Allen: Welcome to It Shipped That Way, where we talk to product leaders about the lessons they’ve learned helping build great products and teams. I’m Allen Pike, and today’s interview is with Charity Majors. Charity is a writer, speaker, the CTO of observability platform honeycomb.io, and was previously in engineering leadership for Facebook, Parse, and Second Life. Welcome, Charity.
Charity: Thank you for having me.
Allen: I’m so excited to get into topics, engineering management, leadership, culture. There’s so many things we could talk about, but first I want to give you a chance to give a high level, especially on Honeycomb. I’m sure some folks in the audience are familiar with it. Some people aren’t. It would be great to get a bit of calibration. Where are you at in the journey, and how big is the team, that high level, to orient us?
Charity: Totally. We started Honeycomb January 1st, 2016. I am more shocked than anyone that we are still alive. I was never one of those kids who’s like, “I’m going to start a company,” because I really have always low-key hated those people. It’s like, “Oh, you’re too good to work for anyone else? Fuck you.” Sorry. I don’t know what the-
Allen: That’s okay. We’ll put an explicit tag. No problem.
Charity: Okay. Great, great. I should come with those just slapped to my forehead, really. We started in 2016, and we had so many near-death experiences. So we were the first one to originate … Everyone calls their shit observability now. But back when we started, I was searching for a way to talk about what we were trying to build, because I knew it was generationally different from the monitoring and the metrics and the logs that I had grown up with. We stumbled across control theory, and the definition of observability control theory is how well can you understand what’s happening inside your system just by looking at it from the outside? I was like, “Oh, shit. That’s what we’re trying to do.” There are so many technical prerequisites that proceed from that. You can’t be locked into predefining a schema or knowing in advance what questions you’re going to ask or indexing high cardinality, high dimensionality, explorability, traceability. All these things are just table stakes. It took us years to figure all this stuff out. But we first got product market fit, I think, in 2019, 2020, but for the first five years of the company, we were 15 to 30 people. Then two years ago, we doubled in size, and then last year, we doubled in size again. I think doubling in size is about as fast as you can responsibly grow without losing your culture and your systems and everything. So now we are at 170 people, and we took a pause from really growing over the last year. We’re gearing up for another big spread of growth next year. So we’re in the several tens of millions of dollars in ARR. I will say it’s both a good problem to have that everybody’s now, “We do observability, too,” and it’s a bad problem because it no longer has any meaning. There’s a lot of people out there who are still leveling up and doing dashboards and instrumentation, and they get a lot of value out of those. But the value you can get out of going, I think, to what I think of observability is really next-level, which is hard to talk about when everyone’s using the same words and terms and use cases. But the engineers who have tried it, you can’t pry it out of their cold, dead hands. One of our best sources of leads is engineers who change companies, and they’re like, “I can’t go back to developing without this. It becomes so core to how I function,” which is exactly the experience that drove me and Christine to build it. So it’s been hard. The first few years were just brutal. I lost my marriage. I stopped sleeping and everything. But I feel like it’s leveled out, and it’s starting to get fun eight years in.
Allen: That’s all the trick. You’ve got to grind for eight years and turn everything upside down and then double a bunch of times, and then it gets fun. That’s good.
Charity: Then it starts to get fun. Yeah.
Allen: You’re also at an interesting point here with … I’m already diverging from the clock topics. I want to talk about engineering leadership, and then I’m like, “Oh, this is an interesting story that I want to engage with.” The fact that you’re at this 150-person size class, there’s a famous Dunbar’s number where you get under the other side of that, and then suddenly things change around all these topics around how you do leadership and communication and think about your team and org and stuff like that. So that’s really interesting, useful context because you have people at different organizations that think very differently about this stuff sometimes because they’re in totally different worlds.
Charity: Absolutely, and the big theme for me has been making the implicit explicit. To a certain extent, I think that being a distributed company has actually made this transition easier than it might otherwise be, because one of the ways to succeed at doing a distributed company is making the implicit explicit, writing things down, having processes. When you’re all sitting together in a room, you could go a long way on just looking each other in the eye, just knowing how each other works. But you can’t function that way when people aren’t sitting together.
Allen: Were you always a distributed company, or was that a 2020 shift?
Charity: Yes and no. In the early days, for the first two or three years, it was really just four of us. So we were in the same room, and it really helped accelerate our growth at that stage. We always knew that we wanted to be a distributed company, though, and as soon as we got past the 30-, 40-, 50-people mark, we started seriously investing in that, because in one way, it’s an equity thing. There’s so many great people who can’t live in San Francisco, can’t afford to buy a house here or whatever. Another way, it’s like I am very neurodivergent, and the things that make companies work well with distributed companies also make them work well for me. So there was a bit of a selfish angle in there for that, too.
Allen: Like saying things explicitly instead of just assuming we all just know, “Here’s a subtle thing that everyone follows”?
Charity: Exactly, exactly. So we hired our first remote exec actually a month before the pandemic. So that was nicely timed. But even before that, we had been doing something I think everyone should do, which is once a quarter, we’d have weekly drills where everyone had to work from home. From the CEO on down, everyone had to work from home. It’s enough time you have to actually figure out how to do work together and move. You figure out all the channels that you were kind of relying on that didn’t exist, and it forces you to move your communication online, which was really helpful.
Allen: Cool. I like that. Before 2020, we all did one day a week, which maybe doesn’t actually have as thorough of a … You could get maybe your weekly meeting still happened, but it gave us a little bit of that. You write about engineering leadership at the domain charity.wtf, which is the best domain of all time. I so love that.
Charity: Thank you. I agree.
Allen: It’s like, “Hmm. What are we getting here?” It just sets the tone. I guess it could be more WTF than it is, but it sets the tone of it’s going to be fun and engaging, which it is. You talk about a lot of the same topics that we do on this show, about leadership and building teams and cultures and stuff like that. So I just wanted to pull in some topics today that you’ve written about over the last while and then just talk through them and some of the mental models and systems that you’ve had on your mind and you’ve been building and growing this business. I feel like a good place to start is at the beginning of the management journey. Especially when you’re growing a company, you may end up with people who are relatively new to management. Either you’re promoting people or maybe you’re bringing in people who are relatively earlier in their career, or maybe they’ve been managing for a while, but maybe not at the level that they could be. So what do you think of when you think of the typical rookie mistakes or just beginners’ stakes or growth opportunities that you see when people are … They have opportunities for growth in terms of management?
