On Yahoo and PRISM, and the Art of Playing Chicken

I was reading the New York Times article which reveals that a secret intelligence court threatened to fine Yahoo! $250,000 a day for failing to turn over confidential customer/user data.

Now, one can hardly fault a publicly traded company for not wanting to incur nearly $2,000,000 a week in fines. That’s a hefty chunk of change to play chicken with.

But here’s a take-away for future companies in this position: PLAY CHICKEN. YOU WILL WIN.

First, the only way the government can collect is either by seizing the cash outright (which will expand the number of people who know there’s something going on between the NSA and the company in question).

Second, if they DO, remind them that — as a publicly traded company — you’re going to have to mention this fact in the next quarter’s SEC filings. That’s a material change to cash-flow that it would be a felony to conceal from shareholders, and which would show up in your next annual audit, the results of which are public information, anyway. “Of course, we won’t name you, we’ll simply say, ‘We are being fined based on court orders from an intelligence court which we can’t even confirm the existence of.'”  Let the NSA stew over how they’re going to react to the bad press on that.

Remember that the most important thing to the intelligence community is the cover of darkness. That’s one of the lessons of the Snowden disclosure. If you are willing to stand up to them, chances are, they are not going to take the chance that their bullying tactics, and the reason for those bullying tactics, will be exposed in the light of day.

Asking For Help From Your Customers

There’s a trap that a lot of companies fall into. In one way or another – whether it’s surveys, or forums, or focus groups, or whatever – companies ask their customers or users for feedback, suggestions, “ways to make things better”. This, in and of itself, is awesome. It’s how companies can best determine what their paying customers are looking for, direct feedback-loop closure from the people who pay the bills to make it all possible.

But too many companies – both ones I’ve worked for and ones I’ve been a customer of – will respond to a lot of suggestions with answers like:

  • “That’s just not feasible.”
  • “That can’t be done.”
  • “That doesn’t scale.”
  • “That makes things complicated.”
  • “We can’t do that.”

And all of those things may be true, but all of those statements, as written or spoken, are “shutting down the conversation” statements. They don’t brook any sort of follow-up dialogue. They tell your customer “that idea is SO bad, that I’m not even going to explain to you how bad it is and why.”

Contrast those with:

  • “That’s just not feasible, because the number of volunteers it would take to man those areas would be more than we have.”
  • “That can’t be done, because there’s a regulatory requirement to keep portions of that data private.”
  • “That doesn’t scale, because once you’ve got more than a couple hundred thousand rows in that table, your indices are going to look like shit.”
  • “That makes things complicated, because then we have to deal with two completely different products that go to the printers, two sets of inventory, etc.”
  • “We can’t do that, because the capital expenses of the widgets are too high.”

You can see how each of the second set leaves the door open to discussion. It says “Your idea is good, but we thought about that before, and we rejected it not out of hand because it’s just a bad idea, but for the following reason…,” leaving the possibility for the suggester to reply in a couple different ways:

  • “Ah, shit… I hadn’t thought of that, you’re right. Never mind.”
  • “That’s true, but maybe we don’t need that particular piece of data that’s regulatory-encumbered, we’ll just use all the non-encumbered data, and that’s actually enough.”
  • “Man, those indices are gonna suck. I wonder if there’s a way to make them easier to manage and be more efficient…?”
  • “You can probably get widgets as cheap as $0.whatever … is that more or less than what they were going for the last time you looked at this problem?”

Even if you don’t believe they are, and you rarely will — treat your customer as though they are at least as smart as you are. Yes, your company has been doing this for a long time. Yes, you’ve got really bright, really focused people working on these problems day in and day out. But you’re not the smartest people on the planet. There’s only one guy who is, and he’s definitely keeping a low profile these days it seems. Walk your customers and users through the reasons why you’ve considered that idea in the past and rejected it. Maybe they completely agree with you and just accept the answer. Maybe they point out some flaws in your internal logic, and a dialogue ensues, where it’s still a bad idea, and now you have another piece of data about why it’s a bad idea. But, maybe they have a completely novel way of solving a problem, which you haven’t thought of before. Taking that suggestion achieves two very valuable things:

  1. You’ve improved the product offering in a way that is directly valuable to your customer base. It was their idea, after all.
  2. You’ve demonstrated the willingness to do so in a very tangible, concrete fashion.

There’s certainly always going to be “vetoes”, but any time you can back up your veto with the “why”, it goes down much smoother with the folks who have to hear it.

Blog Version 3.0

With my departure from the land of Facebook, I decided to spend some time on a Sunday morning and re-vamp the blog a little bit, since it’ll probably be the new place for my sharing of thoughts. I got neck-deep in it pretty fast, and it became clear it was now a “whole new thing” as it were.

I don’t yet know what all will end up here, but I wanted to make it someplace I felt interested in again as opposed to a snapshot of what a web page looked like in 2011 or so when I moved this to WordPress.

