Tuesday, February 28, 2006

8 Reasons Yahoo Mobile Doesn't Suck

It seems like tensions are high in my old group over at Yahoo Mobile. Lest anyone think that my experience there was all clueless people* and bad meetings** I will list some great things about my good friends at yahoo mobile.***
  1. Yahoo Mobile is better than Google Mobile.
    There’s a recurring meme that yahoo copies google. This is true in some cases, but in mobile yahoo is the clear leader. Y’s mobile search is better. Mail is about the same except Yahoo built it 6 years earlier. Google doesn’t even have games, ringtones (which are hateful but popular), photo upload, or IM.

  2. Yahoo gets the international thing.
    The internet is for everyone. The mobile internet is especially important for people who couldn’t get access to certain information any other way. Prime example: Yahoo India kicks ass and takes names.

  3. Yahoo Mobile has great air hockey talent.
    And what’s more important than air hockey?

  4. Good Looking.
    This doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things product-wise, but the men and women of yahoo mobile are pretty good looking.

  5. They get things done.
    Other yahoos used to release-fatigue because we launched new products so often. I think we launched 12 while I was there.

  6. The almost never sue former employees.
    Seriously, it was just that one time. They were super nice when I departed to start my own thing.

  7. They give you free coffee.
    Say you’re a former employee hanging out in sunnyvale between client meetings. The Yahoo Mobile team can always be counted on to sign you into the building and give you a free latte.

  8. They have a great sense of humor.
    They don’t get mad when former employees poke fun at them on a blog.

* They were the most clueful group I’ve worked with.
** But they did have too many meetings.
*** Yes, I’m a yahoo shill.

Friday, February 24, 2006

8 Ways to be the coolest kid in town

I was the biggest loser in my junior high school. I had no friends. The nerds wouldn’t hang out with me because I wasn’t into video games or D&D, and the cool kids wouldn’t come near me. Of course, the same things that made me a teenage loser made me very cool silicon valley geek. Like all hard problems, this one has a simple solution.

Here are 8 ways to be the coolest kid in town. (Or, if you’re a teenager, to be a huge loser).

  1. Make friends with everybody.
    I really want to be friends with everybody. Seriously. Even homeless people and republicans. If you walk down the street and everyone collecting cans in a stolen shopping cart says hello, you are cool. (If you try to be friends with everyone in junior high school you’ll get you ass kicked.)

  2. Get some good clothes.
    This really isn’t as hard as it might seem. Here are 3 easy steps:
    A. Take out all your clothes and put them on your bed. Stuff half of them into a bigh trash bag. Take the bag outside and give it to a homeless person. Now you’ve eliminated 50% of your terrible wardrobe and made friends with a homeless person. 2 points!
    B. Take your whole paycheck to any clothing store. Find the most attractive salesperson, give them all you money, and buy exactly what they say.
    C. When dressing, match the texture of the fabrics instead of the colors. This will make you look mysterious but fashionable, since a really stylish person can look good wearing clothes that don’t match.

  3. Have an obscure hobby.
    Pick something meaningless and dedicate yourself to it. Me, I choose to modify stuffed animals and sell them in art galleries. My brother Moses dresses like a clown and rides tiny bicycles. My friend August paints soviet space program imagery. Some things that don’t count as an obscure hobby: sports, video games, guitar, linux.

  4. Take them there.
    I have a friend who people call I-T-Y-T, which stands for “I’ll Take You There.” Because he will take you there. When you sign up with ITYT for the night you can be sure you’ll end up doing something fun and outside your regular activity list. Which brings me to…

  5. Have a great nickname.
    If you have an obvious strength or feature, make it your nickname. For example, I knew of a guy in Austin who would do small jobs very quickly, like picking someone up from the airport. His nickname: Speedy. (Also I think he might have been a speed dealer.) Either way, he was always speedy, so everyone remembered his name. Name recognition = cool.

  6. Have a great logo.
    I know this sounds like a horrible hipster graffiti hip-hop thing, and it is. Pick a logo that matches you great nickname and put it everywhere. Everything I own now has a grapefruit sticker on it.

  7. Go to every party.
    Your instincts might tell you to only go to good parties with other cool people. You are wrong. Go to every single party you are invited to. This helps with becoming eveyone’s friend, and you never know which party will be fun anyway, so just go to all of them. If it sucks, you can always say you need to go to another party. The host will feel honored that such a rock star party animal like you came to their party in the first place.

