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Amazon has forced attrition rates (someone has to go every year) (reddit.com)
152 points by avinassh 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 146 comments

I once worked at a company where the new CIO came out and said very plainly that the attrition rate was too low. The implication under the circumstances was that there were too many low competence long-timers. This was followed up with a ham handed campaign of making everybody miserable by dramatically increasing the sense of stress and "urgency" that everyone assumed was designed to increase the attrition rate. That in turn was followed by a small exodus of many of the better engineers (since that's who is able to leave easily when things go south.)

Five years later that company is now two CIOs removed from the original attrition warrior who left presumably to help the attrition rate even. The company still has a ton of long-timers that they seemingly can't get rid of. Why are companies so bad at coming up with a system that keeps more competent people and eases out less competent people but that also doesn't hurt morale by being a dystopian nightmare?

Because "easing out less competent people" a fool's errand.

There will always be high performers and low performers on a team, both in a relative and absolute sense. Good managers don't make it their responsibility to close that gap; they just make it clear what the goals are, fill the team with self-motivated people, and provide the tools and environment to get the work done. And yes, you fire people if they don't meet a clear minimum level of performance, but don't make that an expectation out of the gate. Even if you cut all the "low performers" and double the "high performers'" pay, those people can burn out or get sick and suddenly turn into low performers. "First, Break All the Rules" is a great book on this topic.

    There will always be high performers and low performers on a team, both in a relative and absolute sense.
Yeah, although the more heterogeneous the tasks, the trickier it even is to define these terms.

Many years ago I was on a small (2-3 people) team with a truly genius-level coder. He was close to what you'd call a savant. He was (despite being a sweet guy at heart) incredibly difficult to work with - he was unfiltered and abrasive, and would write reams of code to solve pet problems that didn't really need solving in the context of whatever the hell it was that we were trying to do at the moment, because they were "fun" coding challenges that captured his imagination.

The end result was that while he could do the work of several engineers, you also... needed an engineer or two to work with him nearly full-time just to keep him on the rails and actually working towards the project goals, and to act as a buffer between him and people outside the team.

So who was the high performer on our team, and who was the low performer? Well, I didn't suck, but he was certainly the better engineer! But was I really a "low performer" when I did some of the equally crucial work of keeping him on the rails? Was he really the "high performer" when he required lots of people-hours from others just to keep him on task?

Those terms really lose all meaning when you're all engineers but are contributing different things to a team... the high/low performer stuff really only works when people are working in true isolation under identical circumstances. Like maybe for ditch-digging or weightlifting competitions or whatever.

It’s incredibily difficult and why managing is so difficult. Your comparison of who is the best performer is more important maybe for bonuses. This article is about firing the worst performers. So unless the process was “keep the very best single performer, fire the rest” the question of who is a better engineer is moot and doesn’t need to be solved.

It’s very difficult to evaluate articles like this without knowing the process. I could see it working if you had a simple process that relied on strong training and judgement with some governance to limit the impact of errors.

But if people get ranked based on some stupid ML algorithm and just sliced out of the company, that’s unpleasant for the fired staff, and for remaining staff. Fortunately, I think companies that do a dumb version of bottom 5% will fail or get corrected by their board and directors.

That's a great example. I think basketball, especially the NBA, is an interesting correlate for thinking about team dynamics, especially programming teams which in my experience have often been about the size of a basketball team.

I read The Jordan Rules last year about the Bulls' first championship season and before the season begins, Phil Jackson says something like, "If Michael Jordan wins the scoring title again this year, we won't win a championship." This was after they had reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals the year before.

If I remember correctly, Jordan did win the scoring title that year as well as his first championship ring. But even in a sport like basketball where there are stats and increasingly sophisticated metrics and data analysis, I find it most interesting reading about the less visible contributors and the crucial roles they often play. (Breaks of the Game, the book that inspired The Jordan Rules, I think does even a better job of getting into this aspect of the team dynamic.)

This is also related to the big idea popularized by Moneyball. But where Moneyball struck me as more relevant to hiring, reading about the NBA has led me to think about how teams perform together more carefully where the metrics as you say are often trickier.

>>If Michael Jordan wins the scoring title again this year, we won't win a championship.

In the 1990s, in cricket, we would see something like this from Sachin Tendulkar. He would reach 90s, then eat 8 - 9 overs to just get his century. Net result was, he would continue to set new records for maximum centuries scored- but the team would lose.

>>This is also related to the big idea popularized by Moneyball.

It's fairly obvious to arrive to this conclusion. Having a team full of super stars doesn't win you things. Though this is counter intuitive to understand- Quality exists at various other levels apart from heroism.

Yes. There are a LOT of guys in the NBA who could score 30 points a night (good enough for the scoring title, most years) if their teams offense constantly funneled them the ball, but they'd be scoring those points due to taking ungodly numbers of shots at relatively low shooting percentages, at the expense of their teammates.

Basketball analytics have already begun to phase out guys in the mold of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, or Carmelo Anthony who were great players who scored a ton but did so with (at times) low efficiency.

Ah, rockstars. If you get one without the craziness they're amazing. But the situation you've described is basically Stakhanovism with code rather than coal.

