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Steve Yegge: Follow Up to His Accidentally Public Rant (plus.google.com)
558 points by janzer on Oct 21, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 171 comments

I hate fear-driven cultures where presentations/meetings/casual talk with the CEO are treated as a gladiator match. In addition to Bezos, of course Jobs and (from what I read) Gates created such cultures. Another interesting, lesser known example was Col. Robert R.MacCormick, the editor for the Chicago Tribune for long years. He was described as "remote, coldly aloof, ruthless aristocrat, living in lonely magnificence, disdaining the common people... an exceptional man, a lone wolf whose strength and courage could be looked up to, but at the same time had to be feared; an eccentric, misanthropic genius whose haughty bearing, cold eye and steely reserve made it impossible to like or trust him." [Interesting anecdote: He had all the walls of his penthouse office at the Tribune covered with dark wood, including the door, so that after your meeting ended, you would have great difficulty finding the door to get back out, suffering under his humiliating gaze.]

That doesn't mean that such draconian cultures are unsuccessful, just the opposite. The problem is, success becomes very much dependent on the quality of the leader(s), e.g. compare Libya and China; the performance becomes very brittle.

The main paradox of humanity, of course, is why people continuously create such fear-driven, hero-worshiping hierarchies, although it causes great personal stress to them. Belief in a strong, super-genius, infallible leader that we can never equal and/or please, may be ingrained in our brains, be it religion or, as in this case, CEO worship.

My observation is that a fear-driven culture is often not intentional. They usually stem from a culture where cutting the bullshit and getting to the point is encouraged. Most people are used to a culture where niceties are important, and when they are put in front of a person that cares about results more than niceties, they can misinterpret that behavior for aggressiveness. In turn, the people who misinterpret that behavior take their cues from it, and turn it into actual aggressiveness, in sort-of a cultural game of telephone.

> They usually stem from a culture where cutting the bullshit and getting to the point is encouraged.

My observation is the opposite. The incompetent use fear and anger. The competent don't need to resort to the lizard part of their brain to communicate with their subordinates.

Imagine if this guy worked at Apple. He'd be fired and blacklisted. Some companies just have better cultures than others. Sorry I just don't buy the whole "ubermen should piss on everyone else because they are better than everyone and any show of manners is a show of weakness!!" Ayn Rand-fest.

While I undestand the importance of good work and brevity and being challenged, I suggest you actually read about what its like working with characters like Steve Jobs. Phrases like "What the fuck is wrong with you, moron?" are casually tossed around. That's not executive bullshit cutting, that's petty personal and childish attacks.

I think there's a balance. One should spend effort on showing manner and being considerate of peoples' feelings. At the same time, sometimes these sorts of things can become pathological to the point where you spend more time making people feel good rather than getting things done.

As an example, I'm thinking of meetings where everyone speaks up to be heard whether or not they have something valuable to say. Often times, its warranted to simply say "Let's stay on-topic," or "Let's off-line that discussion." Peoples' feelings will be hurt by this, but its necessary to stay productive. Likewise, if someone has an uber-urgent task for me to accomplish that isn't really urgent, I'll tell politely but firmly tell them that I don't have the time and that they should put it in my back-log. This sometimes results in hurt feelings, but its necessary to keep focused.

Regardless, that's a digression from my main point, which is that I don't think the fear-based culture is always intentional. Your experiences don't reflect mine, which is fine, and I concede that incompetent may use fear and anger to keep people in line. I've simply not worked in those sorts of organizations before.

Hero worship exists as a powerful evolutionary parasite, designed to extract submission from a competing male from within your tribe. If a member of your tribe is climbing the totem pole rapidly, you can either let him by or challenge him. If you challenge him, you need to believe that you are better. This is risky, since objectively measuring human ability has proven difficult even to this day. Thus, personality cults emerge whose purpose is to make one seem superhuman with wild stories, and discourage potential challengers. Whoever has the strongest personality cult wins the status challenge, and moves up. The one who submits to the personality cult without challenge preserves his status relative to others, and is not removed from the totem pole.

Competence is a necessary, but not sufficient, trait to reach the top. There are a great many people in the world more competent than Jeff Bezos. They do however, lack the cult of personality and thus are not at the top of their own totem poles.

The lack of personality cults in Microsoft and Facebook is the reason why they always receive bad press for not having "visionary leaders" or "creative energy". This is all code speak for the fact that employees do not fear the personalities of Zuckerberg and Gates (and Allen), so they have less respect for the company and thus believe it is not a place worth working for as they'd rather not "work under an equal". Simply put, Zuck and Gates did not cultivate their personality cults enough for the average employee to fear AND respect them as a superhuman CEO demigod. And they pay the price to this day by being on the receiving end of slightly veiled slander at their abilities and thus, their right to rule.

I wonder how many people realize this as they read about Steve Jobs, the tech CEO who should have been a politician.

I don't think all the "gladitorial"-style preparation is necessarily fear-driven. To a great extent it's an acknowledgement that the CEO's time and attention is a valuable, limited resource and should be treated accordingly.

Is it the case that some people only respect and respond to fear?

So Jobs, rather than waste time trying to figure out what makes every Apple employee tick (which wasn't a practical option considering Apple's size), he instituted a culture of fear and awe. This is akin to him wearing the same black turtleneck every day because he didn't want to waste brain cycles figuring out what to wear.

I find the fear-our-mighty-CEO culture is encouraged by sycophant senior management more so than the CEOs themselves. I just consider the fact most CEOs have very small attention spans and present accordingly.

I worked at google for a couple months this year. My experience of their so-called open corporate culture was a bizarre mix of elements from William Gibson's _The Belonging Kind_ and Robot Chicken's _Our Newest Member, Calvin_. It was one of the loneliest and depressing experiences of my adult life (but with really good food).

