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.

Recommending RSS feeds on My Yahoo!

Former Yahoo! colleague Don Loeb (now at Feedburner) called out the recent addition of RSS feed recommendations to the My Yahoo! product. This module automatically bubbles up sources that you might want to add to your page so that you don’t have to hunt and peck so much to find stuff that matters to you.

It’s cool to see a technology work as it was intended…but then there are the surprises that aren’t intended that are even better than seeing something go as planned.

One interesting unintended outcome is that I’m actually discovering new blog posts to read that I would never otherwise find amongst my current list of feeds. And I don’t have to subscribe to the feeds to see these posts.

For example, Niall Kennedy’s blog was recommended to me in this new module and I learned that he’d just left Microsoft after a short stay with the team. I don’t currently subscribe to Niall’s blog and none of my feeds seemed to reference this news. Very impressive.

This is another example of the “Interestingness” concept Tim O’Reilly and Bradley Horowitz have written about this week.

You can get access to the recommendations module by clicking on the small promotional link in the “Inside My Yahoo!” module that comes as a default when you sign up for an account. The reason we’re not making more noise about this pilot is because we’re in test mode to see if it works and if people like it. Plus, it feels like the kind of feature you just expect from a personalized start page anyhow.

Thoughts about working at Yahoo! after one year

UPDATE (10/17/2007)Things have changed a lot since this was originally written in July 2006. A few have found this post through a search and made the mistake of thinking it’s relevant still, but this snapshot in time looks like historical record to me more and more every day. Many of the problems have been addressed or even resolved, and I really couldn’t be more optimistic about the future of Yahoo! now.

Next week is my one year anniversary at Yahoo!, so I thought I’d do a couple of retrospective lists. Looking back on the year, overall, I have enjoyed going to work, learned a ton, met some incredibly bright people and expanded a lot of my thinking about media. It really is a pleasure to work here, and I feel lucky to be part of the team. But, as with any company, there are things I wish were different, too.

Photo: Dawn Endico

Favorite things about Yahoo!:

  1. Open minds. In most cases, people are open to “not invented here” technology and products. In all cases, people are very open to new ideas. This culture makes it possible for everyone to feel comfortable speaking up in every meeting or blogging both internally and externally.
  2. Smartness. I’ve never been in a meeting where I felt an individual couldn’t contribute intelligently. You witness bursts of phenomenal brainpower both individually and collectively all the time.
  3. Never complacent. The constant stream of advances rolling out across almost all Yahoo! products is the public evidence that nobody inside the company is ever asleep at the wheel. They could be driving into a tree, in some cases, but they’re not asleep.
  4. Passion. Well, maybe not everyone is passionate about their specific job, but people are very motivated and feel like they are doing or contributing to something that matters.
  5. Diversification. Mature companies are able to spread both risk and opportunity across multiple channels. Yahoo! knows this well. That can create distractions, but Yahoo! never takes its eye off the ball, either. The user comes first. Always.
  6. Globalness. My experience at IDG gave me a taste for the benefits of globalizing a vision and then sharing knowledge and experience across cultures. I love seeing that same ethos here. People are always thinking about how ideas apply in different countries.
  7. Great work environment. The espresso bar; the gym; the great speakers who come talk to us; cubes up and down the hierarchy. Nothing will top the little building my team had across the street from the headquarters of The Industry Standard in San Francisco which was somewhat of a madhouse, but Yahoo! does a very good job of making life at work a nice place to be.

Things Yahoo! needs to change:

  1. Control. There are way too many people “owning” things and not enough people contributing their expertise in the places where it’s needed most. The Product Managers’ scripted 1 year roadmaps become the magic wand of power used to reinforce the status quo.
  2. Innovation constipation. Few people are willing to take a loss on one product or strategy on the chance that another one might yield a brighter future. The result is a wait-and-see approach. That’s a shame given the incredible potential here.
  3. Isolation. The campus keeps us all from interacting with the rest of the world. External face-to-face meetings only happen amongst people whose jobs are dependent on interacting with external companies. It has an impact on the types of products the company creates…often oblivious to what’s happening on the Internet outside of
  4. Product duplication. The company’s decentralized approach breeds an environment where different people are solving the same problem in different ways. This is expensive, but it does have the benefit of forcing people to stay on their toes (see #3 above).
  5. Analysis paralysis. There are way too many people involved in very small decisions. You get the benefit of uncovering all the potential pitfalls in any given problem, but people spend way too much time looking for problems and not nearly enough time creating solutions.
  6. Where are all the women at? I’m in a presentation with about 150 people right now, yet I see no more than 30 women in the audience. At a company with so much invested in the social aspects of the Internet, it suprises me that the more socially sophisticated sex doesn’t have better representation.

The fashion of business

Umair Haque equates the poor investment Americans make in their personal fashion with the cultural emphasis on productivity. He argues that people who are “stylish” are perceived as frivolous and unproductive in America. In a comment on Umair’s post Russell Davies flags the style conscious eyes and ears of the English and Japanese:

“In an essay somewhere William Gibson talks about how the British and the Japanese are so naturally expert in branding because they’re brought up to instantly spot the status inference in the tiniest marginal signal – accent, appearance, language. This must apply to style too.”

