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Adam Nathaniel Davis
Adam Nathaniel Davis

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What It Was Like To Code For Amazon (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 of this article here: https://dev.to/bytebodger/what-it-was-like-to-code-for-amazon-part-1-5034)

Everyone was called to Seattle (FWIW, I live in Florida) for a big onsite meeting from October 17th to the 21st. The purpose was for a team-building event. But while we were all there it was a natural time to assess the current state of our almost-finished Big Project.

Given the myriad of headaches that I explained in Part 1, the original launch date of October 4th had been pushed to November 1st. My manager, Hardik, had communicated this new date to us repeatedly. But when we had our first onsite meeting on October 17th, he immediately stated that the project would be deployed that week.

When I brought up the fact that this hadn't even been thoroughly tested in the LLEs, he said, "That's OK. We can test it in production." Yes, that's right. Our manager was openly advocating for the feature - which had taken two months to develop - to be tested in production. This is the same manager who'd freak out and want everything rolled back if even the smallest bug was found in LLEs. But due to the deadlines he was facing, he was perfectly happy to deploy this package with the assumption that it would be tested in production. I was... not happy.

To be clear, when I say that I was "not happy", I don't mean that I was yelling or cursing at anyone. I wasn't trying to "fight" anything that we were trying to complete. But neither was I gonna sit in our team meetings and agree with his test-in-production edict. Nor was I gonna sit silently when he openly asked each one of us whether we thought it was ready to be deployed. I told him, in direct but professional terms, that this was not a good idea.

I wasn't the only one who objected. Other devs with far more experience on the team indicated that this approach was... problematic, to say the least. But it was also painfully clear that they were choosing their words very carefully. They knew what happens when you speak up.

This problem was exacerbated by Hardik's management tendencies. Whenever we were in meetings and he wasn't getting the answers he wanted, he'd keeping asking the same questions over and over again until everyone either agreed (through exhaustion) or simply shut up. And as soon as everyone was either browbeaten into agreement or had just decided to bite their lip, he took that as tacit approval from the team.


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A Ray Of Sunshine... Blocked

During that week in Seattle, they also announced that our team would be split in two. There was a new manager, Chandana, and I'd be reporting to her in a few weeks. It's probably obvious that I saw this as a great relief.

I went back to Florida, we launched The Project From Hell, and everything seemed to be getting back to normal. But in the second week of November, which also happened to be Hardik's last week as my manager, he called a one-on-one meeting with me. In that meeting, he explained that I was being put under a 90-day Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). I was... floored.

First of all, the idea that you'd put someone under a PIP one week before they're moved to another team is absolute crap. There are certain tangible infractions that call for a PIP, regardless of the timing. Like, for example, a sexual harassment accusation. Sometimes, you can be written up for something technical, like introducing a change that breaks production. But this scenario was just downright... petty.

I wasn't the only one who thought this. In the pending re-org, we'd been moved under a new director. I had a number of great discussions with our previous director, related to this PIP situation. He agreed with me that it was poor form and highly unusual.

It was made worse by the fact that Hardik couldn't even cite any tangible examples of where I had supposedly performed poorly. He also gave me no tangible guidelines for how my improved performance could be measured. When I pressed him on this, he initially refused to give me any greater detail. I eventually had to involve HR, who informed him that he'd have to provide exactly what I was asking for. But when he finally did, his write-up was riddled with talking points that were verifiably false. I'm talking about tangible facts like dates and recorded conversations in which his PIP bullet points were in direct conflict with the data.

We had a senior architect in our group, Vince, who was above Hardik. Vince's blessing was apparently required on this PIP. So I interfaced with him directly. When we spoke, he indicated that Hardik wasn't the only one who thought there was a problem with my performance.

One of the other people who corroborated Hardik's account was Shawn, the tech lead for the project on which I was farmed out many months ago. I won't repeat that ridiculous scenario in this article - it's all in Part 1. But it was pretty deflating to know that his input was taken on this - when he repeatedly apologized to me about the state of his project and told me, verbatim, that they weren't even ready to have a frontend dev on the project yet.

