229: Union Organization with Melissa McEwen
April 7th, 2021 · 53 mins 30 secs
About this Episode
02:21 - Melissa’s Superpower: Being Extremely Online
03:06 - Unionizing Glitch
- Glitch workers sign tech’s first collective bargaining agreement
- Misconceptions re: Unions
- Engineer Salary Discrepancies
- Middle Management, Product Management Unionization
- Minority Unions (i.e. Google)
- What is a Minority Union?
- [The Rise of Minority Unions: How Social Movements and Tech Giants Could Be Showing Signs of Things To Come](The Rise of Minority Unions: How Social Movements and Tech Giants Could Be Showing Signs of Things To Come)
14:58 - Melissa’s Previous Experience with Working w/ Unions
- Communications Workers of America (CWA)
- Civic Technology (What Is Civic Technology?)
- Chi Hack Night
17:13 - Positive Skills Union Organizers Should Have
18:32 - Thoughts on Leading with Petitions
26:58 - Writing Online; Dismantling Publications and the Fracturing of the Media World
- The Rise Of Substack—And What’s Behind It
29:41 - Evaluating Human Performance
- PSA: DevRel isn’t fake !!
- How to Hire A-Players: Finding the Top People for Your Team- Even If You Don't Have a Recruiting Department
- People Skills
43:21 - Getting Started with Organizing a Union
- Use Signal, Not Slack
- Be Harder to Fire
Casey: Hearing success stories re: unionizing.
Jacob: How people skills can be a function of your individual team.
Melissa: Studying more about unions in other countries.
Rein: Looking more into co-ops and collectivisations.
An injury to one is an injury to all.
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JACOB: Hello, and welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 229. My name is Jacob Stoebel and I’m here with my co-panelist, Casey Watts.
CASEY: Hi, I'm Casey. I'm here today with Melissa McEwen.
Welcome, Melissa. So glad to have you.
MELISSA: Hi, everyone.
CASEY: We like to start each show by asking you a certain question. Melissa, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
MELISSA: My superpower is being extremely online and I acquired it by being given computers way too young and having nothing to do, but play with computers.
CASEY: I like that phrase “extremely online.” What does that look like today for you?
MELISSA: It means, I know way too much about what's going on in Twitter and the internet in general and sometimes, I'll make references that you only know if you're extremely online and it's kind of embarrassing. I don't even know what it's like to not be extremely online, but I'm trying to stop being extremely online because it's overwhelming trying not to check Twitter every 5 seconds.
CASEY: Oh, yeah. I did that a lot, too. I don't know if I would describe myself as extremely online, but I might have seen some of the same memes as you and I think that would [chuckles] give me a little bit of that.
MELISSA: Yeah. I mean, memes, what's the latest drama on Twitter today, that kind of stuff.
JACOB: Is there a way to turn that superpower and help people around you or, how do you leverage that?
MELISSA: Yeah, the only thing that's good about it, I would say is that you know a lot. I try to write about things and provide my knowledge to other people. I mean, you know a lot, but on a surface level, that's the problem so, you have to always be aware of that.
I'm not an expert on unions and for the Glitch union, I was one of the original organizing committee folks, but I was laid off last year in March and there were 18 people, I think laid off. So the union has been going on without me and that's just great. Me and some other externally online people, when we started the union, we leveraged our externally onliness because we were connected to a lot of people who helped us like the CWA, which is the Communications Workers of America. We found them online, for example and they were critical in getting the union actually started because we'd been talking about it, but they were the people that pushed us and they're one of the bigger unions. They've been around for a long time. They have an organized telecommunications workers, primarily and now they're doing some tech stuff. So very interesting.
JACOB: Well, as someone who is moderately online at best, I have been reading a little bit about recent union news with Glitch, but I would love to hear your story about how it started and how it brought us to today.
MELISSA: Yeah, I mean there's only so much I can say, but the stuff that really was – building a union is about connecting with your coworkers and a lot of people have said, “How are we going to build a union to the remote workplace?” Well, I was remote and half the company was remote.
That's one good thing about being extremely online is you’re probably used to talking to people online. I connected to people in my workplace and people on my team. At first, it was mainly people on my own team and then what CWA teaches you to do is to build connections in your workplace. It's almost like you map it out and you talk to other people in your workplace and you try to leverage those connections. I wasn't connected to everybody in the workplace, but I was connected to some other people who were connected to people I wasn't connected to.
So it was challenging in that this was not an office where I could go see these people every day. I had to kind of – you can't just sneakily invite someone to a call unionizing. You have to actually build social capital and build relationships and then turn those into those connections you need to build a union.
A lot of us had been following union stuff in tech. I was a member of Tech Workers Co, I think others were and we thought since Glitch is a very diverse workplace, we want to make sure that workers have a seat at the table and can actually help each other and to help the company do right by the workers.
We had some bumps along the road. It is hard to organize people remotely and a lot of people have misconceptions about unions. They think unions are only for certain workers like people working in a mine, or they have bad impressions of unions. Like, I don't know. I grew up and my parents were like, they told me that unions were bad. We watched On the Waterfront and they were like, “Oh, look, unions, they’re so corrupt.”
