My new role at Yahoo!

Upon returning recently from a relaxing two-week holiday in Italy with my family, I found myself looking at an opportunity to join Chad Dickerson’s Yahoo! Developer Network team as a Product Manager. What a nice way to re-enter the real world after a break.

waves like molten metalWith a clutter-free mind, it took me about 2 seconds to figure out that this was my chance to do many of the things at Yahoo! that I’ve wanted to do since joining the company last year. And the chance to work closely with Chad again was a huge incentive.

He and his boss Bradley Horowitz have opened up several innovative and very successful paths for Yahoo! including the new open Hack Day. Watching the excitement around that event build, it’s obvious that there’s a lot more that can happen there. I’ll also get to work more closely with Jeremy Zawodny who has been a key evangelist and one of the most important voices for the company.

The idea of Yahoo! technologies opening up as services is picking up a lot of momentum. It’s an important opportunity that we have to get right, and we’re getting more organized to keep up with demand. We also have to listen more carefully to what people want from us. YDN is a great way to catalyze discussions amongst developers using Yahoo! services and to open up broader dialog with Yahoo! teams.

I’ve already started digging into the data that’s available, and it’s obvious that Yahoo! Developer Network is on a serious growth path. Site traffic is rising. The blog is buzzing. API keys are flying out the door. And more and more Yahoo! APIs are getting released and at increasing speed.

It’s a fascinating time to be here, and I hope I can help the company both reach and push its potential in this new role. Thanks, Chad.

How to give a 90-second demo

After observing several Hack Day presentations and conducting a few screencasts of my own now, I think I’m seeing a formula for doing a 90-second demo.

No format will replace charisma. And charisma won’t make a bad demo good. But these guidelines might at least give the presenter a baseline. And I’m sure this will help people who are competing at Hack Day.

People can usually articulate more than two words per second without sounding like one of the Kingsmen, but that doesn’t leave any room for dramatic pauses or potential hiccups in the presentation. So, a good 90-second demo will probably come out to maybe 150 words.

What can you communicate in 150 words? Not much.

The meat of the demo obviously must consist of a walk-through, but it’s often the beginning and end that screw up the whole thing.

The most common mistake is a poorly balanced intro that either drags on too long and makes the audience anxious or one that is too short and forces the audience to contextualize things in their own heads when they should be following what you’re saying.

Spend little or no time introducing yourself. Save that for the end. But spend 20 seconds defining the problem. Answer these questions:

  1. What’s wrong or broken?
  2. How do people deal with this problem today?

Then get to the meat. Step the audience through a story one click at a time. Show a screen. Explain what is being shown. And then describe what will happen next. Tell them where you plan to click or what action you’re going to take and then do it. Explain the result and then repeat, one action at a time.

If at all possible, build the story to a climax. Each step from click to click should get progressively more interesting. At least point out the less dramatic elements of the demo first and build to the most exciting ones at the end. At about 80 seconds, you want to reveal the POW that will get everyone clapping.

If you get your POW before 80 seconds, great. Crack a joke and get off the stage. Don’t drag it out if you’re already done.

If all goes well, eyes will light up and cheers will wash over you.

Finally, close with some kind of contact information. Announce your name and the name of your demo during the applause, and leave before the applause finishes.

Here are a few hints that might also help:

  • Script it. Write out what you plan to say. It will take you about 10 minutes, and then have someone read it out to you so you can hear it for yourself.
  • It’s never a waste of time to deliver a one-liner that will get laughs. If you have something funny to say, say it, without hesitation. Humor wins fans universally and buys you a fully engaged audience.
  • The result of working code is often what presenters are most proud of, and there’s a tendency to go from intro to result too quickly. The audience wants to get inside your head and follow your thought process. If there isn’t an actual clickable demo to show, then walk the audience through a couple of visual diagrams that show what is happening behind the scenes.
  • Make it big. The demo screen is never big enough, so change your screen resolution to be as big as possible without completely distorting the demo.
  • Point to things on the screen with your finger. Don’t assume people are following your mouse. Stand in front of the screen and reach with your finger to show them what you’re talking about.
  • Use dramatic imagery even if it isn’t technically correct or specifically relevant. Particularly when getting mixed in amongst a bunch of other demos, you want to burn a visual image into people’s memories. Nobody will remember a word you said, but they will all remember what it looked like.
  • If your demo fails, don’t sweat it. It happens all the time. Be gracious and tell your audience how they can reach you to talk about your idea and perhaps see a demo later.
  • Don’t pretend like a failing demo is going to come back “any second now”. Demo audiences are forgiving, but they’re rarely patient.

There are lots of common public speaking tactics to take with you on stage, too, but I would never proclaim to be an expert in that.

Those who can’t do, teach.

Lastly, here are some interesting resources on presenting:

  1. How To Get A Standing Ovation, Guy Kawasaki
  2. Behind The Magic Curtain (Doing demos with Steve Jobs), Mike Evangelist
  3. 10 Tips for Successful Public Speaking,
  4. Presentation Zen blog, Garr Reynolds
  5. Wikipedia: Public Speaking

The importance of Hack Day

Last week’s Yahoo! Hack Day was, as usual, an eyeopener. In addition to the creative hacks, I was hugely impressed that the co-founder of the company and CFO among several other key executives spent an uninterrupted afternoon watching and then judging all the hacks.

Photo: Yodel Anecdotal

The only other model for bridging the gap between top brass and ground troops that I’ve seen work successfully was at IDG when founder Pat McGovern conducted his annual handshake around the world during the holidays. He meets with every single employee of the company (2k plus), shakes hands, chats for a few minutes and, if available, hands the employee his or her bonus. He remembers impressive details from previous conversations and clearly challenges himself to make a tangible connection with each person’s contribution.

