Jonathan Ive: The Shape of Things to Come

If you haven’t seen or read this piece on Jonathan Ive yet in the New Yorker, it’s worth your time. Great insight into one of the most successful designers in modern history.

How The New York Times Works

The growing universe of digital news outlets includes a great many amalgamators, recyclers of other people’s reporting. Some report their own stories, but it is the Times that provides by far the most coverage of the most subjects in the most reliable way. The Times is a monster, a sprawling organization, the most influential print newspaper and digital news site in the world.

But it still makes most of its money by selling paper, and the paper on which tonight’s edition is being printed arrived, as it does each week, from four different paper mills—two in Quebec, one in Ontario, and one in Tennessee—where it was packaged into rolls large enough to serve as the business end of a steamroller: 2,200 pounds each and fifty inches in diameter. Eighteen-wheelers carried them to a Times storage facility in the Bronx, where more trucks took twenty rolls each from there to the plant in Queens, where manned forklifts deposited each one in a four-story warehouse that can hold 2,231 just like it. The rolls now sit stocked in eight rows on nine shelves, four deep, like soup cans in a grocery store for giants.

A fascinating look at how one of the world’s largest (and oldest) news organizations adapts and runs over time.

Twitter's CEO: How I Stay Focused Under Fire

Good tips from Dick Costolo on leadership style. I especially liked this bit about meetings and sidebar conversations:

A typical week for Costolo involves 12 to 15 standing meetings, so he has a few rules for efficiency’s sake. First, no canceling. Freeing up that time may be tempting, but it’s how small problems become big ones. “I’m the connective tissue between all these groups,” he says. “It’s important for me to have context for the issues and challenges everyone’s dealing with.”

Second, no sidebars, ever. Nothing irks Costolo more than someone approaching him in private and saying, “I didn’t want to bring this up in front of everyone, but…” That rewards politics over process, he says: “Everyone on my team knows that that’s not a valid way to start a conversation with me.”

Finally, no PowerPoint. Meetings are for communicating, not wasting time on pretty slides. Instead, Costolo asks managers to type briefings. “If that sounds straight out of the Jeff Bezos playbook, it’s because it is,” he says. “I totally agree with that.”

User Feedback at Slack

This whole piece on Slack’s fast growth to a $1 billion valuation is great and it’s hard to pick out just one quote. Although, this part about constant feedback struck a chord with me:

Take Rdio, for example, one of Butterfield’s biggest beta-test companies. “In Slack, you create channels to discuss different topics. For a small group of people, those channels are relatively easy to manage and navigate. With a team that large, though, everyone was creating channels, and there was no way for people — particularly new hires — to figure out which ones they should join.”

Once they understood that, the Slack team quickly identified small changes that had a big impact: Within the list of channels, they added fields for a description and the number of people using that channel. “In the grand scheme of things, that’s a fairly trivial example, but those were things that would make Slack unworkable for certain teams. Beta-tester feedback is crucial to finding those little oversights in a product design.”

Now, a year after Slack’s public launch, that reverence for user feedback is part of the company’s DNA. “We will take user feedback any way we can get it. In the app, we include a command that people can use to send us feedback. We have a help button that people can use to submit support tickets,” says Butterfield. They’ve got eyes all over Twitter for comments good and bad. “If you put that all together, we probably get 8,000 Zendesk help tickets and 10,000 tweets per month, and we respond to all of them.”

You would think with as much success as Slack has had, it would relax its feedback mechanisms a bit and start to develop a bit of a corporate ego. Happy to see its leaders are sticking with the ideals that got them where they are today.

Prioritizing Diversity In 2015

Some great tips from Joelle Emerson on making diversity a priority in 2015:

Just as developing skills and habits early in life makes them far more intrinsic and sustainable, the foundation laid early in a company’s life cycle becomes ingrained, increasingly difficult to change as the organization scales. For companies that depend on innovation and build products for a diverse customer base, diversity should be understood not simply as a social imperative, but as a business priority warranting early investment. Diversity makes teams smarter, leads to better decisions and helps groups solve problems more effectively. It also helps businesses better understand the needs of existing and potential customers.

