The Truth about Brutal Honesty

Brutal honesty has come up several times recently in the context of the NYT “exposé” on the Amazon work environment. I don’t have any first hand knowledge of working at Amazon, and I agree that the NYT piece was strangely vindictive. Highly mobile professionals with 6-figure salaries don’t need our protection from Bezos or anyone else. They can vote with their feet.

But I also think that the concept of brutal honesty is idealized as a way to create an efficient and transparent work environment where information flows without impediment. In my experience of working at two large corporations, the reality was much more nuanced than that.

The ability to be honest is asymmetrical. People with power (positional, political, or otherwise) can afford to be honest. Most often, people without power can not. Or at the very least they have to be much more careful about how they express themselves. This way, organizations that are “brutally honest” often reinforce the power structure, rather than keep it in check. Instead of facilitating a better flow of information, they create different kinds of blockages. Privilege is amplified, not neutralized.

“Brutal is sometimes literal. Amazon is often compared to an earlier Microsoft. The aspect of early Microsoft culture being referred to wasn’t defined so much by the “honest” way people expressed themselves, as it was by the “brutal” way they did so. Shouting, even screaming, at subordinates in product reviews was not unusual. This behavior didn’t have much to do with honesty though. It was management by intimidation.

“Honesty” is sometimes an excuse for ignorance. I have worked with talented people who constantly complained about getting into trouble because they were being too honest — people couldn’t deal with the truth. Sometimes this was true, but most often they were blind to some dimensions of the problem. Like the developer who sees only the engineering perspective and calls the marketing team bozos. Most often the marketing team are just smart people working within their own constraints. Constraints the engineer doesn’t understand.

“Honesty” is sometimes an excuse for bad behavior. If your intent is to build your reputation by tearing down a coworker in front of their peers and manager, then some brutal honesty in a group setting is effective. But if your intent is it to make a better product and build good working relationships, then a non-confrontational private meeting is effective. This is orthogonal to honesty.

Honesty is temporal. Speed is often confused with quality when it comes to thinking in a corporate setting. Some people have the ability to very quickly package a thought and sell it verbally. By speaking out first they dominate the flow of interaction in group settings, and in their desire to do so, they often package up very early thinking. Somewhere else in the meeting someone is being more thoughtful and going deeper, but by the time their thought is packaged and ready, it is too late to jump in. The truth is that on any topic our thinking will evolve over a scale of minutes, hours, days and even months. We can choose the point at which we express our current “honest” point of view.

None of this is to say that honesty isn’t important. As with the often repeated story of Steve Jobs chiding Jony Ive for not being brutally honest with a subordinate, being dishonest is seldom constructive. But there is a lot of nuance in the who, the to whom, the how and the when of expressing an honest opinion.

Honesty is an input, not an outcome. Outcomes are user experiences, revenues, and the happiness and satisfaction people derive from making those things.

The Tragedy of the Internet

Ok, it’s one well intentioned but ultimately wrong headed piece about ad blocking over the full bucket and time to put this all into perspective. My problem with Arment’s piece and others like it is the good versus evil narrative they create for the topic. Ad networks are perpetrating “rampant abuse”, people are “fighting back” and in turn being “demonized”. It’s just so over the top for a situation where all indications are that the Internet will ultimately regulate itself to a better place as entrepreneurs, browser makers and consumers do their thing.

A simple law of the Internet is that things will tend towards what is possible, not what is ethical or moral or nice. So it should be no surprise that over time advertising networks have been pushing the boundaries to extract as much data as they possibly can from our web browsing activity. The more information they have about us, the more effective their ads, and the more money they can make.

On the other side of this arms race, companies are using morally questionable business models to profit from blocking ads on websites. The biggest provider of ad blocking software in the market allows companies to pay large sums of money to be added to their whitelist. This looks an awful lot like extortion.

We shouldn’t be surprised, because the worldwide web is the commons of our age.

