Ana Visneski, now founder of Merewif, a crisis communications firm, is back for another run with Corey! For this go around Ana, who as the “Chief Chaos Coordinator,” is keeping things interesting as she embarks on this latest venture. Ana has taken the plunge and now, with Duckbill locked in a first client, is on the rise!
Ana levels her Coast Guard experience, alongside her previous professional experience, to develop crisis and risk management plans for her customers. From burnout to handling potentially spicy Twitter threads she is honing her work in crisis comms. But her expertise also extends to risk management and mitigation from the seemingly silly, to the serious. Check out her conversation for some well honed insights!
Ana Visneski is the founder of Merewif, a crisis communications and management consulting firm. She is a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard where she was a first responder to major disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the BP Oil Spill, and various other incidents. After the USCG, Ana moved on to a whole new disaster that needed an experienced crisis operator - running Launch Operations for AWS. Following that she was the global lead for AWS Disaster Response, overseeing deploying AWS technology response to natural disasters and overseeing the response to COVID. She has a Master of Communication Digital Media and a Master of Communication in Networks from the University of Washington, where she currently teaching Crisis Communications.
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.
Corey: This episode is sponsored in part by our friends at Vultr. Spelled V-U-L-T-R because they’re all about helping save money, including on things like, you know, vowels. So, what they do is they are a cloud provider that provides surprisingly high performance cloud compute at a price that—while sure they claim its better than AWS pricing—and when they say that they mean it is less money. Sure, I don’t dispute that but what I find interesting is that it’s predictable. They tell you in advance on a monthly basis what it’s going to going to cost. They have a bunch of advanced networking features. They have nineteen global locations and scale things elastically. Not to be confused with openly, because apparently elastic and open can mean the same thing sometimes. They have had over a million users. Deployments take less that sixty seconds across twelve pre-selected operating systems. Or, if you’re one of those nutters like me, you can bring your own ISO and install basically any operating system you want. Starting with pricing as low as $2.50 a month for Vultr cloud compute they have plans for developers and businesses of all sizes, except maybe Amazon, who stubbornly insists on having something to scale all on their own. Try Vultr today for free by visiting: vultr.com/screaming
, and you’ll receive a $100 in credit. Thats v-u-l-t-r.com
Corey: This episode is sponsored in part by our friends at Sysdig
. Sysdig is the solution for securing DevOps. They have a blog post that went up recently about how an insecure AWS Lambda function could be used as a pivot point to get access into your environment. They’ve also gone deep in-depth with a bunch of other approaches to how DevOps and security are inextricably linked. To learn more, visit sysdig.com
and tell them I sent you. That’s S-Y-S-D-I-G dot com. My thanks to them for their continued support of this ridiculous nonsense.
Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud
. I’m Corey Quinn. My guest today has been on this show before, generally at a previous point in her career where she was making a transition. That time, she was leaving AWS, as happens to awesome people a fair bit of the time—more than it potentially should—and going to work at H2O.ai, a company that does some sort of machine learning thing that I can’t be bothered to remember offhand. I talked to her again, as she has just left that company to start her own thing. Ana Visneski is the Chief Chaos Coordinator at Mirewif
. Ana, thank you for joining me yet again.
Ana: Oh, I mean, how could I not when you’re the one who got me to get off my butt and actually start my own company?
Corey: What’s fun is that your company is a crisis communications firm, and first that’s definitely useful for me because I do put the ‘crisis’ in ‘crisis comms,’ let’s not kid ourselves.
Ana: You’re not wrong. [laugh].
Corey: But I’m also your first customer.
Corey: And you’re in one of the harder niches to get people to stand up and say, “Yeah. Oh, yeah. Can I get a testimonial on this?” “Absolutely not. We hired you because we did something horrible.”
And that’s not really how I tend to view crisis comms. I mean, it’s sort of a similar problem to what I had when I started The Duckbill Group of, “Hey, can I use you as a testimonial about your horrifying AWS bill?” “No.” And I understand how it looks, which is not the reality of it. And in time, I found ways to get people to slap their logo on their website. But I want to be the first logo, the fact that I have a platypus associated is just a nice bonus.
Ana: Absolutely. You will be the first logo when I finally get around adding logos. The interesting thing is, that it’s not just crisis comms that I’m doing with the company. I also do threat assessment, violence assessment, so risk analysis, basically, on if you have an employee that might be a risk or, for some of my video game or gaming companies, if you have someone in your fan organization that is a potential risk.
I also do crisis management planning. So, I will put together an operational plan—similar to what I built when I was at AWS—a top to bottom, this is how you run a crisis to make sure your people don’t burn out, make sure your leadership is aware of what’s going on and gets the proper daily briefings, that sort of thing. And then lastly, I’ve actually been doing some consulting with governments on their disaster response technology needs. So, there’s a lot of different aspects to it.
