Triplebyte

2020/07/26

Categories: GeekStuff

Triplebyte laid off a lot of their interviewers (including me) in April, not long after laying off essentially their entire writing and talent-manager teams. The practical effect is that every single US-based interviewer got laid off, while the non-US-based interviewers remain for now. There was, perhaps unusually, no severance pay. I find myself in a novel situation; I’m actually disgruntled about losing a job. I’ve been hit by layoffs quite a few times before, and this is the first time I’ve felt like it was handled badly. As it happens, a solid majority of the other affected interviewers were also disgruntled about it. Long story short: We talked things out and reached an agreement everyone was happy with, but I think that could have happened a lot sooner.

Since then, Triplebyte has gotten discussed again on Hacker News, for what commenters there seem to feel is poor handling of a transition in their business model, and there’s some similarities between the problems there and the problems I was writing about here. They’ve also reversed the previous decision and posted/emailed an apology about it.

I think that the ways in which people were upset, in both of these situations, reflect a recurring pattern, especially in the tech industry. The pattern is that people do a thing that seems reasonable to them, other people become angry about it, and it seems surprising or mysterious. I don’t think it should be surprising, and I don’t think it’s mysterious. So I’m looking in more detail at this, in the hopes that explaining why I’d consider it reasonably obvious that people would be mad might help some readers figure out why people are sometimes mad for no obvious reason.

(This whole post was pretty much written in May, and then Events Happened and I’ve been too busy to come back and finish the draft. Oops.)

What’s a Triplebyte?

If you’re already familiar with Triplebyte, feel free to skip this section. Triplebyte is, approximately, a placement/recruiting type firm; their focus is on identifying technical people (mostly programmers) and getting them placed in jobs in the field. Triplebyte’s particular focus has been on more accurate technical interviewing, and includes a strong commitment to evaluate candidates based on their observed abilities instead of education and work experience.

Triplebyte’s “remote interviewers” have generally been a distributed team, not least because this provides better time-zone coverage worldwide. Interviewers are, according to their contracts, “independent contractors”. As is usually the case with contractors who don’t get benefits, interviewers got an hourly rate higher than would be typical for a similar role paid as salary+benefits. I don’t know much about the law on this topic, but I would say that I have never otherwise seen independent contractors end up with non-competition agreements; a key point of independent contracting is usually that the contractor might provide the same services to multiple customers.

Candidates take a quiz on Triplebyte’s web site; candidates who do well on the quiz are invited to book an interview. Interviewers sign up for interview slots, and candidates can pick from available slots. What constitutes “doing well” on the quiz is a tunable parameter; it can be made stricter to reduce the rate of interviews, or the quiz can accept lower confidence of success in order to increase available candidates.

Throughout, Triplebyte’s business model has assumed that employers are paying for the service. The original model had employers who hired candidates through Triplebyte paying a placement fee of 20% of the candidate’s base salary for the first year (or 10% for people with less than a year of experience). Triplebyte also had staff (I knew them as “Talent Managers”) who worked with candidates to help them navigate the interview process, and also helped with negotiation. The intent of this was to offset the usual information disparity between candidates and employers; negotiations involved people advocating for the candidate’s side who had a lot more information about salary ranges than most individual candidates do. As their old candidate FAQ put it:

We hate salary negotiations. Hiring managers have an information advantage, and often make offers involving subtle details of equity that many programmers don’t understand. We correct this information asymmetry. We give our candidates accurate information on salary ranges, explain equity grants and tax implications, and help with the negotiation process. Our main goal is to make sure you get the offer you want. See the range of offers we get in our Software Engineer Salary data.

The old FAQ isn’t up any more; I retrieved it from the Internet Archive.

The new model moves away from this towards a subscription model, and the Talent Manager role isn’t part of things anymore; the email announcing this change said that the new model “is the product that recruiters want”.

Triplebyte’s Series B financing round closed in April of 2019; according to the blog post announcing it, they raised $35M. I’ve been told that the company was at least sometimes profitable, although I think it’s clear that the pandemic would be potentially devastating for any placement firm’s cash flow.

The layoffs and contract terminations

The writing team and talent managers were laid off on March 12, 2020. The announcement of this stated that there were no financial concerns, and everyone else’s jobs were secure, because Triplebyte still had 80% of their Series B financing in the bank. In late March, we were informed that Triplebyte was lowering the rates it would pay for some things, for instance reducing the pay rate for an “approved” slot which didn’t get booked from $75 to $25. On April 6th, 2020, the contracts of all US-based interviewers were terminated, with 10 days of notice. The email introducing this explained that it was entirely a financial decision; interviewer performance was great, but there was no way to make things work financially. Interviewers were not offered severance packages.

