From Technology to Politics: Leadership Lessons from the Code Conference

This past week, I was able to attend the inaugural Code Conference organized by Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher.  One of the perks of the conference is, within close quarters, the chance to hear the leaders of huge, successful consumer technology companies.

  • Satya Nadella, Microsoft
  • Sergey Brin, Google
  • Brian Krzanich, Intel
  • Brian Roberts, Comcast
  • Reed Hastings, Netflix
  • Travis Kalanick, Uber
  • Drew Houston, Dropbox
  • Eddy Cue, Apple (iTunes / iCloud)

As I think about lessons from the conference, I find myself focused on a particular insight watching these leaders defend their company’s strategy and focus.  (It’s worth noting that anyone being interviewed by Kara does, in fact, have to be ready to play defense.)

David to Goliath

One of the most complex transitions that every consumer technology company has to make is from David to Goliath.  It’s extremely difficult in part because the timing is somewhat unpredictable.  Is Netflix an upstart versus the cable monolith, or a goliath itself as it is responsible for a third of all internet traffic?  When exactly did Google go from cool startup to a giant that even governments potentially fear?  Apple, of course, went from startup to giant to “beleaguered” and all the way to juggernaut.

Make no mistake, however.  The change in public opinion does happen, and when it does, the exact same behaviors and decisions can be read very differently in the court of public opinion.

Technology to Economics to Politics

Most technology companies begin with language that talks about their technical platform and achievements. “Our new product is 10x faster than anything else on the market,” or “Our new platform can handle 10x the data of existing platforms,” etc.  Sometimes, these technical achievements are reframed around end users: “We help connect over 1 billion people every day,” or “we help share over 10 billion photos a week,” etc.

Quickly, however, the best technology companies tend to shift to economics. “Our new product will let you get twice the sales in half the time,” or “our application will save you time and money.”  As they grow, those economic impacts grow as well.  Markets of billions of dollars are commonplace, and opportunities measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, as David moves to Goliath, it seems that many technology leaders miss the subtle shift in the expectations from their leadership.   When you wield market power that can be measured on a national (or international) scale, the challenge shifts from economics to politics.  Consumers want to know what leaders they are “electing” with their time and money, and their questions often shift implicitly to values and rights rather than speed or cost.

What Will the World Be Like Under Your Leadership?

As I watched various leaders answer hard questions about their companies, a clear division took place.  Most focused merely on questions of whether they would succeed or fail.  But a few did a great job elevating the discussion to a view of what the world will be like if they are successful.

There is no question that the leaders who elevated the discussion are finding more success in the market.

Satya Nadella gave no real reason why we would like the world better if Microsoft is successful.  Neither did Brian Krzanich of Intel.

Sergey Brin promises that in a world where Google is successful, we’ll have self-driving cars and fast internet for everyone.  Jet packs & flying cars.  It’s an old pitch, but a good one.

Eddy Cue tells us that Apple cares about making sure there is still great music in the world, which is why they always make sure to add ads from and similar sites.  And of course, Apple has spent decades convincing us that when they are successful, we get new shiny, well-designed devices every year.

Is it really surprising that Google & Apple have elevated brands with high consumer value?

Technology Leadership

There is no way around the challenges of power.  As any company grows, it’s power grows, and with that power comes concern and fear around the use of that power.  Google has so much control over information and access to information.  Apple tends to wield tight control over the economics and opportunities within their ecosystem.  However, the leaders at these companies are intelligently making sure that the opportunities they promise the market counter-balance those fears, at least at some level.

Wealthfront, my company, is still small enough that we’re far from being considered anything but a small (but rapidly growing) startup in a space where giants measure their markets in the trillions.  But as I watched these technology leaders at the Code Conference, I realized that someday, if we’re successful, this same challenge will face our company.

If you lead or work for a technology giant, it’s worth asking the question:

Does your message elevate to the point where everyone understands the tangible benefit of living in a world where your company is successful?  If not, I’d argue your likely to face increasing headwinds in your efforts to compete in the consumer market going forward.

Blackberry’s Impossible Mission

Today, Research in Motion Blackberry announced with great fanfare their new Blackberry 10 operating system and devices.  Unfortunately, the market has shifted so radically in the past few years, it’s not clear to me what path exists for any meaningful success for Blackberry.

Blackberry is on an impossible mission.

Why Blackberry?

I used a Blackberry for over seven years.  In fact, I didn’t move to the iPhone until the 3G came out with the native application platform.  Like many, I was addicted to the perceived and actual productivity of messaging on the Blackberry and the physical keyboard.

Like most people who make the switch, it took me a few weeks to get to be “good enough” to type and message effectively on the iPhone.  The millions who are still on the Blackberry tend to focus on exactly one issue: the Blackberry is an amazing messaging device, thanks to the keyboard & software optimization.