But a union is just like an organization. It's a big organization and they have a history and they have a context and a union is just like anything. Like a company. It can be bad; it can be good. It's based on the people and once you join a union, you can help guide that union by being part of it.
JACOB: I would think an extremely online person would be very good at that.
MELISSA: Yeah, it did help to be constantly on Slack and on Twitter.
JACOB: And good at really just making those connections. That would not come naturally to make all those personal connections, what you just said.
MELISSA: Yeah, but also, it was. I do think people who had those real life – who were at the office did have an advantage in forming those connections because not everybody at Glitch was extremely online, for example. Also, meeting each other in real life, occasionally like, we'd go to the conferences and stuff, that really helped. It's complicated about how much organizing you can do in the workplace and at what times. You don't want to ever do it on times are supposed to be working, for example, so.
CASEY: What were some of the things that made this unionization effort successful and possible and what were some of the things that got in the way? I think we've covered some already.
MELISSA: Yeah. I think having a pretty social workplace, that was social online, but that doesn't include everybody. There’s some people who were more online than others, for example and the fact that we relied so much on online organizing, it was harder to reach those people.
So it was very crucial that we have people in the New York City office who were able to do some on the ground in-person organizing and getting those people on board was like, once we got those people on board, that was a very important thing that we did. Because originally, it was all remote people and then we added in the New York City office people.
Yeah, the bumps along the road are just misconceptions about unions, what they mean. People can union bust themselves just by having these misconceptions like, “Oh, union is a third-party. It'll affect my relationship with my manager. I can't be friends with my manager anymore.” It's not true at all.
So some of the organizing committee had been in unions before. Like, there was one woman, who was a social worker, who had been a social worker union and I had been in a Civil Workers Union before. So I knew that I was friends with my managers in these unions and I mean, not that being friends with the manager is the priority, but the idea that if you're friends with a manager, you can't do a union. That's just not true. But some people thought that.
CASEY: The biggest misconception I can think of is why do you well-compensated professionals need a union and I'm sure you've heard this all the time.
MELISSA: Oh yeah, that’s a big one.
CASEY: Yeah. Fill us in for that. Like what do you say to that?
MELISSA: I think so. Online, someone was like, “Oh, it's cultural appropriation of blue-collar workers.” I do not agree with that. I think all workers benefit from a union and it is just an organization that allows workers to negotiate with their bosses and on a fair playing field. It's not a culture. You don't have to be in the movie, The Irishman, or On the Waterfront, or even know people like that. It's just a way of organizing a workplace and having a seat at the table, so.
JACOB: You mentioned earlier that I think, or maybe you implied that this union joins multiple disciplines, too. Is that true?
MELISSA: Yeah, like we had engineers and then we also had a media department. That's where things would be hard because a lot of workplaces are quite siloed and I've always been against that. Like, I hate the term non-technical for example, like video production people, those are the most technical people I know they're literally working with like technical equipment every day and they know so much about it. Those people are tactical.
And then another big obstacle is who is eligible for a union? Who can join? It's not clear because tech has roles that aren't very traditional, like product manager. Is that a manager, or is that an individual contributor and often, that’s hashed out on the negotiating table.
It's based on all these laws and I've read some of the laws, I'm not an expert, but it's good to read a little bit of the labor law just to understand. But even if you know it, it's interpreted differently by different courts and stuff. There's a National Labor Review Board that reviews labor disputes and stuff and that was Trump's appointed board. So we wanted to make sure we got a voluntary recognition because we didn't want anything to do with that board at that time because they were very hostile towards workers.
JACOB: The reason I was curious about joining together all kinds of different people from different roles, I was just curious if that diverse workforce came with a diversity of priorities and goals for a union and if those presented any challenges.
MELISSA: Yeah. There's a big class difference between engineers and people outside of engineering. Engineers are overwhelmingly paid higher than people outside of engineering, for example and I totally understand the resentment towards engineers. We need to acknowledge that if you're organizing multiple people and outside of engineering. I mean, the fact that engineering is so well-compensated. I don't understand why, for example, a video producer isn't compensated the same as an engineer. It's just an accident of history, how culturally valued, supply and demand, all these things mixed up together.
So you have to realize that and when it comes down to money, paying dues. For an engineer, it might be like, “Oh, you're taking 1%, or 2% for the union,” and that's like, “Oh, that’d take you away from being able to go on vacation.” Whereas, for someone who is making a lot less, that's taking away from their ability to pay rent.
So that is really, really hard and I don't have a good solution for that. I wish unions would offer things like maybe peg it to your income, maybe not, maybe at a lower percentage, but it tends to not be that high of a percentage; it's 1 to 3%. But acknowledging that that can be the difference between someone being able to afford or not. Especially the salary ranges were quite extreme in our case so, that was really hard.