Charity: This links to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is just how much our standards for managers, engineering managers have risen over the past several years. It used to be like you’re getting promoted. Everyone’s mom is going to congratulate you when you become a manager, because, like, “Oh, congratulations. It’s a promotion. You’re becoming more important now.” I think for a long time, it was structured that way in a lot of companies, where managers made decisions, and if you wanted to have a stay in something, you had to be a manager. That’s why I became a manager, because I wanted to have a seat at the table. But I feel like we now expect managers to create a lot of psychological safety, to do a lot of emotional labor. At the same time, it has become a less authoritarian role, which is good for everyone, but it’s also like when I wrote that piece, The Engineer/Manager Pendulum, back in 2017, I felt like all of the incentives were for people to go into management. It was the default for ambitious people. Now I feel like the pendulum, to coin a phrase, is going the other way, and it’s so many amazing managers left management, especially during the pandemic, because it’s like the job got so much harder.
Allen: Oh, yeah.
Charity: It doesn’t have the same sheen of promotion, career growth as it once did, and people are like, “Oh, wait. You mean I can get paid the same, do engineering work, do all this labor as a staff-plus person, and then go home feeling great at the end of the day? Why don’t I do that?” So I think it’s a different world than it was a few years. But you were asking about rookie mistakes, and so the biggest one that I think I experienced and I see in my neck of the woods is it’s the flavor of, “Okay. I’m an engineer. I have a lot of opinions. I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a good manager, so I have a lot of opinions about what not to do. So I’m going into management, and I’m not going to do any of those things. I’m not going to make any of those mistakes. I am going to be a coach. I’m going to be empathetic. I’m going to encourage people to take time off. I’m am going to do all these things.”
Allen: That all sounds great, Charity.
Charity: It’s great, and you do all those things. But what you’re not seeing is that that’s not all there is to management. Not making those mistakes is not all there is. There’s also learning about the business, really managing for outcomes. There’s the aspects of it’s not just the things that you don’t do. It’s the things that you need to do, if that makes any sense.
Allen: Yeah. Well, you wrote a piece recently where you were talking about this idea of helicopter management, which some people will use that term to refer to micromanagement, which is its own problem, which we could potentially talk about if you want to talk about micromanagement. But then there’s also this idea, getting to what you’re saying, where some people, whether because they’re a new manager or because the environment they come from or because of responding to trauma or because of what they’ve been reading and the focusing on about what in their mind it means to be a good manager, they allocate 100 or 110% of their management capacity to retaining their team and supporting people and making sure everyone has work they enjoy.
Charity: Oh, that’s what I said. I’m trying to remember what it was that I wrote. There was something. No, you’re right. It was that.
Allen: All those good things that we want to do as managers, but …
Charity: But it’s not the whole job. There’s a lot that goes into being a good manager that you don’t actually see from the perspective of being an engineer and being one of those direct reports. As being a good manager, it’s not just interfacing with your team. It’s also managing up, making sure that the people … I hate the hierarchical terms, but whatever, representing your team to upper management so that they’re aware of the critical things that are going on so that they’re getting really important signals from your team members, so that they’re getting the right signal, so that they can make good decisions based on the limited amount of information that they have. It’s about building the infrastructure of your organization, spending time crafting the intern programs or working on the job ladders with other managers or doing interview training. There’s all this stuff that goes into building the infrastructure of the company that doesn’t have a lot to do with actually interfacing with your team. Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. I also feel that there’s often a bit of when managers stop managing, they’re often told, “You can’t write any more code. You have to stop writing code.” I understand why people are giving them that advice, because we all have a happy place where we feel strong and confident and comfortable, and we want to retreat to that place when we feel scared. When you’re a baby manager, you have to force yourself to get out of that comfort zone and not just go back to where you last felt good. It’s actually great for your team if you continue to contribute to things that are not in the critical path, picking up a bug, feeling some of their pain, not being in the on-call rotation, but being the first backup, like, ‘You want to go to a movie on Saturday, give me a call. If you had a rough night last night, I’ll take it tomorrow night,” being in the mix.
Allen: Keep your ability to engage with the technical things that your team is responsible for and being able to be in those conversations is super powerful.
Charity: I believe that you can only really be improving and working on your skills as a manager or as an engineer. You can’t really be improving in both domains at once, I think, because being an engineer requires intense focus, and being a manager requires intense interruptability. They’re not compatible.
Allen: This is the famous manager schedule, maker schedule, and to some degree, people will say the manager’s job is partially to let the people who report to them then focus on stuff.
Charity: Yeah. So I think you can maintain your skills in one and grow in another, but I don’t think you can grow both skillsets at once, not really.
Allen: Yeah, that makes sense. One of the things you were writing about I found interesting in this topic of this helicopter management and over-indexing on managing down, so to speak, if we need to use the hierarchical terms … There’s probably a better term we could use for that, but focusing on supporting the team or your idea of what supporting a team looks like. A story that you told and that I found interesting was about somebody who you had gone to great lengths to get their performance to … You didn’t use this terminology, but what I would call getting the performance up to this three out of four star level and retain them on the team. They took a huge percentage, certainly out of proportion with other people on the team, but maybe the majority or maybe 90% of your time and attention in terms of supporting people is going to this one person. For years, you supported them enough that they could get that three out of four star performance, and then later you reflect on that and smack on your forehead. You’re like, “Was that actually fair to the rest of the team? Was it actually helpful for the company? Unclear.”
