Amazon manager on US layoffs and programmer performance ratings

I continue to interview Russian-speaking IT professionals from Silicon Valley. This time, I was lucky enough to chat with Denis Davydenko , Software Developer Manager from Amazon .

- I studied applied mathematics at Belarusian State University and graduated without honors and outstanding merit. In a word, an ordinary programmer - this is how the manager from Silicon Valley described his education.

- What happened after the university?

- My first work was not entirely programmatic. After university, I settled in Belarusbank, was engaged in ATMs, serviced branches, pulled computers back and forth - this is a usual job for fresh university graduates. Then a friend began to call me at Epam ( an American outstaffing company with Belarusian roots - approx. author). I was always interested in programming, it just didn’t work out right away, so I decided to try it and left the bank. My real programming career started at Epam. I worked there for about a year, and then another friend pulled us to Moscow, where he began to work on a site for payments, a user portal and subscription services in a large mobile company. The work was pretty boring and I decided to look further. Quite by chance I found a startup and joined the development team (the main office was in Los Angeles, and all the developers were in Moscow). The startup was growing rapidly and the service station, which was located in the USA and was forced to devote more time to business development, decided to transfer several developers from Moscow to help themselves. I became one of them.

- What did the startup do?

- The startup was quite interesting at the time: we tried to make a social platform for social platforms. At that time, it was very popular not to make clones (Facebook was not yet as popular as it is now), but such peculiar crafts on the same topic as Facebook did. Our startup did about the same. It was a platform where each user could make a small website for himself and organize a community around his content. Call it a social network for content creators.

- When did you switch from programming to management?

- Upon arrival in the United States, as expected, I began to deal with the technical side of the startup, but since all the development was still in Moscow, someone had to fill the gap between the product management and the technical part - developers. Actually, this was what I was doing, so I had to switch to more managerial activities.

- So it was a forced decision?

- I would like to think so, but in fact I am more inclined to managerial work. I thought and understood: I just do not have enough brains to be a good engineer, to grow into an architect. And with people I manage to work well. The first two years were hard enough, because switching from a programmer to a manager is a rather complicated process. I had to stuff the bumps myself.

- What difficulties did you encounter during the “transformation” from a programmer to a manager?

- The biggest difficulties were in learning how to work with difficult programmers. These are such rock-stars that simply perform at 120% constantly, but at the same time terrible introverts. They do not want to communicate, and are very poorly exposed to management. As a rule, these developers establish their own course of action, which can interfere with the project and disrupt all deadlines. The complexity of working with them was to learn how to “move” them towards the interests of the project, most often it means sacrificing the quality of the code for speed.

- Let's get back to your story: you worked first in Los Angeles as a startup, but then moved to New York. What happened

- Viacom bought our startup. For a while, we were still working from an office in Los Angeles, but then the whole team was moved to New York, where Viacom was headquartered. There I grew up from the position of Technical Project Manager to Software Engineering Sr Director, but after 5 years, the company began to have difficulties at the stock market - contractions began, and I fell into one of the waves.

- There are many frightening stories about how they are cutting back in America: they put a box on your table where you should collect your things and leave that very day without any warnings. How was it in your case?

- This is so, and not so. Usually, the contract really says that the employer can eliminate the employee without warning in advance and without explaining the reasons, but the employee can leave the same way at any time. In fact, at least in IT companies, the employer usually warns the employee in advance (not 2 months, of course, but about a week) and pays him a severance pay, which can be from a month to an extra year. American law is such that it is possible to judge everyone and for everything, so it is easier for companies to pay compensation to a redundant employee than to go to court and pay a lot of money for lawyers. In my case, I was paid very good money, which I calmly took, said thank you and went to Silicon Valley, where I still live.

- Tell me about your path in Amazon?
- A completely normal story: when I was laid off from Viacom in New York, I started looking for work, as a result of which I received an offer from Amazon. I liked the project that I was invited to, and, of course, I was arranged with numbers in the offer, so without hesitation, I moved to work in Silicon Valley. At first, I started working on Alexa’s voice assistant, and after a year and a half I moved to the team that is improving ads on Amazon. In general, if you wish, you can change teams within Amazon at least every year.

- On the Internet there are many different reviews about Amazon, some of which say that all the juices are squeezed out of programmers and managers. How high is stress really?

- Everything very much depends on a specific product and on a specific team. My first Amazon team was super stressful. I had to work for 10-12 hours. This usually happens in very fast-growing products. Despite the high intensity of work in such teams, there is a very important plus: the result of your work is immediately visible, and this gives additional motivation. Work in other teams, where, for example, they support something, is going quite calmly, without too much stress.

- How much should the manager at Amazon be immersed in the tasks of programmers?