That said, it turned out that way because I was stupid and naive and let myself get flung into the russian roulette of their blind allocation process. This put me on a team doing work for which I had no real relevant experience and working under a manager who promptly forgot I existed for 3 months.

I'd call my experience an outlier, and it all turned out well in the end when I fled the place for a better offer doing work far more relevant to my previous job experience, except that I keep running into others that had almost exactly the same thing happen to them.

Amidst the hooplah of Larry and Sergei's Montessori for overgrown gifted kids, there's something very rotten, elitist, and ineffective going on at the googleplex and the initial frustration in Steve's rant hinted to me that deep down he knows this too. Perhaps I'm wrong. But I had such high hopes for the place and they were utterly dashed on the rocks.

>there's something very rotten, elitist, and ineffective going on at the googleplex and the initial frustration in Steve's rant hinted to me that deep down he knows this too.

He does.

He wrote the original to pander to them, while bashing Amazon.

The issue of "so smart he needs a challenge so leave something for him to find" may overlap with "so narcissistic he needs something to smack you with so make a deliberate 'mistake' for him to find". I've found this quite effective; some people just need to find _something_ wrong with your idea/presentation/execution, so when they're going to review it, don't polish it to perfection - leave an error somewhere; you know what the mistake is, you know what the solution is, you'll take care of it right after it's noticed, and you'll give him _something_ to criticize so he doesn't have to invent some off-the-wall delusion which you must now accommodate.

I'm not equating smart with narcissistic, just noting similar behavior with similar ways to mitigate damage vectors.

I've always called this tactic "The Admiral's Pipe" after this story: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/brada/archive/2005/05/12/417064.aspx

Leaving something minor but wrong for a government site visit team to find is not an uncommon tactic. They feel they did their job, and the site doesn't get written up for something truly insane.

// no, I'm not still bitter about be written up for having too many (1 onsite, 3 offsite) secured backups.

Yeah, the trick to getting some people to go along with something is getting them to think it's their idea.

Leaving parts out so they can provide input and fill in the gaps is a way of guiding them down the path -- you're essentially manufacturing buy-in.

His description of presentations to Bezos reminds the infamous BillG reviews


> The cult of the MBA likes to believe that you can run organizations that do things that you don't understand.


A few years back, I found myself in a one-on-one saying: "you would think someone taking a job managing a hog farm would at least know what a hog is."

Though, that was about web-development.

A suitable allegory.

Except it doesn't always apply.

Lou Gerstner and Meg Whitman are two examples from the technology world. Both came into their jobs at IBM and eBay with zero tech experience, but got up to speed very quickly. Of course, had they failed to do so they would have been out within a year or two.

The life and times of eBay does not say good things about the IT-challenged MBA.

Speaking of Yegge and Amazon: http://steve-yegge.blogspot.com/2011/07/ebay-patents-10-clic...

Amazon has continued to grow in simplicity and coverage, including ease of purchase with third-parties (eBay's dealer market). Meanwhile, buying on eBay is still a huge pain, with no integration between eBay and its own subsidiary.

And this is the real truth of the matter. The above posters are correct, you do need knowledge of something to run it, but understand that business knowledge and experience is ALSO that "something".

Once you obtain certain scale, you can't do everything. It's equally ignorant to think an engineer can run a business top to bottom as it is to think an MBA can fully run an engineering company.

I so often read here MBA used pejoratively, but remember that most small businesses fail because they're run by people who have skills but no idea how to run a business. A major corporation needs both (and more!) skills.

"Not being fired for gross incompetence" is not the same thing as success.

I /hate/ going with hires who are "good enough." The nightmare employee is someone who is not quite bad enough to get fired.

Yea, but I think the real problem is that the old MBA courses taught a bunch of horrible stuff.

IIRC there's a similar section in Microserfs but I could be mixing up things.

If we're thinking of the same section, it's the start of the very first chapter which was also published in wired: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/2.01/microserfs_pr.html

This culture at Microsoft was captured nicely in Douglas Coupland's book Microserfs.

Me too. Except that in Joel's piece Bill G seemed to ask an entirely relevant question and in Steve Yegge's piece Bezos seemed to ask about something quite secondary.

Like Bezos has an arsenal of nasty questions up his sleeve and BillG actually knows what the f he's talking about.

"Why aren't these topics on your list" is perfectly relevant to a presentation on "subjects a generalist engineer should know."

joelonsoftware posts are always great reads!

Hey, I see you're new here.

You may be wondering why your comment got down-voted. It's not that we're a community of jerks, I promise. People just really prize a high signal-to-noise ratio here, and while we appreciate that you enjoyed the link, a better way to express that without adding noise is to up-vote the comment.

In general, you should post comments here only when the comment will provide value to someone else. That's largely the rubric by which it will be judged.

Enjoyed that link a lot. Thanks.

    The last step before you’re ready to present to 
    him is this: Delete every third paragraph.
This must have been excruciatingly difficult for Yegge :-)

Harder for the the guy with only two paragraphs, though...

Easier, I'd say. I was hoping "I deleted eery third paragraph" was going to be his response to "why isn't data mining on here?".

Is it me or does this read like a big ass-kissing of Bezos after he tore him apart in the accidentally leaked memo? Not saying it isnt true but...

He said it himself "I’ve always skirted any perceived shortcomings and focused on what they do well."

Now he's doing that again, in a big way. He's saying "Bezos is a genius" and not saying "Bezos is a micromanaging asshole"

And yet everyone reading it seems to have worked out that Bezos is a micromanaging asshole as well as a genius. Interesting, that.

Bezos is probably both a genius and a micromanaging asshole.

It's "professionalism". An ideology — an ism — that means not questioning/criticizing certain things. (At least not publicly, and often not even mentally either.) Yegge has a questioning mind and is communicative, but understands the limits that the ism places on him.

