The Best Fake Offsite

Ring Nebula

Cold-Blooded” by Zayde Wolf 🎵

I’ve been thinking about an offsite at a former employer that none of us attended.

This is a story about a bunch of managers who got revenge on a culture problem with one well orchestrated coup.

Problem 1: We were Burnt Out

Every person has dealt with burnout in their career.

In your early career, it’s easy to look up and blame your manager. “They’re asking too much of me!!” This may or not actually be the root cause, but none the less, it’s still easy to do that. It feels good when things feel easy. But it doesn’t grow us. And sometimes we say ‘yes’ too much on our own for our own ideas.

Your manager may also actually be the root cause. I’m looking at you, person at another company who said to our engineers “We just signed a deal – you’re going to have to work every weekend for the next 6 months. What kind of snacks would you like at the office?”

There was nothing in it for us except Cheeze-It’s and hard cider. We were too junior to know that if we were actually going to work every weekend we should have asked for a bonus on top of the snacks. Wiser me knows I should have asked for a bonus at another employer – cause if you work somewhere where it starts with “Work weekends” before the Jira project is created you have a problem.

As you get older as an individual contributor, you realize you should be saying ‘no’ a whole lot more. That your life is guided by your own choices. That managers need your ‘no’ so they know what to do with it.

So you begin to test the waters. Dip your toe in the ‘no’…

Sr. Managers realize they should be asking for permission more. That their ability to stay in office largely depends on how much pressure they actually remove from their teams and partners – it’s easy to get voted out. Eventually you say ‘no’ by asking the right questions until it turns it into the right ‘yes’ that has business justification, capacity and doesn’t throw everyone off mission. You all get better at working together in the ‘yes’s and ‘no’s. For a moment, you find an equilibrium.

But when it starts to get hard, you learn to start saying a stronger ‘no’ with “We can’t do this. We shouldn’t do this. Why aren’t we hearing me?” It may have no impact because action and influence over time are much better at saying no.

Finally, almost never, as a woman because no one wants to hear it and it always lands you in sh*t, “I said ‘no’” with a sign-off of my email signature that has my Director title. I’m not actually sure I’ve ever said it that crisply. One because, as I mentioned above, the crisper you are the more fire you take, but second: It’s…

Boring 😘

Problem 2: Pressure from another Division

I won’t name the company because I want to protect these amazing managers. In this story it’s important to understand that (1) the managers involved in staging the coup had tried to tell their employees to take more vacation. (2) Their employees also tried to take vacations. (3) A partner sales division wasn’t dropping the heat. Sometimes that division would get…demanding. They would escalate. A lot. They did not always treat our team and our architects as partners.

Some leadership in that division went as far as to call actual friends and teammates of mine “useless” to my face with “You’re not like other solutions architects. You are not useless. You’re actually good. You know what I mean?” I was silent. No. I don’t know. I knew absolutely zero useless architects out of hundreds.

I knew a whole lot of account managers who wanted more of them because that’s how their deals got closed.

I absolutely loved my team and thought my managers and account teams were great. But the pressure was, politely, unacceptable and at times disrespectful.

There’s politics. And then there’s having your team’s general job function seen by a division leader as “useless” while working your ass off and those are not the same thing. Make sure you understand that when someone tells you “You need to be better at politics.” It’s absolutely okay to look back, think “No. You need to be better at culture,” and plan accordingly.

Problem 3: No One was Listening. Even us. 🙂

It feels good to feel busy because it feels safe. You’re doing something. You’re solving the problem. Now. It is exceptionally easy to business justify a small mission in a moment of perceived crisis no matter the actual size of the crisis. Pausing to understand a problem long enough feels unsafe when under pressure. Listening feels unsafe. Experimenting feels unsafe. Putting in small holds until you can solve the bigger strategic issue feels unsafe. Ironically, it clicks when being really busy feels really unsafe and you realize that you should have hard paused a long time ago to get perspective.

As a theoretical example, a product could generate a few small incidents that don’t affect customers. Think dropped logs. Failed deployments. People get mad because they had to slow a change. Annoyed by guardrails. They may make it feel like the world was falling apart. Couple of 5XX for 2 minutes. They are our customers. We are empathetic. At that moment there are no other big problems. There is high level direction on projects we were supposed to be listening for. Things we had said were strategically important.

As a byproduct of those incidents, instead of waiting and listening and understanding, a team could create 10 action items – start working on them – thinking they must do so to keep the culture of quality. They will shift their main missions aside. Bump them a week. Bump them another week.

Then, another larger incident happens. Region outage. A high-severity one. 12 services were impacted. Everyone has action items.

Now that one requires a full Post-Mortem. 300 people involved. A bunch of external customers are mad. Its action items are business critical. Suddenly, sales, has 3 major deals coming that “need a promise right now to close the deal that a new undeveloped feature will be available.” In an effort to close a multi-year deal, the engineers are signed up for something they do not even know about today. Only their manager was involved. They start to wonder, “Why are people so HEATED?” Everything is moving so fast, everyone is off mission.

Their VPs may be playing the sales game, making themselves available on holidays and even days they said they were off, and by doing so 10000000% accepted driving a culture of burnout by modeling it regardless of what their website says.

The above was an amalgam of problems cultures can have all grouped into one. I use it as examples of things you may have seen. Burnout, like any bad incident, is usually a result of a lot of factors – those driven by those in your reporting chain, driven by you, and driven by your customers. Sometimes it’s driven by lack of motivation and not having the right outlets for creation.

In the case of this story, our team was only partially listening to the message of start saying ‘no’ and work on the truly bigger problems that effect the bigger picture of the team and industry. We struggled because the pressure of this other division was so extremely loud – we all really cared about each other most of all.

The Coup

So anyway, one day, our entire architecture team in our segment was signed up for a training offsite.

It was on a Friday. The calendar was blocked out. It was virtual.

There was even a full agenda with speaker slots.

We were all pretty disappointed by the idea that we need to do more required training. Some of us were already studying on the weekend (me) to pass all the tests.

We showed up.

It was just us, no speakers.

Our managers showed up.

The managers spoke first. “We lied.”

We all looked at each other.

“You get this entire day off. We saw how hard you were working. Don’t tell your account teams. Just tell them we’re all at the offsite and not to bother. We’re telling everyone you’re at an offsite. Required training. Now go do whatever you want but don’t work.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a bigger smile on my face.

I was so extremely thankful.

And I felt supremely outplayed. I immediately closed my laptop and went on a very long walk where I didn’t think about work at all.

Don’t Think I Won’t Do It


I’ve been thinking about that fake offsite.

I’ve been thinking also about how we don’t listen to women. Just ask Alexa.

Until they may do something absolutely wild. Like force everyone to take a vacation.

Because actually saying ‘no’ is now boring when there are so…so…many other ways to encourage us all to get much needed perspective.

Header Image Credit by NASA from the James Webb Space Telescope in August 2023. More images can be found on Flickr. This is an image of The Ring Nebula. Specifically “Webb Reveals Intricate Details in the Remains of a Dying Star (NIRCam) Image: There’s just one Ring[4] Nebula to rule them all…shown here are two views of this nebula, one taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the left, and one taken by its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the right. MIRI provided the sharpest and clearest view of the faint halo outside the bright ring. Physical features within suggest there may be a companion star helping to sculpt the layers thrown off by the dying star.”

[4] This is the fourth clue to the puzzle.