Monday, January 14, 2008

Yahoo! and how to run it

I used to work at Yahoo as a programmer. It's a good place to work unless you actually care about your job and want to get things done.

Here's why I think that is. Parts of this might be boring for you if you have no interest in management or technology work.

It comes down to motivations.

At Y!, as it is internally known, I worked with a systems administrator, a project manager, and had above me three or four levels of management just within the division of Y! I was in. Of this subset of 6-7 people, two (me and the project manager) contributed anything to getting my job done. (Tangentially, my project contributed nothing to the Y! bottom line, but more on that later).

When I started working there I got a logon, a development machine, and access to the company CVS (a repository for uncompiled source code) and package repositories. My job was to write code, commit it to CVS, generate a "package", and ultimately, after testing on a staging environment, and getting approval from a manager, roll it out to the live web servers.

For whatever reason, this system not set up right when I arrived. I needed help. I turned to my managers and my assigned systems administrator.

Here's the part about motivations: I needed someone to navigate the byzantine inner sanctum of Y! and get me working. Now, mine was a small project and I was the only one on it. Why should my sys admin help me? What is his motivation? If he does a bad job, will he get fired? He has two possible motivations: he is a very nice guy, or he fears getting in trouble.

The only way to motivate anyone to do anything at Yahoo was to make him fear "trouble" - to complain to his manager. This "economy of complaint" sucks as a way to run a company. It's all stick and no carrot. And generally, no stick either. I mean, am I really going to complain to my managers all the time? That's the problem at Yahoo.

About the money:

Though my project was a huge money hole, for years it was never made profitable or scrapped. It was largely ignored. Who was ignoring it? I never had any idea what was going on in management.

Here's an idea: eliminate the hiring and firing power of management. Those roles would be handled by HR personnel who interview peers, and otherwise objectively evaluate job performance.

The role then of the managers would be solely to manage - to arrange teams, help programmers and sys admins communicate, do scheduling, and have a sense of the big picture. If my manager's not doing that, I report him to HR, just as he would report me if I weren't programming.

Why wouldn't this work?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


Saw an old enemy at the YMCA tonight. His name is Barry L., and like a lot of enemies he used to be a friend. I don't think he thinks of me as an enemy. When we were friends, in retrospect, he probably never thought of me as a friend.

I haven't seen him in a long time, but he was still sporting the same mid-90s look: ironic tight thrift store t-shirt, strange facial hair. Of course, in the mid 90s, neither of us would have even thought about going to the gym, but we're older and his ironic thrift store t-shirt is tighter around his gut.

So here is how the shit went down.

I lent the guy a pair of headphones. I was trying to get them back for a while but he kept dodging me. Finally one day I just went to his house; his roommate let me in, and I got the headphones from his room. They were completely fucked up. I remember sitting in the kitchen of their place with his roommate just confused and angry.

I went to the video store where Barry worked and confronted him about it. He told me he was never even interested in borrowing the headphones anyway. I don't remember what else happened in the store but I left pissed.

Now, Barry and I had been friends for a while. We had a lot of friends in common, but Barry had generally known them longer and was closer with many of them. He has a personality that people like. He's very non-threatening. Endearingly depressive, even. People feel protective of him.

Barry went and talked to all of our friends. Did he tell them about the headphones? No. He told them every strange and embarrassing thing he knew about me.

Think about the genius of this. The sheer crushing, violent blow a friend could deliver if he or she suddenly turned into an enemy. Think about what your close friends know about you.

There was nothing so bad, but there was a lot of little silly stuff that looked bad. Example: he came in one time and found me sitting on his bed in my underwear. Well, actually long underwear, and it was extremely hot in his room, and there was nothing weird about it at the time, but it did happen.

He knew what girls I had crushes on.

This all happened in a few days. Before I realized what he had done, I was finished. Blackballed. I didn't lose any real close friends, but this guaranteed that a lot of acquaintances never became friends. I mean, fuckin ostracized. People stopped saying hello to me. It was mean. Disproportionate to my offense, which was confronting him in public about something he did wrong.

So nah, I'm not going to talk to that guy. He's capable of being pretty dangerous with the social weapons at his disposal. Frankly, he still kind of scares the shit out of me.