Essay

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer says no more working from home – and I say, “Right on!”

Yahoo!'s Marissa Meyer. TechCrunch photo.
Marissa Mayer. TechCrunch photo.

They say that the first secret of success is simply showing up. For those of us who work in software development, I say that means going to the office every workday.

Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo!, seems to agree. She recently told the Internet company’s employees that they would no longer be allowed to work from home. She thinks that employees need to work in a Yahoo! office to create the highly collaborative culture Yahoo! needs to be successful. The decision has polarized the press, some of which vilify her for what they call a family-unfriendly move, and some of which praise her for a bold move aimed at righting a long-troubled ship.

Sure, the technology exists to develop software almost anywhere. But making software of any size and scale is not a solitary pursuit. Lots of people have to work together closely to make it happen. And my experience after more than two decades making software is that the best working together happens face to face.

The second best working together happens when almost everybody works remotely. The company that makes WordPress, the platform I use for this blog, famously embraces a “distributed workforce” with more than 80 percent of its employees working somewhere other than in the company’s offices. I wish that any software product I’ve worked on in my entire career worked as well and was as enjoyable to use as WordPress! If the goodness of WordPress is any measure, a distributed workforce really can work. But I think what makes it work is that because almost everybody works somewhere other than the office, they have to embrace the technologies that make it work.

That’s hard to do because most of those technologies are terrible. Chat and instant-messenger software seems to work pretty well and are the notable exception. Voice and video conferences are a pain to set up, and it’s fairly routine that calls drop or the quality of transmission fades; “Can you hear me now?” is a common statement on conference calls. Information-sharing tools such as file shares, wikis, and the like need people whose job it is to manage them or it soon becomes impossible to find things in them.

If everyone depends on these tools, there is enough impetus to tune them to work as well as they can, and to make working through them the norm despite their shortcomings. But when only a small portion of a software team works outside the office, that impetus simply isn’t there.

But more importantly, it is simply easiest to reach people who are in the same place as us. When most people work in the office, the people who work remotely can easily be left out of key conversations and become marginalized.

In one of my past jobs, one of my employees had an unexpected life change that forced her to move far enough away that commuting to work every day was impossible. Because she had been a longtime successful employee, I allowed her to work from home. She drove in every other Monday to maintain her office relationships, but the office momentum ran on face-to-face interaction and when important conversations spontaneously happened she was usually not there to participate in them. For a long time she tried hard to stay plugged in, but her enthusiasm finally waned and she started to ask for projects she could work entirely alone. I had some, but most of them were not as important to the business as what everybody else was working on. There’s no way to get around it – it stalled her career. She seemed to understand and accept this, but it was a bit of a shame nonetheless.

This is why I say that having everybody work in the office together is really best. It avoids the awful collaboration technologies, lets us play to our natural human strengths around face-to-face interaction, and keeps everybody fully engaged and involved.

I’m not opposed to someone working from home on occasion. When someone is doing a task that requires protracted concentration, sometimes home offers fewer distractions than a bustling office. And sometimes you have to meet a repairman at home, or one of the kids turns up sick. You can often get some work done while you’re dealing with these things. Heck, a couple years ago I worked from home for three days after a bad ice storm made driving treacherous.

But now I say no when someone who works for me asks to work from home after 3 pm each day so they don’t have to pay for after-school child care, or every Monday to take a turn staying home with an elderly mother, or Tuesdays and Thursdays because they live far away and would like to cut back on the commute. Although I’m sympathetic to their needs, I can’t meet them and keep up the tight collaboration my company needs to be successful.

Actually, I care a great deal about work-life balance. I work very hard to plan projects carefully so that people who work for me seldom have to work extra hours to keep up. I very much value going home at 5 pm myself so that I can have plenty of time with my family and to relax.

In the end, people who need to work from home need to find a line of work where it makes sense. In 1994 I took an 18-month career detour to edit technology books. I really could do that job from anywhere, and except for an occasional phone call with my authors or my boss I could work alone for hours and hours and be incredibly productive.

But that doesn’t work in most software-development shops. And apparently, it doesn’t work in Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo!, either.

Standard
Film Photography

Film on Instagram

IMG_0430

I feel like such an Internet curmudgeon. In my day, sonny, we used Netscape 1.0 to surf static HTML Web pages that were coded in Notepad, and we liked it!