We all need to get better, now.

A Year With Unlimited Vacation

Unlimited vacation policies are surprisingly controversial. The name sounds too good to be true. The skeptics have the same basic argument: unlimited vacation policies will make employees take less days away from work and are therefore bad for employees, but good for the company.

The theory behind the argument is that companies have a set amount of vacation time and it expires at the end of the year. Basic human tendency dictates that we don’t want to “lose” something that we’ve earned, so people try to use all of these earned days. Employees use their vacation days - but not too many - and everyone is happy. A set number of vacation days is safe, predictable, and is the industry standard for benefits.

In contrast, an unlimited vacation policy lacks a fixed number of days and therefore lacks the urge to use vacation days before you lose them. The popular belief is that without the fear of losing vacation days, employees will take less time and end up working more hours and more days. With this belief the company ends up getting more overall output under the disguise of a new employee benefit. Is this theory true or is this the skeptical Human Resources manager working hard to justify a complex and limiting benefits package? There is also the general fear of the direct opposite: employees will abuse the privilege and take entirely “too much” vacation time.

Both arguments had a hint of paranoia, but I couldn’t be sure until we tried it ourselves.

A New Policy

Prior to beginning 2014 we decided to change our vacation policy from a fixed number of days to an unlimited policy1 of “take what you need” with no strings attached.2

At the beginning of the year, I was concerned about the basic negative arguments on unlimited vacation policies. Many questions crossed through my head: How can I keep a culture that thrives on results but also encourage a great work/life balance? How would I approach situations in which people abuse the policy? Did I have a hidden meaning of what policy abuse meant to me, that was unclear to everyone else? How could I encourage vacation for those people that tend to not take breaks and were made worse without the fear of losing vacation days?

When we created our unlimited vacation policy our thinking was that we are all adults, and we are all working hard towards our personal goals and the goals of the company. We specifically hire people that have a passion for great work and results. We know that we have great people that work hard, but we also wanted to reward that behavior with less process and restrictions around personal time away from work. If someone is crushing it all year, I don’t want to hold them back from taking all of the vacation they want. We are adults and professionals and we know what it takes to make something succeed. Each employee also knows how much time off they need to rest and recover. Let’s leave the decision of when and how much vacation to each person and trust their judgement, just like we trust them to do great work.

A Year in Review

Now that 2014 is in the record books, I took a look back at the numbers.3 For comparison, before instituting the unlimited vacation policy in 2014, we had a very reasonable policy already in place during previous years. In 2013, we offered around 4 weeks of paid time off. I don’t believe in forcing people to accrue vacation time, the practice always seemed weird to me, so from the time you start at the company you could have taken up to 4 weeks time before 2014. The average actual amount of vacation taken in 2013 was just over 3.9 weeks. The least amount of vacation time taken by any employee that was with the company for more than 6 months was 3.2 weeks. Roughly, vacation time was about 8% of the total hours logged for the entire year. During 2013 no one took advantage of vacation, and everyone took what they were allotted or just a bit less. It is also worth noting that only one employee took time off for a new baby paternity leave during 2013. More on this later.

Starting with January 1, 2014 we began the policy of unlimited vacation. The average number of weeks vacation across the company was just under 6 weeks for those employees that were with the company for the entire year. The average for all employees in the company, regardless of starting date in 2014 was about 5 weeks. Across the board, people took more time off away from work in 2014 than 2013. Even those that tend to not take as much vacation ended up taking more time during 2014 than before. The least number of weeks taken in 2014 was 4.3, barely up just a few days from 2013 but still overall better. In 2014, the time spent on vacation was about 13% of the total hours logged for the entire year.