For hacking this ideology, Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is a good intro. (http://disciplined-minds.com)

I don't know if I would describe the previous entry as "tearing him apart" because at the end of the day Bezos has still accomplished far more than just about anyone else we're likely to meet.

No one is perfect and it is really our ability to play to our strengths and our weaknesses that defines our ability to succeed in life.

I'm curious how these "Jeff Presentations" go.

Powerpoint presentations are banned, instead you have to write your arguments as an essay.

So is the meeting essentially Bezos reading your writing, with the rest of the room waiting for any indication about the emperor's mood?

Or does the presenter read from the prose as a script?

Can any Amazon-ers give any insight?

Standard practice at Amazon is to quiet read the materials at the start of the meeting. I think the logic goes that you want to make sure everyone reads the material, so you may as well have everyone read the material at the same time, and discuss it when it is fresh in mind.

As a related effect, it encourages people to write tightly focused documents that can be read in 15 minutes.

It's not a horrible practice.

Although it was a great read, to me it lacked a kind of authenticity.

The first Yegge post felt real, authentic, natural and fully charged. This second one although better formatted and edited, lacked something. It just seemed obigatory and bland.

It is rather amazing that you can feel emotions through words.

Or am I the only one thinking this way?

I think you're being harsh.

I think it was probably more considered but I'm guessing that everything he's written since THAT post has been more considered - it would be a completely natural reaction to having accidentally laid yourself bare. After all whom amongst us having accidentally forwarded an e-mail to the wrong person hasn't got a little more careful about what we say for a while afterwards?

But I still think it sounds genuine and honest, just a little more polished.

When you work at a high profile company, anything you say about another high-profile competitor must be very considered. Steve has always been more frank than most commentators in Google and other high profile companies, but even if the previous post hadn't gone public, a story about Bezos did need to be considered. And full respect to him for saying this much.

For a company so successful, one hears very little about how Amazon runs internally. Looking forward to Steve's next instalment.

Ok, maybe considered is less harsh than bland.

But do you think it is a good thing?

The first time I noticed this was when I listed to the original and then studio version of 2 Pac's "Hit 'em up". In the first he was really and truly angry and you could feel it. The second version was 'just there'.

When actors and actresses get "into character" it is really clear. They mean what they act and it seems natural.

let us just say he was "in character" in the first post but not in the second.

The problem is that anger often sounds more authentic but anyone who has ever been angry will testify that what you say when you're angry (or even just irritated) doesn't necessarily reflect your actual view, just one facet of it.

Yegge's original piece was making a specific point and he came out with examples that supported that but that doesn't mean that those examples represent Yegge's overall view of Bezos and it's reasonable that he might want to throw out the other side of it.

In terms of whether it's honest - from both pieces I think it's fairly clear that Yegge doesn't believe that Bezos gives a shit what Yegge thinks so I see no reason why Yegge wouldn't be being truthful.

But even if Yegge was toning himself down, I don't have an issue with that.

I think that among some in the tech community there is a feeling that "honesty" and "truth" tend to trump everything. While that's great in theory the baggage (usually personal offence) that comes with it has to be considered.

Ultimately life is about getting stuff done and for most of us who aren't Jobs or Bezos level genius where brutal honesty will be forgiven, a "polished" truth will often get us better responses from others than it's more brutal counterpart.

If that's the case we all have to ask ourselves do you want to be right, or do you want to get things done?

Note: I'm not talking about lying here, I'm just talking about how you present the truth.

So how do you suggest you convey true emotions through words while being diplomatic? As we both agree 'considered' posts can eliminate the true feeling.

I do not think only anger can be conveyed.

I am not being specific about this very situation. And I agree that being diplomatic can be more effective most times.

Edited: To provide contest for question.

I don't think considered posts do eliminate the true feeling.

They eliminate the visceral, immediate reaction but that's only one part of the truth. If you're angry (or happy) at someone that's certainly a true feeling but is it any truer than the way you feel 10 minutes later when you've calmed down a bit and considered things?

If a colleague irritates me and I shout at him sure that's a representation of part of what I feel at that moment, but it doesn't represent the fact that ultimately I respect them and they normally do great work. So is shouting at them really my true feeling or just one small element of it that ultimately doesn't represent what I feel very well at all?

Ultimately though I think you have to ask yourself what am I try to achieve, how is what I'm going to say going to achieve that and am I happy that it really does represent "the truth" or is it just a knee jerk reaction (good or bad).

If you're angry (or happy) at someone that's certainly a true feeling but is it any truer than the way you feel 10 minutes later when you've calmed down a bit and considered things?

You have made great sense and raised a thought provoking questuion here.

Ultimately though I think you have to ask yourself what am I try to achieve, how is what I'm going to say going to achieve that and am I happy..."

You have summed it up perfectly.

Combining your two statements above is quite an insight. A great one. Thanks :)

> So how do you suggest you convey true emotions through words while being diplomatic?

If your emotions are destructive, wait to until they've changed to speak.

It's not like there's just one feeling that is "true." Furthermore, there's more than just feeling. The original, for example, was probably embellished to be more humorous and to get people's attention. The rant aspect-- that Google doesn't take service APIs seriously enough-- wasn't redacted or re-presented at all. So far, it's just the amazon-bashing, which, true as it may have been, was never intended to be a fair and comprehensive review of his beliefs or feelings; considered or not.

I, like many of you, like Steve Yegge's eloquence. But not always agree with his logic. I have issues with both his posts (the leaked one and this), on the logic front.

a) In the earlier accidentally leaked one, I felt he was being too harsh on Jeff Bezos, in the UI design story he stated. Even having only the data points of Yegge's essay, I could understand Bezos point as far as the UI changes were concerned: 'Why mend it if its not broken?'