Ten years ago the web was a platform for publishing that was too good to be true. It was easier than ever to create a publication. Google’s algorithm did a good job of introducing people to content they liked. Anyone with a web browser could enjoy that content. Advertising made online publishing a viable business, and advertising networks made it possible for publishers to focus on what they did best: create more content.

Then all manner of opportunists started to notice ways they could attach themselves to this system and profit from it. Some found that they could game Google’s algorithm into sending searchers to content that wasn’t truly popular. Some realized they could exploit the open web to scrape content from publisher websites and profit from it in their own app. Some invented technology to help ad networks watch you on the web and automatically optimize the ads you see, making them more effective and more profitable. Others invented ways to reach into web pages and remove the offending ads before you even see them.

The result from a publisher’s point of view: Paid links and content farms perverting search results to steal your traffic. Read-it-later apps scraping your content to divert your profit and insert themselves between you and your readers. Sophisticated ad tech collecting information and stealing your audience’s privacy and trust. Ad blockers profiting as they eliminate your business model.

Hyperlinks, viewable source and cookies powered an arguably unprecedented period of innovation as the Internet grew from a small network connecting universities into something that almost unbelievably connects most of the world. But hyperlinks can be sold, viewable source can be scraped and modified, and cookies can be used by 3rd parties to monitor our browsing activity.

The openness and extensibility of the web that powered a new era of democratized publishing is now enabling the things that undermine it.

And like the farmers overusing the commons, few SEO firms, content scrapers or ad tech companies are concerned enough about the future of online publishing — an industry that makes their business possible in the first place — that they will stop undermining it. They are focused on short term gain. Even if they understand the overall dynamic, they know that their individual decision to stop would not save the commons. So they continue, each playing their own, perfectly rational role in the unfolding tragedy.

Yes, it’s sometimes a pity that we can’t have nice things. But if this is the end, it is only the end of online publishing as we know it. Innovation isn’t slowing down. Content creators and consumers will find new ways to reach each other and the story will continue.

A Rogues Gallery of Ad Formats

Ever wondered what on earth people were thinking when they came up with invasive ad formats that completely undermine the user experience on your favorite websites? Well, here it is in their own words. These are videos by a company that positions itself as an ad network and “digital advertising solution for brands.”

The 970×260 Rising Star Billboard “commands the user’s attention.” It “has a love it or leave it value exchange, allowing the user to minimize it if desired.”

The Rising Star Pushdown goes from a 970×90 teazer image to 415 pixels high on mouseover. “The web content is pushed down to allow space for the expanded advertisement”. It is “often selected for its rich functionality and elegant layout.”

When the user interacts with the Rising Star Slider, “the site content slides to the left as the large expanded ad unit slides in, unveiling a fully branded experience.”

The Rising Star Sidekick starts as a 300×250 unit. On mouseover “the expanded unit pushes page content left to reveal a 850×700 pixel canvas that is perfect for delivering the brand message.”

The Custom Leave Behind is placed behind the browser. “Targeting users who are finished browsing allows complete engagement with the creative.”

The people coming up with this stuff are not on a mission to destroy the web. They are earnestly working to improve their product, the goal of which is to take your attention away from a website’s content and put it on an ad unit. I just wonder whether they have any cognitive dissonance when they go home after work and visit their favorite websites. As the expanded unit pushes the content away, do they feel a prick of regret, or do they smile appreciatively at the fully branded experience that’s unveiled?

Hong Kong’s Orderly iPhone Frenzy

On 19 February, Chinese New Year’s day, Angie and I walked past the Apple store in Hong Kong’s IFC mall. It was just before 11AM (opening time) and we saw a few hundred people lining up outside the store.

We assumed that there must be something special going on, so I approached an Apple store employee and asked what it was. No, she said, this was a typical day. People were lining up to buy the iPhone 6. She called it “in store reservation.” I think they use this language because on most days they run out of stock before everyone in the line gets a phone, and the unlucky people still in line get to reserve their phone of choice. Presumably they get to jump the queue the next day.

