Kris Gale is the VP of product engineering at Yammer, and in this interview from the New Visionaries series at GigaOM Research I get a chance to learn how they upended the conventional approach to work management and adopted a hyperlean approach instead:
Stowe Boyd: Yammer is one of a growing wave of companies where developers are given unusual latitude in determining how to get work done. Perhaps you could start by describing how Yammer has migrated away from an organizational culture in which managers break up work into manageable tasks and assign that work to specific people. What is the alternative, and why is it better?
The breakthrough was realizing that we didn’t have to assign work through our reporting hierarchy.Kris Gale: When Yammer began, we were a few engineers with diverse skills working closely together to get things done. Because our tasks weren’t abstracted away from the company’s goals, we had so much more context, and that context allowed us to make the million tiny tradeoffs that make up software engineering more effectively than I was used to in engineering departments of more than a few people. And because we didn’t need a reporting structure yet, we didn’t have to build any assumptions into our org structure that prevented us from changing priorities or direction.
As we grew, we began to need reporting structures, and we tried out both of what I think of as the classic engineering team models. We tried horizontal teams that owned layers of technology across the product and vertical teams that owned slices of the product across technology. Both slowed us down in different ways. Horizontal teams created queues of work between teams that slowed us down: for example, the frontend team would need an API change from a backend team, and this request would sit as a request somewhere until the backend team had time to address it. Vertical teams caused us to waste cycles working on things that weren’t always our critical priorities: if we had a messaging team, we’d end up working on messaging features every month, even if it were more strategically important to the business to start work in some new area of the product.
The breakthrough was realizing that we didn’t have to assign work through our reporting hierarchy. Instead of the head of engineering breaking a goal up into what the X team needs to do and what the Y team needs to do, then assigning those things to the managers of the teams to be further broken up into tasks, we said we’d just take an engineer from X team and one from Y team and dedicate them to solving the business problem however they best saw fit, then move on to something else. All of Yammer’s organizational methodology in engineering came from that: How do we build mechanisms to force all of our work to happen in small, temporary, fully-dedicated, autonomous, cross-functional teams? Or: How do we scale engineering so that all problems get solved the way we’d have solved them in the first year of the company?
Go read the entire piece.
Microsoft needs to hire a new CEO with a vision to make the company the market leader in a new era of enterprise software and one who will avoid the entanglements of consumer devices. Ballmer made a huge gamble on consumer demand for Microsoft gadgets, and it’s just not there. The board could make a stupendous strategic error and continue to pour billions down the drain chasing that chimera, or instead it could get with the present. Instead, hire someone who will acquire Box or Dropbox and pull in promising startups like Asana. And who will spin off, shut down, or ramp down money losing sinkholes like Surface, Windows Phone, and, yes, even Windows itself. It should definitely spin out Xbox, so maybe Windows could go with that as a short-term source of cash.
Azure may have legs, but cloud computing infrastructure is going to be a tough, tough market, with a number of wounded dinosaurs hoping to play there, like HP, IBM, Cisco, and of course, the giants like Amazon and VMware.
We’ll see how far this past year’s crash has radicalized Microsoft’s board. I don’t know Qi Lu, who now heads up Applications and Services Engineering at Microsoft, which is the enterprise computing heart of the company. He may not be the guy for this cycle at Microsoft, but it should be someone who sees that group as the future for the company. Perhaps David Sacks, the founder of Yammer. He’s a visionary, anyway, and so is Adam Pisoni, the Yammer CTO.
I still think there is a future for Microsoft, as I laid out in “Microsoft will rise from the ashes of Windows and Surface failures,” but it’s not the future Ballmer gambled on: It’s the enterprise.
Stowe Boyd via GigaOM Research
We’ve already see the push in Office 365 to make Yammer the default user experience in Sharepoint (see Yammer is becoming the social UX for Microsoft). They are going to enlarge what Yammer is, and make it the social stream for the passage of all sorts of newly socialized information.
The missing piece of the puzzle for me — along the lines of Sullivan’s comments about ads and social having no owner — is this question: Who owns the mobile experience at Microsoft, now? The new Microsoft has no place for a Jonny Ive controlling user experience.
The simple and wrong answer is Julie Larson-Green, who is building devices like tablets and smartphones. Another wrong answer is Terry Myerson, who is building the Windows software that runs on those devices. These are both wrong — and especially wrong in the enterprise area — because many Microsoft customers are having their primary interaction with Microsoft software through the browser, or on non-Microsoft devices. And if the trend lines are to be believed, in the near future those proportions will continue to rise. So, already today the most important user experience to consider is in the browser, and soon it is likely to also include mobile apps running on hardware not produced by Microsoft. And I don’t mean Internet Explorer, either.