Photo: pinkbelt

True, though a bit short-sighted. I think Americans are also more forgiving of misplaced style signals or even completely ambivalent to the overbranded constructs that English and Japanese cultures use to reinforce conformity.

On the other hand, I would never argue Americans favor substance over style. Umair is right. We’re often lacking both. But America is also more ready and willing to accept a new idea or to support radical innovation than any place more stylish.

This is particularly true in business.

Look at California where the Internet business, in particular, continues to boom on the shoulders of new business models. Business itself is a type of fashion where the catwalk is loaded with hot startups and cool prototypes. For example, every online media company has been browsing through all the social networking sites and working on plans to at least accessorize their online offerings with social media in some way now that social media is the model du jour.

The tech business fashion model gets built into product strategy, too. Upon returning to Apple in 1996, Steve Jobs’ first step toward turning around the once-hot now-not desktop computer company was to reinvent the Apple style with the iMac. His bet on fashion was a winner which gave him the confidence to reinvent the MP3 player as a new fashion accessory.

It wasn’t until the flickr acquisition did I think Yahoo! was much more than a fashion follower. I’m still not sure I fully understand how fashion fits into the Yahoo! culture, but it’s clear that style is a priority in the search business.

While talking with some colleagues once about how Jeff Weiner would view a really new approach to the search user experience the response from one of the more senior people at the company was, “Jeff has a great sense of style.”

I remember my first day here nearly a year ago. I expected to see black denim and long back action and was instead surprised to see that most everyone looked rather polished if not trendy. Even one of my Nebraska born and raised colleagues shops at H&M.

Again, a shirt or two from Hennes does not make one a fashionable dresser, but style can be about more than what you wear. It’s also a vantange point from where you choose to make decisions or an awareness that enables you to spot important trends. Americans may not be dressed as smartly as Europeans, but their business sense is acutely tuned to fashion in the markets in a way that is still unmatched around the world.

Answering the Answers question

It wasn’t until someone much more tapped into pop culture than I am told me that the Yahoo! Answers product was cool that I considered it to be true. I didn’t get it at first. I wondered, “What’s the incentive to contribute? Maybe it works for kids. And when was the last time Yahoo! launched a cool product of its own anyway?”

Photo: Mr. Mark (reclining buddy)

I still don’t understand the incentive to answer questions, but despite that I’m amazed at the responses to the questions people post.

First, I love some of the philosophical dialog in the system. Deepak Chopra appeared in Answers with a question, and the answers were fantastic:

Q: “What do you think the role of individual transformation is in manifesting world peace?”
A: “…The question to me is not the role of individual transformation in manifesting world peace; but can mankind agree upon what the symbol of peace represents and if so, how might this further or progress all mankind’s evolution of the psychobiotic self.”

Second, it’s very social in a new kind of way. It’s like walking through a festival where you jump into a conversation with totally random people without any awkward formalitites. You ask a question, hear what people have to say and move on having a new perspective to take with you.

I asked one question about the need for our educational system to teach personal responsibility in the online world, and the responses were primarily from what appeared to be teens. I have no connection to the universe that is teenage but with this question I suddenly found myself in a very brief but relevant dialog with the people who are affected by the question.

Third, and I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, you can get better information from people in this world than you can from your limited scope of offline friends.

Photo: _Faith

I was watching Prince perform on American Idol and kept asking myself, “What is it with this guy? Why is Prince such a big deal?” I started asking friends the same question, even people who are big Prince fans, and I couldn’t get a good answer. So, I posted a question on Answers. I figured that if someone could tell me why Prince matters then maybe it was actually useful in addition to being cool.

Sure enough, I got a couple of funny answers within a few minutes, but within about half an hour somebody convinced me that Prince was worth caring about:

“Prince is able to play multitude of instruments and genres. He mastered the piano at seven, and 6 instruments by 12. He is the youngest to ever produce his own albums at the age of 19. He takes risks and help define the sounds of the 80’s. He was the first black artist to appear on MTV. Not Michael Jackson.”

But there are a few things I’d love to see Answers do better. It’s so random and dense that I need some kind of UI for surfacing stuff that might matter to me. I like that when I post a question it tries to point me to similar questions that have already been answered.

I also want to have some kind of natural incentive for answering other people’s questions. Points won’t do it. Maybe I don’t get it still, but I don’t have any desire to add my knowledge into the pool, yet.

Lastly, I’d love to see the back end opened up as a service…completely. Community sites of all types including publishers should be able to skin the service for their users which would then contribute more data to the wider knowledge pool. I can imagine a site like using Answers to help their users help each other answer laptop fix-it types of questions or maybe storage device shopping advice.

Obviously, my comments have to be taken with a grain of salt since I share the same employer as the Answers team. But the purpose in writing this was less about promotion and more about exploring social incentives online with a new real world example. There’s more to learn from Answers, I’m sure, but there’s lots to be emulated, as well.