Inside, the line hugged the interior wall almost all the way around the store. By routing the line this way, the store could operate normally even as a couple of hundred people were lining up for iPhones.

The line inside the store is best observed from the outside. All of those people against the window below are hoping to get their new iPhone 6 today.

A few hours later we walked past the store again. There were now waiting areas on both sides of the store entrance. The one on the right fed into the store and was throttled by a few redshirts1. When the waiting area on the right was empty, redshirts formed a human corridor to allow people to move from the waiting area on the left to the one on the right.

I talked to a second redshirt who confirmed that yes, they sold out their stock on most days, and yes, it has been like this since September. It struck me how upbeat and happy all the redshirts were. It’s clearly a lot of fun selling hotcakes.

Later that evening we happened to walk past the store a third time on the way to the Star Ferry. It was just after closing time and only the redshirts remained, busily preparing for the next day’s inevitable repeat of the most orderly frenzy I have ever seen.

Just think about that. Five months after launch the Apple Store in Hong Kong serves the kind of demand for the iPhone 6 that any other company would be thrilled to receive for a product on launch day. And they see this demand every day.

Here are a few related things about the iPhone in Hong Kong: First, you see smartphones in use all the time — more so than I notice in US cities. People are mostly messaging, playing games and watching streamed shows. A very large proportion of the phones you see have large screens (5″ and up). And you definitely see more Samsung phones than iPhones. But if the activity at the Apple Store is anything to go by, that’s not going to be the case for long.

  1. The Apple Store kind, not the Star Trek kind.

The Unprivilege Dimension

If we look at life as an optimization problem, what privilege does is to remove one or more dimensions from the space in which people must optimize in order to succeed.

The impact on people who don’t have the benefit of privilege is simple. They have a harder time solving life’s optimization problem.

As obvious as this seems, it is counterintuitive to people who are privileged. They are solving the optimization problem where privilege isn’t a variable. It doesn’t even exist.

It is like human beings trying to understand what it would be like to move around in a 4 dimensional physical space. Having never experienced 4 dimensions, we have no way to truly imagine it. We can conceptualize it using mathematical abstractions and figure out some of the properties of a 4 dimensional space. But this is hard and few people do it.

People who are privileged—particularly smart, successful people who have done a great job solving life’s optimization problem—also often have very strong convictions about the existence of a meritocracy. That’s because their lower dimensional reality is a meritocracy. The truth of their position is unassailable… in the space in which they are operating.

Let’s make a little model to solidify the analogy. First, let’s create a dimension for the absence of privilege. For convenience I will call it U for “unprivilege”. Privileged people are operating in an N-dimensional space where U doesn’t exist. People without the benefit of privilege are operating in an N+1 dimensional space that includes U. In this N+1 dimensional space, privileged people are operating on the N dimensional plane where U = 0.

Since people with privilege are making most of the decisions that determine the outcomes for others, most of the success in life happens where U = 0. Many of the obstacles that impede success exist where U ≠ 0, and therefore beyond the understanding of people with privilege.

In claiming that their company or industry is a meritocracy, for example, privileged people are pointing at an optimum in their N dimensional space and saying with sincerity, “Look, anyone can get here taking the same route as me!” They don’t see how hard it can be to navigate parts of the space where U ≠  0.

One of the things that breaks privileged folks out of their N dimensional thinking is ironically, but essentially, one of the things that is hard for them to understand: Negative tone. In their space, negative tone is not required in order to solve the optimization problem. So initially they will reject it as unnecessary and unproductive. But at some point, they will start to question why it exists at all. The simple explanation that all those people expressing themselves angrily are just unpleasant people won’t hold up. Like physicists struggling to explain the universe in 3 dimensions, they will realize that there must be dimensions beyond the ones that they currently conceive.

Then they will start to see the effects of privilege and start to conceptualize what it must be like to operate in a space with the extra (N+1)th dimension.