Yes, I know that Ballmer, Qi LU, and anyone else in authority at Microsoft will have to publicly stick to the party line — “Windows will continue to be a dominant operating platform for decades to come, we are turning the corner with Microsoft smartphones and tablets, yada yada yada” — but the numbers say different. Ballmer’s memo only mentioned PC four times, and mostly in retrospect, phone only three, and Internet Explorer zero. (I noticed that Surface’s price was dropped today by around $100. Too little, too late?)
However, behind the scenes, Qi Lu and his colleagues must be planning for a transformation to a very different operating model: a leading enterprise software company, integrating a collection of tools necessary for the functioning of business in the past decade, right up to the business of today. But the battle now is to contrive the software platform for the emergent company of next year, and the decade that follows. Qi Lu, with the people at Yammer, Office 365, Sharepoint, Exchange, and Skype, will have to connect the dots in a way that transitions to a very different tomorrow while delivering value at every today along the way.
[Go read the whole thing, if you’d like.]
Somehow I missed this post from Sarah Lacey in December, when Yammer crashed for a day, and Pandodaily’s entire work flow crashed along with it.
Let this be a warning for companies trying to run their business on freemium cloud apps. And as a business owner, here’s my response to cloud companies: If you expect me to run my company on this, it has to work. I don’t give a shit how pretty the UI is. I don’t give a shit about your mobile app. I don’t give a shit how cutesy your name is or if your company has a mascot of some cute animal. I don’t give a shit if I’m paying you or not paying you. It has to work. And should something go wrong, you owe me some sort of communication letting me know when it’ll be back up.
In the early years of Salesforce.com, the users would go apeshit if the service was down at all. This was even before the era of social media when venting was a lot harder, but the outcry was still huge. CEO Marc Benioff used to sigh and point out that the software was up more than 95 percent of the time — something that users should be impressed with.
But the message was loud and clear: If you want us to stop using on premise software and use this instead, it has to work. Back in those days, people used the analogy of electricity with on-demand or SaaS or Cloud software. You just turn on the light switch, and there it is! Like magic! If that’s the pitch, you have to deliver with the reliability of electricity or plumbing or whatever your utility analogy is.
And because Benioff understood selling to customers and marketing, he got this. And Salesforce got rapidly better.
The problem with so many of the new generation of software moguls and the obsessive move to the “consumerization of enterprise” is that they don’t know how to build enterprise-grade software that doesn’t crash. As consumers who just want to Tweet witticisms, we can forgive a Fail Whale. When a Fail Whale can bring your business to its knees, it’s simply not acceptable. It’s when launch first and iterate later will cost you your entire customer base.
Especially enjoyed the description of her team trying out a bunch of alternatives to Yammer, desperately trying to get up and running again.
And this one-liner:
Using Chatter is like watching your dad trying to moonwalk. “Hey, look, kids! We can be cool and social too!”
As I said at the time of the Microsoft acquisition, this is probably why Yammer was purchased instead of IPOing. Could they have gotten (and maintained) a $1.5B market cap, in this market?
At Yamjam 2012 today, Yammer has announced the next iteration of its enterprise platform plans, called the Enterprise Graph. Yammer is a leading work media player, and was acquired earlier this year by Microsoft for over $1B.
This new generation of Yammer’s API is designed to allow enterprise software vendors to embed Yammer functionality into their apps. This is a real parallel to the Facebook platform strategy, and the idea is similar, allowing others to embed specific bits of Yammer functionality — such as activity streams, follow and like buttons, and pages —within those third party apps.
This functionality reminds me of Socialcast Reach, but a few years after that pioneering approach (perhaps a few years too early).
Obviously, Yammer and Microsoft are pushing aggressively to become the platform of choice for enterprise apps to become social, trying to take the high ground in the new battlefield in the work media marketplace.
- Hamish McKenzie, The Great Replacement: Microsoft, Yammer, and a New World in Enterprise Computing via PandoDaily
Hamish inteprets Microsoft’s eagerness to acquire the work media company, Yammer, as something greater than the value of the business — even given its solid team, momentum, and product — but instead as part of a strategic vision of a ‘great replacement’ of the current generation of enterprise software. This transition may take a decade or more, but we will witness the slow dismantling of server-based software running onsite, and the migration to cloud-based solutions, like Yammer.
Hamish also points out that Microsoft has deep expertise in running massive cloud solutions, like HotMail, which they acquired in 1997.