It wasn’t directly pointed out that the interviewers whose contracts were terminated were all in the US; I initially thought that they had discontinued interviewer roles in general, since I saw so many interviewers mentioning that they’d been laid off. It wasn’t until close to a week later that I saw people discussing this and trying to check it out, and making lists of interviewers and (1) where they were (2) whether their contract was terminated.

People turn out not to like this

It might not be immediately obvious why people are particularly upset about the way this was handled. After all, interviewers were classified as independent contractors. There is no legal requirement to give contractors severance pay. But the interviewers felt wronged. And as a result, a lot of them (including me) got together and started talking to Triplebyte about their concerns about this, mostly with Ammon Bartram, Triplebyte’s CEO. A lot of these conversations were handled by Cam, one of the former interviewers, who served as a focal point for the conversations.

In these conversations, Ammon has repeatedly expressed that it seems unfair for people to be mad, because “we didn’t do anything wrong”. And obviously people disagree, but it’s more complicated than a simple yes/no “was anything wrong” question, and significantly more complicated than the (quite complicated) legal questions to do with employee classifications and labor laws.

In general, when things are going well, people tend to behave cooperatively; they will tend to cheerfully do things a little beyond what they are strictly required to do by contracts, laws, or agreements, and will expect that other people will probably do the same. People may be more willing to do this in circumstances where doing so supports a product, or mission, that they think is important.

So I want to talk about what people are actually upset about, and why. I’m not proposing to address the legal questions, because I’m not a lawyer, and in any event, I don’t think anyone actually cares. A court might care, but no one involved wanted to get the courts involved.

Contractual obligations and social obligations

In general, independent contractors are not required by law to get severance pay. However, independent contractors are also not required by law to do things other than the things they signed a contract saying they’d do. Triplebyte had an expectation that interviewers would do additional work not covered by the contract. There were weekly meetings for interviewers; attendence at at least one of them was mandatory. Interviewers were expected to not only perform interviews, but also write up summaries of the interviews after completing them. Interviewers were supposed to check in on the company Slack server, answer questions about things, and otherwise do miscellaneous tasks pertaining to, but not part of, performing interviews.

Different versions of the contract say different things; some versions simply provide for hourly pay at a stated rate, while others state specific rates for particular services, leaving the hourly rate described but not directly applied to the listed services. No contract I’ve seen made any mention at all of the additional tasks. Some additional work did get paid hourly rates; I worked on developing a new version of the debug challenge problem Triplebyte uses in interviews, and that work was paid at the hourly rate provided for in the contract.

So why did we do the work? Because it was described as part of doing the job. For me, at least, putting in a bit of time contributing to Triplebyte’s quality-of-service (say, by offering advice on grading candidate responses to questions, or helping troubleshoot things) seemed reasonable at the time, because I supported the company’s mission.

But that general background of “being expected to work extra” comes with some expectation that the other party will also go above and beyond the strict requirements of the contract. For instance, severance pay.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

It’s not just that the interviewers lost their positions; that happens, especially during an economic crisis. On the other hand, it usually doesn’t happen so close on the heels of being assured that your job is safe, there are no financial worries at all, and that the company has millions of dollars in the bank. People relied on that statement; for instance, paying down debts rather than keeping ready cash in hand. Then, a few weeks later, they suddenly lost their income. That would have been a much smaller problem if they had not just been reassured that it wouldn’t happen.

It’s not obvious that this creates any particular legal obligation, but I think it has a huge impact on the perception of the handling of the process. It’s presumably true that, at the time when the cheerful reassurances came out, the person sending them had no idea that the interviewers’ jobs were not, in fact, safe. But by March 12th, we knew that there were serious economic risks coming up from a looming pandemic, and plans were probably already being discussed. It would have been wiser to avoid including those firm statements, but instead acknowledge the uncertainty, and commit only to let us know of any changes as soon as possible.

I think this is probably the most significant factor in people feeling wronged.