This! Which comes down to the basically stupid categories that we use to tag people (high/low performers, smart/dumb, even good/bad). Sometimes I wish for a better developed vocabulary for context, as context is much more important than any individual trait in most, if not all, cases.

I should have added "for any given metric of performance."

You have to use SOME kind of objective metric, to check your own personal biases if nothing else. But you're absolutely right in that performance metrics will never do your employees' various talents justice.

It’s easier to build somebody’s tech skills than fix their personality. That’s why team dynamics trump tech skills. If your attitude causes bad vibes in the team then you’re out.

I've worked with folks like that. They usually do more harm than good and generally need to be managed out or into roles more suitable for how they like to work.

Yeah, we were able to do it with this guy.

Things worked with this guy because at his core, he was actually a very sweet person! (And we were very patient and interested in making it work, if I may say so. Not that we did everything right, not by a longshot)

He was just kind of socially clueless, as opposed to actually malignant...

Low precision systematic sacking of colleges is a dystopian nightmare no mather what the pretext is.

You can't fire people and keep the morale up unless the sacked have anti-social behavoiur.

Further more, if you can't trust management to hire people you can't trust them to fire people.

> Why are companies so bad at coming up with a system that keeps more competent people and eases out less competent people but that also doesn't hurt morale by being a dystopian nightmare?

All metrics-driven systems that try to collapse complex effects to a single metric without intelligent human supervision tend to produce dystopian or at least spectacularly unintended effects.

In this case, the problem is trying to have a single axis of competence. Quite apart from the range of technologies and circumstances people might find themselves in, there are also the interpersonal skills and meta-competences that matter.

Then there's the company context: were they supported or let down? By their managers or colleagues? Were they working on something that failed for unrelated reasons? Or on something that succeeded despite their involvement?

In many ways it's the same as the hiring problem, it's just less concentrated on a single day.

Competence is a transitive property: people are competent at things, not as a global property of their personality.

These things get really weird really quick. I worked for a hardware startup that (of course) had just brutal delays in shipping their product. This included scrapping an entire product line and shipping a less ambitious, but somewhat orthogonal one.

So 3 times in two years there was a big push for the marketing, customer success, developer relations, and support etc teams to get ready for a launch that never happened.

How exactly is a customer success person supposed to be judged as a high performer if there are no customers? Support people sitting by a phone that never rings?

This is an obvious example, but I find the same thing really often in engineering groups: "I was asked to do X. I killed myself to make X happen. Turns out X wasn't relevant to the business and now it's all being shut down and I'm a lower performer."

> That in turn was followed by a small exodus of many of the better engineers

Engineering (especially software engineering) seems like a particularly bad field in which to have "forced attrition" or stack ranking since so much of a team's success depends on the engineers' ability to work together directly on an interpersonal level, and for their code to be easily maintained/extended/tested by others.

I suppose there are partial ways around this, such as factoring rankings from one's peers into the forced attrition.

But overall it's very difficult to imagine any engineering environment that would benefit from incentivizing engineers to compete with one another rather than cooperate.

(Lot of engineers are already good at playing the game in which they look like team players, but are really autocrats of their own little silos and knowingly make themselves hard to replace & keep others down)

> Why are companies so bad at coming up with a system that keeps more competent people and eases out less competent people but that also doesn't hurt morale by being a dystopian nightmare?

It's called the "dead sea effect" and it can be a tough problem to solve. I think every company has a certain percentage of low-productivity, low-competence employees that are hard to get rid of. Doubly so if the employees are unionized.

We have dead-sea effect to some extent in our company and honestly it seems our solution is to just wait until the underachievers retire and then be more rigorous and diligent when hiring their replacement.

Because at the end of the day, the human brain is wired to recognize "that could have been me", no matter how hard you try to rationalize it away.

And at a certain point, it's guaranteed to be you. Not today maybe, but it will be your head on the chopping block.

Why are companies so bad at coming up with a system that keeps more competent people and eases out less competent people but that also doesn't hurt morale by being a dystopian nightmare?

Probably because they can't tell the good from the bad.

Maybe focus on making the less competent more competent?

Nonono, that would require actually investing in your people^Wresources. You're supposed to minimize CapEx, man. Human resources are a fixed asset; depreciation is expected, and good for taxes.

> Human resources are a fixed asset

Human resources are rented, and thus an expense not an asset; I mean, since the abolition of chattel slavery.

Which seems like a part of the problem here. Also, since they're an expense, not an asset, why would you want to invest in them? After all, you wouldn't pay for a paint job on a car you're just leasing.

And then companies are surprised people job-hop :).

As someone who has tried that in the past: it doesn't work. I would kill myself trying to get certain people up to speed and also trying to do my own work.

The problem is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the most part, people are less competent because they don't put in the effort to get more competent. Trying to force people to give more effort is not a fruitful endeavor unfortunately.

> That in turn was followed by a small exodus of many of the better engineers (since that's who is able to leave easily when things go south.)

