This post started as a Twitter thread. It was written before I wrote my one-sided retrospective, which might help give context.

Funny enough, as we've gathered from former employees, Monica's firing was done 'urgently' twenty minutes before the sabbath because the person who ultimately said "fire her" said "We've been spending too much time and effort on this." (That's not a direct quote; but a sentiment that came out during the post mortem Stack Overflow had internally on the whole debacle.) This is mentioned because accountability is a thing. No one (as of yet) has been held accountable for that colossal mistake and its compounding. I'm not so sure everyone can heal from that without some sort of accounting. —George Stocker

This is the aspect of this whole thing that keeps me up at night even now. (Well, tonight I couldn't sleep because of jet lag, but it has caused me to write about my old job in the middle of the night over the last few weeks.) For me there are specific people who hurt my trust in the company. They played different roles and I believe most were acting out of what they thought was their duty rather than malice. Still, it's difficult to believe the company won't betray my trust again.

I've avoided calling out individuals in my writing. That's not my place. At least not today. The one time I thought it was my duty was during the "retrospective". (For some reason it was not allowed to be called a "post mortem". Perhaps because the damage was still happening.) It came weeks later than I'd hoped and was hampered by a directive to not compile a timeline of events shortly after they happened. (Fortunately, CMs had been keeping a timeline and we'd written tons of emails at the time of these events.)

The retrospective was facilitated by an employee who didn't have much context about the events, but they did a fantastic job of creating a blameless environment for the truth to come out. We discovered dropped responsibilities that had happened months before.

By the way, we were following a variation of Etsy's blameless postmortems. Reading about the process, I was very impressed, but using it (sample size 1) I'm not so sure. It didn't seem effective at providing closure to those who were most harmed. I mean the CMs literally got on a call after the retrospective and said to each other "We're never going to get closure, are we?"

I should note that:

  • the driving force behind blameless postmortems is no longer at the company
  • the person who revealed the dropped responsibilities is no longer at the company
  • three CMs are no longer at the company
  • the people who dropped the ball are at the company.

We nailed the blameless, but not the just culture.

And despite two sessions over something like 3 hours, the root cause of our company's failure never came close to being revealed. I'm listening to The History of English Podcast and the episodes about discovering Indo-European resonate. Rather than having a real history of what happened, the CMs were left to piece together the unwritten past based on whatever texts are left in view. This isn't how you do accountability—the truth was hidden.

I'm about to talk about two models of accountability and I want to make clear that the situation at Stack Overflow is nothing like the literal violence that precipitated the two models. But it is a microcosm of those events and point to ways of building trust after times of hurt.

The first is the Nuremberg trials of Nazis after the end of WWII. (Again, this is far more extreme than SO. I'm talking about the model of accountability.) In many ways, this was accountability by retribution. War criminals were executed for their crimes.

The second is The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the aftermath of Apartheid. (Still more extreme harm than done by SO leadership.) This is accountability by, well, reconciliation. Many perpetuators were given amnesty.

I bring this up because there are people at the company who I no longer trust to make decisions in regard to the community. I said it back in the fall via private emails and I said it again the week I left the company in a private document I shared with executives.

I'm not asking for those people to be fired, but am asking for them to be held accountable to the community. I don't want retribution (which will only feel cathartic for a moment) but reconciliation (which will restore trust). In fact, I strongly suspect several people I blame for this disaster were constrained by forces unseen which I can only guess at. If the truth were to come out, I might have more sympathy for these people and even learn to trust them again.

Perhaps some of this reconciliation is happening now within the company. Perhaps they have turned a hopeful corner. If so, I'm glad. That may very well be a prerequisite for community healing. But I also know the culture of Stack Overflow has been highly resistant to painful truths being made public. People in the company say they value transparency, but when it comes to mistakes by people in authority the watchword is "secrecy". Talking with other alumni, I've learned far more than I wanted to know about hurtful behavior by managers and executives that was swept under the rug. It's distressing.

I don't want to be a downer during a hopeful moment in the community's history. I want to celebrate real steps forward. But I also know there are forces that were at work as recently as my last day at the company that protect people who caused the community deep hurt.