Corey: Yeah, to be very clear, none of those things are things that I have roped you in for. I don’t have employees that I’m looking there with, “Oh, if they blow their stack this is going to be a disaster.” Like that is not the nature of the work we’re doing together. What we’re doing is more along the lines of, “Okay, great. I have a bad tweet that blows up. How do I handle this without, ‘All right, pass me that shovel. We’re digging this puppy deeper. Now, okay. Holes dug nice and deep. Let’s work on the edging details a little bit.’”
Ana: [laugh]. Yep.
Corey: It’s the, “How do I avoid making things worse in moments of crisis?” And we’re building plans for things that I hope to never need around things like data breaches, like, the stuff that every business should have a plan for. Because when disaster strikes, as it tends to in various ways, I don’t want to be sitting here flipping through the Yellow Pages for, “I’ve messed up.” Like, I don’t know what section that would be in. Having a plan ready to go is important.
Ana: I would say it’s actually critical.
Ana: So, that’s the thing is, unfortunately—and as Covid taught a lot of people—having that plan in place before things go wrong before the shit hits the fan, is what’s going to save you or not. It’ll save you millions of dollars, it’ll save your employees, and it could potentially save lives. And so what I think a lot of companies have finally figured out is, “Oh, wait. We weren’t ready for Covid. We actually need to be ready for the next thing.”
But I also teach crisis communications for the communication leadership program for the University of Washington; it’s a graduate program. You’ve been a guest speaker there. You were one of the favorite guest speakers. And there I tell them all the time is that you have to plan. The two critical things before anything even starts is planning and trust.
If you don’t have plans in place on how you’re going to do things, you’re going to have people running around like chickens with their heads cut off going, “Oh, what do we do?” And someone’s going to do something that makes it worse—inevitably—with the best of intentions. And then the other thing is, if your audience, if your customers don’t trust you to be doing the right thing in the first place, then no amount of planning is going to help from that deficit.
Corey: It also, in my experience working with you, comes down to avoiding putting your foot in your mouth with the best of intentions.
Corey: Heaven forbid if you have an employee pass and tweeting out something like, “We are heartbroken to announce the loss of our dear friend and colleague, [Shtephen 00:06:45]. Also, we’re hiring.” Like, make sure you don’t wind up coming across as the worst example of humanity. It’s the basic stuff.
Ana: Even more than just that basic of don’t put your I’m hiring—because you saw that tweet that was going around with, “So-and-so has passed. Please mourn off the clock.” Whether that was a joke or not—and it’s up for debate if it was real or not, like—
Corey: We’ve all known people who would have said such a thing and it would not have been a joke.
Ana: Exactly. But the other thing is, it’s not even just that. It’s knowing the timelines for notifications. So, for example, there should be at least a 24-hour next-of-kin notification window, where if someone is passed, the friends and family grieving can be notified. The last thing you want is a friend of Shtephen to find out that he died because you tweeted about it. That is traumatizing.
So, you actually have to have a plan in place of, you’ve received notification from Shtephen’s wife that he has passed. Obviously, you’re going to be offering her your support. Say, “Hey, here’s the things we can offer you to help.” You have, you know, your package of, like, here’s the ways we can help you. But then you also say, “Can you let me know when it’s appropriate for me to tell the other employees?”
Because the moment you start telling employees—this recently happened; a friend of mine in the Coast Guard passed, and unfortunately, some others found out about his passing because someone posted about it on Facebook. That is not the way you need to find out. So, it’s not even the blatantly obvious things, like, “Oh, hey, don’t post about hiring,” it’s also just the order in which you notify so that things don’t leak.
Corey: I didn’t even know Shtephen was married. I mean, what kind of—
Corey: —crappy employer am I here? Yeah, it’s the human side of it.
Corey: And that’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you. It’s—and again, when I started doing all these nonsense things, I had a circle of friends that I could run things past of, “Hey, is this tweet a bridge too far?” And in time, I needed to rely on those people a little bit less because it turns out that I have a pretty good eye for what’s going to make people feel bad. And that’s really the only thing I care about is if it makes someone feel bad, then I’m not thrilled with the tweet most of the time.
And I figured out where that line lies. And then I got loud and big enough on Twitter where I started having to think about it again, where, all right, I know it’s not mean, but I’m going to hear about it. Is the juice worth the squeeze? And the reason I like working with you on things like that is I’ve grown well past the point where I’m comfortable asking people to volunteer for basically what amounts to something of my own brand-building exercise. Paying people for advice has always been something that I’m a big fan of, and now I’m able to do that and have a professional way.
And I don’t think you’ve ever once been wrong. There are times you’ve given guidance that I have not followed, but that’s what you see anytime you’re talking about someone a downside, risk side of the business. That’s the entire function of an attorney for a business is to identify risk. If you start letting attorneys, for example, my wife, great attorney, great wife, wound up—
Ana: And very tolerant human being. [laugh].
Corey: Oh, extraordinarily—living saint. But she wound up editing a proposal that I was going to send out—back when I was independent—once. And I looked at it and she’s like, “Oh, well that could go wrong, and that could go wrong and no, we’re going to change that and the rest.” It’s like, this is—I understand where you’re coming from, but this is a sales document. And it was for a proposal, it was something like $7,000 back then.