That is such an obvious outcome. When it seems layoff/low-morale seems to be coming, people who will leave for new jobs on their own are usually ones with the initiative, right skillset, youth, good with people, etc, which is why they can get a new job with ease. And these are the very people a company wants to hold on to. So the other option to achieve attrition rate is to have lay offs. But of course that is not good for reputation of the company.

> Five years later that company is now two CIOs removed from the original attrition warrior who left presumably to help the attrition rate even.

I have a suspicion the CIO was specifically brought in by higher ups to force higher attrition rate.

> Why are companies so bad at coming up with a system that keeps more competent people and eases out less competent people but that also doesn't hurt morale by being a dystopian nightmare?

Dan Pink wrote a book and gave a took about this: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation?language=en

I think the issue systemic and might need an overhaul.

they aren't wrong, low attrition usually means that people aren't pushing themselves out of their comfort zone... this is incredibly bad for a company (ESPECIALLY a company that uses a hierarchal structure). Loosing a little fat is a sign of good health for a company... the issue is when you stop cutting "fat" and start cutting into the meat.

Amazon is just taking advantage of all the devs that want to work for a big name, its a fair deal for both sides. They work you to death for 18 months, you get "Amazon" on your resume.

Comfort is not bad for a company period. Its what keeps the lights on, but it depends on how you define it. Most projects have horrible deadlines and they happen often so there isn't a lot of time to play R&D on a lot of things. I haven't worked for many companies that are fine with breaking what works. In fact, it often results in discipline because you were trying something that wasn't normal operating procedure mostly because the risk couldn't adequately be measured or realized (i.e. trying a new framework for example).

I for one, would not look too fondly on Amazon precisely because of the way they treat their workforce and because their product is not very good because of it.

> ... and because their product is not very good because of it.

Their revenues would suggest otherwise :)

Revenue isn't the only factor in determining a good product. Especially with monopolies.

Why fire low performers? Why not try to make them become average performer?

Maybe they have children to care for at home and doing remote work would help? Maybe they don't like some of their colleagues and a team change is in order. Maybe after months of year of being proactive but being shutdown by management they decided to stop caring? Maybe it's more serious and they should be encouraged to see a therapist.

There are systems of operating that are ridiculously profitable; I know the engineering executive of a Forge Shop that implimented a Scanlon plan some 50 years ago. Company is employee owned with the original company ownership serving as chairboard members.

The janitor, working there some 40 years, retired with $28 million in his pocket.

All it took was management and labor deciding on what it cost to run the business, and savings over that, they put some into an expansion\risk fund, and the rest they split. That technology came out of the 1930's where people were starving, there was no capital and debt to work with, riots were commonplace, and people were looking at the management as food.

Funny thing, when everyone is watching out for one another and helping eachother, really awesome results tend to happen. Sure there's a personell mix issue, but personalities can grow and change. Realistically, all corporations should be run this way. We give the executive management immunity and then we allow them to abuse the staff. That's a recipe for disaster. The majority of company stock ought to be owned by the employee's doing the work.

There's this fatalistic romanticism that goes on with being the top dog, alpha male, name your price, et-cetera. This comes from rich people who never came out of their terrible 2's. They grew up leading isolated lives and never spent time with normal human beings, so they develop this superiority complex and go on tantrums. The reason you see so much advertising that makes no sense for executives is, there are so many of these "VITO's" out there and they all sell emotionally because they are literally box-of-rocks stupid.

The funny part of the joke is people, to their own peril, give respect to these people. We've managed to dress it up with modern marketing\psychological warfare, and we've managed to let the pack of grifters get so large they're now fighting over the scraps. A City of thieves produces no bread. Fertility rates are 1.72 in the US, USSR during its collapse was 1.2. We're halfway there. We need a term to define cannibalistic management; the kind of management there that figures out ways to literally eat people by entangling them in this web of socioeconomic corporatism. We already have "trap" music so we aren't far off, culturally, from defining it conceptually.

Accountants understand risk and cost, MBA's understand Risk, Cost, and Process. It takes someone with specialized experience and skills to figure out how to build an efficient process, or to do R&D because you need to understand bottlenecks and how to cheat at gambling; effectively it takes that kind of person to understand oppertunity, of which the other 2 don't.

So you get into these ridiculous situations where an accountant or MBA is put in charge, with no real understanding of the actual systems at play and its revealed to the staff executive management is really just a bunch of permanent vacationers or grifters. The really great engineers make up excuses based on prior, painful experience as to why they should leave and do so; the existing staff figure no matter where they go, they'll have to deal with the same BS.

Accountants and MBA's always strangle companies, so if you see a new executive manager who's resume doesn't have "line" experience, it's always time to leave for greener pastures.

Your story here is why I hope to see more co-op based businesses come into being. I'm nearly the opposite of a communist, but it takes a fool to think labor shouldn't own a good amount of what they do. Particularly when your work requires pouring your soul into it.

This is called "Dead Sea Effect".

Because management is difficult and proponents of stack ranking and other data-driven approaches think there's a way to automate management. It turns out -I believe anyways- that for many kinds of jobs you can't really automate management. If you want to know who your best and brightest are, and who the chaff is, you need to get down and dirty and get to know them.