Various other factors

There’s other components to people being unhappy about this. Some of the messaging from Triplebyte related to layoffs and other similar topics has been confusing or inconsistent. Discussions of how well interviewers are or aren’t paid struck me as not really reflecting a clear understanding of how good a deal Triplebyte was getting on the caliber of people they had, on a contract basis. For instance, if I’m not offering people a sweetheart deal for some specific reason, the last time I charged rates that low was 2003.

Tone and signalling

I think one of the largest factors in ongoing negotiations was tone and signalling. There’s a distinction between the actual facts communicated, and how they are communicated, and I think the “how” went fairly seriously wrong in a few ways.

The layoff notifications went out via email and offered the shortest notice permitted under the contract. During the next week and a half, interviewers noticed unusually low fill rates. We were assured that this was because maybe people created more interview slots than usual, or because of other slowdowns, but many of the interviewers (me included) strongly suspect that the “pass rate” of the quiz was adjusted to reduce the cost.

During negotiations, Ammon frequently said things that rubbed people the wrong way. For instance, he said early on that part of why he didn’t offer the interviewers severance pay is that he didn’t know he could. Not stated: Why this didn’t merit looking into the question and finding out.

In one of the early calls (April 17th), Ammon said something to the effect of “Well, my view is that it’s a job, and you took that job under that contract, and that was a choice.” This kind of language tends to sit poorly with people, especially given that Triplebyte has since unilaterally altered the contract terms (for instance, changing the unbooked slot rate).

One of the things that most struck me early on was that Ammon appeared to be expressing surprise that people were as upset about this as they were, or felt they’d been treated unfairly. When he sent out an invitation for a conference call, he said:

I’m doing a town hall for all of the interviewers whose contracts were ended this Thursday 423 at 9am PT, and hope you can join (we’ll get you added to a calendar event with a zoom link). I want to just talk about this and answer any questions that you have (and talk about what we can do to help).

His response to not being sure why people were upset was to offer a chance for them to ask him questions. Not, for instance, a chance for him to ask them questions.

In the Hacker News discussion about Triplebyte’s opt-out profile displays, Ammon posted this response:

Hey everyone. Happy to answer any questions about this. Basically, we think that LinkedIn profiles don’t do a good job of showing engineering skill (especially for self-taught people or people from non-traditional backgrounds). I’m excited to just build better support for showing side projects and GitHub contributions. LinkedIn profiles have become the default engineering resume (despite the fact that most engineers are not particularly happy with their LinkedIn profile). But there’s lock-in. I hope that we have enough scale to be able to chip away at this.

The “happy to answer any questions about this” wording strikes me as relying on the same assumption: The problem is that people don’t understand Ammon and this is why they’re upset, rather than that Ammon doesn’t understand why they’re upset. (He’s since posted a much better response, and sent out an email reversing the policy change)

And finally, from notes from another of Cam’s calls with him:

He asked: “Do you know anyone who’s been laid off before?”
Me: “Of course.”
He told me that these are common feelings, and that it sucks for us and he’s sorry but people feel this way all the time when they’re laid off.

In a later call with Ammon, this came up again, and he pointed out that in every layoff, there will be people who feel this way. Sure. But they won’t be unanimous about feeling this way. I’ve seen a fair number of layoffs. Often, someone feels really unfairly treated. This is the only time I’ve seen essentially everyone feel unfairly treated. And that’s why this post exists; because I think that the problems here are a kind that are amenable to being thought about in advance and predicted, and could have been avoided, and that a lot of people might benefit from looking at why this is upsetting.

People are hurt because:

These factors combine to create a situation which is upsetting in a way that I think could be reasonably anticipated, and which is not adequately covered by “people always feel this way about layoffs”.

Conclusions

To be really clear, I don’t think the people at Triplebyte, or Ammon in particular, are Bad People. I don’t think they’re committing fraud, or trying to cheat people. But I do think this is a couple of occasions where they’ve been sort of careless about other people in a way that I think should be pretty avoidable. I mentioned to someone who knows Ammon that maybe someone just needed to have The Talk with him about how to coexist with a society full of obligate-social creatures such as humans; they said they personally knew of at least four people who had tried.

There is a recurring theme where smart and successful tech people just never quite catch on to how to watch out for this kind of thing, and it seems like it should be a problem that could be solved. I’m not sure why it hasn’t been already; it seems like it is an expensive problem that could be solved.

This problem isn’t really unique to the tech industry, but it’s endemic in tech, and I think that a little time consciously learning about how humans tend to react to things is probably a great investment for most of us.