Category: Business

Shipping vs. Learning

“What did you ship last quarter?”

“When is this going to ship?”

“Real artists ship.”

The verb “ship” has a long history in the software development world and before that, the physical world. In the physical world, it originally meant “to transport something on a vessel”, and in the software world, it meant “to press a tape/disk/CD and send it out to consumers”. Since then, it has come to simply mean “release”, and even then, usually not in any sort of final form.

Everyone inside tech companies loves shipping. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and creativity from designers, engineers, PMs, researchers, and any number of other people, and when it’s good it puts a dent in the universe. It is no wonder then that so much of the machinery of tech organizations is centered around shipping.

But should it be? Especially given how much shipping itself has changed in the last couple of decades?

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Evaluating Employees in Product Design & Development Roles

Results. Metrics. Impact.

When deciding how to evaluate employees, these are often the things companies land on. It makes sense on its face. If a company’s goal is to, say, grow its customer base from X to Y in 12 months, what better way to align employees to that objective than to try and directly measure their contribution towards it? You worked on Project A and it singlehandedly got the company 20% closer to its goal? Congrats, you are judged to be a successful employee and you will likely enjoy everything that goes along with that.

But what if you worked on Project B — not even by choice but because you were assigned it — and it ended up being a failure? Your results were terrible, you didn’t move metrics, and your project had no impact. Then what?

Welcome to the controversial world of employee evaluation in product design & development.

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Three Years in San Francisco

I had only been to San Francisco on random business trips and a couple of times with my family when I was very young. It seemed like a place I might live if I had never found Seattle.

It was go-time now though.

A drawn-out dance of interviews over the course of six months resulted in an offer to move down to the City and join Twitter to lead its Design team. My wife and I had never considered leaving Seattle before, but the opportunity to join Doug, Dick, and a few other people I knew designing a product that reached hundreds of millions of people was exactly the sort of thing you drop everything for.

“We can always hightail it back up here the second things go to hell.”

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⇗ Deep Learning Is Going to Teach Us All the Lesson of Our Lives: Jobs Are for Machines

On December 2nd, 1942, a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi came back from lunch and watched as humanity created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction inside a pile of bricks and wood underneath a football field at the University of Chicago.

Read more ⇗

We Are Expanding the Design Team at Twitter

First things first: we are expanding the Design Studio at Twitter! A few days ago, I opened 8 new positions, which can be viewed here. If you have fantastic design, production, or research chops and you love Twitter, we’d love to talk to you.

Secondly, below is a not-so-brief update on how things have gone in my first month here.

The City

So far, San Francisco has outperformed my already high expectations. It’s an even more enjoyable city to live in than I imagined. The only thing that’s been a bummer is housing selection and pricing. For a 1300 square foot place, I am paying about 2.5-3x what the same place would go for in a nice neighborhood in Seattle; and Seattle isn’t exactly cheap either. I thought I would just have to overpay a little down here in order to get into a decent place, but the reality is that the city is littered with apartments as expensive as $6000 a month that you wouldn’t even want to live in. Thankfully, we got a place on a great block in Noe Valley so at least the neighborhood is perfect for us, but man is it pricey for what it is.

The food in San Francisco has been predictably terrific, and I will just come out and say it: the coffee is better than it is in Seattle. Between Ritual, Philz, Martha’s, and Blue Bottle, just about the only place in Seattle which can compete is Uptown Espresso. That has surprised me a bit. It’s also nice being this close to In-N-Out Burger, which helps (almost) make up for the lack of Skillet down here.

People keep telling me the weather is supposed to turn to shit any day now, but it’s the middle of December and it’s been sunny and mid 60s for most of my time here. I could really get used to this, although I’m sure the summers won’t be nearly as nice as they are in Seattle. I still plan to fly up every couple of weeks during the summer and throughout Husky football season.

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I’m Joining Twitter

Over five years and exactly 10,000 tweets ago, when I first tiptoed into the lonely textfield that was Twitter’s “What Are You Doing?” box, I typed the following:

It was a reaction to many things, good and bad. The ease of publishing messages. The prevalence of insignificant breakfast trivia in the public feed. The lack of any filtering controls. The growing number of my friends becoming instantly addicted to it.

Since then, Twitter has gone from quirky little internet CB radio to exploding social upstart to what I now consider one of the most important information platforms in the world. At its best, Twitter is an international treasure.

As both a user and an information designer, I’ve grown to love Twitter more each year, and so it is with great excitement that I’m happy to announce I have agreed to move down to San Francisco and Join The Flock™ in the newly created position of Vice President, Design.

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A Fond Farewell to Newsvine, NBC, and Seattle

The last time I wrote one of these posts, it was 7 years ago and I was getting ready to leave a great job at ESPN to start my own media company, Newsvine.

The concept was simple: license the same content that anchored the majority of most major news sites — specifically the Associated Press newswire — and marry it with original contributions from citizens around the world, all in an editorless environment controlled entirely by the community. Mainstream journalism and citizen journalism would stand shoulder to shoulder on the same stage for the very first time.

