“F*ck you” vs. “Thank you”
Constructive vs. Destructive
You can approach a situation in a constructive way or in a destructive way, usually leading to very different outcomes.
When you describe a past situation, you can take the “F*ck you” approach, or the “Thank you” approach. And yes, these two approaches lead to very different outcomes.
In this post I will use some real examples of my past job at Amazon to show you what I mean. I hope you like it.
You can discuss it on Hacker News.
Part I: Constructive versus Destructive
If you work for a big company for six years, there WILL be at least a few situations where you see things very differently from them. In my case, from 2008 to 2014 I worked for Amazon Web Services (from now on, “AWS”) as a Technology Evangelist. And yes, we had some disagreements.
The way you handle them is going to deeply affect the consequences.
The “Bonnie” situation
The Bonnie Situation, from the Pulp Fiction movie, is a situation that I often encounter in real life.
This is what happens in the movie: Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) is driving, and Vincent (John Travolta) accidentally shoots a guy in the car. They go to Jimmie’s (Quentin Tarantino) house to hide the car, then call their boss Marcellus to get the help of Mr. Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) to fix it.
Jimmie commands them to sort the situation out before his wife Bonnie comes back home. Jimmie is frightened at the idea of Bonnie coming back home, opening the door and seeing these three guys in the act of disposing a dead body (see above) — also known as the “Bonnie” situation.
The “real” Situation
Now let me tell you what happened to me once.
It was the year 2009. AWS was going to launch a Content Delivery service, called CloudFront, and the Product Manager, (let’s call him Faras, not his real name), tells us to look for customers or opportunities to share the upcoming release, only under NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement).
Weeks later, I discuss the opportunity to be a speaker at an upcoming conference which will coincide with CloudFront’s launch, and the organizer asks which track I would like to be assigned to.
I have him sign an NDA, tell him about CloudFront, and ask to be put in the track which is closest to Content Delivery.
As soon as he learns the news, he sends an email to our PR and to a senior Director, Evets (not his real name), at AWS, which then — together with our “nice” PR people — proceeds to scold me for having revealed the launch to the conference organizer, who also happens to be well connected in the Content Delivery space in Europe.
He fears that the launch will not be a surprise anymore.
What do I do? I decide not to blame Faras. I explain my reasoning, I apologize for the harm caused, and proceed to barely sleep for a couple of weeks, thinking that I came very close to being fired, just after a few months of having been hired. Fired unfairly, I would add, but that’s just my view.
What this has to do with the Bonnie situation?
Faras is Vincent. He does the mistake that puts me, Jules, in trouble.
Vincent/Faras doesn’t speak up, nor take any responsibility. Instead I have to deal with it, find a temporary solution (going to Jimmie’s home) and get the help of Mr. Wolfe to fix the problem and make our boss Marcellus happy again.
In retrospect, I acted nicely: instead of letting my anger drive my actions (and throw all this sh*t at Faras), I took the safest approach.
It was the constructive way to deal with the problem.
Why is this better than the alternative?
In a destructive approach, I would have simply defended my position and blamed Faras. Would have it helped? Not much, for the following reasons:
- Faras has a more senior position than mine.
- Faras has been at the company for longer.
- I am Italian (and therefore, weird), while Faras is American.
- Even if Faras has actually created the problem, in the eyes of my boss’ boss, Evets, I am the reason why the issue happened. It’s hard to change first impressions.
- Taking a position against Faras, not knowing much about the politics and the friendships inside Amazon, could have been even more dangerous.
- Someone that quickly acknowledges a mistake and promises not to repeat it in the future has a higher chance to keep his job, than someone who stubbornly tries to prove his point.
As a result, I was not fired. It was my first mistake, after all, and I was doing other things right. My annual review that year came out as “exceeds expectations”, despite this incident.
Faras never apologized to me, and although we met a few other times, I always felt that he had managed that situation very poorly. I still think, to this day, that he owes me one.
It’s hard, but constructive works
I think that, whenever possible, a constructive approach always wins in the long term. It’s hard to swallow, especially if you have some pride, and it doesn’t mean you have to take ANYTHING just to be constructive. There are situations where you need to just speak out.
What happens, instead when you are no longer involved, and somehow you need or want to talk about the situation? How do I describe the situation today? This leads to part II.
