when I asked her out after three weeks of chatting online. We strolled through a park and she talked about how she loved eating out and how her medical studies were going.
But at a certain point, I didn’t know what else to talk about besides technology and its adjacent topics. I talked about the challenges engineers face, such as how to participate in daily standups or deal with code bugs in production. I could tell she was having a hard time relating to what I was sharing, but my fixation on these topics dominated the conversation. I only talked about what it was like to work at Amazon or Microsoft because that was all I knew.
I also remember the time I invited a date to visit the Google office after I started working there. I thought it would be a fun and interesting experience because I could show her the perks of the company, but she turned me down because she had already been there on other dates.
After going on six dates, I regularly heard comments like, “I also have a lot of friends who work in technology,” or “I’ve already heard a lot of these stories.” I began to feel one-dimensional and realized that I wasn’t interesting—my experience wasn’t unique or impressive.
It’s not just me who’s lonely – lonely engineers abound. I have a friend in San Francisco who told me about one billboard from a dating app called MillionaireMatch: “Do you make $300,000? You deserve the best!” And on Blind, an anonymous forum where verified employees discuss issues mostly related to technology, I often come across stories from people sharing about how lonely they are.
In my opinion, there seems to be a loneliness epidemic in technology. I think a big reason for that is that software development doesn’t require socially demanding skills like in product management or UX design. My interaction with clients or other colleagues is minimal and it’s just me in front of the computer.
It makes me a little sad that I gave up the relationships I used to have in New York. I left my family, friends and all the connections I had there. I spent four years building them up and I let them all go.
In retrospect, I wish I had stayed in New York. When I got the job at Amazon, all I thought about was my technical career and the $150,000 salary. I thought that with a high paying job my future could be set. I thought about where I was going to live instead of considering if there would be someone for me to connect with socially.
Looking back now, I realize that maybe I should have looked a little harder for opportunities in New York before taking the first tech job that came my way.
I am also unsure of my level and compensation. Even though I’m further along in my career and employed at Google now, this uncertainty doesn’t stop. Sometimes I compare myself to fresher engineers with similar compensation or to senior engineers who are at higher levels with less work experience. There are also people at YCombinator or successful YouTube content creators or others starting nonprofits. At 26, I feel like I should be doing more than just being a software engineer.
I keep asking myself if I’m happy. Having a full-time job doesn’t feel like enough. It doesn’t leave much room for me to make friends, and moving to another state for work wasn’t easy. I don’t know if I want to climb the corporate ladder, spend more time with family, or invest in hobbies. There are pros and cons to all of them, and it’s never been an easy decision to make.
If you’ve felt alone in your industry and want to share your story, email Aria Yang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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