That's true, but it also lets poor people keep the team members they like, rather than the good ones.

Maybe, but you can always rotate managers around to deal with that problem. And you can have dotted-line relationships.

There are more good ways to deal with people problems as such than there are good ways to deal with people problems as data problems.

Yeah, it's an analogue problem and not easy to solve. Hopefully, a manager that did that would get found out when his team was full of incompetent cronies.

If I have to push out X number of low-performing people every year, I'm going to damn well make sure I have X low-performing people around to push out so I don't have to get rid of anyone I value.

The first one or two times a manager is asked to do this, there may be adequate dead-weight around that has accumulated "naturally".

After that, a significant number of managers will game the system -- they'll attract and retain people for this very purpose. Meanwhile, general employees will realize what's going on and you're going to have political games.

I don't see how this works for a company as a policy. It's too rigid. Meanwhile, a great way to get your attrition rate up is create a generally miserable environment. I can see executives patting themselves on the back for achieving their attrition goals even as their better employees are leaving for greener pastures.

This makes so little sense I would doubt it could really be true. Except I've see it myself, and worse (not at Amazon).

Forced attrition messed up Microsoft pretty hard before they stopped the practice. Getting rid of mediocrities is a good thing, but if you mandate getting rid of X% per year, people stop cooperating with their coworkers, because those coworkers are also competitors.

Could Amazon really be falling into the same trap so soon?

The actual number of really bad hires is actually quite low give my experience at BT (15 years) and I only knew two cases of really bad performers.

As a former Amazon manager, I don't have a problem with forced attrition so much as the proportion of my time that was put into finding the candidates for that forced attrition.

There are a tremendous number of low achievers in every industry and if you keep them around they are toxic, every bit if not more toxic than Amazon's culture in 2019.

That said, I would have liked to have seen most of the time dedicated to this task allocated to developing the careers of my direct reports because I think that is of much higher value to any organization.

Not hiring idiots in the first place is IMO the proper solution to this problem, but that now seems intractable. It seems there's a real temptation to scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill positions these days.

This makes no sense. If you have low achievers, your job as a manager is to deal with them. It is not as though you can’t PIP someone as needed. Forcing it at a certain rate is just unnecessary and creates terrible incentives.

Presumably the aim of forced attrition is to take managers who are firing grade D performers and retaining grade C performers, and turn them into managers who fire grade C performers.

Of course, it's pretty questionable whether it achieves that aim - one would think it encourages managers to keep incompetent employees around as buffer.

Forcing a certain rate definitely makes sense if you're large enough and have the data to back it. If you're a small dev team with 10 people, it's possible everyone's doing great. If you have 20,000 devs, it's unlikely. You know the % of bad hires over a long enough time period. Forcing the rate often forces managers to disregard emotional connections to make the best business decisions. It sucks but you have to remember a company has no loyalty to you anymore. You should show it the same.

Except in all cases it's a small team. The company with 20,000 devs still imposes this on each individual team. You just have every small team doing it. It's a disaster and it makes no sense.

I very firmly believe this, but I have created zero successful companies, and Jeff Bezos has created the most successful company that the world has ever seen, so there's that.

It does seem like Microsoft became far more successful after they did away with their famously bad similar policy, so maybe Amazon would be even more successful than they already are if they valued their employees a bit ;)

And if his management doesn't support that sort of approach or developing his team or hiring well (support with resources not just verbal agreement)?

> Not hiring idiots in the first place is IMO the proper solution to this problem,

If you hire all rockstars and you have to let go of 10%, then how does this help?

MS managers had a hack around this - a few months before expected lay-off cycle they hired some incompetent developers or developers from their competition they hated, then let them go at the time of lay-off. Wouldn't be surprised if Amazon managers used similar tricks.

Across thousands of hires, can you hire all rockstars? When you hire 1,000 people, how many do you expect are underperformers?

No matter how many people you hire, at least half of them are going to be at or below the median for your new employees.

So I'd say 500. You'd have to be very good at hiring to get a lower number, and judging from my anecdata, companies that hire software pros use hiring processes that are terrible predictors of future performance, if not entirely useless.

If a company isn't positioned to turn a profit on the output of a rockstar, why is that company trying to retain a development team at all? Every company I've worked at for a decade was eagerly hiring every rockstar they could find, except the one on the verge of bankruptcy that was trying to get acquired.

It's a good tactic, denying the competition the resources, until it gets to expensive.

> If you hire all rockstars and you have to let go of 10%, then how does this help?

It keeps salaries lower than where they would be and pushes the remaining 90% to work very hard.


Do you not think such a culture is actively detrimental? How can you ask anyone to give 110% if they might be getting sacked next year?

If you have a tremendous number of low achievers, maybe its because the only people you can retain are people who can't find jobs elsewhere fast enough. I know I wouldn't be waiting around for my turn.

> Do you not think such a culture is actively detrimental? How can you ask anyone to give 110% if they might be getting sacked next year?

As much as I dislike the forced attrition mechanism, people putting in 110% are not going to be forced out. It's the people putting in 30% that are going to be the attrition targets.

