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Friday, April 30, 2021

The chilling effect versus attempts to fix things

One of the weird patterns I keep seeing in management is that some of the folks with those jobs care more about what people say than what they do. They want everything to look happy and shiny and nice, even when things are broken and need help. They don't want you complaining about something, *especially* not in some venue where other managers might see it.

One particularly stupid example: I worked at a company with a fairly famous founder/chief executive. He would do these quarterly talks out in the courtyard. Said courtyard had a handful of "bridges" connecting the buildings that had been added to fix some of the bugs in the campus left by the original owner.

At some point, they started blocking off those bridges prior to one of the talks. You could not hang out to watch the show from there. You also could not *cross them* just to go to the other side. The first time they did this, they didn't tell anyone and people were understandably confused and annoyed.

Later, though, they figured that if they put up a little warning sign at the various points to be closed a day or so beforehand, people would not be surprised and would route around it. This worked for the most part. It was still dumb, and their reasons given seemed stupid to me, but whatever, it was what it was.

But, someone complained. Unsurprisingly, people who do reliability work like me tend to not stand for things like that as a default, and particularly if they haven't encountered it before, tend to go "WTF"? One of these reliability people, and then maybe two or three others joined in on a post in some fairly broad group - maybe some "social" type thing for that campus. (I forget the exact one - this is something like four years ago now.)

A week or two later, the internal organizational group which I was part of, some 400-500 people strong, had one of its semi-annual "summit" events where everyone doing that job tried to come to HQ to meet up and hang out and hear and give talks and all of that stuff. With everyone there, the head honcho of the group held one of their usual "Q&A" sessions, but opened it with something of a rant.

This (eventual) VP went off on the crowd, saying that they should knock it off and stop being "social justice warriors" about things like that. This guy actually used that term which turned it from a simple "I am a manager type who's offended that my people aren't pretending everything is hunky-dory" to a politically-charged statement that was dripping with problems, no matter which side of the aisle you're on.

I swear this totally happened, and it's even recorded. I don't happen to have a copy of that recording, but anyone who's there can build up a video-viewing URL for id 1427477117275466 and watch it for yourself. Or, find the Q&A from April 17, 2017, and if it has that same ID, that's the one. It's about 4 minutes and 15 seconds in, and if someone wanted to "leak" it to the world, that's cool too.

Anyway, this post is not primarily about that. It's about what happens when instead of having one petty despot, you have a whole company culture of not talking about the things that need to be fixed. I lived that life too, and it happened *after* the above experience. Yep, that was my 2019.

What would happen is this: a couple of people would get to talking (on Slack, for that is what they used) about something technical. There might be a topic at hand, like "Ubuntu is doomed", and they'd be hashing it out, figuring out what that meant. Then, invariably, someone would pop in two or three hours later, hit the hated "start thread" button on one of the comments, and would start shitting all over them.

"OMG why are you hating on Canonical" "Ubuntu is NOT DOOMED"

And then the people involved would have to walk this person back and say, look friend, Ubuntu *at this company* is doomed, because the company has decided that everything is moving from flavor X to flavor Y, and all of the flavor Y images are built from Fedora (yeah, I know, ignore that for this story) instead of X's Ubuntu. So once we're done with the migration, Ubuntu *at this company* is a goner!

Now imagine having to do that for anything that even had the TINIEST BIT of a "hook" for someone to grab onto and show up hours later to "well actually" you to death.

This happened constantly, in all venues, from almost all angles. There were people who didn't do this, but as these things go, they tended to not be heard from because they used to speak up, had been bitten a time too many, and then had shied away from it.

I had a way to deal with this, but I'll cover that another time, including what worked, what didn't, and what ended up happening anyway.

May 1, 2021: This post has an update.