I just left a large web company after four and a half years and as part of my exit I was asked to give one last presentation talking about my experiences. I can not cover all the things I mentioned, but over my career in different companies and in talks with friends in similar roles like mine I discovered a few patterns. These are to me the reasons that keep large corporates from evolving further and staying innovative and creative and subsequently unable to find good new people.
Right now every large company struggles to hire great developers, to innovate and to retain their talent. For the busy people, here are the three main reasons explained in much more detail below:
- Complacency about the brand – big and (for our market) old companies tend to consider themselves important and interesting cause they have been around for so long. That doesn’t make them interesting though.
- Mistreating innovation – every large company has some program or another to foster innovation but fails to reap the rewards by releasing the results
- Communicating inwards instead of outwards – all large companies I know are afraid of having their employees as spokespeople and try to get the web to come to them rather than the company to go to the web
A skewed outside image
To a degree, I blame the media, or, actually, sensationalist blogs written by opportunists, always on the lookout to see large companies fail and then write smug articles full of hyperbole and “insider tip-offs”. It is schoolyard bully tactics – if on the first day you beat up the biggest guy the smaller ones will not pick on you. Its the same pointless sensationalism we have with celebrity rags – why bother analysing and celebrating the success of actors and singers when you can show photos of them drunk with missing pieces of clothing instead? Instead of making people question themselves to become as good at something as the big players are you make people feel better about themselves by showing how the mighty fall.
Considering the Kakapo
I was hard pushed to come up with a good metaphor for my talk until I listened to an incredibly funny and informative presentation by Douglas Adams on endangered species. Adams talks about the Kakapo a flightless parrot indigenous to New Zealand. And there is where I found quite a few parallels. The Kakapo is endangered and here are the reasons why.
Reason 1: Inability to spot predators
New Zealand is volcanic – one day there it was where beforehand was just water. So all the indigenous animals (bar some dead fish) are animals that flew and settled there (or crawled out of the ocean). This also made these animals – including the Kakapo – incredibly unaware of dangers. As there were no bigger animals to hunt and eat you it wasn’t that necessary to come up with defence mechanisms. When the first settlers came and brought cats, dogs, rats and hunger this proved fatal quite quickly.
The same happens to large web corporations. There is a tendency to rest on your laurels and think nobody can hurt you. Most of the time the reasoning goes like this:
- You must matter as you’ve been around for ages and done such an awesome job
- People know about you and that means you will never lose them
- People trust the brand and therefore brand is where you put most of your efforts
- Plaster the world with your posters and logos and your success on the web comes automatically
That worked in a time when the web was new and strange to people. Now things change. The web is a much bigger part of daily life which means company strategies need to change. Some companies did well by embracing this:
- Google was bold enough to concentrate on one thing only and have a search box as their interface
- Facebook used an already existing social network that was ineffective and gave it a very simple and highly effective platform
- Twitter started with the API and allowed numerous ways to add content before making their site searchable. They learnt from people’s products and added more and more of what worked to their site
Yes, Facebook was not a mum and dad product and the idea of adding your life stream to the web for everyone to see is anathema for a lot of people. But kids are on Facebook and they will sooner or later drag their parents into this new web the same way my godson made my parents play computer games for the first time by showing them how to bowl on the Wii. The physical aspect of playing a Wii game made computers much more tangible and understandable for my parents – and the same happens with touch interfaces now.
Smaller, more agile and above all companies who dare to be different and to fail from time to time are the predators of older, large corporations on the web. It is a matter of evolution and you can’t be like them if you think you are invincible because you mattered for so long.
Large corporations also have internal predators. One kind are just parasites – the ones who tip off the outside world about changes or constantly talk bad about the company internally and in the pub. I don’t get these people – if you don’t like your job – leave. There are many jobs around and you are in the way of somebody who wants to be here.
The other kind are the ones who are content with the current status and truly believe that the history and brand of the company will mean it keeps going forever. These are the people that mentally are leaning back and are afraid of change as it might mean more work. These are the ones who hire talent for a project rather than for their skills. These are the ones who hire people that are not as good as them as they don’t want to be replaced to move on to bigger and better things. They are the ones who kill innovation – which brings me to the next reason.
Reason 2: Forgetting to fly
Having no predators around, the Kakapo soon realised that there is not much point in flying. Flying is very costly – you burn a lot of energy which means you have to find more food. You can’t eat much as you’ll be too heavy. It is catch 22 and when there is no need for it, why do it?
Companies fly above others in the tech world by innovating and constantly delivering better and more beautiful products. If you are not considered cool and innovative you don’t attract top talent. You can attract talent if you are known as a place to have a great training system and deliver a good foundation – you are known as a breeding ground for successful developers. But you won’t get the really cool kids if you can’t give them cool stuff to play with.
