I was sitting across the table from a survivor. A survivor. You would think that a person with almost eight years tenure in an exalted technical management capacity would be elated to be telling me his or her story, but this soul was about as glum as can be; there was a veritable cloud in the room.
This interview was conducted with the solemn pledge of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Indeed, this survivor of the Yahoo upheaval chose me because I am an unknown, no account, under the radar blogger. I am sure that, eventually, other interviews and exposes will appear with attribution in various on-line organs such as TechCrunch, Boomtown, or some such.
Such as it is, I am honored to be the anonymous nobody that this Yahoo survivor chose to vent through:
Wilensky: For a person who just came out from slaughter, you seem to be rather...non-plussed?
Yahoo Survivor: They tell me that I have nothing to worry about, that surviving this round was a sure sign of endurance and blessing. My take is that this, a latte, and a BART pass, will get you home when they shake the tree again.
Wilensky: So, you take no comfort in reassuring noises from the Yahoo management? Is that due to the cross-section and type of folks who have either left of their own volition, or have been bought out, laid-off, what have you?
Yahoo Survivor: Although Horowitz's exit was voluntary, it shook me up, because long before this there was a double whammy eating at the Yahoo innards. We had been slowly, for the last few years, and certainly since mid 2005, morphing from a technical meritocracy into an entertainment agency model, with all the attendant management burdens. For a period, there was this feeling of almost belonging to two seperate organizations.
Wilensky: What is your job over there? How will it be affected, and how has the Microsoft bid affected your internal and external working life and the culture that surrounds it?
Yahoo Survivor: I have to be careful how I answer here. I am one of the senior staff engineers in my department, one
notch or two below the director who, by the way, is out. That's all I can say. As
to the effect of the Microsoft offer, my personal belief is that it
only accelerated a process that was well underway, if not in actual
practice, then in planning.
There have been staff shuffling gyrations in the applications organization since 2004. I have had a stable seat from which to observe these comings and goings. We have had three directors, and two group leaders in that period. I was in the running for that lead spot, and it seems that I am now anointed. That would put me exactly one spot away from the unit's Director spot.
You asked about culture and daily morale? It just ain't like it was, say back in 2002-03 or so. We felt that we were on track to deliver a really well integrated set of services that had been building for years. Now, in those days, many internet destination portals, Yahoo included, were having an identity crisis. We in the applications arm of the business felt that the traffic could be revitalized by engineering our way out of the doldrums.
Many folks around the espresso bar had it on good authority from the 'new suits', that there would be an M&A strategy that would complement our interactive properties with tools, and technologies. We were also sure that the on-boarding of Semel would foretell a shift to an entertainment portal model. The change in culture and the way that the engineering organization was handled shifted in such a subtle way, over a period of years, that the entirety of the shift was not apparent until it was too late.
Or, let me say, we were in denial and felt that there was little we, I, could do about it.
Wilensky: When you speak of, "engineering out of the doldrums and M&A, I assume you are speaking about the Flickr, Delicious, and other acquisitions, and the various widget and developer initiatives? We know about the former, did the latter pay off?
Yahoo Survivor: We have always had a vital developer community, and I personally believed that the smaller M&A's that you mentioned would bring a richness to the developer API. Some of this was right on target. We had several projects in the interactive cable niche that got decent exposure at Maker Faire, and this was to lead to more established technologies down the road.
Wilensky: Where did it go off the rails; was it purely a Semel / Decker blunder? That would seem too simple.
Yahoo Survivor: Yeah, it is too simple to lay it all at the feet of the execs. And, in my halcyon world view, it is just as asinine a proposition to say that a tools or developer organization can single-handedly drag an aging property out of its torpor.
Remember, there was something of a revitalization in the early years after Semel took the reigns - and by the way, those were post 9/11 reigns. The budgets, as seen from my perch, were softening as early as 2002-03, as far as software and hiring in my department were concerned. No bloodbath, mind you, just not the go go of years past.
20004-05-06 it was generally felt by the people that managed the 'visible' properties, as opposed to the tools and infrastructure folks, that the efforts to streamline and integrate the various technologies were being hampered by this new, multi layered monster of an organization.
It was like that scene in the Godfather where the movie producer wakes up with a horses head in his bed - A bloody horses head. How did we get to this state of affairs? That was the quiet sentiment.
Wilensky: If I am following you, you are saying that it was a subtle shift in the organization's technical focus, a meritocracy of ideas in the typical internet mold, to an entertainment management, agency structure that imposed layers and inertia on that agility??
Yahoo Survivor: I couldn't have put it more succinctly. But I want to make sure you get this: I can't be so sure that if any five of the technical VP's, or me, or the guy next to me, got our way, that we could have done a better job. Surely, we would have completed the front page overhaul and integration of services...but would that have saved us from the current turmoil?
We can't forget that the advertising end of Yahoo pays the bills, and despite being taken out for a spanking for not keeping parity with Google, they make real money, and the company is profitable in an arena were the dead are stacked like cord wood. Hats off to those guys.
Wilensky: So, what's it like around the office now, so soon after the layoffs, the exits, and the partisan resistance to Microsoft?
Yahoo Survivor: At the moment, its a cold environment. First of all, we've been living with the musical chairs and threats of cuts for at least 18 months, in an open manner. So we have that. Now we have a place where people are temporarily afraid to open their mouth; and for such a gossipy place, that's chilling.
And, it cant be good for people like me in the technical organization to feel that they can't talk about the big, structural things that were so vital to Yahoo's former twinkle. It's not good. But, I'm sure that the chill won't last, once folks know who is staying and who is leaving.
Wilensky: Do you see an inevitable, if not volitional restructuring of the Yahoo critical path, back to core technology front and center, on an equal footing with the content and entertainment side?
Yahoo Survivor: Yes, I'm glad you brought that up. The raison d'etre for the Microsoft putsch was a play for ad revenue and eyeballs. The mail, messaging, dev platform, ad serving, etc., are all moving parts of a machine that delivers these revenues. Search is the mechanism that drives the traffic in, the former components I just mentioned are unique properties that build customer loyalty. You need these cogs to run together, whereas the content can be bought almost anywhere through partnerships.
So, in short, I think that this could be, maybe, the beginning of the return to Yahoo's soul of leading through innovative technology, and that the entertainment properties will take their rightful place within the hierarchy. This was all catalyzed, but in no way caused, by the Microsoft offer.
Wilensky: Thanks so much for sitting with me at this trying time. Can we attribute your identity when the smoke clears?
Yahoo Survivor: We will see.