A Conversation between Cloud Economists with Amy Arambulo Negrette

Episode Summary

Amy Negrette is a cloud economist at The Duckbill Group. Prior to joining our team, Amy worked as a cloud architect at Trek10, Inc., a cloud software engineer lead at Cloudreach, a software developer at ASRC Research and Technology Solutions, and a software engineer at Yahoo, among other positions. She’s also an organizer of Write/Speak/Code, an organization committed to helping Under Represented Genders sharpen their technical speaking and writing capabilities. Join Corey and Amy as they discuss the pros and cons of remote work, what Duckbill’s organizational structure is like, remote work during the pandemic vs. remote work during the before times, why it’s nice to be able to work whenever you want to work instead of during fixed hours, why the future of travel in the tech industry should change, how Corey and Amy met, what makes cloud economics come natural to Amy, a tool that helps recreate physical events online more effectively than Zoom, and more.

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Amy
With over ten years industry experience, Amy Arambulo Negrette has built web applications for a variety of industries including Yahoo! Fantasy Sports and NASA Ames Research Center. One of her projects modernized two legacy systems impacting the entire research center and won her a Certificate of Excellence from the Ames Contractor Council. More recently, she built APIs for enterprise clients for a cloud consulting firms and led a team of Cloud Software Engineers. Amy has survived acquisitions, layoffs, and balancing life with two small children. 

Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

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Corey: And now for something completely different!

Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. I’m joined this week by my colleague, Amy Arumbulo Negrette, who’s a cloud economist here at The Duckbill Group. Amy, thank you for taking the time to, basically, deal with my slings and arrows instead of the ones that clients throw your way.

Amy: It’s perfectly fine. It’s not as if we are… not the kindest people within the Slack channels anyway. So, I am totally good. [laugh].

Corey: [laugh]. So, you’ve been at The Duckbill Group, as of the time of this recording, which when you’re releasing things in the future, it’s always a question of how long will you have been here by then? No. We’re playing it straight here from a perspective of, as of the time of this recording, you’ve been here six months, all of which, of course, have been during the global pandemic. So first, what’s that been like?

Amy: It has been very loud. And that’s to say, I live in a house with five other people in it, so it’s one thing for me to be a remote worker and just being at my desk, working quietly, but also having to manage noise that you can’t really control, it’s been an extra level of stress that I could possibly do without. It’s fine. [laugh].

Corey: One of the whole problems with the pandemic, from our perspective, has been that we’ve run this place as a full remote operation since it was started, and people come at this from a perspective of, “Well, this whole experience we’ve had with working remote is awful. It’s terrible. No one likes it. I’m not productive.” Let’s be very clear here. There’s been a global pandemic; this is not like most years, and there are stressors and things that absolutely suck about this that don’t normally impact the remote work story quite the way that they have.

Amy: I totally agree. At least before, in one of my previous companies had an office in Chicago, so I would be there once a week, but effectively I was remote because that was an all meetings type of day. And the difference between that and now is that you had very explicit work hours; you had client hours; your work sometimes brought you out the house, if you had to go on travel, or on-site. This is just everything is done within the same ten feet of basically where you work, and you eat, and you sleep, if you have really unhealthy living habits like I do. And while I’m trying to get better at it, I’m also not the best at having time-based boundaries. I’m only good with physical boundaries. So, I 
have to turn off the work computer, to turn on the fun computer, which are physically next to each other, but I have to look in a different 
direction. And that is as close as I get.

Corey: Yeah. It’s the good screen versus the bad screen model of, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to stop doing work now and just move our gaze slightly to one side and look at the fun screen and work on those things instead.” And at first, I was trying to be militant when we started the whole pandemic thing and working full remote of booting people of, “Hey, all right, it’s quitting time. Go home and stop it.” The other side of that, though, is some people are, in some ways, using work to escape.

So, we’ve modified our approach to get the work done. If you’re working consistently more than 40 hours to get it done, let us know; that’s a problem. But let people work when they want to work, how they want to work and be empathetic humans. And that carries surprisingly far. Now, the question, of course, becomes, does this scale to a company that has 50,000 employees? I don’t know. That’s never been a problem that anyone has asked me to solve. But it works for us at small scale.

Amy: I find that the attitude working here has been really understanding as to, we know what our lives are like and we know what kind of work that we actually have to get done within a certain time period. And all of us make those. We don’t feel the need to explain how we were able to get that work done or what time slots happen. You’ll see me and Jesse—one of the other cloud economists—it’s like we’ll be hitting document at the same time at—for my time would be closer to later in the evening, but that’s just because I spent most of the day either taking care of kids or handling house management sort of duties. So, having that flexibility on where my schedule goes without having to answer that question of, “Well, why were you working at that hour?” I feel gives me a lot more control and takes one less thing away that I have to worry about.

