228: Career Snarkiness – Words Hold Weight with Corey Quinn
March 31st, 2021 · 1 hr 8 mins
About this Episode
02:21 - Corey’s Superpower: Reading 3,400 WPM
- Increasing Reading Speed
05:35 - Keeping Up w/ AWS
08:45 - Delivering Corey Quinn – Personal Evolution
- Speaking Truth to Power (Kindly, but Snarkily)
- Sonia Gupta and Corey Quinn - Embarrassingly Large Numbers: Salary Negotiation for Humans
- Holding Yourself Accountable
- This Cloud Computing Billing Expert Is Very Funny. Seriously. (NYT Article)
25:51 - Career Snarkiness
28:05 - Approaching and Handling D&I as a Business Owner
- Discussing Salary Compensation
43:44 - Making and Delivering Jokes
45:08 - The Prospect of Being a Public Figure
50:03 - Recognizing Your Own Failure Mode
- The Art of Delegation
54:32 - Approachability
- Admitting Mistakes
- What’s the point?
Rein: Systems derive their purpose from how they relate to larger systems.
Tim: Iterating on oneself to become a better person. Becoming a human optimized.
Arty: Holding yourself accountable. Taking responsibility for how other people see you in a public context.
Mando: There’s a power in not hiding who you are. Apologizing for not letting people know what’s going on.
Corey: Words are loud. Words are heavy. Words carry weight. Words carry impact. There is a balance.
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ARTY: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Episode 228 of Greater Than Code. I am Artemis Starr and I am here with my fabulous co-host, Mando Escamilla.
MANDO: Thank you, Artemis. I'm delighted to be here with my good friend, Rein Henrichs.
REIN: Thanks, Mando and I'm here with my friend and brand-new co-host, Tim Banks.
TIM: Thanks, Rein. I am Tim Banks and I am delighted to have our guest for this show, Corey Quinn.
COREY: Thank you. It's an absolute pleasure to be here to once again, indulge my ongoing love affair with the sound of my own voice.
TIM: Just so everyone knows, Corey is the Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, where he specializes in helping companies improve their AWS bills by making them smaller and somewhat less horrifying. He also hosts the Screaming in the Cloud and AWS Morning Brief podcasts; and curates Last Week in AWS, a weekly newsletter summarizing the latest in AWS news, blogs, and tools, sprinkled with snark and thoughtful analysis in roughly equal measure.
COREY: I would agree that that is a fair characterization of what I do. Excellent work. Thank you.
MANDO: Corey, we like to start off every podcast with asking our guests kind of the same question and that question is what do you consider your superpower to be and how did you get it?
COREY: I would consider my superpower to be the fact that as tested and certified by some random site on the internet, I read 3,400 words a minute and the way that I got there was growing up, most people have friends, I had books because of the wonderful thing that happens in my world namely, having a personality that is pretty obvious to anyone who's spoken for more than 30 seconds. In my early phases of my life, this didn't resonate super well so I turned to escapism in the form of reading. Later in life, this turned into something of a superpower when you're trying to do something like, I don't know, read every release that comes out of AWS in a given afternoon.
MANDO: Yeah, that'll do it. [laughs]
REIN: There are so many.
MANDO: I went to a private elementary school for a year and one of the less weird things that they had us do was do speed reading training. They had this little cylinder and you would feed in a piece of paper and the cylinder had room for, I don't know, 8 to 10 lines of the paper and it would scroll automatically at a certain rate and you would read the story and then take a test afterwards and then as you pass the tests, they would both speed up the cylinder and then also shrink the amount you could see at one time to point where it got to just reading line by line and this thing's scrolling superfast. It was really weird and really struck my competitive juices like, I really wanted to show the teachers that I could read as fast as possible. So that's the one thing from that weird private school that I went to that I think has had any sort of payoff in my adult life.
COREY: There are a bunch of tools and techniques that people can use to increase reading speed, and I've never done any of them. I don't know how I do it, I just do it. It's easy to sit here and think that, “Oh, I'm going to read super quickly. That's a superpower. That's something I can use and leverage, too,” and then what?
The skill, or the talent is necessary, but not sufficient the way that I do things and you have to refine it and apply it in different ways. Sitting here and doing it as a spectacle or sport on a conference panel or something and look at how fast I can consume information, not much of a party trick. Using that and applying it to something that for, in my case, distilling vast quantities information down in an understandable and meaningful way, that was the outcome.
It was never about just “being smart,” which is how I often hear other folks talking about various superpowers. “Oh, I have a natural innate intelligence.” Great, what do you do with it? How do you apply that? That's the thing that often gets overlooked; at least by folks in a somewhat early stage of the development that they're dealing with professionally.
REIN: So let me ask, you do the Last Week in AWS podcast, why do you give a shit about that stuff?
COREY: Functionally, what I do and what I started doing when I started The Duckbill Group, it was understanding the AWS bill so that I can reduce it. Sure, it's easy to do that from a pure numerical analysis perspective and figure out oh, what reservations, or commitments you can use. But a lot of it required insight into what the application was doing because the worst consultants in the world are the ones that walk in, look around, have no idea what they're looking at, and then start telling you that you screwed everything up. That's not helpful, it's not compelling, and it's the sign of a terrifically awful consultant, in most cases.
I see something that looks like it's ridiculous, my first question is: great, can you help me understand this? I don't tend to, by default, assume the person I'm talking to is a moron and similarly, I had to understand the various economic impacts of different capabilities, features, and services. They're changing all the time. I had to keep up with this stuff so I shoved a bunch of things into my RSS feed and I was tracking this because there was nowhere else to do it. That got me 80% of the way there to being able to share this with the rest of the world. I figured, ah, I can make other people do my work for me. I figured I would launch a newsletter, run it for a few weeks, someone would chime in, “Well, why don't you just read, insert other thing here?” and then great. I can turn off the newsletter. I found the thing that does this for me and I can focus on other things.
Instead, 550 people signed up for the first issue and it's been growing ever since and it turns out that thing that people should read to solve this problem is the thing that I built. It still surprises me and the reason I care about it all is because my customers need to know these are the things, but they don't want to read all of it. They don't want to know all of these things. They want to solve their problem.
REIN: It seems relatively easy for a consultant to go in and say, cut here, trim there, and then you'll get 20, 50% off of your AWS bill. But isn't the thing that you want for the people who will be there long after you're gone to be able to make better decisions about their own spend?