It was only the second startup I had been a part of, but the first I had founded and the first I had run as CEO. Together with my four colleagues, Lance Anderson, Mark Budos, Calvin Tang, and Josh Yockey (in alphabetical order) we set off to change journalism and show how lean a news organization could be run if given the right automation, the right strategy, and the right amount of support and passion from the community.

After two quick and productive meetings with Mike Slade and Nick Hanauer of Second Avenue Partners, we closed our Series A, left our jobs, and jumped off the cliff together.

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The Deterioration of Hi-Ball Packaging Design

I’ve been a huge fan of Hi-Ball caffeinated mineral water for a few years now. It’s a crisp, light, sweetener-free way to get a little bit of caffeine in your system on a hot day. In addition to the virtues of the product itself, I was initially drawn to this beverage because of its beautiful packaging. Below is what the the bottle looked like when it debuted a few years ago:

A compact, easily resealable 10 ounce bottle with a very reasonable 80mg of caffeine in it.

Then, a couple of years ago, the folks at Hi-Ball decided to change up the bottle design and go with a taller, skinnier variety:

I didn’t have a huge problem with this change, although I was unclear how it qualified as an improvement. If anything, it was worse than the original since it’s much harder to reseal a glass bottle with a metal cap than with a plastic cap. Still, at least it was in that nice, convenient, 10 ounce size with only 80 mg of caffeine.

Fast forward to 2012 though, and Hi-Ball has completely dumped its beautiful glass bottles in favor of gigantic 16 ounce cans. These things are monsters:

Furthermore, the cans have that gimmicky Coors Light feature where parts of it turn blue when it’s cold as the Rockies. You know how else I can tell a beverage is cold enough for me to drink? Because I keep it in my refrigerator.

Hi-Ball is pitching this change as better for its customers since the can holds more beverage, but that’s actually my least favorite part of the entire redesign. I don’t want 16 ounces of energy drink, and I definitely don’t want 160mg of caffeine. And you know what is really hard to reseal? An aluminum can.

People have suggested just drinking a portion of the beverage and then throwing away the rest — which is what I have been doing — but there’s just something unsatisfying about buying more than you want and then dumping the rest down the drain.

It seems clear to me that Hi-Ball is now trying to compete with the Red Bulls and Monster Energies of the world by offering their 16 ounce can, but even those companies offer smaller alternatives.

I find myself buying less and less Hi-Ball now that they’ve forced this super-size on everyone. I wonder if I’m alone or if others are abandoning ship as well.

What the Betamax Case Teaches Us About Readability

The Betamax SL6500! I totally had this model!!!

Several really smart people in our industry are arguing very publicly right now about a company called Readability and how great and/or evil their service is. One side thinks what Readability does is wrong, and by extension, that the company’s founders are immoral. The other side says Readability is providing a valuable service, and although they may not have gotten everything right yet, their intent is good.

There are two issues at the center of the controversy:

1. When you save a “cleaned” version of an article (e.g. no ads, homogenized layout) to Readability and then try to share it publicly via Readability’s share tools, the shared link is to the Readability version of the article and not the source. When someone clicks over, they don’t even hit the original content creator’s server.

This seems quite bad to me, and it might even be illegal. By facilitating the public retransmission of an author’s content in a format not authorized by the author, it would seem that Readability is committing copyright violation, en masse. When courts ruled in 1984 that it was ok for someone to make a personal copy of a television broadcast using their VCRs, they did not also rule that people (or VCR companies) could then re-transmit that copy to someone else, without commercials, or however else they saw fit.

This issue seems straightforward to me, and as of this writing, the folks at Readability have apparently changed their tune and decided to do the right thing; although I just downloaded a new Readability Chrome extension and I still see the old behavior.

So, that’s it for the first issue. Bad for publishers? Yes. Bad for readers? Only in that it’s bad for publishers.

Update: Rich from Readability tells me that the only reason I’m still seeing this behavior is that I am clicking the link when I’m already signed in to Readability and the item is already in my reading list. I then tested clicking the link from another browser and it indeed went to the original article, albeit framed with a Readability callout on top. I’m fine with this. So, this problem appears to be resolved.

2. Readability collects voluntary fees from its users (suggested amount: $5 per month) and then attempts to redistribute 70% of this revenue back to publishers, providing said publishers have signed up for their service. This is proving controversial because Readability is “collecting fees on behalf of publishers” without their consent, only distributing the fees back to the publishers if they sign up, and deciding themselves what the details of this arrangement are.

I’ve thought about this a bit — as someone who runs a company that also returns revenue back to content creators (90% in our case, with prior consent) — and I think detractors might be looking at this the wrong way. As I see it, Readability has no obligation to return any revenue to publishers. Unless I’m missing something, they are even within their rights to help individual users make offline, ad-free versions of articles for personal use per the same principles in the Betamax case. A VCR allows me to watch a show later, in another context, while skipping the ads, so why shouldn’t Readability allow me to do the same thing?

