The Onion at Yahoo: Peter Koechley

The Onion and Web 2.0Today, I brought in Peter Koechley, managing editor of The Onion, for the weekly speaker series I run at Yahoo!

I love the Onion, and Peter’s talk did not disappoint. He took us through some of his favorite Onion headlines of the past, read some of the headlines he had written that didn’t ultimately make it (some of which were really good), surfaced a few actual reader letters (which were totally absurd), and talked about how The Onion is put together, both in print and online.

I loved the slide pictured at right, which read:

The Onion is not a Web 2.0 company: we despise our users.

Besides despising users, Peter offered further evidence that The Onion is not a Web 2.0 company: “You guys haven’t acquired us yet.”

Blown away (again) by Hack Day

I organized the second Hack Day at Yahoo! this past Friday, and it was extraordinary (check out some of the Flickr photos tagged “hackday”). Rather than write a long post with my own analysis, I’ll leave it up to some of the participants (it was extraordinary because of them anyway — I just try to lend minimal order to the beautiful chaos of it all):

Ed Ho, “Hack Day 2 at Yahoo!”:

Today is one of those days that makes me proud to be a Yahoo. The sheer number of hacks was overwhelming (again) and the quality of each improved as well. What I saw today was nothing more or less than I knew was possible when I joined Yahoo!. Yahoo! has an incredible number of smart programmers, and they are full of ideas and energy. The spirit had even captured our offices around the world and we had multiple hackers in other countries who had stayed late into the night (past midnight their time) just to have the chance to demo their developments to the rest of the Yahoo world. It was magnificent.

It was clear this time around that people had been thinking long and hard about their ideas and they were ready to execute. It’s personally satisfying to see programmers execute on such innovative ideas without PRD’s, MRD’s, Functional Specs and those obsolete remnants of waterfall development cycles. Powerful wizardry was going on at Yahoo today and I’m happy.

Matt McAlister, “Top 10 Reasons why Hack Day rocks”:

How do you explain the benefit of Hack Day in one sentence? Hack Day bubbles up significant yet tangible product strategy advances from across the organization while simultaneously feeding all that workforce optimization and touchy feely crap without paying a team of expensive Stephen Covey robots to tell you what you already know. It’s also super cheap.

Be sure to read the rest of Matt’s post — it’s good stuff about what real hands-on innovation means. (I have always absolutely hated the usual corporate team-building activities. I was always the one quietly scowling in the background as my co-workers role-played irrelevant situations while a professional “facilitator” asked me if I was having “fun.” Hack Day is very intentionally the antidote to that sort of pointless corporate activity. Bonus link on this topic: Douglas Rushkoff’s Fun AT work vs. Fun AS work.)

David Beach, “More on Yahoo! Hack Day 2″:

It was a huge success. There were so many hacks. Way more than last time. The quality and thinking behind the hacks was also improved. This tells me the initiative is working. People see the value of this and are taking advantage of the opportunity to express themselves in this manner. I believe that it’s one of the best things Yahoo! has done. At least internally.

The room was packed. I don’t think I can discuss specific hacks, but there were very clever innovations presented. I believe there were many more search hacks this time. Upcoming, Y! Widgets, Flickr, Autos, Shopping, 360, Local, Travel, WebJay, Maps, Messenger, Mail, and more were all represented and hacked in one form or another. I’m sure you’ll be seeing many of them appear live on the site in the near future. Actually it would be cool to somehow identify the new feature or service as something that was developed through Hack Day when it goes live. At the very least the orgs respective blog should blab about it.

I don’t know when the next one will be, but I’m preparing. I said earlier that I’m going to learn to program and I meant it. I taught myself pretty much everything I know this far, so why should I stop now? I’m starting with Ruby on Rails, because I hear it’s elegant and simple, plus I believe I can understand object oriented structured. I’m also going to brush up on web standards, CSS, and XHTML. It’s been awhile and much has changed since I every seriously had my hands on the stuff behind the page. First I believe that this is the only way to get some of my ideas out there, and second, I fit in with nutty programmers and designers more than I do with PMs. I’ve done the design thing, so now I’m going to try the other side. We’ll see how that works. L8r

(You go, Beach!)

JR Conlin, “Past our prime? Bullshit.”:

Had to get out of the Hack Day Presentation show. It was a packed room, with nearly 100 hacks being presented. This is stuff whipped up in a day, folks. Viable products that seriously kick ass. Add in the 70 or so from the one last quarter and… well… anyone who thinks we’ve got a bunch of lazy dinosaurs working here needs to have their head examined.

Seriously. Cool. Stuff.

(Hopefully a bunch will be ready to roll out soon.)