I try all the new Internet gewgaws and gimcracks but don’t like most of them. Twitter? What’s the point? Pinterest? Wow, what a colossal waste of time! Instagram? Crappy lo-fi photography? Bah! Bah to the whole lot.

Except that I’ve been posting photos to Instagram more and more lately. Film photos, taken with old cameras from my collection. It feels so subversive! And it’s so easy now that the iPhone Flickr app lets you save your photos to your phone. I choose a film photo from my Flickr stream, save it to my phone, bring it into Instagram, crop it, apply a filter, et voilá.

And thanks to iCloud, these photos automatically show up in a folder on my PC. It was super easy to upload them from there to WordPress, where with a couple clicks I made this slideshow out of them.

Hm, I’m enjoying a lot of modern Internet technology there. Maybe I’m not as curmudgeonly as I thought.

Standard
Stories Told

Even a mediocre plan will work if everybody follows it

I have been astonished in my life by how few problems are truly unsolvable. I have also noticed that, most of the time, when a problem ends up not being solved it is for one of two reasons: people deny the problem, or they won’t work together on the solution.

I make software for a living. We have a saying in software development: There are two things you don’t want to know how are made – sausage and software.

There are any number of ways to make software. All of them involve programming, of course; it’s the core activity. But there are other jobs to perform, and the bigger the software being developed, the more people you need to perform them. It becomes necessary to organize the people and form work processes. The ways to do that range from loose and chaotic to structured but flexible to ponderous and formal. They all have their strengths and weaknesses; they all can work. I’ve made software in all of these situations.

Scenes from US 50

One of my past employers sequestered its programmers in a room to hack code together as fast as they could. When they were done, a couple people would play with the product for a week or two in hopes of finding some bugs, which the programmers might or might not fix. Then we shipped it to five customers, who upon installing it invariably found that it failed spectacularly. When we fixed all the problems they found, we chose five more customers. We repeated this process until the software stopped failing, and then announced to the rest of our customers that it was ready.

At the other end of the scale, another past employer had such a heavy software development process that following it felt like slipping into a straitjacket. There were reams of documentation to write and keep with layers of approval at each step. I worked on a team that tested the software to make sure it did what it was designed to do. We had to take a screen shot of every test step, print it, and put it in a folder. At the end of a project, we had boxes and boxes and boxes of printouts, hundreds of pounds worth, that we would send to an offsite storage facility. This was in case our only customer, which happened to be the U.S. government, wanted to audit us.

Both companies are still in business.

Brick segment of old US 40/NR

A third past employer carefully hired smart people and trusted them to know what to do. Because they hired well, this worked for a long time. But as the company grew, this approach became more and more difficult to manage. Product quality became a problem. A big part of the software was an accounting package, and in one fateful release the general ledger simply would not balance. This affected every customer, and to make a long story short, it took the company almost a year to fix it. Several customers quit us.

Too often it takes great pain to drive important change. This pain made us face that we needed more structure to deliver successfully. So we hired a consultant to guide us toward a better software development process. He showed us a way with just enough checks and balances that we could have greater confidence in our work without being too bogged down. We also hired a consultant to help the management team (of which I was a part) work more collaboratively. She taught us how to lead the company through this transition.

It worked. In the very first product release under the new process, quality problems fell off dramatically and we delivered on time for the first time anybody could remember.

The more important hire was the second consultant. The new methodology was good, but it wasn’t magic, and it might not have worked for us if we had not done a good job helping the team through the changes. You see, a few people didn’t understand why the old way couldn’t still work and still others thought our new process wasn’t going far enough. Our task was to overcome the resistance and get everybody singing from the same sheet of music, and it was the hardest thing we did. But we pulled it off.

It’s a rare organization that faces its failings and works to change. It’s a rarer organization still that drives change collaboratively.

The company with the ponderous process fired me. I’m so glad. Read that story.