 

Quitting Facebook

I deactivated my Facebook account last night.

This story on Slate does a pretty good job of summing up what I would call “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for me. Chuq von Rospach also summarizes things pretty well, also.

I guess this means I might start using this thing more often again. After all, I’m still going to have the occasional thing I want to “say”, but Google+ as a forum is a wasteland (and – frankly – Google is just as bad as Facebook, they’re just smart enough not to say out loud in public what they do).

I don’t harbor any belief that my act of defiance will change the world or anything. I just know that I can’t sit by and be a rat in their lab.

How I Got Where I Am, A Tribute To Steve

It’s 1981. ish. It’s kind of blurry now as I look back on it.

I’m in 5th grade. I still think that what’s passing for adult contemporary radio is cool, because my parents listen to it, and I’m not nearly hip enough to know that’s actually the kiss of death for coolness. I still spend a whole mess of time playing sports. I’ve got a pretty active circle of friends, and I’m not a social pariah at school. In short, I’m your typical early-80s 5th grader.

And then, for reasons that to this day I still don’t fully understand, I’m selected to be part of an experiment. Mrs. Miller has navigated some sort of grant- or aid-program and acquired a brand new Apple II computer. It’s sitting in one of the lower-grade classrooms, and she is the sole arbiter of who is permitted to touch this magical beast. There’s only two students who are allowed to touch it: her nephew [nepotism FTW!] and me.

To say that I was all over that like white on rice is an understatement that makes “epic proportions” seem small. The two of us are writing programs, playing games (Bobby Miller has apparently acquired an illicit copy of Castle Wolfenstein and we’ll play that from time to time when nobody’s looking).

The next year, the computer has moved to the library, and Bobby and I are put in charge of helping a bunch more, although still relatively few, of the students deemed “Gifted and Talented” by the school learn how to use the computer.  Tron has just come out, and I’m still young and naive enough not to realize that the fictionalized commands Flynn uses in the novelization don’t actually do shit, and I’m really disappointed when I type them into the Apple II when nobody’s around and find that precisely nothing has happened.

When I get to Junior High, I get my first taste of an actual “computer lab”. This is, apparently, what they’ve been prepping us for the past school-year and a half, to have a small core of students who really know what these things are and what to do with them. Over the next six years of Jr. and Sr. High School, it’s here that I’ll meet some of my life-long friends. It’s here that I’ll spend so much time that hanging out with my core “neighborhood friends” will basically go by the wayside, that I don’t really play sports much any more, and that I begin to show all the classic signs of becoming the social pariah that will later simply be called “Computer Geek”.

We can’t afford an Apple computer ourselves at home, so I end up buying a Commodore VIC-20 computer instead. It’s fun, and make no mistake, I have a lot of good times with that computer, and its various Commodore-made successors, but I still secretly wished I could have had an Apple.

It’s in high school that I start entering into computer-programming contests that the school used to run each year. I enter into it every single year (except the year I “went pro” because a computer store in Rhinebeck was having a similar contest the same day, but with cash prizes, baby!). And it’s in high school that I really decide, as any computer-oriented kid in the Hudson Valley in the 80s would, “I want to work for IBM some day,” not knowing that IBM’s own internal troubles are going to make that a pipe dream in about three more years.

When I get out of high-school, I go to college for computer science. But I’m a fuck-up, and basically get kicked out in a scene reminiscent of Animal House (“GPA… Zero. Point. Zero.”)  I then end up going through the usual post-high-school-no-college series of dead-end jobs until I finally end up working part-time for a tiny local Internet Service Provider. This was perfection – I got a free account since I worked there (and my day job wasn’t paying me enough to pay for one) and I got to really get back into computers “for a living”.

I got to enjoy the entire life-cycle of Apple computers, from hot upstart, to the time when I (and everyone else with any sense) abandoned them as completely uncool pieces of crap. Later, once Steve was back, I’d eventually become an “Apple bigot”, refusing to use any computer that didn’t have that familiar fruit-shaped logo on it, because I knew that (once again) it stood for quality hardware that was powerful, easy to use, and stable.

I would climb the entire ladder of IT management, starting off as a help-desk monkey, then working as a Perl programmer, web developer, Linux system administrator, all of which led me through varying levels of responsibility until I got to what I’ve spent the last six years doing, managing great teams of network and systems people at various organizations, a dream that started over thirty years ago.

A dream made possible by – heck, a dream carved out of whole cloth by – a pair of hippies in a garage who decided they should be aggressive about getting cheap Apple II computers into the hands of educators.

So, Steve… Thanks for giving this geeky kid a vision of what he wanted to do for a living, and providing the tools for thirty years (more or less) to help me do it.

10 Years Ago

10 years ago, I was waking up for an ordinary day. I’m an early riser. My typical day at this point is to wake up around 5:30a.m., turn on the TV to KRON, and listen to their early morning news while I slowly wake up in the other room checking my e-mail and surfing the web.