- Amazon does not have specific requirements in this regard, only the effectiveness of the team’s work is important, and how each manager achieves it and how much to dive. I have 6 programmers in my team. I try to keep abreast of all matters as much as possible. Sometimes, of course, I miss something because I often need to switch from one task to another, but we have a good team and programmers help out in such situations.

- Have you ever fired people?

- Yes, in my memory there were 3 such situations. The main problem was to decide on the dismissal of a person. When the decision is made, then everything is done according to the instructions for one-two-three. However, decision-making has always been rather difficult.
In general, I try to anticipate such situations in advance and use the rule of 90 days: first I let the person know that his performance is not what it should be; then we discuss options for how to fix the situation, draw up an action plan. All this happens in a regular conversation, we do not sign any official papers. And then every 1-2 weeks for three months I monitor if there are any improvements. If after 90 days there is no improvement, then either the person leaves himself (for example, finds another job), or I give his case to the personnel department, where a compensation package is formed for him, and they are reduced. Fortunately, the last three years I have not had to fire anyone, but if I had to, it would be easier. I realized for myself that by not firing the person who needs to be fired, I am doing worse for him, myself and the company.

- How is the interview process for managers in American companies?

- The interview process is fairly standard for managers and programmers. It differs only in the ratio of technical interviews to interviews on managerial skills. Of course, managers focus on managerial skills, and engineers on technical ones. When I interviewed at Amazon, I had to go through 6 interviews in one day, 4 of which were on managerial aspects and 2 on technical ones. For engineers, on the contrary.
For several years now, I have seen interviews at Amazon on the other hand, from the interviewer. Usually I ask candidates for a managerial position quite standard questions and look at 3 aspects: how a person can resolve problem situations, how a person manages risks and how he communicates. As for technical interviews for managers, they are more high-level: during an interview at Amazon you will not be asked to solve any algorithm, rather, the task will, for example, design a system for the library.

- You mentioned 3 managerial aspects that you check with candidates during interviews. What questions are you asking?

- An example of a question that I can ask: “Tell us about the situation in your personal experience, when your deadlines were on and your project depended on any other team. What did you do?" In managerial practice, this is a fairly common situation, therefore it is very important how the potential employee behaves in it, what exactly he tells, what arguments he brings, whether he tries to talk about what the team did or can isolate his contribution to the common cause. Of course, preference is given to those who can talk about what he himself has done. How he himself influenced the situation.

- Everyone around speaks about the shortage of employees in the IT industry. How does Amazon keep employees in the company?

- Specific salaries, a fairly easy process for changing teams (it became boring to work on one project, you can always find something more interesting) and attention to career development. For example, one of the important responsibilities of a manager is the career planning of his employees. We have weekly face-to-face meetings with every programmer, and we use them, among other things, to discuss possible career growth. We talk about whether the programmer sees himself in the future as a manager or wants to develop in programming, depending on the desire, we plan the path to the transition to managers or to the next programming level. This is always a very individual process: one needs to grow in terms of communication, the other lacks design skills, the third is simply very introvert and cannot show the whole world, what a cool programmer he is and how much he has done. Unfortunately, working in large companies is not enough. It is also necessary to show everyone that you work well.

- Tell us about the methodologies used in Amazon?

- I met at least two methodologies that are used in Amazon. The first is Scrum, the second is Kanban. Конечно, в основном, вижу, что используется S.C.R.U.M., потому что она позволяет дать видимость менеджерам в том какие проекты и когда будут сделаны. Accordingly, you can plan business development, you can declare dates and set expectations. But I had to work with Kanban. When the project is full of emergency, everyone screams, runs, tears their hair out, we switch to Kanban for 3 months to clear up the problems and swim to the surface. I have not seen Waterfall, at least in Amazon, and try not to resort to this methodology. And I don’t know others.

- How do Amazon programmers evaluate performance?

- In general, performance evaluation is not only for programmers, but in general for each employee, even for VP, there is a performance rating, and it has the same format.
At the end of each year, each person in the team anonymously writes a small review about the work of the other team members from the point of view of three criteria: value delivery (how much benefit a person brings to work), communication (how easy it is to communicate with a person at work) and visibility (visibility of that what a person does).
Based on all the reviews, such an aggregated calculation of how well each member of the team worked is compiled, and a rating is given that is given to each programmer. That's all.

- What advice can you give to managers who though try their professional skills in the USA?

- Tip number one - make sure that you are good at communicating in English. This means that you can quickly connect to any working conversation with any English-speaking person and communicate freely. Of course, sometimes you can ask again, but do not open the dictionary for each word. The second tip is to find out as much as possible about the mentality and culture of the country you are traveling to. This is much more important than it seems, because cultural differences can ruin any professional plans. And finally, try to understand what you expect from the move before you end up in a new country, and reserve the right to make a mistake. If you are traveling with the intention of staying, then set a clear framework for yourself, which means “staying” for you and in which case you are ready to return.