CASEY: I'm listening to this conversation based on my background as a product manager who happened to have managed engineers, designers, and product managers, I don't know how that structure came into play. But even that tier, I wanted to be part of a union, but I think it's US law maybe that gets in the way that says managers at any level can't be unionizing in any form, not even like—let's use a synonym for a union—collective people who tell each other, “Yes, you deserve more money,” or something like that. It's not we're not incentivized to work together in any way and we pretend that the HR department of the company does that for us, which they do the opposite often.
What do you think about that middle management kind of thing and how it plays into product management? Your thought process?
MELISSA: Yeah. That really sucks because then it becomes like some people feel left out who wanted to be part of the union and at that point, they feel like, “Oh, am I part of –?” Like, they're obviously not C-suite so that's really hard.
Other countries have other types of unions like sectoral bargaining that get around that. I don't know that much about that, but we weren't sure if a product manager fit under the definition of qualify, or not. It just depends on if you make decisions on employment, if you tell people what to do, there's a lot of criteria. We did find that product managers were not going to be part of the union. So what does the product manager do? Well, they can't organize themselves, but they're just not legally protected under this bargaining thing under a labor law. So that really sucks and I don't know what the solution is. I guess, getting involved in bigger organizations that work for unionization.
The Google union is very interesting and that is a different form of union. It's called a minority union and I don't know that much about those, but I know that people who are managers can join that one, but it has fewer legal protections. So I assume when CWA decided to organize Google under a minority union, it was because they felt they were not capable of doing the traditional union because there are so many obstacles to doing so in Google—Google’s size and multiple locations. It's very difficult.
You can organize however you want, it's just what is legally protected and that kind of goes in, in that article. I talk about petitions, for example. Petitions are an example of organizing. That's not unionization, it's not protected by US labor law, but it is a form of organizing. The Google walkout, that's a form of organizing. That's not unionization. You just have fewer legal protections and you don't have the structure that you get from a union when you do those things.
CASEY: Well, that's awesome. I'm not up-to-date on this. I'm going to be Googling minority union and sectoral bargaining after this call.
MELISSA: Yeah. I didn't even know what a minority union until that came out. I was like, “Wow, I guess, someone should write a book.” There probably is a book. I'm going to find that book.
JACOB: Melissa, what brought you to doing this in the first place? Did you have experience with organizing before, or was it something new to you?
MELISSA: I didn't have any experience organizing, I suppose, but I was in a union before. I worked at University of Illinois in Chicago and their IT departments are in a union, an older established union. As soon as you join as an employee there, you're a part of that union.
Actually unions, some of them aren't that great. Our union was kind of mediocre, to be honest. They barely involved people, for example, in the very top down. That's one thing when you're organizing, you have to choose which union you're going to organize under, or even to start your own union. We thought about starting our own union. I don't feel that qualified to hire union lawyers. You need to advantage money because CWA provided that all the lawyers and stuff like that and all the structure.
CWA has gotten a lot of flack on Twitter recently with the Google union stuff. People have dug up the fact that they've represented security guards in the past, but it's a big organization; it's like working with the government. You can't expect perfection, we've got to get involved. If you want to change things, you've got to be involved yourself.
I'm very skeptical of the idea that we should just throw that away and start our own thing as tech workers. Because I think people of different ages and classes and stuff have so much to teach us and that's what you get when you join a big union like CWA and you can't demand they fit your extremely online standards. So if you want them to follow the standard, you've got to join and get involved.
JACOB: So definitely a politics of compromise from the get-go.
MELISSA: Yeah, and I've been involved with the civic technology a little bit. So I was a little bit familiar with that. I've worked in government contracting and I've gone to Chai Hack Night, which is a Chicago meetup, for quite a while. It's a Chicago meetup focused on civil technology and government. I was familiar with some of that, but if you're a startup person, maybe that's harder. You expect unions are going to cater to you, treat you like a freaking princess or whatever, but no, they're not. They are a saboteurization. They've got members, they have a history, and you've got to take that for what it is.
CASEY: All right, Melissa, you brought to the table to the union organizing effort your superpower of being extremely online. What other skills did some of the union organizers have that really helped?
MELISSA: Yeah. Actually being consistent and organized, that's really important. Organizing meetings. I'm not into that kind of thing and thankfully, there were other people who did that and I thank them quite a lot. Taking notes, following up, once you make me angry, I'm very effective at arguing with people. So that's a good thing about extremely online, but it's bad about being extremely online, but it did come in handy a few times when unionizing. But otherwise, doing in-person on the ground work, I couldn't do because I was remote and organizing the meetings, taking notes, following up with CWA, coordinating between different people, that stuff. The other people helped with that. The other members of the organizing committee and then after the union was recognized, we had an election and some people did that election where you elect the reps and other people did that and I was really happy because I was tired at that point. [chuckles]
CASEY: So I'm going into a little bit of a different topic. Melissa, I think you mentioned something about companies and nonprofits who want to lead with petitions and you have some thoughts on that I'm curious to hear.
