Tactical Primary Voting for the Busy

Primary voting is important. But unless you’re really into politics – and you’re probably not if you have a job or career and a family and maybe a hobby or two – it’s kind of boring and eats into time you’d rather be doing something else. Plus you feel like you don’t know enough to be making these decisions anyway, and the candidates suck and, ugh, why even bother. But maybe you tick off some choices anyway. Do your duty.

Here I’m going to write about voting in a primary without spending an absurd amount of time researching every last thing about every candidate but still feeling like you aren’t picking too arbitrarily and probably your choice will represent you well. Then I’m going to walk thru my Washington ballot and explain who I’m voting for and why. Yes, this means you could just skip to the end and tick off your ballot on my recommendation. I’m okay with that. :D

Write. Your. Reps. Right. Now.

I’m guilty of not writing my elected officials often enough. I don’t tell them what I think. I don’t give them money or buy their swag or volunteer or even talk to my neighbors often enough.

I’m guilty of hitting retweet and not telling anyone who can actually change it what I just told my friends and internet fans.

I’m guilty of being upset about all the bad things that are going on, like this past weekend, but not putting much effort into changing it.

Raising the Bar on Leaving

My shields went down the morning of October 19th, 2015. I went online and found a piece by Jay Carney. I’d been at Amazon more than five years. It was possible I was going to work there for much longer. I had my problems with the company. There were things I would change. I’d found places where I could thrive and work past the problems. But this piece destroyed what was left of my shields. That was the day that made it much more certain that I was leaving Amazon someday. I just needed a few more pushes and the right opportunity. One came quickly. Opportunities in tech are not hard to find.

Carney’s Medium post came out of nowhere. The controversy about the “New York Times article” had mostly died down. I was still asked about it sometimes and I gave my stock answer: I can believe that everyone in the article had those experiences but I’d largely had good experiences. So I didn’t expect to see my employer publicly attacking people for what I saw as valid criticism in an article published months earlier. I didn’t expect a senior leader to publish such an uncharitable, aggressive, privacy-violating response at all.

'Public art outside Amazon building in Seattle'

Dreaming the Same Dream

No job is perfect. That seems like an obvious thing to write. But if you read tech job postings, you’d believe that every job is one where you build a product that is dramatically changing the world, the work environment is better than all others and your coworkers are all smarter than everyone else (echoes of Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average). Oh, also they pay you better than everyone else and the stock might make you rich!

The reality is a lot of tech work is incremental change. You’ll be doing many small and sometimes boring things. Many products and business plans are awful. And no one talks honestly about culture or the people who support bad ones. But many tech jobs are good enough depending on who you are, when you’re looking, what you need and what you can tolerate. But if you can find one where you believe in the product it’s pretty great.

Don't Be a Bystander

My friend Cate wrote a few tweets about bystanders. This is a little story about a time when I worked with some bystanders and why little things matter.

When I started one job, I found that our existing software had a diagnostic tool that took some input parameters, you clicked submit and it showed you what our service would return for those inputs. Like a good tool, it came pre-populated with inputs and the resulting outputs that demonstrated how it works. But because humans can be thoughtless, someone in the past thought it would be cool to choose inputs that resulted in a picture of a scantily clad woman. It wasn’t a good choice to demonstrate how the tool works because due to data decay, only that picture showed. Nothing else interesting would show up and most of the time people used the tool for other outputs. So. Just a picture that looked like it came from the cover of a bad porn DVD. No, I did not work for a porn company.

Good Intentions Fail at Scale

You’re an internet company. You have a hot product and a busy website viewed by thousands a minute. Unfortunately it’s having outages regularly. The website is slow. It goes down at least once a week. The backend systems are even more a mess. We’re going to fix this you say! We’ll send all the teams to a training provided by some vendor. They have a mediocre flash-based training tool that barely runs on modern browsers. It’s not ideal but that’s what we have. We’ll give the managers a bit more training maybe. Some random folks from various teams will get some mentoring from a few of our more senior engineers.