Another person was Andy. Yes, the same Andy who repeatedly complained to me about Hardik's many shortcomings. The same Andy who told me, before he transferred out of the team, that he'd love to work with me again. But supposedly, in the single month that transpired between that conversation and this PIP, he'd gone on record as stating that I was somehow a problem.

Vince himself told me that, when I was in Seattle, he could tell there was a lot of tension between me and Hardik. And this was part of the reason why he went along with the idea of the PIP. Of course there was tension! Hardik was unilaterally moving up deadlines and openly advocating that we test everything in production. He was blatantly bulldozing any objections - and not just from me, but from his other senior team members.

It was painfully clear to me what had happened. Someone had to be the "fall guy" for the fact that the Project From Hell wasn't launched on its original target date. Guess who that fall guy was??

I have never felt more blatantly backstabbed in 25 years as a software engineer.


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Moving Forward

For the next month, I resolved to do everything I could to close out that PIP and be The Best Possible Amazon Employee. I met with my new manager, Chandana, on a near-daily basis. And from every bit of feedback she ever gave me, she seemed to love me. She routinely praised the work I was doing. She told me that she wanted to get the PIP closed out early - as soon as possible. She never said or did anything that indicated, in any way, that she had even the slightest problem with my performance.

She even asked me to directly mentor a junior dev on our team. There were many, umm, "holes" in his knowledge and he was starting to withdraw. We started a routine of pair programming. I also met with him daily to review his work, give him pointers, counsel him on how to improve, and to generally pull him back into the fold.

I was put on a new project where I had to interface with one of our key stakeholders, a senior marketing director, Ted, in Germany. He repeatedly told me how happy he was with my work and how I was providing far more value than his contractors. In fact, I spent a good amount of time bringing his contracting team up-to-speed and correcting mistakes they'd made.

I also spent copious amounts of time documenting the state of the existing system, and writing detailed proposals to migrate it to a new platform. During that process, I engaged many other senior individuals both inside and outside of our team to review proposals and find consensus. I also helped several other marketing managers navigate hard-to-solve issues in our own app.

I scheduled one-on-one's with all the other members of my team. In those meetings, I openly told them that I was under a PIP and that I wanted any feedback (critical or otherwise) that would help me to improve myself and my contributions going forward. Most of those meetings ended with the individuals telling me that they didn't agree with the PIP at all.

A few people gave me a handful of minor points to improve upon. But it was pretty clear that no one on my team was bothered with me in the slightest. I talked with Andy's replacement - a guy named Cole. When I told him that I was feeling pretty worried about the status of my job, he told me directly that he'd be pretty upset if I was released.


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Dark Clouds Gathering

Even though I was trying to "keep my chin up", it was still sometimes difficult to keep my head in a positive place. The news broke in late November that layoffs were coming. Our new director called a huge "all hands" meeting in which he spewed every lame, evasive bit of "corporate speak" that he could muster. I didn't speak up at all. But others did. And he did nothing at all to answer anyone's questions.

Chandana informed me that she was going to India for an extended vacation over the holidays. She told me that, before she left, she wanted to have my PIP closed out. Not only was she singing my praises, but she also got Ted to write up all the good work I was doing. Then she got Vince, the senior architect in our group (and the same one who'd originally put his "blessing" on the PIP) to confirm all the great work I'd done and that he'd heard nothing but positive things about my performance.

Nevertheless, the time came for her to go to India for three weeks and... my PIP was still in place. I knew that she'd actively pushed to get it closed out. I knew that she'd gathered supporting input from the most influential people in our group. And I knew that she failed. While she always strove to paint things in the best possible light, I knew that this was not a good sign...


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The Great Hookah Incident of Christmas '22

The week before Christmas, after Chandana had already left for India, I was called into a last-minute troubleshooting meeting. There were probably 10 of us on the call.

