Monday, June 28, 2021

Nuns and other random thoughts

Strange how word association will lead your thoughts down a rabbit warren, I guess that is why it is used by psychologists. I have been receiving physical therapy for an injury to my shoulder. You could be excused for saying it was self inflicted in so far as it was a result of the severe stress experienced over the final few months of my working life. See this blog for details.

I was so stressed that apparently I kept my shoulders hunched up and tensed, literally for months. I suppose normal activities with this posture caused damage, and the damage consisted of a displacement of the muscle. Physical therapy involves the expert manipulation of the humerus muscle back into its correct location - a somewhat painful procedure (for me, not for the therapist) and a series of exercises and stretching to retrain and strengthen that and other supporting muscles; and of course, stop hunching and tensing my shoulders. 

The latter is a whole lot easier now that the source of the stress has been almost completely removed. I say almost, because I still worry about the team I abandoned to be continuously bullied by the person who drove me into retirement.

So, you might ask, where do nuns fit into this? That is where the word association comes in. The injury was the result of my posture, which was something that I remembered was very important to nuns; though not exactly. They constantly berated us for our 'deportment' which, as a child, I assumed meant posture. I am still not sure if they knew the difference but I expect they did. 

To be fair, my grandmother was also very fussy about standing and sitting straight, particularly keeping shoulders straight - now I see why.

I hated the nuns and because I went to a convent school, I hated school by association. The first bad experience I had with nuns was when I was four years old; my first day of school. I was seated at the front of the classroom, unfortunately for me, a bamboo cane distance from the nun perched, like a buzzard, at the rostrum in front of me. The girl beside me was chatting and I was listening; suddenly a sharp pain shot through my tiny hand. The nun looked at me with a fierce frown and told me to stop talking. She had brought the bamboo cane down on the tip of my thumb - hard. Apart from the shock and pain, I was furious at the injustice, I was not talking, I was listening.

The second stored up reason for hating nuns was when I was seven, preparing for my first communion, learning the ten commandments and what was a mortal sin. The nun told us that if we didn't go to mass on Sunday, every Sunday, that was a mortal sin; and if you die with a mortal sin on your soul you will go straight to hell, no questions asked. My mother didn't go to mass on Sunday. I worried desperately about her going to hell and had frequent nightmares about it - until I realized that was clearly not true. 

My mother was a really good person and either there was no hell, no heaven and no god or she would definitely go to heaven. The conclusion was that nuns were liars and could not be trusted. 

As those nightmares subsided the nuns found another way to scare the shite out of a small child. Towards the end of the year one of the nuns died; the convent had their own private graveyard and the funeral procession consisted of the all of the nuns and all of the schoolgirls, smallest to the front. I am small now, and was most definitely the smallest girl in the school then - I was to lead the procession to the graveside where all of the girls were arranged around the grave, smallest to the front. My nightmares for months after that were of watching the coffin being lowered into the deep hole in the ground; I teetered on the edge, as I discovered for the first time what happens to you when you die - presumably the next stop was hell.

Nuns eventually turned me against religion totally.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Another book report 'I have something to tell you'

Norther Michigan
 Actually, I have only just started reading this one, but I am so enjoying it! 'I have something to tell you' by Chasten Buttigieg. The first chapter quite unexpectedly, transported me back to my first summer in the US. Chasten grew up in Northern Michigan, just outside Traverse City. My first summer in the US was spent at Camp Maplehurst (now Maplehurst Natural Area) just outside Kewadin which, in 1994, was just a cross roads with a pub and a supermarket - like any country village in Ireland. It was about 35 minutes north of Traverse City. The upper circle on this map is where Camp Maplehurst was, and the village of Kewadin is located. The lower circle is Traverse City.

Chasten mentions that he worked as a busboy in La Senorita restaurant in Traverse City. Again, I was transported back to the first week at camp. After a week of hard work opening up camp in preparation for the influx of kids for the first session, all of the counselors got the day off together, the one and only time we could all go off together. We headed off in a convoy of vehicles - at least 14 of us. First stop was Target where the American kids needed to get flannel shirts - it was unseasonably cold for late June and they had all come ready for summer weather. I had no problem there as I had come from Ireland, most of my clothes were perfect for an Irish summer, which is very similar to the weather that week in Michigan. I did however, need to buy a sleeping bag. I was unaware of the need to bring my own bedding to camp. After that we went to La Senorita and had a late lunch. We returned to Kewadin where I was dispatched into the supermarket to purchase beer which we planned to bring to the beach for an evening of partying.

I headed into the supermarket having been given strict instructions on the brand and quantity. Unfortunately for the teenage counselors who were not old enough to purchase beer, they didn't think to tell me to buy the beer from the coolers. I had been in the US for one week - and I had never been to the States before. I came from Ireland, we don't need coolers to store the beer in, and we certainly didn't have them in the early 1990s whether we needed them or not. So I did what I would have done in Ireland. I saw a mountain of the correct brand in the middle of the floor of the store and loaded them into my cart. Naturally I was not even asked for my ID - I was 48 years old and perhaps I didn't look my age, but I most definitely looked older than 21. I hasten to add that I was unaware of the fact that it was illegal to purchase alcohol for underage drinkers - in fact I don't think I even knew what the legal age was. In Ireland it was 18 and these kids were all around that age - between 17 and 20.