COREY: One of the nuanced areas of what I do is this idea that, “Oh, I'm going to come in and lower your bill,” That virtually always happens, but that's not the actual goal. The goal is to inform the business so that they can make decisions around managing spend, managing capability, and managing risk.
In some cases, we suggest spending more on certain areas such as, “Huh, you claim that that thing is an incredibly critical to your business set of data and you're not backing it up anywhere. Perhaps, you should consider doing that.” It's the idea of doing the right thing, not the cheap thing. It's we don't ever charge for example, by percentage of savings, or percentage of bill, it's flat rate only because once that's done and we agree on what that rate is, there's no other conflict of interest. I'm not trying to rack up savings to claim a percentage of it. I have no partnerships with any vendor in the space, so I'm not getting a kickback if I say, “Oh, use this tool or that tool or that service.” Instead, it purely reduces me down to, “This is what I would do if I were in your position, take it or leave it.”
TIM: So I think Corey, it's fair to say that people recognize your expertise, both in optimizing of costs and optimizing the practice. Writing good tools, adopting best practices, having sound resilient architectures, and saving money. But it's also fair to say that that's not why people follow you. You have a voice and a particular way of analyzing things that appeals to people. Snark has its place and it's very well-placed in your commentary, but what it mostly involves is true insight.
So can you give me the story behind what really empowered you and made you comfortable in delivering your full Corey Quinn to people in an industry where maybe people aren't really supposed to be their whole selves?
COREY: My entire career, I had a core competency that I was always the absolute best in the room at, across the board and no one could step to me as far as being good at that thing and that thing was getting myself fired because of the things that I said. My entire career, every boss, every mentor, every teacher, every family member, every vague acquaintance that I pass on the street has given me the same advice: “Your sense of humor/personality is going to hold you back in your career.”
When I started this place, I was so tired and beaten down from hearing that, that I figured that either everyone I've ever spoken to is right and I'm wrong, or I'm right and they're all wrong. And with the confidence born of being a mediocre white man in tech, I figured let's try it and see. Because worst-case, if the whole thing blows up in my face, well, I can go back to using my maiden name professionally. I can effectively shove the Corey Quinn identity as it is down the memory hole and I can go back to being an unhappy employee somewhere else. It started to resonate and it took on a life of its own and for the first time in my entire career, I don't feel like I have to hide who and what I am and that is a powerful thing.
TIM: So one of the things that I think people appreciate, especially in your very active and humorous Twitter feed, is saying the things that everyone is thinking about the Giants. You speak truth to power, but you do so in a manner that does not insult nor mischaracterize the people who make the technology, who make the decisions.
Can you talk to us a little bit about how being kind while still being somewhat snarky guides – what's your thought processes and how does that guide your commentary?
COREY: You say this like it's a done deal, but it's very much not. Earlier, the week that we're having this recording, I wound up doing a snarky, sarcastic rebuttal of the profile of me that appeared in the New York Times in the voice of AWS. I made some snarky offhanded comments that implied basically that AWS marketing was crap and I heard from several people inside that team that, that they thought that hurt them and to be very direct, I got that wrong.
If people are hearing what I have to say and feeling bad about themselves, about their work, then I've gone in a wrong direction. It's a very fine line to walk, given who and what I am, but when people see what I have to say and hear it and they walk away hurt, I failed. I don't always get it right, clearly. All I can strive to do is be better and not make the same mistake twice. It's a constant process of evolution and learning. And to be very direct, I am incredibly grateful by people feeling that they have the psychological safety to reach out to me and say, “That hurt my feelings.”
MANDO: One thing that I've seen you do, Corey, as an accessory to that is be on the lookout for people who maybe don't feel that same kind of psychological security, but also feel some, or have some negative impact, or connotation with what you said.
I've seen this a couple of times. I saw it once this week, when you were talking about – you had a Twitter thread talking about how to find a job in tech, how to negotiate salaries and stuff like that. And then there was a Slack group that we're both involved in and someone made a comment saying that they felt put out a little bit by the tone of what you had said and I personally found it impressive and a little bit inspirin, the way that you responded to that individual.
Would you mind building on that a little bit, why you think that's so important and then how you address and maybe manage those kinds of situations?
COREY: Sure. Privilege is a funny thing because we all swim in it in various ways, no matter who you are or what you do, there are elements of privilege that are inherent to you based upon aspects of your life and to you. That's not something that you're generally aware of in a conscious sense. Instead, it's very much a part of the background of your own lived experience and it's difficult, at times, to put yourself in the shoes of people who have different stories.
The natural response, in some cases, when being told about privilege is to push back, “Excuse me, nothing was handed to me. I had to work and build this thing and sure, maybe that's true on some level, but you did not have to deal with a headwinds against you that a lot of other people did.” And there is an element of, “Well, I was born on third base. I didn't hit a triple.” Yes, that's true. It absolutely is. But you still got to go from third base to home on some level. It's easier than someone who's starting off on home and having to round all of the bases and there's still work that has to be put in. But it's important to understand that this is an important thing and a lot of people struggle with it because our society is inherently unjust. There is no way around that.
The differences is that I'm not sitting here when I have these conversations, talking about how I wish the world was, or how it should be. I'm one of those people that sees the world as it is, or as I assume, as I interpret it to be, and I speak from a position of this is how I function in the environment in which I find myself.
Now, some aspects of what I do, do not apply to people who don't look like I do. I generally go out of my way to avoid airing those things. I don't want to build a conference talk on how to handle job interviews for white guys, because that's awful. It's about getting interesting perspectives on this one.
I did that actual talk, or something close to it back in 2016, or so and when I realized what I'd built, I was horrified and didn't give it again for a couple of years and then I gave it as a keynote at devopsdays Charlotte. I did that with my co-speaker, Sonia Gupta, who she and I sat there and gave the talk called Embarrassingly Large Numbers: Salary Negotiation for Humans. Her background is as an attorney. She also doesn't look like I do. And it became a much more equitable talk, it became a much more universal talk, it was better in every respect, and it remains one of the talks I'm proudest of giving.
It's a matter of when you realize that you have done something that inadvertently causes harm, or perpetuate some of the inequality that is rampant around us, it's incumbent on you, if you want to continue to be a good person, even if nowhere else other than you're in your own mind, to correct the misbehavior, say, “I'm sorry about that,” and then this is the key part, strive not to do it again. We're all works in progress.