The Victory of the Touch Screen

I remember, in 2009, making a Blackberry my temporary “full time” mobile device for a few days.  It was amazing – in just a year, I had completely lost all the muscle memory that made me so productive on the Blackberry.  The iPhone had won.

The reason is simple: a fast, modern device that offers the full richness of the modern web, combined with a vibrant and high quality native application market dominates the marginal efficiency in messaging.  Whether you use iOS or Android, minor productivity improvements in SMS & Email are swamped by access to applications, games, web services, cloud platforms and a myriad of other capabilities.  The smartphone itself has now evolved into a variety of form factors and niches, with phablets and tablets eating an increasing share of our attention and computing.

Blackberry’s Impossible Mission

Right now, it seems like Blackberry has no viable path as a third platform.

Yes, the ardent users of the platform can buy the new devices for their hardware keyboards.  But there aren’t enough of them (h/t to Daring Fireball), and it’s hard to imagine that this market won’t get eaten by the flexibility provided by the Android platform in time.

Yes, there are IT departments that continue to have their companies locked down on the Blackberry, but it’s unlikely the the new operating system won’t create sufficient migration issues that they won’t move to either iOS, Android or both as supported platforms.

The real problem is that their touchscreen product cannot possibly provide enough unique functionality to justify the choice over the iPhone or Android at the medium to high end.  At the low end, they cannot possibly underprice the Android ecosystem.

Damned if they do, Damned if they don’t

In other words, if they abandon their customer-defined differentiator (keyboard), they’ll lose all differentiation in the market.  If they don’t, they are left with an eroding, minority share of a market that is likely insufficient in size and economics to fund their continued development and support of a competitive mobile ecosystem.  As a developer, spending precious resources on this, at best, stagnant minority pool of potential users is tough to justify.

Microsoft can play this game, for a while, because they (still) have relatively unlimited free cash flow and a desktop platform that still boasts hundreds of millions of users.  Blackberry doesn’t.

Easter Egg: The LinkedIn Wizard Goes Web-Wide

For some reason, I *love* Easter Eggs.

No, I don’t mean the candy colored eggs that people make and roll to celebrate the holiday.  Easter eggs are the playful name for hidden features, games, and funny content that software engineers embed in their products for fun.  This was extremely popular in the early days of consumer software in the 1980s (there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to Microsoft’s early easter eggs.)

You still see easter eggs in websites from time to time.  Maybe a funny error page.  Maybe a game appears when you click the right spot on a web page.  But it’s not as common as it used to be.

The New LinkedIn Platform

Today was a huge launch for the LinkedIn Platform team.  After months of effort, the team launched an incredible new way for developers to bring powerful professional identity & insights into any web application. (If you haven’t checked out the new, definitely go do it now.)

The LinkedIn Wizard

I am proud to reveal tonight, on my personal blog, that thanks to Jakob Heuser, there is an eighth “undocumented” professional plugin for the web.  If you want to see it, all you have to do is use the following script on your website:

<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>

<script type="IN/Wizard" size="large"></script>


The Wizard of In, patron of all LinkedIn Hackdays, has gone web-wide.

Source Code That Allegedly Broke the Microsoft Zune

Thanks to Lawrence, Ryan, JSTN.

while (days > 365) {
    if (IsLeapYear(year)) {
        if (days > 366) {
            days -= 366;
            year += 1;
    } else {
        days -= 365;
        year += 1;

For non-programmers out there, this is what we like to call in technical terms “an infinite loop”. This code block will never finish running because on Day 366, the loop keeps checking to see if the day is greater than 365 (it is), and then checks to see if it’s a Leap Year (it is), and then checks to see if it is greater than 366 (it isn’t). So it does nothing, and then starts all over.

Perfect way to lock up your Zune every four years on the last day of the leap year.

Not sure if this is the actual code snippet or not, but a fun exercise. I could actually see this being on an introduction to programming test at some point.

My favorite quote about this fiasco (from the San Jose Mercury News):

“I’ve never heard of a consumer electronic device fail en masse like this,” said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, a Seattle-based research firm that focuses on the software giant.

Does anyone doubt that “Microsoft Zune” has become the “Ford Pinto” of consumer electronics?

Should You Be Eating Your Own Dog Food?

One of the best parts of my job at LinkedIn is responsibility for a world-class User Experience & Design team.  It’s a new and rapidly growing team, and with the addition of new people and new voices, I’ve really enjoyed the thoughtful discussions and debates that have been occurring.

Recently, an article featured on the Silicon Valley Product Group site spurred quite a bit of debate internally, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of those thoughts here.   The issue, as per the title, was the merit of the old product stand-by of “eating your own dogfood”.

What does it mean?