Standard
Essay

Laying down the law on bulk e-mail

Have you ever signed up for something online and then started getting e-mails from that company – special offers, newsletters, and the like? That’s bulk e-mail. The software company I work for offers its customers a bulk e-mail service, and so we send lots of promotional e-mails to our customers’ customers. I’m usually reluctant to admit that because the reaction I usually get runs along the lines of, “So your company is responsible for all the spam I get.” I usually respond that it’s true only if one of our customers isn’t following good bulk e-mail practices:

  • You should receive promotional e-mails only when you explicitly choose to receive them. Giving your e-mail address to a company as part of ordering from them doesn’t qualify. You should also have to check a box next to text saying something like, “Please send me promotional e-mails.”
  • It should be very easy to stop receiving promotional e-mails. At the bottom of a promotional e-mail, usually in tiny type, you should find a line that says something like, “Click here to unsubscribe.” Clicking that link should open a Web page were you can tell the company to stop.

You’d think that companies wouldn’t care whether you signed up or can unsubscribe, but a couple things have encouraged them to build and maintain a good reputation.

  • The CAN-SPAM act of 2003 insists on certain good behavior. This law lets companies send unsolicited promotional e-mail only if it follows certain rules, one of which is to allow the recipient to unsubscribe. Failure to follow the rules can lead to legal action.
  • The big e-mail providers punish senders who don’t play nice. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, and so on, watch bulk e-mail like a hawk because it costs them big money in bandwidth and storage. You wouldn’t believe all the rules these providers have in place to prevent unwanted e-mail from reaching you. They also give you a surprisingly powerful tool in that little Spam button that appears on each e-mail. Every time you click it, your e-mail provider takes notice. Spam a sender a couple times, and those messages go to your spam folder instead of your inbox. If lots of people click Spam on a sender’s messages, the e-mail provider will blacklist the sender’s Internet address and not accept e-mail from them anymore.

All of this encourages companies to send you only e-mails you want to receive. That doesn’t mean, however, that companies still don’t occasionally do stinky things.

Some time ago, I wanted to print some photos. So I uploaded the files to walgreens.com and chose to pick them up at my nearby Walgreens. I immediately started getting one or two promotional e-mails from them every day. I certainly didn’t check a box asking for those e-mails. I’m betting they buried that checkbox in tiny type someplace I would be sure not to notice it, and pre-checked the box for me. How helpful of them. But at least Walgreens did include an unsubscribe link in every e-mail. I clicked it and that was that, at least for a while. Four months later, not having used walgreens.com at all, I started getting e-mails again. I unsubscribed again, and it appears to have stuck this time.

Many years ago I made business trips to Louisville all the time. I rented cars from Hertz for all of those trips, and soon they enrolled me in their #1 Club Gold loyalty program. Of course I got promotional e-mails from them, but as a frequent customer they were very useful to me. After those business trips ended, I unsubscribed. When I wrecked my car a couple years ago while away on vacation, I rented from Hertz so I could get home. I didn’t ask for it, but they started sending me #1 Club Gold e-mails again. When I tried to unsubscribe, Hertz wanted me to type in my account number. I threw away my #1 Club Gold card years ago. Hertz gave me a link that would let me retrieve my account number, but I had to type in my driver’s license number to get it! And then it took them two days to e-mail me my account number. I went back to unsubscribe, but their unsubscribe form was crammed full of confusing options. It took me five tries to check the right boxes for the form to go through without returning an error. And then it didn’t work – I continued to get Hertz e-mails! So I started clicking the Spam button on them, and now Gmail delivers those messages to my spam folder so I never have to see them.

So to Hertz, Walgreens, and everybody else out there who sends me bulk e-mail, I am laying down the law:

  • Subscribing. If you absolutely must try to sign me up for your e-mails when I first use your service, please make the opt-out checkbox baseball-bat-to-the-forehead obvious. If you don’t and I miss it, I’m going to assume you signed me up without my permission, and I will click the Spam button on all of your e-mails.
  • Unsubscribing. When I click your Unsubscribe link, it had better do nothing but tell me I’ve just unsubscribed. Don’t show me a page full of checkboxes and make figure out which one means “send me no more e-mail period.” And good heavens, don’t make me look up my account number. Finally, don’t try to keep selling me on receiving e-mails from you – unless you want to send me free gold bars once a week, nothing you say will foil my nefarious unsubscribe plans. In short, if unsubscribing isn’t dead nuts simple, I will just click Spam on all of your e-mails.

Harrumph. That is all.