Charity: There are different flavors of this situation. One flavor is where it’s an underperformer, and you’re propping them up. This one’s actually a little more interesting than that. They were actually a very high performer. But they took a lot of corralling, and they took a lot of emotional support and mediating relationships between them and the rest of their team. They’re a little bit of a prima donna. To me, it was like, “Well, they bring so much. When they’re on, they bring so much to the team.” I felt really proud of myself for keeping them there, keeping them productive, and it’s just like you said. I would’ve said, “This is one of my top achievements as a manager,” straight up until after I’d been a CEO for a couple of years. I started to look back on that and go, “What else could I have done with that time and energy? Who else could I have given it to? What else could I have done for myself and my career? What could I have done for the team? Honestly, was it even the best thing for them in the long run? I don’t think it was,” because they didn’t learn the lessons that they needed to about how not to be so hard on their team and their leaders, which means that they got fired from the next job they had in a way that I think was brutal. I think that the longer those things go on in your career, the harder they are to unlearn. I feel like I ultimately don’t think I did anyone a favor by keeping that situation going as long as I did. I’ve also seen this be in situations where there’s a contributor who is just so fun to have around. They’re just so great, and you really love them as a person. When they’re really focusing, they can deliver that three out of four. But they aren’t always that into their job, and it takes constant corralling and stuff. You have serious “come to Jesus” conversations with them once or twice a year, but they always manage to get it together enough to get it … But it’s only when you look back on that after a couple years, and you’re just like, “It’s going to be like this forever, isn’t it? It’s never actually going to get any better.” That cycle, you can see the impact on the team and on you. But I would argue it’s not that great for them. There are other jobs. I have a couple people in mind, I don’t want to get too specific. But they went on to find jobs that made them much happier. Not every job has the same intensity, the same quirks, the same other team members. It’s not even a, “Are you good, or are you bad? Are you better, or are you worse?” Sometimes it’s just not a great personality fit or something. If that person is on thin ice once every year, a couple times a year, that’s terrible for them. That’s so stressful. They would probably be happier somewhere else.
Allen: Yeah, I really struggle with that. Especially as a manager, you think in terms of the roles that you have on your team, and you think of those as the roles that you are responsible for. So when you see somebody not necessarily either performing very well or you’re struggling to retain someone in that role, you tend to think of it as you or them. You learn over time that that’s not the only causes, but that’s the default place our mind goes. Something that I used to struggle with a lot is if somebody was in really a poor role fit or sometimes a poor organization fit, maybe they would be great at Google with all of the supports they have, and then in our 5% startup, it’s like a horrible fit, or the other way around. But to be able to suss out the difference in between me not supporting someone enough, which were my instinct as this IC that wasn’t supported enough, I want to support everyone maximally and then start to be able to analyze the situation and look at this person and think, “Well, actually, I’m able to hear what you’re saying,” and instead of hearing, “Oh, no. I need to support this person to an amount that they are enjoying this job that’s a poor fit for them,” instead think maybe … You don’t want to ultimatum people, but to work with them to think, “Okay, well, what kind of things would you enjoy? What kind of things would engage you?” and not necessarily take that to mean, “Oh, therefore I need to try to contort this job that you currently hold to be something that is not.”
Charity: I’m so glad you said that. I wish we didn’t live in a world where healthcare was tied to employment, because that complicates this sometimes, but in my ideal world, you would be able to forge the kind of trust and relationship with your reports to where them leaving is almost always a mutual thing, where you both come to the realization that, “This isn’t great, so let’s just talk about how can we support each other through this transition? Maybe stick around for a month or two if you need the salary, and I know you can’t take the break. But we need you to be looking,” or something. But they know when they’re not doing well, and there comes a point where you’re just wearing them down in their spirit when you try to keep them here and happy. So at Honeycomb, we call it graduation when someone leaves. We give people the option of, “We’ll throw you a little party. We’ll come. We’ll tell the favorite stories of when you were here.” There have been several of our really senior people who’ve been here for a long time who we don’t want to put them on a PIP. It’s just a terrible way to end a relationship like this, and it’s humiliating and everything. But we have to just be like, “Look, you’re not having fun here anymore, are you? It shows, and it’s hard. It’s hard on you. It’s hard on everyone.” In almost every case, if you try to approach them as equals and you just acknowledge what’s in front of you, my perhaps Pollyanna-ish wish is that we should be able to have those conversations. One of our company values is that we hire adults, and I feel like treating people like adults, to me, that means I want to hear hard truths. You can’t trust someone’s yes until you’ve heard their no. If someone’s willing to tell you hard things, then you know that you can trust what they’re saying when they tell you not hard things. To me, I would want anyone who reports to me to feel like they can come to me and just be like, “I don’t know if this is working anymore,” without any fear of reprisal or punishment. I also feel like often, managers feel like they’re supposed to try and beat people into staying or convince them or strong-arm them into staying, and it’s like, “That’s not good. That doesn’t really work. If they don’t want to be here, they shouldn’t. We should only have this employee-employer relationship as long as this is genuinely the best thing for you at this time in your career. Eventually, it won’t be, and that’s fine.”
Allen: Yeah, I think there’s an interesting mindset where we know as managers that retaining great people is a huge benefit to the company. Certainly, at some companies, a certain skill, you’ll get measured in that in a very just like, “Okay, here’s a percentage or a number.” Then you want to try to achieve that number. You can get a little bit thoughtless about it. But there’s a reason why diving save of somebody who’s not happy anymore and they’re out the door and especially if it’s a role fit or company fit thing or they’ve just at a different point in their career now as opposed to they’ve been mismanaged in some way and they were wronged in a way they can easily be righted, but that diving save is pretty looked down upon by, I think, a lot of thoughtful managers of at that point, it’s like, “Are you really helping them? Are you really helping the business?” If you’re like, “Oh, we’re going to try to emergency find some extra compensation for you” or “We’re going to make you some promise,” it’s already dissolving. They’re already not happy, where the real value I think of and imagine you would agree from what you’re saying in building … because we all know we want a high-retention culture. We want to keep good people, is doing that all the way through and not at the end, when things have already gone wrong.
Charity: Yeah, because then you just incentivize everybody to bring a crisis. It’s like the only way they can get your attention is by quitting or bringing a crisis or something. Absolutely, and it’s not that I don’t think that there’s ever diving saves that can or should be performed. I’ve seen a couple that, yeah, that was the right thing to do, and it went on to be very successful. But you can’t create a track record or a culture of doing that. Absolutely agree. When I worked at Linden Lab and made Second Life, I remember this was very early in my career. I remember there was a point after I’d been there for a couple of years where we were just like, “Wow. We can’t remember anyone ever voluntarily leading this company.” We were so proud of that, that this was a company that nobody wanted to leave. People loved working there. Now I look back, and I’m like, “It was not a great sign.” It wasn’t. We did not know how to have managers. We didn’t have any performance management. There were some amazing people there, and there were some people who just coasted and did nothing or were actively harmful. There was nobody minding the store and tending to the … It’s not really nice to call people weeds, but there were problem patches, and nobody dealt with them.