For both 2013 and 2014, the time of year when vacation time occurred was fairly predictable. Most people spent a few weeks of vacation during the summer, and a few weeks towards the end of the year for the holidays. Then the rest of the year was sprinkled with weekend trips and the occasional week away. Overall, the lack of limitation on vacation time did not negatively affect a single project or product milestone. In general, people were respectful of their project teams and scheduled time in advance or around these milestones to avoid conflicts.

In contrast to 2013, where only one employee took paternity leave, we had 5 employees take several weeks off for paternity leave. The vacation policy was a blessing to these people as they were able to be with their families during these times, without having to sacrifice their entire year’s worth of vacation. I was excited to be able to let them focus on their families, knowing they could take the time they needed then and throughout the rest of the year without penalty.

Does it work?

The numbers for unlimited vacation met my expectations and overall the policy has been an incredibly positive experience for the company. The time spent away from work increased incrementally for most people, and in very few cases did anyone take advantage of the policy.4

There are a lot of criticisms of the unlimited vacation policy. Every company will be different in how it handles and manages time off for its employees. In our case, we had nothing but success with the policy. People had more time away from work to spend with their families. The company met its goals, and shipped great work. As with anything, we’ll continue to work on our vacation policy and adapt it over time to ensure we have a sustainable great place for people to work. Despite the criticisms, an unlimited vacation policy can work, and we’ll be putting it to use again in 2015.

  1. Unlimited vacation isn’t truly un-limited and the term is misleading. If someone decided to never work in 2014 this would obviously be a problem. I’m using the term ‘unlimited’ lightly and would prefer to call the time ‘uncapped’ or ‘open’ vacation, but the industry term for what is meant is ‘unlimited vacation’ so I’m sticking with that.
  2. The only minor clause was that we asked people to check with their project teams before taking an extended period of time off and to be mindful of taking time off during major releases or significant project milestones.
  3. We’re mostly a consulting services-based company, and therefore all employees and contractors are required to track hourly time. Tracking time isn’t anyone’s favorite activity, but it is a necessary evil in our industry. The added benefit of having such accurate time data, is looking back in the aggregate to see where vacation time was taken and how that affected our business.
  4. Hiring new people presents an interesting challenge with this vacation policy. Sometimes new people want to take a few weeks of time before starting a new job. Other times new employees have previously scheduled vacations and we always accommodate the time even for someone just starting out. This presents some opportunities for abuse in the event that someone doesn’t work out in the long term. In theory, someone could begin work, take a bunch of vacation time and not pan out. I see this as low risk, but worth noting. We do our best to ensure a great fit for new people before they begin at the company, but there are always exceptions.

Teehan+Lax Shutting Down

The great Teehan+Lax agency is shutting down, and its leadership is joining the Facebook team:

We have made a big decision that in 2015, we will join Facebook and the Facebook Design team. This is a significant move for us, professionally and personally.

Good news for the partners, but what about the rest of the company? From the outside it is difficult to tell the full story, but the appearance is that about 40 people were let go as a result of the move.

Five thoughts on software

Seth Godin:

Most of all, software as a whole just isn’t good enough. There have been a few magical leaps in the evolution of software, products and operating systems that dramatically improved productivity and yes, joy among users. But given how cheap (compared to cars, building materials or appliances) it is to revamp and reinvent software, and how urgent it is to create tools that increase the quality of what we make, we’re way too complacement [sic].

Fix all bugs. Yes, definitely. But more important, restate the minimum standards for good enough to be a lot higher than they are.

We need better design, more rigor and most of all, higher aspirations for what our tools can do.

Time to get to work.

It's not that hard

David Ulevitch, CEO of OpenDNS:

I’ve recently started talking to investors again and one of them asked me this highly poignant question: “Is what you do hard?” I don’t know. Is anything hard? If anything, things are easier now. You have frameworks for frameworks for frameworks. SMTP was hard. TCP/IP was hard. SSL was hard. Today there are truly amazing development tools like Meteor and Parse. You have AWS! Most applications and services I use on the Internet are mediocre, at best. The bar to be simply interesting is low. The bar to succeed isn’t much higher. It’s not depressing, it’s an opportunity.