I agree that players like Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle are not going to let themselves be squeezed out of the market by upstarts: they will buy a seat at the table, and cut the cards.
June 14, 2012 at 08:07AM via http://twitter.com/stoweboyd/status/213286506683580416 (via worktalkresearch)
Nick Bilton takes a fairly uncritical look at a new startup, tenXer, that asserts developer producitivity gains can come from monitoring lines of code produced, or other development tasks completed:
Former Card Counter’s New Start-Up Helps Measure Productivity - Nick Bolton via NYTimes.com
Once authorized by an employee, tenXer monitors the worker’s Gmail, Calendar, GitHub (an online service for software developers) and other programming services to determine how much work the employee produces. The idea isn’t to play Big Brother with employees, but to measure the work they create and then reward them with positive feedback when tasks are completed — just as in a game.
“The feedback loop at work is inherently broken. People want to get better at their jobs but have no idea how to do this,” explained Mr. Ma. ”There needs to be an instantaneous, objective, actionable feedback, which is what we’ve done with tenXer.”
I agree with these assertions in part: people feel happier and sense time passing more quickly when they explicitly share progress against a task list. Roger Meade showed this in the ’70s, and it’s a strong cognitive motivation for for the adoption of work media tools.
However, tracking productivity as a function of lines of code produced is a snare: sometimes the highest sort of programming productivity comes from taking code out of software. And I am skeptical of considering this as somehow related to big data. In fact, this is more a case of social data, or social metrics: exposing data relevant to social interaction around work.
Nonetheless, tenXer seems a natural fit for the developer community who are totally wired, using solutions like GitHub to manage code, and who are likely to buy into the somewhat Taylorist premise that underlies tenXer’s positioning.
At the same time, it seems like a set of features that should be implemented in a version of Yammer (or Podio, etc.) instrumented for developers, rather than a stand alone solution.
PCWorld has a piece by Lauren Brousell that is very odd, on several levels. Entitled Desperately Seeking the Right Social Enterprise Tool? it is a recitation of a discussion with Scott Carl, the CIO of engineering and construction company Parsons, about his experiences to dat with work media tools. He relates the experience of having tried Yammer for some time — over two years:
“We are cost conscious, and we were not purchasing a more advanced tool because of cost,” he says. The tool pulled in 3,500 users, including Parsons’ CEO, over the first two years of the pilot. But after that, adoption and activity slowly started to flatline. “We were scratching our heads,” he says. “We had several thousand accounts, but no one was using it.”
Yammer was initially adopted by HR with young staff in mind, but when adoption began to plateau, Carl examined what employees were actually doing and discovered what the problem was. He observed that it was seldom that people were actually posting and interacting even though the amount of registered users was strong.
“We were still heavy with employees that were [just] typical listeners. They didn’t collaborate,” he says. Carl didn’t see any changes in how much email or how often employees used IM either. “We wanted Yammer to show us the best practices for team collaboration and we wanted to say this is how we can collaborate and eliminate all the email we receive,’” he says.
As a last ditch effort, Carl tried to boost the number of active users by developing other use cases for the tool—such as idea management and collaboration between internal and external clients. “We wanted people to innovate, put good ideas into the tool, and be able to shape the idea and use it as a business proposition,” he says.
But Carl eventually concluded that Yammer didn’t meet his requirements and decided to reevaluate what he was seeking in a collaboration tool and consider other vendors. “We realized we needed more than just a social blogging tool and felt Yammer didn’t even do that very well.”
At this point, Scott has no solution in place, and is apparently ‘leaning toward’ Jive’s solution. But the reasoning for that lean?
Carl has just begun testing Jive and is planning a presentation to his executive team about its financial and business value. He says that so far, the amount of features and depth of the user interface were immediately better than Yammer:
“There’s a wow factor with Jive. You can see everything better than you can on Yammer.” Carl is only in preliminary negotiations with Jive but anticipates moving forward with them.
No offense to Jive, but a Wow factor is not some proof that the technology is going to meet real business needs.
No offense to Jive, but a Wow factor is not some proof that the technology is going to meet real business needs. More importantly, an organization that fiddled with a work media solution and rejected it is likely to be stuck in an existing, email communication model. The fault here is likely not to be Yammer, but Parsons culture.
This is like an anti-case study.
Some of the questions that might of been asked, so that we could learn from it:
I am not the only person who found this an odd post:
@dhinchcliffe that Jive post is so extremely biased that it glows. The quote at the end is, errr, really convincing - and clear, measurable— Martijn Linssen (@MartijnLinssen) April 26, 2012