MELISSA: I am super anti petitions. I think these organizations push them and I think they're just antithetical to unionization. A Coworker, for example, they really push you to do these petitions and a, you're alerting your boss that you're organizing, you're doing it under a way that's not legally protected. Why don't you just unionize? I understand that some people can't and if you genuinely can't, that's great, but I wouldn't trust Coworker to tell you if it's okay, or not.
I have noticed that some of the conflict on Twitter regarding the Google union, some people involved with that are also involved in Coworker. So I'm really against that and another company that's spread it out. It's a startup, they're called Get Frank but they're also doing petitions. They're very antithetical to unionization and people don't want to say that because the people who were involved with that are nice people and some of them are even involved with Tech Workers Co and stuff and they're nice online, or they're well-respected, but at some point, you’ve got to say, “This is just anti-union.”
REIN: Yeah. I mean, taking a collective bargaining opportunity that can stretch across multiple issues and organize the workforce to push for all of them and turning into a petition about a specific thing that has marginal support. I don't see how that helps. I mean, I don't think that those startups are disrupting business organization. I think they're disrupting union organization.
MELISSA: Yeah, and I think more people should call them out and the fact that a lot of people who the media goes to for comments about tech organizing are like – so, Liz Fong-Jones, I really respect her. She's on Twitter and she's a member of the board on Coworker and I find that not good.
REIN: I mean, I guess the argument is that any place where you can voice concerns and generate support within the workers, the employees is better than none, but that's not how the world works. We can have unions, too, or instead actually putting effort into that means that you're not spending that time putting effort into organizing.
MELISSA: Yeah. So when we were first thinking about unionizing, I was on Tech Workers Co and they connected me to people at Coworker and they were really pushing out to do a petition. I'm really lucky that my coworker, Steph, could have connected with CWA because she was like, “No, let's talk to CWA.” CWA took it from there and they actually got us the motivation and the resources we needed to unite us. Whereas, Coworker was like, “Oh, we love unions, but why don't you do this petition first, it's building organization?” and CWA is like, “No.”
Unfortunately, some people are taking the CWA being against that as an insult on them personally, which is really weird, that it's an insult for people who did past organization efforts that weren’t unionizing. I don't see why that is relevant. I understand sometimes you can't unionize and I respect other organization efforts, but you're taking an example of a company that can unionize and you're pushing them to do a petition. You're wasting their time. You're endangering their jobs. It's just bad.
REIN: Well, I think if there was evidence that it starting with petitions led towards more formal union organizing, I would be more in favor of it, but I don't know of any.
MELISSA: Yeah. People use the Google walkout, for example and I guess, the Google unions and the controversy on Twitter was about how the union wasn't involving the past organizers who did all this work for the Google walkout. I recognize Google walkout was an amazing thing and the people who organized that were really great, but that doesn't mean that you have to use their expertise to unionize.
A union should be for the current employees. When I'm talking about our union at Glitch, I'm not speaking for the union. I was laid off. I'm not a member anymore. That's very sad. It's very unfair, but I'm not a member and the employees who are working there have insight into the company that I don't. So I don't expect them to recognize me, or to ask me for advice, or anything. I don't even talk to them that much anymore because that's their sphere.
CASEY: I'm not an expert on Coworker, but this reminds me of another metaphor a little bit. Let me know if this is close, or not, or similarities and differences.
So you know how when you look on the bottom of a solo cup, you see a triangle, or a cycle symbol with a number? Some of those aren't really recyclable and the lobbyists who made that happen, and you’re required to put them on, knew that ahead of time. So they are doing this small change, “Look, you can do the thing,” and then that stops people from pushing back against the production of it. It's helping, but not really and I'm hearing your view of Coworker seems to be helping, but not really.
MELISSA: I mean, the Frank one is even worse. They're a for-profit startup. I'm like, “If anyone is giving them positive coverage, they are not asking the right questions here.” Actually, when I saw them written about, I attempted to join just to see what they were about and they rejected me because they were like, “Oh, you're already in a union. You don't need us.” So very interesting. They occasionally email me asking for my feedback, but I'm like, “I don't think you're worth my time.”
REIN: If someone wanted to make a platform for unionizing, but I don't think you're going to get much traction in Silicon Valley on that one.
MELISSA: There is one person who's doing that. It's called Unit, but I don't know that much about it. I'm just very skeptical of the idea that tech can disrupt unions and it's the easy way out to say, “Oh, the old unions, they're not radical enough. They don't cater to tech workers.” To throw that all away for those reasons is bad in my opinion, because they're not perfect, existing unions, but you're unionizing with a diverse workforce that has a history and has power and I don't know.
I think it's also classist, too, like, “Oh, we don't want to organize with these people that aren't tech workers. We don't want to organize with these blue-collar workers.” They're not thinking that maybe explicitly, but that's what they're saying in a way. They don't want to say that, but that's what they're saying.
REIN: Yeah. I personally have a problem with trade unions that is that they fracture the workforce and they prevent people with different trades from organizing together and historically, that's been on purpose. Like there's a reason the AFL is still around, but the Knights of Labor aren't.