Corey: One approach that we’ve always taken here has been that we treat people functionally like adults. And that’s sort of an insulting way to frame it. Like, “What are you saying. That a lot of employers treat their staff like kids?” Well, basically, yes, is the short answer, where it’s, “great, we’re going to trust you with root in production, or a bunch of confidential customer data, but we’re also not going to trust you to make a $50 purchase on the company credit card without a bunch of scrutiny because we don’t trust that you’re not embezzling.”

The cross-incentives of different organizational structures are so twisted at that point that it’s very hard to self-correct. I mean, our approach going into this was always never to go down that dark path, and so far, so good. Will it bite us someday if we continue to grow to that 50,000 person company? Undoubtedly. But I have to believe it can be done.

Amy: I would also think the pressure of managing 50,000 people would break every single person in this company. Just thinking about it gives me panic.

Corey: Oh, yeah. When every person becomes effectively, what, 500 people, that’s divisional stuff. I don’t think that anyone wants to stick around and see a small company go through those kinds of transformations because functionally, it becomes such a radically different place. For better or worse, that’s not something we have to worry about, at least not anytime soon.

Amy: We work really well with our fairly tight teams, I think. And it’s I think it’s one of the virtues of the type of work that we do. You don’t need a team of 15 people looking at one document.

Corey: No. And invariably, it seems like that tends to slow things down. Let’s talk a little bit about something that makes you a bit of an outlier insofar as when you are only dealing with a small number of people everyone’s inherently an outlier. You’re the only cloud economist at The Duckbill Group with a background as a software engineer.

Amy: Yeah. I did not realize that when I was joining. So, this deal with my infrastructure background is that I’ve only ever done enough infrastructure to support my applications. Like, Pete, I come from a startup background initially in my career, where you had to manage your application, you had to manage your own routes, you had to manage your own database connections, your own storage connections, and all of that, which, looking back on it and saying it out loud, sounds like a really bad idea now, but this was life before infrastructure as code and it was the quote-unquote, “Wild West” of San Francisco startups, where you can make a product out of basically anything. And the anything I went into was fantasy football of all things.

So, I always made sure to have enough knowledge so that if I knew something broke, that I could blame it on networking, and then I would be able to show the paper trail to prove it. That was the extent of my knowledge. And then I started getting into the serverless space, where I started building things out of cloud services, instead of just spinning up more EC2 because I was young and impressionable. And that gave me a lot more understanding of what infrastructure engineering was like. But beyond that, I build APIs, I do business logic; that’s really where my comfort levels are.

Corey: For the rest of us, we seem to come from a background of grumpy Unix sysadmin types where we were running infrastructures, but as far as the code that was tied into it, eh, that was always the stuff we would kind of hand-wave over or we’d go diving into it as little as possible. And that does shape how you go through your career. For example, most companies are not going to wind up needing someone in that role until they’ve raised at least a Series B round, whereas in many cases, “Oh, you’re an engineer. Great, why don’t you start the company yourself?” From a software engineering perspective. It’s a different philosophy in many respects, and one that I think is a little bit on the strange side if that makes sense.

Amy: It is. It’s extremely strange how completely dependent the two are on each other, yet the mindset to get into either and of that level of engineering is completely different. My husband and my father are both on the infrastructure side, and they’ve tried to explain networking to me my entire life, and I just—the minute the word subnet comes up, my brain is gone. It’s like I’m replaying Star Trek episodes in my head because I can no longer handle this [laugh] conversation.

Corey: That’s how a lot of us feel about various code constructs at some point. For better or worse, we’ve made our peace with it, and let’s be very direct here for a minute, we’ve learned to talk our way around customer questions that go too deep into the software engineering space, by and large. What’s it like on the other side of that, where there’s an expectation that you have a lot more in-depth infrastructure experience than perhaps you do? Or isn’t there at that expectation?

Amy: There is, I think a lot of that is just because of the type of industry this is. Cloud consulting is always infrastructure first because that is what the cloud is selling; they are selling managed infrastructures. They are giving you data center alternatives, but they’re not giving you are full-blown apps. And whenever they do—let’s say Lightsail—it’s an expensive thing that you, somewhere in your mind go, “I could build that cheaper. Why am I paying for this service?”