People putting in "110%" are also more likely to get either denied promotions (managers don't want to lose their most productive assets) or are driven out as major threats to their superiors.

110% and 30% by what metrics though?

My 30% could be somebody else's 110%, though that's not the likely scenario we're talking about.

What if instead, some people put in 110% by putting in 14 hour days and others are judged more harshly who have family or other obligations. This is how we get an industry of 20-somethings with no lives other than work. In a forced attrition scenario, if I were on a team with people significantly younger than myself, I would be shitting bricks.

> if I were on a team with people significantly younger than myself, I would be shitting bricks.

I was noticeably older than most of the people in my team in Amazon, and I was never shitting bricks[1]. The ones not reaching performance targets were always crystal clear to _everyone_. If you can't spot the underachievers, maybe that's the time to worry.

Despite how detailed the Amazon interview process is, people slip through the gaps and you end up with someone who somehow can barely write functional code, let alone maintainable code. Or you find the person is capable of writing code, just maybe not today, or tomorrow. Is the day after good with you? There are much more interesting things to be doing on-line instead of writing code.

[1] I was reminiscing with a co-worker in the kitchen one lunchtime about the respective things we'd had to do to deal with the Y2K bug at the places we'd been working at. Another talented and very capable developer co-worker overheard us and commented "I'd never even touched a computer before, back then."

If a company is hiring people who can't write code then their hiring process has huge problems. In my 15 years of developer experience at 5+ companies, I've never once met a developer who couldn't code. I don't know where companies are finding all these developers who supposedly can't code.

I often think that "programmers that can't code" is an euphemism for "programmer why won't do unpaid overtime to catch up on the code base" or "programmer who has no experience".

The industry is not expecting mechanical engineers to actually do advanced work fresh of university but somehow in some places programmers are thought of as a ready worker package for the sewing machines.

I'm also yet to meet these programmers who can't code. There are plenty of engineers that barely can code though, but they don't call themselves programmers. And there are plenty of inexperienced programmers that can't code and if they won't learn they will drop out for other positions.

>If a company is hiring people who can't write code then their hiring process has huge problems.

There's a difference between "can write code" and "will write code" which is what I was more intending to express in my post.

Everyone that gets a Dev job in Amazon has to be able to pass multiple loops where development skills will be tested.

I've definitely had those dunning-kruger effect moments in my career where I thought I was an underperformer until I got feedback from management to confirm otherwise. In fact, I would say that most companies do not have much of a system at all for positive and negative feedback. It's usually one or the other and done badly.

No it probably won't be the people giving 110%. But you want those people invested it what they're doing, or they won't be giving 110%.

To put it another way. You should be focussed on maintaining and motivating the top 10%, not on getting rid if your bottom 10%.

They will be, eventually. If you constantly fire the ones at the bottom, the only way to stay on top is to put more and more. Which means that at some point, your 110% is going to be the lowest ranked.

I disagree with this. Every organization, and every department has a bell curve of talent. Average and low-average people hire sub-par and poor talent because everyone thinks they're rockstars, but statistically that cannot be true.

"everyone thinks they're rockstar"

Exactly, but knowing that, even if you think you're safe, you might not be, so what do you do?

Plus you're saying below average people hire below poor talent.

This just means that really the good manager is sacking good people, whereas the poor manager is sacking just 1 of his limitless supply of poor hires.

So as an average employee what do you want, good manager and be bottom of the bell curve, or poor manager and be top of the bell curve?

Huge oversimplification. Some companies can hire very good engineers most of the time. Most companies cannot.

Were you explicitly told to find people on your team(s) to get rid of? Or was in at an org-level? Were there actual quotas?

I have worked at big companies where this happened - one of my co-workers commented that their group found this easy one year as they had two people with terminal cancer.

This isn't as bad as it sounds as they got medical retirement.

Not OP but worked in one of top 10 companies for a senior role and was also involved in hiring tech team.

There was no explicit "We need to get rid of x people" but there were performance reviews every year and getting the lowest performance mean being reassigned to another team and 3 consecutive lowest performance means forced attrition.

I don't even know why it's controversial (unless its a botched up execution). Most companies have dead weights that got in somehow and are toxic to the culture and a burden to the team.

It's controversial because the bar for 'dead weight' escalates over time. I worked for a company where eventually a Satisfactory rating became inadequate. Just doing your job wasn't good enough.

Lol, I wonder how that was passed down. "I am sorry, but we're not satisfied with your satisfactory performance".

None of my ex teammates in Amazon was literally fired (AFAIK). Many had disagreements with management over the inflated expectations and left within 3-4 years... despite being very good engineers.

We are not talking about 5% or 10% attrition rate here.

What I found to be the biggest problem at Amazon beyond the issue here was not so much inflated expectations but rather top-down technologically backwards micromanagement of how to get things done.

The most flagrant example of this in my experience was when I was ready to hand an AWS customer a simple script that would replace their command line application and magically make it run in the cloud, uploading inputs and, and downloading results, it was blocked from release to the customer immediately because it wasn't a full web app with staffing and an on-call pager.

It's controversial, because "lowest performance on the team" doesn't mean "poor performance".