MELISSA: Yeah. I mean, unions are organizations, they’re just like companies and stuff. There's some that even have dark histories of racism and stuff like that. Although, trade unions are a little different than like CWA. This is where I wish I was more up to the terminology, but it's very complicated.
REIN: I would just like to unionize whole companies and not worry about what job titles people have because I think that's the systems thinking way to do it.
MELISSA: Yeah, and we unionized everyone in our company that qualified under the labor, the national labor law, and not just engineers so, that was good. Luckily, the people were into engineers being craftsmen, or whatever are usually typically anti-union, but otherwise, you'd think that they'd be like, “Oh, we need an engineer's trade union because we're like electricians, or something.” But I think that would not be a good direction.
CASEY: Yeah, I think it makes a lot of sense that there are unions for people who work at a company, separate from groups of people working on a technology like, Ruby user groups and all the other meetup groups for every technology everywhere and the conferences. It's like the skills are separate from the union, from the company and it's funny, I guess maybe historical that a lot of them are conflated together. All the engineers in the company are doing both a little bit. I like that we're cleanly splitting it now sometimes. That sounds great.
Melissa, I noticed that you have a Substack newsletter, which is a popular thing lately. Not that you're working on a lot lately. I know we talked about that, but there's a trend for individual people to be writing more and more online lately and it seems like you're aware of that and in that sphere. What's your experience lately writing online, trying to get an audience and all that? The process.
MELISSA: I say no to Substack because I'm like, “This is just more work and I don't need any more work.” I started a Substack because I was like, “Oh, a lot of people have Substacks.” But then I was like, “Oh, this requires me to do, this is another job.” You have to have a consistent thing and at least, we are starting to – Substack encourages paying creators. That's good.
But at some point, it's like, “Oh, I'm paying like ten different creators. I wish there was this thing where I could just pay them all at the same time and they could have jobs and benefits. Oh, that's called a publication. Too bad, we've systematically disabled these by predatory capitalists, hedge funds and stuff, buying them and disposing of them.” Like what's happened to the Chicago Tribune. I had friends who worked there and that thing it's basically just been totally dismantled by predatory companies. So I think Substack is going to be here and other similar models are going to be here for the foreseeable future. But I don't think they are – I think it's sad.
MELISSA: Yeah. So I originally was a food writer and I've worked for Chicagoist. I left Chicagoist because I didn't have time due to my tech job, but they unionized and they were shut down because they unionized and that's really sad. A lot of my friends lost their jobs.
CASEY: Tell us about something you wrote recently.
Oh, here's the thing we can talk about: how people attack DevRel as being non-technical and I hate that.
JACOB: Yeah, please.
MELISSA: There was a tweet this week, or maybe it was on Friday, it was like, “Offend a developer relations person in one tweet,” and I'm like – so it was a variation on the original one, which was, “Offend a software engineer, offend a DBA in one tweet,” and those were often there a software engineers making fun of software engineers or DVA's people making jokes about data structures, or a bad data. The DevRel one was like, “Oh, your job is fake.” That's what all the jokes were and most of them were not from DevRel people and I'm like, “I hate this.”
I used to be a frontend developer and people used to joke like that about frontend developers, like, “Oh, you just play with CSS all day and you just push little boxes around the page and give them different colors.”
We need to recognize that there’s sexism involved in this and also, racism because frontend development and DevRel tend to be more diverse subsections of tech. I'm just tired of men saying a job is fake and that I'm not technical. I left frontend dev because of that, partially. I shouldn’t have done that because the end of the day, there's no way to convince these people that you're a real engineer. They're just not going to be convinced because they're sexist and they're jerks and they should be deleted.
REIN: Yeah. It was kind of funny when it was software engineers laughing at themselves, but it turned into punching down pretty quickly and then it just got me in and I did not like it. I would say to those people that they should try a day in the life of a DevRel and see if you think you're good at it.
MELISSA: Yeah. It's thinking that, okay, if you have these skills, you don't have the technical skills and also, that your other skills aren't valuable at all. This is a constant struggle, working with engineers, especially working in cross-departmental is engineers not recognizing other skills.
I was talking about video editing before. I'm like, “That is the worst thing I can totally think of is calling a video editor non-technical; they're literally the most technical people I could think of.” They're walking with software technology and also, a lot of engineers who are like, “Oh, anyone can write things,” and I'm like, “I've edited y’all’s writing. I know you can't write.” [chuckles] Even me, I feel like sometimes the more engineering I do, the worst I become as a writer. That's scary, but I try to balance it. I try to be a mediocre engineer and a mediocre writer.
REIN: I want people to stop doing that because it’s just a shitty thing to do, but I will also say that as you get more experienced as a software engineer – so I'm a principal now, which means I'm a huge deal, but as you get more experienced, you need to get good at a lot of the stuff that DevRels are good at. You need to be able to convince people that your ideas are good. You need to be able to communicate both verbally and written in writing. You need to give a shit about product and marketing and customer support and people who aren't engineered. You have to start doing all that stuff if you want to grow as an engineer. So to some extent, I think these people are limiting themselves more than are limiting DevRel. They should still stop being shitty people, though.