Allen: No, I think that’s a great point, and I think that it is very easy to get into this mindset of “100% retention is the goal,” when realistically, even putting aside this thing of people are going to grow up, and their interest and what engages them is going to change over time. The company is going to probably hopefully change over time and technology. I hope your company is changing. Then you also occasionally are going to have some people that have some toxic elements. Hopefully, your hiring filter is keeping out the people who are extreme max toxicity, or you immediately notice soon as they start. But sometimes people will really be on the edge, and they’ll have some subtle things that are corrosive to either just in general in your view of what a healthy company culture is or the type of team or the type of thing that you’re building, and it’s harmful to other people on your team. If you keep that mindset of, “Oh, let’s retain everyone,” you’re almost necessarily … Again, to be clear, I’m very much on pro team, “Let’s have long tenures. Let’s hire people for the long-term. Let’s do long-term decisions.” But if it’s zero and your aim is zero, you’re going to tend to end up with situations that are bad lasting way longer than they should, like you say, bad for the person, bad for the rest of the team, and I think that’s one of those manager lessons.
Charity: I actually think the most harmful thing any manager can do is not deal with problem people.
Allen: But we have a whole bunch of people who have instinctual conflict avoidance that would really rather not deal with it.
Charity: Yeah, sure.
Allen: “Maybe we’ll just support them a little bit more.” But no, I think it’s an interesting thing and I think a valuable thing to push ourselves on. I appreciate that framing for it. Do you have any mental model or useful system or framework that you use for gauging when you have somebody on your team or you’re supporting a manager who’s struggling with someone on their team to gauge the difference in between, “Okay. This is somebody that’s needing a lot of support, but we want to support our team. We support people”? That’s part of how you retain good people. That’s part of how you build psychological safety. It’s not like someone has a hard time or makes a mistake, and then you’re like, “Okay, bye.” That’s how you create all the worst psychological things on your team. So we want people who support their teams. How do you gauge, though, when it’s too much? Maybe that’s just a fundamentally hard question that has no answer, but is there-
Charity: It’s such a hard question. I look back, and I’m like, “Yeah, we always wait a little too long to deal with some of these things.” But then on the other hand, you’re never going to get it perfect, and I think I’d rather us wait too long than not long enough, all things considered. So I have a couple of heuristics. One them is just in the first 90 days of someone’s tenure, managers are so much in support, support, support, enable, enable, enable mode. I think it’s really important that you remind them to periodically stop and check themselves and ask themselves a question, like, “Honestly, if I could get a redo on hiring this role, would I do that, or would I want to stick with this person and invest in them?” It’s not like you want to have that in front of mind all the time. But if you’re 90 days in you’re like, “Wish I could throw this fish out and try another one,” that is not a good sign,. Because our default is to want to keep invested in the people we have. Another one is just remembering to ask ourselves, “Do we really see this getting better at any point, honestly?”, because there’s a lot of times when you’re so in it and you’re so busy supporting everything that you don’t really stop and go, “Can I envision this ever getting better?” When you do, you’re just like … or you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, I can, and this is what it would look like.” This one’s a little tricky because you don’t want to fall into the whole productive asshole thing, where it’s like, “Well, but they’re so productive that we don’t care if they’re dicks.”
Charity: But there’s also … What was the Google thing? I forget the terms, but it’s like high-performers are either … Was it prima donna and workhorses or something? But it’s like some are just no drama. Then some of them, they’re a handful, but they’re worth it. I put myself in the handful, but worth it category. But the more of a handful someone is, the more they do have to be worth it.
Allen: Yeah, I’ve seen a few frameworks of this.
Allen: I struggle a little bit to come up with good terms sometimes for folks that are a handful. I much prefer the term “handful” to “diva” or “prima donna.” Unfortunately, a lot of the terms for people who require disproportionate amount of manager attention tend to be gendered, which I don’t love, or even if they’re not explicitly gendered, but obviously, “prima donna” is very explicitly. But I think there’s a useful mental model that I saw recently. A similar model to this is this idea of mapping performance and trust. So that’s, I found, useful. Sometimes some people just need a little bit more support, and like you say, it’s not inherently like, “Oh, they’re toxic to the team. They’re harming other people.” Sometimes people need a little bit support, or they’re maybe a little bit of a handful.
Charity: Yeah. For example, they make some waves. But often that’s because they’re shaking up some places that are comfortable that probably shouldn’t be so comfortable, right?
Charity: It’s just like, “That needed to be disrupted.”
Allen: Yeah, like someone who asks hard questions that everyone else has been too conflict-averse to ask, that’s actually really valuable, even if that means that person is going to require more manager attention. So I’ve been recently playing around with my head of this mindset instead of thinking about, “Well, how much manager attention do these people make?,” it’s like, “How trusting and trustworthy are these people on the team?” If we know we want to have high-trust teams, we want to have teams where there’s high psychological safety, who are the people on the team that are fostering trust; that they’re trustworthy; the other people on the team trust them; the more time you spend with people, you trust them; they do what they say; they say what they’re going to do; and that is positively affecting team trust, and who are the people that are pulling your attention because they’re undermining that trust or just maybe neutral? But that’s something I’ve been increasingly thinking of, is maybe a useful signal in that, rather than sorting people into, “Yeah, this person draws attention to themselves,” but sometimes that’s really good, to your point.
Charity: I don’t remember if this is part of the kmaves versus diva thing or if I dreamed it or whatever, but my memory is that part of it was like, “Are they out for themself, or are they out for the company? Are they shaking waves or anything because it’s about them, or are they earnestly just trying to do what’s best for the team, for the org, for the company?” Sometimes it’s just not super elegant, but that’s how sausage does get made. I think that the way you put it’s great. The more time you spend with them or working with them, do you trust them more, or do you trust them less? I think that those are interesting ways, not entirely alike, but getting at the same thing. Are there-
Allen: Yeah, they’re very related, I think. The people that we tend to trust and the people that build trust rapidly are the people who demonstrate … probably not super intentionally, but just like you observe how they think and how they make their decisions. They demonstrate a team-oriented mindset of, “Well, okay. This is going to help us achieve our common goal, and we’re going to rally in this direction. I’m going to be plainly, legibly working towards that.” Then the people who sometimes undermine trust is the people who will make a reasonable argument, which then in retrospect you realize actually ended up maybe benefiting them to the detriment of the team, or “Oh, they’re making an argument,” and it’s like, “Yeah, that seems reasonable. Should make that change.” In retrospect, you realize, “Wait a minute. Now there’s a whole bunch of work that’s not on your plate anymore, and now you can get that other thing that you wanted,” not that you want to ascribe evil motivations to people, because most of the time, it’s not evil. It’s just like, “Are you motivated by trying to achieve a common goal, or are you motivated by your pet thing that you care about?”