True. And the rating was by a higher manager across multiple teams. And he was under no obligation to give lowest grade to anyone. Most of them got "average" and few of them exceptional or very good etc.

Then you're not describing the same system that Amazon does. The point of that system is that there's a certain fixed percentage of people who will get the lowest grade, no matter what.

I'm curious, though: is it not possible to have a small team of 10 excellent people? And even if all 10 are excellent, one must get the lowest score. Is it really good to always reassign or fire someone based on the lowest score?

It was not a "team" or "project". This company operated on Toyota's model of dual manager (or it's variant). One for the project and one overall. The overall manager oversaw a a fixed number of people (around 200-250) and he could rank few of them the lowest. He is not obliged to and many managers never gave the lowest score to anyone.

Also this manager would get the feedback from all the teams his reports worked for and make his own decision. Quite often he would even ask the employee why his project manager rated him low.

Overall from what I had seen the process worked not too shabby even though it was unfair.

So it would take 3 years worth of poor performances to get let go?

Yes and three consecutive years of lowest performance. This was not set in stone or written in any emails but an HR's email about "Consistent low rating" mean the employee would be on his way out.

The decision and final axing was always done by the HR and managers could only intervene if they thought it was unfair.

The counterargument here is empirical: there are companies that manage to do fine at Amazon's scale without forced attrition. Google is one of the most notable examples.

Ah yes Google, the place where as possibly the world's first or second (full-time) CUDA programmer, with 14 filed patents, and the world's fastest implementations of molecular Dynamics (CUDA ports of Folding@Home and AMBER), I was thrown into blind allocation by Amit Singhal and I was told point-blank by Jeff Dean that GPUs would never serve a role at Google because the Intel processor roadmap was just about to steamroll them out of existence. Yep that's exactly how it played out, right?

Anyway, they have PIPs too. My slapstick comedy of 4 months there was nothing compared to the horror shows others endured there. That's how I ended up at Amazon in the first place and my first four years there were actually pretty good. It wasn't until the New York times article that things started going downhill there in my opinion.

Your response to "companies can thrive without forced attrition" is "Jeff Dean was wrong about a thing once". Does that make sense to you?

I wasn't responding to those exact points but rather to the hagiography and idealization of Google as a place without forced attrition.

Google has great food and great perks, but it was one of my worst employment experiences of my entire professional career. Amazon, warts-and-all, was far better to me and for me.

And I haven't even mentioned the time in 2014 when the manager of Android Store recommendations asked to speak with me and so I showed up on the googleplex, only to have him walk me out of the building to the swamp behind the googleplex to tell me that yes I'm on some sort of blacklist and he would make an exception to bring me in if I were willing to work on these recommendations. Now this is really interesting and nearly industrial espionage because I was secretly working on Amazon product recommendations at the time and he should not have known I had any such experience because we had just won our first web lab. It all ended when I asked him if I could use GPUs for this and he said no.

So my point is just because they don't have forced attrition doesn't make them a great employer across the board because WTF was that about?

I don't understand what your point is. Yes, they have PIPs. No, that's not at all the same thing as forced attrition.

I don't know about this personal drama with two particular programmers. I'm not sure it's relevant.

> It wasn't until the New York times article that things started going downhill there in my opinion

+1 to this. The reaction to that article was, in my personal view, the wrong one.

Do you mean Amazon management reacted incorrectly to it? How so?

As an Amazonian, I think some of the criticism was entirely valid- just not most of it. But the reaction, the changes that occurred, made things worse (again, imho), not better.

What got worse? In terms of reaction to the article by Amazon I'd think positive actions or inaction were more likely than negative actions.

Why did the NYT article have a negative impact?

I heard horror stories about Amazon many years before the NYT article. The idea that Amazon suddenly went downhill afterwards is ludicrous.

but google has an insane hiring bar meaning that they rarely have false positives. amazons philosophy is hire fast fire fast. it’s too late for them to raise their bar considering a lot of their employees wouldn’t reach it

> amazons philosophy is hire fast fire fast

Oh god, I can't disagree more. I've been an interviewer at Amazon. I've probably done 50+ interviews in house and hired maybe 5 of those. I'd really prefer if we'd lower the hiring bar and focused more on building (and RETAINING) engineers. It would be far less effort, imho.

that’s because 90 pct of people applying to any job are unqualified. all three times i’ve interviewed at amazon getting an offer was trivial.

Sounds right. A friend who worked there said he did 100 interviews for devs, with 0 ending up hired.

Not at all. I've been in many interview loops in Amazon. The hiring bar obviously depends on the team but it's usually higher than other FAANG without Google

Don't want to ask anything inappropriate, but how much of your time did it end up being? I remember they had some some kind of value where they want "every hire to be better than the last one" or some platitude.

Seems like forced attrition is .. not ideal. Having some consistent way of assessing performance of engineers across teams, and then looking at the front end (hiring groups involved in creating the low performing teams) and on management (focus on who is accumulating higher numbers of low achievers) would be better.

But having seen excessively stable R&D organizations, I completely agree that not getting rid of low achievers is extremely toxic to a high performing team (product quality and morale).