The Price of Personal Endorsement in Podcast Sponsor Reads

I love podcasts. I want podcasters to have a lucrative and sustainable business. I think sponsorship is a good business model. But I squirm in my seat a little when I hear sentences like the following during a podcast sponsor read:

  • “Company X are great people.”
  • “I used Product Y before they even sponsored us.”
  • “Company Z was kind enough to send me a sample.”
  • “We only accept sponsorships for things that we like.”

Sponsorships are not charity. For the companies doing them it is a business decision. They are not sending complimentary products out of kindness. They know that the sponsor read will carry more weight if the podcaster can relate a first hand experience. And they are not expecting or receiving an objective review during the sponsor read.

I completely understand that podcasters are grateful to their sponsors. After all, this income is what makes the podcast possible. But no matter how genuinely friendly the relationship between podcaster and sponsor, money is changing hands. This is a paid endorsement.

So here’s the thing: When a a podcaster reinforces a sponsor read with their own personal relationship with the sponsoring company, it erodes their credibility more, not less. Podcasters want to reassure us that their endorsement is honest, but what they do instead is to raise a question about their credibility.

I think podcasters sometimes start with the assumption that accepting the sponsorship is in itself an implicit endorsement. And given that, they take the only reasonable approach, which is to go all in and sell the endorsement. Explain it. Justify it. But I question that starting assumption. I don’t think sponsorship necessarily implies endorsement. Rather, the more professional distance between them and the sponsor, the better off they will be in the long run.

Uncomfortable Overlap

In February Campbell Soups started sponsoring Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Do we take from this that Sherman loves Campbell Soups? No. The reason we watch him is that he’s going to shut down a wide receiver. He’s not presenting “This Week in Canned Goods.” Even if his sponsor was Nike and he was wearing Nike gear, we’re not listening to his advice on sporting goods. We’re watching him play the game. The thing he’s endorsing and the thing he is doing are related, but different.

Sponsorships on tech podcasts are more complicated in two important ways.

First, tech podcasters are in the business of expressing opinions with candor. When they inject personal endorsement into a sponsor read, they are sharing an opinion for money. This amplifies the potential for perceived conflict of interest a lot.

Second, because of the nature of the audience, there is a large overlap between kinds of products and services that are advertised and the topics of the show itself. Sponsor reads do not pretend to be balanced and perfectly objective, but when they include positive personal experiences they essentially become product reviews that espouse the benefits of something without mentioning its drawbacks. It is jarring when a podcaster switches from lambasting one product during the non-sponsored part of the show, to lauding a different product during the sponsor read a few minutes later.

And even if sponsor reads were studiously accurate reviews, podcasters would have to think beyond any real conflict of interest to the perceived conflict of interest.

Just Give Me Plausible Believability

Of course, the perception of conflict of interest wouldn’t be eliminated if the personal endorsement was absent. Even if sponsor reads were read from a script by a dispassionate electronic voice, there would still be the questions about coverage of a sponsoring company at some other, non-sponsored, point in the show.

But that would be ok with me. I’m perfectly happy to trust that there is a Chinese wall of sorts between the words in the sponsor read and the words during the rest of the show. It is completely plausible to believe that the podcaster maintains this wall, and I want to believe it.

The problem with the personal endorsement is that it takes away my ability to apply benefit of the doubt. It just isn’t plausible that the podcaster’s excitement for every single sponsored product is completely natural and not influenced by the payment they are receiving for saying those words.

Less Personal, More Personality

All else being equal, will advertisers pay less for a less personal endorsement? Or favor a podcast where the endorsements are more personal? I believe so. They know that often the most powerful endorsement is an organic one from someone people look up to, and they want the sponsor read to approximate this as closely as possible.

But there are alternatives to “personal” when it comes to making a compelling and powerful sponsor message. And they come from a place we should have expected: veterans of public radio who were early entrants into the podcasting market.