It’s like, worst-case scenario, I’m a nice person, I will fall over myself apologizing and give them a full refund. The end. That sort of caps my downside risk here, if they want to be obnoxious and go to court, well, I’ve been doing this for three months, I guess I’m shutting down the LLC because that’s been sued into oblivion. I’m getting a real job. Like that was the risk mitigation there.
She’s used to doing risk analysis for a company with 250,000 employees, and yeah, they have more to lose than I do in those things, so I get it. But you don’t generally have lawyers on your sales team that are proactively over-promising things, for obvious reasons. At least—because there’s no way to get a salesperson disbarred. I’ve checked.
Ana: Of course you did. When I’m teaching class, one of the other things I do is I actually have some lawyers come in and talk. And the reason is, I learned this one when I was in the Coast Guard, and I was running District Eight. So, it’s basically the entire Gulf Coast and all the way up the Mississippi to the Canadian border. So, all of the units contained in that area, I was in charge of their media relations, their community relations.
And this was, like, right after Katrina. I learned pretty quickly that having a very good relationship with my lawyer—so the head of legal—it made us a one-two punch that was unbeatable because I could look at it from the human empathy, communication, subtext aspect, and he’d look at it from the legal aspect, and the two of us would be like, “Okay, you can do this legally, but here’s the impact of it if you say it this way, or if you do this.” Or, “Ehh, don’t do this one, legally.” Like, it’s just a great thing. But risk analysis, from my perspective versus a lawyer’s, are slightly different.
I do, of course, talk to lawyers, obviously, a lot, and look at the legal side of stuff. But a lot of what I’m looking at is perception, subtext, potential pitfalls. You and I’ve had many conversations, and you know me well enough to know that most of the time I’m giving you guidance, but if I see one more, I’m like, “Absolutely not. Do not do that.” I will lean into it so heavily, and be like, “Corey, here’s the eight ways this is going to go badly for you. You’re going to end up in The Times for bad stuff.”
Corey: And you say that so infrequently that I definitely pay attention when you do. I don’t always listen, I mean, [crosstalk 00:12:14] I wound up posting that Andy Jassy birthday video. But you know—
Ana: I helped with that video, though. [laugh].
Corey: —you were instrumental behind that video. Thank you for that.
Ana: You’re welcome. But that’s—so what’s fun about working with you, and different than my other clients is there are these moments where I get to also express my weird sense of humor, you know, where it’s just like, calling Jeff Bezos, a space cowboy. Those moments of getting to find—help you with that line. Because I have that same sense of humor line and I don’t get to express it a lot with my other clients because most of them are very, very serious bidness. And not to say your business isn’t serious, but you yourself are almost—
Corey: But we do have fun with it.
Ana: —never serious. Exactly, exactly. And that one, like, I really enjoy that aspect of it. But with a lot of the other stuff, it is incredibly serious. And like the risk analysis that your wife does, versus the risk analysis type I do, I’m actually looking at emotional stuff.
So, when we’re talking about acts of violence, for example, acts of violence are, almost to a one, about power. So, what I do is I actually sit and look at okay, this person is lashing out. What power dynamic has them wanting to lash out? So like, if you look at a lot of the school shootings, it’s about kids who feel bullied, they want to regain power by showing they have power or the guys who write their manifesto about hating women, et cetera, et cetera. So, it’s always about a power dynamic.
So, it’s not about, is it legal to go in and shoot the office? It’s clearly not. But has the system taught them that they can push the line far enough that this sort of behavior, they might get famous for it? Or might get away with it? And then how do you mitigate that particular power dynamic? And so that gets real tricky. And luckily, with you, I have not had to deal with that one.
Corey: For better or worse, I come out from a good place to place a good intention. I’m trying to imagine if I just said, “To hell with it,” and decided to just take off the gloves and be a complete bully every time I felt like it. I could do some damage at this point. But… no.
Ana: You could, but the thing is remember what I said at the very beginning: It’s about trust. What has made you so very successful, what has made you so good at what you do is you’re very intentional and very careful. Not to say you’re not a pain in the ass. I will agree with some—
Corey: And I do get wrong. Let’s be clear. I’m no saint.
Ana: Oh, no, no, no. No. You’ve gotten stuff wrong, but you immediately apologize for it. So, when I’m talking about this from a space of trust, it’s not that you’re not obnoxious; you totally can be.
Corey: Extraordinarily so.
Ana: You can totally be a snarky pain in the ass. Like I said, your wife is a saint. And sometimes—like, we were talking about recently, backing off on mocking people for working for Facebook because you and I both saw what it did to Chloe. And it’s just not cool to do that to someone who’s making a career choice, whether we agree with it or not. I personally have companies I would never work for. You and I have discussed contracts—not with you, but contracts I wouldn’t take. Me personally, it’s in my contract, I will not defend someone who is a sexual harasser or sexual assaulter. Like, I won’t defend them. If they do #MeToo stuff—
Corey: Mm-hm. The way that we’ve codified that—
Ana: —I won’t do it.
