Oliver Zheng

How to Quit A Top Tier Tech Job

March 28, 2018

I quit Facebook as a software engineer in mid 2017 without any clue of what to do next. Here I provide two exit strategies for the untenable position of wanting to quit a top tier tech job: staying, or quitting.

Before diving in, you must qualify for the following conditions:

  • Your legal status in the country does not depend on your continued employment. If it does, stay away from this train of thought. The destination is a depressing and harsh realization.
  • You have enough savings to last at least two years. If you don't know, time for some math. If you did the calculations and you don't have enough, your finances are a bigger concern than your job.
  • You can find employment with somewhat certainty. If you can't get hired at a few companies that you at least don't mind working at, your future is a bigger issue than your current job. If you don't know if you are easily employable, interview and find out.

An Analysis of Wanting to Quit

Wanting to quit is a symptom. The source is a cognitive dissonance between the current reality and lack of a tenable vision for the future. At the beginning, the thought of wanting to quit provides emotional support as a potential exit strategy. Over time, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is no clear cost-benefit analysis for actually quitting, and that emotional support wears off because quitting stops seeming like an exit strategy.

I'd say that's a good thing that you are unlikely to quit nilly willy without regard for future plans. Darwin has done us good.

It was months after quitting that I've mentally stepped away enough from the emotions to see that the source of the cognitive dissonance came from two intertwined but conflicting ideas:

  1. This is the best place for anyone to work at, and since I am anyone, there is no better place for me to be.
  2. I don't like it here and I don't see how else it could be better.

Like a doctor, I'll note that "fun"employment is a harsh thing to go through (which is worth a separate piece on) and should probably be a last resort. Before I make quitting sound more appealing, let me see if I can disarm either of those two ideas first, which may reduce the cognitive dissonance and obviate the desire to quit.

Prestige by Association

If your company's reputation can widen the eyes of everybody you meet when they learn where you work, your company has given you a very powerful perk. This has a variety of results in different social settings: Internet strangers treat you like a God, people in the same industry clamor to talk to you, your significant other is frequently in awe of your talents because of the social status they receive from announcing your workplace to their social circles. Dave Chappelle has fantastically illustrated the power of this phenomenon with respect to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

This social reputation you inherit is also a pair of handcuffs.

To say nothing of the things you cannot do or publicly say about your employer, the perk is only valuable to you if you treat like it's true. You have to believe in the same marketing pitch your company has established in order to recruit the best minds in the world™. In fact, its value goes up if you help sell it to your industry peers, to your social circles, to anyone who is interested enough to hear. Given that setup, it makes no sense to short this stock; to not believe in the Kool-Aid is to reduce your intangible assets. Believing - heck, even toying with the idea - that this is not the best place to work for everyone at all times may be emotionally painful, as it mentally discredits the internal measure of your social status and your own belief system.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way around this but to acknowledge the actual benefit as well as cost of this relationship, and accept that some of the benefits you receive (social status through the fact that you are a current employee) are property of the company and not you. I think top tier tech companies have done a great job at creating value for the companies themselves through selling the prestige of its employees as an identity. Being told something like "you are intrinsinctly amazing and working here proves it" flatters in a deep existential way but also insidiously creates a dependence on that validation.

See if you can acknowledge and perhaps even disengage from that dependence. It took me a while to do the former and much longer to do the latter.

Your Career Goals

From a career perspective, the real usefulness of that prestige comes from actually exercising it for your benefit. Most tech careers only allow for one job at a time - you only get to exercise your prestige if you decide to leave.

If your company is the best place to work™, then how could you want to go somewhere else? You wouldn't knowingly choose to go a place that is worse to work at. This is a sign that you don't have the next set of goals in mind for your career. You need to work towards something that's both audacious enough to be inspiring but tenable enough to not be daunting. You also need to actually personally want it - out of personal interest, ladder climbing, or just money. Any reason is fine, but you have to actually want it.