When we got to the beach I was amazed to discover that it really was a beach, even though it was a lake and not an ocean, there was a sandy beach. We unloaded the beer and as soon as the thirsty teens took deep chugs from their cans, a loud wail went up "She bought warm beer?" I was confused. It wasn't warm, it was on the floor in the store. It was warm to them and while hugely disappointed, they were very good natured about it; they also never let me forget it. They took all of the cans down to the water and submerged them in the cool lake water in the hopes of cooling the contents down some. I am not sure if that worked but it didn't stop them from drinking it anyway.

On my first day off after camp got underway - after the campers had arrived, I and a fellow counselor drove to Traverse City to the Social Security Office where I registered myself as a new legal resident of the United States and got my Social Security Number (SS#).  I had arrived on a Green Card which I won in the lottery, see here for more details on that. This blog entry also gives more details. I had been warned that I must get my SS# as soon as possible, so I did. I wasn't aware then that the first three numbers of your SS# identifies the state where it was issued, so I will forever be connected to Michigan.

Any time counselors had a day off, we headed to Traverse City - never again all together, but always there. And I even know the Cherry Capital Airport there, having been charged with delivering one of the campers to catch a flight home as an unaccompanied minor. Talking about cherries! which Chasten did, the camp had an enormous cherry orchard and I have to admit that I frequently gorged myself there.

Mackinac Island 1994
I have also been to Mackinac Island, which he mentions in his book - well, he mentions the Mackinac Upper Peninsula, which is where the Island is. Camp had a full day outing there; it was a magical place. 

Who would have thought that a old Irish woman would have memories of so many of the places Chasten talked about - we could possibly have been in the same place at the same time! Mind you, he was only 5 years old the year I was there.

Obviously, I didn't buy this book to revisit Michigan, that was an unexpected bonus. I bought it because I have great sympathy and admiration for anyone who has to go through not just the realization that they are gay or trans (see this blog entry), but also coming out, first to family and then friends and then to the world, without knowing how they will be treated. I am also curious to read about his experience as the backup for a major political campaign. Having read one of Jill Biden's books. I am really looking forward to reading the rest of Chasten's book!

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Week 4

Nine weeks ago I wrote a blog post. As with most of my writing, the purpose was as a therapy to help me deal with the fast approaching retirement that had been thrust upon me before I was ready. I was very worried about a lot of aspects of not only retirement, but the events leading up to it. Writing always helps me to deal with stress and also reminds me to go with the flow - trust the Universe.

As I start my fourth week of retirement I have to admit it is beginning to grow on me. I don't miss work as much as I expected to and I love that some of ex direct reports still contact me to for advice or just to chat.

Since the week before I retired I have been attending twice weekly physical therapy sessions for a damaged rotator cuff, and doing follow up exercises every day to try to fix it. Once that is completed, I hope with success, I will have more time to fill. I am rarely bored, I have a backlog of things on my 'to do' list. 

I do not like television I get restless and eventually I will go to sleep if I sit in front of the TV. If my husband is watching some mindless TV show and then I just go knock something off my aforementioned list. 

Luckily, living by the lake we get to go out fishing whenever the weather allows, being Texas that is a lot! Either a slow trolling boat trip up and down the lake in the early morning, or an evening spent fishing off the dock.

Following advice I came across while researching retirement (yes, I did that), I keep to a schedule, that is, my workout schedule is still the same, if a couple of hours later than when I was working. One hour on the treadmill five days a week. However, the rest of my day is flexible. If we are not on the lake, I will spend the mornings writing or researching and the afternoons working on embroidery or other projects; I keep my options open and I am always ready for some unexpected outing, even if it is just a trip to Costco.

My embroidery keeps me occupied for hours, though the main attraction there is not so much the final product as creating the patterns which the machine will then automatically follow and punch out on whatever fabric I place in the hoop - usually a t-shirt. 

Yes, I do have a lot of t-shirts, for me the fun is in creating the pattern and then seeing it materialize - there is no other motivation; that is, I don't try to sell them though sometimes I do give them away.

I signed up for the first day of my retirement. I have completed eight courses in creative writing, covering a wide range of disciplines and styles from Salman Rushdie to David Sedaris. I have enjoyed those courses so much I fear if I don't start writing myself soon I will just continue watching and listening to these masters. I have long been aware that I am slightly OCD, and I suspect that had I been born 50 years later I would be one of those kids doped up due to ADHD. These tendencies do lead me to become obsessed with the theory in order to delay diving into the process. Before retiring I deliberately broke my long held addiction to playing Candy Crush, knowing that it would fill up my days and prevent me from doing anything worthwhile with all that free time looming on the horizon. As I completed number eight of my masterclasses, David Sedaris, I took his words to heart and decided the time for me to write was now, before I became addicted to learning about it.

I have noticed that across the varied styles of writers the same set of recommended habits and hints recur. And by listening to such a variety - comic book, children's stories, young adult, historical, thriller, mystery, drama and humorous, I got unexpected insight into exactly the type of stories I wanted to write. At least, I think I did - one thing they all said is that once you start writing, the story could take you in totally unexpected directions. A hint that was recommended by every one of them was always carry a notebook and write down ideas, observations and snippets of conversations as they happen. I ordered two pocket sized, leather bound notebooks. Again as with my embroidery, I write for my own benefit because I enjoy it, there is no motivation other than writing down what is in my head.

I think I am ready! 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How do I feel now?