This one is a bit old but it popped up again a few places today. Well said then, and now.

Building the Workplace We Want

Nolan Caudill on the Slack blog:

At Slack, we want to work with people that have the skills to do their job and the gumption to do it well. They possess great empathy, as designing and building a great product is made up of countless acts of empathy, not only for the users but for those you do the work alongside. Diligence, persistence, an unrelenting bull-headed pursuit of Quality - this drive is what compels the kind of person we look for.

These traits are not intrinsic to any category of sex, creed, origin, race, or any of the other petty reasons others have used to determine who is able to do this kind of work. We believe that the above qualities are a deeper, better, and truer measure of what makes someone successful at Slack.

Specifically, our industry has for decades been directed and built by a mostly homogenous group, and has downplayed the accomplishments of others not in this group. We recognized our own shortcomings in this area and thus wanted to be explicit about what Slack stands for, what we are trying to build, and who we want here to help us build it. By focusing on how we build Slack first, we can hopefully improve the greater industry, in whatever measure.

Introducing the 5x12

Jason Fried:

Last year we topped 40 people at Basecamp. And that’s when I began to notice that we didn’t know as much about each other as we used to when we were smaller.

When any group gets to a certain size, it naturally begins to splinter into smaller groups. Cliques form and conversations often stay inside those cliques. That’s natural and OK, but I thought it would be nice to force some cross-clique personal conversations so everyone could get to know everyone else a little bit better again.

So I had this idea to bring together five random people (plus me and David) once a month for a one-hour free-flowing anything goes conversation, and then share the conversation with the rest of the company after it was over.

I admire the folks at Basecamp, specifically Jason, for constantly striving to know each person in their growing company. Once you are past a few dozen employees it becomes a big challenge, but it doesn’t mean you have to give up. Focusing on knowing people just needs to be an intentional part of your daily work.

Three years of running a software consultancy

Brian Cardarella, CEO of Dockyard on the company’s 2014 year-in-review:

This year’s story is one of how we nearly went out of business twice yet still managed to pull off our most successful year yet.

His entire story is very transparent and clearly presents some seldom-discussed aspects of small software companies. I’ve dealt with most of his same issues personally as I grow my own software consultancy. Hiring is hard. Maintaining a quality rate is hard. Building a business development team is hard. Maintaining sufficient margins is hard. Culture is hard. But when it all pays off that hard work is rewarding. Here’s to another great year, Brian.

I wish more people would share the real stories of small companies like this.

A mile wide, an inch deep

Ev Williams:

The problem with time, though, is it’s not actually measuring value. It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value.

Advertisers don’t really want your time – they want to make an impression on your mind, consciously or subconsciously (and, ultimately, your money).

As the writer of this piece, I don’t really want your time – I want to make an impression on how you think. If my rhetorical skills let me do that in less time (for me and you), all the better.

Great piece. This part sounds a lot like actionable vs. vanity metrics too.

The 2014 Panic Report

Cabel Sasser on the Panic company blog:

Panic is a multi-million dollar business that has turned a profit for 17 years straight.

It just hit me, typing those words, that that’s a pretty insane thing to be able to say. (And, sure, we barely qualify). Believe me, I know it won’t last forever - but wow, what a kind of crazy deal.

If you’re curious about some business stuff, our setup couldn’t be more cut-and-dry. We still have no investors or debt. The overwhelming majority of our revenue goes to employee salaries and benefits, which is just the way we want it. Then there’s our rent, our internet, some donuts and chips, etc. Anything left over goes into the magical Panic Savings Account for future projects or emergencies - we’ve always felt it was important to have some wiggle room for who-knows-what. (In the past we’ve actually reduced that warchest by simply distributing it to employees as a bonus.) We also continue to operate on standard office hours, avoiding weekends and crunchtimes with ferocious overprotectiveness, for better or worse. Maybe the most controversial thing we have is an open office, but since we have no sales or marketing teams things are usually library-quiet.