>Not hiring idiots in the first place is IMO the proper solution to this problem,

Presumably leetcode avoids this. what is your opinion about that? Is it effective in your experience?

Leetcode is something you can study for a couple of months and use fly through the technical portion of an interview. It is also something that good engineers with a decade of experience can totally fail at if unprepared to the same degree.

Leetcode questions measure interview study and how far removed you are from college classes, not how competent you are at your job.

Being good at leetcode means you are good at spending plenty of day hours on interview prep and not real work.

Would you really want to hire such a person who does no work all day, and only prepares to move on from current company?

...yea except every dev in the game knows thats where to study.

Indeed, except in 2010 it was topcoder, and they even told me upfront to study it, so I did, for the two months preceding the interview.

Several of my interview questions were slight variants on recent topcoder questions. And other than annoying the guy who clearly had some complicated algorithm he wanted me to write that I instead simplified to the quadratic equation, things went well.


As someone who's managed teams for many years, I think it's really odd to do this stack-rank thing.

A team is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts. People on the team do different things that are complementary. If you've ever watched sports, you know what this means. Not everyone is scoring the goals, someone needs to make critical passes, someone needs to get the ball out of defence, and so on.

That's not to say everyone should be paid the same. Clearly some roles are more rare than others and need to be compensated thus. But it is also true that your star needs someone to carry water for him, and that having the star and the water carrier makes the team more effective than two of either.

So when it comes to letting go of people, it rarely makes sense to try to decide who is productive and who isn't. A lot of businesses wouldn't even operate without juniors on the lowest grades. For instance junior investment bankers make powerpoint slides and financial models. Senior investment bankers, who have long forgotten how to use PowerPoint, take these to customers and get business.

The only times I've let people go is when I've thought the team really doesn't need this person. It's not a question of being inherently productive, it's a question of whether the marginal productivity of the team goes up. And as in sports, sometimes you find it's a star player who needs to go. Sometimes a bit-part player.

But in no sense is there a magic score from which the bottom can be removed.

Amazon has forced attrition rates (someone has to go every year)

What Amazon fails to consider is the number of high-caliber engineers who would never consider applying to work for companies that have policies like this.

Here is one of many articles on Microsoft's stack ranking debacle: https://www.smh.com.au/technology/microsoft-made-me-secretiv...

Another big technology corporation has forced attrition rates because their previous CTO came from Wal-Mart (yeah, that works-out well). Managers are told that, even if everyone on the team does the same amount of work, they either have to pick someone to lose or find themselves "lost", instead.

Forced attrition is bad for morale but it's an especially shit situation every review-cycle, when people are on edge because someone has to go, no matter what, and it's either going to be themselves or someone that they work with.

If only forced attrition were so enthusiastically applied to Amazon’s recruiters.

I thought most companies have figured out Jack Welch's rank-and-yank system doesn't work by now? Surely Amazon isn't that naive are they?

My impression is that stack ranking with forced attrition can, if applied for a short period, shake a sleepy low-performing organization out of its lethargy. But if you try to run things that way long-term you get problems. People stop thinking of the team and start acting too selfishly.

So I think it depends on the organization. I have tended to work in more aggressive, competitive fields. Different versions of "rank and yank" (as you call it) or "up or out" or other types. BigCorps need to do it to keep the average talent bar from trending down (A-Players hire A-Players; B-Player hire C-Players). Startups need to do it generally because the pool of applicants tends to be either "great", "good" or "can't get a job elsewhere" and it needs to weed out. I believe it forces people to improve themselves and their game.

This doesn't make sense.

"A-Players hire A-Players; B-Player hire C-Players"

If B:s hires C:s than in analogue A:s would hire B:s since it's a bell curve-ish distribution not digital buckets. Who hires the A:s? A, B and C:s by accident?

"I believe it forces people to improve themselves and their game."

You probably want people to improve their skills in their craft, not players to improve their skills in the a management game.

mandatory quote :

CFO: What happens if we train them and they leave? CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

I've seen managers game this kind of system out.

1) Reserve 5%-10% of your staffing for people going to be laid off.

2) Hire people that won't make the cut after 1 year.

3) Fire them

4) Rinse and repeat

In other words the only reason they were being hired was so that the manager could protect the performers of this team. Basically if the manager's view is the only one that matters, he can pretty much get away with it.

How do I apply for that job? :-)

I want to be an SRE:

Scapegoat Redundancy Engineer

You have to make a career out of it!

Charge by the month and rotate in different companies to be hired and fired yearly!

God, the pain of interviewing.

Netflix and Facebook definitely have something similar too especially for newer grads (although the former rarely hires new grads). Amazon just does it in the worst way possible.

The interesting thing about Netflix is that they are very upfront about their hiring culture: no internships and no hiring of developers without at least five years experience. They are upfront in the fact that they are liberal when it comes to letting people go and pay way above market rate to compensate for it.

I'd rather deal with a company that puts all of its cards on the table like Netflix does rather than an implicit forced attrition process that is described here.

Ex Amazon here. The attrition rate is much higher than what most people expect. Yes, the company does stack ranking... unofficially.