  8. Talk about how much of a loser you were in junior high school.
    Nobody likes a bragger.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

8 Types of people at a software company

Having been out of Yahoo for about 6 months now I'm starting to get a clearer picture of the place, and software companies in general. I will now list, from memory, some of the (stereo)typical people I came across in my 5 years of corporate software. (These overlap with the meeting attendees, since software companies are all about meetings.) Also, I'm testing my new feminine pronoun policy, so nobody get offended.

  1. The Linux Enthusiast
    When the Linux Enthusiast asks you if you use Linux try saying "no, our company makes pretty good profits so we can afford Windows." Sit back and zone out as they try to change you from your evil ways.

  2. The Wonk
    Some people know everything and talk about it all the time. Others know nothing and keep quiet. The Wonk knows everything and keeps very quiet about it, usually because she doesn't want anyone to give her more projects. She's been at the company for 9 years and knows everybody. (In meetings she is often a Stealth Lurker.) If you are in marketing you should find a wonk to play air hockey with her. Get her talking about the company, then repeat her words verbatim in the next meeting. You'll seem smarter, and the wonk really won't care.

  3. "Runner's High"
    By the time you get to work at 10:00 she has already finished a 10 mile run, had a fruit smoothie, taken her kids to the park, and made $500,000 in sales. She is on a permanent runner's high because she actually goes running, or jogging...spinning...whatever they call it. Exhausting.

  4. "It's My First Day
    She still seems new even though she's been at the company for years. She doesn't know how the company actually functions, where to find the good coffee, who the important people are, or what the company's long term strategy is. If this person is the CEO, watch out.

  5. The Rich One
    She makes the same salary as everyone else and doesn't actually have more money, but somehow seems really rich. You see her outside work in a fancy new BMW, wearing a $700 outfit and think she must be pretty important, then you remember that she has exactly the same job you have. I have a secret for you: she spends her whole paycheck on her car.

  6. The You-Clone
    This is the scariest person ever. She annoys you to your core but you don't know why, until you realize that you are exactly like her in every way. She annoys you because she reflects your worst fears back to you. There is one of these people in your office. You may not know who your clone is, but everyone else knows.

  7. The Scammer
    She feels like a total fraud who is running a scam on the whole world. She is afraid of being discovered as a fraud but doesn't want to protest too much, so she just runs the most effective scam possible: make friends with everyone and exchange favors. She may or may not know that this is also the way to be an extremely effective business person. While avoiding work she somehow gets more done than anyone else.

    At some point she realizes that she isn't a fraud anymore (and probably never was) and she quits her job and starts a company.

8 Things I'll do differently on my Internet Famous Day

It looks like my 8 types of meeting attendees post was appreciated by some popular people, and this morning I find myself briefly popular. How will temporary and meaningless fame change me? Here's how...
  1. Today I will sleep in for an extra 30 minutes.
    Actually I had already done this by the time I found out I was internet-famous-for-the-day, but now I know why I felt comfortable with it. I was already feeling the love of the internet like a warm glow lulling me to sleep.

  2. Today I will check my measuremap every 10 minutes.
    Is this vanity? Sure. When I woke up this morning and checked my email on my phone (which sounds m,uch nerdier than it actually is, I think) I found that someone had commented on my blog. Thanks to my good friends at Measuremap I knew within minutes that thousands of others who have...well...been to a meeting.

  3. Today I would quit my job, if I hadn't already quit 6 moths ago.
    Seriously, big companies have too many meetings. Quit your job.
  4. Today I will refer to everyone as "she."
    A brave person named Anonymous noticed that I referred to all the meeting types as "guy" "dude" "him" etc. I when I originally wrote it I used a variety of genders but then it sounded like I was saying specific mean things about women in the workplace, which would have certainly been worse. So today I'll make up for it by using only feminine pronouns. I hope this doesn't confuse anyone.

  5. Today I will get coffee at the good coffee place.
    And a bagel too. Shit, why not right?

  6. Today I will drive to work, even though I'll probably get a ticket.
    When the metermaid (see, feminine) tries to ticket me I'll yell "what do you think you're doing? Do you know who you're fucking with? Don't you subscribe to lifehack.org?" I am sure this will work.