The coolest thing about Hack Day is that it goes far beyond one day — the kind of inspired development that is showcased on Hack Day is happening every day now (Take it from me — I stay extremely busy curating just a fraction of it). Hack Day is a day for the celebration of hackerdom, a tip of the hat to the artists among us who express themselves in code, a recognition of the pure joys of creation. Yes, hackers are artists. As I wrote in one of my old InfoWorld columns: ” If art is making order out of chaos, then software developers are artists at the highest level.”

Something very special is going on at Yahoo! and I’m absolutely giddy that I have something to do with it. It’s a lot of fun being continually amazed.

Update: Found an interesting article in the Sunday NYT: “Here’s an Idea: Let Everyone Have Ideas.” That’s the spirit of Hack Day. Key quote from the article:

According to Tim O’Reilly, the founder and chief executive of O’Reilly Media, the computer book publisher, and an evangelist for open source technologies, creativity is no longer about which companies have the most visionary executives, but who has the most compelling “architecture of participation.” That is, which companies make it easy, interesting and rewarding for a wide range of contributors to offer ideas, solve problems and improve products?

Yep.

Buck Owens: 1929-2006

We lost an American treasure this morning — Buck Owens has died and I am really sad about it.

Yes. . . .When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, I watched Buck Owens on Hee Haw every Saturday night with my family like just about everyone I knew (seriously), but I didn’t really know much about him beyond his famous red, white, and blue guitar.

Despite being absolutely surrounded by it (and perhaps because of that), I hated country music growing up. When I was young, it just seemed silly. When I was an adolescent, it just seemed hopelessly corny and dated. I would complain whenever my mom put on her Loretta Lynn records and she would defend her music mightily, saying, “this music is about real life.” I don’t know if it was moving out of my native South to California or just getting older, but over the past ten years, I’ve grown to love country music. If you put my iTunes collection on shuffle, you’re just as likely to get Hank Williams (Sr.), Buck Owens, or Loretta Lynn as you are to get anything else.

Over the past few years particularly, I had really grown to love Buck Owens. Buck’s song “Love’s Gonna Live Here” lifted my spirits on many occasions after a painful breakup a few years ago (a little bit of the “real life” my mother had told me about):

Oh the sun’s gonna shine in my life once more
Love’s gonna live here again
Things’re gonna be the way they were before
Love’s gonna live here again
Love’s gonna live here
Love’s gonna live here
Love’s gonna live here again
No more loneliness only happiness
Love’s gonna live here again

I was fortunate to see Buck play live twice in the past few years: once in a ridiculously poorly-attended show with Loretta Lynn (before the kids became hip to her due to her Jack White collaboration) at the Masonic in San Francisco back in 2002 (the place was 2/3 empty), and then last April at the Crystal Palace, Buck’s restaurant in Bakersfield where he played every Friday and Saturday night.

That trip with Nancy to the Crystal Palace was a landmark experience. It was so unlike going to see a famous country musician in San Francisco, where such events can be so bathed in hipster irony that sometimes it’s difficult to connect to the music. It was different in Bakersfield. At the Crystal Palace in April, Nancy and I watched Buck Owens and his Buckaroos play while we ate steak and pork chops and drank beer. We watched grandparents dance with each other, and dads dance with their daughters, and we even got in on the action ourselves. Real life — just a Saturday night in Bakersfield.

One unfortunate thing about Buck’s death it is that I had been talking with my mother about taking her to see Buck in Bakersfield really soon (Nancy had been doing the same with her mother). You see, my mother has never been on a plane and she decided recently that she needed to try flying to California to visit, and I had been holding out the visit to Bakersfield to see Buck Owens as the reward for her getting over her fear of flying. I told her about the steaks, the pork chops, the dancing, and seeing a true legend up close in his hometown. That would pretty much be heaven for my mother, and I was looking forward to giving her a distinctively Californian experience while sharing a mutual love of country music that didn’t exist when I was younger. We can still go to Bakersfield, but Buck won’t be there. The lesson in this applies to many things in life: there is no time like the present. Sometimes “later” never comes.

We’ll miss you, Buck. My thoughts and prayers are with your friends, family, and fans. Rest in peace.

Excited about Hack Day

We’re doing another Hack Day at Yahoo! tomorrow — can’t wait. I have no idea what’s going to happen. And that’s the best part (and absolutely intentional). We leave lots of room for emergence.

See Jeremy and my post for info on the last one, plus some Flickr photos. Expect more after tomorrow.

Bonus reading:

Ruby vs. the enterprise

The whole “what does it mean to be ‘enterprise’?” brouhaha (see posts from Dare Obasanjo and David Heinemeier Hansson) over James McGovern’s post “More Thoughts on Ruby and Why it isn’t enterprise ready!” grabbed my attention for a few reasons:

  1. I used to write for an enterprise IT magazine, InfoWorld
  2. I was also CTO and had real day-to-day responsibilities, so I couldn’t get away with too much b.s. I had to live with what I wrote in a real environment and therefore couldn’t coast along on pure pontification.
  3. The combination of my roles in #1 and #2 led me to believe that quite often, the use of the term “enterprise” alongside many product names was a label used to part fools from their money.