Corey: —here is generally speaking—and this is a truism, I would encourage everyone in business to consider is, if you don’t respect a client’s business, you probably should not take their money. And—
Corey: —that leads to a lot of things.
Ana: Yeah. I wish that was more common. [laugh].
Corey: Yeah. It’s—and again, I’ve never once shamed a company for this. I have declined to work with a number of companies in different capacities. And I’ve never been very open about this because I don’t want companies to be listening to this and think, “Ohh, we sell ads. He might not want to work with us, so we’re not going to reach out.” First, I will never mention, name, or drag anyone publicly.
Ana: Oh, yeah. Same.
Corey: Secondly, there’s no such thing as any saint in these industries.
Ana: Oh, no.
Corey: I’m not talking about, “Oh, you display ads to people? [tsking noise].” No, I’m talking about, “You make landmines.” Let’s be clear here. This is a whole other side of the universe. And I still never drag the companies that I declined to work with, in public, for having the temerity to reach out. Just seems like it’s the wrong incentive structure if I start down that path.
Ana: I was just talking to a client that I firmly believe we’re at a pivot point in the way businesses are run. I was calling 2022 the Year of Transparency. And the reason I’m saying that is because in the last couple years with people working from home, with Covid, with Black Lives Matter, with all the stuff that’s been going on in the world, and then, like, Activision Blizzard, and the lawsuits, and pay disparity, and Paizo unionizing—Paizo is a tabletop company that makes Pathfinder RPG—
Ana: —you know, all these companies. So, we’re starting to see the game industry see unionization, we’re seeing Starbucks employees want to unionize. People are not going to accept, “No comment,” anymore. They’re not going to accept, “We’re just not going to answer this.” And I can already see your brain ticking on who you’re about to—I know where you’re thinking.
But my point is, when I’ve been talking to some of them, “I’m like, you have to be prepared that the old-school mentality of people not sharing their pay, like, not sharing how much they make compared to the person sitting next to them, that’s gone.” People share that information now. There are companies where they are having spreadsheets. Now, one thing I did like about AWS was I always knew, like, my peers and I were encouraged if we want—my manager was awesome—my first manager was like, “If you guys want to talk about what you’re making, go ahead.” And I was able to find out that because I had the masters, and more experience, and all this other stuff, I was actually—in my level group—the highest-paid one, even though I was the only woman at first. That’s pretty cool to know.
Corey: That’s the kind of story that never makes the rounds.
Ana: Well, and the thing is, we’re not going to see people accepting obfuscation anymore. I think that’s done. It’s too easy to share information now for companies to think that their dirty laundry isn’t going to come out, to think that they can lie and get away with stuff. As you know, we’ve talked about this a bit, I’m actually working on a book with a comic book artist—I didn’t get his permission to say his name, so I’m not going to say it yet—and it’s literally a picture book on how to not screw things up in today’s digital media age when it comes to how you communicate with people. It’s called Oh, Noes: A Picture Book for Execs. [laugh]. Um, but you know, you got to focus on the fact that people aren’t going to accept obfuscation and lies anymore. They’re not going to accept, “Oh, we’re the company. We’ve got your best interests at heart.” It’s not how it works anymore.
Corey: That’s what I see in this entire industry, where there’s this idea that we’re not going to say anything, we’re just going to do our thing and not comment on any of these things. Which, okay, it’s a strategy. But customers and the community and loud obnoxious—
Ana: They talk to each other.
Corey: —people on Twitter are going to comment in your absence. And that becomes a problem.
Ana: Have you seen the movie—what is it?—John Tucker Must Die?
Corey: I have not.
Ana: It’s a movie about three girls at the same high school who find out the guy is dating all three of them, and how they plot to destroy him. And every time I see one of these things happen where a big tech company—or any company—doesn’t say anything, but then their customers start talking to each other going, “Wait a second,” I always think of that movie. And it’s like, you can’t think that people aren’t going to talk to each other anymore.
Especially once you get huge. When you’re looking at these big, big companies, people want to take you down. Like, they’re over this idea of monopolization and this idea that you can do things and there’s no accountability. So yeah, I’ve been calling this the Year of Transparency because I think we’re going to see huge shifts in what is and isn’t okay to hide from your customers. Trust is your most valuable asset. And it can be lost in seconds.
Corey: It’s the easiest thing in the world to get, and it’s incredibly easy to lose it, and almost impossible to regain it once you’ve lost it.
Ana: Yes. And I think my students get sick of me saying this because I say it every week: “Trust is easy to get if you do it right, but you got to do it right.” You actually have to be honest, you have to, you know—and I’m not saying share secrets. But you can be—like, a good example with AWS is, they do great COEs after they have a big splat. You know, 2017, when they had a service disruption, and the latest ones, like, they do a good COE. Being able to rely on that sort of thing is critical.