Seeing as how it was last-minute (I was literally pinged on Slack with a request like, "Hey, can you please jump on this call? We're trying to figure something out."), I was sitting there at my desk (I work remotely) puffing on a hookah. This is nothing new for me. I often smoke a few hookahs a day while I'm working. It relaxes me. I've always enjoyed hookah.

I'd frequently been in standups, on camera, smoking a hookah. No one cared. In fact, some people had even laughed about it. I'd been on calls with my director while smoking a hookah. One of the other dev managers actually said to me once, "Ohh, man. Is that a hookah?" And when I confirmed that it was, he said that he's from Romania and he couldn't wait to smoke one when he went home. I was often smoking a hookah during my one-on-one video conferences with Ted, a main stakeholder who had advocated for the (failed) early closure of my PIP. He joked with me that I looked like a dragon.

But during this last-minute call that I was dragged onto, apparently someone else on that call was beside themselves. I learned, after the fact, that they spent a good chunk of that video conference taking screenshots of me. And once the call was finished... they reported me to HR.

Of course, I didn't know that any of this was happening. Instead, I got a generic meeting request from someone in HR whom I'd never heard of. The meeting had no subject. And I wondered for a bit whether it would be to discuss some aspect of my PIP.

When I got on the call with them, they told me that someone reported that I was smoking a vape during a video conference. I was, honestly, pretty dumbfounded. And confused.

I made no attempt to deny it. (Why should I???) I told her that it wasn't actually a vape. It was a hookah. But I also acknowledged that this distinction was probably beside-the-point. Then I said, "I'm sorry. I've read all of Amazon's corporate policies (and there are a ton of them) and I never saw where there's any policy against smoking a vape or a hookah during an internal video call." She replied that there is no policy against it. And that the only "infraction" would be around generic ideas of A) workplace conduct (Yeah... no shit. I'm not gonna drag a hookah into the corporate office and start smoking it. I'm not stupid.), and B) general ideas of "professionalism".

Although I was flabbergasted (and more than a bit annoyed) that I was being "reported" for something that even HR had to admit is not against company policy, I told her, in no uncertain terms, that I apologized and that it would never ever happen again. She seemed perfectly fine with this.

I told her that I'm currently under a PIP and asked if this was gonna impact that assessment. She said, "No. We just have to record that we've talked to you about it." And... that was it. The call lasted all of 15 minutes. She told me there would be no further repercussions from this "incident".

But I knew better...


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Waiting For The Axe To Fall

Although HR claimed that the Hookah Incident would have no further impact, I pretty much knew that was complete BS. Everyone I knew in our team/group was openly telling me that they my work was great and they were advocating for the PIP to be closed out. But that... didn't happen. My manager was literally on the other side of the world. A massive round of layoffs was looming. Then you add this silly hookah incident to the mix, and, well... I had major fears about how this would play out.

I lost insane amounts of sleep over the holidays. I developed a nasty cough which eventually led me to be a mucous-y and bloody mess. I was afraid I was going to lose my job and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

Those fears were manifested after everyone came back from the holidays. I got a Slack message from Vince asking for some background info on this whole Hookah Incident. So I jumped on a call with him. And the news was... not good.

He was bothered. Not with me. But by the idea that the Hookah Incident was apparently being bandied about as some kinda justification for why I should be tagged for released. He directly confirmed that he'd been hearing nothing but good things about me. But our new director was apparently hung up on not only the fact that I was still under a PIP (which everyone wanted closed out - but he refused to do so), but now, also, I had "an HR complaint". An HR complaint about something that HR openly admitted is not against any corporate policy.

Vince was as supportive as he could be in our call. And of course, he couldn't give me any direct statement like, "You're gonna be released." But... I knew. I totally knew.

When Chandana got back from vacation, she was distressed. She also could not say anything like, "You're gonna be released." But she knew. I knew. We both knew. And she wasn't happy about it. At all.

My last week at Amazon, I wrapped up every open task on my plate. Chandana had me do some "transition activities" with our PM and another of the senior devs on our team. When I met with them, they both asked me, "Why are you doing this?" I replied, "Because I'm gonna be released next week." They didn't wanna believe me. But they knew that they had to absorb whatever handoff info that I could impart to them.