Thanks to Erika, who is Redhead Writing, for inspiring this screed. Read hers on the same topic here.

Standard
Stories Told

The pinnacle of my career

Not long ago I wrote about a time I was fired under some pretty stinky circumstances. And then there was the time I worked under the CEO who lied in court about having sexually harassed his assistant. And I still haven’t told the story about the company owner who went to prison. Fortunately, my long career in software development (going on 22 years) hasn’t always been such a bust.

I left the philandering CEO’s employ for a situation where the boss and I just didn’t mesh. Also, after having been a technical writer and editor for seven years I was starting to itch to make software again, like I did in college. So when a well-known local software company was hiring software testers, I applied. I knocked the interview out of the park and got the job.

The company made a large and sprawling product for an industry I knew nothing about, so I had lots to learn. Given my background, the first thing I did was reach for the manuals. Unfortunately, they were incomplete, inaccurate, and poorly organized – unusable. There was online help, but it was unnavigable. Nobody was ever going to use any of it to successfully use the product. My boss managed the technical writers too, so I marched into his office to complain. I wasn’t delicate about it. “This stuff is terrible! I can’t believe you ship this to customers! It’s an embarrassment.”

He leaned back in his chair and calmly said, “What would you do to fix it?”

“I would throw it out and start over,” I began. And then over the next ten minutes, off the top of my head I outlined a project that would create new manuals and online help that would actually help users not just use the product, but get the best value from it.

Three days later, he called me back into his office. “Remember that thing you said you’d do with the documentation? I am promoting you to the manager of that department. I want you to do exactly that.”

It was a bold move for him to take a gamble on me. I’d never managed people, and my project management experience was limited. What I didn’t know was that every year the company surveyed its users about product quality – and every year the documentation got the most complaints. My boss had been told to fix this problem, but he had no grand ideas. Then I walked in with a solution that sounded like it just might work.

Most of this story is just the nuts and bolts of the project – hiring and coaching staff, creating plans and schedules, doing visual and information design for the new manuals and online help, managing the project, reporting to management, and even doing some of the writing myself. The details would be interesting only to another technical writer. Much of this was new to me, but I had excellent support from a boss who needed to see his gamble pay off. He also helped me navigate the inevitable office politics, including another manager who kept trying to torpedo my efforts. Also, the program manager helped me master the project management tools we used, none of which I had ever even seen before. My team and I worked on the project for a year and a half. It’s not often a technical writing team gets an opportunity to do a clean-sheet rewrite like this, and they were all enthusiastic about it. I worked hard to clear their roadblocks, respond quickly to their concerns, and generally be a good guy to work for, and it paid off in the excellent work they delivered. When we were done, we had written over 3,000 pages and had created a seven-megabyte context-sensitive online help system.

I was invited to demonstrate the new online help at the annual user conference. 600 people flew in from all over the United States, and there I was before them on the opening session’s main stage. My presentation was the last of a series about new features in the product. When I finished, to my astonishment the online help received enthusiastic applause – and then one person stood, and a few more, and several more, and soon the whole room was standing and applauding. That moment remains the pinnacle of my career; I can’t imagine anything else ever overtaking it. The icing on the cake was when I overheard the VP of Sales say to my boss, “All the blankety-blank new features we pushed you to put into the product, and everybody liked the blankety-blank online help the best! The online help! You’ve got to be blankety-blank kidding me!”

I used to think I was just a grunt paid to trade the words I wrote for a paycheck. Through this project I learned just how interdependent everyone is at a company, and how everybody is important. Specifically, I learned:

  • If you want to see your great ideas implemented, they need to solve a big problem the company thinks it has. What problems does your company think it has? They may very well be different from the problems your company actually has. What great ideas do you have that you can frame in terms of helping solve those problems?
  • When you’re doing something you’ve never done before, find people who can coach you through it. I don’t care how far down the ladder you are at your company, your success helps determine other peoples’. Look for someone who both knows how to do the thing you need to learn and whose success depends in part on yours – that last bit motivates them to help you. In my case, it was my boss and the program manager.
  • Work for the kind of boss who clears roadblocks out of your way so you can be most effective. I now leave situations where the boss doesn’t help me in this way. It’s that critical.
  • Your success always depends on other people, so treat them well. In giving my team an exciting assignment and creating an environment in which they could focus, they happily turned out huge quantities of good work. Also, after we shipped the new documentation, I promoted every writer. They deserved it.