On September 11, 2001, I woke up a little later than normal. I turned on the TV, saw the comforting face of Matt Lauer and continued on to my office and stopped short in my tracks. Why was Matt Lauer live at 5:50am PT?

I went back to the living room, sat down, and proceeded to not leave that spot except to grab my laptop or go to the bathroom for a couple days.

I remember an e-mail later that morning from someone at Yahoo management that basically said “we’ve got no idea if Silicon Valley is any sort of target”, and they knew some people would be coming into the office and some people wouldn’t and basically if you wanted to stay home that’s fine, and if you wanted to work from home, that’d be great, but it was really like this crazily worded hall pass… We realize you’re not going to get shit done for the next day or two at least, but if you can tear yourself away from the news, there’s still a bunch of stuff that needs to get done around the company.

I remember getting out my rifle and ammo from the back of the closet, and not necessarily “camping out” with them, but they were moved to a location that’d be a whole lot easier to access if there was a whole “get out now!” situation going on. Because, quite simply, nobody knew what was coming next. Was this it? Or was this all the distraction, Act One in some sort of ugly three act play.

In hindsight, of course, why on earth would Silicon Valley be a target? I think it was just an excuse we all made for ourselves so that people could sit at home and stay with their families.

I remember some concern about the location of my cousin, who thankfully got out of the area just fine. I can’t remember now if she worked in WTC, or just nearby, or even if it was just the somewhat irrational fear that she might’ve somehow been nearby by accident. It all blurs together.  As a New Yorker, I consider myself strangely blessed that I didn’t actually know anyone personally that was lost that day (or at least, to this day, I’m not aware of anyone from my past that was working there that day). It seems that everyone I talk to knows someone, or in a couple cases, know dozens of people, that were there that day. So in some way, I’ll never really fully understand the pain and horror of the day.

I remember days later, that my proudest moment ever working at Yahoo was the night that there was a celebrity telethon for the first-responders and their families. Every network was airing it, and they were taking donations both over the phone and online. Every dot-com put aside their rivalries and came together to “find” servers we could spare throughout our organizations to turn them into donation-servers, as we all shared the workload of processing all those donations. As the telethon happened, competitive advantage was largely ignored. If CompanyX saw a way that CompanyY’s servers could perform a little better, and handle a few more donations, that information was shared freely between them. As server farms ran out of capacity, I remember top-level management at Yahoo talking to product managers from properties like Books, or Movies, or whatever, and saying “Can we steal some of your servers?” and the answer always being “yes”, and those servers being quickly rebuilt and repurposed to join the donation farm. It was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the Finest Hours for a dot-com era more famous for decadence and hypervaluations.

I remember when air travel resumed, I had tickets to a Megadeth concert in San Francisco, and the band was going to be able to get back into the states in time to make the gig come off as scheduled. I had this whole huge argument with myself, weighing the fact that this didn’t yet feel to me like the time to go to a concert and “have fun”, and yet if I didn’t, wasn’t I letting those bastards win? I was afraid I would feel “disrespectful” of the circumstances if I went, and instead I chose just to stay home. I couldn’t yet bring myself to just be randomly social.

9/11 would have lasting effects on my politics, I think though. For some people – ignorant people – it became about the vilification of the “other”. Brown skinned people who believed in some other form of god did this to us, and those folks had to pay, and that mindset definitely began to permeate some of the mainstream politics of the day, even if those espousing it might not actually admit it in public. For me, though, it became a focal point for change in our society that forced me to really examine things. Before that date, I was interested in politics, but I viewed it as largely a pendulum swinging back and forth from left to right and my goal was simply to try and keep dragging it towards the center. In the years that followed, the things our government did in response to the attacks really clarified for me my libertarianism far more than any Ayn Rand novel ever could have hoped to. What had always previously been this nebulous, soft, “I’m a centrist” mentality was really refined into my libertarian beliefs of today.

I think everyone who lived through that day is changed in some fashion. For some people, the change was a horrific one that the rest of us will never really fully comprehend, as they lost loved ones, or a friend, or even dozens of friends. I count myself lucky that the change it evoked in me is simply one of political clarity.

But the main thing is – as trite and jingoistic as it sounds – that we don’t ever allow ourselves to forget not just what happened, but also how we all responded – both good and bad – in the days, weeks, and months that followed. That is the true legacy of 9/11.

Is Alan Chartock really T. Herman Zweibel in disguise?

I’ve always gotten a kick out of Alan Chartock, the president/CEO of our local NPR station based out of Albany. I don’t always agree with him (in fact, almost never) but he’s got a way of expressing himself that I find intriguing and intelligent, which is so often missing on both sides of modern debates.

That said, though, I saw this recent picture of him getting a surprise birthday cake:

and all I could think to myself was how much he looked, in that shot, like the fictional “Father of American Journalism”, T. Herman Zweibel, descendant of the founder of The Onion:

Alan, is there something you’d like to tell us about your relationship to the founder of The Onion?