Panic is the gold standard for software development shops doing it right.

Why Remote Engineering Is So Difficult

Steven Sinofsky also responds to the recent discussion on remote working and hiring:

Overall the big challenge in geography is communication. There just can’t be enough of it at the right bandwidth at the right time. I love all the tools we have. Those work miracles. As many comments from personal experience have talked about on the HN thread, they don’t quite replace what is needed. This post isn’t about that debate-I’m optimistic that these tools will continue to improve dramatically. One shouldn’t under estimate the impact of time zones as well. Even just coast to coast in the US can dramatically alter things.

The core challenge with remote work is not how it is defined right here and now. In fact that is often very easy. It usually only takes a single in person meeting to define how things should be split up. Then the collaboration tools can help to nurture the work and project. It is often the case that this work is very successful for the initial run of the project. The challenge is not the short term, but what happens next.

Sinofsky knows a thing or two about this. As a long-time Microsoft employee and former head of Windows and Office, he’s overseen two of the largest sustainable engineering projects of the past 30 years. He touches on an important point here that I agree with: at first, remote working can seem to work very well.

Anyone can work remotely for a few weeks, or on one small project. Sustaining a high-quality work ethic remotely over time is very difficult. I previously mentioned that my company has had good success with remote working, especially in engineering talent. The reason I think we’ve been successful: we’re a services agency and work on many new projects each year with small, focused teams. We are in the exact sweet spot Sinofsky alludes to where the workload is new, the team is typically always in the ‘initial run’ and we’re all working towards a concise common goal. Our formula and business model fit well with remote working but, as Sinofsky clearly notes, this doesn’t mean it works for every business and every model.

I Have a Hunch

Collectively, I believe that we, the engineering leadership community on the Planet Earth, have done a poor job supporting each other. I think for every manager who has taken the time to find and regularly meet with a mentor, there are 20 managers who like the sound of mentorship, but haven’t done anything about it because they have no time. And even if they did, they wouldn’t know where to start.

I think that there are well-intentioned HR teams who are building leadership training without partnering with their engineers. Similarly, I think there are legions of engineering managers who have been asked very politely by their HR teams to partner on building said programs and those managers have politely and repeatedly said, “I’m too busy.”

I blame everyone. We can do better.

Rands nails it again. And, he proposes a simple survey to research and mine for solutions. I’ve filled in my response.

Great People Everywhere

Paul Graham’s latest thought-provoking essay has touched a nerve in some circles. His basic premise is spot on:

The US has less than 5% of the world’s population. Which means if the qualities that make someone a great programmer are evenly distributed, 95% of great programmers are born outside the US.

The solution to this dilemma according to Graham: Let’s reform immigration to “let” these programmers in so that they can be in San Francisco. I’m paraphrasing the last part a bit, and Graham doesn’t come out and say as much, but this is what is being implied.

Almost everyone agrees that immigration policies need some work in the United States. I also believe that we’re only hurting ourselves by refusing to allow talented people to legally enter our country.

Graham’s point is valid, but he misses on one mark that Matt Mullenweg, creator of Wordpress and famously remote-only Automattic, writes this week:

If 95% of great programmers aren’t in the US, and an even higher percentage not in the Bay Area, set up your company to take advantage of that fact as a strength, not a weakness. Use WordPress and P2, use Slack, use G+ Hangouts, use Skype, use any of the amazing technology that allows us to collaborate as effectively online as previous generations of company did offline. Let people live someplace remarkable instead of paying $2,800 a month for a mediocre one bedroom rental in San Francisco. Or don’t, and let companies like Automattic and Github hire the best and brightest and let them live and work wherever they like.

Graham’s basic premise is solid, and I completely agree with it. However, I’m with Mullenweg and most of the related Hacker News thread that people should be able to live where they are happiest, and work remotely.