   Also Jeff Bezos, had a vision of building Amazon into a huge company, right from the start. He comes across as a rare _true visionary_, for many reasons. Two simple ones: success with Amazon.com and then with EC2 . So I did not like at all when Steve sort of derided him in his post. 
b) In this second post, it seems to me, that Steve is _making it up_ for the damage done in the first one. Making good use of his _eloquence_ to convert a single & perhaps boring meeting experience he had with Bezos, into an interesting one.

My apologies for straying near politics but i think Yegge's just defined the best characterization of the 1% :P

> In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

The difference between this description and Yegge's later description of Bezos as being like the Dread Pirate Roberts of Princess Bride fame, is that Roberts is a clever human putting on a very clever show to develop a reputation which does work for Roberts.

Bezos on the other hand, by all accounts, actually does make people walk the plank. Whether he does it because he's a super-human alien intellect, or some other reason, doesn't change the fact that he's built up a climate of fear around him. If anything, describing him as a super-human alien disturbs me more than if he were acting out of the same motivation as the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Sorry, but you're way over-optimistic if you think the 1% has the kind of intelligence (and I'm not talking pure IQ) and focus Bezos has. Bezos is more like 0.01%.

And I'd venture to say that the OWS movement wouldn't have much against Bezos. They're more against fratboys that rose to prominence and wealth through connections. And finance. Yeah, definitely finance. It's there that they sense some kind of unwarranted self-worth and wealth.

Bezos started out on "Wall St", working at D.E. Shaw in NYC.

D.E Shaw was starting Internet startups in the early 90s, Bezos pitched them Amazon and they did Netzero instead so he headed west

DE Shaw isn't exactly white-shoe.

And then he left.

I dunno. The whole one-click patent thing. Abuse of government privilege to derive a monopoly.

Sure, he/they are just one of many, but if you don't hate the players the game continues.

There are many people in many positions who have a free ride because they got some doddering politician to introduce their legislation without thinking past the immediate benefits. This isn't how good laws are made and any business, lobbyist, or lawmaker even tangentially related to this stuff is a valid target.

> > In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

> I think Yegge's just defined the best characterization of the 1%

"she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human" - William Gibson, "Count Zero", 1986

What is with this class war against the "1%"? The wealthiest 1% of the population are just human beings. Some of them are smart, some of them are hard working, some of them are lucky, some of them are all three. Some of them abuse the system for their advantage, some of them don't. Does it make any sense to lump all of them into a single group based on an economic percentile? That seems hugely prejudicial to me.

It's the media-comprehensible proxy that people have come up with for the way the very rich and powerful have seemingly been able to skew the system so that their power and wealth are self-perpetuating, while the population at large gets poorer and gets worse benefits every year.

Is it that simple? Of course not. But simple and resonant ideas are mediagenic, while complicated and more accurate ones are mediapathic.

(For anyone preparing an angry reply, please note the use of the word seemingly in the first paragraph. It's not there by accident.)

Steve, if you are reading this, any chance you can throw some light on the core skills a generalist engineer ought to know?

I'll leave it up to Steve to answer that, but this may help you get the idea:


This is a Steve's post on how he conducts and what he expects from phone interviews.

It's over seven years old so proceed with care -- it's possible that his views changed since then.

Also, this is probably more of a bare minimum rather than the whole picture.

By the way, the most important part of the post is where he says that Google is following through on the problems he pointed out. I'd be curious to see what (if) will come out of this - if they will expose their internal services to third parties, that will be great news.

No, that was just polite talk. This isn't new -- this has been a glaring issue for a while.

And if they were serious about it, Brin wouldn't have replied so flippantly. Google is just a one product company (with Gmail being the exception that proves the rule) lacking the humility and gravitas to be more.

"Stood Far Back When The Gravitas Was Handed Out"

"Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall"

Android, Youtube, and Maps aren't products?

While I assume they meant the one product was search, it would probably be accurate to stay that the product is advertising and that they rest exists to feed the beast. But I doubt that was the innuendo of their rant.

In the same way that television shows are all about advertising and the acting/stories/dialogue are just to 'feed the beast'?

You're confusing what Google's main product is with how they make money.

That's a bit insulting to the engineers at Google that make Search so good.

It's perfectly reasonable to decline calling something a "product" if it doesn't make money. A widget company might produce a lot of memos in its daily operation, and might have its own cafeteria that produces food for its employees. But I think most people wouldn't count lunches or memos among the company's "products," no matter how good they might be.

Not even close to being the same thing. Google does search. That's what they are known for. Advertising is how they monetize search (which incidentally came long after they launched their search engine). Only us geeks with an axe to grind would associate Google with advertising before search. Would you call a site like Daring Fireball a site that specializes in thoughtful essays on technology? Or a site that tries to sell the customer's eyeballs to sponsors and advertisers?

A product is something you sell to a customer.

IMO, Emacs is one of the best pieces of code that the FSF makes, but there's an important sense in which it's not accurate to call it a "product" of theirs.

Google sells advertising space to advertisers, while they give away search and maps to the users to facilitate the selling of said advertising. (GMail is an exception because they offer business products built out of GMail.)

The fact that search might not be considered a product need not reflect a value judgment. Either way, it is a very nice service they provide.

But when people refer to Google as an advertising company rather than a search company, they are correct from a business standpoint. Likewise, many media companies -- whether like the New York Times or like Daring Fireball -- have always "really" been in the advertising sales business. (Though some, like the Times are also in the content sales business.) Those companies obviously take great pride in the content they produce that draw the eyeballs to those ads, but it wouldn't be a viable business if the content was all they did.

If we want to be nitpicky, one could claim Google has multiple products since they sell advertising in search, maps, gmail, and more.

Are these discrete products to their AdSense customers? I would think it would make more sense to break it down by display/text than by site.

It's not meant to be insulting, the reason why they can make any money with advertising at all is because search is so good that it brings in the eyeballs.

All acquisitions though.