TIM: I think that notion of us all being a works in progress rings more true than I think most people like to admit. We constantly iterate on ourselves as we should be doing to find our mistakes, correct them, and then implement those corrections as we go forward. The thing that I think most people miss is the fact that they have to admit the fact that they did something wrong in the first place, especially in the form of public opinion.
In a very public place like Twitter, Corey, you have done really well at that and I think there's a lot of wisdom that people can gain just by watching how you say, “Hey, this was not right,” or “I can do better,” and holding yourself accountable when especially other people hold themselves accountable. How do you think that we can promote this type of behavior in our culture and in our industry?
COREY: Okay. Let me tell you a dark secret then because I don't want people to get an unrealistic expectation of who I am, or what I do. When I get it wrong, very often someone will either say something on Twitter or DM me with a, “This isn't a great take,” and every time like clockwork, my immediate response is to get defensive because no one likes being called out.
What I learned I going by through the process is when I feel that flash of defensiveness: shut up. I do not respond. I step back for a minute. I go for a walk. I think. I wait for that reaction to subside and then really think about the feedback that I'm given from a place that is not in the moment, fraught with emotion. There are times that I can do that in seconds. There are times it takes me days.
Usually, what happens is I realize that they have a point. Very occasionally, I disagree with what they're saying either because I didn't communicate clearly, or they misunderstood, or on some level, past a certain point, it is so far below even the level of rising to microaggression that it's one of those. Yeah, I have a bit of a hard time accepting that feedback where easy example of this is, I wound up having a gag recently called AWS Hambone, where they had some line art drawings in some of the AWS stuff that was put out, and I wound up having an event called AWS Hambone.
Twitter Safety blocks someone who tweeted the phrase at one point, it was, “What is this?” Someone said, “Ah. Well, on Urban Dictionary, if you look up the word Hambone and scroll down a few things,” and of course, it's something horrific. There's always something horrific for three quarters of the words in the English language and at that point, you're so far into the weeds that I don't know that I necessarily would agree with that in that sense, but it's also not going to be a recurring gag that I use all the time.
When I named my company, The Duckbill Group, and slapped a platypus up on as our mascot, I spent a week researching is there anything problematic on any aspect of the platypus and every bit of research I could do was no and here we are and no one has ever told me, the platypus is problematic. At this stage, that offer has expired. Please don't email me.
But it's about doing your best to make these things right when you get it wrong, taking people's advice seriously and again, I don't do this in a vacuum. I have a number of people whose insight I trust and with whom I have a sense of psychological safety that I can reach out to and ask them, “Is this too far afield or not?” I want to be very clear, the majority of those people that I reach out to look an awful lot like me, because I'm not asking folks who are not overrepresented to do additional on paid free labor.
REIN: I’d really liked to dig in a little bit more deeply to the part where you said you get defensive and then you take a moment because that seems like the key to me and it also seems like something that's really, really hard in the moment to do. Virginia Satir says that the problem isn't the problem, how we cope as the problem and that these emotions come unbidden to our consciousness, and then we get to decide, we have an opportunity to decide what we do with them.
So what I'm hearing you say is you make a conscious effort to decide what to do. You feel defensive. You don't have control over that. What you have control over is what you do with it and so, my question is how do you create the space for yourself to cope?
COREY: It helps tremendously in that the most common form that I use for my aggressive shitposting, hot takes, et cetera, et cetera, but also testing new things out is Twitter. There is no SLA around responses on Twitter. I don't need to respond within 30 seconds or so. Right now, we're having a conversation, if I stop for 2 minutes to really think something through, you're going to wonder if the call dropped. Twitter doesn't have that problem and from where I sit, it's a place of, I don't believe that I can control my own emotions to the point where I don't that defensive flare, but that's on me. That's something I need to think through.
I don't wind up turning aside and kicking the dog, or punching a hole in the wall. I sit there because it never feels great, but it's where growth comes from. If you've doubled down on being wrong when people whose lived experience are actively telling you that what you're saying or doing causes harm, I don't believe that you are being the kind of person that in your heart of hearts, you wish you were. Now, some people want to be shitheads and that's fine. Good for you. I don't want to be around you.
REIN: I want to make it possible to say your real yeses and your real nos.
COREY: Yes, absolutely. Punch up. It's hilarious. I mean, I'm a hell of a cyber bully to a company that's worth $1.6 trillion, the last time I checked. If they can't take it on the chin, they need to deal with it. But there are individual people who work there and they don't deserve getting dragged.
As I mentioned previously and repeatedly, the single exception to this is of course, Oracle co-founder, Larry Ellison. Because even if someone's garbage, they have friends and family who love and care for them and Larry Ellison is an asshole who does not. Nobody likes Larry Ellison and the best part of that is I got a lot of pushback and a lot of feedback on that article in the New York Times and the one thing that I thought was notable is not a single person defended Larry, or said that I was wrong because I'm right. He's an who has no friends QED, but everyone else, off the table.
REIN: You're obviously very intentional about this. So what do you do intentionally to stay on the right side of that line?
COREY: The honest and easy way is I talk to people. I fall into the trap personally of forgetting people behind things. To my worldview, a big company is one that has 200 people and when I don't know anyone on a service team at AWS who is involved in building a project, or launching a service, I just view it as this thing, this enormous behemoth thing and then I make fun of it. As soon as I talked to someone who was involved with that it's, “Oh crap, I need to understand who these people are.”
Honestly, one of the reasons I've been so rough on Amazon Marketing is that no one in that group talks to me. It's basically a void so it becomes almost a punchline and then I have to be reminded from time to time that there are people there. That's an area I get it wrong in.
Now on some level, the Amazon corporate posture is if we ignore Corey, he'll probably go away, which is absolutely the wrong direction to go in. It's akin to, “Well, if we kidnap the bear cubs, then may be that grizzly will let me pet her.” It doesn't work.
It's like smacking an alligator over the snout with a rock in the hopes it'll make him friendlier. Don't do that. I guess, I'm saying I crave attention. Well, roll with it.
REIN: I think you compared yourself to an alligator.
COREY: Oh, absolutely.
TIM: Oh, that sounded deliberate.
REIN: It’s fair.
TIM: Alligators, to my recollection, do not have bills, correct?