My feelings on the matter are pretty well summed-up by a feature story I wrote for InfoWorld in 2004, “Top 20 IT Mistakes to Avoid.” I described the problem with the “enterprise” label in mistake number 20: “being a slave to vendor marketing strategies”:

When it comes to network devices, databases, servers, and many other IT products, terms such as “enterprise” and “workgroup” are bandied about to distinguish products, but often those terms mean little when it comes to performance characteristics.

Quite often a product labeled as a “workgroup” product has more than enough capacity for enterprise use. The low cost of commodity hardware — particularly when it comes to Intel-based servers — means that clustering arrays of cheap, workgroup hardware into an enterprise configuration is often more redundant and scalable than buying more expensive enterprise servers, especially when it comes to Web apps.

I didn’t write about programming languages back then, but the same principles apply. In my opinion, choice of programming language has almost nothing to do with being “enterprise ready” or not. Take a tour through any “enterprise” shop, and you are likely to find at least a few ill-conceived Visual Basic or Lotus Notes apps (both on legitimate “enterprise” platforms!) quite literally holding back the business, just begging to be replaced by a well-designed web-based app built on Ruby on Rails or PHP. I’ll take a well-designed RoR or PHP app over VB or Lotus Notes any day.

But let’s be fair. As RoR and PHP grow increasingly popular in enterprise settings, expect some really poorly-designed RoR and PHP apps to stink up the “enterprise” joint. As Frederick Brooks noted twenty years ago in his famous essay on software, there is no silver bullet. So, RoR, Java, PHP. . . whatever. Just find me some talented programmers and we’ll figure it out (ok, the Lotus Notes and VB guys would be kicked aside quickly, but you know what I mean).

Unfortunately, despite the beating he is taking in the blogosphere, I think James is probably just providing a realistic (if somewhat cynical) view into how lots of “enterprise” IT decision-making happens: lots of vendor FUD being fed to timid IT staffers who outsource their strategic thinking to Gartner/Forrester/etc. It’s not a pretty picture.

Reading 2.0 and microformats

Yesterday, I participated in the Reading 2.0 summit (organized by Peter Brantley of the California Digital Library), a small gathering in San Francisco about the future of digitized material, with the digitization of books being a primary topic. Tim O’Reilly did an amazing job of taking notes.

As Tim notes, I gave a short presentation about microformats at Yahoo! (borrowing heavily from Tantek Çelik and microformats.org, who I credited in an intro slide before I even got into the topic). Since my slot was a brisk ten minutes, I decided to briefly talk about what microformats are, but then go straight to the markup. This approach seemed to work a few years ago when I found myself explaining RSS a lot. I always found that pulling up an RSS feed and showing the the simplicity of the feed itself got the point across that RSS was not particularly complex. I think microformats are similar in that regard.

An interesting question came from Cliff Lynch, who asked if it might be possible to use microformats to mark up genomic information. I have to admit that I don’t know much at all about genomic information, but to the extent that this type of information is on the web, decentralized, and can be structured consistently (preferably modeled after an existing standard, as hCard is modeled after vcard), I don’t see why not. That’s the beauty of efforts like microformats — anyone with the ability to publish to the web now (which is everyone) can participate in creating a microformats standard by putting it into practice and sufficiently documenting it. hGenome, anyone?

For more on microformats, you can see a presentation that Tantek gave on a recent visit to Yahoo, and microformats.org. There is also a microformats-discuss mailing list.

An easy way to get started with microformats is to use the hCard creator to build your own hCard (see my hCard).

Again, be sure to read Tim’s notes. Really cool stuff.

See you in Austin for SXSW

Whew — it’s been a crazy week. I was at eTech earlier this week (a little hectic with the Checkmates prototype rolling out) and didn’t get to hang out and chat with people quite as much as I wanted. Then, in an unfortunate calendaring incident, I had rebooked a few days in Tahoe after postponing a planned trip in December to run the first Hack Day at Yahoo. Those days happened to be sandwiched right between eTech and SXSW, so I flew straight from San Diego to Reno/Tahoe on Wednesday, and now I’m sitting in the Reno/Tahoe airport waiting for my plane to Austin for SXSW.

I’m really excited about going to SXSW. I have been all over Texas, but never Austin. Over the past few years, I’ve watched from afar as it seems like lots of people are down there having fun this time of year.

Anyway, if you saw me at eTech and I looked a little rushed and preoccupied, well, I was — so be sure to say hello in Austin!