True, although Chrome (which I neglected) was developed in-house. Also, calling Android an acquisition ignores the massive changes it underwent after the launch of the iPhone, and since. They acquired the basics, but you can't really compare the current product to what they bought, unlike, say, Youtube or Maps which have been streamlined but are largely the same products.

People tell me Search is popular, also.

They make search good so you'll use it and be exposed to ads. If you're not the customer, you're the product.

I don't agree with that cliche. It's over applied.

Search is a product, too. It's just not a direct source of revenue on it's own.

And you are jumping to this conclusion based on your interpretation of one remark by Sergey? It was clearly a joke you know. And Google is not a company where Sergey dictates everyone. Engineers are empowered to just get things done as well as follow the general direction the company has decided to pursue.

I'm sure Sergey doesn't dictate, but he does set direction, and that's what is called for here.

Also, I don't care if he was joking, it was inappropriate considering it was such valid criticism. Nothing is intimating that they get this at a high level and his joke just underscored that.

Steve Yegge just might help g+ steal some market share from facebook yet. Every time he releases something like this on g+ I end up spending a few minutes on the site that I would not have otherwise.

I'm actually seeing a significant amount of longer-format posts (especially from technically-minded people) on Google+. It's a mix of a Facebook status update and a Facebook note and it's pretty easy to write and publish. (Steve's privacy setting slip-up notwithstanding...) In a way Google+ seems to be doing to Tumblr (and in lesser degree Posterous) what Facebook did to Myspace.

Actually, that is pretty close to how you should talk to -anyone- who likes thinking and does it well. If they have a question, they will ask it. You don't need to fill in every gap. (You need to KNOW it, but you don't need to say it.)

I would leave out the 'delete every third paragraph' bit, though. Or change it to 'delete anything that can be inferred.'

So he validates the post http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=465882 posted here 3 years ago.

Snapshot of the blog http://web.archive.org/web/20090211060734/http://blog.layer8...

Contrary to what he wrote here, Steve actually has ragged on Amazon in the past, in particular in "Have You Ever Legalized Marijuana?" -- the imagery of Amazon doing things by burning through people like little tea-lights really stuck in my mind.


I wonder if Steve needs to move to marketing? He's done an awesome job here of highlighting one massive difference between GPlus and Facebook - that you can really publish publicly to the whole world, the way the web was intended.

This isn't a difference; you can do the same on Facebook.

Here are a couple of examples:

via a Facebook page called 'notes': http://www.facebook.com/notes/web20/robert-scoble-on-cloud-c...

via user Scoble's wall: http://www.facebook.com/RobertScoble/posts/10150358391274655.

No Facebook account needed to view either.

Notes have been around for 5+ years and I've never seen them linked as news stories. In contrast, I've seen Google+ updates consistently submitted as news to HN and other sources. There is a significant difference between Google+ updates and Facebook Notes and it's worth thinking about why. I suspect it has to do with the fact that status updates and public posting in Google+ are the same interface. For Facebook, status updates are character limited and you have to click into the Notes tab in order to write something longer.

While I agree those differences are important I think culture also plays a large role.

Facebook started primarily as a website for college students to share privately with their friends.

Google Plus started by emphasizing that you can choose who you want to share with (including the public) and shipped with a "subscribe-like" feature that allowed technical people to add many of the same tech celebrities that they were following on Twitter. Since it takes awhile to convert one's friends to a new service, for many tech people, reading public posts by these other tech people became the prominent way they use the service.

You can mostly do the same things on each site (albeit at different levels of convenience), but their beginnings help shape how people think about and use the sites.

Steve once gave a talk on programmers knowing marketing:


Combined with all the talk of Isaacson's new Steve Jobs biography, makes me want to read an in-depth biography of Bezos's life.

I'm actually more interested to read this, for several reasons:

Much of the "Steve Jobs story" is quite public already - it's stuff that you just can't help knowing. Reed, Wozniak, kicked out of Apple, Next, Pixar, etc... I'm sure the bio will have some new details, but the basic plot is pretty well known.

Jeff Bezos, OTOH, is someone I know relatively little about. Also, given that my nascent LiberWriter business deals with Kindle formatting, decisions those guys are making have a very real impact on me.

I read this book http://www.amazon.com/Amazon-com-Get-Fast-Robert-Spector/dp/... back soon after it came out after finding it randomly in my school library and remember thinking it was good. Its a little old now though.

Well written! Is Jeff Bezos really like he paints him to be?

I have no relevant experience with anything, but my impression is that usually people who gush on about the superhuman abilities of an individual just have a skewed perspective. I've been on the receiving end of that kind of gush a time or two and I don't really feel that it's accurate in my case, and I don't believe that it's accurate in any other case. The people that talk just can't see the inadequacies and the common weaknesses that are visible from a better-informed context.

Jeff Bezos may indeed be smart, and he may indeed come up with things that "domain experts" haven't yet thought of, but the explanations are usually much more timid and general than "Jeff is practically a giant-brained alien".

On a much smaller scale, my company's founder and CEO is viewed as one such super-intelligent alien. And for sure he is very smart and has an incredible memory. But I can guarantee you that he doesn't know "everything" at all, but this is how he is perceived by many.

I've had that same experience -- that people exclaim how certain CEOs are so incredibly brilliant ("cerebral" was one comment that stuck in my memory), but when you meet them they just seem like any other smart person who has studied a domain for a long time.

I've presented to Bezos once. It went about the same as Yegge's experience, except I didn't have his balls to laugh in my CEO's face ;)

The whole thing felt like I was meeting the President - layer after layer of aides and executive assistants, tons of security, and briefings on where to sit, where to not sit, where to stand, where to not stand, look him in the eye when you shake his hand, etc etc. It was kind of surreal.

I haven't presented to any other big-corp CEO other than him, so I can't really draw any comparisons.