So, when I am on the phone with clients and they have a situation that is obviously going to be a software solution, where their infrastructure is growing, but it’s because their software has a specific requirement, either for logging, or for surge, that they’re using either Elasticsearch, or Kubernetes, or CloudWatch Metrics for, and it’s turning into an expensive solution, it gives me an inside, “Well, this is the kind of engineering effort that’s going to need to happen in order for you to write all of these problems and to reduce these costs. And these aren’t as simple as hitting an option within AWS console to bring all of that down.” It’s always going to be seen as more of an effort, but you also get a bit of empathy from the engineers you’re talking to because you now are explaining to them that you understand what they built. You understand why they built it a specific way, and you’re just trying to give them a path out.

Corey: You mentioned the now antiquated idea of going on-site and talking to clients. I mean, before pandemic, Mike and I would head out to a lot of our clients for the final wrap-up meeting, or even in some cases kickoffs, because it made sense for us to do it and get everyone in the same room and on the same page. And over the past year, we’ve found ways to solve for these problems in ways that I don’t necessarily know are going to go away once the pandemic is over. Is it more effective for us to travel somewhere and sit down in the same room with people, who in many cases have to travel in for wherever they live themselves? I don’t know. There is going to be a higher bandwidth story there, of course, and the communication is going to be marginally more effective, but is it going to be so effective that it’s worth more or less throwing a wrench into everyone’s schedule for that meeting? That leaves me somewhat unconvinced.

Amy: One of the strange things is that previously, I would go on-site to clients and fly out to where they are because as many startups as there are within Chicago, and the [unintelligible 00:13:10], and within Illinois, I’m always being sent to New York, or Atlanta, or Denver, for some reason because they’re far and there’re planes there. But we always end up having to talk to some amount of people that don’t even work in that time zone, or maybe even then in this country, so we’re talking to resources in Asia, resources in Europe, which meant we were flying people in to be on somebody else’s phone. And I’m glad to not do that. I’m glad to not have to hang out in an airport, there is a burrito place in O’Hare that I truly enjoy, but that is the one thing I miss about traveling. I almost have my punch card done and it stopped right before then, but I’m kind of okay with that.

Corey: I was chasing the brass ring of airline status and all the rest for a long time. I can’t wait to finally go and hit the next tier and the rest, and where, well, the pandemic through all of that into a jumble and I take a step back and look at it and, you know, I don’t miss it as much. What I do miss is that the opportunity, in my case, to get away from everyone that I spend all of my time with now, just for a day or two, and clear my head and recenter myself. But there are probably ways to do that that doesn’t keep me on the road for 140,000 miles a year.

Amy: I think, or at least I hope, that this will give us a chance to as an industry just reevaluate how we treat travel. A lot of clients treated it as essentially a status level that came with your engagement where we need you on-site so we can show off we have consultants coming in on-site so frequently to give us personal reports, even though we are all in a room on a conference call with other people. So hopefully, even if they’re not forcing that every other week—sometimes weekly, depending on what your engagement is—type of cadence on travel, then maybe it’ll just increase the quality of life for some of us. It would be nice. It would be super nice. I honestly don’t see them forcing that anytime soon, but once everyone gets vaccinated, and there’s a successful pediatric vaccine that comes out, it’s like, I don’t see them, just letting us stay at home and continue doing our job the way we have been for the past year, going on two years.

Corey: So, dialing back into the mists of the distant past, it’s always a question of where do cloud economists—or clouds economist, depending upon how we choose to mis-pluralize things—come from. And everyone here is a different story and there’s not a whole lot of common points between those stories. You, for example, spent some time doing work with NASA. What was that about?

Amy: There’s a lot of misconceptions about working for NASA like you need to be a doctor. [laugh]. And trust me, you don’t. I knew a lot of people who work there that they basically got their degree, and then they just did code work forever and they are lifers there. And it’s such an interesting place to be because, on one hand, you have that mission of space and exploration and trying to do better by the world, but also, it’s still a federal agency and there’s still a lot of problems with federal agencies in that how you get paid is essentially at the beginning of the year, that’s when all the budgets are done.

So, you can’t do the startup thing where you go, I’m going to try a bunch of things, and if one doesn’t work, I’m going to pivot to something else because you’re essentially answering taxpayers and they don’t let you do that. No one wants their taxes going to someone who tried a thing and then found out they messed up. Which is unfortunate, but also a really hard reality of the way these work.

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Corey: I must confess that I’m somewhat disappointed that you opened with, “You don’t really need to be a rocket scientist to work at NASA,” just because, honestly, I was liking the mystique of, “Oh, yeah. You need to be a rocket scientist to understand AWS billing constructs.” But I suppose if I’m being honest, that might be a slight overreach.

