Monday, November 22, 2021

Adventures in Management Land

Hire and Develop the Best is an Amazon Leadership Principle. Ah, but what happens when you make a mistake and hire someone who is 'less than the best'? Then you are attempting to develop someone who is not meeting the bar. There is a rule for that too. It isn't quite so public. Prune. That is, cut the lower branches, no matter how healthy or strong. 

Pruning is a sleazy management secret. Every team in Amazon must dispose of those on the team who are lowest scoring—even if that score is 99%, if the rest of the team is at 100% get rid of the ninety-nine percenters. 

I had been chugging along managing a team of driven, talented self starters. Yes, two of the team had been designated 'least effective' at some point, not by me but by other managers. I inherited both and within a short space of time they were as productive and valued as the rest of the team. It was just a matter of identifying their strengths and feeding them projects that exercised those strengths, while at the same time helping them to recognize and improve on the weaker areas. My theory is, if someone is displaying their talents and being successful, they are motivated to do more. 

One of my highest performing engineers performed herself into a development position, which she deserved and though I hated to lose her, I encouraged the move. That left me with an empty desk to fill and yet another round of interviewing; a task I never enjoyed and one that takes up so much time. I know now that I was in too much of a hurry to fill the position and get on with my work. It was a hard lesson. The internal transfer I hired looked great on paper and interviewed well, given that the interview was pretty much just a formality as he had already been working at Amazon for 3 years and therefore must have already proved himself? His current manager classified him as very highly valued so that must mean something? Not so. The Amazon interview process is extremely good. They rarely make mistakes hiring, but there is always the exception.

I was forced to learn a whole new set of Amazonian terminology and processes as I attempted to coach this under achiever in a vain effort to make him capable of doing more than 40% of a normal workload. My usual method failed because there were no obvious strengths to exercise and work from. Whenever I attempted to explain anything slightly technical to him, he stared at me with that deer in the headlights look and said, while demonstrating with a hand swipe across his head, "this is all going over my head". He was never going to succeed because he didn't believe he was capable.

He was not a ninety-nine percenter, not a strong lower branch. He was most definitely dead wood. As soon as he realized that he had been identified as in need of performance coaching he switched gear. No, he didn't suddenly start working harder and smarter, instead he started playing the system. He had been there before quite clearly. He told me that he already had an 'accommodation' in place that allowed him to work at a much slower pace than anyone else in his position. 

We were a very lean team. Had he told me that when I interviewed him there is no way he would have got the job but of course, he knew that. I contacted Human Resources and after much investigation they returned the verdict that no, he had no accommodation in place; yes, he had applied but was refused. So, he applied again.

In his application he called out every quality that is required for a QA Engineer and gave medical reasons why he could not be expected to display these qualities. In other words, he had medical proof that he was useless and couldn't do the job. Guess what? I already knew that. 

This accommodation process meant that he should be allowed to draw a healthy salary and use a desk for not just doing nothing, but even worse, doing just enough badly to cause everyone else twice as much work. If he had taken long term disability, at least I would not have to follow behind him and fix all his mistakes.

Don't get me wrong, I was not unsympathetic. It would have been so much easier for me had I not cared. I knew that he had a few issues, both physically and mentally. No one gets into their mid fifties without collecting baggage of one sort or another. We had discussed our individual experiences with psychotherapy—he knew that I understood and had personal experiences that matched his own. I also had a number of physical challenges, probably not quite matching his but like I said, no one gets into their fifties without that, and it was a long time since I had enjoyed my fifties. However, I was managing a team of engineers, while at the same time doing the same work they were because we were short staffed; and I had to go behind this particular engineer and clean up after him as he made the same mistakes over and over again. My belief was, if I could do it, so should he be able to.

I was bound by the archaic rules that Amazon had in place. (See this blog). I was obliged to either coach this person to prove he could raise the bar—not just meet it; or, prove conclusively that he could not. Of course he couldn't. The problem was that he was a very large, somewhat aggressive male and I am an extremely small female. There were occasions, during one on one meetings, when he stood over me yelling and waving his arms. It would have been quite terrifying if I had not already assessed him as a blustering coward; plus I had 4 years of aikido training behind me, a martial art that favors the smaller in a confrontation with a larger opponent. I was capable and prepared, to protect myself if necessary. As my assessment of him was correct, I never had to draw on my aikido skills.

I bent the rules to try to help him. I explained to him firstly, that I didn't believe he could meet the bar and second, that he would be far better advised to start looking for a job outside Amazon while he was still working. I pointed out that he was very good at interviews and with his resume he would have no problem getting another job. He was actually offended by everything I said and complained to HR about it.

Due to the various accommodations and legal implications, it took a full nine months of continuous coaching, yelling and other aggressive behavior (from him, not me); and worst of all, doing his job as well as my own (me, not him), before he finally left. Needless to say, it took me a long time to recover from that experience. Not only had I been dealing with an unhinged man feeling cornered, I was doing the work of two while also attempting to coach him. I was exhausted emotionally and physically. 