Charity: There’s a subtler flavor of that, too, which is not even that they’re out for themselves, but just like, “Do they tend to be right over time?” Those are the people that I learn to listen to. Even if it doesn’t sound right to me, I’m like, “Well, history says I should probably pay attention, and that’s probably worth keeping around.”
Allen: Yeah, that’s an interesting point to me, because one of the things that we talk about on our team sometimes, and this comes from a Brene Brown quote, which is that you want people who value getting it, rather than being right. If you reward being right, then you’re inherently punishing being wrong, which then creates people worried about whether or not they say their mind. So we all want to be we’re trying to get it right. So I really like that mindset, but there’s a little thread that I’ve been still working through how to reason about, is that even though we’re a team that values getting it right and we don’t want to be focusing on, “Oh, this person was wrong” or “This person was right,” there is, to your point, a trust that builds up when someone is often right. So I’m thinking out loud on our podcast. I want to build up my mental model for, “How do we maybe talk as an organization or as leaders about the trust that comes when somebody is right in a way that doesn’t maybe enshrine the rightness, but maybe enshrine something more closer to when they spend social capital, when they make waves, when they are willing to” … Transgress makes it sound more dramatic maybe than it needs to be. But when they’re able to rally attention of like, “Hey, come on, everybody, we need to do better about this. In retrospect, was that a good investment? Was it worthy of our attention?” This may be a little more specific thing, “Were they right?”, which I know exactly what you mean when you say that.
Charity: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. No, that’s super interesting. I like what you’re saying there.
Allen: So building off of that, we have this thread, and this is related to this idea of thinking about the teams that we’re on and the organizations they were in as a system, which is very much one of these, “Okay. Now I’m a more senior manager. I’m a manager of managers” or “I’m a VP or CEO,” or whatever. You tend to get more and more people as they move up in those levels talking about systems thinking and “How do we teach systems thinking?” and “How do we encourage our people to think beyond the micro exactly what meeting you’re in, exactly what the person said,” or whatever, your idea of why they might’ve done what they do? So I saw you writing about this, which I love. But I was curious, how do you define systems thinking? Because I’ve recently found myself trying to talk about it more in the context of my job, and I’m imperfect yet currently about how I define it and encourage, “How do we hire and teach systems thinking? What do we even mean by this?”
Charity: I’ve been reading a bunch of some systems thinking books. Jessitron, her blog about systems stuff is really good. There are some people who are really good abstract thinkers, and I’m not one of them. I need stories, and then after I have stories or experiences, I can fit them into systems. Then I can reason about the system. But I find it really challenging to jump straight to the structure. The systems thinking aspect I feel like is like we’re social animals, so we tend to think about things as being on a very personal level. But so much of our behavior, maybe all of it if you ask some determinists, is not actually defined by what we think or what we think we think or what we think we feel, but the situations around us, the relationships, the scenarios, the history. I think of systems thinking as being a way of just trying to shift our attention to the structural things that influence the way we behave or the way that we move through the world, usually without our noticing. Most people are not naturally attuned to this. It is a learnable skill, and I think that any effective manager of managers has learned to do it in a way, because so much of going higher up the leadership chain is really … I have a tweet thread about how being a CEO is a long, slow march towards sociopathy, because if you’re going to do it effectively, you have to learn to switch off your little empathy button, like fucking Data. Turn off the little empathy thing and think about people as resources. You have to stop thinking of them as fully human, or you can’t function. We had to do layoffs years and years ago, and I remember the only way we made it through was I just had to think about numbers. Can you imagine being President Obama or someone who has to make decisions on that level? You have to have it and you’re a sociopath in order to function, and the difficulty, I think, is really keeping yourself grounded in the world of being human and being able to move back and forth between them, because you want people in positions of authority who can do that without losing themselves to it.
Allen: Yeah, it’s interesting, that point you make, and I feel that pain over time. The bigger the team that reports to me, the more pressure I have on the empathetic, like, “Why does there have to be any conflict?” Then it’s just like, “Okay, we need to break even. We need to be profitable. Otherwise, we stop existing.” So yeah, I feel that pain deeply. It reminds me to one of your points of this mindset you need to build, which is going from, as you say very correctly, we are social animals that think of things from the one-on-one personal interactions we have and then zooming out, and it’s like, “Okay. Well, what is all the context that is maybe affecting this?” There’s a term that I always forget, but I full disclosure looked up while you were saying that. I’m like, “What is the term for this?” They call it the fundamental attribution error.
Charity: FAE. Yep. I wrote about that a couple times.
Charity: We assume that we have more impact on the world than we do.
Allen: Right, and we assume that other people’s tendency of “Why are they doing this thing?”, well, it’s because of the kind of person they are, or it’s because of their motivations, as opposed to like, “Oh, they’ve just started cat-sitting today, and they have some huge problem. Their apartment is literally on fire right now.” It’s like, “No, no. It must be because my email is too long, and so that must’ve been why they’re slow to respond to it. I just suck it writing,” or maybe they suck at whenever. We create all these stories, because that’s the way our brains work. We make stories.
Charity: Yeah, exactly.
Allen: So as difficult as it is, that’s the skill that we’re building and hopefully coaching, is building that mental model of, “Okay. Where does the actual attribution belong?,” because we want to build and evolve the systems. Not only do we want to live in these systems, hopefully we’re helping improve them if we’re managers and certainly if we’re managers of managers. You had a little quip in one of your posts where you’re talking about a signal that maybe somebody could use some more systems thinking, which anytime somebody’s thinking like, “Oh, man. Those other managers, they must be either stupid or hypocritical or bad at their jobs,” and it’s like, “Hmm. Maybe. They might be. It’s possible. But let’s first do some analysis. What are some other things that could potentially describe this?” You can just sit there and think of that, or you can also ask questions. You can inquire.