If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, it dates back to the 1980s, and was one of the core elements of the Microsoft software development philosophy.  (How many people in Silicon Valley realize that they are espousing a Microsoft-based software principle I don’t actually know…)  It’s an oblique reference to old Alpo commercials, where Lorne Greene would say that it was so good, he feeds it to his own dogs.  You’ve likely heard hundreds of commercials that make the same equivalent endorsement.

In software, this concept served at least three purposes:

  • Convince customers that their products were good enough for general use, by providing an empirical example.  For example, “We’ve been running our operations for the past year on this software, and the results are phenomenal!”
  • Ensure that software developers and other employees “feel the pain” of their customers.  The idea is that it is easy to ignore bugs, or miss simple problems with a product if you yourself don’t feel the pain personally.  This is one the reasons, for examples, many companies actually try to use new products internally first before release.
  • Ensure that software developers build applications and software that they themselves would use.  This theory holds that if you can put yourself in the shoes of your customer, so to speak, then you’ll have more insight into the ideal features and design of your product.

The Argument

The article in SVPG aggressively staked out a position that focused on that third bullet point in particular, and several members of our design team rallied around the critique.  This paragraph summarizes the problem well:

But the real issue here is not the importance of running your own software.  The real issue is that this is just another symptom of a big problem we have in our industry, but especially here in the valley.  We tend to believe that our customers and users are much more like ourselves than they really are.

For many designers, one of the most important reminders to begin every project with is the mantra, “The user is not like me.”  For several members of our team, this reminder is crucial to great customer-centric design, because it forces you to do your homework on the actual needs and characteristics of your target user and use-cases.  Too many designers, product managers, engineers and executives take the short cut of assuming that because they personally find a feature useful or annoying, that their personal experience will map directly to their customers.

For this group, the call to “eat your own dog food” potentially exposes the team to the danger that they will mistake their own personal reactions to the software with those of their customer.  If you are immersed in LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter on your iPhone, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most of your users, in fact, are not.  In fact, the most extreme version of this argument says that by exposing yourself to heavily, you cannot avoid personally biasing your product decisions toward your own needs rather than the needs of your customers.

For others, the importance of using your own software on a regular basis is fundamental to building great product, for many of the reasons outlined above in the three bullet points.   Needless to say, it’s a great debate if you are passionate about building customer-centric product and organization.

The Answer

Personally, I thought the SVPG piece was well balanced, but understated the reasons why companies who “eat their own dogfood” tend to outperform those that don’t over time although there are people that actually try their dog food to see how good it is they get something from a great Pitbull food guide and want to test their quality.

It is very easy to “de-prioritize” and undervalue problems and issues that face users of your products if you don’t depend on them yourself.  It is very easy to get attached to theoretical frameworks, market research, testing, and all sorts of valid means of evaluating how things work and what gets fixed.

But if you don’t use the product every day, chances are, you will undervalue real problems that your customers have, and overvalue ones that they don’t.  More importantly, you’ll be lacking the context to see the patterns & causal factors in the research.  The biggest problem with all forms of research is the issue of differentiating correlation from causality.

In our case, LinkedIn is a site for professionals.  Every person in this company is a professional.  Are LinkedIn employees representative of the entire span of professionals, or even the majority?  No.  Are LinkedIn employees a valid subset of professionals that should be able to use LinkedIn daily?  Yes.

We are actively working to open up as many channels as possible to listen to our customers: usability, focus groups, customer service, email feedback, LinkedIn Answers, community commentary on this (and other) blogs, and of course site metrics & testing.  At the same time, we are constantly using LinkedIn internally, as we endeavor to use the site on a daily basis to make ourselves more effective professionals.

I’m committed to finding balance between the two poles.  The risks of poor product & design decisions on both ends of the spectrum are too high.

Mozilla Firefox 3 Beta 3: First Impressions

Got to be careful what I say here.  Mike Schroepfer might be reading. 🙂

Actually, I was reading his blog when I found out that Firefox 3 Beta 3 is out.  You can download it here.

I’m playing the naive user for now… just installed it and using it, without reading up on the specifics of the new features.  I’m trying to see what I actually notice without any prep.

First thing… it’s FAST.  Much faster than Firefox 2.  And much much more stable with lots of tabs left open, although I need to give this a bit of a test through the weekend.

One of my biggest problems with Firefox 2 has been based on my particular usage habits.  I tend to open a lot of web pages in tabs, and leave them open for days (or weeks), as reminders to either read the pages or blog about them (or both).  What I’ve noticed is that once I get a large number of open tabs (20+), Firefox starts lagging my entire machine.  I don’t have the fastest machine in the world (PowerMac G5, Dual 2.5Ghz, 2.5GB RAM), but I’m pretty sure it should be able to display 20+ webpages at one time. 🙂

Anyway, everything is faster with Firefox 3.  My eBay loads faster.  SYI 3 loads faster. loads faster.  Email links that open URLs in Firefox open faster.  And when I launch with a dozen or more tabs, it feels much more stable, not locking up nearly the way that Firefox 2 did.