COREY: No, no. Those are reserved for generally ducks, geese, and platypuses.
TIM: Is it platypus or platypi?
COREY: Platypi is a myth. It's platypoes, if you want to go down that particular
TIM: I don't know if there's a witty monotremes joke in general so, I'll just let that go.
COREY: Exactly. There are, but you have to look for them. That's why my mascot is an extreme monotreme.
REIN: I like that you explicitly tried to avoid being [inaudible] platypus.
COREY: There is always that aspect of things.
REIN: All right, so I can tell you that platypus is actually extremely racist! [laughs]
COREY: Exactly. No, no. The platypus for the mascot that we have is not racist. Well, insofar as other than the [inaudible], we are all racist to some extent, which is problematic but it is a thing to say in some quarters, but let's be a little more intentional of how we say it. The platypus isn't a bigot. The platypus isn't even usually angry most of the time. The platypus is just disappointed in all of us, because realistically, we could be doing better than we are.
REIN: Do you have any advice for any of our listeners who might want to make a career out of being snarky?
COREY: Quite honestly, don't do it. I'm serious. They're either a number of folks who try it periodically because they see what I'm doing, or they reach out to me and ask for advice and the advice is the same: don't do it. The reason is that with almost anything else that you're trying to do, the failure mode is just, okay, no one cares. It doesn't make a splash. It doesn't work. Okay, great. The problem with being snarky is the failure mode isn't obscurity, it's being an asshole and that failure mode is potentially very damaging.
To that extent, when I see various parody accounts on Twitter, the novelty accounts that are doing snarky, or sarcastic things, I generally don't engage for a while. I want to get a read on them.
Two of the parody accounts that absolutely nail it are, what is it? @SimpsonsOps is the parody account there.
MANDO: Oh god, that’s fantastic.
COREY: And @killedbygoogle. Both are phenomenal. They get it. I talk with the people behind those accounts regularly and I learn from them. There are times, I get it wrong and they correct me and very occasionally, I will give feedback to them when I think they've gone in a different direction and we all sort of make each other better for it as a result.
But most folks do it. It doesn't end super well. There's an Andy Jassy parody account and has been for years and it's just mean. It's just mean, I'm sorry. One of the most distressing things I ever heard, that got to me through the grapevine. was that some exec at AWS was convinced for a little while that it was me and that hurt because to be very honest, I don't operate like that. I'm not here crapping on people individually, with a remarkably small subset of exceptions to that and those exceptions universally have something in common and that is that they punched down, they drive good people away, and they're small people in positions of inflated importance. Think the corporate equivalent of a number of senators that I'm sure already leaped to mind when I say that.
TIM: So Corey, I'd like to ask—we talked about how you handle things on Twitter, we talked about your personal evolution—now as a business owner in the tech industry, a small business owner, B2B, not a large trillion-dollar company yet. But how are you approaching in handling diversity inclusion, especially around hiring and retention and salary equity in your own company?
Q: Fair question and no one has ever asked me that, if you can believe that. The answer is that in order to build and hire diverse teams, it takes effort. The easiest thing in the world to do is to reach out to the people you know from your background. Well, that's not generally hugely diverse because regardless of what we look like, you're generally encountering them in the same types of environments, doing the same kinds of things, and you basically wind up accidentally hiring half your fraternity or whatnot for those who went to college and that's a bit of a challenge.
So you have to be intentional about it, for one. You have to be prepared to expand your hiring pool. Do things that don't necessarily come naturally. There are folks who specialize in diversity, equity, and inclusion who have tremendous advice on how to do this, pay them for it. Advice is worth what you pay for it and have them assist and then from there, it's do your best. Have a way to measure what you're trying to achieve and whether you get there or not.
As far as salary goes, that's relatively straightforward for us because we publish the ranges when we put the job position up and the ranges are relatively narrow and we stick to them. We are very transparent internally with what our structure is and how we approach these things and to be very direct, the delta between the highest and lowest paid employee is smaller than people would expect.
MANDO: I've got a question about salary ranges. I have a hard time understanding what good reasons a company might have for not making their pay scales and salary ranges transparent, at least within the company. I've worked at several places where if you're lucky, your manager may know what the salary ranges are, but as an individual contributor, you're not supposed to find out and I have a hard time coming up. Are there any good reasons why, other than exploitation?
COREY: There are a bunch of bad reasons, but not many good ones, but here's one that we can try on for size. If you and I have the same job and we work at the same company and I discover that you make $20,000 more than I do, there are a few different ways that I can react. I can get angry at the company, which is not generally constructive in that context. I can ask what I would need to do to get to a similar level of compensation. If I want to be nosy, I can start digging into well, why do you get more? And there are a bunch of answers to that. Maybe you've been doing this for a longer and a better experience. Maybe you have a skillset that was challenging. Maybe it's competitive bid situation. Maybe it's an accident of fate. Maybe you asked for it and I didn't.
But there is a very common mode where now that I know that you're making $20,000 more than I am, I'm going to be a shit heel to you. I am going to hold it against you personally, because I'm envious and jealous and instead of asking how I can get up to your level, my immediate response is how to drag you down to mine. That can be a subtle and pernicious thing and if I look like I do and you don't, then that manifests in a whole bunch of other ways that are reinforced by systemic biases and as a result, it winds up impacting some of the folks that that transparency would be designed to help. That is one expression of a good reason. Is that outweighed otherwise? I don't know. I really don't.
We speak in generalities and total budget. We don't disclose individual's compensation internally because that is not –
COREY: Again, it's a weird thing if I tell your coworker how much you make and then they're mad at you. Same type of problem. We strive very hard not to have that culture and I don't believe that we do, but I'm not willing to risk someone's psychological safety on that.
MANDO: Yeah, no, I get that. I think in my experience, it's been a little more, I can't find out what the top and bottom band is for this role, unless I have people working for me in those roles and that's where, at least for me, it makes it difficult to understand why that's the case. It's hard to talk to people who you're managing about moving in different directions, moving possibly to other areas of the company, or even up and down the ladder without being able to say, “Here are the numbers that you could be looking at.”
COREY: I'm also coming at this from a different/possibly privileged position where we do not offer equity in The Duckbill Group. The way we're structured, it doesn't support that. We're a services company that does not have anything approaching an exit strategy. I'm not looking sell the company to the very types of companies I energetically and enthusiastically insult.
