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’

I knew people who had bad managers. Some I knew had been “managed out”. In one particular case, someone I didn’t even know came to me with a story of how their manager was disengaged, didn’t give good direction, blamed them for bad outcomes (that they had actually pointed out the risks of beforehand) and let the more senior engineers do whatever they wanted. Ordinarily, I might assume that there was probably a bit more to the story than that, but I’d tangled with their manager’s manager before. I thought he was an asshole and was willing to tear people apart in meetings, hide his own group’s failings and shift blame (and had behaved in a pretty obviously sexist way in front of me). It was no surprise he’d support (or ignore) one of his managers do that to the most junior member of a team. Many of the stories in the Times article were like that: it hadn’t happened to me, but I knew it could happen somewhere in the company. It’s a big place.

So I was especially upset that Carney chose to “clarify” that someone who said they’d gotten very bad feedback in the “Anytime Feedback” system had only received positive feedback via that system. The NYT reported that her manager had made that claim. Employees don’t have access to this feedback and a manager can easily mislead about the source of feedback. Most managers include quotes from Anytime Feedback in their yearly performance review documents. Good ones only include quotes that they think are representative of the employee’s actual performance and that are constructive. So Carney writing that she hadn’t actually been given negative feedback was petty. She could only know what her manager told her and it’s an obvious sign of a bad manager to falsely blame negative feedback on anonymous reviewers. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about what Amazon is doing to train those managers to do better and hold them accountable? If they were so rare, it would be easy!

I also didn’t expect to see so many of my coworkers publicly and internally enthusiastic about this new offensive form of public relations. Thankfully many saw it for what it was: an aggressive use of asymmetric power to bully people into being quiet about problems. I usually didn’t talk about Amazon online at all for fear my honest viewpoint would be taken as trashing my employer. Carney made me believe that even if I left the company I still had that to fear. Several people the Times got on record had both positive and negative things to say about Amazon. Their positive opinions of Amazon didn’t save them.

At Amazon I’d experienced or heard about all the standard sexist bullshit. Scantily clad images of women in presentations. Senior leaders with questionable posters on their office walls and harmful words in their meetings. Software with jokes mocking women embedded in their very names. Men (mostly men) who talked over or ignored me. Men who hit on me (or other women). Men who harassed their coworkers. Men who assumed I wasn’t technical even in meetings where everyone invited was required to be technical. People who said “diversity” hiring was lowering the bar. Women promoted more slowly than men. Women doing the tedious work to maintain a service while men went off and built new, usually unnecessary, things that got them promoted. Women doing extra work to make the place better. Men who said they wanted to help improve the company culture but never showed up. Women whose proposals were ignored. Groups of a hundred or more with no woman above entry level in any role. Women who left. So many women who left. But I was still there.

‘Rainy Seattle skyline’

A day or so after the original NYT article, one employee had published a public response about how the Times didn’t reflect his experience. In it he casually dismissed the idea that women were treated differently. Jeff Bezos then endorsed it, citing the post in his message to the entire company. I let it go at the time. I’d seen and heard a lot. I have a thick skin and in general Amazon’s culture is one that I mostly can get along with. Carney’s aggressive, smearing post made it all make sense. It explained a lot. An inclusive work culture is not a priority for senior leadership because they don’t really believe the culture has problems. Some of Jeff’s leadership team (the all-male senior vice presidents) probably believe there are significant problems. I stopped believing Jeff thought it was important.

Maybe Carney’s post didn’t make it inevitable I would leave. I liked my team a lot. I was learning a lot. I didn’t quite understand what I was thinking and feeling. Problems that I thought I’d made peace with started to frustrate me again. I was too often angry about things that used to be mere annoyances I could laugh about. I was hyper-critical of company statements public and private. I was even more impatient than I had been about the glacial pace of company cultural change. At the next company all-hands meeting, this aggressive public relations stance was endorsed in front of everyone, souring my joy that the women in engineering group was finally being promoted company-wide at the meeting. It just justified decisions I’d at that point already made.