Amy: I knew a lot of people there who had multiple PhDs, and they could barely keep their computer on, so really, I’m finding that I respect very smart people, but it also does not imply your world intelligence anywhere else outside of that very specific field. One of the really weird things about having worked there—I worked at NASA Ames as part of their IT department—one of the things we did as outreach was, we did a booth over at SiliCon Valley Comic Con once, and it was great. We had a vintage display of old electronics, like CRT monitors, and full keyboards, and all of this nonsense, and kids would go, “These are so old. Why would anyone use this? It’s so boring.” [laugh].

And the entire IT department showed up to volunteer. We’re like, “No, you don’t understand why it’s interesting. It’s great.” It was so, so hard to watch young people just [laugh] not be interested in what the past of digital devices were. Very sad. And on the other hand, we did get a lot of interest, but it was also having to have that conversation in real life can be a little disheartening.

Corey: It really is.

Amy: But it was fun because it was one of the few things that you don’t really get to see NASA at a comic book convention, so that was actually a really cool thing to do. Also, we got free tickets, so that was great.

Corey: So, what was your background before you got to the point of, “You know what I want to do? Work for a consultancy, whose entire mascot is a platypus, and from there, go ahead and fix AWS bills,” which sounds like, to folks who aren’t steeped in it, the worst thing ever? What series of, I guess, decisions led you here?

Amy: I know you don’t remember this, but we actually met at Serverlessconf, and you opened your talk with, “I am a cloud economist, a title I completely made up.” Your talk was right before mine, so that’s why you didn’t remember I was there because I was actually on the backstage getting prepared for my talk.

Corey: That’s right. I would have been breathing into a paper bag right before or right after my talk, trying not to pass out. People say, “Oh, you won’t be nervous once you give enough talks.” I’m still waiting.

Amy: It never happens. I did finally stop having blackouts, so that’s an improvement. It gets better, but it never goes away. And when you told me that, and I saw the listing, I’m like, “I don’t know what this job is. There’s an easy way to find out what the job is, and that’s to apply.”

And that is when I started going through the process of applying, and then you hired me some months afterwards. And the thing that I found out about looking through AWS billing is that I found out I have a very specific skill set, in trying to find a discount while looking through receipts. This is a thing I thought only applied to my personal life because I don’t really like paying retail prices for anything, so I’m always looking for a way to squeeze out another 20, 30% out of something because 10% is really just taking taxes off of stuff. And the fact that I was able to apply that very specific skill set to an actual technical job is so much fun for me because I like being able to tell stories out of what people spend, just because it is—as we say around here—it’s the sum of all of your engineering decisions. Because everything you do, there’s a price tag on it. And knowing how you got there, and that you can optimize the architecture by looking through the bill is super fascinating to me.

Corey: So, now that it’s been six months, is the job what you expected it to be? Is it something radically different? Is it something else?

Amy: The tone of our engagements have actually changed within the past six months, partially because of the way AWS has made some organizational changes internally as far as we can tell. But really, it’s also what types of companies are finding out that they need a service like this. Before, when I was interviewing, and when I started, I was talking to Pete and Jesse about the types of engagements you do. It was for larger companies; they’re looking for some amount of savings, and then we run some tooling and then we get back to them. And now it’s turning into… some are relatively small companies, companies that wouldn’t get use out of an EDP, for example, because they’re spending so low.

But also other companies, they don’t even really want this saving specifically, they want validation on what the process is like, they want validation on their unit economics and what the cost allocation strategies are. So, it’s fascinating what people actually want now that they understand that that option is out there.

Corey: One thing that you mentioned a minute ago, was the idea of going and giving talks—in the before times, at Serverlessconf and things like that—how do you find that that has changed for you over the past year? And how are you viewing a slow, but effectively guaranteed in the long enough timeframe, return to normalcy?

Amy: So, when everything went virtual, it was a really hard transition for a lot of communities. I’m part of AWS Chicago, I’m an organizer at a meetup group called Write/Speak/Code where our whole deal was to give women and people of underrepresented genders the opportunity to learn how to do open-source, how do you learn how to do technical speaking, we helped them with their CFPs, and all of that required a physical community in order for us to be able to give each other that type of support. Well, we can’t do that anymore. The last big event we did was specifically around getting everyone set up into the organization. So, we do one big one every year where we tell you how to do slides, we tell you how to do everything, and then the rest of the year smaller meetups where we do feedback and prompts and other types of 
support events.