So we're not offering the brass ring of equity because there's no expectation of ever turn into anything. Instead, we offer cash comp and we have a bonus structure that is tied to what the company does. It becomes very easy for you to look at what we're doing and if you're toying with a role here, we have those conversations and figure out what your compensation is going to look like. Is it comparable to Netflix pay? Of course not. They pay top of market and tend to, but that's okay. We also don't have you on edge every day, wondering if you're about to get fired. So there are benefits to the way we approach things. There are drawbacks as well.
Again, it's different people want different things and that's okay. At a company that has a significant equity component to compensation, that usually is removed entirely from transparency in compensation, unless you're a named executive. How many shares have you been granted? Are there options? What was the strike price? How is the vesting work? Did you come aboard as part of an acquihire? In which case, there was a very distinct compensation structure, that was almost certainly set up for you, that does not apply to other people. Do you have a particular rare skillset that was incredibly valuable? Let's be direct here, is your cousin the CEO of a target customer and having you there has that nice, quiet benefit that no one is ever going to dare whisper out loud? There are a whole bunch of reasons that compensation will vary, that companies don't necessarily want to explain to each other.
When I worked at an agency consultancy, they would periodically have a consultant/engineer who would discover one day that the company was billing it out for roughly twice what they were being paid, which is a fairly standard and reasonable structure given the overhead cost, and they would be incensed by this because well, sales and marketing, how hard could that be? I should just go direct and wind up making all that extra margin myself. It is never that simple. If you can do it, good luck. It's a near certainty you can't because no one can, not at any step and that's scale.
There is the lack of maturity that is understood, or not understood by folks you're dealing with and especially as you grow beyond a certain size, you can't expect everyone you're talking to in your company that you hire, or potentially hiring to come in with that level of maturity.
So it's far easier just to avoid the topic altogether and then of course, there's a nefarious thing if we want to see how much we can rip people off. I have a hard time accepting that as being a genuine reaction, because for example, from a company perspective, the difference of a $10,000 or $20,000 to make someone happy versus angry, your payroll costs at a certain point of scale is never going to notice or feel that you don't want to waste money. But if that's all it takes to make someone happy, why wouldn't you spend it?
MANDO: Has anyone here worked at a place where payroll numbers accidentally got sent out to the entire company, or is that just me?
TIM: I have not worked at a place like that, but I wish that had happened.
MANDO: It happened to me super early on in my career. I've been doing this professionally for maybe 2, or 3 years and it was a small little dev shop here in Austin and it was, you had your classic accidental reply all situation from whoever's in charge of keeping the books and the next day, like 8 people out of the 30 who worked there just walked out. It was kind of bad and ugly, yeah.
COREY: One of the things that I find the most interesting about that type of story is that when those things come out and half the company is in flames over it, this was preventable.
When we started The Duckbill Group, we did the exact same thing. We have always operated in such a way that if our internal documents and chats and everything else were to become public, there would be some missing context we'd have to fill in, but there's no one that would, or at least no one who has understanding of the relevant issues would look at this and say, “Well, that's just not fair, or just.”
That even goes down to our pricing structure with our clients. Like we don't disclose what our margins are on certain things, but if they were to see that they would look at that, understand the value of that process of how we got to those price points and say, “Yes, that is fair.” That has always been our objective and it's one of those if you act as if it's going to be made public, it turns out that no one can really hold things over anymore, which is interesting because given the nature of what we do with AWS bills, confidentiality is super important.
It's critical because some of our largest customers do not let us admit to anyone that they are in fact, our customers and I get that; there's a strong sensitivity around that. Other customers are, “Yeah, by all means, please talk about us all you want. Put us on the website.” I mean, the New York Times mentioned that Epic Games, Ticketmaster, and The Washington Post were customers of ours. Yes, we have logo rights. We are very clear in whether or not we're allowed to talk about folks publicly. It's great. We love our customers, but what are the tricks to getting there incidentally is if you don't respect a company's business, you probably shouldn't do business with them.
We're not sitting here making massive value judgements about various companies that we look at. But when it's one of those, you make landmines, not so much. Whereas, I noticed, I was like, “Okay, you’re ad tech, do I love it? Not usually, but I also understand how the world works. It's fine. Don't worry about it.” Unless, you're into truly egregious territory, there's never one of those, “Do we work with them or don't we work with them?” The “Do we work with them or don't we work with them?” question honestly distills down to, “Can we actually help them get to where they need to go/think they need to go and is it the right thing for them?” If the answer that's no, then all we're going to do is have an unhappy customer story out there in the world. We don't want that. It's not that hard to act ethically, as it turns out.
REIN: There is an interesting contrast between Corey, your story about salary disclosure and Mando's, which is you made the point of that it could be in your employee's best interest to not disclose. I don't think you're lying, but I bet if you had asked Mando's company's executives, they could have very well may have given the exact same story. The thing that, I think is difficult is when you have to trust in the benevolence of capitalists to figure this thing out.
COREY: Absolutely and from my perspective, again, I have this position that I'm coming from, which is, I assume good faith. From my position, if our salary compensation numbers were to be exposed internally, the external is a whole separate thing. Because honestly, if there's a certain implicit expectation of privacy, if you work at my company and suddenly without warning you, I tell the world how much you're being paid. That's not necessarily a situation you would be thrilled to find yourself in. So let's remove that from the table entirely.
When we speak internally about what you're making, I have always operated with the expectation that you will exercise, in the US, your federally protected to discuss your compensation with your coworkers, because not discussing your compensation with your coworkers only really helps those capitalists, as you put it, who run companies themselves. If I want to exploit people, yes. Step one, make sure that they're all scared to talk about how much they're making with each other. That doesn't align with anything I ever want to see myself doing.
So from my perspective, why would I not disclose salary information? The only reason I can think of that would really matter is that, does it make it harder either first, most importantly, for my employees to operate as they want to operate and two, does it do any harm to my business in any meaningful way and that is a nuanced and challenging thing to figure out. I don't know the answer is the short response to it. I don't think there'd be anything necessarily good that would accelerate my business if we're suddenly talking about compensation numbers publicly. I don't know that necessarily anything bad would happen either, but it's not the story that I want people telling about the company.