The anger about the financial side of Readability seems to come from the opinion that the company is “keeping publishers’ money” unless they sign up, but I guess I look at it differently: I don’t think it is the publishers’ money. I think it is Readability’s money. Readability invests the time and resources into developing their service and they are the ones who physically get users to pay a subscription fee. It’s hard to get users to pay for content and they are the ones who are actually doing it. They realize that the popularity of their service is a direct result of content creators’ efforts so they are voluntarily redistributing 70% of it back to publishers in the only way it is feasible to: based on pageviews from publishers who register themselves.

If you are a publisher and you don’t sign up, Readability doesn’t take your money. It’s all accounted for and available to you once you sign up. I’m not even sure if there is an expiration date on this collection, but there should be. If I were Readability, I’d probably put something like a year limit on it such that if it wasn’t claimed within that time period, it would go onto the company’s balance sheet as revenue.

Readability has no universal contract with the publishing industry, nor do they need one; much as the makers of VCRs had no contract with TV or movie studios. When a reader signs up to pay their monthly fee, Readability then has a contract with the reader. That contract does not say “we will use 70% of your fee to pay your favorite publishers”. It says (paraphrased) “we will take your fee, keep 30%, and give the rest of it away to your favorite publishers, as long as they claim it.” The fact that certain publishers may not want to claim this 70% or may take umbrage as to the details of the arrangement does not change the contract between Readability and its customers. It also does not hurt the publisher any more than other competitive services like Instapaper do.

I would feel very differently about this whole case if our fair use laws weren’t as they are today, but courts have told us that “personal archiving” is a legal activity. As such, it’s legal — and perfectly moral — for a company to create a service which makes personal archiving easier whilst charging a monthly fee for it. That Readability sees a future in which personal archiving may hurt publisher revenues and pushes forward an experiment to counteract those effects should be applauded.

Finally, this whole episode is a good reminder that the problems of the publishing industry haven’t gone away just because the world has gone digital. In fact, personal archiving is an example of a way it’s gotten worse. You never needed a “reading layout” with a magazine or a newspaper because they were already optimized for reasonably efficient reading. Now layouts are optimized for “time on site”. You also never needed a separate service to help you “Read Later” a magazine or newspaper because you could, you know, just read it later. As digital publishing continues to try and balance profits with audience satisfaction, you can expect many more debates like this from smart people like Anil, Gruber, and Zeldman. Just as it’s important for us to defend upstarts who fight the status quo, it’s also important to hold them to as high of a standard as we hold ourselves.

Choice Quotes from the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report

I’ve been a Berkshire Hathaway fan since I was in 6th grade, and like many others, I always look forward to reading their annual report. It’s amazing that in the 46 years since Warren Buffett took over management of the company, there hasn’t been a single major down year for investors to fret about. When the S&P shed 9%, 12%, and 22% during the three-year dot-com 1.0 bust, Berkshire’s book value was up about 10%. During the 2008 financial crisis, the S&P dropped 37% while Berkshire only lost 9.6% (their worst year ever). Every Berkshire annual report is written in plain English and provides indispensable advice for all levels of investors, but there are always a handful of choice quotes that really make me proud to put a few pennies where Warren Buffett puts his. Among my favorites from this year’s report include:

  • “More than 98% of my net worth is in Berkshire stock, all of which will go to various philanthropies.”
  • “About 95% of … (our companies’ capital investments)… were made in the U.S., a fact that may surprise those who believe our country lacks investment opportunities. We welcome projects abroad, but expect the overwhelming majority of Berkshire’s future capital commitments to be in America. In 2012, these expenditures will again set a record.”
  • “People may postpone hitching up during uncertain times, but eventually hormones take over. And while ‘doubling-up’ may be the initial reaction of some during a recession, living with in-laws can quickly lose its allure.”
  • “We now have eight subsidiaries that would each be included in the Fortune 500 were they stand-alone companies. That leaves only 492 to go. My task is clear, and I’m on the prowl.”
  • “The first law of capital allocation – whether the money is slated for acquisitions or share repurchases – is that what is smart at one price is dumb at another.”
  • “There are a lot of ways to lose money in insurance, and the industry is resourceful in creating new ones.”
  • “If something’s not worth doing at all, it’s not worth doing well.”
  • “Even in the U.S., where the wish for a stable currency is strong, the dollar has fallen a staggering 86% in value since 1965.”
  • “(A cube of) 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond.”

… and the most profound passage of the entire report:

  • “Today, IBM has 1.16 billion shares outstanding, of which we own about 63.9 million or 5.5%. Naturally, what happens to the company’s earnings over the next five years is of enormous importance to us. Beyond that, the company will likely spend $50 billion or so in those years to repurchase shares. Our quiz for the day: What should a long-term shareholder, such as Berkshire, cheer for during that period? I won’t keep you in suspense. We should wish for IBM’s stock price to languish throughout the five years.”

That last bit is why no casual investor (and even many professional ones) should ever think they know even half as much about investing as Warren Buffett. For a compelling, uplifting take on where the U.S. economy might be headed, be my guest and read the rest.

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