Many people have asked me how I am enjoying retirement; this week one of my sisters asked me how I feel about the events that led up to my retirement. "... Are you still feeling the after effects of that, or have they completely subsided?" Interesting question. 

I feel - not exactly angry - the anger has subsided. I feel disgusted because not only have I been mistreated, but my entire team has been. They were upset and angry at the way I had been treated, and also because I was leaving - they were already being exposed to Anna's vile nature while I was there, being blamed publicly for things no one should have been blamed for; software bugs are a part of the development process and any that escape detection are an opportunity to improve the process not blame individuals. I was fighting back and in some cases deflecting that blame while keeping our team moving forward in our mission to ensure our customer's had the best possible experience. I firmly believe that a manager's job is to ensure their team is happy and productive even if this means acting as a shield, though it should not come to this unless there is a toxic environment. One of my favorite quotes on leadership, and one I tried to live by as a manager:

"Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge." - Simon Sinek 

Already two members of our small team have left Amazon, myself and one of my direct reports; I would not be surprised if others follow - so it demonstrates a stupidity at all levels; customer obsession has got to start with treating your staff well, they are ultimately who will take care of your customers' satisfaction.
" philosophy has always been, if you can put staff first, your customer second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end, the shareholders do well, the customers do better and your staff are happy." - Richard Branson
From my team's point of view, they can only benefit from taking charge of their own destiny and making the change too as this article confirms. 

That was the long answer, the short answer is I am glad to be out of it, and yes, I am still processing it.

Of course, this is only week three of my retirement so early days yet. I still feel like it is temporary, like a vacation it will end soon and all will return to normal and I will return to work. I guess eventually this will become the new normal but in the meantime I am enjoying the novelty while at the same time having to work on some adjustments.

I have yet to stop checking my phone every 5 minutes to see if there is email or chat contacts from work looking for something. I find myself staring at my phone wondering what it was I was about to do, then realizing work contacts are cut, in fact there is no 'work' any more. One of the last tasks I had on my last day was to remove the two work chat client apps and the email and calendar apps from my phone. 

On the plus side I have stopped working all night; I used to test software all night long in my sleep and wake up regularly throughout the night, stressing over some dreamt up bug or upcoming meeting or unrealistic deadline. That no longer happens. Naturally, as a result I am getting a much better sleep and waking much less stressed. As predicted in a previous blog, I am getting up later in the morning. My usually working schedule was to get up between 2.15 and 2.30 a.m., workout, shower and be at my desk starting the working day at 4.30 a.m. Now my waking time is between 4.30 and 5 a.m. If I do wake at 2.15 I turn over and go back to sleep. I still workout as soon as I get up, but the stress is gone, or almost gone. 

I do still stress about my team and what they are going through, knowing that they are still being harassed and blamed unfairly; my husband keeps pointing out, I could not have prevented it (I tried) and they are all adults, but I still feel a little guilty that I couldn't prevent it and I am not there still fighting for decent treatment not to mention the appreciation they deserve. 

I am currently attending twice weekly physical therapy sessions to correct a sprained rotator cuff which is a result of months of stress leading up to my retirement; apparently I had tensed up my shoulders and upper back for a little too long and now have to retrain muscles and tendons to return to a more normal posture. This might have been avoided if only the pandemic had not made my regular chair massage impossible. Luckily Shelly will soon be back on the road with her trusty chair. I highly recommend you call Shelly if you want a mobile massage therapist to come to your home or business - Austin TX and surrounding areas only, though, if you are prepared to pay for her travel she might consider going further afield!

Things that used to be major problems have suddenly become unimportant, for instance, making appointments for physical therapy for my injured shoulder, what time suits? whenever! no longer does this have to be carefully planned around meetings and when I can spare the time. I never used to go out in the evenings during the week because I worried I might not be up on time the next morning. Grocery shopping on a Wednesday morning is almost enjoyable! Spur of the moment outings are possible and fun.

The first day of my retirement I signed up for and I have already completed 4 full courses in creative writing. I am getting ready to write my second book, my first novel (my first book was a memoire - actually it was a therapy but it is easier to refer to it as a memoire). It may never materialize into anything, but I am going to enjoy trying.

On the down side, I am finding it difficult to keep track of what day it is and I notice that I am not nearly so precise about keeping on top of my calendar, something else I need to work on as I get used to using Google calendar instead of my work one and adjusting to one or two appointments per week (less as my shoulder heals) from 4 or more meetings per day.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Part Two - The culture I turned my back on

My retirement from Amazon gave me insight into why people are reluctant to come forward when suffering harassment. The implication was that I was in the wrong. My complaint was ‘investigated’ and a decision was made in favor of those I complained about, not surprisingly someone higher up the corporate ladder; I became the one at fault, my retirement ‘gift’ was a metaphorical slap in the face. 

I interviewed with Amazon at the age of 67 - almost 68. In fact, I started work with them two days before my 68th birthday. Interviews are different in Amazon. Yes, there are coding questions; these can be completed in the language of your choice and the emphasis is not on how correct the code is but your thought process, how you deal with ambiguity and how you come up with a solution; all other questions are centered around behavior as it relates to the Amazon Leadership Principles (LP). Amazon only hires the very best of the best, or so they claim, and they keep raising the bar. It can be daunting to be surrounded by people who are geniuses and top performers, particularly in a technical world. It is very easy to question your own ability. I honestly did not expect to be offered a job, partly because of my age and partly because I suck at interviews. Almost a year later The New York Times published an article slamming Amazon's brutal culture. I flatly denied all it reported to anyone who asked me. That was then.