MELISSA: Yeah. The whole principal engineer thing is funny because I was just thinking about how every company has a different definition for principal, senior, junior. That's one of the things that a union can help with and otherwise, it can be very arbitrary and you can feel like they're used to discriminating against people.
So if the union can negotiate what a ladder is and what it means, that's way better than having just a random manager do it. That's my rant with all of tech. We're always constantly reinventing the same thing over and over again. Ladders were like, “Oh, we’ve got to build this from scratch for ourselves. Even though we have no training on building ladders, we're just going to invent this because we know everything because we're engineers.”
Same with interviewing process. I'm like, “Oh, there's decades of research on interview process. but you want to invent your own new interviewing process.” I'm like, “At some point, you're just like experimenting on people and that's unethical.” I'm like, “Take your weird games elsewhere. If you want to design weird games, play Dungeons & Dragons, or something.”
REIN: Yeah. I mean, if you want to take human performance seriously, you can do that. People have been doing that for decades. You just need to go take a course and read some books and started taking it seriously. It's not hard. I mean, it's hard to evaluate human performance because human performance is very complex, but it's impossible if you don't know what you're doing.
MELISSA: Yeah, and I tried to get – any interview process I'm involved with designing. I'm like, “First of all, why am I involved with designing this? I'm not qualified. Second of all, at least I did read some research and I do know that the research shows that you want to do a structured interview.” If I can just get people to agree to that one thing, it's so much better than if they're just asking random questions.
So structured interview means you agree on a structure beforehand for the interview, you agree on questions and what you're going to talk to the person about, or what exercise you're going to do, if you insist on doing programming exercise. You ask the same ones to every candidate. There's other things you could do to make it more fair, but if you just have that one baseline. Otherwise, it's so arbitrary.
REIN: There's a book called Hiring A-Players, or something like that and I like some of the advice that it has, but I think the idea that you can distinguish between “A and B players” in an interview is pretty marginal. But I do like the parts about trying to make things more evidence-based when you're trying to assess capability. I think that a lot of the hiring practices we have today mostly are about providing motivated reasoning to hire people who look like you and that's about 90% of what they do.
MELISSA: Yeah, and there's also this thing, I will die in this hill, but I have people who insist if we don't do a specific code exercise, or do some kind of screener that we're going to hire someone who can't code, who literally can't code and some people will have insisted that they've worked with such people. I'm really skeptical that like can't code. What does that mean? I don't know. Does it mean they just didn't integrate with the team correctly? No one tried to help them? I'm not sure. I'm just really skeptical of that. It just sounds like more hoops to jump through, but I have not convinced anybody of that besides myself. [chuckles] At least in workplaces.
REIN: I think in my career, I've maybe worked with one person who I genuinely thought couldn't code, but that's when I was pretty new. What I think now is that they were really not put in an environment where they could be successful. They were dropped in immediately into a high-pressure scenario, with little experience, with a team that was small, under-resourced, over pressurized, and didn't have time to support them. So what I thought then was, “Wow, this guy sure can't code. He sucks.” What I think now is, “Wow, we sure screwed up putting him in that position.”
MELISSA: Yeah. I've taught people to code who are 12. I'm really skeptical that someone was hired that managed, I don't know, I just sound like they're not managed well, or not onboarded well, but that'd be a cool, like, I don't know. Maybe I'm becoming too interested in HR, I will become an HR researcher and study the phenomenon of people saying that their coworkers can't code and what does that mean?
MELISSA: I mean actually find those people, ask them, and then find the people who supposedly can’t code and find out they actually can. They were in a very difficult environment, for example, or I don't know. I've been in environments where getting the dev environment started took you five days. No wonder they had trouble; you thought they couldn't code because you did set them up to being able to code. They had to install 40 different things and do a proxy, or whatever. So yeah.
JACOB: I’m someone who’s very – well, there's that phenomenon stereotype threat you perceive that other people are making preconceived judgements about you. Like, “Oh, I'm the only person of color in my team and I can tell that I'm not expected to do well.” It affects your performance and as a white male, that actually does make some sense to me. If I can feel that I'm going to be judged for the output that I put out, instantly whether it's I didn't follow the great style, or it looks like my work is going to be picked apart immediately. That's just going to be debilitating and I'm just going to be constantly focused about looking good rather than trying to solve the problem. That is not what – Rein’s story does not surprise me at all.
MELISSA: Yeah. If I actually hired someone who couldn't code, that would be actually exciting to me, it would be like My Fair Lady, or something because I could definitely teach them how to code and I'd be really impressed because I was like, “Oh, they were able to talk about all these projects and stuff and not actually be able to code?” I don't believe this person exists, by the way.
REIN: The other thing I really wish people would understand is that human performance is ecological. The context matters. If you take one person and drop them into five different hypothetical companies, you'd get five different outcomes. They'd perform in different ways. You wouldn't get the same performance for them in those different companies because it's not just about the person.