Charity: One of the most frustrating things about management is that there are some times when you can’t give people the explanations that you know they would understand immediately.
Allen: I hate that so much.
Charity: They would get it.
Allen: I hate it so much.
Charity: They would understand. They’d be like, “Oh, yeah, totally.” But you can’t. You cannot. For security reasons, for interpersonal reasons, for privacy reasons, you cannot. The only thing you can do is hope that you have built up enough trust with your team that when you say, “Because I said so,” that they give you the benefit of the doubt.
Allen: Yeah, and then hopefully you don’t have to cash in on that very often. That’s one of the things. I’ve never run a public company, and I don’t know if I ever want to. I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want to. But that’s one of the things I dread, is when you get into like, “Okay. Well, this information is meaningful information that you disclose on the markets,” or whatever, and adding additional layers of disclosure and regulation and all that kind of stuff just adds more circumstances, where it’s just like, “Yep. We’re doing this thing. Why are we doing this?” One of the things that you talk to people who work at really large companies and you often hear … and people know why it is, even if they don’t say why it is, because it’s so famous, is stuff that legal has said. You talk to people at Amazon, and they’re like, “Oh, yeah, all of our Slack channels, the history gets purged after 15 days.” Then you’re like, “That sounds like they weren’t willing to pay for the extra storage.” “No, no. They’re on the ultra enterprise plan, but legal doesn’t want any” … They don’t say, “Oh, legal told us,” or I don’t know. Maybe legal did tell them. That’s why. But the assumption is because that at the scale of Amazon, it’s literally a million employees across everyone, including all of the warehouse workers, but there’s going to be someone in some channel being like, “Oh, man. We’ve really completely monopolized this market,” or whatever.
Charity: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Allen: In some private channel.
Charity: Yeah, and this is why I feel like it’s so valuable for engineers to become managers and then go back, because managers are never really going to have the credibility with engineers that their fellow engineers will. There are some times when … because, like you just said, we’re storytelling creatures. When we don’t have the information, we make something up. I’ve seen so many times engineers would be like, “Oh, management, blah, blah, blah, blah. They have to get stuff,” and a senior engineer will just step in and go, “Guys, it might be this. It could be this. It’s probably something like this.” Then everybody’s like, “Oh. Oh, okay.”
Allen: “Oh. Yeah, that does make sense.”
Charity: “That does make sense. Oh, yeah.”
Allen: You have a different story, and you’re like, “I just wanted a story.” The first one that came to mind was that-
Charity: Exactly. “The world is against us.” I’ve got to say, one of the most infuriating, frustrating things for me has been as an engineer who I still very much identify as an engineer, I’m coming to realize that the most profound and meaningful things sound the most fucking banal. It’s just like you go through this intense experience, and you come out the other side. You’re just like, “Whew,” and then it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Hard work makes you better at your job,” or something stupid like that. You’re just like, “Jesus Christ. Did I just say that? Did those words just come out of my mouth?”
Allen: “I went through that much pain to learn that lesson?”
Charity: I know. It’s just the stupidest shit. You say it out loud, and you’re like, “Oh my God,” or “Company values matter,” the mission statement. I’ve spent my entire life just making fun of those fuckers, because it’s so generic and so stupid. I come all the way around to realizing, “Shit. That actually really matters. It really deeply connects to people’s motivation and love for their work and meaning and their jobs and all this shit.” It’s frustrating.
Allen: No, I’ll defend you from yourself a little bit, Charity, that I think that a lot of our … I was just saying in the past generation, cynicality about the company values is disproportionately lobbed, and I think rightfully so, at the kind of company values that you would see where, ‘What are the company values?” It’s like, “Deliver outsized returns for our shareholders. Optimize synergy in vertical markets,” things that are so-
Allen: Yeah, copy-paste. It’s literally, “Any organization could have this.” It doesn’t mean anything to distinguish you from any other organization, because you’ve just described a textbook from the 1960s about how a corporation works, whereas you mentioned a value today, which is, “We hire adults.” That’s a company value that Honeycomb has, and I’ve never heard that as a value. I’m sure there’s probably at least one other company out there, especially now that you publish it and you become more successful company and maybe other people hear about that. But when I hear that as a company value, that makes me think, “Huh.” It gives me pause a little bit, and then I think, “What are the implications of that?” That seems like it maybe actually makes some of the trade-offs you’ve been talking about today, and so that implies to me that these are things you actually at the leadership level are thinking about and engaging with around things, like, “We want to have people that are building trust and not necessarily this is” … People will joke some companies and startups can become a bit like a daycare, or you just have a bunch of people maybe being toxic or not pulling their share or just doing whatever they like that doesn’t even help the team. “But we’re just going to all try to corral these people,” and every engineering manager only has four reports because they’re all so high-maintenance or whatever. But you’re saying, “No, not that. The opposite of that, maybe not the extreme opposite. Of course, we still want to support people, but we are going to try to make a stamp in this direction.” So I think the company values where they can be really valuable, but they aren’t fundamentally always valuable at all organizations is when they both really actually play through the whole organization into the way that we hire, the way that we promote, the way that we make decisions, and all of that, but then also that they say something, that they exclude something. They take a bit of a stand that actually really distinguishes you in some way from the median organization.
Charity: Yeah. I like that.
Allen: You can send that note back to your past self and be like, “One day, I’ll be the leader, putting these company values and repeating them over and over again. But trust me, they’re not going to be these banal, cliche ones.”
Charity: Got to learn everything the hard way.
Allen: Yeah. You could have in theory just said that, but in practice, sometimes we need to do it in order to learn.
Charity: Yeah, the one that I’m thinking about a lot right now is just … I read this book called the Customer Service Handbook or something, and it’s great. It’s like 150 pages, mostly stories, and it’s talking about stuff like why people love shopping at REI. The customer service mission statement from REI is something about “We support and empower people, lifelong quest to conserve and enjoy the wilderness,” or something.” So they hire people who love the outdoors, which is why they’re different, like Sports Authority and all this stuff. All these little ways you see it trickle throughout the organization sounds easier than it is. Conversely, then you’ve got Comcast, who’s the worst company in the world. You remember that phone call that went viral where this guy was trying … First of all, you cannot cancel your Comcast account online. You have to call someone, and as soon as you call, you get transferred to a customer retention specialist, who gets paid based on talking you out of canceling your Comcast account. Some guy recorded an eight-minute call of them just refusing, and it went viral and everything. Then Comcast apologizes, like, “Oh, this is not up to our standard.” It fucking is. You hired somebody to talk him out of canceling the account. You’re literally structured. That is not putting your customer … trying to make them happy or successful. You’re literally incentivizing the opposite. That’s systems thinking. It’s just like creative systems.