One thing Yegge brought up that I also felt the same about walking out of that room: Jeff is really smart, like really, really smart. I was warned about this beforehand and spent two weeks poring over every single detail, potential feature, everything about the idea I was presenting. He still managed to come out of left field with relevant questions that none of us had even thought of. So I can corroborate that side of the story.

The comparison to Liszt also seems apt - before we were even done presenting, he'd already grokked it to a surprising degree, and was already expanding upon the idea in out loud. You could hear my manager scribbling like a madman trying to get all of this down. This might not seem especially amazing, but the Director and VP level people I presented the very same idea to had not the same depth of insight. I remember being very impressed on the spot.

I'm no longer with Amazon, and I don't particularly want to go back - but that's not due to bad top management, IMO Bezos is one of the keenest tech CEOs around. He might be the closest thing we have left to Jobs.

To balance it out a bit and not make this seems like a complete Amazon love-fest: Jeff loved our idea, he gave us the green light right away. We left that room ecstatic thinking we were about to change the online retail experience forever.

Then middle management showed up. There was political infighting about who owns the project - it straddled multiple disciplines (hence why it was so groundbreaking), and there was a mixture of both hot-potato-oh-god-you-take-it and this-is-amazing-we-need-the-credit-on-this.

The teams that were interested were unwilling to yield to other teams that (rightfully, given their expertise and domain) wanted in, and some teams we needed support from kept punting it since it wasn't in their yearly plan (put together, well, a year or more ago). The project would have provided very powerfully tangible, very high-profile benefits to the customer, but said benefits weren't part of the metrics on which our department was getting judged, so at the VP level the willingness to devote resources was almost non-existent. There was lots of lip service given - especially about how a few people were able to hack together this thing and make it all the way to a Jeff Presentation.

But ultimately the project froze. It was, actually, probably the main reason I decided to leave Amazon for a smaller, more agile startup, where if the CEO wants something done, by golly, it's gettin' done.

"Then middle management showed up."

This should be in a collection of Famous Last Words.

That's a good illustration of no matter how brilliant the leader is, a bad team under them and/or poor execution can lead to failure.

Even with this infighting and whatnot going on Amazon is still doing amazing things. I'd be interesting to see what it'd look like if they were able to execute everything well.

It seems that's also a crucial role of the exec - if they see something that needs to be happening and it's not, they need to get in there make the necessary changes.

How does a good leader end up with a bad team? That's worth understanding.

There are probably a million different ways for it to go bad.

There is a theory that gets posted here from time to time that As hire As and a few Bs that get through the filter, Bs hire Bs and a few Cs get through the filter, and so on down the line until you have hired people you really shouldn't have.

The other theory is promote until incompetent.

My guess is much more mundane, when you hire middle management they act like middle management. Which works as long as Their sphere of responsibility and control is well defined. When you need to cross cut concerns middle management actively fights against it. All most like using inheritance for code reuse and having deep inheritance hierarchies.

The theory is usually stated as A's hire A's and B's hire C's (because they are afraid of being usurped)

Also B's can't tell the difference between A's, B's and C's.

Since classifying people appears to be so trivial it can be boiled down to one character, does being bothered by the use of apostrophes in pluralization make me an A, a B, or a C?

I think that puts you solidly in the B or C category for unwillingness to think outside the box.</sarcasm>

Even the best managers are led by the incentives. If you want a project to succeed, make sure incentives are lining up. If you have a project outside the incentive structure, plan on it failing.

Indeed. The whole job of a manager is to keep whatever metrics are used looking good for his department and/or team. If your metrics don't correlate well to a given project, it will be almost impossible for it to work unless you have a command structure that's aware of this potential dissonance and can send down the edicts necessary to fix it for a given situation.

Middle management is really dangerous for this reason. Managers effectively are stuck with blinders; their one and only job, and often the only thing they know how to do (frequently through surreptitious or less-than-stellar means), is to keep their team and/or department sitting pretty in terms of normal company metrics. This correlates both to the resource allocation given a team and the rewards allocated specifically to the individuals that comprise that teams (including the manager, of course), which is why people appreciate "good" managers, until something unanticipated comes up and is killed by this rigid process.

Because at some point, the team gets so big, it's harder to weed out bad managers.

Additionally, managers are human, and will make mistakes. Often it's like the frog-in-the-pot story--you don't notice the little mistakes, only the sum of their results.

So why does the team have to get so big? Isn't that the mistake right there?

Honest question: can a company manage $34.2 billion a year in sales with a small management team?

I suppose the answer is "yes," given that MS seemed to manage with a minimal number of middle managers, at least based on the Joel Spolsky story shared elsewhere in this thread.

Is a team of donkeys lead by a lion better than a team of lions lead by a donkey?

On a team of lions, the donkey is lunch.

bad leadership?

I think a good skill for a big company CEO would be doing debugging to see what is exactly happening here. If Bezos did that, they would have noticed what was happening and fixed the problem.

Steve left out data mining and machine learning from his presentation and Bezos spotted it. Is that an example of Bezos' smarts or just a silly omission on Steve's part? Steve keeps emphasizing how smart Bezos is but I see no evidence of it in this post. It just seems like Bezos is good at spotting obvious mistakes people make.

Whatever. Jeff might be super smart, but apparently he is not smart enough to instill some happiness in the people he works with.

I cannot help it, but I have little respect for people who do this, especially if they are super smart.

Why is that a necessary quality for smartness? Amazon seems to be doing quite well in spite of it.

Just because you can be financially successful being an asshole doesn't make being an asshole ok.

I think there's a subtle (but important) distinction. Smart people can get away with having poor people skills: accidentally offending people, putting their foot in their mouth, and forgetting about the human element in technology. That can be forgiven, and may even be an advantage.