  7. Today I will practice my meeting skills.
    In my client meeting today I will switch from one meeting attendee type to another without warning. We'll see if this, combined with calling everyone "she," will cause me to lose a client.

  8. Today I'll give a bowl of cereal to anyone who shows up at my office.
    Because we should never forget the little people. Call first.

Monday, February 13, 2006

8 types of meeting attendees

Some personalities that come out in meetings, especially at big software companies.
  1. The Talker
    You know what I'm talking about. People who think talking is the same as contributing. On bad days I'm that guy.

  2. The Boss
    This person may or may not actually be the boss. The main strategy is to get everyone talking and working together constructively, then use the political capital he's just gained to hijack the meeting and implement his own agenda at the last minute. Get on his good side, because he'll be the boss eventually.

  3. The Sigher
    This guy (almost always a guy) will audibly sigh whenever he disagrees with something. If pressed, he'll refuse to go into details on why he disagrees or what exactly his problem is. I don't like this one.

  4. The Lurker
    Sits in the meeting, slightly aloof, and doesn't participate at all. He may offer a single quietly stated opinion near the end of the meeting. Mostly harmless.

  5. The Stealth Lurker
    You might think this guy is a real lurker, but he isn't. He's the one who says nothing for the whole meeting then offers a single quietly stated opinion near the end. Then, no matter what everyone else agreed on, his plan gets implemented. How did it happen? Who knows. This guy has some power you don't understand. Get to know him.

  6. The Meanderer
    This one is like the talker, except he meanders all over and creates long, drawn out metaphors that nobody understands. A friend at yahoo (the same one who hates all new yahoos) once said about a meanderer: "I love [person]. Whenever we're in a early morning meeting I throw him a real softball question then just lean back and zone out."

  7. The killer
    Aims to destroy other people rather than win arguments or get his way. This guy is annoying but not really dangerous since he is easily recognized. The best strategy is to put him in a meeting with another killer, get them arguing, then excuse yourself and go play air hockey.

  8. The productive, reasonable contributor
    If you get three of these people together in a meeting you should change the topic to quitting and starting a new company.
I'm sure I've missed a lot here. Please add your own in the comment section.

"I hate all new Yahoos"

This is my favorite quote about Yahoo designers, spoken by a veteran Yahoo design manager. "I hate all new Yahoos." I repeated this quote to everyone who joined Yahoo while I was there, and tried to impart the small piece of wisdom that goes along with it.

When someone gets hired by Google/Yahoo/Microsoft/Apple it is because they are really a top designer in their field. The interview process is rigorous and, in most cases, the standards are extremely high. The experience is a little like being the smartest senior in your local high school and getting into a great college. You show up to find that everyone is just as smart as you except they've all been there longer.

I watched almost every new designer go through the process of feeling smarter than everyone, like they came to teach the company all about good design, then getting severely beaten down.

It came for me when I was working on a joint project between Yahoo Mobile and Yahoo Local. We were all in a meeting and I was the youngest/newest/least experienced person there. I was telling the room why they should listed to me. The meeting was contentious, and one of the more senior people openly challenged me on something specific to Mobile development*. I said "I know about this because I've done it before. I worked at Vodafone for 3 years, and we always did it this way." His response? "I was head of Mobile at Microsoft for 15 years."

That day I graduated from the hated class of New Yahoos.


Some things I learned from the experience:
  1. If you have to tell someone about your reputation then it isn't a reputation.

  2. Years of experience don't mean a thing, especially when the numbers are anywhere close to 3. I feel like it starts to have meaning around 10 years, but I probably think that because I have about 10 years experience.

  3. Never cite your education when trying to sell your design. You might be talking to a college dropout (like me) or someone who was a professor when you were a student.

  4. Be prepared to back up every assertion with some sort of data. If you can't back it up, start by saying "I can't back this up, but..."

  5. Stop arguing the second you know you've lost. Chances are everyone else will know before you, and if you keep selling you're point you'll look like a loser. When bested you should immediately switch to your opponent's side. You can always try to change their mind later on over a game of air hockey.
* For the record, I was right about the mobile/local thing. He said it would take one month, I said it would take at least 3, and it ended up taking 4.

Clients shouldn't listen to designers

I recently read this (old) comment on my friend Eris' blog from someone named Melissa: "I constantly feel the battle up hill of what is right in design and what the client imagines right. If they would only listen!"

