The Future of Quality at Instrument was 35 Days Long

[ reflection  ]

The Call

On September 3rd, I got a DM from the VP of Engineering asking me to hop on a quick call with him and the VP of People Operations (Instrument’s version of HR).

I feel pretty confident saying that nobody has ever gotten a DM like that and felt good about it after. On that call, the floor dropped out from under me as the VP of Engineering told me that the shared services model of our engineering team - where developers, strategists, producers, and QA engineers were loaned out to project teams in order to provide more specialized skillsets - wasn’t working out and they were dissolving our team. As a result, my role was being eliminated because I was too senior to “rehome” on another team outside of the shared services model.

I initially starting writing this as a way to process my feelings at being laid off without notice, and processing turned into reflection and trying to understand. There are two potential reasons for what happened - and in either case, the situation was handled extremely poorly.

Reason 1A - Hidden Metrics

The first potential reason is what the VP of Engineering told me on the call - that our larger Engineering Shared Services team and the QA team within it were not having success in the loan/borrow model, and we were failing to hit metrics. Diving into this a little more, I’ll only speak for the QA team since I was not responsible for the larger Engineering Shared Services team.

So let’s look at that model of shared services for QA. To start with, it was their model. I have advocated for an embedded QA model since before I was even hired, when the VP of Eng brought me in (for what I thought were interviews, but were actually unpaid consultations) to ask my advice on implementing internal quality assurance. I advocated for an embedded model when I was hired last November. I advocated for an embedded model in the presentations I gave to the company. It was the VP’s constraint that I had to prove the value of internal QA through the shared services model before I could expand to dedicated QA engineers embedded on the individual project teams.

However - I was absolutely successful in proving that value. The QA engineer that I hired was fully booked on multiple client projects, as was I (I was essentially performing two full-time jobs concurrently, QA Manager and QA engineer). The feedback we got about our work was consistently and enthusiastically positive.

We fundamentally changed how people thought about and incorporated quality and testing into their projects. Our efforts improved the quality and confidence around the work we all did. I know that executive leadership also recognized the impact we made, because they kept on the QA engineer that I’d hired when they dissolved our team (which was the right choice, because she’s awesome).

In spite of our success, the VP of Engineering and executive leadership are saying that the model was a failure - their model, but somehow I’m the one who paid the price for it. As for missed metrics? The only metric I was ever given was utilization (being consistently booked on projects) as a goal for converting our contract QA Engineer to a full-time employee, and we hit the required numbers.

During my time as QA manager, I was never given any other metrics, objectives & key results, or goals of any kind. I was never given feedback, ever, that I was falling short of any expectations. If there were issues or challenges, the VP of Engineering never brought those to me; and if they existed, I was never given the opportunity to address them. So now the company will take my hard work and my successes, and use them to implement the fully embedded model that they knew was always part of my vision for internal quality assurance.

If there were challenges, and if I had been given the chance to overcome them, and if I had failed - there still would have been humane ways to move forward. Executive leadership could have chosen to dissolve the team over a period of time, which would have allowed for a smooth transition and the opportunity to cleanly wrap up my work in progress for the teams that depended on me.

Reason 1B - Too Senior

With the dissolution of our Shared Services Engineering team, most of my teammates were embedded onto existing project teams. My manager and I were the exceptions, deemed “too senior” to place within any of those teams. This reasoning doesn’t really make sense to me, and of course I have no way to ask questions about it - this topic was only ever presented to me in the conversation where I was notified about being laid off.

My title as QA Manager was equivalent to Associate Technical Director on the engineering manager path, and roughly equivalent to Principal on the engineering IC (individual contributor) path. My role as a manager included work at both my own level and the level above mine, since I was the only non-IC person in the QE discipline. I was successfully engaging project teams with new biz, overseeing multiple projects, managing the QA engineer, and coaching throughout the org on various quality topics. I was also doing the work of a QA Engineer for multiple concurrent projects, since the VP of Engineering (and to my understanding, the CEO as well) was requiring a longer period of “proving out” internal QA before committing more budget to continue building out our team.

There was an obvious need and benefit for the work I was doing, and placing me on a specific team as QA Manager would have fallen well within the existing patterns of organizational hierarchy. For an agency that prides itself on its ability to creatively solve complex problems, it seems odd that eliminating my role was the only solution they could come up with.

Reason 2 - Silencing Dissent

The reason that I never heard about any missed goals and why I wasn’t moved to a project team brings me to the second potential reason for being laid off: that I was not laid off because of challenges with the shared services model or my seniority, but because I was too outspoken on topics of safety, equity, and inclusion - and executive leadership felt threatened by it.

Like many companies in tech, Instrument went through a reckoning in the spring of 2020. One outcome of that reckoning was the acknowledgment that Instrument and executive leadership were failing their Black employees and failing to offer an inclusive, equitable environment where people felt safe and supported.

Also like many companies, executive leadership began making commitments and setting goals around the intention to improve their safety, equity, and inclusion and to change how they supported their Black and POC employees.