In the first 3 years I had 8 different managers, most of them temporary while they tried to find a permanent hire. The temporary managers were in name only and had no interest in managing the team nor in career development for the individual team members, they were already too busy with their own teams. Finally, a QA Manager was hired, he stayed for a full year, the longest any manager had been in place. When he left I put forward a case to make me manager. I had managed QA teams in two previous companies and didn't want to return to the of the lack of leadership we had before. After some discussion it was agreed that I would take over as a QA Lead and it was another 18 months before I was given the title of Manager. 

Fortunately I didn't need the title of Manager to have access to all of the managerial tools and processes and I was included in the various meetings and emails related to people management. That was an eye opener!  When it was agreed that I take over managing the team, there was also a reorganization taking place. Up to this point, the QA team was responsible for two separate development teams. The reorg split the team into two separate QA teams, one for each development team. On my team there were two QAEs, me and one other, and two Software Development Engineers in Test (SDETs). It was decided that the SDETs would report directly to the development manager and QAEs to the QA manager. Essentially that was me with one direct report, plus I had open requisitions to hire another two, one located in Seattle with the existing engineer and one to be located in Austin with me (our developers were also divided across these two locations), plus we had two junior engineers in Bangalore to support as needed, they did not report directly, but had a dotted line, to me. Of the two SDETs, one was in Seattle and one in Austin.

During the course of the exactly 4 years that I was officially managing the QA Team, that is as a QA Lead, then as a Senior QA Engineer and finally as a QA Manager, I hired 5 engineers, achieved 9 promotions, pivoted 1 engineer (unregretted attrition), coached two Engineers off the Development List (DevList)  - more about that shortly - and to be clear I was not responsible for putting them on that list in the first place, and had just one engineer leave (regretted attrition) and he left for the same reason I did (see previous blog).  I also assisted one QAE to make the almost impossible transition to developer. This is not intended to be a resume of my achievements, I list these here because I feel the need to put forward an argument as to why I believe I was under valued and badly treated by Amazon.

As I mentioned, I did coach two of my direct reports off the DevList. One had been put on the list by the departing manager I replaced. I took over in early February and the annual review is done during December and delivered in late February; when I took over all that was left to do was deliver the message to my new direct report. There is supposed to be a shroud of mystery over the DevList - that is no one outside of management is supposed to know such a thing exists, because that would allow them to be aware of the ever possible pivot path; in reality most people are aware of it to some extent; some managers will be transparent with their staff, and word spreads as people move teams; of course, you do tell them if they are under performing and you make them aware that they are being coached for this. For that reason, when I delivered the bad news that he would be getting no increase in compensation that year, I assumed it would be expected. He said he had not been informed that his performance was in question, nor had he been coached. I also believed that he should not have been placed on the DevList in the first place, while he had some gaps in his skill set I felt that these could be filled with mentoring and his other skills made him a very useful member of the team. He was the first person I coached off the DevList; he later achieved promotion. 

The second was one of the original SDETs. Both SDETs reporting to the development manager were given mind numbingly boring projects to work on, essentially nothing to do with QA work, more development tasks that were too boring for the Software Development Engineers (SDEs) to do. The SDET in Austin was the first to go, that is he was placed on the DevList and avoided pivot by electing to move into a QAE role, this also meant that he would then be reporting directly to me. I set about coaching him off the DevList, this was not a difficult task as he turned out to be a first class QAE. Meanwhile, I filled both of the requisitions, the one in Seattle was an internal transfer and the one in Austin was an outside hire. 

I have worked in a number of different companies, and I can tell you that achieving promotion in Amazon is more difficult than any process I have ever experienced in my life before, and not least because the process changes almost every quarter, so with each new candidate it is a whole new learning curve. It is not just hard for the candidate to qualify for that promotion; they have to be seen to be actually performing at that level before they will be considered. The manager has to put in a lot of hours coaching, identifying projects required to fill 'gaps' and prepare a document. If the document is not written in the accepted Amazonian way, the promotion is likely to be denied even if every other requirement is fulfilled. The candidate in turn has to spend a lot of time working on projects that are purely designed to demonstrate some skill set and serve no other purpose - that is a lot of engineering hours wasted to achieve a promotion that is obviously deserved by most standards. Finally there is the effort required to get feedback. This has to be from engineers of good standing and a higher level than the candidate. Naturally everyone is so busy in Amazon, it is hard to get people to commit precious time to supplying feedback, so more hours are put into follow up there, and if the feedback is not written in the accepted Amazonian way, that too could jeopardize the promotion approval. An added complication is the ever revolving door, with each new manager the promotion in progress has to be restarted.

As difficult as the promotion process is, the pivot process is ten times more difficult; it is more emotionally draining. The reports available online, such as the NY Times article are correct. Amazon has a pruning process. Indeed, they do 'hire and develop the best', but they are also always raising the bar (or moving the goalposts) and if the best don't keep improving they will sink to the bottom, though a better analogy is that the bottom will rise up to their level. However, the huge flaw in this logic is that they demand that each department (org) within Amazon prune a certain percentage of their staff; the exact percentage varies but is usually between 3% and 7%. If you happen to have a very high performing org, and another org has a majority of low performing, or staff that perform to a lower standard than yours, you still have to prune the percentage for that year - so you let some of your engineers go, while another org keeps engineers who are never going to be as good; essentially Amazon is losing high performers just to satisfy some stupid notion that doing so raises the bar; in practice it could well be lowering the bar. There is also the competition between groups within that org to try to keep their staff by denigrating the other managers' staff. The other inefficiency of this process is it incurs more unnecessary work recruiting, interviewing and onboarding new staff to replace those pivoted out; from start to finish the entire process is extremely stressful both for the employee and the manager. It is also disruptive for the team. Those are only a few of the things that frustrate me about this process. I do know of managers who deliberately hire in order to have a suitable pivot to avoid losing any of their existing staff.