I was agonizing over an early draft of this post when I discovered Alex Blumberg’s new project, StartUp, a podcast documenting his journey as he starts his new podcasting company. It is gloriously meta, and as well executed as you would expect from someone who previously produced the award winning radio show and podcast, This American Life. What struck me in particular was Alex’s approach to sponsor reads. He mentions being transparent, and plays the same music in the background to every sponsor read to help listeners distinguish between the sponsor read and the rest of the show. He makes the reads interesting by doing them “documentary style”, including tiny interviews with sponsor employees and info about their products in the company’s own words. The sponsor reads are brimming with Alex’s personality, but have none of his personal endorsement for the things they promote.

Another great example is the hit podcast, Serial. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Serial is hosted by another veteran of This American Life, Sarah Koenig. The sponsor message sounds like the result of a producer going into the street, asking a bunch of people to read the sponsor message and splicing the result together for a funny and punchy message that has loads of personality. When Sarah does the read herself, the message is short and her delivery is dry, just like the sponsor messages you hear on public radio.

One of Serial’s advertisers is MailChimp, a company that has sponsored many tech podcasts at some point or another. So maybe other podcasters will follow this lead and put less “personal” and more “personality” into their sponsor reads.

Or perhaps this is unrealistic, and only podcasts with large audiences will have the luxury of forgoing personal endorsement. I hope not, because I don’t think the current approach is sustainable. Even a very slow credibility leak will eventually catch up with podcasters whose value is based on being critics, commentators and thought leaders.


Surely I’m not the only one seeing this in today’s Apple event.

Or is it just so obvious that it isn’t noteworthy?

The Role of Design

In a design centered company, some people spend more time thinking about design than others, but everyone takes the importance of design to heart. Not only the design of the product itself, but of every way that the company touches a customer’s life. They see the evidence of design in their work environment and in the way the company is managed. They make even the smallest decisions with the design of the customer experience in mind. The quality of the resulting experience drives sales of their products and the success of their company. In turn, the pride in this outcome reinforces their commitment to design.

Programming: The Uncareer

There has been a lot of public introspection by programmers recently. One fascinating thread was kicked off by Ed Finkler, who wrote “The Developer’s Dystopian Future”. This resonated with Marco Arment, and Matt Gemmel followed up both pieces with “Confessions of An Ex-Developer”. All three are accomplished developers and successful writers.

As a (cough) veteran programmer there are many feelings expressed by Ed, Marco and Matt that I recognize in myself. In particular, the fear of being left behind. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide variety of programming projects over the years. And whether it was specialized DSP engines for high speed image processing, simulations of neutron physics on UNIX workstations, apps on PCs, or experiences on the web, I never reached the point where I felt like I had completely mastered the science or the tools. There was always something new to learn, or someone else, somewhere in the world, who knew more than I did. As soon as I was getting close to mastery, the goalposts moved to some new technology or tool.

The more experience I had, the more I knew, and the more I knew that I didn’t know.

In 2002 I left hands on programming to get an MBA and then wield it in PowerPoint decks at Microsoft. For almost a decade I wasn’t a programmer. I managed teams that included developers, but I didn’t write a single line of shipping code.

At some point I started some after hours tinkering with the web and realized how much I missed the hands on experience of building something. Slowly it sucked me back in. By 2010 I had left Microsoft and was spending a lot of my time programming. Code is not all I do, but I do enough of it to call myself a programmer again.

This time round I still feel that same programmer angst, but with much less intensity. Yes, new tools and technologies are emerging every day, and yes, it is impossible to keep up with all of them. But here’s the thing I realized: you don’t need to. In fact, I think a large part of success is ignoring much of the cacophony about new new things, and focusing on the specific thing you are trying to achieve with the technology.

For evidence that you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of current programming technology to have impact, just look to some of the biggest programming success stories. In the early ’90s, in his early twenties, Marc Andreessen wrote the Mosaic web browser. In the early ’00s David Heinemeier Hansson created the Rails web framework. He was in his early twenties. At around the same time Matt Mullenweg released the first version of WordPress before he turned twenty. Mark Zuckerberg was about twenty when he founded Facebook in 2004.

I’m pretty sure that even as Marc, David, Matt and Mark were bringing these things into the world there were older developers somewhere talking about how hard it was to keep up with all the new developments in programming.