MELISSA: Yeah, and it's also about the demands of the job. I worked with one guy and people told me he couldn't code and what they actually meant was that they just didn't think he was technical, or something, but he was coding every day. He was doing Dribble templates, which is not considered the highest level of work by some snobby engineers. But that guy could definitely code and he did his job and it was very unfair to say he couldn't code.
CASEY: I have a story I can share about some evidence-based interviewing I did back at the IT department. We evaluated hundreds of student employees to fix laptops every year—we hired a whole bunch—and we evaluated them based on the people skills and their technical skills on a scale we put that into data for all the points that evidence and structured questions and all that. Some people had a 5 on people's scales out of 5 and 1 on technical skills, or vice versa, or something close to that.
And then we look back a year, or 2, or 3 later, after they had time to learn and grow in the position, we loved all the people with the 5 on people's skills. They were the best employees. They learned the most over time. We're proud of them. They were great to work with. They taught other people a lot, too.
But the ones with the technical 5s weren’t people ones. A lot of them resigned, or didn't like the job, or people avoided working with them, they were solo employees. Maybe they got some work done, but that lesson that you can learn the technical part, but you can't necessarily learn the people part. Some of it's learnable if you're motivated, but the disposition is what really drove success in that role. I think that applies everywhere. It's not surprising.
MELISSA: I wish there were more approaches teaching people skills because, I don't know, it feels like there's a lot of trainings for engineering skills, but not for people's skills. I've definitely like, I was raised by parents who were weird and homeschooled me. So I definitely use a lot of stuff like books to learn people skills and stuff like that. I don't know. It's super basic, but How to Win Friends and Influence People, that one. You could just read that. I mean, it gets you some of the way there. So I wish there were more resources like that.
REIN: Yeah. I would say that you can learn people skills, but companies don't teach them. That's not what companies think is part of their responsibility. They think that they're hiring the person as they are and can teach them technical things. That's another problem, which is that companies aren't providing the opportunities to grow that people need.
JACOB: There's probably different people's skills for different companies, that would be successful.
MELISSA: Yeah, and it's the same thing. It's the saying that I've heard at workplace is like, “Oh, he doesn't know how to code.” I've also heard the same thing like, “He has no social skills.” It's like something you're born with and can't be changed and that's just your lot in life and I don't believe that. I was homeschooled and when I first went to school, you would have said, “I had poor social skills,” but now I have serviceable social skills.
JACOB: I think Casey pointed out an important distinction between a disposition to be personable and learn and apply people skills versus the skills you have at a particular moment. I, as a neurodiverse person, I think that's a really important thing because I'm sure people have said behind my back many times in my life that I don't have people's skills without commenting on the disposition of my ability to do well and interface with people. I think they’re two different things.
MELISSA: I think neurodiverse people—I'm also in that category—also sometimes are even better at certain people's skills because we've been told we have these issues and we really want to think about them. I've read a lot of books; I don't think most neurotypical people have read as many books as I have on human psychology. I wasn't a psychology major—I just want to know why are these normal people trying to get me to do these things? What does it mean? That's a level I’m asking? Yeah, but that's a skill and it's a learned skill that is valuable to me.
REIN: Can we talk about unions again because I have a question? If you already talked about this before I got here, just let me know. But my question is: what would you say to someone who really has no idea how to get started with this, but thinks that there's an opportunity to organize their company is worried about retaliation and things like that and wants to get started?
MELISSA: Yeah. Get in contact with, they could DM me and I could connect them to people at the current Glitch union, or two, you can approach a union directly. CWA is happy to help. The union that Kickstarter organizers worked under OPEIU, I think is also another option. It can be hard to pick a union because some only do local organizing, but there are some that are national like CWA. CWA has a lot of resources. I would just go with them at first. But you can always do your research and stuff. I'd just be careful with people who direct you to those petition sites, or whatever and that did happen to me.
REIN: And don’t do your organizing on the company Slack.
MELISSA: Oh yeah, for sure. Use Signal, don't do it on company time when you're supposed to be working, build social relationships with people at work. Although, it could be, I don’t know if – I was a member of a company where they specifically seem to discourage social relationships. I was a contractor. I wonder if that was a way that they were discouraging organization and unionizing.
You see that with Uber and stuff like that. Uber drivers, they're not given a company Slack, pr whatever, or even like, they don't have a way to chat with other drivers. They've had to do this on their own time on Facebook; they've used Facebook to organize.
So definitely don't use any company resources, or company time. You're not legally protected if you do that. If you do contact CWA and stuff, they'll tell you what's legal and illegal. It is for example, legal to organize during lunch, I believe, but you should definitely check that beforehand. And then you get into issues if you're remote, time zones, everyone has lunch at a different time. You have to be creative.
REIN: Yeah. It turns out it's legal, except for all of these loopholes that make it not legal and companies are incentivized to make the case that what you did was illegal so that they can fire you. So just be extra careful.