We're small. We don't have a marketing budget. We have a spite budget. So when people bring us up, I don't want it to be in the context of compensating employees. I want it to be in the context of fixing the AWS bills since that's the thing that lets us compensate those employees, [laughs]
It's a fun and interesting nuanced issue and it's easy to take a singular position from all of the different stakeholders that are involved in something like that and make strong pro, or con arguments from that person's position. But one of the weird things about running a company that I discovered is you have to put yourself in multiple shoes simultaneously all the time, where you have to weigh the opinions and perspectives of various stakeholders.
You ask someone in engineering what they think we should be focusing on strategically, the answer is probably going to align around engineering, but is engineering going to align with what the company needs to do? If you're getting no sales coming in, is engineering going to be the way you fix that? Maybe not. Maybe you invest in marketing or sales as a result and it's always about trade-offs and no one's perfectly happy with what you decide.
The world is complicated and for better or worse, one of the bad tendencies of Twitter is to distill these principles down to pithy soundbites that fit 280 characters and the world doesn't lend itself to that.
REIN: Okay. Let's try to distill this down into a pithy soundbite.
COREY: By all means.
REIN: No, I was just kidding.
COREY: And I'm sure someone's going to be pithed. It'll be fine.
TIM: I was waiting. Took longer than I expected.
REIN: What's the most important thing in comedy?
TIM: It's timing.
It’s easier to love that joke in-person.
TIM: It is.
COREY: Or if you’re going to put that in, just make sure you insert a bunch of time before audio engineer can wind up doing that.
TIM: Right. I was going to ask if an audio engineer can actually make that joke funny, or is that?
COREY: Yeah. Or it’ll just come off as corny. So many jokes work super well when you deliver them in-person or face-to-face with a small group, but then you deliver into, to an audience of 5,000 people and they fall completely flat because the energy is different. That observation right there is why so many corporate keynotes are full of jokes that bomb horribly, because with the 20 people who were in there and have context and nuance, it's great in the rehearsal, but then you have a bunch of people and it just feels lame.
TIM: Yeah, I thought the corporate keynote jokes, they failed because the 20-person focus group was a bunch of sycophants ready to laugh at anything they said. Whereas, the audience, maybe not so much.
COREY: Yes. Do you end up with the entire executive committee watching it? They're just a bunch of yes men and the one token yes woman, but diversity is important to them. Just look at their website. No, no, the point that makes the statement about diversity being important, not the pictures of their team.
MANDO: That part. One of my favorite speakers in the technical circuit is Aaron Patterson and I think part of the reason why I love his delivery so much is that he himself personally laughs at all his jokes. Like it really [laughs] like he cracks himself up and so you just can't help, but get pulled along with him.
COREY: I find that most of my jokes that I put in my talks and whatnot are for me, because without it, I get bored and I lose interest and have other people come along for the joke, great. And if not, well, that's okay, I'm still laughing.
MANDO: [laughs] Yeah.
TIM: So Corey that I have a question that I had wondered and then never got to ask out loud. But seeing as how, although we pretty much knew that Andy Jassy was going to be the new CEO of Amazon, would obviously need someone to replace him at AWS. What would you say to the AWS recruiter when they offered you the job and why?
COREY: Directly, that would be one of the most thankless jobs I can possibly imagine for the way I see the world and how that job has to be done, in all seriousness. It is the ultimate expression of responsibility without the ability to directly impact an outcome. You will have to delegate absolutely everything and it's paradoxical, but the higher you rise in a role like that, the less you're able to say.
Every time Jeff Bezos makes a comment in public, it hits the news. He doesn't get to go effectively shitposting on Twitter. How Elon Musk manages to do it, couldn't tell you, but his random jokes move markets and that's why he's constantly in trouble with the SEC.
The reason that I enjoy the latitude and the freedom that I do is that I am functionally, a nobody and that's okay. As soon as I start becoming someone who is under global public scrutiny, then that entire thing becomes incredibly misaligned. Every time there's a controversy or a scandal, I would never be allowed to sit down and be directly and completely honest about what I think about those things because you can't in those roles. These things are always nuanced and public messaging is a problem. I do firmly believe.
For example, the reason I don't weigh in very often on a lot of the labor relations issues, for example, that Amazon winds up finding itself confronted with is, I believe firmly that there is a choice that I get to make as part of my expression of privilege. Here, I can be part of the mob on Twitter, yelling at them over these things, or I can have conversations directly with people who you are in a much better position to influence these things internally. I do not believe you can do both, simultaneously.
We pick and choose our battles sometimes and I can't wind up going off about every outrage, real, or perceived, that accompany does, or I simply look like an endless litany of complaints. You have to find the things that make an impact and there's always a price to that.
An example of a fight that I do go to bat for is Amazon's position on non-competes for their employees and their decision to pursue them after they leave Amazon. I think it has beneath them, I think it makes the entire industry poorer for it, and it's one of the areas in which I do not respect Amazon's position, full stop. Their employees are better than that and deserve more. That's an issue that I feel profoundly about and I'm willing to go to the mat on that one, but when I do it, it comes with a price. It makes them look at me like a little bit of a, “Oh, is he going to be one of those?” whatever those happen to be and maybe. There's a reason I don't bring it up casually. There's a reason I don't drag them with that in casual joke threads, but it's there and that's what one of those issues I'm willing to be known for.
Now, labor organizing and the rest. There's an entire universe of people paying better attention to a segment of their business that I don't talk about, or know about and who are well-suited to lead a public opinion, to have conversations internally. I don't know about a lot of those things and this is why I've never cut out to be a VC either, by the way, where when I don't know something, I don't feel that I should be sounding off about that thing on Twitter. Apparently, that is not normal in D.C. land, but here we are.
The beautiful part about being me is that I'm fundamentally in possession of a platform I can use to broadcast every harebrained idea that crosses my mind out to an audience to test it. So I don't feel constrained in what I can say. In fact, that's the reason that I am what I am is that no one can fire me. I'm an AWS customer, but I have no client that is a significant percentage of our revenue base, which means I can't get fired.
The only real risk is something either systemic that happens globally, in which case, all bets are off, or we're at a scenario where I have surprise, become a secret dumpster goblin and no one is going to want to do business with me anymore and everyone abandons me. But that doesn't seem likely because that is not my failure mode.
REIN: Do you know what your failure mode is?
COREY: Oh, absolutely. I sometimes, as I mentioned, go too far. I find that things that are funny, just wind up being mean at times. A joke wasn't that great there.
