Companies, Don’t Eat Your Brains

Until recently, I was spending a lot of time building one brand site after another. There’s nothing at all wrong about making a big deal and then building a one-off site. We were making money doing this, and making money is what a company is, ultimately, all about. Anything else is irresponsible and rather mean to our stockholders. As a stockholder, I am quite personally vested in Yahoo’s financial behavior.

However, as a web developer, our extremely short timelines were rough, and didn’t allow any time to re-think the approach and come up with a more sustainable plan. When the plan was, “We’re going to do a few of these, and then reevaluate, and build a platform,” it was fine. But changes in leadership (and accordingly, changes in strategy) led to a change in direction for our team. At least in the near- to mid-term, we would be continuing to build these sorts of (largely, very successful) branded world sites. After all, if a team of 3 can deliver on a high-six-figure deal in 2 weeks, well, that’s the kind of gravy businesses dream about. Again, as a stockholder and an employee of this company, I think that’s great. But this project certainly didn’t scratch my itch as a developer, and the stressful timelines were making me a bit crazy. I literally had nightmares about these sites.

The problem with working hard on a team of dedicated engineers is that it can be hard to fail. How can you hope to learn what’s wrong with your process, if it keeps working? Is there anything wrong with a process that keeps delivering on its promises?

Sometimes, yes. And a good old-fashioned wallop of a failure is traditionally what sets a product back on track. However, without too much back-patting, the team that I was working on was completely stocked with talented and dedicated engineers who simply would not allow failure to happen, even if it meant working late nights and weekends. The result? We worked late nights and weekends, and stressed out over these projects. This wasn’t the project we agreed to work on, and we were getting a bit fed up. The burn-out was starting to set in. More than once, my wife got exasperated with me over my lack of enthusiasm about anything. The body’s natural defense against being over-worked is to let all the energy go out of the machine.

Luckily, I work at one of the best companies to work for, and the management here always astonishes me. Despite the endless seas of cubes, this is not a Dilbert-esque code factory where engineers’ souls are systematically crushed. Starting today, I’m working on a new project (which I don’t think I can talk about yet, but I will as soon as I can,) and the work of cranking out brand sites is already being distributed in a more sustainable fashion.

A message to companies out there: Don’t eat your brains. Your talented workers are what keep you in business. It is your responsibility to use them, and push them, and guide them in productive directions. But don’t kill the golden goose. Yahoo probably extended my employment here considerably, and certainly increased my morale greatly, by just finding something else for me to do. Just ask them now and then what they want and how they feel about what you’re doing, and you’ll probably find that they could be even more valuable than they are.