Even in team with very skilled and productive engineers managers will still set expectations so high that someone will be put on dev plan.

How is a reddit thread considered the source of truth? I know we have daily posts about Amazon getting too large, but this is getting kind of ridiculous.

The forced attrition is no surprise. I’m in Seattle and considering the thousands and thousands of people they were hiring in recent years, it would be impossible to not get the bottom of the barrel devs who can pass algorithm problems but fail to work independently or deliver at all.

> How is a reddit thread considered the source of truth? ... The forced attrition is no surprise.

I believe because people do not see forced attrition as a surprise, they also believe this post. I agree that we shouldn't take every Reddit post as truth but it makes sense in the culture Amazon portrays. Also there hasn't been anybody that offers a counter perspective into the inner workings (that I have seen). True or not, it would be interesting to see the companies that do practice this and what kind of workplace culture they put forward.

Edit: Formatting.

Current Amazon employee here (Senior Software Engineer) - I don't speak officially for the company obviously, but I wanted to share my experience. I am not a manager, so I don't know the particulars of what goes on during the process referred to in the linked post, but I can offer a few things:

My experience has been that people at Amazon are generally pretty willing to help each other in various different ways, whether helping a teammate on a project or helping someone new to a technology on one of our internal mailing lists.

Many on the reddit thread take it for granted that Amazon is, as one person called it, a "hellhole." That is not at all my experience - I know others in different orgs or different roles may of course have a different experience. Amazon has been significantly less stressful than almost everywhere I've worked (and the one exception was not less stressful in a good way).

At least among people I know, most of the people who leave our team join another team at Amazon. I've known a few people who have left Amazon, but we haven't had 5% of our team leave Amazon every year as this thread would indicate.

Is stack ranking something Bezos wanted, or something other executives brought in that Bezos thought might be a good idea?

This is one should reconsider hiring anyone from Amazon. They came from a culture of backstabbbing, distrust, and a cutthroat ideology. How can they be a good cultural fit anywhere that relies on trust?

For juniors: because they left Amazon.

For seniors: yes be wary.

Competition undermines any form of cooperation. Presumably Amazon is a company of people cooperating, otherwise they would all just be individuals under competitive contracts right? Competition undermines cooperation but we do it anyway because some must be good right? Just like some amount of child abuse must be good right? Or a small amount of lead in your body is good right? Sometimes moderation is not a good answer. There is no safe level of competition in a cooperative organization.

When Toyota US HQ moved from CA to Plano, Texas, there were rumors that part of the reason was to purge out employees with low/no energy, initiative, output, etc. Employee with no output at work will most likely not bother with the whole enchilada involved in relocating to another state.

Apparently the US HQs of Japanese motor companies follow Japanese corporate model and do not lay off employees. So they end up with quite a bit of low performing employees. Just rumors I heard.

wouldn’t desperate people who have low skills move instead of people who can get a job anywhere

From what I gather, some were old employees near retirement and really did not want to pick up and move to Texas, leaving family/friends/CA behind.

And then there were those who really really did not generate output at work and apparently management hoped(?) they would do the same in their personal life and not bother moving to another state.

Im not trying to be a dick, but it seems to be working for them pretty well. Why is forced attrition rate a such a bad thing?

A lot of companies do this - without it being known. I see nothing wrong with the practice. Some companies I know of rotate each quarter to cut the bottom people or % that just don't make it. (eg: Q1 might be operations, Q2 finance, Q3 development, etc). It is a forced method of keeping the bar high or moving it higher.

If you try a bit harder, maybe you might be able to think of something that's wrong with this practice.

An acceptable variant that I've seen implemented well is "the pass". Where a competent leader, decides to "pass" (one or many rotations) because of hiring rates or current team excellence. Just my experience.

Then it is not forced?

> It is a forced method of keeping the bar high or moving it higher.

You seem to think that this desirable goal is actually achieved by this method.

the reason has nothing to do with the ones being let go. It's about the people who remain: they're gonna be working a lot harder when they see their colleagues laid off. No one wants to be next. It's like running away from an alligator. You don't have to be faster than the alligator, you just need to be faster than your friends.

Are there any proof of this, that it's making people work harder?

If there is, does it offset the potential tendency of workers to not want to help new hires getting up to speed in fear of being eaten by the alligator?

What about teams that turn around and beat the alligator to death with sticks. It sounds like the foundation of civilization.

Maybe cooperation is not for co-operations. Who knows.

Isn't this common throughout the industry? I love to bash on Amazon as much as the next HN'er, but is this really news?

This is Amazon, Netflix, and, in the past, Microsoft.

That's nothing compared to what is going on in their warehouses. Buy hey, who cares.

Is this that surprising? In my experience it's less prevalent/institutionalized in tech consulting, banking, etc. where the "up or out" philosophy is much more transparent e.g. if you aren't promoted in a certain window of time (say 2 years) to the next level then you're expected to leave.


Flagged - not because I think this doesn't happen, but because, at the time of writing of that comment, no other comment actually made any kind of "conclusions".

Or, in other words, the above comment is making broad-brush conclusions out of zero data points. sigh

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