I mean, my entire company is fundamentally built around aspects of my own failures. I am possessed of a profound case of ADHD that manifests in a bunch of interesting ways. A lot of the company is functionally scaffolding around me and picking up the things that I am not good at and will not be successful at if left to my own devices. I feel bad about it on some level, but on the other, it frees me up to do the things I am great at. It's an area of being able to take the things that make me, for better or worse, borderline unique and really focus on those because I don't have to continue to wrestle with things like making sure that JIRA tickets get done for us to use an example from my engineering days.
We tend to have this bias when hiring people to optimize for hiring folks who have no weaknesses rather than hiring for strengths. Yeah, there are a lot of things I'm crap at, but I'd rather be very, very good at the subset of things that are intensely valuable and that means that okay, maybe someone else can handle making sure my expense report gets filed, if you want to use a banal example.
REIN: One of the first things that you talked about was sometimes to improve the way a customer uses AWS; they have to spend more money in one area rather than less. There's an interesting property of systems, which is that you can't improve a system just by making each individual part better and actually, sometimes you have to make some parts worse to make the system better.
So I'm hearing a little bit of that here as well, which is you want to build a system that works well and takes advantage of the parts that you have, the people you have, their relationships, their strengths, how they work together, and you're not interested in everyone having to be perfect. You're okay with parts that work in different ways and accounting for that and focus. So the other thing is that a system is not the sum of its parts. It's the product of its interactions and what I'm getting is that you care about those interactions.
COREY: Very much so. It's hard to build things in isolation. It's hard to wind up treating everyone as interchangeable components that you can shuffle up and have them do different things. You don't want to know what would happen if you put me in charge of accounting, for example.
There's this also this idea as well that is endemic, particularly to the world of developers and software engineers in the context of – I saw this most prominently with a number of professors in my first job, as a Unix systems administrator at a university, where I have a Ph.D., I am a world leading expert in this very narrow field of knowledge and I am brilliant in it, which means I'm very good at everything else, too, ha, Getting the computer to work. Oh, they don't even offer Ph.Ds. in that so how hard could it really be? This idea that, “Oh, I am terrific at this one very valuable, highly advanced skill; I should be good at everything else.” Well, not really. It doesn't work that way and is there even value in you learning that particular skill?
Let's use an example that's germane to what we're doing right now. When I record podcasts, I'm good at having the conversations. I'm good at making the word noises come out of my mouth to varying degrees of good and then we're done with the recording and what tends to happen next? Well, it has to get edited, put together, and the rest, and I don't know how to do that. Now, do I go and spend a year learning how audio engineering works and then spend my time doing the audio engineering piece, or do I find someone who lives in that world, who loves it, who they are great at it, and they want to do it and they want to do it more and wind-up paying people for their expertise and let them come out with a far better product than I'm ever going to be able to deliver?
If it doesn't need to be me doing a thing, I might want to tag someone else in to do it instead. That's the art of delegation and increasingly, I have to be more and more comfortable with letting more and more things go as our company continues to grow. It's a hard lesson to learn. I mean, the biggest challenge of running a business bar, none, I don't care what anyone else tells you, it's always the same and it is managing your own psychology.
ARTY: So you mentioned earlier with you were talking about psychological safety and people being able to give you feedback about when their feelings were hurt, or things that are challenging to talk about. What factors do you think contribute to your approachability when you have the stance of being this kind of snarky identity? What makes you approachable still?
COREY: I think it's that when I get it wrong, I'm very vocal at apologizing. Let me use an example of the time I got it spectacularly wrong. A while back, I did a parody video of Hitler Reacts, the Downfall parody thing that everyone's doing and it was Hitler receives his AWS bill was my entire shtick. I did a whole dialogue thing for it, as one does. There's generators for it—this was not an artistic endeavor whatsoever—and one line I have in there is one woman turns to the other and says, “Yeah, I get gigabytes and terabytes confused, too,” and it goes on. People started liking it on Twitter and I went to bed.
The next day, I get a message from someone that a number of women were having a thread somewhere else that they thought it was offensive because that was the only speaking line women had and it was admitting that math is hard, more or less and when I heard that my response was, “Holy shit.” I took the video down and did a whole thread about here's how I fucked up and some people were saying, “Oh, it wasn't that big of a deal. It's fine.” You are wrong. I'm sorry. People felt shitty because of what I said and that's not okay and just deleting it, or not talking about it again is a response, but it's not an instructive one and what I did ideally, will help people avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
Again, this stuff is not easy. We're all learning. I've made jokes when I was – if I go back in time 10 years, I made a whole bunch of jokes and had a sense of humor of now I look back and I am very honestly ashamed of them and I'm not talking about things that the kind of joke we have to look over your shoulders before you tell anyone to make sure that someone doesn't look like you isn't within earshot. No, I'm just talking about shitty jokes that punch down. I don't make those jokes anymore because guess what? They're just not that funny and that's important. We all evolve. So that's part of it is I vocally critical of myself when I get it wrong.
I also have DMs open for this specific reason. Again, I am not in the demographic people going to harass me by a DM. Not everyone has that privilege so people can reach out to me when they think I get something wrong, or they just want to talk and I view confidentiality as sacrosanct. If someone says that wasn't funny, I always thank them first off and then I try and dig deeper into what it is that they're saying. If someone says it on Twitter, because they don't feel that a call-in is warranted—no one knows you would call-in—a callout is fine, too. I try to engage in the same behavior just because if nothing else, I can set an example.
I don't know if people feel they have a sense of psychological safety in approaching me, to be perfectly honest. No one knows their own reputation. But the fact that people continue to and I have never once broken the faith and thrown someone out under a bus publicly, or even mentioned who they were without their permission first, that's powerful and I hope anyway.
I mean, again, no one knows their own reputation. For all I know, there are whisper networks out there that are convinced that I'm a complete piece of crap and if that's true, I'm not going to inherently say that they're wrong. I would be honored if someone would tell me and would let me know what I'm doing that has caused that opinion to form, because if possible, I'd like to fix it. If not, I at least want to hear the perspective.
But feedback is an opinion and not everyone's opinion carries equal weight and I don't agree with everyone's opinion, but I would like to know how I'm being perceived. The biggest problem I get is with all the podcasts, with all of the tweets, with all of the newsletters, that most common response by landslide is silence. There are days I wonder I remember to turn the microphone on. There are other days where oh, I get emails and I love those days because I at least get to learn how I'm coming across.
