The tyranny of incentive structures gone awry: How Google Wave failed

Anonymous user on quora writes:

Part of the deal initially was that Wave would be compensated much like a startup, base salaries were supposed to be low but with heavy performance linked bonuses which would have made the Wave team rich upon Wave's success.

During the course of negotiations and building the Wave product, the "heavily reward for success" part of the equation remained but the "punish upon failure" got gradually watered down into irrelevance, making the entire project a win-win bigger proposition.

Because large parts of the performance bonus were tied to intermediate performance goals, the Wave team was more motivated to hit deadlines than to ship good product. Product began to suffer as the team pushed to fill in a feature checklist on time.

Reflecting on my own time as a program manager at Microsoft early in my career, I have to say the push to ship intermediate milestones and hit dates can have some serious unintended consequences.

The classic software project management quandary rears its ugly head again, over and over, and seemingly everywhere.

Quality, scope, or shipping on time: Choose two.

One thing I disliked about being a PM at Microsoft was how one of the main things we ended up having to do was punt bugs in order to ship on time. We were implicitly and systematically reducing quality and scope in order to ship on time.

If you don't sacrifice quality, then you're sacrificing scope. And doing that mid-stream for a project is often death by a thousand paper cuts, especially for user experience. Product teams end up spending as much time designing to duct tape together incomplete features and broken scenarios as building them in the first place.

And when you don't scale back scope, you sacrifice quality and end up with Google Wave. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

May regime change come to Burma too

Tonight Steph and I watched a documentary that tells a story that needs to be heard. It is the story of underground video journalists in Burma during the Saffron rebellion of 2007 in Burma. Untold thousands were jailed and killed. They too shut down the Internet that September.

Yet the regime persists. You don't appreciate the freedoms you have until you realize how few people in the world actually have them too.

Moving on and thanks

Just as Posterous has prospered, grown and changed, so to is it time for me to evolve my role. Effective today, I'm ending my day-to-day development with Posterous and moving into an advisory role. Though my day-to-day may change, my faith in the team and the product is unchanged and unwavering. Posterous is in good hands and on the right track to fulfilling its potential. I am proud of what we've built together and look forward to the future with anticipation to see where the team and you, the users, take this very special community. 

My greatest passions lie with the early stage of building world-changing consumer products. To that end, I've decided to join the team at Y Combinator as a designer-in-residence and help the dozens of top pre-seed startups in the newest Winter 2011 batch reach their potential through excellent user experience.

I am greatly thankful to our team, investors and most of all our users for all the amazing work and adventures. Thanks for all of your support.  

Content should be experienced by relevance and importance and interestingness, not chronologically

On Hacker News today, someone posted a Page-Rank-resorted listing of all of Paul Graham's essays. The content itself I'm pretty familiar with since we are acolytes of the Y Combinator school. 

The #1 thing I am struck by here is that even though I am familiar with most of the content and have read most of them already -- it serves as an amazing reminder of what is important and notable. In a glut of information, the most important and scarce resource is attention. 

Luckily computers are quite good at processing large amounts of information. Algorithms like Page Rank let smart programmers make sense of the world. Facebook is one of the few other sites that have realized this and are actively incorporating it into their product in the form of edge rank

If chronological sort is dead, why is the default sort of almost everything else on the web pretty much chronological? It is certainly easy to do. ORDER BY created_at is probably the most used SQL query there is ont he web. Clearly there is a problem here -- and people are rushing in to solve it. 

Some friends of mine from Anomaly Innovations created The Cadmus, a twitter client that shows your twitter feed via relevance instead of chronological. They found in AB testing their relevance algorithm that they could increase engagement by 40%! This seems so compelling I'm rather blown away Twitter hasn't done anything in this area yet. Other groundbreakers to watch out for in the space include Chris Dixon's incredible team at Hunch, YC-backed Directed Edge, and Louis Gray's my6sense.

While there are leaders in the pack, the relevance space is littered with failures and false starts -- so much so that there is a bit of a stigma with being another one of those 'relevance and machine learning' startups. 
With good reason. Many fail.