Corey: For me, it’s one of the things that we do here just because of the sensitive information with which we are entrusted, and the way that we operate in the industry, we hold ourselves to a bar that is pretty similar to what you’ll see in regulated industries and the rest. I periodically disclose all of my investments, which is nowhere near as interesting as most people would think.
Corey: I make it clear exactly where my interests are. This is the reason we have no partners with any company in this space, just because it is the perception of conflict of interest is huge. I mean, half our consulting business is doing contract negotiation on behalf of customers, with AWS directly. As soon as it comes out that we have a back channel deal with someone, everyone’s going to question what’s going on. It’s easier never to enter into those engagements rather than having to try and back-walk it later. No. Does that leave opportunities on the table? Sometimes. But I think this is the better long-term play if I can think beyond next quarter's numbers.
Ana: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s, like, similar for me is that I have to be mindful of not taking contracts with companies that are in conflict with each other. And I don’t mean conflict like they’re at war, but like, where my working with each of them puts me in a position where there could be questions on who my loyalties are to.
Corey: On the sponsorship side of our business, we refuse to do anything that even looks like an exclusivity contract, of, “All right. None of our direct competitors will be allowed to sponsor for a fixed period of ti”—sure, if you buy out the ads you don’t want them to take, I guess, sure. But you don’t get editorial control, either. It’s the same approach: You can buy my attention, but never my opinion. Paying me does not make me say nicer things about you, directly.
It does force me to look more closely into what your company does, and no one’s purely good or purely evil. I will talk more about what I see, good and bad. That is the nature of what you get with me, and that is something that I don’t think a number of folks realize, out of that ecosystem.
Ana: Well, there’s a level of professional maturity that goes with taking criticism. And when you have worked on something for a very, very, very long time, and it is your baby and you’re getting criticized, it can be natural to have an emotional response. And that’s something that, as a crisis communicator, I look at. Are the attacks coming in—and attacks, or commentary, or negative press—is it coming in, in an emotional way, like, what’s happening is there’s been a nerve hit because there’s an emotional investment in whatever’s going on? Or is it an impact of concern over finances, concern over jobs? So, there’s different reasons why people will react and things. And that’s one of the things I have to always keep in mind when I’m looking at stuff. As you well know. We’ve had many conversations about this. [laugh].
Corey: This episode is sponsored by our friends at Oracle HeatWave
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Corey: One of the things that I always admired about you—and I have never once incidentally tried to change this in any way—but you have never leaked confidential information to me about anyone or anything. And to be clear, I have never asked. Back when you’re running launch operations at AWS, I don’t want to know things that are coming out if I can avoid it because then it gets very challenging for me to remember what I can talk about versus what I can’t. My insight into AWS product roadmaps is not much better than anyone else in the industry. I just pay attention and I have a knack for being able to see what’s coming.
But because of the perception that I have the inside track, I don’t break the news; I don’t create the news; I just talk about what other people have already written about publicly. It’s safer that way for me, and I’ve always appreciated your ability to respect confidentiality because for stuff like this, it matters more than anything else.
Ana: Absolutely. My confidentiality is huge thing. I just don’t talk about stuff. And in fact, like, my husband doesn’t even know who half my clients are. He knows the number of clients I have, but he doesn’t know who I’m working with. And that’s because, you know, I don’t need him to know. And it’s a confidentiality thing. And you know, spouse, you’re my husband, I have ten clients. And that’s what I’ll say. You know? He knows about you, obviously.
Corey: Well, I should hope so. He’s lovely. I was at your wedding, lovely though it was.
Ana: That is true.
Corey: So, one other thing that you’re in the process of launching as we speak is apparently your own podcast. Loathe though I am to drive people to the competition, tell me about it.
Ana: [laugh]. It’s not actually competition, and we do have to give you credit for the name. One of your superpowers is giving really funny, punny names to just about anything. Next time we get a pet, I’m going to be like, “I want a pun that goes around this. What can I name the dog?”
Corey: And how long did it take me to name your podcast?
Ana: God, like, two minutes. It’s so annoying because I’d been—
Corey: It took that long?
Ana: You let me finish typing.
Corey: Yeah, that was nice of me, I thought.
Ana: Yeah, you let me finish typing, and then you’re like—okay, so not even two minutes. Like, a minute.
Corey: It’s not that I’m that good at naming things. It’s just that I’ve never worked at AWS, and people who are so bad at it, that when some—they just encounter someone who’s average with these things, we look like wizards from the future.
Ana: So yeah, we’re launching a podcast called [Disasterpiece Theater 00:26:15]. And it’s actually a podcast where we’re going to have subject matter experts from NASA, from medical fields, cybersecurity folks, we’re going to actually have a shark expert so we can talk about The Meg and how that works. But the whole point of the podcast is taking pop culture movies—so like Jurassic Park, Alien: Covenant, all of these—and talking about how they’d actually work in the real world. How would Alien: Covenant have gone down if these people were trained the way people on ships are trained now? Or The Meg, what would you actually do if you had a shark in that scene where there’s hundreds of thousands of people in the water? How would that actually go? I mean, the shark wouldn’t be three miles long, but same concept.