Now, that we can’t do that, we found that a lot of the people who ran these events, they’re extroverts and they’re social to begin with, so they 
got burnt out very quickly, which meant we not only had to find new ways of supporting them but also reaching out to members and making sure everyone could still do the types of thing we promised we’d help them to do. The other issue is that with things going virtual, there used to be clear lines on the types of events you could apply to, which were events that I could reach, that my company would pay for, what have you. But now everything’s virtual, I accidentally applied to a meetup that I spoke at that was based in Australia, which meant I was talking at 10 o’clock at night, just because I explained to them the mix-up and essentially begged to get an earlier slot. And it’s interesting because it presents both a wide array of opportunities, but it also means that there’s now so much noise, and so much burnout and fatigue from these one direction types of conferences, which are long Zoom meetings, which is basically everyone’s workday now, which is just full day’s worth of Zoom meetings. And it’s hard to get people interested.

And really, what these events did best was give people who generally don’t have that type of visibility—like me—who, I am a female engineer, and I am a person of color, so my opportunities aren’t always going to be as well as they could be, but this visibility also gave me a boost. So, when we lost out on physical events, my organization personally lost out on a lot of things that we could do for those people, which is unfortunate, but it’s also what was happening, really, everywhere. Now, we’re gearing more towards how to do less Zoom meeting type of events, and we’re now using a tool called gather.town, which lets everyone go into a space, you can walk around, you can drop in and out of conversations like you would in a hallway, and it has this cute little eight-bit kind of avatar feel to it so it looks kind of like a game, but it’s also—if you go around a large group of people, it pulls up everyone’s picture and then you’re suddenly speaking to each other over voice without having to physically join in or wait for a breakout room or wait to be let into a different room. So, it’s been difficult to try to find ways of managing it, but it’s also been very interesting seeing the tools that had come out of this.

Now, once we start going back to physical events and on-site events, personally, I have a lot of anxiety about that just because my allergies and everything makes it hard for me to do travel in the first place, but also, I’m not really sure how everyone’s going to react being in the same space anymore, or how full they’re going to be. So, to me, it does cause me a little bit of anxiety and I’m going to wait a little until things are more settled and are a little more stable than they are right now. That said, I believe AWS Midwest is doing something physical at the end of this year. But I’m not entirely positive about that.

Corey: One of the things I want to avoid is going back to an old style of re:Invent, where it’s only open to folks who are able to spend $2,000 on a ticket, travel to Las Vegas, and get the time off and afford the hotel stay and the rest. One thing I loved about the 2020 version of that was that everyone was coming from a baseline of its full remote. There was no VIP ticket option that got you a better experience than anyone else had. And I do worry, on some level, that as soon as they can, they’re going to go running back to a story like that. I hope not.

Amy: I hope not, too, because one of the great things about virtual re:Invent was everyone saw the same things at the same time. And you didn’t have to give up one panel because you’re too busy being in line for another panel. And I’ve never liked that type of convention activity where you know you’re actively giving something up just because the line for the thing you want to get to is so super long. That said, they could have done better a bit on the website. The website was really hard to navigate and confusing and the schedule was weird.

If they get that kind of usability fixed and a little more reasonable so that things are surprisingly searchable and easier to navigate, and they have more social type of events instead of AWS is going to—it’s going to announce another service that they’re calling a product, even though it’s just… it’s a service enhancement, and that’s all it is. I would like for all of that to kind of be streamlined so it’s not just more announcements. I can read announcements. I don’t need to watch two hours’ worth of announcements.

Corey: I really hope that at some point, some of the AWS service teams learn that, “Hey. We could announce services anytime of the year,” rather than in a three-week sprint that leaves no one able to pay attention because there’s just too much.

Amy: And it’s hard because it’s hard when you have to hold a release because re:Invent’s coming up. Or you have to be part of their Developer Relations Group where you have to do all of your training and all of your docs right beforehand, just so that it’s prepared for this launch that people may not hear about because it gets drowned out in all the other noise.

Corey: And that’s sometimes part of the entire problem.

Amy: Yeah.

Corey: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. As always, it’s a pleasure. If people want to learn more about what you’re up to, where can they find you?

Amy: They can hire me for engagement here. [laugh] but also—

Corey: Good answer.

Amy: —I do technical talks. I don’t have anything lined up right now, just because it’s spring in my brain took a break, like everyone else did. I’m on Twitter as @nerdypaws because that was a handle I had since college and have not changed.

Corey: Excellent. And we will, of course, leave a link to that in the [show notes 00:31:10], as we always do. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s always a pleasure, and it’s deeply appreciated.

Amy: It’s always a good time talking to you, Corey.

Corey: Amy Arumbulo Negrette, cloud economist here at The Duckbill Group. I am Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, along with a comment telling me why you do in fact need to be a rocket surgeon in order to properly work on AWS bills.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit duckbillgroup.com to get started.

This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.

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