Last night, a Google engineer learned first-hand that Google+’s strength — the privacy-controlled circles that allow you to use the network for public posts and private workgroups — is also its weakness, if you accidentally cross the streams.
But if Steve Yegge’s highly critical, accidentally public rant about Google+ were just embarassing to him or Google, I wouldn’t really care much about it, and neither should you. Instead, you should read it because it truly is, as G+er Rip Rowan says, possibly “the best article I’ve ever read about architecture and the management of IT.”
For instance, with respect to Google+, Yegge writes:
Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don’t get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call…
Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there’s something there for everyone.
So yay Facebook, boo Google+, right? No! There’s a bigger lesson here; these are just high-stakes instances. Here is how Yegge spells it out:
- “A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.” Google’s trying to fight this by going in the opposite direction. Facebook had a product and built a platform; Google+ is taking everything that makes Google a platform and turning it into a product, like Search or Gmail. Or, they’re trying to recapitulate Facebook’s evolution, forgetting that Google already has everything it needs to be a platform without reinventing the social network part first.
- In an ideal universe, Google+ would be more like Maps or even Wave, or Microsoft Office; externally scriptable platforms that users and developers could build upon. Instead, Yegge writes, “The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.”You can’t do that,” he adds. “Not really. Not reliably. There have been precious few people in the world, over the entire history of computing, who have been able to do it reliably. Steve Jobs was one of them. We don’t have a Steve Jobs here. I’m sorry, but we don’t.” When Google tries to act like it can deliver a product in this way, it risks earning the reputation for arrogance that Yegge says the company doesn’t really deserve. Google, he says “does everything right,” except this one thing. But it’s a big one.
- “The problem is that we’re a Product Company through and through,” Yegge says — starting from its origin. “We built a successful product with broad appeal — our search, that is — and that wild success has biased us … it will take a dramatic cultural change in order for us to start catching up.”
This part fascinates me, because it’s not an issue of product strategy or internal organization or building up the right number of APIs. It’s a problem at the root. Google tried to shake up the entire company by tying every division’s success to the success of its social product, when it should have — if the logic Yegge’s advancing here is right, and I think it is — tied every division’s success to its ability to build platforms, with Google+ as the flagship platform that tied all those efforts together.
So it’s not that Google “doesn’t get social,” in the sense of misunderstanding what users expect from a service and what they want to use it to do. Not really. It’s that Google doesn’t get why Facebook and Twitter have (so far) emerged from the Giant Social Network Graveyard, or even why Google emerged from the Giant Search Engine Graveyard — because it built platforms that could go anywhere and serve as utilities in instances they couldn’t anticipate.
This failure to get this high-order lesson not just of social, but software, is endemic to Google: “Even if individuals [get it], even if YOU do, it doesn’t matter one bit unless we’re treating it as an all-hands-on-deck emergency. We can’t keep launching products and pretending we’ll turn them into magical beautiful extensible platforms later. We’ve tried that and it’s not working.” That’s a pretty big admission/lesson to drop on a hot mic.
I’ll add three additional lessons from this, as a postscript:
- Yegge came to Google from Amazon, and he points to Amazon as an example of a company that successfully made the switch from product to platforms. Mostly, they did this because Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos scared the living shit out of everyone. Seriously, Yegge’s portrait of “the Dread Pirate Bezos” is worth reading for its own sake; it’s been one of the highlights of my day.
- Ironically, Yegge’s post puts to rest the risible argument advanced by Mashable’s Ben Parr that high-level Googlers don’t use Google+, so ordinary users shouldn’t either. I wrote then that the problem with this argument (like almost all arguments about Google+) is that it doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between private and public posts. What I share on Google+ with my coworkers at Wired, my close friends, or my special circles, like “Dads,” is very different from what I share with the world, and that’s true for people at Google too. Yegge’s lesson isn’t that Googlers aren’t eating their own dog food. It’s that they’re not doing it very well — whether in terms of how they execute simple things like sharing posts or — more meaningfully — how they’re designing the products to be widely used inside and outside the company.
- Yegge deleted his post on his own discretion, noting that it was really intended as an internal discussion among Googlers. He wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t representing Google or the company’s opinions: “I mean, I was kind of taking them to task for not sharing my opinions. :)”
Yegge mentions that he consulted with Google’s PR team, who did not try to censor him in any way. “I love working at Google” he writes, “and I especially love the fact that I’m comfortable posting something as inflammatory as my post may have been. The company is super open internally, and as I said several times in my post, they really try hard to do everything right.”
That’s good news for Google, and good news for Yegge. Let’s hope it stays that way. Here endeth the lesson.