This as-told-to 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 and studied computer science at New York University. I always had fun and often explored the city all day 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 White Oaks Tavern, the warm and comforting speakeasy bar popular with university students.
After graduating, I started applying to tech jobs. The job-hunting process was very draining and demotivating — I went over at least 300 software-engineering problems on my own, trying to figure out how to present myself in front of an interviewer. I was rejected around 40 times, which made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
Finally, after a three-month job search, things started looking up: I received a software-development-engineering job offer 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 a 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 by how much people in Seattle liked making small talk; they asked me how my days were going, which wasn’t something I normally experienced in New York City.
Nobody tells you making friends is hard. Initially, I was genuinely excited to be surrounded by like-minded techies and have conversations about system design. At NYU, the CS community seemed small in contrast to the larger business-focused crowd.
I believed I would have so many opportunities for professional growth, write awesome code, and build business software for millions of people.
But when I came to Seattle, I found myself in a tech environment that I didn’t get to enjoy or make the most out of. I had this impression that I would be surrounded by either a lot of new grads or a lot 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 onto my computer, and had my stand-up meeting with five people on my team. I then spent four or five hours either working on coding tasks or having more sit-in meetings, just to hear what other people’s designs or software thoughts were about. After work, I was often too tired to socialize, so from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. I ended up making dinner alone or doing house chores.
At Amazon, there is a strong emphasis on being independent. Even for new hires, there’s an expectation that you’ll be self-sufficient and find solutions on your own. It would have been nice to have conversations with my coworkers in the hallways or by the watercooler — maybe we’d chat about different programming languages — but that never happened. I never actually met my coworkers in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once every two months, we had virtual online poker, but that didn’t last long.
I really did want to get to know my coworkers, but I found it hard to connect with them. Many of them were in their late 20s or early 30s with a lot of industry experience, and the more senior colleagues either had kids or were already married. Most of the time, the only thing I could talk about with them was the weather. I still remember when the hit Netflix show “Squid Game” came out. I asked my coworkers whether they had seen it, but it turned out that they didn’t even know what “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 with them — I had a hard time getting to know them on a personal level.
In college, people often discussed how competitive and hard it was to break into top tech companies. The thought of earning $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 being a software engineer in a tech hub is far from special. Working at companies like Amazon or Microsoft just isn’t interesting; it’s the norm here.
I can recall one particular date I went on. It was a nice, warm day in July when I invited her out after three weeks of chatting online. We strolled through a park and she talked about how she loved to dine out in the city and how her studies in medicine were going.
But at a certain point, I didn’t know what else to talk about besides tech and its adjacent topics. I talked about the challenges engineers face, like how we have to attend daily stand-ups or deal with code failures 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 working at Amazon or Microsoft because that was all I knew.
I also remember the time when I invited a date to visit the Google office after I started working there. I thought it’d be a fun and interesting experience because I could show her the company’s perks, 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 tech,” or, “I’ve already heard a lot of these stories.” I started feeling one-dimensional and realized I wasn’t interesting — my experience wasn’t unique or impressive.
It’s not just me who’s lonely — lonely engineers are plentiful. I have a friend in San Francisco who told me about a 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 mainly related to tech, I often come across stories from people sharing about how lonely they are.
It seems like there’s a loneliness epidemic within tech. I think one big reason for that is software engineering doesn’t require socially demanding skills like in product management or UX design. My interactions with customers or other coworkers are minimal, and it’s just me in front of the computer.
It makes me a bit sad that I gave up the relationships I nurtured in New York. I left behind my family, friends, and all the connections I had there. I spent four years building those up and I let them all go.
In hindsight, I wish I had stayed in New York. Back when I got the job at Amazon, all I was thinking about was my tech 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, rather than considering if there would be anyone for me to connect with socially.
Looking back now, I realize perhaps I should have looked a little bit harder for opportunities in New York before taking the first tech job that came my way.
I’m also insecure about my level and compensation. Even though I’m further along in my career and employed at Google now, this insecurity doesn’t stop. Sometimes I compare myself to new grad engineers with similar compensations, or to senior engineers who are at higher levels with less work experience. There are also people at Y Combinator, or successful YouTube content creators, or others who start nonprofits. At 26, it feels like I should be doing more instead of 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 give a lot of room for me to make friends, and it wasn’t easy moving to another state for the sake of work. 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 lonely in your line of work and want to share your story, email Aria Yang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the original article on Business Insider