And like many companies in tech, executive leadership often failed in meeting their own goals and in making any meaningful changes in the way they chose to operate.

I recognize that I operate from many intersections of privilege. At Instrument, I often chose to stand up and speak out, to use that privilege to try and make Instrument a safer and more inclusive place for the people who worked there.

When commitments were made and not followed through on, I asked for accountability. When comms went out and people were confused or worried because the messaging was vague or unclear, I asked for clarification. When there were existing inequities within the company’s process or policies, I called it out and asked about change. When people weren’t getting the support they needed from executive leadership - such as might be needed in a pandemic or renewed movement of civil rights, anti-racism, and racial justice - I advocated for people to be supported.

I don’t just put my head down and accept the culture I’m handed. I don’t put executives on a pedestal and assume they can do no wrong. I expect their best efforts at transparency, honesty, authenticity, communication, and inclusion. I expect to work in an environment that is safe to question, safe to ask for what we need, safe to speak truth to power.

Instrument consistently fell short of those expectations.

We were explicitly told by the CEO that it wasn’t our job to hold him accountable. On multiple occasions, the VP of People Ops pointed to her empathy as the reason for inaction. Avenues for communicating with executive leadership were continually narrowed until we were left with a Google form that got bulk replies every four weeks.

People across the company used to tell me that they appreciated having someone who spoke up and asked questions, who said the things they were thinking but didn’t feel safe saying - a lack of safety caused directly by the continued behavior and actions of the executive leadership team. I knew the risks of speaking up, and did it anyway because I care. If you don’t know me, I understand that may sound cheesy or dramatic - but I honestly care about the people I work with, and I care about the culture and environment we work in.

I want the company that I work for to be the best version of itself. More, I want it to want to be its best self. The executive leadership at Instrument didn’t seem to want that - and potentially, they laid me off in order to continue avoiding that call to accountability and to silence what they saw as disruptive dissent.

So those are the two options. Either my team was dissolved and my role was eliminated for not meeting invisible metrics, in spite of my clear impact and success in creating the QE discipline; or I was laid off in retaliation for speaking up. Either option is unprincipled; the latter is cowardly and unethical.

Closing Thoughts

These are some loosely-related thoughts and considerations that I’m carrying with me as I reflect on my time at Instrument, and consider how I want those experiences to guide my next steps and shape my perspective.

I wrote this up without knowing whether I would publish it. I declined the severance agreement so that I would have the freedom to make that choice, and so I wouldn’t be beholden to Instrument and their non-disclosure, non-disparagement, and release clauses. I feel very fortunate that I was able to make this choice - many people would be dependent on getting the severance pay, and wouldn’t have the option to decline it. Obviously I have chosen to publish this, but not out of grief or anger. I view this as kind of a “learning in public” moment, which isn’t so different from other things that I’ve written about in the past. It’s just that this time I’m learning about being laid off as a silencing tactic.

The title of this post is a somewhat cynical jab at an article I previously wrote titled The Future of Quality at Instrument - a mere 35 days before I was laid off. I remember how excited I was to write it, thinking about my vision for quality at the company and looking forward to seeing where I’d take it next.

I think it’s very telling that when I was first sharing the news that I’d been laid off, multiple people asked whether it was in retaliation from leadership for being outspoken about equity and inclusion.

I’ve accepted that I won’t really have closure in this. I have questions that I know will have to go unanswered. I’ll never be able to get to the honest truth behind Instrument’s decision to dissolve the team and fire me - the best thing I can do is use the experience as I move forward.

The experiences I’ve written about here caused me to step back and really reflect on what I’m looking for in my next role and in the company I work for. That reflection informed my reverse job hunt and the questions I’m asking companies during the interview process. I’ve been outspoken about safety, equity, and inclusion at every job in tech. I’ve always been an active part of helping the company I work for be the best version of itself - correcting pay inequities, creating structures for equitable hiring and promotion standards, addressing psychological safety, and making sure people have what they need to be supported so they can thrive. I hope my experiences lead me forward to a job where I can make a difference for people and for quality at a company that values those things.

The executive leadership team at Instrument created a veneer of niceness. When that veneer is prioritized above everything else, it prevents the kind of authentic, transparent communication that fosters learning, collaboration, and growth. I wasn’t perfect in my advocacy, and I was really grateful when people took the time to call me in and let me know where I was failing or letting them down. And just like I wasn’t perfect, I didn’t expect perfection from executive leadership. But speaking up and asking them to actually be better instead of just paying lip service threatened that veneer, and ultimately it was just too thick to get through.

I really want to write up a blog post around the topic of being laid off - I don’t think it’s all that uncommon, but it’s something that feels shameful and embarrassing so people don’t really talk about it. Let’s normalize it as something that happens so we can talk about it, and we can share how we’re feeling and we can get the support we need when we’re going through it.

And finally - thank you with all my heart to everyone who responded with such kindness when I was sharing the news, who offered support and encouragement, who spoke up, who made connections or sent a job req my way. You all helped make a terrible time a little easier, and I appreciate you so much ❤️

Written on October 13, 2020