Allen: What is the system that created that?
Charity: Yeah, exactly. But what I’ve been thinking about, I feel like we started out this conversation talking about making the implicit explicit. I feel like Honeycomb is a pretty customer-oriented company. If something’s wrong, you have to get to an engineer. Our engineers are like, “Fuck yeah, we’ll do this.” But I feel like it’s uneven. Something I realized is we don’t have a company value that refers to our customers at all, and I think that over the next year, I really want to draw that line explicitly that all of this that we do is in service of our customers, which sounds obvious, but it’s not necessarily. If you don’t draw those dots explicitly, it leaves room for confusion and other things to creep in. The few times Honeycomb … The people here are amazing, and culture is by and large great. I would say that. But there have been a couple of times in the past where I felt like we got a little naval gaze-y, and I’m like, “Yeah, because that was us acting like the company exists for us.” It doesn’t. It exists. We do all of this not because we’re the most diverse company out there, not because we believe so much in work-life balance. All these things that we do are in service of our customers, and that was a little bit of a mind-blown moment to me.
Allen: It’s very easy to get into that mindset where the company is the purpose of the company when you are someone who is spending your day working on the company, and it’s your life’s work. Your life’s work is to build this great culture and a diverse team and strong values and great processes and all these things, and so you want it to be really good in and of itself. So you read books about how to make the company better, and some of those books might be about, “How do you deliver customer value?” Those are often good books we’re reading, but other times the books are just about culture or about coaching people or about creating emotional safety and all these things that are super valuable tools to create a business that actually can sustain itself and keeps existing and doesn’t go bankrupt because you’re just naval-gazing.
Charity: Christine and I met at Parse, which was a wonderful product, mobile backend as a service, really before it’s time. That’s where I learned the value of design and engineering tools and technical products. The passion that people had for Parse was incredible. We got acquired by Facebook. Facebook eventually shut it down. I will never forgive them, because they’re assholes. Other companies actually offered to buy Parse. They were just like, “Well, write the paperwork.” Fuckers. But Parse was never a business. They had to get acquired. All of this makes sense to me in retrospect. I had no idea what was going on at the time, but they were going out to raise for their Series B, and they got acquired instead. At that point, we had hired one marketing person and one or two salespeople. They built this beautiful, elegant product. But they were not thinking at all about how to monetize it and make a sustainable business. So Christine and I, from the very beginning, we were like, “We are building something that people will pay us money for, because we want our destiny to be in our own hands.” The key to being at the helm of your own ship is business success. If you are doing well or even if you’re doing okay, investors don’t want to fuck with you. They don’t want to mess with what’s working, even it’s kind of wacky. They’re just like, “Well, it’s working. We don’t want to touch it.” It’s when you wobble. It’s when you’re not doing well that they’re going to step in and they’re going to suggest things, just some value of suggesting.
Allen: Yeah. If you’re losing money and you need to raise your next round, it’s not a suggestion.
Charity: Exactly, exactly.
Allen: It’s like, “Here’s how you can not die.” That suggestion is probably not going to have anything to do with all those great company culture, value things that you’ve all been investing in your life’s work in. It’s going to something to do with some spreadsheet that may or may not be feasible.
Charity: May not be in line with what we have thought we wanted for the product or anything. It becomes taken out of your hands. So yeah, business success is a currency that buys you the freedom to experiment with your culture.
Allen: That’s a great segue into the last thing I wanted to try and ask about today, because it ties into naval-gazing, and it ties into the culture you want to build, which is something that you said, which I’d never seen it said before, but I found it really thought-provoking, which is you encourage people to choose boring culture, which is the opposite of everything we just said. I was just saying, “Oh, pick interesting values. Distinguish yourself from other teams.” But you likened it to that now-famous, I guess seminal idea in our field, which is, “Choose boring technology,” which is obviously not to mean intentionally bad technology or intentionally bad culture, but the idea of that if every single aspect of your tech stack is novel or every aspect of your culture is novel and someone comes into the organization and all everyone is doing is maintaining these weird things you’ve chosen, you may be spending your time and effort in the wrong place.
Charity: Yeah. Innovation tokens, you only get a couple of them, because they all take a lot of resources.
Allen: Yes, and I felt that pain fairly acutely over the years. A couple times, I’ve done things at Steamclock where I felt, “Here’s a thing that isn’t working as well as it could be,” and surveyed what other people were doing, in retrospect without very much time and effort, but just doing a quick check and a bit of Google when reading the first ten results and maybe one book and be like, “Everyone else sucks at this. We’re going to make our own system for X.” Often, what I would be trying to do is take something that would make sense for a much larger company that was way more complicated than we needed at our size, but then try to get the benefits of that scale at our smaller size when really, we just needed a little more discipline or to talk to more companies our size and just do the normal thing and then spend a ridiculous amount of time and attention doing that. So I very much feel like that was like a little bit a light bulb went on when I saw that idea. My question for you on that is so you talked about how yeah, you want to have some unique parts of your culture, and you want to invest in those, but that the novel parts of your culture are not nearly as important as the health of your culture. So my question for you is how do you describe, what does healthy organizational culture look like to you? Obviously, we agree that culture is important, even if some of the aspects of it are “boring” in that we haven’t necessarily created a totally novel PTO structure or something. But what does health look like to you when you’re thinking about that?