Hoodie Not Required

Many people see the success of young developers and draw the conclusion that youth is the essential ingredient. That a young mind, the absence of obligations, and the ability to spend every waking minute coding are prerequisites for success. This isn’t just the point of view of grumpy 30+ year old programmers like me, it is a pattern that has been embraced by prominent early stage investors. But like many patterns, it is one based on correlation, not causation.

The cause here has much more to do with the outdated expectations that programmers have about their career paths. The old model was that you focused on learning the basics in the beginning of your career and then over time transitioned to practicing your craft. Later in your career, your productivity and value lay in your experience.

But the days of earning some sort of tenure as a wise old programmer are gone. Whether you are 25 or 55, the playing field is pretty much level. Sure, older programmers have experience to draw on — inexperienced programmers sometimes look like cartoon characters with legs spinning wildly, but making no forward progress — but that knowledge based on experience is also a burden. It constrains your thinking, convincing you that things can’t be done. Young programmers don’t know what can’t be done. They just do it.

Programmer Half Full

Intellectual vocations with very little dependence on physical vitality are not new to modern civilization. What makes programming different is that the underlying practices and technologies are changing so fast that there is very little static foundation to speak of.

The reality, then, is that long term success as a programmer involves being focused on the task in front of you, but also aware of the changes taking place in your peripheral vision. You need the discipline to stay focused on being productive with your current toolset, often much longer than current vogue dictates. At the same time you need to have an open mind and sufficient awareness of new technologies to selectively and periodically start from scratch.

It is up to individuals to decide what this means for them. Do you enjoy reinventing yourself every few years? Are you comfortable in an environment where people 20 years younger than you are your technical peers? Is the idea of true, lifelong learning exciting, or is it exhausting? If not, then a lifetime spent programming is perhaps not for you.

The good news in all this is that you don’t need to spend a lifetime programming to be successful doing it. Take a decade off and do something else if you like. You can always return. If you do, it won’t take you long to get into the hot new programming language, framework and platform. Before long, you’ll know enough to change the world.

The UI Controls Pendulum

Earlier this month Brent Simmons wrote about the advantages of using standard instead of custom controls in Mac and iOS apps. He points to the cost of developing custom controls and questions their benefit. Standard controls, on the other hand, have features like accessibility built in.

This makes a lot of sense. Just take a look Marco Arment’s new podcast app to see standard controls in a beautiful, functional UI. But I wonder whether this isn’t a cyclical thing tied to the lifecycle of the OS user interface design.

The first iteration of Apple’s iOS user interface was in market for about 7 years before the major refresh that happened in iOS 7. There were design changes during the first 6 major versions, but they were relatively small and evolutionary. The platform owner, Apple in this case, won’t make these major changes often, partly because they are hard and costly, but mostly because they don’t want to undermine the familiarity of the design among their users.

Early in the life of a new UI design language there is pretty much only upside to using fresh and new standard controls in your app. In fact, in the really early stages of an OS design refresh the apps that use standard controls are distinctive and in the minority. People will seek them out to get the new hotness. And the halo of freshness might extend well beyond that. We’re 10 months into iOS and it still feels new.

Later in the life of an OS design language this balance starts to shift. Now almost every app, even very crappy ones, are using the standard controls. And using them well. The great app makers who used the standard controls effectively have been copied by everyone else.

Also, the design language no longer feels fresh. Rather, it feels old fashioned. Staid even.

So at some point in the cycle custom controls start to become valuable again. Apps that use them effectively will stand out and will be hard to copy. Consider the discussions about TweetBot’s famously custom UI, or the raving about Loren Brichter’s beautifully simple Letterpress design. In the latter half of the life of the original iOS design it became positively passé to rely on standard controls for your app.

Every app developer will design UI in the context of their own situation — their goals, budget, capabilities, and brand. Some will invest more than others in being unique. But wherever they are on the continuum, it would probably be good to also factor the OS lifecycle into design decisions.