It is sometimes true that a client has bad information coupled with strong opinions, and you end up with a demand to do something stupid and wrong. In these cases you should a) fire your client or b) do what they want, take their money, and deny that you ever worked on the project.

Something that is much more common (in my experience) is that the client wants it one way and the designer wants it another way because they have different goals and/or information. In this case the designer is often not "listened to" and the person with the money (the client) gets their way.

So here is my list of 8 reasons clients shouldn't listen to designers:

1. Clients sometimes know their business better than designers.
2-8. Clients have all the money.

Lets start with points 2-8. You need money to release almost any product, and the person who has that money is the client. They have the money because somebody gave it to them, usually because they did a good job spending some previous money or because they had rich parents.

They (the client) presumably hired you (the designer) because you have skills or insight. Some clients hire based on hard skills, like the ability to use Photoshop, which they equate with being a designer. You don't want these clients. They won't listen to you, they'll think they're smarter than you, and they'll end up doing whatever they want in the end.

If you want to do good design you should should find clients who hire based on your insight and soft-skills. The problem is that these people are smart. Smart people won't do what you tell them unless they understand why they're doing it.

So the designer who wants to be listened to has a conundrum: the people you want to work with won't listen to you, and the people who will listen to you are going to end up building a bad business because they aren't too smart. (That may be overstated. People who will always listen to you aren't too smart.)

Another way of stating this: Good design happens when smart people disagree.

When designers aren't listened to it's because they aren't making a good case for their position. Clients should never listen to someone simply because their title is "designer." A really smart business person never does anything because they're told to, they do it because they think it's the right thing.

Some of the best things I've designed were the result of high-stress projects where everyone questioned everyone else. The people respected each other and were ready to hear each other's arguments but never deferred to someone based in title or rank.

Friday, February 10, 2006

8 Ways I will convince Ted Grubb to move to San Francisco

My cousin (and former co-worker) Ted Grubb is arriving in San Francisco for a week long visit in about 30 minutes, so I’ll have to make this one quick. While he’s here I will convince him that San Francisco is the place to be, not Philadelphia or New York or San Diego.
  1. I’ll show that the startups are here
    Ted is a web/flash developer who has spent the past 5 years working in suburban Philadelphia. That was a fine place to wait out the bust, but boom times are here again and all the good startups are right here, right now.

  2. I’ll take him to the Flickr party tomorrow night
    Adaptive Path, our friendly office mates, are hosting Flickr’s second birthday. What better place to convince a web developer that he is not alone in the world, that there are hundreds or thousands of people geekier than him.

  3. I’ll take him to a party every night of the week
    For some reason this week is full of parties. Flickr, TechCrunch, False Profit, GETV, Pillow Fight, Overlap

  4. I’ll take him to TechCrunch
    The only problem with this idea: all the other startups will poach Ted, and he’ll move here but work for someone else. So all the startups out there: hands off Ted Grubb.

  5. I’ll hire him to work at Rubyred for the week
    We’ve been in business since last summer and still don’t have a website. We’ve been too busy with client work. Ted will build our site and see how much it rocks working here.

  6. I’ll take him on a tour of Silicon Valley
    All you valley dwellers, drop me an email and we’ll stop by and say hi. If nothing else we’ll be at Yahoo for an air hockey face off.

  7. I’ll introduce him to all of you
    You, my friends, are what make San Francisco great. Plus the weather and the food. And all the cool art. And the hills.

  8. I’ll make him famous using my blog
    Ted will be overwhelmed by the fact that everywhere he goes he’ll be a celebrity. “Hey, aren’t you Ted Grubb from Jonathan’s blog?” I set up MeasureMap a few days ago, and I can see that there’s at least a dozen of you reading this.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