So, it’s going to be a lot of fun, just kind of going through. One of my favorite guests is my dad. My dad’s going to be talking to us about the movie 2012. My dad’s a naval architect marine engineer. And he and I had the most fascinating conversation after watching that movie on how ships like that would actually be built, and what would happen, and what would have to happen, and the different rules and regulations that would have to change, and how you would actually—like, and his pet peeves with lazy things the writers did. So, it’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re doing it as a short run to see how it sticks. It’ll be eight episodes to start, and then if there’s a desire for more, we’ll do a second season.
Corey: I’m really looking forward to seeing how it comes out. I’d ask, “What’s going on? You’re starting a company and this side project for funsies? What’s the point?” But I started this podcast show not too long after I started what became The Duckbill Group. So yeah.
Ana: What’s funny is, this has all kind of cascaded in weird ways because next month, the company’s—Merewif’s been around a year next month.
Corey: Wow. Hard to believe.
Ana: Which is totally crazy to think about. But I only—I was doing it as a side gig while I was at H2O until October—end of September. So, it’s only been full-time since October. The podcast idea—
Corey: Why now? Why now, though? What drove you—
Corey: —you went from giant company to start-up to launching your own thing. And you’re launching your own thing in the same way that I launched my own company, which I’m going to shorthand to ‘the dumb way,’ which is right now there is so much constipated capital sloshing around the VC ecosystem, and we both started companies that are absolutely never going to be a VC-scale opportunity because, you know, what can you do with $4 billion in investment? Oh, something monstrous, for damn sure. But there’s no—there’s no good answer to that. But we’re never going to be the VC-scale opportunity.
Ana: [laugh]. I dread to think what you would figure out what to do with, like, $400 million. It’s terrifying.
Corey: Oh, the video would be ridiculous. We’re talking, like, Pixar quality…ridiculousness, making fun of various things in this industry, on a lark.
Ana: Oh, I can imagine. I can imagine. I can imagine a weekly game show with you, too, where you brought in engineers from the different services and ask them random questions, kind of like Jeopardy, but with, like, the floor dropping out underneath them. Then they just get replaced with the next engineer or whatever. Like, they get an answer wrong; they drop through the floor; the next one slides in.
Corey: I like that, yeah. That has legs.
Ana: And this is why you and I are not allowed to come up with ideas together.
Corey: Yeah this is—
Corey: —what we do to break on us from time to time. Yeah.
Ana: [laugh]. So, the timing was a couple things. One, I’ve wanted to do this company since I got out of the Coast Guard. Like, it’s something I wanted to do, but I needed to get more private experience. Because up until 2016, all of my experience was public sector. It was military, it was Coast Guard.
So, while I’d worked with—in disasters, I had been side-by-side with BP dealing with that disaster and all sorts of stuff, I didn’t actually have the experience myself. And I kept going, “Oh, well. I’ll do it eventually. I’ll do it eventually. I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready yet.”
And then literally, you and one other person were like, “No, I literally need you to set this up right now because I need your help with something and I need an official way to pay you.”
Corey: It seemed like the right thing to do. Yeah. Yeah.
Ana: So, it was, like, “Okay.” And the name Merewif actually means ‘sea witch’ or ‘siren’ in Old English. Little known fact: I majored in English specializing in medieval and ancient literature when I was in college.
Corey: That explains your depth of insight into the AWS documentation.
Ana: [laugh]. Yeah. I can read like nobody’s business. And so, in traditional stories, a lot of times, the hero will go to a witch or a sea witch for advice, or for knowledge, or for medicines, or whatever. So, it kind of tied together the fact that I was in the Coast Guard—so I’ve always been around oceans—my Old English, Middle English background.
And yeah, it just—the name made sense to me. So, it was like, “Well, I have a name now. Let’s just do it.” And so I did it. And then as the year went on, I started getting a lot of interest, different friends in the industry found out what I was doing, or they found out through a friend, an alumni classmate of mine pinged me going, “Hey, this company really needs your help. Can I do an introduction?” I said, “Okay.”
And so it started taking off. And so by September, I was like, “Well, if I can get a couple things lined up, I’m going to have too much to do with the job I love, which is Merewif, to stay at a day job that I’m like, ‘Ehh. It’s a job.’” And it’s been incredible. Like, it’s busy. It sometimes means waking up at two in the morning to see what you’re up to.
Corey: It happens, sometimes. To be clear, that is out of your own choice. The beautiful thing about my business is that it’s strictly a business hours problem.
Ana: Yes, except I knew that the video was launching today, and I wanted to take one more scrub on it to make sure that [laugh] there wasn’t anything over the line.
Corey: Yeah. We go right up to it, but try not to cross it.
Ana: Yes. And so—and that’s the killer thing is, like, I’m loving every day. Like, it’s crazy. It’s different things. I do hate being my own finance department. But you know.
