Frustration-driven development

I’m a total sucker for tech company inside stories, so I found this very long Twitter laundry airing thread by Morgan Knutson about his time working on Google+ absolutely fascinating.

Google have a strange relationship with their own products. Their output is wildly inconsistent, and they seem to vacillate between periods of apparent inaction and giant big bang releases (take the recent Gmail redesign for example). Morgan’s thread just promotes the assertion that Google is just not very good at product development.

There are some common product development ailments and themes worth noting from the thread:

  • Being proud of a high hiring bar, but allocating people to to projects with little consideration of skills matching
  • Dysfunctional, ego-driven management
  • Arbitrary staff incentives driving product features (normally this happens in sales, but not in this example)
  • Lack of vision across a large organisation, causing factions, waste and inconsistency
  • Uneven transparency, meaning it was hard to keep anything secret, but hard to find out what was really going on
  • Copying the competition rather than assessing user needs
  • Focus on delivering features rather than learning where the value is
  • Teams silo’d and seated by skill set rather than aligned product work
  • Strong product direction happening only through individual initiative (and during their time off work at that)
  • No sign of any actual product management…
  • … resulting in developers and designers collaborating on ad-hoc prototypes of their own
  • … the credit for which is claimed by aforementioned managers

Not to mention the implied sexual harrassment issues…

It doesn’t need to be like this. If you find yourself looking to bigger organisations for inspiration, it’s worth remembering stories like Morgan’s. If anything, bigger companies are more chaotic and less likely to foster a healthy product development culture. Smaller organisations can change and improve more easily.

All the best,

– Jim

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