There is also another side, less traumatic but also detrimental (in my opinion), to this method of leveling performance. That is the Top Tier (TT). Again only a certain percentage of staff in each org can be given this 'grade'; it carries with it a more substantial increase in compensation and stock grant. My objection to this is that as only the very few can reach this level, those who are equally deserving, but possibly not as well liked or as well known, within the hierarchy of the org's management, are left feeling under valued.

When one of my engineers in Austin transferred over to the development team, I replaced her with an internal transfer who turned out to be a serious mistake, though he did introduce me to the entire pivot process and a lot more I would happily have remained ignorant of. 

In order to pivot a candidate, they first have to be coached; this process was called putting them on the Development List - DevList, they are then given projects to challenge them to prove they can perform up to some standard and all of this takes more time, plus the required documentation is more busy time. As I said, I only had to go through this process once in my 4 years, and while that one engineer was most definitely not high performing and should have been gone long before he joined our team, this proved very difficult to achieve. He had already worked in three other orgs within Amazon before joining my group. And while I have got to admit that hiring him was a mistake on my part, I can be excused in part because as an existing Amazon employee we do not go through the same rigorous interview loop - the assumption is that this was done when he was first hired (an assumption I never made again). Secondly, he had been through the DevList process twice before with different orgs and knew way more than I did about it. Before digging deeply into his bag of tricks to avoid pivot, he suggested to me that I should take him off the DevList and he would look for another position within Amazon - leading me to believe that is how he managed to survive this long - an engineer on the DevList is immediately excluded from moving within Amazon. I was not going to do what the other managers had clearly done and take the easy way out. I was still prepared to fight for what was best for Amazon. What followed was 9 months of sheer torture for both me and the candidate as he played every legal card in his repertoire; I became friendly with our HR representative over the course of those 9 months as we tried to deal with this case. Due to a number of reasons I can't go into the details more than I have done, sufficient to say that he finally did leave Amazon. 

Other managers have had totally different but equally stressful cases to deal with. As bad as my experience was, at least my employee was definitely under performing and would never be able to do the job he was hired for; other managers have to go through the motions and still get rid of the employee no matter how they perform, just to make up that percentage; I have proved I have no objection to pruning dead wood, but by imposing a specific percentage each year we definitely lose good talent and add unnecessary workload to managers and the team. Believe me when I tell you, it is not the manager's choice. In almost every case they are forced into it by more senior managers or directors being pushed to make their quota. This process is often more stressful for the manager than it is for the employee, particularly as it repeats every year; while you don't always have to pivot one of your direct reports, you do always have to go to battle to save them.

Apart from that one under performing pivot, for the four years I managed the team, it was happy and high performing. The one remaining SDET in Seattle sadly was not so lucky and he was pivoted out the year before I left. He kindly gave me this quote on his situation:

"I came to believe that the only viable path to acceptance on my team was to transition from SDET to SDE.

As an SDET, when I used to report to a QA Manager, I had a future: I mentored, I presented at conferences, I made meaningful design choices, and spread influence and code across teams. When I started reporting to the Development Manager, not only did these opportunities seem to dry up, but I began to notice that I was being hailed louder and more persistently by a narrative I had heard in the background for my, then, entire 5+ year tenure at Amazon: SDEs are first class engineers, QAEs and SDETs are second class engineers. I set out to prove myself worthy of my job, ironically, by attempting to transition from SDET to SDE (a role I've never had the temperament for). After a year of teething, dealing with my dad's death, and being withered by the aspersions of a toxic senior SDE, I was offered a pivot plan, and opted to take a golden parachute instead."

While I was not pivoted, my departure was nonetheless unwelcome. I felt I had no choice but to retire, and unlike the pivot, I left without a payoff; perhaps I should have forced the pivot but I didn't have the stomach for that - not only would it have been dishonest, I don't think I could have tolerated the treatment for that length of time and above all, my team would have suffered. 

Amazon demands loyalty from its staff but does not repay this as I discovered. If you missed my earlier blog entry on the events leading up to my retirement, it is here.

To read more from the many Amazonians, past and present see here

The Business Insider has a lot more to say about this.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Part One - Why I chose to retire from Amazon

The age at which workers retire has changed greatly over the last twenty years.  Manual workers are expected to retire as their physical strength and energy ebbs. Those who use mental energy and strength acquire a greater value to their profession with the experience and judgement of their years. Typically judges, consultants and leaders of industry continue working until they feel they have no more to offer.

Many people look forward to retirement. The gold watch and gratitude for their service; the leaving party when the retiree is lauded for their achievements. Overall, a happy event.

My retirement was a vastly different story.  While I received many heart warming emails from colleagues and my direct reports held a virtual 'party' to bid me farewell. Leadership ignored my departure. I worked for Amazon as a Quality Assurance Manager. I had developed a well-knit team who performed to the high standards required by Amazon. Together we had chalked up many innovations and successes. No one had ever complained about our productivity. On the contrary we received many accolades.