Corey: Fractional CFOs are one of our first strategic hires that we made here, and it was a bit of a stretch, and it’s a, “We think we can afford it because, Dan”—who’s been a guest on this show—“As our CFO says we can, and that’s sort of his job, so all right. Let’s see what happens.” And sure, it’s great way to fail if he’s not good at his job, but he was right. And it has been an absolute Godsend just for the things I don’t have to worry about that have been taken off of my head, are—it’s like not having to plan a wedding anymore. That level of relief.
Ana: [laugh].Oh, yeah. Covid messed up my wedding, too. So, that ended up being in our backyard. But you know, at the end of the day, every day I’m doing work that I’ve spent my whole career becoming really good at, and becoming an expert at, and being able to talk with [countries 00:32:30] that can’t necessarily afford to hire someone like me full time, but to be able to walk them through, “All right, here’s the cloud technologies that are available for you, but you’re also going to want to have, for example, a snowball edge in your area because you’re going to lose connectivity.” And, “Oh, hey, talk to the guys over at Project OWL.”
It’s a cool one if you haven’t looked at it. They’re basically these floating little—they look like little ducks; well, the original versions of them did—and they basically allow—they’re WiFi repeaters in some ways, where they float. So, if you disperse them in an area where disasters happen, even if it flooded, it’s going to keep that wireless network up and available in that entire area, for everyone who’s impacted. Which is a huge problem in the last mile. So, getting to do this stuff that I love anyway, it was just time.
And I’m loving teaching at the UW. I’m back at the program I actually graduated from. And this will be of no shock to you, at some point in the near future, I’m going to be applying to do my PhD. It’s been a goal of mine since I was little to be the first PhD in my family. Were weirdly competitive about very strange things.
Corey: I will be extremely disappointed if your dissertation does not feature the word ‘shitposting,’ and of course, a link to something that cites my work.
Ana: Actually shitposting could end up in there because what I really want to study is the impact of emerging technologies, including social media and things like that, and how they’re impacting the ability of responders to have a common operating picture. So, it’s clouding the ability. So, a common operating picture is how the Coast Guard and the Fish and Wildlife and the local fire department all know what’s going on when a disaster happens, right? That’s great, but they now all have separate systems. And if you think the local fire department or the local fisheries guys have the same level of security as, say, the Coast Guard does on their systems, they don’t.
So, how do you get them into the same common operating picture? And then what happens if it’s a hurricane, and you have people tweeting pictures of the hurricane, and they’re not even in the area from the hurricane? So, you have all this additional noise, you have all these additional security needs that weren’t there, say, during Katrina, when we were doing everything by, like—no joke—a lot of faxing and text messaging and driving things back and forth. How do you deal with that? So yeah, that’s actually what I’m looking at doing.
So yeah, shitposting might end up in there as a what do you do when you’re in a disaster and you have shitposting cluttering up your mess? So yeah, that’s what I’m hoping to do at some point. But I’ve got so much work right now with Merewif that, right now, I don’t have time to get the PhD. [laugh]. So.
Corey: Industry and academia tend to be a little on the different side. And for what it’s worth, like, there are a lot of companies doing PR, crisis comms work, et cetera, et cetera. The reason that there was really—this was one of those no-bid contracts because you understand this industry in a way that few people do. You’ve worked within it, you understand the dynamics within it, as well as adjacent industries like gaming, for example. Having someone who understands the moving parts of an industry, who the major players are and how that all fits together, it’s something that you can’t take some random comms firm off the street and expect them to understand it in the evolving way that social media, among others, has really shifted the entire narrative. So, I don’t know of anyone else who’s doing it the way that you do. They’re certainly not talking about it the same.
Ana: Way. There are a few firms that do something similar, but they’re bigger and they have a lot of people and they’re not as specialized as I am. So, they have an idea of it, but they’re not necessarily from that industry. Or, you know, I’ve been playing video games since I was—what—ten. And I’ve been very involved. I do panels about women in the military, and how we’re represented in video games and comic books, I do those quite often.
Actually, real quick, that reminds me back to the PhD thing.
Corey: Of course.
Ana: The other reason I want to get the PhD is because, as a woman, having that extra boost of not only have I been doing this for—oh God, almost 20 years; that makes me feel really old—almost 20 years, but I also have a PhD in this specific technique. In order to get this PhD, I have to convince a university to let me combine an IT PhD, like, either an information technology or an IS tech—like, a science PhD and a communication PhD into one. There is no school that quite offers what I want, so I’m going to actually have to combine them. But I will say that one of the other reasons I really want to do it, other than the fact that I get to look at my little brother—who you know—and go, “Pttht, I got it first,” is because as a woman, it does give me one more way to keep the door open that my male counterparts don’t necessarily need. And as you know, in this industry, that’s a lot. I mean, it’s not easy being a younger-looking blue-haired woman who’s like, “Hi, I know my shit.”