I stopped having a career vision for myself for the last year or so of my tenure at Facebook, for no particular reason. Losing that direction meant there was no difference in the relative value of actions, which made doing anything or nothing the same. None of this career goal stuff is specific to top tier tech companies, but in these companies, it'd be especially easy to fallback onto the very attractive value system the company provides: prestige, money, praise; that in itself is not a long term solution.

A Narrative for Quitting

If you can't find a narrative that makes sense for staying, you'll need to construct a narrative that makes sense for quitting. It has to be something you can see yourself doing and believing. It also has to make sense when you say it out loud as a reason for why you are quitting when you tell your coworkers. It's as much for you as it is for your image. You already want to quit - you need a socially acceptable reason to do so.

The following are some starting points. Pick one that stands out the most - reason about that and only that. If you pick a few, it'll seem to you and to your friends like you are grasping for straws, which sounds like you just can't take your current job (even though that is true). You need one single thing to look forward to after quitting, to go all in on. That's emotional commitment that you, your significant other, and your parents can understand.

Travel. See the world before you get old. Go visit hobbit towns and sample unique cuisines all over the world. This is easily understandable since you can't do it too much while working. It's something many dream of doing. If social media influencers can make money on it, no one would question your intentions for it.

Starting a business. It's audacious, thrilling, and potentially financially stable. If you've always wanted to do something on your own, this is a great time to take a chance. It's incredibly hard, so failure is a socially acceptable outcome. Of course, don't start a venture expecting failure.

Change career. If you've imagined yourself doing something else professionally, either by going through school first or by jumping straight in, this is a good opportunity. Maybe instead of programming, you just want to make bread in a bakery. There are enough success stories that it's pretty socially acceptable.

Just taking a break. The tech industry is known for having a high turnover rate. Taking a break is a sensible thing to do. The things you'd do while on break may include reading, exercising, cooking, working on the house, meditating, starting a technical project, etc. Gaining perspective by stepping away from the situation is valuable.

I started with the taking a break approach. It evolved into starting a business a few months in as I wanted more things to do.

Here are some narratives I find uncompelling:

  • Finding yourself. It lacks direction and actionable steps. You may realize something profound while unemployed, but it's not unemployment that unveils wisdom. To form an emotional commitment around a vague goal like this without a plan is to ignore the reality of character building and to misanalyze your current job situation.
  • Doing nothing. It is one thing to acknowledge the emotional state you are in and to want to step away from it, it is another to have nothing else in your mental state. If you straight up quit without a plan, you'll end up ruminating on your misery. There is always an endless amount of that to think about while going nowhere.

Talk about your narrative in your head and with close friends. Flesh out the story with details and build confidence around it. Your confidence will be needed if your employer wants to give you more money or special treatment.

Other Rationalizations

  • All top tier companies have an open-secret policy around welcoming ex-employees back. Usually, it's no questions asked (i.e. no interviews) within one year of quitting, assuming you didn't burn bridges and were performing up to expectations.
  • If you've been at your company for four years, you'll likely have hit your vest cliff already. If you leave and come back, your compensation package may cover more than what you give up in unvested stock when you leave. Do the math and see if you would actually make more money by quitting and coming right back.
  • If you want a job within the first year, since you'll likely be welcomed back to your old company, it'll be much easier to land a job. Not only would that reduce the pressure in finding a job, you'll essentially have an offer on hand to compare and negotiate other offers with. In fact, it will arguably be easier than finding a new job while still employed, since now you can take all the time to study for interviews.
  • No one will bat an eye at the gap on your resume if you eventually do want a job.
  • If you are in the U.S., you'll have access to COBRA for healthcare. It's the exact same healthcare currently provided to you by your employer, but you have to pay a few hundred dollars. Great coverage for a lot less money than what you'd find on the market.

Contact me if you want to quit or have made plans for quitting. I'm always curious to hear from the fringe part of the community.