MELISSA: Yeah. I don't know. I've known of union organizers that they're going to find a way to fire some of them, but if you can stand up and up in your job, you're harder to fire. Make sure to attend all your meetings. Don't be late to work. I am not a fan of that and I think it's very unfair that you have to be expected to live by this perfect standard that non-organizing employees don't have to follow, but I'm willing to do it for the union.
REIN: Yeah. I mean, just be aware that once it becomes apparent that this is what you're doing, they're going to try to fire you—any company will—and so you need to be on your best behavior even more so than you were before.
MELISSA: And it is scary organizing unions. I've often wondered would I have been laid off if there was a union, or not? I don't know. But the thing is you negotiate severance for me and I didn't have to do that individually. So it gave me a good cushion when I was laid off and I know people who are laid off who didn't have those things. A company can hurt you even if you don't unionize and at least, unions give you some protection and I'm very grateful to CWA negotiating my severance.
REIN: So are we getting close to reflections?
CASEY: I think it is time for reflections. I can go first.
As a product manager and engineering manager before, I've always been interested in being part of a union and it's awesome hearing a success story about how, what happened at a company, even though it was the formal type that I'm not eligible for as a manager. But now I'm very interested in looking up some of these alternative forms like sectoral marketing, minority union. I think there's a whole lot happening recently that could help middle managers like me and a lot of my roles have the benefits.
Often, I hear, “No, you can't possibly ever be part of a union. Why would you even ask that question?” And it's just great to hear someone actually who has worked with a union and say, “No, that's possible. It's just a different form. Not covered by loss.” That's what I want to hear. That's what I wanted to believe.
MELISSA: Yeah. It's so unfair. Unions are just what's the law now doesn't have to be the law tomorrow, for example and different countries have different forms of unions and stuff, so.
JACOB: I'm thinking more about the thread we got on about personal skills, people skills and I'm thinking more about how those can be really just a function of the culture of your team and who's on it and what everyone's individual needs are and how their brains are wired and so many other factors. I'm just thinking about, “Well, what are the right skills that I need for my team rather than just an arbitrary, or a universal list of what those skills might be?”
MELISSA: Yeah. I'm thinking I need to like – I'm here talking about unions and there's so much I don't know about unions. I'd like to study unions in other countries, especially. I really want to learn about different forms of unionization and really delve into the history of unionization. I've done it a little.
I was never taught that much about unionization in school and stuff like that, especially from homeschool because my parents were anti-union. But even when I went to public school, after being homeschooled, we really didn't talk that much. I know about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, but I think for most people, we don't know that much about it and I definitely want to beef up my history and international knowledge on that.
REIN: Yeah. I think also looking into collectivization work around collectives, things like that, there's a tech consultancy that does the websites for Verso and Haymarket and some other lefty publications and there are workers collective and there are actually a surprising number of them.
MELISSA: Yeah. That's super interesting to me. I've done a little bit of co-ops and stuff. I've been members of co-ops. There is an interesting article, I forget where I saw it, but it was about how co-ops can be good, but they're not the answer to work, or organizing because often they replace work, or unionization. For example, they were talking about this coffee shop that they were trying to unionize and they all got fired and then they formed a co-op and that was seen as success, but it's not necessarily.
For example, I'm a member of a co-op, a food co-op, and the workers there were trying to unionize and the co-op was union busting them and that was like, wow, that is really special and as a member of the co-op, I was writing to the board. I was like, “How dare you, I'm going to quit.” [chuckles] We should recognize the union. They really fought that union and I was like, “This is supposed to be – co-op is supposed to be empowering to workers,” but just like unions, there are many different forms of co-ops.
There's a very interesting history, especially internationally and I don't even know the tip of the iceberg on that. But I'm very fascinated and having been in co-ops and been involved with co-ops. Another issue with co-ops is often the membership that can be almost like trade unions in that, there can require an onerous process to join one.
REIN: I think the thing I'd like to leave our listeners with, you might've heard the saying, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” and you might know that that comes from the IWW, I believe. But you might not know that it comes from preamble to their constitution, which says in part, “Trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping to feed one another in wage wars. Trade unions aid the employing class to mislead workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These sad conditions can only be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all of its members in any one industry, or in all industries, if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on.” So the IWW obviously believes very strongly, you have to organize whole companies and not just the techies maybe get their union because they're special.
I mean, can you imagine if Uber, if the tech workers and the drivers unionized together? They share the same interests, folks they could do that.
MELISSA: Yeah. That's an interesting question. Like, could they? That's another thing that contracting, or permalansing, I don't know, maybe there'll be a major court challenge, especially with the Biden administration where the National Labor Board might be more sympathetic. Can contractors unionize with regular workers? Contracting is a way to bust unions and to keep people in a position of precarity, but what if they ruled that you can unionize. Once you realize that’s arbitrary, you're like, “Oh, if you've got good enough lawyers, if you have politicians that can get involved, maybe unionization 10 years from now will look really different because maybe they –”
REIN: Yeah, the main difference is that the drivers don't have multi-million dollar lobbying organization that they're backed by. That's the main difference and the reason they're not getting the respect they deserve.Support Greater Than Code