At the same time, there's a difference between having poor people skills and being an asshole: intentionally offending people, putting others down so you can get ahead, and willfully ignoring the human element make you an asshole. I think this often (but unfortunately not often enough) hurts people more than it helps.

Bezos sounds like a bit of a grey area. However, I don't think you can make a decision on this based on the performance of amazon. He's certainly successful at what he does, but there are any number of people who have created success at too high a cost: demoralized people, broken laws, and ultimately a bigger burden is placed on society than the gain that made them successful.

"Smartness" itself is a nebulous and subjective concept.

But in my book, a smart boss can motivate you without repeated verbal abuse or destroying your self esteem. Of course you can still be a successful boss otherwise.

I agree with this description of Jeff Bezos:; I hear the similar stories.

Actually, majority of successful leaders (founders, etc.) have s very strong "bullshit detector": for kind of bullshit one can use to receive promotions all way up to a director position - even up to VP.

And it also shows that some people are not succeeding because they are paralyzed by fear of poverty.

The one paragraph that hits home to me was the last:

"That’s where the “Dread Pirate Bezos” line came from. I worked hard and had fun, but every day I honestly worried they might fire me in the morning. Sure, it was a kind of paranoia. But it was sort of healthy in a way. I kept my resume up to date, and I kept my skills up to date, and I never worried about saying something stupid and ruining my career. Because hey, they were most likely going to fire me in the morning."

How else can you know your on the 'edge' of your own personal abilities? Nice to know that no matter who you are, those feelings don't go away... unless your Bezos (hey there has to be a few people like that around). :-)

A hyper-intelligent alien is supposedly in our midst and the only evidence given of his vast intelligence is that once upon a time he asked why two software concepts that have been used prominently for years to great profit in his software business that's been running for years were left off a list? Really?

I feel this is a general perception of a leader at any large enough institution. The sense of what they've accomplished makes us perceive them as extraordinary. By the time we get to interact with them, we've created this larger than life image.

Perhaps, inducing that into your team makes you a good leader. Perhaps not.

I think that is a good way to approach anything in life. Prepare hard for it but accept that there'll always be people smarter/better than you. That way, you will worry less about bombing out during presentations, and be more receptive to constructive criticisms.

Any copy of the original anywhere?

As an aside: did he just say Franz Liszt was "famous-ish"?!

Any copy of the original anywhere?

It's pasted in the top comment of the HN story:


As an aside: did he just say Franz Liszt was "famous-ish"?!"

His style seems to be hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek mostly. I wouldn't take it very seriously.

The fact that you reacted that way indicates that he's not actually as famous as you'd like him to be. If he'd described George Washington as a "famous-ish" general, you'd know he was being sarcastic.

I think this is e a cultural distance effect. I belong to a generation and live in a place where Liszt is part of the core. I recognise other places and generations may be different.

Back on topic, I always used to smile when I saw the Lisp interpreter known as Franz Lisp load up. Pity they re-branded it.

The Liszt comparison is very timely - tomorrow is 200 years from his birthday :)

Hey Steve, lots of Hacker News readers are just as smart as Jeff Bezos. Some of us may even be smarter. You may remove every third paragraph for him, but you can remove every third word for us and we can fill in the rest with our giant brains. Here goes:

Last week accidentally posted internal rant service platforms my public account. It somehow viral, which nothing short stupefying given it was massive Wall Text. The thing still surreal.

Amazingly, nothing happened to at Google. just laughed me a, all the up to top, for committed what be the of all screwups in history.

But also listened, is super. I probably talk much it, but already figuring how to with some the issues raised. I I shouldn’t surprised. When I in my post that “does everything”, I meant. When they’re with any at all, it’s technical organizational or, they set to solve in a way.

Anyway, whenever goes viral, start wondering it was or staged. accident was. While I no proof, can offer what I is the convincing evidence: the last and a years, I never once on Amazon. Even just months ago, a keynote I gave a conference, was pretty when I about my there. I’ve skirted any shortcomings and on what do well.

I still a lot friends at. In fact place is of people admire and. And up now I prided myself my professionalism I have about Amazon. on the, even in internal memo, uncharacteristically unprofessional me. So been feeling guilty for past week.

Without retracting I said, like to a more picture for. I’m going try to that picture some true that I’ve shared publicly. secondhand: it’s stuff I myself there. hope you’ll the stories, because it’s hell of interesting place.

Amazon started Jeff, I’ll my stories one about.

Amazon War #1: Jeff

Over years I people give to Jeff and come bruised: emotionally, often career-ily. you came with a or a, you were for joy. to Jeff a gauntlet tends to people back the cave lick their and stay of the for a.

I say and you think PowerPoint, no: he PowerPoint there years ago. not allowed the campus. you present Jeff, you it as.

One day came time me to to Jeff. felt like... don’t know, how they around you you’re going meet the. People giving last-minute advice, you luck, you past of admins security guards. like you’re a movie. gladiator movie.

I’d spent watching Jeff action before turn came, I had in an way. My presentation --, roughly speaking about the skills a engineer ought know -- was resounding success. loved it. everyone was me on back and me like just completed game-winning hail-mary or something. VP told privately: “Presentations Jeff never that well.”

here’s the: I had suspected Jeff going to my presentation. see, I noticed two about him, him over years, that had either caught on, or else had not out how make the actionable.

Here how I. Amazon people, note. This will you. I dead serious.

prepare a for Jeff, make damn you know there is know about subject. Then a prose explaining the and solution(s). it exactly way you write it a leading or industry on the.

is: assume already knows about it. he knows than you about it. if you groundbreakingly original in your, just pretend old hat him. Write prose in succinct, direct, way that would write a world-leading on the.

almost done. last step you’re ready present to is this: every third.

Now you’re to present!

in the there was famous-ish composer/pianist Franz Liszt. is widely to have the greatest who ever. He could anything you him, including stuff not written for, like opera. He was staggeringly good sight-reading that brain was fully engaged the first. After that get bored start embellishing his own.