I’m noticing on Mac OS X (10.5) that the controls look a little goofy.  The small controls used on eBay now come out as Mac-like round buttons, but the font is off-center.  Also, the drop-down menus actually have their text one pixel below the end of the menu control.

This is stuff I’m sure that’ll get fixed by final release.

We’re obviously going to have get busy updating our LinkedIn toolbar – Firefox 3 informed me the current version isn’t compatible.  I use that toolbar every day, so I’m going to have to make sure that gets fixed.  🙂  In fact, none of my toolbars were verified to work with Firefox 3, which is probably a good thing since I don’t use most of them anymore anyway.

I’ve been very happy with Firefox vs. Safari since I switched about two years ago.  I was debating whether Safari 3 and the rise of the iPhone meant I would eventually have to switch back to Safari as my primary browser.

It’s not final, but my first few hours on Firefox 3 has left me fairly confident that Mozilla will continue to be my browser provider of choice for the foreseeable future.

You know, I just realized that Mozilla’s success making a great web browser for the Mac proves the lie in Microsoft’s excuses for abandoning the platform.   Firefox proves:

  1. That a great web browser can be built as a stand-alone application, not as a component of the OS.
  2. That a great web browser can be built on the Mac by a company other than Apple.

These were, of course, the two nominal reasons that Microsoft gave back in 2002 for dropping Internet Explorer on the Mac.

As Apple market share continues to grow, and the concept of an all-Windows workplace fades, I have to wonder – will Microsoft ever reconsider providing IE as a cross-platform browser again?   Even if the Mac has a low (5%) market share, that doesn’t mean only 5% of companies will have Macs deployed.  It could turn out that a vast majority of companies end up with a minority share of Macs in-house.  Does Microsoft really want to cede the cross-platform web application market to Mozilla?

Somehow, I doubt this is being seriously considered in Redmond.  But it’s definitely interesting in the face of a resurgent Mac platform and a cross-platform Firefox & Safari.  Internet Explorer for the iPhone, anyone?

Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD: The Microsoft Conspiracy Theory

This article was funny enough that I had to share.

Engadget: Michael Bay’s format war conspiracy theory: it’s a Microsoft fix

Here is a tidbit:

Responding to a commenter angry over Paramount’s decision to burn Optimus and friends onto HD DVD only, Bay claims to have the inside track on the “corporate politics” at play here, suggesting that “Microsoft wants both formats to fail so they can be heroes and make the world move to digital downloads.” He goes on to claim that Redmond has only been financially backing HD DVD over “superior Blu-ray” to create “confusion in the market” until such time as high def digital downloading goes prime time.

I love it. This is fun stuff, if you are into meaningless format wars.

Truth be told, Blu-Ray should be king of the hill by now. HD-DVD was almost knocking on death’s door based on studio support, with most studios either deciding to support both or just Blu-Ray. That would have killed HD-DVD quickly, since a typical consumer would have just said, “buy the Blu-Ray, and get access to all movies”. This is on top of the fact that Blu-Ray offers higher storage capacity, and had early support from PC manufacturers like Apple. (Yes, I know the Blu-Ray players cost more, but I assume that problem gets solved quickly)

HD-DVD managed to prevent this fate this year by paying literally a $150M spiff to Paramount and Dreamworks to make their movies HD-DVD only. That pulled Shrek & Transformers into the “must have HD-DVD camp”, and thus the war rages on.

I could have some sympathy, as a result, for Bay’s theory, except for the fact that if there is any subsidy war in this market, Sony takes the cake. They are subsidizing a Blu-Ray player into every single PS3, plus some free movies, in order to get the expensive player technology into the market. That may not be $150M spiff, but it’s actually far more dollars when you assume hundreds of dollars of losses over millions of PS3 boxes.

Microsoft could have done the same with HD-DVD in the Xbox 360, but they chose not to, and made it an add-on product.

In any case, you can put me in the Blu-Ray camp. The minute the spiff runs out, Paramount & Dreamworks will rush back to Blu-Ray, and PS3 growth in 2008 should start to move the right direction. People want to buy movies, and as HD becomes the standard, they will demand high def DVD products. I wish I could promise you that iTunes will have an HD TV & Movie solution in 2008, but I think the big studios are running neck & neck with the music companies in trying to fight their customers instead of giving them what they want. (Right, NBC?)

Update (12/5/2007):  Ugh.  Engadget has an article today quoting an analyst projecting no end to the format war.  Stalemate.  Some of the comments make a case for cheap HD-DVD players and dual-disc production in China turning the war in HD-DVD favor.  I hope not.