Every large company I know has some innovation program or another – Google’s 20% and Yahoo’s hack days being the main known ones. I don’t see much coming from these programs though. If the outcome of innovation programs is not analysed, used or at least communicated outside and inside the company then they are actually just a tool to keep your employees occupied instead of bringing out the best in them.
Google has their labs but it feels that it could use some more love. Smaller companies all have similar programs but actually make it the main part of their communication to the tech world. Instead of coming up with snappy soundbites about their products they just release new stuff constantly and let the world be the judge of how cool it is. This is incredibly successful – techies getting excited about your work and advocating it for you instead of you telling them is very targeted and effective advertising.
So why don’t companies just analyse the outcome of innovation and research programs and say yay or nay to them immediately? Why not release the ones that won’t be a product to the world as a showcase of the cool stuff their people did? The reasons are lack of commitment and lack of dedicated manpower to turn a hack into a blog post. The main reason though is a fear of failure, and failing fast and often is what smaller companies do very well indeed. A failing product is not the end of your brand – it is actually part of technology evolution and an opportunity to learn and avoid the mistakes that lead to the failure.
Francisco Inchauste explained the merits of failing in Failure by Design:
If you have children, or have ever seen a child learn to walk, you can see the process of loss and learning firsthand. There are a lot of banged up little knees and bumps on heads, as well as a good amount of tears. These are good things though. Every fall is growth. Every missed lunge to grab the couch teaches them a little more about identifying that distance.
However, if a parent were to stop their child from falling to avoid “failure” this would not help. She wouldn’t know what to avoid doing. Because basically whatever she did would be “successful” in the sense that she would be protected from falling. If she did fall in the future (which she would) it could be much worse. She wouldn’t know how to fall.
In order to release research and hack products to the world for consideration you need to put people in charge of writing them up and packaging them as blog posts, screencasts and demos. But this is not a job considered necessary by the current HR structures of companies. Which leads me to the main issue of large companies in tech.
Reason 3: Failure to communicate
When nature finds an issue, it resolves it. When an animal has no predators, overpopulation happens and resources get used up. That’s why nature made it almost impossible for the Kakapo to mate. Its mating song is a deep resounding boom and as you might know it is impossible to say where deep sounds come from. So, even if the female were taken by his song she wouldn’t know where her mate to be is.
The sad thing is that communication in large companies is broken. It is hard to keep a constant flow of information going in a group of 20 people without having an abysmal noise to signal ratio but once you hit the thousands it becomes really tough.
The fallacy of a lot of large corporation communication is that there is the notion of having to control it. I went through a few training sessions in various companies about speaking to the press and the outside world and all of them boiled down to a few things: give our pre-approved soundbites that can be used for headlines and don’t make any assumptions but say you don’t know when you don’t know. Don’t say “no comment” cause that means you know something and you aren’t allowed to talk about it.
And this is actually an incredibly easy message to give out to your employees. Everyone is a spokesperson for the company. Give people that responsibility and show them that trust and you won’t have whistleblowers amongst you. Keep people in the dark and tell them to wait for messaging from above and they’ll assume the worst and say so in public.
There shouldn’t be any secrets or unknowns in the company and everyone should at least know who to ask about a certain topic. As it is, the larger the company gets, the more people get pushed into smaller silos. This means new hires get hired for a product and trained on a certain topic and don’t get hired for their skill and allowed to allocate where they are needed. A lot of people leaving large companies is because they feel they don’t accumulate any knowledge applicable to the outside world and falling behind on what’s cool in the market.
There are even physical manifestations of that – cubicles are a thing of the 80ies and are the hen batteries of IT. Breaking down these barriers and coming into an office where you feel you are part of a workforce rather than someone in their own little world makes people work together and talk about what they are doing. I was amazed how many people I introduced to each other who where looking for each other’s skills were in adjacent cubicles and never knew about each other. I’ve been 4 years in the company and everybody I met thought I’ve been there for at least 10 – as I knew people!
Large companies tend to keep their communication close to the chest – they build landing pages where people should go to get information. Instead of embracing the web as a network and every means of communication – Instant Messaging, Facebook, Twitter, IRC, mailinglists and so on – as an opportunity employees get asked to not take part in conversations but instead point people with questions to the PR, marketing or HR department. This would not be an issue if these departments spoke tech instead of soundbites they learnt in corporate training.
If a company has thousands of people working there each of those is an opportunity to tell the world about the company – in the appropriate language and piggybacking on trust people have in the source. If the company tries to keep their people quiet and concentrating on just doing their job then it is quite obvious why there is no passion for the company and miscommunication. Trust breeds confidence and good messaging.
What about solutions?
I’ve mentioned a few things already but I had quite an extensive list of ideas what to do to prevent the corporate Kakapo from extinction. If there is an interest, drop a comment.