Jay Carney, how many people have left or are going to leave because of that one post? How many more will stay silent, slowly letting it eat at them? How many are more cynical and less committed because they know senior leadership is willing to publish your performance review to prove you wrong? How many would never risk saying anything like this but wish they could?

I wrote most of this months ago. I still think Amazon can be a good place for someone to work (see my last post). You can learn a lot. There are many interesting and smart people there. I don’t think it’s Evil with a Capital E. No company is. Companies are made of people trying to achieve many different goals. I don’t think it’s a good place for me to work right now. I don’t want to work somewhere senior leadership doesn’t seem to realize how damaging that post was. I raised this concern with HR before I left. It didn’t sound like leadership thought this response was a problem. Maybe in the time I’ve been gone they’ve changed their minds and realized Carney’s post was a mistake. Maybe I’m not risking anything by posting this. Maybe.

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.

I was at Amazon for just over six years on three different teams. It was good for me, professionally and personally. I learned about scale, orchestration, software maintenance, working with people, coaching people, controlling my own behavior, being more deliberate and more. The last team I was on was especially great. My manager was awesome (and is – if you’re looking for a developer role and want to work at a big company, she’d be a great choice). She gave me space to learn and grow, both technically and professionally. The one downside of the role is that I was not incredibly enthusiastic about the team’s product. I loved its technical goals and even liked the product goals. But fundamentally “retail” has never been something that is that important to me.

That’s funny because the entire time I worked at Amazon, I worked in Retail, either services used to make the website run or actual frontend features as with my last team. But jobs compensate you with more than some product you’ll walk up hill barefoot in the snow to help build.

I realize to some this may sound completely uncontroversial and melodramatic. But to read discussions in tech circles we expect people to be completely devoted to a company’s product. In reality there are many compensations for a job and I’m not even talking about money yet! Companies with huge legacy, both in terms of software and products, are not always going to find people exactly excited about the full and complete “mission” of every team. For one, it’s hard for a candidate coming in to even understand what the job might be about. For another, it’s okay to not love every last thing about the job or the team’s goals or the org’s goals.

Let’s repeat that: it’s okay to not be 100% super excited, committed and believe in your job or the company’s product.

But I do recommend not hating the product and having other reasons that the job is good enough. It helps for getting up in the morning. You might even make a list of what’s important to you and arbitrarily rate what a job brings in those areas. A big company can compensate for a product you don’t love by having:

  • Money, benefits, duh.
  • Working hours or oncall responsibilities that fit your life right now.
  • A team you work with well.
  • A manager that supports your career goals.
  • The opportunity to learn how to solve problems at scale.
  • A larger internal technical community. You’re less “on your own”.
  • The ability to change teams when yours isn’t working out.

Obviously many of those a small company can offer. A startup might additionally offer a product that you are excited about such that you’ll compromise on some of those. When I started thinking about changing jobs and specifically Glowforge, I got excited about an actual product more than I’d ever been. I’ve been working professionally for over 15 years and this is the first place I’ve been really excited about the product. Not just technically interesting or a thing that I think is worth existing but actually something I want to see in the world. It’s a version 0.1 of the matter compiler from The Diamond Age or replicators from Star Trek. I get up in the morning many days and remind myself I’m literally helping to create science fiction.

When you join a company or any group endeavor, you’re fundamentally working together to build something bigger. Entrepreneurs (and artists and writers and so on) all start something new because they have a dream of something they want to exist in the world. When you then ask someone else to join your company, and especially when you’re selling a vision of changing the world, you’re asking them to dream your dream for a while. Let’s be honest about what that dream is and that maybe the parts that get you up in the morning aren’t always what gets everyone else up. So despite my raving about how awesome my job is now, I wish we were more honest that a lot of work, even in “tech”, is pretty routine. That’s okay. The “boring” stuff keeps society working and is worth doing too.