ARTY: I can imagine just seeing someone having a history of admitting when they make a mistake and trying to correct it and fixing it, turning you into someone that if you have feedback that feeling like you'd be heard, that your feedback would be listened to and taken seriously, I can see that really making a difference.
I also really appreciate you modeling that kind of behavior, too because I think it is important. We are human. We make mistakes and having models to follow of what it looks like to be confident enough in ourselves that we can screw up publicly, I think is really important.
COREY: I have the privilege and audience and at least apparently public reputation to be allowed to fail, to be allowed to mess these things up and if I can't own those things that I get wrong and what's the point, really. The honest way that I feel about all of this is I just recently crossed 50,000 Twitter followers, which is a weird, trippy, and humbling experience. But if I can't use that vast audience to help people, then what the fuck was the point of it all? Why did I do it? It's not just for my own self-aggrandizement, or trying to sell consulting projects. If I can't leave a little bit of a dent in the universe in the sense of helping people become better than they are then what was the point? Spoiler, the answer to what was the point never starts with a dollar sign.
REIN: What do you think is the point?
COREY: I think it has to be different for other folks. For me, the point has always been about helping people and I have a sense of indebtedness that I have my entire career because early on in my career and consistently throughout, people have done me favors and there's no way for me to repay them for the kindness that they have shown and the help that they've given. All you can ever do is pay it forward. But I help people with an introduction. It doesn't take much from me. You two people have problems that would be a solved by having an introduction between the two of you? Wonderful. Go ahead and talk. Let me know how I can help and it costs me nothing and when people are like, “How can I thank you for this?” Help someone else. It's always the same answer. It's a someday, you're going to be in a position to help someone else, do it. Don't think about how it's going to come back and help you. Maybe I will, maybe it won't. Cosmically, I found it always does somehow, but again, you don't have to take that on faith. Just assume it doesn't help you in the least.
The more you help people, the more you wind up doing favors for people, the more it comes back around and that is something that opens up a tremendous level of, I guess, leverage. I guess, it makes sense of being able to make a difference in the world. Now, please, don't misunderstand what I've just said as, “Oh, you should do a bunch of uncompensated work for anyone who demands a moment of your time.” That's not what I'm talking about. I'm not suggesting you let people take advantage of you, but when you find someone who's struggling at something that you know would approach it, it really doesn't cost you much to reach out and ask if they need a hand.
ARTY: That seems like a good note to switch to reflections.
REIN: I think that's great. I was thinking about Corey, how you look at mistakes as opportunities to get better, not just for yourself, but also for how you participate in communities that matter to you. One of the interesting things about systems is that systems derive their purpose from how they relate to larger systems. So an engine drives its purpose from how it relates to the other parts of the car. If you take the engine out of the car, the car doesn't move, but neither does the engine.
So I think that the best communities, whether they're basketball teams, or software development teams, whatever they are, are communities that make each person better and that we derive our purpose and our meaning from our relationship with other people.
TIM: I can offer my reflection on this. I've often been either disappointed with, or very impressed by people's ability to learn about themselves and about the impact that they have on the world. I have observed in Corey and have been inspired to do self-optimization, where I have a course of action or behavior, or a line of thinking or reasoning presented into the ether and then based upon the feedback in whatever other means of observability, I amend and iterate on myself to become better. Never perfect—perfect is the enemy of good—but just to be better, to be continually improving. If I were going to find a term to describe Corey and the term that I would ascribe to myself to become a human optimist.
I think if we take some of those examples that Corey has discussed and apply them, we can all reach that point to where we'll always know that there's always ways to improve and if we listen to those around us and we study the impact that we have on those people that we can do that.
ARTY: It's been interesting listening to you talk and have this description of you in my head of this kind plus snarky being and what does that look like. One of the things I've seen you model repeatedly as I've listened to you talk is holding yourself accountable. In one context, being able to take in one-on-one reflections from other people and really take it in and think about what people say. But two, also taking responsibility for how other people see you and your position in the world and how those things you do end up affecting other people.
So, I really appreciate your taking responsibility for the one-on-one interactions that you have as well as how people see you in a public context and react to those things as well such that when you're out there being a model and someone that people look up to, that you try and have a good influence on the communities around you, too.
MANDO: What's kind of striking me today is strangely enough, it's a little bit of a meta reflection almost. It's like a reflection about y'all's reflections, which is kind of weird, but today is what, February 26th. It's been a rough couple of weeks here in Texas and it's been a rough couple of years, if I'm being truly honest.
But the past couple weeks have been really tough and I found myself not being, I don't know, maybe as open about the rough time that I've been having. Especially with people at work because I’m an engineering leader at work and I feel like I don't want to put that on folks, but something that Rein, that you said is the system is a product of its interactions. I've been intentionally cutting off parts of myself from the interactions of the system that is work and the people that I work with.
Something that hit me really hardcore when you said earlier was that there's a power in not having to hide who you am and what you are and what you're bringing to the table and how you're doing at a certain time. I want nothing more than to be able to model that kind of behavior to the rest of the company and make it so that they can be okay with coming in and saying, “It's been a rough couple of weeks. I'm sorry, I'm not going to hit my” whatever deadlines, or whatever they said they were going to do. So maybe I need to spend some time doing a little bit of apologizing and apologizing for not letting people know what's really been going on and working to make myself better.
COREY: For my part, I know that my words are loud. I imagine that my words are funny, but this is really reinforcing the notion that my words are heavy in that they carry weight. My baseline assumption is I have no idea what I'm doing so I'm going to just have fun with it.
I talk about how I see the world and how I view things, but it's more than a little disconcerting to hear and have it presented in plain view that people are changing how they approach things based upon the things that I say. That my words carry impact and that is a heady thing and it feels dangerous on some levels where I wind up deciding to do a random joke and people don't realize that's a joke. Does that have potential impact? I mean, I’ve always been viscerally aware of it where I don't want to come across as if people misunderstand what I'm saying, they'll wind up causing harm to others. There is a balance and there is a, I guess, growing awareness that maybe all these people aren’t just sticking around for the jokes.
ARTY: Well, thank you, Corey for coming on the show.
REIN: Also, everyone.
COREY: Thank you for having me.
REIN: Thanks, Corey.Support Greater Than Code
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