In late November 2020 my then manager told me he was moving to another team. He then told me that the plan would be for me to report to one of the Software Development Managers (SDM) in our group (let's call her Anna). I told him that if that were to happen I would leave. He already knew that there had been problems between Anna and my team  He said it had not been his choice but he would get back to me.

The following day the other senior manager (we will refer to her as Kate) in the org set up a meeting with me; she would be taking over from my manager and I got the impression that she made the decision that I would report to Anna, who in turn would be reporting to her; I was the only one of four managers on the team not reporting directly to Kate, despite the fact that all of the managers in the group were at the same corporate level and I had been with Amazon longer than any of the other managers. Kate's direct reports would be reporting up to the director (we will call him John) during her upcoming absence. I suggested that I could report to Gerry (not his real name), an SDM who is based locally and is on the same team, while Anna is in Seattle WA. But more important to me was the fact that Gerry had experience managing QA teams and was a reasonable person. I felt that this was a logical solution for everyone. Kate said she would talk to John and get back to me. 

Without any consultation with me or indeed with my team, we were being presented with a new manager. That in itself would not be a problem, but the person chosen, Anna, had only recently moved into a management role with little knowledge or understanding of the area in which we worked. Although she was relatively new to people management, my team and I had clashed with her in her previous role as a project manager and knew her to be a micro manager with a combative approach. Her lack of experience appears to make her aggressive in her approach and she tends to treat those reporting to her as beneath her and attempts to impose her will by shouting down any effort to discuss and ‘pulling rank’. I knew this would be a mistake as we had an integrated happy team and this boded nothing but disaster for the continued success of the group. Naturally I approached leadership to make them aware of the issues. I found myself stonewalled and it appeared that this was a reorganization made with an agenda which was not clear and was obviously not going to be shared with me.

When Anna started managing QA the level of bullying was even worse than I had imagined. I was harassed at every turn, my methods were criticized, my management of my team was undermined by her. She wanted me to implement processes that were archaic. When I explained that these had been tried and discarded as not of value, she went to one of my direct reports and instructed him to put the process in place. 

Due to the pandemic, we were all working from home and, to help team morale, we were allowed a budget to have monthly virtual social gatherings, it was also made very clear that attendance was optional. QA Engineers are generally speaking, introverted and we had all agreed we really didn’t want to get involved in these. She told me that I had to hold monthly social gatherings for my team, when I told her that we didn’t have any interest in doing so, she insisted and said it was mandatory, she then went to one of my direct reports and insisted that he implement these. These are just a few examples, there were many more.

I believe that bullying in any situation, school, work or home should be called out and not allowed to continue. I went through the few channels available to me to attempt to solve the problem. As I saw it, having me report to another manager in the same department should not have been that difficult, the solution was obvious; change the reporting line to a manager located in the same time zone and who had relevant experience. I don't blame Amazon entirely for this poor human relations and management decision. Amazon is a huge company and while they have some very laudable leadership principles to which they pay homage and claim to hold every 'Amazonian' responsible for upholding, in reality many of the executives have their own interpretation of these principles, and when it comes down to it, they do pretty much what they want with very little repercussion, as I discovered.

During a 1:1 with Anna she told me that I was mismanaging my team and she would have to study what I was doing wrong and correct it. This went against all management principles reducing the operation of the team to that of a school yard battle. I emailed HR and said that I was not at all happy with the restructuring. This is what I sent to HR:

Over the past year the relationship between the development team in Seattle and QA has deteriorated, in part because of [Anna's] attitude to the QA group. In particular I have had both [Anna] and my direct reports coming to me complaining about the other. The QA team has lost trust in [Anna] and I believe that she not only does not understand the QA function, she does not respect our group. On more than one occasion I brought this up to [my manager], so he was aware and I was surprised at the decision considering this.

Some examples:

  • She has accused my QAEs of not reporting status and or blockers, when they have reported them she has just not read their emails, or has missed attending meetings.
  • She has set launch dates for projects without getting QA input into how long we would need to test, taking into account resources and other commitments and then pushed for QA to meet these dates
  • As a result of these unreasonable deadlines, the entire QA group has been working close to 60 hours per week for a number of months
  • She has invited my direct reports to meetings without including me and tried to bully them into agreeing to bypass QA processes to achieve her goals
  • At [my departing manager's] staff meetings I have tried to discuss issues between development and QA and how to best fix these, she has blamed QAEs by name where the only issue is a broken process and she has not been prepared to work with me to fix that process
  • At monthly talent discussions [Anna] has claimed that none of her developers are below the bar and instead tried to down level QAEs. Currently I do not have any direct reports who are not raising the bar.  
  • I would hate to lose any of my QAEs but with [Anna] as their skip level I fear that will happen as they have shared with me that they cannot work for her, and I fear that she will LE* them in order to protect her developers.
  • Despite expressing my concerns to both [my departing manager] and [his replacement], who spoke with [director] about it, he is not prepared to reconsider and has not even reached out to me to discuss this.  

As a result, I am now looking for other opportunities within Amazon and want to be sure that you are aware of my concerns, and those of my group, going forward.