That’s absurd! No company does that. At your company, you have incident post-mortems. You insist teams have metrics and dashboards that surface uptime, latency and other relevant metrics to senior leadership. Individuals are empowered to look at technical challenges, relevant metrics and suggest ideas to their managers to improve them. The idea that some stupid infrequent training would solve scaling and availability challenges is absurd.

But consider: some infrequent mediocre training is what nearly all companies do to handle diversity related challenges including hiring, attrition, harassment, inequity and more. At most companies, the metrics are not visible: you work at a “good” tech company if you know basic numbers like percentage of black people or women in technical roles (good luck finding metrics for “black women in technical roles” much less “black women in senior leadership of technical orgs”). Managers and teams are not held accoutable for attrition as they would be if their team’s software was constantly failing. There are no post mortems to explain why such-and-such org can’t seem to retain women for more than a year or so. If there are more programs than just training (e.g. mentorship programs), they aren’t available to everyone, many aren’t even aware of them and they usually aren’t measured for effectiveness.

Why is that? The people running these companies are not stupid. The middle management aren’t stupid. People in general aren’t stupid.

What people do have are “good intentions”. In a small company, you can mostly rely on good intentions to maintain culture. If you start a new tech company now, you can chose to make an effort to be inclusive from the start. Your communicative overhead is relatively low, the number of folks that have to adopt and believe in your plans for company culture are small and good intentions will get you pretty far in building something better.

But if you’re hundreds or thousands of people strong? Transmission of culture is hard. Only part of it will happen. Even if you start out with the intent to build an inclusive culture that can actually retain a workforce similar to humankind, it won’t easily happen as you grow. When you’re small, your mechanism for culture transmission can include “one on one meetings with a founder”. When you’ve grown, when you “scale” your company, what is your mechanism?

Good intentions can’t be your mechanism. You’re bringing in too many people with extensive work histories and their own ideas about how to do things. The junior people are just trying to get a handle on working at all, never mind learning all the culture you want them to learn: they are going to learn a mangled version of it. You’re going to have pockets of the company that behave very differently than the founders’ original vision. That’s for all of your culture. If you’re in a typical tech company your company wasn’t founded with inclusivity as a value. If you don’t count on good intentions to transmit values around ownership for production problems, why would you count on good intentions to “fix” your lack of diversity?

So that’s why this story is absurd. No reasonable leader would expect even a good one day training to fix a team’s technical challenges. Even with training, they’d have metrics to track, there would be ongoing coaching up and down the management chain and it would be a regular subject of organization meetings from senior leadership offsites to team’s daily standups. And ultimately failure would have consequences.

But to build a better, more inclusive, culture we see “good” tech companies where leadership hides metrics, barely invest in programs or training, don’t hold people accountable even for egregious failures and shrug and think “good intentions” work. Is it any wonder the “numbers” have barely moved?

Cincinnati Chili Experiment!

If you’ve ever heard of Cincinnati Chili you probably know it’s not really chili. It is neither the bean heavy stew or the meat and spice version. It is however delicious and I haven’t had it in ages. You can do an internet search, but in short it’s a meat and spice heavy sauce served over pasta, almost always spaghetti, with cheese (and often onions and beans). Wikipedia has a long section on how it is made in different “ways”.

My family used to make it at home but I never got the recipe and I think it is lost to time. But I found a recipe a while ago that fairly well matches my recollection of the ingredients. Tonight we made some (with heavy modifications for our cabinet and to make it vegetarian).

Some Books of 2015

I read some books this year! Even though I’ve been always busy and/or tired (working full time, then going home even if your partner does most of the household and family maintenance is still tiring). But I read some books this year and some I want to share.

Eggnog Pumpkin Pie

I made pumpkin pie for the first time this Thanksgiving with my mother-in-law using the Bittman recipe. She then sent me her preferred recipe. This is what I did to make a version with eggnog.

Coconut and Pineapple Mashed Sweet Potato (aka Yam) Casserole

A typical Thanksgiving dish is a sweet potato casserole made with mashed and spiced sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows and then baked. I’ve been making this variant using coconut and pineapple for topping (as well as coconut cream inside) for a few years. I’m doing it again this year, so I thought I’d post the recipe somewhere public.