This form of social-oriented content relevance is a tough nut to crack. It's fundamentally different from traditional Netflix-style machine learning since the number of watchable movies in the world is very much a finite set. In contrast, the amount of interesting content on the web is essentially infinite. The field is still a bit wide open because few people have both the dataset to work and test on, AND the financial backing to see the project all the way through. 

I know this: The future of the web does not include chronological sort as the default view. In the next few years, the frontier of this will be pushed by smart and winning teams that will figure out a way to productize interestingness and provide it on tap. We're only in year 20 of building Vannevar Bush's memex -- a world of human-computer-symbiosis. Conquering the chronological problem is the next logical step.

Letting your mind wander is a major cause of unhappiness

Havard researchers Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth have published a new study that reveals a surprising fact about daydreaming. They distributed a custom iPhone app to 2000 people that would interrupt them throughout the day asking them about moods, what they're doing, and how they're feeling. 

"A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.

"Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities. This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present. Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people's happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged."


It does appear the mind-wandering is a cause, not just a correlation. The researchers did separate time-lag analyses that helped demonstrate people's mood was affected by their wandering mind, not the other way around.


The upside: Being in the present moment can bring joy. Worry is the realm of the future and the past.

How much money did Airbnb raise? What is the company's financing history? (via @bchesky on Quora)

An inspiring story for a very inspiring company. Not only are the founders complete mensches, they're also superb designers to boot.

It's also an incredibly inspiring story of the power of Y Combinator. PG had a major hand in the success of this great startup.

Airbnb has raised $7,800,000 to date. Here is our complete financing history.

Airbnb approaches many investors in 2008. Most say "the market is too small." Some are concerned 2 of the 3 founders are designers, thus creating a founding DNA different from the success patterns they are looking for. 

Running out of money, Airbnb starts selling collectible cereal, and makes $30,000 in the process. (See the Startup School talk for more about this here:

With their website low in traffic, their kitchen is without food. Airbnb starts living off their collectible cereal. This is a low point.

At a dinner with the founders of in November, 2008, Airbnb is convinced to apply for Y-Combinator, and gets accepted. PG says he is skeptical of the idea, but likes the founders because they "won't die," and are "very imaginative." Airbnb finally raises $20,000.

By Demo Day in April, 2009, Airbnb becomes "ramen profitable," and finally stops eating the leftover collectible cereal in their kitchen. Sequoia Capital takes notice. Sequoia leads a Seed Round of $600,000, led by Greg McAdoo. Keith Rabois, Kevin Hartz, and Jawed Karim of Youniversity Ventures participate.

700,000 room-nights booked later, Airbnb announces a Series A Round of $7,200,000 led by Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners to expand from 8,000 cities to every city known to humankind. Reid Hoffman leads the round for Greylock Partners. New angels include Ron Conway, Jeremy Stoppelman, and Elad Gil.


How does an all powerful God allow terrible tragedy to happen?

Reverend Tom Honey has been a priest in the Church of England for over 20 years. In 2004 he had to address his flock on a Sunday shortly after the tragic Indian Ocean tsunamis. Unspeakable suffering -- but how can you explain God's role? Countless tragedy and unimaginable suffering over eons.

How can an all-powerful God allow this to happen? It has long been a deep-seated theological and philosophical question in my mind. Is God a puppet-master, or some medieval tyrant? If so, then he is either not benevolent or not ominipotent.

Rev. Honey explains that perhaps this is the wrong frame. That maybe we're pretending to know God better than we possibly could know him. That he might not be an agent in the way we think of human beings as agents. That he does not, but is. The reverend goes on goes on:

To have faith in this God would be more like trusting an essential goodness and benevolence in the universe, and less like believing a system of doctrinal statements. Isn’t it ironic that Christians who claim to believe in an infinite, unknowable being, then tie God down in closed systems and rigid doctrines? Faith in God demands the huge step of saying, “despite all appearances to the contrary, I trust that there is a loving presence, but I will live without knowing.”

And that resonates with me. I accept that there is pain and suffering in this world. I would go further -- that we are called to recognize the divine within others and to serve and love and bring happiness to them.

I've been studying other traditions in my spare time of late, particularly the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita. And I'm struck by the common chord between them. Life is a tremendous gift, and it is so short. So we must try to live it in service to those of our tribe, be it our friends and family, our nation, humanity, or all life in the Universe.