*LE: Least Effective and next step is being managed out

The  next day the director John, set up a meeting with me. He appeared to be very concerned and claimed to be unaware of the situation; he assured me that nothing was carved in stone and suggested that I give it a month and come back to him after which time, if I was still not happy with the situation, he would rethink it. He also said something that I found curious; he said that he believed that the friction between Anna and my team could be resolved by putting her in charge, he felt that she would be obliged to be ‘nicer’ to us if she was managing us.

The only way I managed to get through that month was because it was December and we had a few days off over Christmas and the New Year. The rest of the time Anna not only harassed me, setting up meetings two or three times a week, but she also had meetings with my direct reports assigning tasks to them and basically taking over the management of the QA team and attempting to undermine me.

Once that month was over I requested another meeting with John. I was confident that he would keep his word and deal with this unbearable situation. To my surprise he said no, things would remain as they are and I would just have to make the best of it. That was totally unexpected, and left me reeling. I was very stressed out by the constant bullying sessions with Anna and already one of my engineers had given notice. I was very happy for him because he was one of the people that Anna had taken a dislike to and I knew his job would not be safe with her in control.

The decision had been made with little or no regard for how it would impact me or my team. This clearly had been decided further up the management chain and was beginning to show the signs of favors done and people being placed for other than business reasons  It is clear  that my departing manager did indicate that it might not work, because he already knew that there was friction between my team and the inexperienced incoming manager, I began to think that I was being forced out. I had a hard time believing that at first, because I had never had any performance issues plus my team was very high performing, as I mentioned. Whilst John was not an effective leader he was personable if hierarchical. He tended to have little respect for those who were not on the management team. I made it very clear to him how unhappy I was, and I gave him examples of the bullying tactics being employed to try to force me to put in place processes that absolutely went against all of the QA principles I had ever learnt in my almost 30 years working in QA, he still refused to consider any change to the arrangement and even went so far as to claim that her behavior was perfectly acceptable.

After a few days looking at all my options I finally emailed HR again; this time I said that I believed I was being managed out and as I had never had any performance problems I could only imagine this was a case of age discrimination. I wasn't ready for the reaction - apparently 'age discrimination' is a big weapon but I had no intention of using it as such. Unfortunately, due to our 9 months of close association working on another HR issue not related to this discussion, our HR representative had to stay out of the situation, while I fully understood her position, it was disappointing because I had great faith in her ability to deal with the problem. I was assigned another HR partner and after a few meetings with her while the situation with Anna deteriorated rapidly, I finally emailed HR and copied my director saying that as the situation was becoming intolerable and they were unwilling to fix it, I was considering retiring and when I made my final decision I would give them official notice. I also told my team the same thing, I had talked about retiring perhaps in about two years, and had started grooming my senior engineer to be ready to take over managing the team but I wanted to let them know that this might be sooner than expected. To be clear, I did check with HR first to see if I could be fired for sending out an early warning of my intention to retire sometime in the coming months; possibly May. I was told absolutely not.

The reaction to this email confirmed in my mind that they were deliberately trying to get rid of me. The first thing that happened was yet another meeting with Anna, where she made a big fuss about the fact that I had not told her I was retiring. I told her that I had no definite plans and once I decided I would let her know. She said that my senior engineer had told her, which was unfortunate, but I had not told the team it was confidential and so could really not fault him. The next thing that happened was John set up a meeting with me. I was so relieved, thinking that finally he was going to make this horrible situation right. Not true, he was clearly annoyed and said that Anna had complained to him that I had not told her I was planning to retire. I pointed out to him that as I had stated in the email I had made no firm decision and would of course tell her when I decided. That was not good enough for him. He suggested that as I was planning to retire, I should go ahead and step down from managing the team; my senior engineer would take over the management and report directly to Anna and I would in turn report to my engineer and of course I could retain the title of manager. This 'solution' sounded very strange to me, because at that point I had not officially resigned nor set a definite date for retirement but here I was being shoveled out the door, while I was not being fired, I was definitely on the exit ramp now. I told John that I would talk to my senior engineer and see if this arrangement would work for him.

The following week I met up with John a final time and told him that my engineer was prepared to take on the management of the team and that I would report to him. I said it was very clear to me that he was trying to manage me out and I could only assume this was age discrimination. At that point, he clearly got very angry, bear in mind all of these meetings were virtual, due to the fact that I was in Texas and all of these people were in Washington State, but on my screen I saw him straighten up suddenly and the anger was clearly displayed on his pudgy face, he said in a loud voice "I will have to report to HR that you said that ... !" almost immediately he slumped back into his usual toad like position and said "... and that is not a threat" I was confused by that last statement because I didn't see it as a threat, unless he was referring to his sudden anger. I responded "I have already told HR".

This was the point where I gave up and decided that I would definitely retire and settled for the end of May as this was clearly what HR and leadership wanted and the situation with Anna was growing more intolerable. This would give me plenty of time to train my senior engineer and offload my own tasks, plus give the team time to adjust to the idea. I advised HR who requested that I write an email advising the org of my decision to retire, explain the weird reporting structure and they would review and approve the email before I sent it out. This I did, being as politically correct as I could manage. But still it was edited before I was approved to send it. This was the final version:

Hi All

 As some of you know, I have been thinking about retirement for some time now. Now has finally arrived and the fish are calling. [Senior Engineer] has agreed to take over the management of the QA Team, and I have agreed to remain until end May in order to ensure a smooth transition for him and for the team. So that [Senior Engineer]  may get exposed to all aspects of management while I am still here to help,  [Senior Engineer] will move into the role and report directly to [Anna]. [Senior Engineer]  and I will work on transitioning all of my tasks, and bringing him up to speed on being a  people manager at Amazon, I will report to [Senior Engineer] .

