How to be supportive, lesson one

Saturday, 19 July 2003

My training class lasted one month. During which we were temp-to-hires. Presumably if we made the cut, we’d be permanent at-will employees.

How I was hired by a 7-foot goofy Swede, un-hired by a bald prick who didn’t like my cover-letter, and re-hired because a gay programmer knew a painter friend of mine is another story. This is a story about being supportive.

Amazon.com was growing frantically at the time. The Spring of 1998. Faster than any corporation in history, by internal accounting. Nowhere else in the world could you or will you likely ever find a customer service department with as many holders of PhDs and Masters degrees, Bachelors minimum, and, What have you done lately?

Just so we’re clear, and I can’t go into it yet, but that degree of excellence was then, 1998.

We each had 30 days to show merit or get back on the job hunter-gatherer trail.

I did my first computer program when I was 10. This might seem normal today but I’m not 25 and when I was 10 there was probably only one personal computer in the contiguous 25,000 square miles where I lived. So I figured I’d be the star pupil of the class. Not really. Third at best, I’d say. Summer, Melinda, Jesse, Robin all bested me plenty of times in class exercises.

After a couple weeks we got up to speed on Unix and the tools therein to serve Amazon’s hoard of customers we got desks and supervisors. Time to see how well we’d float.

The girl I was seated by, K, didn’t type well. Well, she didn’t type. I do 70wpm hung-over and 90wpm from prepared copy and that was a B+ for the class. K couldn’t type… I don’t even think 10wpm. The Unix wasn’t sinking in for her either. This was the first time she’d ever been around computers, let alone raw, system level terminal windows into computers.

She was upset that she wasn’t doing well.

I’ve been teaching since I was 15 and the first red-belt in the studio. So, I tried to help her with tips. It was all coming pretty easily so I spent the extra time giving her mnemonics or sensible reasons for counter-intuitive commands and procedures.

She had one or two kids and needed the money. Really needed the work.

I made other acquaintances on the floor. Seniority and self-propagated training through experience were super important so it was inevitable. I’m an inveterate question asker. I learned quickly that trainees were pretty much ushered in. They needed the help badly and 4 weeks wasn’t really enough to tell anyway if you’d be good at the job or not. I myself was worried about getting canned for reasons broached above in the stay-tuned-for-episode. So I was grateful to learn that I was probably in. That we pretty much all were.

K was worried that day. I was so eager to share my good mood and be supportive that I said, “Don’t worry. You’ll get hired. You have to be a real retard not to get hired.” She felt much better.

When the cut came down a week later, hers was the only head that rolled. We were at our desks right after she found out. Gathering her stuff to go, she turned to me with tears streaming down her face and reminded me of how supportive I’d been, “But you said…”

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