Over the past year, I’ve worked with many people in our Dallas home office. In that same time period I’ve worked with people in Argentina, Germany, London, Canada and a half-dozen other states outside of Texas. We’ve sponsored visas for some and have just worked with others on a contract-basis. We use many of the technologies that Mullenweg mentions: Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype, Screenhero and good old-fashioned phone calls. It works great. We ship software, we produce great work for our clients and we don’t rely heavily on finding perfect people just in one town of one country.

We’re lucky to have a strong base of great people in one location, but we wouldn’t be the company that we are today without great people outside of our base.1 One of the reasons a small shop with a quirky name in Texas can compete with much larger companies is because we’re not biased by where we find great people. We’re not limited by what’s in our backyard and we hire the best people we can find.

Immigration policy needs reform in the United States, yes. But let’s not wait for that to happen to start hiring great people from around the world. Great people are out there today and they’re ready to make companies awesome.

  1. Shameless plug: we’re hiring, regardless of where you live.

Reading in the Age of Amazon

Speaking of Amazon, The Verge’s piece on its hardware design lab is a good look into one of the least seen aspects of the company. It also has a nice history lesson of the Kindle:

It’s been a decade since “Fiona” was first imagined, the codename Amazon gave to the first iteration of the Kindle. As recounted in The Everything Store, Brad Stone’s rollicking 2013 history of Amazon, Jeff Bezos commanded his deputies in 2004 to build the world’s best e-reader lest Apple or Google beat them to it. To Steve Kessel, who was put in charge of running the company’s digital business, Bezos reportedly said: “I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.”

It took three years for Kindle to come to market. The first model wasn’t particularly beautiful: a $400, off-white chunk of plastic with a full QWERTY keyboard. But before the world had ever heard of an app store, Amazon had integrated its bookstore directly into the device. For the first time, you could summon almost any book you could think of within seconds, no matter where you were.

The accompanying photography is also great. They, of course, do not reveal anything secretive or particularly groundbreaking here but a glimpse into the secret labs of large technology companies is always of interest.

I have no major complaints on the Kindle hardware, but its software still leaves much to be desired. It’s encouraging to see so much research being performed on the tiniest details of the hardware, but it would be great to know why the typography and formatting controls are still primitive at best. John Gruber put it best, back in 2012:

Amazon’s goal should be for Kindle typography to equal print typography. They’re not even close. They get a pass on this only because all their competitors are just as bad or worse. Amazon should hire a world-class book designer to serve as product manager for the Kindle.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos on Bold Bets

This entire interview with Jeff Bezos conducted by Henry Blodget at Business Insider is excellent. Some of my favorite parts are where Bezos discusses the public challenges to his company. For example, his viewpoint on the recently launched and less-than-stellar Amazon Fire Phone:

Again, one of my jobs is to encourage people to be bold. It’s incredibly hard. Experiments are, by their very nature, prone to failure. A few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work. Bold bets — Amazon Web Services, Kindle, Amazon Prime, our third-party seller business — all of those things are examples of bold bets that did work, and they pay for a lot of experiments.

What really matters is, companies that don’t continue to experiment, companies that don’t embrace failure, they eventually get in a desperate position where the only thing they can do is a Hail Mary bet at the very end of their corporate existence. Whereas companies that are making bets all along, even big bets, but not bet-the-company bets, prevail. I don’t believe in bet-the-company bets. That’s when you’re desperate. That’s the last thing you can do.

Cards Against Humanity doles out pieces of Maine island

According to Cards Against Humanity’s letter to participants, the company bought the island for the following reasons: “1) Because it was funny, and 2) so we could give you a small piece of it. Also, 3) we’re preserving a pristine bit of American wilderness.”

The company also contributed $250,000 raised through the campaign to the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government.

Cool story. Also, check out the wonderful photos and writing over at Everything Will Be Noble about exploring the same island.