Everyone admits that it creates awkward moments, but the effort is appreciated by all and wins him both loyalty and credibility across the whole company.

At Hack Day, I expected Jerry Yang and Sue Decker to spend much of their time on their phones while engineers were working their hardest to impress the crowds. Admittedly, I didn’t make it through the whole afternoon undistracted, but the judges were engaged in every presentation that I did see. No doubt they were paying attention and learning things that will impact their future decision-making.

There’s always the question of whether the hackers are motivated more by peers or by bosses. In either case, the 90-second demo format is the closest thing software development has to the clean and jerk. I’m not sure I’d call it chest-thumping exactly, but don’t believe for a second that every hacker doesn’t hope to beat his colleagues with the better hack.

Switching my default browser home page, again

I’ve probably changed my browser’s default home page about 10 times in the last year. Something about working here at Yahoo! has made me very picky about start pages.

The new Yahoo! home pageI most recently was using Netvibes which had a couple of really cool modules: a notes box that you could write in just by clicking in it and a sudoku puzzle that I would play on the train ride home. Unfortunately, Netvibes became way too slow for me. I found myself typing in a new URL before Netvibes came up every time I launched a browser window or clicked ‘home’.

I don’t think Netvibes is alone in learning the hard lesson of scaling personalization features. It’s clear that NewsAlloy is struggling under the weight of their usage, and Rojo recently rescued their ailing infrastructure, at least we hope, by adopting a new parent in MovableType.

Even more dramatic is the performance on Wizag. Wizag is one of the most promising start pages I’ve seen yet with its learning and categorization concepts. The design is awful and the speed is unusable, but those problems are easier to solve than developing really new and interesting algorithms. I’m hoping they figure these things out, because I would love to use it more.

Not too long ago I tried switching to Google’s Personalized page. I loved the integration with my phone. You can select modules from your personalized start page that will appear on the phone version. It’s really smart. And it made me try using Google Reader more. But Google Reader is just not the way I want to work with my feed sources, and I got too annoyed.

Why not use My Yahoo! as your browser home page, you ask? I use My Yahoo!, actually. At least weekly. But it shares a problem I have with all personalized start pages…I want my browser to open with something that I don’t know. I want it to lead me, sometimes just a little bit.

And I just learned when I switched to the new Yahoo! home page that I want big pictures, too.

The new Yahoo! home page is brilliant. It has everything I actually want just prior to starting a journey somewhere or even when I’m not sure where to start. I can see the most recent email messages without having to open the full email app. I can check out traffic in my neighborhood, send a quick IM, search and get to my feeds (on My Yahoo!) all from the same place with minimal effort.

But what I love most is that the Yahoo! home page shows me stuff that I don’t know. The top stories have huge impact. They’re inviting, and they make me want to click. And the pulse box always catches my attention with the Top 10 this and Top 10 that.

One of the proven rules in magazine cover selling at the newsstand is that people love top 10 lists. It’s true online, too.

We also learned at InfoWorld how powerful imagery can be when we studied people’s eye movements on a more image-driven home page. The results of that study are here.

No doubt, I’ll switch home pages again soon. I haven’t stuck with one page for more than a few months, but I also don’t remember being as pleased as I am with this page. The dust has settled from the launch earlier in the summer, and I have to agree with what most people in the industry said: The new Yahoo! home page rocks.

How not to influence change in old media

Jay Rosen’s recent attack on Fortune columnist Justin Fox reminded me that changing old media’s role in this new world is not going to happen by telling them that they stink.

Photo: carradine65

He accused Justin of failing to say anything meaningful in the ‘private vs public ownership of media’ debate. Underneath it all, however, was the more acidic accusation that Justin doesn’t get the Internet:

“There’s an upside, there’s a downside to local ownership. Reasons to be hopeful, reasons to be wary. Where did you get the idea that your peers don’t know this? (After all, it’s common sense.) I’ll tell you where, Free Pass: you made it up so that your column would be easier to write. But the day when you could get by with that standard is over. Gone. The bar has been raised on opinion journalism. The Web did it, especially the magic of linking and the powers of Google. Where have you been?”

Justin then responded in depth to Jay, defending the accusations point by point on his new blog:

“I can’t ignore [Jay’s post], partly because I’m an oversensitive weenie (always have been), partly because past experience tells me Rosen’s blog posts are often worth paying attention to, and partly because buried in his tirade was at least one entirely irrefutable criticism.”

I’m as guilty as the next new media nerd of pressing old media to change their ways based on my own small view of the present and future challenges. I’m equal parts idealist and pragmatist, almost always the former when blogging.

But I also know that there are many editors and executives alike who wish very much to apply the mental shift they may have adopted perhaps years ago and turn it into practical change without losing their jobs in the process. We need those people employed and making change happen in their organizations in order to accomplish the new media goals, no matter how slowly.

As Justin points out, even Time Warner has adopted a multi-threaded approach to journalism where columnists are required to post weekly online in addition to their print columns which require significantly more dedication. If that’s not enough, Justin has recently begun blogging on topic and wrote a book on one of his beats to boot.

Time Warner may not be collaborating with customers as much as it needs to, but clearly that door is opening some. And that’s a good thing.

Jay is not wrong to press old media to change more dramatically and to do it faster. It’s not just the methods that need to change. The way that they think about the world around them and the value of their perspective both need to accomodate a new and different way of communicating.

In this case, it’s a matter of picking which battles to fight. Attacking those who are influencing positive change at the companies you wish to influence is probably going to turn off those who may be listening to you.

Don’t invite other kids to play in the sand box and then throw sand at them, Jay.