On the morning of January 18th, I went out for a long breakfast. I had cocktails. Why not??? I got back to my desk at about 9:30AM. (Most of my team is West Coast, so it's not like anyone was expecting me to be online before then anyway.)

At 10:00AM, I received the email. (All of the victims at Amazon were laid off via... email. There was absolutely no human interaction.) And just like that... it was done.

In the final installment of this diatribe, I'm gonna outline some of the dystopian aspects of Amazon's corporate culture that I witnessed during my 10 months in the fold. Stay tuned for Part 3...

Top comments (14)

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tamirazrab profile image
Tamir

You write very well, it really kept me engaged the whole time, I especially liked the idea of "hookah" or maybe "sheesha" when I catch any remote position, that's in my todo. Seeing you offers I pray you get much far better environment than this, GL.

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bytebodger profile image
Adam Nathaniel Davis

LOL, well... I enjoy hookah as well. But I sure hope it doesn't lead to the same nightmare I experienced!

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tamirazrab profile image
Tamir

I'm sure it won't as I conclude these type of matters very privately. 😁

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corners2wall profile image
Corners to wall

You are some kind of drooping , do not be upset. Everyone has ups and downs. Don't blame anyone for your failures, maybe it's just fate, who knows. I feel that it is difficult for you to come to terms with this situation. Time heals everything

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bytebodger profile image
Adam Nathaniel Davis

Oh, I've come to terms with it. Believe me. I have one solid offer on the table right now and I expect two more by Tuesday. Trust me. I'll be just fine.

But despite the fact that my life will still be happy, rich, and rewarding, it doesn't change the fact that what happened at Amazon was some serious effery. Like I said in Part 1, this is just my self-administered therapy aimed at processing that effery. I'm already in a solid mental and financial state.

But thank you for your concern and your feedback!

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corners2wall profile image
Corners to wall

It's great that you were able to recover and it didn't hurt your ego. Good luck. Good luck, my friend. Keep going your route and don't worry be happy. And don't smoke many hookah :)

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bytebodger profile image
Adam Nathaniel Davis

LOL, yeah...

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jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel Fayard πŸ‡«πŸ‡·πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΈπŸ‡¨πŸ‡΄

Thanks for the reminder of how tech can suck sometimes, sorry that it happened to you.

Also I am a big fan of using writing as therapy, please continue ignore the critics.

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bytebodger profile image
Adam Nathaniel Davis

Thank you! And yes, sometimes just writing it out does wonders for sucking the poison out of the wound.

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jkallay1 profile image
Jonathan

Hi Adam, what happened to you at Amazon sucks. I was amused to see the responses to part 1 that attempted to find your mistakes. People hold on to the illusion of a rational, orderly world in which anyone who gets fired from a company like Amazon must have deserved it.
So you're aware, though, there is a sound alternative to this kind of toxic environment that is well documented, which is the "team first" approach to software development. It's at the core of Scrum, for example. It means that individuals (nor managers) aren't responsible for output, teams are. Good teams put team health and cohesion above everything else so that they can deliver as a unit, and never point fingers or throw each other under the bus.
It's an effective antidote to the divide-and-conquer approach that favors weak managers, who can't argue against it because it produces results and happier employees.
The trade-off is less individual recognition but, as you've learned the hard way, that's a small price to pay for the safety of a group.

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victorquanlam profile image
Victor Quan Lam

Hookah is never a good idea.

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bytebodger profile image
Adam Nathaniel Davis

Like... you should just never smoke a hookah? I assume you mean, for health reasons?

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victorquanlam profile image
Victor Quan Lam

Yeah. It's just a bit less harmful than cigarette. :)

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bernardigiri profile image
Bernard Igiri

Thank you for writing this! This is giving me validation of my own experiences! Writing about mine helped me too, and thanks to new NLRB rulings this activity is now protected. Keep sharing your story and take care of yourself.