A footnote: That company went through tough times a few years later and so we all moved on, some for better positions and others (like me) because they couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. One of the writers who worked for me called me up one day about two and a half years ago, by which time I really had moved into software testing. She said, “We have an opening here for a test manager. I’d love to work with you again, and this is a good place to work. You really should apply.” I did, and I got the job. I found out later that just before my interview, she went to the VP and said, “He’s a great boss. You don’t want to let him get away.”

Sometimes the good things you do come back to you!

Doing quality work can pay off, too. Here’s a story of a time it really did.

Standard
Vintage Television

Vintage TV: 1970s weather forecasts

I watched a lot of TV news during the recent ice storm so I could catch the weather forecasts. Local stations went all out during this storm with expanded and extra newscasts. Reporters were live all over the city showing what it looked like outside, in case our living-room windows were malfunctioning and we couldn’t see for ourselves. Meteorologists were front and center in every newscast, showing us the latest imagery from their Super Duper Ultra Doppler Nine Billion TrueVision™ radar systems. They hopped across the screen with great energy, swooping their arms to show the storm’s movement, speaking with grave urgency, leaning into the camera a little to punctuate the drama.

I actually think local news is at its best during severe weather. They provide useful and timely information and actually help draw viewers together in the shared experience. They just kick the hype up a notch or two beyond what’s really needed.

All this weather coverage got me thinking about the state of the TV forecasting art during my 1970s kidhood. I remember Dick Addis on WNDU, the station we watched most. He was just as animated as today’s TV meteorologists, but he had to be. He started his forecasts with a big map of the United States and, as he spoke, furiously scribbled weather patterns onto it with a big Magic Marker. The most advanced technology he used was a still black-and-white satellite image. WNDU was kind of a trailblazer at the time in that Dick was actually a meterologist. Many stations in those days just had a staff announcer read the weather forecast.

I don’t have any WNDU clips, unfortunately, but I found several 1970s weathercasts lurking around YouTube’s dusty corners. This one is from WDIO in Duluth, Minnesota. Dig that giant map of the nation with all the little numbers stuck to it. Also, the weatherman delivers a live commercial! And check out the hand-written forecast.

If you’re thinking, “Yeah, but Duluth is a small television market; bigger markets had to have better technology,” check out this 1973 weathercast from WLS in Chicago. WLS did have a groovy rotating board with all the maps, but everything on it was hand-lettered. At least they had access to the National Weather Service radar.

In 1974, KAKE in Wichita, Kansas, was using some more advanced technology. They used a character generator to create a scrolling national temperature list, and they had animated satellite imagery. Also, while the forecast graphics were still letters and numbers stuck on the wall, at least they used chroma key to show some of it. And the whole weathercast was approved by the American Meteorological Society – something we take for granted today, but was kind of novel in 1974.

The pretty weather girl has been a fixture of TV news for a long time. In the 1970s, it was often the only real way a woman could be on a news team. KMBC in Kansas City, Missouri, apparently offered no exception. In 1977 they had a big rotating weather cube like WLS’s, but used a character generator for the forecast. Kansas City had just experienced some serious flooding at the time of this clip, which is why they’re expressing concern about showers in the forecast.

As the 1970s wore on, weathercasting technology began to improve. KXTV in Sacramento, California, had a color weather radar in 1978. It was awfully primitive by today’s standards. But I remember when a station in the town where I grew up got a similar radar, and it was a big deal. Despite this advance, KXTV still had a giant map on the wall with stick-on numbers. Also, if you recognize this weatherman as the same guy from WLS in 1973, you have a keen eye. It’s typical for people in TV news to move from city to city during their careers.

Today, everything you see on a weathercast except the meteorologist is generated with computers. Given how unreliable software can be, I’m surprised I’ve never seen a display crash during a weathercast! You might think the old-style weather displays were trouble-free, but check out what this poor weatherman at KIRO in Seattle, Washington, endured in 1975.

All of these weathercasts had one thing in common – they were delivered calmly! News directors, take a cue from days gone by.

Standard