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Remote workers, Yahoo and building great products

By Saeed Khan

It’s been several months since the news of Marissa Mayer’s INTERNAL memo on working from home, entitled “Physically together” became public. I had written a blog post in response to it, but decided that I should wait a while and let both the news sink in and my emotions settle before actually posting it. I didn’t expect it to be almost 6 months later though.

There’s a key section that memo that I want to focus on:

“…From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices.

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

My remote worker story

The reason I wanted to write a response to that memo is that I am a remote worker. I have been for several years, and even when I wasn’t a remote worker — i.e. I worked in an office with others — I worked closely with people who were remote — relative to me at least.

Back in 2003, I worked on my first project with remote developers in India. In fact, at the time, I was working on the first product being remotely developed at the company I worked at. So there were a lot of eyes on us to see how it went. On this side of the world, I had a great development architect and development manager with whom I could discuss ideas, brainstorm, complain to etc. On the other side of the world, we had a corresponding development manager and a small development team.

After some initial missteps about how specific the requirements needed to be  — the first prototype required a complete rewrite — we moved forward and worked very well together. I got used to waking up in the morning with various emails that arrived overnight, and I also got used to the weekly 10 PM Wednesday status call. And strangely, I also got used to working with people I never met face to face in my life, but with whom I felt a real connection and bond as we worked on several releases of the product.

Ten years later, I still work with an offshore team, still have weekly status calls, still receive emails overnight, and still have not met face-to-face with many of the people I work.  In fact, I work closely with people both near-shore and offshore and meet goals and milestones, deliver successful product releases, participate in product launches etc. and see people once, maybe twice a year if that.

Culture and Communication, not Co-location

For me, being “Physcially together” to create successful products has never been an issue. It wasn’t necessary 10 years ago and it isn’t necessary today. The reason is that then, as well as now, its the culture that makes it possible. The work culture is about “getting things done” and moving forward. Clear and honest communication is necessary as is a sufficient level of patience as there are times where we cross-paths or have to repeat discussions or revisit decisions that we’ve made before.

But this would be no different were we all in the same room or building working together. I’ve seen huge foul-ups happen with people who work on the same floor of the same building, so co-location isn’t a solution for poor communication or poor culture.

I’m pretty sure Yahoo has some extreme culture problems and one way to trim some of the bad apples is too force those who take advantage of working from home to show up and step up, or leave.

There clearly are times where I miss the ability to sit across a table from my co-workers and have a brainstorming session on a topic, or catch up on some (not quite) unrelated developments happening in another product group. There is HUGE value in those ad-hoc discussions that happen — as the memo states — in hallways and cafeterias.

In the end, it’s very difficult to change the culture of a large, slow moving company that doesn’t innovate.  Yahoo bought Flickr — an amazing photo-sharing app built by a small and talented team (of Canadians mostly!! 🙂 ) and did virtually nothing with it. This has been the story with many such acquisitions — the most famous of which (in my view) was the $5.7 billion paid for Broadcast.com in 1999 — that made Mark Cuban an instant billionaire.  Cuban has done a lot with the money he made, but what happened to Broadcast.com?  Not much.

I predict that not much will happen with other Yahoo initiatives — and this is not a slight against Ms. Mayer — because changing the culture at Yahoo  to one that creates great products will take a radical change of how the company functions and how the company is structured, and it’s unlikely that any CEO, Ms. Mayer  or others, would want to make those changes. It might upset shareholders. 🙁

And don’t forget about Microsoft

BTW, Microsoft is currently going through their own changes (more sweeping than Yahoo’s) , trying to recapture their mojo.  I’m sure I’ll get this wrong, but I think Microsoft will see real success before Yahoo does from those changes. It will be interesting to track both. What are your thoughts?

Saeed

Tweet this: Remote workers, Yahoo and building great products http://wp.me/pXBON-3NQ  #yhoo #culture #innovation

About the author

Saeed Khan is a founder and Managing Editor of On Product Management, and has worked for the last 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He also speaks regularly at events on the topic of product management and product leadership.

 

 

0 comments
  1. Ben

    This post seems to ignore the reality that many tech companies don’t have a perfect culture of communication that would allow product owners and other key roles to be remote. In essence, it sounds like you’re saying, “Rather than centralize the workforce, Yahoo! should fix its culture, but it won’t do that.” Given that last supposition, what should Yahoo! do? Just go to a corner and wither away? It seems to me that, given the limitations of their culture, and the reality for many tech companies that having product owners, developers, and others together where informal and non-verbal communication can occur, it’s a completely defensible move. The only other option your post leaves Mayer — if she shouldn’t require co-location and can’t rebuild the culture — is to die. I’m sure that is far less palatable to most of their employees than being required to drive to the office every day.

  2. Saeed

    Hi Ben

    Thanks for the comment. Let me respond to some of your points.

    I’m not ignoring the reality of the culture of communication in companies. In fact, no company can have a perfect culture of communication. Yet, there are many companies that create innovative products.

    I’m not say “Rather than centralize the workforce, Yahoo should fix the culture…”. I do see centralizing the workforce as part of the culture fixing process. i.e. bring everyone together, get more collaboration going etc. And the alternative is not just to “go to a corner and wither away”.

    What I’m saying is that culture trumps everything, and the culture is not going to be changed by making people come to the office. If the home/remote workers are SUCH a drag on the ability for the company to execute, then there is a much larger problem to address.

    To change the culture, success will either have to come from a couple of internal projects “done right” to be the lighthouse examples of how things need to be done, or it will require a major re-org/re-structuring of people/services etc which I don’t see Yahoo doing.

    The first requires the right people with the right objectives and culture. The latter requires the CEO/Exec team and BOD to commit to a plan that will probably not make shareholders happy in the short term.

    Neither have anything to do with co-location of workers.

    Saeed

    1. Ben

      Thanks for the response, Saeed. That makes much more sense, and I agree that bringing everyone into the office won’t fix the culture on its own. It sounds like we agree that bringing people together is likely a step toward fixing the culture, but that it, on its own, won’t be enough to save Yahoo! And I agree that with a top-notch culture of communication and documentation, location doesn’t matter very much.

    2. Dustin Levy

      Agreed. The effect at Yahoo is poor innovation and product development, but it is seems unlikely that remote working is causing that effect. That conclusion may only be justified if internal product development teams are consistently outperforming those with a high complement of remote workers. That should be measureable before drawing a conclusion that workers need to be centralized. Even if the above scenario was correct – that internal teams show the better performance in a given company – I wouldn’t call for centralization in response. Rather, I would roll out training to increase the effectiveness of hybrid and remote teams instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      1. Saeed Khan

        Dustin

        Couldn’t agree more, particularly with the last point. Having distributed teams is a reality and won’t go away. Learning how to work effectively and building a culture that optimizes on that is the solution. If there are a lot of people who work remotely AND are ineffective, put them on a performance plan. If they improve, great. If not, let them go.

        Saeed

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