Tech Execs Bow Down

So this happened:

'Deray tweet: Their faces say it all.'

'Shaft tweet: #trump does not meet the ethical bar for employment and would be fired for his actions, words and deeds from all of the firms represented'

My frustrated mid-day comment after foolishly opening twitter to find out about this tech company leader meeting with the President-elect was to ask:

'All of those retweets. I realize we often have to work with people we don’t like or who did wrong things. But is there a line not to cross?'

A friend commented that this is happening and folks need to work with him and some work from the inside and so on. And yes, of course that’s correct. But I didn’t hear most of these people loudly criticizing anything he said during his campaign (or not very often). Or loudly criticizing what he said he wants to do. Or demanding Republican leaders show some standards.

This is not normal

I ran across this tweet yesterday:

'Jeff Bezos: I for one give him my most open mind and wish him great success in his service to the country.'

I understand the sentiment to reject the idea of wanting an incoming president to fail. To instead hope that he will perform better than his campaign would suggest. But this particular form does not name or condemn the racism, misogyny and general bigotry that propelled him to office. This tweet implicitly endorses that bigotry. It normalizes that bigotry. It says you can be elected to the highest office of the United States while routinely saying bigoted things and promising exclusionary and racist policies. And many will just make nice and pretend it didn’t happen.

You stand for bigotry, Republican Leadership

You stand for bigotry. There are only six days left till the election to stand against it. Six days for you to stand up and be leaders. Yes, it’s silly for me to expect or care that you will. Yet I do. Trump is a symptom. He’s not the disease. He may be incompetent, crude and bigoted. But most everything he’s said is something that your colleagues have said, perhaps in coded terms, for quite some time. Rejecting Trump is not about Trump losing. Rejecting Trump is about you starting to guide people away from electoral politics based on bigotry before it really does go too far, if it hasn’t already.

'St. Louis Arch'

Ballot Guide 2016

No time for clever subtitles

Oof! I’ve been busy. Startup life is a lot of work. A toddler is a lot of work (even if my partner does the biggest share). But I also decided to get involved in politics more directly than writing my reps and started going to the 37th legislative district Democrats meeting, started volunteering for the Washington Coordinated Campaign and Hillary for WA, became a precinct committee officer (PCO), and then keep adding stuff to it.

So while I’ve been keeping up with politics, I haven’t really felt like prioritizing blogging. So here’s my ballot guide / endorsements. I don’t see why only newspapers or cheeky alt weeklies should have all the fun. If you’re here, you like reading me or at least hate-reading me, so maybe you want to know why I’m voting how I am. Plus, it forces me to think about each race carefully in order to maybe write something pithy and humorous. Even if you’re not in Washington, you might enjoy hearing about our state-wide initiatives! Those are always just spectacular (not as spectactular as California).

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?