Charity: Well, I think it looks like to the extent possible that everyone feels like they have agency in their job, that they care about it, that they feel personally invested in it, and that their creativity is engaged in it, because most companies fail. Most of the time, most people are checked out at work. But they have the potential to do so much better if they actually care. In order to care, they have to not be just taking orders. They have to be engaged in it in some way, and if they actually care about their work, then the next step is to have healthy feedback channels up and down the hierarchy, because if you need to course-correct, you need to be getting that information. You need people not to be scared. You need them to care enough to speak up. You need to be able to get the information you need to make good strategic decisions. I’m holding up this book The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. I literally have a copy of this on my desk at home and here on my desk at work, because the subtitle is Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s by the guy who wrote the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and we’ve book clubbed with it. Christine and I book clubbed it a couple of years at Honeycomb, and then we book clubbed it more recently with the entire exec staff. This guy is … I think of him as like the James Madison of organization. James Madison was this constitutional genius, and this guy has spent his entire career just understanding organizations. He’s got some stuff in here that is pretty … It’s like, “Build a cohesive leadership team. Figure out your strategy. Communicate your strategy. Communicate it again. Reinforce it. Here’s how to run good meetings,” and stuff, which really, to be successful in business, you need to be building something that people want. You need to be able to receive feedback from them. You need to be able to change course, make directional shifts in response to the market or to changes or whatever. You need to have emotional safety. Your team needs to lean into conflict, lean into disagreements. One of the things that I think is a sign of a healthy org is alignment at the top. I think most exec teams don’t spend enough time just making sure that they all have a similar view of the world and that they all think the same things are important and that they’re communicating that consistently to their teams. It’s this boring stuff that sounds so table stakes and so, just like I said, banal that I think that a lot of companies just don’t spend enough time on these basics. They get so distracted with all these other things, but so many of the pathologies of most companies arise from when execs have not resolved conflicts between them. They aren’t aware of them, or they haven’t resolved them. They have to get resolved somewhere, so they get resolved, or they just linger.
Allen: Multiplied out to the entire org.
Charity: To the entire organization. If the execs don’t deal with it, the entire organization has to deal with it, and that’s what gets so stressful and frustrating. You have this vision of what needs to be done, and your counterpart and the other party has an entirely different vision of what needs to be done. You’re just at loggerheads, and it’s frustrating. So there’s the bottoms-up view, which I think is really around making sure people are curious, engaged, surrounded by other people who are curious, engaged, empowered to make changes, learning that they’re all growing. Nobody wants to just be static. Everyone should be growing and pushing their boundaries, and you want a culture where it’s normal to be curious and have curiosity be rewarded and all these things. Then for the top-down, I think you need to have a group of people who can disagree, can argue, who can work it out, who are committed to synchronizing, who are committed to making sure there’s a clear strategy. It’s really hard for most … Actually, maybe not. It’s been really hard for us. I think there are a lot of easier products out there. But it’s hard, but it’s work that if you’re not doing it, it’s not going to get done
Allen: To defend you from yourself again, I think strategy is fundamentally hard, and I think it’s a common thought that part of why strategy is hard is because by its nature, it’s about a prediction that you can’t test, that you can’t trivially test. It’s not just the tactics of like, “Oh, we do this or this” or “We’ll go on the daily metrics.” Your strategy can’t be driven by daily metrics. It needs to be a big, cohesive bet on the direction of the world, and that’s hard.
Charity: Yeah. Even if you have a great strategy, then sometimes a pandemic comes, or there are market corrections. This happened to us twice last year. We had a great strategy. It was working, and then the world changed. We had to come up with a new one. Emily Nakashima, our VP of engineering has wrote two baller articles on becoming a VP of engineering. They’re worth their weight in gold, and one of the things that she talks about is just that what is different or what’s challenging about being a VP versus being a manager? One of the things she says is that alignment is so important. One of the things that she realized was that as a manager, as an IC, one of the things she did as a VP was she continued to do these heroics. She had this side job, basically working nights, to get us through SOC 2 compliance. Then she realized at the end of that that by doing that herself, she had hurt the org by completely hiding the costs of all this work so that we couldn’t budget for them, and it wasn’t visible to us. Meanwhile, her directors weren’t getting the guidance that they needed. I am someone who I work at the extremes, and I love just wearing myself out. I realized that I can’t do that. It is the responsibility of leadership to always have something in the tank, because you don’t know when you’re going to get tapped. You always have to have those reserves.
Allen: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Obviously, there’s the other piece of your team learning. We’ve talked so much about the importance of them having learning opportunities and growth and agency, and then if you’re just like, “I’m just going to take this thing and I’m going to go run with it and shield you all from it,” it’s like maybe it feels like you’re doing the right thing, but then you exhaust yourself. Then when the team needs you for something and you’re so tired that you’re snapping at them or whatever, it doesn’t help anyone.
Charity: Yeah, no. The other thing that I think I wrote in that piece was that people bring the fun. The company doesn’t have to be fun. People bring the fun and the jokes and the humor and all that stuff. If people are working at a healthy place, people bring the chaos and the energy and the fun. You don’t have to entertain them.
Allen: Yeah. You said that, and that was another one of those things I saw in that piece where you crystallized something that I have observed, which is that a lot of the things that build a healthy organization, people trust each other. People have communication paths. People have a shared understanding. People feel like they’re rallying towards a shared mission. Those set the conditions for people then doing fun things, and then somebody’s like, “Let’s have a trivia night.” I didn’t tell anyone that it was like, “Oh, it’s really important that everyone attends trivia.” It’s just something that just popped up out of nowhere. Then people do it, and they enjoy it. If they stop enjoying it, then they’ll stop bothering to … You need to give people the space for fun, which is, I think, part of maybe the misunderstanding where people think, “Mandatory fun. That’s going to be the way.” You want a fun organization, but the way to build that to … I think your point is making the space for it and the preconditions for it, rather than designing it as a leader from a top-down fun. You want bottom-up fun.
Charity: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Allen: Cool. Well, I love it. This has been a lot of fun.
Charity: A lot of fun for me, too. This is a really great conversation.
Allen: Where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Charity: Well, you are already quoted my blog, charity.wtf. There’s also honeycomb.io, and I think the honeycomb.io blog is one of the best technical blogs out there, just constantly publishing, and a lot of it is vendor-neutral. We don’t do hard sales in general, but there’s a lot of just theory and practical stuff about observability and about instrumentation and about being a high-performing engineering team and about collaboration and a lot of interesting stuff. So I’ve got to plug for that. Yeah, I guess that’s about it.
Allen: Yeah. Well, I’ll link both of those as well as that book that you were talking about. Thank you so much for making the time to be on the show.
Charity: Yeah, you bet. Thanks for having me.
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