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.

Terry Gilliam's totalitarian post-apocalypse in the contemporary Internet age

Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil was a groundbreaking work of dystopian social commentary. One of the names Gilliam wanted to give to the movie was actually 1984 1/2 -- a nod to both Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 and Fellini's 8 1/2. The main character is Sam Lowry, a clerk in the Ministry of Information's Records department. Like 1984's Winston Smith, love impels this forlorn everyman into the gnashing teeth of the machine.

As with Blade Runner, It is hard to date Brazil as a film over 25 years old by any means. It seems to hold a certain timeless quality. However unlike Blade Runner, a film 3 years its senior, Brazil is dark in tone and worldview instead of just visually. There is a certain crushing insanity of the crass bourgeois commercialism, whereas in Blade Runner things appear merely bleak but rational.
In one of the scenes, there is a long road into town lined with ads. Unfettered commercialism in action. I couldn't help but think of the kind of content sites that proliferate the Internet today. Just utter saturation of the mentalscape. Ad impressions for miles, and nobody really cares.
Brazil is really the logical conclusion of anti-computer ideology of movies like Desk Set from the 50's, along with its anachronisms of forms, stamps, and physical paper reports. Viewing this from our contemporary Internet-obsessed lens, it seems laughable that a future Ministry of Information would need rooms full of paper-pushing clerks next to huge printers and computer terminals, sending information about in the form of an elaborate network of pneumatic tubes.
If anything, we now know that the workplace of worker bees in the hallways of records and information probably look more like the hallowed grounds of Google or Facebook.
(Aside: Notice the common use of bicycles as instant office hipster cred. Awesome. Must use for Posterous office photos.)

The rise of the personal computer and the Internet has been moreso about freedom of information. Yet our fears for Facebook, Google, and other players in the Information Age are couched in dystopian wording and imagery. "Dreams of world domination."

Brazil's main theme is that of information control, where the state tightly controls information through bureaucracy and process. Multiple characters submit to this system and go to both banal and extreme lengths to obtain the information they need. Jill, the female lead, witnesses the arrest of an innocent father (result of a clerical error, fittingly), and selflessly fights to find out his whereabouts on behalf of the family. But she is sent from one department (Records to Information Retrieval) and back for the appropriate stamps of approval. Death by bureaucracy. Sam Lowry, the main character in Brazil, must even switch occupations entirely and transfer to a department of higher rank (Information Retrieval Dept) to get access to classified and inaccessible dossiers. All this under a specter of terrorism that never proves itself to be real.

In contrast, the ongoing battle waged by angry bloggers against Facebook around privacy is actually over the an enforced *freeing* of information by the allegedly monolithic /  Facebook. This is not a part of what the science fiction predicted.

But we don't live in works of fiction, now do we?

Google Redefines Disruption: The “Less Than Free” Business Model

Customers seem to really like free as a price point. I suspect they will love “less than free."

Bill Gurley points out that Google's recent moves with Android and their Mapping API's have ushered in a new era of 'less than free.' Windows Mobile, Blackberry and iPhone platforms charge the mobile operators, whereas Google actually subsidizes operators that choose Android through ad rev shares.

Thus far, Google has been able to use its gigantic firehose of profits from ads to make it very difficult for people in other industries to survive. The consumer wins. But can you imagine how deflationary these tactics are for tech as a whole?

Every dollar Google gets its hands on... may eventually extinguish someone else's dollar of profit in an otherwise unrelated field. Crazy!

Get an MBA and acquire the healthy level of narcissism that is necessary to become a leader

What do you get from an MBA? One recent study found that MBAs acquire an enormous amount of self-confidence during their graduate education. They learn to believe that they are the best and the brightest.

This narcissism has a real career impact. Psychologists at Ohio State University studied the behavior of 153 MBA students, who were put in groups of four and asked to orchestrate a large financial transaction on behalf of an imaginary company. The psychologists observed that the students who had the strongest narcissistic traits were most likely to emerge as leaders.

According to Amy Brunell, the lead author, the results of the study had large implications for real-world settings, because “narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decision- making performance and can be ineffective and potentially destructive leaders.”

Brutal commentary coming out of Bloomberg, considering a good chunk of their readership has come out of an MBA program at some point.

The study does validate something I've seen-- that it DOES take a level of gumption/ego/reality distortion field to rise to lead/manage within an organization or have the guts to go out and do things that change the world. Whether that change is for good or for evil probably depends on the person's motivations and the levels of unhealthy narcissism, though.

I've heard that you can trace the downturn of industry sectors by the percentage of exiting MBA grads surveyed who say they want to go into that field post-graduation. Is it a wonder that finance is suffering now after being the career of choice for decades? By the time people find out what the next hot thing is, that thing has peaked.

Another big 'most-wanted' company by MBA grads these days? Google.