I must add that I received endless support from my HR representative, both moral and professional. I will be eternally grateful to that person, she helped to keep me sane through it all. However, that person was located in Seattle WA and I was in Austin TX. Physical support was not going to be forthcoming. But no, I didn't ask for an accommodation. I continued working until Amazon decided it no longer valued me and I was forced to retire. (See this blog for details). 

The good news is that I believe in silver linings and I am happy to report that I am now wallowing in my unexpected retirement.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

One year ago this month

My professional world started to crumble a year ago this month. That was when my manager of 4 years told me that he was moving to another team. 

What followed was 6 months of misery for me and for my team. During that time I felt that I understood how live bait felt, a hook piercing some part of their anatomy, struggling to find a way to escape; the stress of the situation so awful that the pain was unimportant. Now all that has faded

While I did attempt to follow all the apparent options available to me at work, to fix what I saw as a bad decision, destined to have equally bad repercussions, nothing worked. I had a remarkable team of extremely talented engineers. More than that, they were my team. We were a team. We balanced each other perfectly. Any one member jumping off would throw the entire team out of balance, eventually all of them would have to jump too. I warned my chain of command that this is what I predicted would happen. They didn't believe me, or if they did, they didn't care. 

After four months of fighting I looked beyond the career I was enjoying so much, and the people with whom I worked that were all my close friends; I looked at my alternatives and I considered giving up. I made the mistake of mentioning what I was considering and before I knew it, I was retired. The decision was pretty much taken out of my hands. I was making too much noise and being a nuisance. I had to go. I described that, and my eventual exit from Amazon, here

For my team, it doesn't give me any satisfaction to know that my predictions were correct. The team is no longer. I am very happy for each of the members of that small team, that they have almost all found positions where they can continue to grow and help make Amazon's customers happy. For those few that are left behind, I am sorry, but they are adults and I know they will be able to take care of themselves.

For Amazon, I have nothing but contempt for those people who refused to listen to me, refused to consider me of any value, but I have let it go for the most part. I do still smile with some amusement every time I hit a bug on the homepage and no, I don't report it - I have no responsibility now to do so. No doubt there will be more in the future. I don't really care. It is a release to not care.

For me, I am wallowing in a retirement that I probably would never have moved into without that rough shove from behind. At first I was worried that I would quickly become bored. That has not happened. My days are so full that things constantly spill over into the next and the next day, with no need to work late into the night, no pressure or stress to complete that chapter, that embroidery pattern, bake those cakes, catch those fish, and there is always tomorrow to take the boat out. 

To quote Marilyn Monroe "...sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together."

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Respect for your elders

How many times I heard that when I was growing up. I was never quite sure why we were expected to respect our elders. I knew it was probably something to do with wisdom of age, and possibly because they had done stuff from which we benefited in some way and for which we should be grateful.

On the wisdom point, I didn't buy it. I knew a fair few elderly people and some definitely didn't display much wisdom, assuming wisdom equated with intelligence or common sense, or both. However, it is slightly more than that. It is described as  the combination of experience and knowledge, with the power of applying them or soundness of judgement in a person. Despite silently questioning the logic, I dutifully respected my elders, keeping my opinions to myself. I was brought up to value manners above all else. My grandmother was French and I have to tell you, the French have a lot of rules when it comes to manners.

Now that I am elderly I can see some arguments for demanding respect, at least for some of us. 

When you are young, and even into early middle age, minor injuries are an annoyance, and sometimes painful and temporarily debilitating. Aches and pains can usually be attributed to such minor injuries, and are almost always also temporary. Young people expect their pains to heal and disappear. 

You know you are old when you become aware that the pains are not only there to stay, they will continue to increase in intensity and location. You learn to live with them because there is only one alternative and you are working hard to delay that one. If you are not, you should be.

I know there are elderly people out there who whine and complain all the time. But for every one of them, there are myriad others who silently go about the remainder of their lives, silent with regard to the pain that is. Sometimes of course, there will be a uncontrolled grunt or groan. These are uncontrolled in the same way a sneeze is. If you are forewarned, you can stifle it, otherwise it will come out.

Contrary to what some people seem to believe, complaining about things does not make them easier to bear, and it certainly does not make the complainer easy to bear. While you might feel sympathetic at first, this particular emotion can quickly be worn thin. Just as the joints and cartilage between them wears thin and causes the pain. 

I have mentioned my mother in law a few times in blogs; one of the things I did admire about her was how little she complained about the pain she must surely have been experiencing. She had both knees replaced. We know that, while artificial joints help considerably, this is more to do with the ability to move rather than the removal of the pain. I am sure Mildred was in almost continuous pain but she almost never complained about it. Strangely, she found a lot of other less serious things to complain about; perhaps that was her secret, distraction.

So, respect your elders, at least those who don't complain about their aches and pains, because I guarantee you, they are in some degree of pain - continuously. Respect them for not whining about it.