8 Ways to succeed as a designer at a big company like Yahoo

I've worked as a designer inside two big companies, Vodafone and Yahoo. The companies were/are very different but I found that the strategies for success were pretty similar. Here are some of them, roughly in order of importance.
  1. Identify what success is for you.
    For me success at Yahoo was to:
    • make friends and contacts that would last multiple decades
    • design products that would be used by millions of people
    • design products that would make huge piles of money for the company
    • enhance my personal reputation as a designer
    • learn how to manage people
    • have a steady stream of job offers for the next 5 years or so
    If your goals are very different from these goals you might not like the rest of my strategies.
  2. Friends come first; say no to assignments, say yes to favors
    This is what lots of people hate about big companies, and what I really enjoy. I had a policy of initially saying no to any request that I take on work, and always saying yes to a request for a personal favor. (I'd usually take on the work eventually, but it is good to refuse at first and see if the person forgets about it. If they forget it means the work was never worth doing anyway. If they remember and ask again it's worth taking a closer look.) Doing favors for people, and asking for favors in return, got products finished much faster than going through official channels.
  3. Never eat alone, or drink coffee alone, or do anything else alone
    This is true in any kind of business, but I think it may be even more true at big internet companies. On a typical day I would have morning coffee with other designers, have lunch with a product manager, play air hockey at 2:30 with engineers and designers, have afternoon coffee with a product manager or whoever I could manage to run into. I'd go out after work I am a natural schmoozer in (what I think is) a good way; I am genuinely interested in other people. When I meet someone I want to know what their goals are and how I can help.
  4. Promote yourself
    This one might be more important than all the others. I had a joke that in an 8 hour day I'd spend 1 hour working, 3 hours promoting the fact that I did some work, and the other 4 hours reading blogs and playing air hockey. Those numbers are probably backwards, but the point is that at a big company nobody will notice you did good work unless you tell them. Whenever I had a good idea I'd make sure to tell a dozen people. Whenever I finished a piece of design work I'd print it out and hang it in the hall. Wait, that one deserves its own number.
  5. Hang stuff on the wall
    When I started working on Yahoo's Wap site we had a hard time getting much attention. The product had much more usage than other mobile products (like 10x more) and was actually making a good amount of money, but we had trouble getting people to care about it.
    My first task was to figure out what we had and make a full sitemap -- basically grunt work that had to be done before getting started. When I finished the sitemap was too big to put on my cube wall so I hung it on the wall in a hallway. I watched for a while and found that every person who walked by stopped to look at the diagram. One of the executive conference rooms was nearby, so the top Yahoos -- Jerry Yang, David Filo, Irene Au, Sue Decker -- each walked by and took a look at some point. I spotted an opportunity. I printed another sheet that described what the diagram was and invited people to point out problems. I put a cup full of pens and post-it notes nearby. As we fixed the design problems with the Wap site I would cross out the old design with a red marker and hang a print of the new design. That printout was the best self-promotion tool I've ever made.
  6. Use your unfair advantage to frame the debate
    Anyone familiar with American politics should know that framing the debate is more important than having good policy, and anyone in the startup world should know that exploiting unfair advantages is the best way to get ahead. As a designer your unfair advantage is that you can make something look really slick. When a team started talking about a new product or feature the I'd always make a pretty screenshot showing how it would work. This is a bad design strategy -- you should never begin the design process with visual/screen design -- but it is a great marketing strategy. If someone was getting traction with and idea that I thought was stupid I'd just make a screenshot showing a better idea and claim it was the other person's idea. When it worked the team would support my new idea. When it failed I looked a little dumb for not understanding the original idea, but people rarely noticed how tricky I was being.
  7. Make up names for your ideas
    My friends/neighbors/landlords at Adaptive Path know all about this; they coined the term AJAX, which a lot of people latched onto as a new internet technology invented by Adaptive Path. They've tried to shake this idea, and they're sick or hearing about ajax, but they're also famous for it. They get calls all the time from people who are supposed to make their site "more ajaxy".
    At Yahoo I had an idea that making Wap pages longer and including internal anchor links could make the navigation experience faster. Few people really understood what I was talking about until I named the concept. I put together a presentation called "Wap SuperPages: extreme personalization, no navigation, search everywhere." When I visited Yahoo India the next year everyone I met with knew me as the inventor of SuperPages. I won an award for it. I had a lot of other good ideas at Yahoo, but SuperPages was the only one with a catchy name, and it's the one everyone knew about.
  8. Design good stuff
    You'll note that this is the last item on my list. Most people can't tell the difference between good and bad design. You have to make good stuff to make your product useful and impress other designers, but I'm convinced that it doesn't have a big effect on success in a big company. This is sad, and maybe someone can prove me wrong here. I'd love to hear some stories of great design conquering politics at a portal-size company. Sadly I don't have many of my own to tell.