I went to another 106 miles meeting last night. This time we had Brendon Wilson of PGP, Jeremy Zawodny of Yahoo speak to facilitate discussion. The topic was engineers that had moved to Marketing or Products. The discussion opened up with a classically predictable question from an engineer: “so I am measured on how much code I write and check-in, how are you measured?” I felt like he could have just come out and said “so you don’t really do anything, admit it, we all know, how do you justify that?” Somebody else from Yahoo I didn’t recognize actually answer the question with a great analogy to a shortstop in baseball. Shortstops don’t typically make the outs or strikes because their job is to catch something and hand it off. So it is really hard to measure their performance. I thought that was a good way to think about it. True to the analogy I believe most PM’s are measured by errors because success is hard to define.
Brendon feels that engineers lived under this myth of the perfect product or the perfect development process. Under this myth when a sales guy asks for something mid-cycle or something you built doesn’t actually work in the market it is this really traumatic event. I definitely have been there. You keep looking for the right answer not realizing there isn’t one right answer. Brendon went to business school after leaving engineering and had a pretty negative view of the experience. He felt it opened doors and he met interesting people but didn’t feel like he got the value for the his time and money. This made a few people in the group that had gone to business school defensive which made me chuckle to myself. We are all just so damn predictable. When asked what he would do if he were to leave PGP and start a company he didn’t have anything in particular in mind but thought he would like to emulate Ray Kurzweil. I had never heard that name but he looks like an interesting guy. Brendon stressed that really the key to his job was being able to empathize with others position, write things simply, and explain things simply.
Jeremy never really felt like he meant to leave engineering (isn’t that always how it is?). He finds he has a lot more energy to code on personal projects than he ever did when he was doing full time engineering. When he was trying to decide whether to make the jump somebody advised him to look at his current job and his future job — if less people can do your future job than your past job than you are making a good move. Interesting perspective. Jeremy has noticed that the divide between engineering and marketing is really damaging. At Yahoo he feels Marketing sets initial direction but then has very little involvement past that until it is too late to change direction based on what is being built. When asked what he would do if he were to start a company he said he would spend most of his time looking for good people. Man, I hear that.
The discussion sparked a debate about whether we need roles like product management. Somebody from A9 (Amazon’s search project) mentioned they have 100 people in their group and 95 of them are engineers. Matt’s (airwave) teams had embraced XP and tried to break down the barriers between these groups. Somebody else stressed the need to break down the barrier between the MRD, the PRD, and the code. I’m not sure I feel like you necessarily need people in those roles, I just think you need somebody doing all of those functions. I don’t care if you call them potatoes but if you don’t have somebody who has the time to explain your product to the customer and listen to how they use it you are toast.
Jeremy closing comment was something Chris always hammered into me: “In the end, I find everything is about managing expectations.”
Other interesting quotes and notes:
○ All Canadian engineers wear an iron ring on their pinky (who knew?)
○ “Customers have no idea what they need”
○ “The most enlightening things I did as an engineer was go to a usability study”
○ Lots of references to Paul Graham
○ One of the people in the group was looking for “people who can do stuff good”
○ The guys from thefacebook.com were overly proud of getting to a million page hits a day. It was classic to hear the smack down from the Yahoo team. I believe “little bitches” was the term that was used but it was after a few beers.
Near the end of the night I ended up talking to Matt who works on WordPress. CNET pays him to work on the product (as well as a few other). I was fascinated by this and quizzed him for awhile on how he ended up working on WordPress and for CNET. I didn’t connect the dots until I was driving home that he was in fact Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress. Sigh. He has one of the best cards I have seen in awhile.