 On 31st May I will hang a sign on my virtual door “gone fishing”. Before I get out the rod and reel I will of course, send my farewell email with personal contact information should anyone want photos of the amazing bass that are currently waiting just feet away from my doorstep, in Lake Travis.

A week after the last meeting with John I was contacted by Employee Relations. Up to this point I actually believed that the Employee Relations Group existed for all employees and I was surprised that it took them so long to get involved. Turns out I was wrong, they are there for the leadership, upper management protection. My statement to John, and his report to HR. had stirred up Employee Relations and they were now interrogating me in order to protect John and not to put right any wrong done to me. I told the very nice guy of all the instances of bullying I had experienced, and that I had reported these to the director and to HR, and that John had originally promised to reconsider the situation but then reneged. He listened carefully, asked a lot of questions and at the end of an hour I felt grilled and exhausted.

For weeks I heard nothing more from HR nor from Employee Relations and I went ahead with my plan to retire. During those weeks I was contacted by a number of people in Amazon who had seen the change in the reporting structure for the QA team and were confused by a QA Manager reporting to a QA Engineer; their sympathy and support helped me to deal with what was a very stressful situation. I started preparing in earnest for my retirement. I have to admit it was a scary prospect. I had almost no understanding of Medicare, and I worried that our medical cover would either be inadequate or horrifically expensive. That was just one of the small items I worried about. So I did what I always do in times of stress, I googled, read and wrote. In writing I have always found relief, it is very therapeutic. I prepared my resignation email and my farewell email, and as the time grew closer, I read and reread these.

Then, just four weeks before I was due to retire I got an email from the Employee Relations guy working on behalf of the director. He set up a meeting with me for 4.30 that afternoon, late for me considering I start work at 4.30 a.m. but I wanted it over with. I was not in the least bit surprised when he told me that he had talked to the director and he had established that there had been no bullying and no age discrimination. In my mind's eye I saw him say to the director "did you treat her so badly because she is old?" and the director say "no!" and he said, "oh, ok then".  I mean, what else would he do? he had already told me he was working on behalf of the director, to be exact he told me that Employee Relations got involved because a Level 8 director was implicated - I was Level 6 therefore not so important.

I still question what was going on. I had observed that Anna suffered from low self esteem and my experience has been that many people find the only way to combat this is to try to bring those they see as competitors down. I guess that if she could 'manage' me into underperforming she would be happy but as I was not prepared to cooperate with this, she was able to manipulate John to give me no quarter. How she managed to have such influence is definitely outside the realm of this narrative - but I have to admit I am curious.

On May 14th I sent my resignation email to my 'manager' that is my senior engineer to whom I was now reporting, and I copied HR:

To whom it may concern

I wish to officially submit my notice of resignation effective 31st May. As the 31st is Memorial Day, my last day will be May 28th. 

I have worked at Amazon for almost 7 years and for nearly all of that time my experience has been a positive one in terms of work, professional development and interaction with colleagues.  Sadly my recent experience of bullying, harassment and undermining of my professional confidence has left me so wary of the company and organization that I regretfully turned down an offer from another team to manage their QA team. As [HR] was unable, or unwilling, to address the situation in which I had been placed, I believe I have no option but to leave Amazon.

I would like to thank [HR partner] for her continued support over the last few years. Most of all, I would like to express my gratitude to [senior engineer] for being prepared to step up and take over the management of the QA team and I wish him and the team every success

I received two separate responses to this email, one from HR the main message was "Thank you for the update. When you shared your concerns, we conducted a prompt and thorough investigation. ... The result of those investigations was that your concerns were not substantiated ...".  A slap in the face but no surprise there. The second was from the Employee Resource Center (ERC) (very different from the Employee Relations previously mentioned) giving a long list of actions required prior to my departure in order to clean up after myself; all pretty standard stuff, it included this bullet point:

"Complete the [internal application] Exit Interview questionnaire, which is available within seven days of your termination date. Your feedback is very valuable and can only be seen within HR, unless you indicate otherwise."

As I waited for that last week to end, I thought about what I was heading into, and what I was leaving behind. With three days left to departure I had still not received access to the questionnaire mentioned. I emailed the ERC to let them know and got a response to the effect that they would follow up. On my second last day I again requested an exit interview, again the response was unrelated to my request and I had to conclude that Amazon did not want my feedback recorded. Here is why an exit interview is considered important by the HR community. 

"Exit interviews are important because they offer a deeper look at your workplace culture, day-to-day processes, management solutions, and employee morale" - HRAcuity

Finally my last day arrived and it became apparent that I was being denied that final exit interview, perhaps they just didn't care to have a record of my side of things. On balance, the unknown next chapter of my life was way more appealing than that which was about to come to a close. I worried about leaving my high performing team to suffer at the hands of a manager who clearly did not understand the Leadership Principles, in particular “Earn Trust” which is described by Amazon as “Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.” Anna neither listens attentively nor is she vocally self-critical. Once she had responsibility for the QA Team, contrary to what John suggested, she did not start to treat us better, she became more authoritarian and disparaging. However, knowing what I know about this and other aspects of Amazon’s culture, I am glad to be turning my back on it. This is the end of a chapter, it is not the end of the whole story.

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better". - Anne Lamott