I spent several years early in my career in product development. It was good training for many things. First, I learned much about engineering documentation procedures. And about working with marketing and customers to develop products that people might actually use. It’s also where I first learned to sell–by selling the sales department on why our products were better than others.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to interview some men who have changed the automation industry by building some first-rate organizations (although the jury is still out on one of them). The consistent thing I learned, something that reinforced everything I had been taught and practiced for years, was the importance of building teams. Intelligent team building around acquisitions or product development is one of the key elements of success.

Google, Yahoo and Facebook have all been in the news recently for a variety of reasons. I’d like to tie a number of threads around success or failure to properly combine teams from old and new–or within various departments or disciplines.

Yahoo stumbles!

Yahoo has had a significant vision problem. It can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. Current CEO Carol Bartz has taken lumps for failing to have an “elevator pitch” about what the company is. While laying off several hundred people last week, some slides were leaked showing that the company planned to shutter at least one popular service (social Web page bookmarking site Delicious) along with many others. An uproar ensued.

How does Yahoo stand up to the team-building test? Here are some quotes lifted from TechCrunch.

Neil Kandalgaonkar, a former engineer at Upcoming writes: If they were supposed to revitalize Yahoo, they weren’t treated that way. They weren’t all combined into any one thing, even though they all relied on social networking and shared the same kind of userbase. Instead they were parcelled out to different parts of Yahoo where they were subordinate to the existing hierarchy and agenda. (Flickr was the exception though, in that they carved out a separate role for themselves, and absorbed Yahoo Photos rather than the other way around.) Arguably the Upcoming acquisition is the only one that “revitalized” anything as Leonard Lin made it his mission to work on Yahoo’s culture.

But others counter that Flickr isn’t as independent as one would think and faced administrative obstacles from Yahoo. Longtime Flickr engineer, Kellan Elliott-McCrea (who now works at Etsy), wrote that from his conversations 15% of the large projects they the Flickr team “tackled over the last few years (internationalization, video, various growth strategies, etc) went into building the feature, whereas 85% of the time was spent negotiating and dealing with Yahoo.

Elliott-McCrea writes: I recently pulled up a worklog I was keeping in 2008-2009, and I found 18 meetings scheduled over a 9 month period discussing why Flickr’s API was poorly designed and when we’d be shutting it down and migrating it to the YOS Web Services Standard.

As for bookmarking service Delicious, Dave Dash, former Yahoo engineer for the product writes, Yahoo! lacks vision. It had Delicious for years, but didn’t properly place it in its eco-system. It ignored the founder for the most part, and switched the management team above it repeatedly.

Facebook and Google the new evil?

Meanwhile, Google is famous for allowing its engineers to devote 20% of their time on projects with no apparent utility. This is a great engineering culture and can lead to many cool things. On the other hand, Google seems to throw many of these experiments out into the world without the discipline of product management. So products (always in beta) seem to come and go. A few have stayed (gmail, docs) but many have languished or disappeared.

Many of us wonder if Facebook is the new evil. It seems to keep changing things that are less favorable to users, but more favorable to gleaning information to sell to advertisers and spammers, er, email marketers. It has had several missteps where it had to retract changes that just sort of appeared.

An explanation of this behavior comes by way of serial entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calacanis. The conversation he reports with a Facebook engineer reveals the same developer-oriented culture that lacks discipline. This can work when you’re small. But when hundreds of millions of users are accustomed to your product, things can and do go awry. Here’s an excerpt from Calacanis’ email to subscribers:

“Can I ask you a question then?” I said.

“Sure,” said Bob.

“All these privacy issues I’ve brought up in my newsletter, you know, all these examples of users getting screwed for lack of a better word, were these designed with bad intent?” I asked.

“Actually, no… we just didn’t have any oversight or process in the early days, and we were encouraged by Zuckerberg to just push changes to the site,” Bob said.

“Can I get an example of that?” I asked.

“Sure. Photos was built by two people in a couple of days, and they just pushed their changes to the site without showing it to anyone. Zuck encouraged us to just push changes and not worry about it,” Bob explained.

“Wait a second… you’re saying there was no product review, no product manager… no thought to just pushing changes to the server of one of the most popular sites in the world?” I asked, perplexed.

“Yes,” Bob said.

Innovation

I’m writing my article for the January Automation World on innovation–where technologists in supplier companies see new technologies for automation coming from. Most of these companies take a disciplined product management approach to bringing innovation to market. That’s a good thing for manufacturing professionals. We can’t afford (either from a money or from a productivity/safety point of view) to try just anything that a couple of developers through together in a couple of days.

That’s a good thing.

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