Part II: F*cking awesome
The more I worked at Amazon, the more I felt that certain aspects of its culture were so toxic for me that I was barely able to keep going. Other aspects, as well as many people working there, were instead absolutely wonderful. More on this later.
The following is one of the worst moments I had, and funny enough, it starts with a f*cking awesome.
It’s the year 2011. I’ve been at AWS for three years now, I live in Singapore, and evangelize AWS all over Asia.
The night before I had watched Lemmy, a great documentary about one of my teenage idols, Lemmy Kilmister, front man and bass player for the band Motörhead.
The next morning I’m at the Sydney airport, one hour before my flight departs.
I recognize Mikkey, the drummer of Motörhead. Wow! I approach him, chat for a minute, and ask him if Lemmy is around. “Of course! We’re on tour, he’s over there!”.
Wow again. I meet Lemmy, my idol! We exchange a few words for a minute or two. He’s friendly, perhaps very tired, but always so generous with his fans.
I take a picture with him, and post it on my personal Facebook page.
Please note the caption of my photo:
What happens next?
A few hours later, a very, very, very, very, very senior guy at AWS, who I also befriended on Facebook, sees the thing, and he happens to be in a meeting with my boss.
My boss reprimands me and asks me to take down the picture, or at least to remove the “f*cking”. I comply. Here’s the result:
A seemingly innocuous comment on my Facebook page managed to put me in serious trouble. And to this day, I am convinced that my expected promotion that year was seriously delayed mostly because of this thing.
This is one of my permanent scars with Amazon. I feel that a company should not interfere with my personal Facebook page in a case like this.
I am not the only one to think this way. This is a comment from a very, very, very, very well respected VC in the tech industry, after he freely posted a “fucking awesome” in public:
Well, I would never say that Amazon is lame, in general. But aspects of working at Amazon are simply too annoying for me — and yes, that behavior in that particular case WAS lame.
It’s easy to judge, but the reality is that every situation is way more complicated than what it looks like. For example, I hadn’t a very clean track record with our PR department — and that’s to be taken into account. It would have NOT changed the reaction to my Facebook post… And that’s why sometimes you simply have to accept that if you want to work at that company, you have to compromise on what you are allowed to do. It’s a choice.
There are no perfect companies out there. Sometimes you have the power and luxury to be able to pick the one you want. Sometimes you believe that it’s not a fight worth fighting.
And in fact, I kept going at AWS for another three years.
Part III: Fuck you, or thank you?
I spent six years at Amazon. I was a complete nobody when I started, and I cannot even list the number of things that I was doing wrong from a professional perspective.
After six years and an ocean of sweat and mountains of hard work, I became a well respected tech evangelist in the cloud computing space.
Amazon has been my Platform all along.
I worked hard, gave it all, and managed to become a little less unknown. I’ve learned SO much.
Thank you, Amazon
Now, every time I talk about my experience at Amazon, I mention two things: one, that some aspects of its culture are not a good fit for me (I really mean it), and two, that I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to advance my career so much.
This is what I call the “thank you” attitude.
It doesn’t mean you have to sugarcoat things.
It doesn’t mean you have to lie.
It doesn’t mean you have to “protect” your former employer because you don’t want to burn bridges.
It simply means that you have to be fair.
You have to remember the good AND the bad, and balance these two when you talk about it.
I could have thrown trash at them, either in private conversations or even in public ones.
That’s the “Fuck you” attitude.
The uselessness of the “Fuck you” attitude
It would have been a huge mistake, for at least three reasons:
- As much as any corporate environment, including Amazon’s, can have problems and be populated by assholes, it’s never black or white.
- After you have vented your anger, then what? What have you accomplished?
- When you trash a company, you indirectly trash the people working for them. And in my case, over six years I made so many good friends that I highly respect, that it would have been completely unfair to them.
I gave you some examples taken from my past job at AWS.
I tried to extract some lessons from them, and share these with you.
I believe that being able to make the best out of any situation is key not just to success in life, but also to happiness.
Don’t focus too much on the examples. Don’t even focus too much on Amazon. It could have been any other company, really. And I didn’t even tell you the things that I did wrong in those six years. Sometimes I’m surprised I lasted that long.
What’s important is that when you recognize the good things, all of a sudden the bad things don’t look too bad. Your desire to give space to anger or revenge gets replaced with a more constructive/thank you attitude.
I hope the time reading this was time well spent.
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You can also discuss it on Hacker News.