Corey: Meanwhile, I am presumed competent in a way that people who aren’t over-represented are not. And when I say something, it is presumed true, as opposed to being nibbled to death by ducks with, “Well, can you back up that assertion?” Because sometimes, no. I’m speculating, but I am presumed to be right as a default.
Corey: And people love to say that, “Oh, yeah, privilege isn’t really a thing.” Let’s be very clear here. I did have to build a lot of the stuff that’s here. None of this was handed to me. But I didn’t have a headwind at fighting against me every step of the way the I would have if I didn’t look like this.
Ana: One of the things I’ve joked about a lot is my being a veteran, has actually helped me with some of those headwinds because there are assumptions made about my personality—[laugh] the fact that I’m blunt, the fact that I—
Ana: —tend to be very straightforward. And I believe my very first meeting with Ariel Kelman when he was a VP at Amazon—at AWS—was, in one of the meetings, the very first one was the words, “Are you shitting me?” Came out of my mouth over something. [laugh]. Could help it; just came out of my mouth.
I am very good at filtering when I need to, but in that moment, whoof, I couldn’t have. So, being a veteran does help a bit because there’s some personality assumptions that other women deal with the, “Oh, she’s a bitch.” With me. It’s, “Oh, she’s scary because she was a veteran.” I’m like, “All right. [laugh]. Cool. We’ll lean into that. We will tell you this has been my personality since I was five. We’ll let you think it was the Coast Guard that made me this way.”
Corey: You joined early. Got it.
Ana: Oh, totally. Joined at five. Well, my dad was Coast Guard, so let’s just count that. I grew up in the Coast Guard.
Corey: I just never grew up. It was easier.
Ana: You know, when they’re going to let you drive a 378-foot ship, you kind of have to grow up a little bit.
Corey: One would hope anyway.
Ana: [laugh]. Well, and I mean, you know, there’s the other factor is that, you know—actually, in my AWS interview, I think I scared my Bar Raiser by telling one of these stories—there were times where when I made a decision, someone could get killed if I was wrong.
Corey: So, that does happen at Amazon scale, but less frequently than it does in the armed services.
Ana: Well, yeah. I mean, there it’s you’re literally being dumb and leaving people in place in front of a tornado, which I’m not going to get into. I’m very—
Corey: Or a power bus is—a safety isn’t put on and someone gets electrocuted. But it’s always small-scale stuff, not—it’s not as common.
Ana: Yeah. And when you’re doing—like, I was a search and rescue controller, and I had to know the area I was operating in the winds, the potential risks, what type of vessels were in that area, and then we had a computer software called SAROPS that helped me search. But, like, growing up in an industry where if I screwed up someone could die gives you a completely different perspective on a lot of things.
Corey: Compared to that, there is no stress in the computer industry. There really isn’t.
Ana: I used to joke at launch when people were freaking out—and I told Ariel this once and I thought he was going to snort his coffee—but we were sitting there and people were like, “Oh, my gosh,” for re:Invent I was like, “Is the building flooding?” “No.” “Is it on fire?” “No.” “Is anyone shooting at us?” “No.” “Okay, cool. Chill out. [laugh]. It’ll be okay.”
Corey: Yeah, “You can weather some mean tweets. I promise. It’ll be okay.”
Ana: “Deep breaths.” But you know, at the same time, on the empathy scale is understanding that not everyone has that experience. So, that’s the other thing that’s critical to understand as a crisis communicator or as a leader of any kind, is that the stresses and crazy things I’ve been through have made me who I am. The stresses and crazy things you’ve been through have made you who you are, right? Well, what you find—what will trigger your brain to go, “This is fight or flight. Oh, my gosh, this is terrifying. Oh, gosh, I could”—you know, for some of these people at re:Invent, “Oh, my gosh, I could lose my job. If I lose my job, I can’t feed my family.”
So, even though I don’t panic because I’m like, “Meh, no one’s shooting at me. Cool.” Understanding that for the person next to them, they could physically be having that response of fight or flight is a critical part of leadership and crisis comms. You know, I think too often people are like, “Oh, my hardship beats your hardship.” Well, yeah.
Not everyone has been in 60-foot seas where they literally bounce off bulkheads and pass a mushroom through their nose because, by the way, you can get that seasick. But it’s true. And if you look at some of the younger people you’re hiring, what they consider as, “Oh, my gosh, this could be a problem.” You’re like, “Well, okay. We’re going to be okay. Take a breath.”
Corey: Perspective is one of those things that comes with experience, for better or worse.
Ana: [laugh]. Yeah, right?
Corey: So, I want to thank you for taking so much time to speak with me today.
Ana: Oh, absolutely.
Corey: If people want to learn more, where can they find you?
Corey: And we’ll put them in the [show notes 00:42:00], of course.
Corey: Thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
Ana: Oh, happy to. It’s always fun.
Corey: It really is. Ana Visneski, Chief Chaos Coordinator at the Merewif. I’m 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 an angry comment telling me that this was the worst possible way to find out that Shtephen was no longer with us.
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
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