Bezos is goddamned smart you have turn it a game him or be bored annoyed with. That was first realization him. Who how smart was before became a -- let’s just it was “frigging smart”, he did Amazon from. But for he’s had of people care of for him. doesn’t have do anything all except himself in morning and presentations all long. So really, REALLY at reading. He’s like Franz Liszt sight-reading presentations.

you have start tearing whole paragraphs, even pages, make it for him. will fill the gaps without missing beat. And brain will less time get annoyed the slow of your.

I mean, what it be like start off an incredibly person, arguably first-class genius, then somehow up in situation where have a view of industry battlefield ten years. only do have more than anyone, and access more information anyone else, also have long-term eagle-eye that only handful of in the enjoy.

In sense you even be anymore. People Jeff are regarded as aliens with tangential interest human affairs.

how do prepare a for a alien? Well, my second: He will you. Knowing about your is only first-line defense you. It’s armor that eat through the first minutes. He going to at least deep insight the subject, there on spot, and going to you look a complete.

me folks, saw this time and, for years. Bezos has these incredibly, experienced domain surrounding him huge meetings, on a basis he of shit they never coming. It’s guaranteed facepalm.

So I he was to think something that hadn’t. I know what might be, I’d spent trying to of everything. had reviewed material with of people. it didn’t. I knew was going blindside me, that’s what when you to Jeff.

you assume coming, then not going catch you as off-guard.

of course happened. I Data Mining. in the. He asked point-blank, very: “Why aren’t Mining and Learning in list?” And laughed right his face, sent a wave through stone-faced jury VPs who been listening silence, waiting a cue Jeff as whether he going to happy or was headed the salt.

I laughed I was. He’d caught with my down around ankles, right front of, despite all excruciating weeks preparation. I even deleted a third the exposition to keep giant brain, but it matter. He’d it again, I looked a total in front everyone. It was awesome.

So, of course couldn’t help. And I: “Yup, you me. I know why not in. It should. I’m a. I’ll add.” And he, and we on, and was great. the VPs smiling. It the hell of me they’d had wait for cue, but whatever. was good.

have to: most people scared around because they waaaay too about trying keep their. People in positions sometimes a little much personal invested in success. Can imagine how it must for him be around people all long? But -- well, I I was to get every single. So fuck. Might as aim high go out a ball flame.

That’s the “Dread Bezos” line from. I hard and fun, but day I worried they fire me the morning. it was kind of. But it sort of in a. I kept resume up date, and kept my up to, and I worried about something stupid ruining my. Because hey, were most going to me in morning.

I'm sorry if this was intended to be facetious, but I think Yegge's point was that you need to remove some of the information so that Bezos can fill it in himself and not get bored. I don't think the implication is that this quality is unique to Bezos, but it certainly is uncommon.

At any rate, removing every third word removes less informational content than every paragraph: an idea can often be recovered in your case, whereas it is quite difficult to recover an idea if it has been removed altogether.

That was surprisingly legible!

And I don't think it is because of my 'giant brain', considering how long it took me to understand Taylor Series in university.

The hmuan barin is gerat at mtahcnig colse-eonguh pttarens.

It just reads like an annoying Google Voice transcript. Probably bears no resemblance to the presentation to Bezos.

Taking a look at Amazon's past user interface and experience choices, I'd say they skipped every third idea to make the site simple and user friendly.

steve-yegge-witheverythirdparagraphremoved.blogspot.com is still available.

That was.

Normally I don't upvote humor on HN, but that was great.

-1 redundant

if there is such thing as too smart, then HN is the place to find it.

This seems like a difficult case to make. How do you know that none of the many places you're not familiar with aren't smarter on average?

If I wanted to find too-smart, I would go to Less Wrong, (who seem to be smarter than HN on average; that might just be a side effect of the discussion topic) and ask them where they would go to find too-smart. And repeat. I don't think HN is where I'd end up.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/ub/competent_elites/ suggests "hedge fund managers" for step two.


troll, also assuming roughly uniform paragraph lengths removing every third word is the same as removing every third paragraph. Maybe we're not as smart as you thought.

> That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.

So if he knows everything, why am I writing for him?

How do you know your minions are any good when you delegate tasks to them? How do you find out if they can think for themselves?

Because he doesn't know everything, obviously.

But by the time you've given your presentation, in which you've thoughtfully omitted the long winded explanations that you'd give to someone who knows nothing about the subject, he'll have deeper insight into what you've presented than you do. And that's the true mark of intelligence.

This post actually is more telling about the absurdity of working at Amazon than the post he took down.

Anyone could please paste the follow up here? All social networks blocked at my company.

Same here. It's annoying that people are now using the social network for content they'd otherwise post on a blog.

With a company the size of Google, isn't releasing something for every employee considered almost "making public" ?

Misdirection and inauthentic, that's what I call Steve Yegge's follow up piece.

Internet attention spans suck.

Remember his first post? Amazon is doing everything wrong and Google is doing everything right.

If Bezos is a super intelligent alien, this begs the question, why is Amazon doing everything wrong?

Also, Google didn't fire Steve Yegge because he did what their 6-figured marketing people couldn't: With a single post, Steve Yegge brought millions of uniques to Google+.

The Bezos-presentation formula would probably work well for Y Combinator applications

I wouldnt be surprised if Steve has a book deal coming.

I doubt it was actually "accidental".

Is Steve trying to win the award for the brownest nose in the tech industry?


Steve accidentally made an internal memo public. Oops, but luckily he was just the butt of jokes all week. To make up for telling everyone how bad amazon was, steve talks about Jeff Bezos. Jeff Bezos is super-smart, and giving a presentation to him will either go really well (unlikely) or really terribly (much more likely). Therefore, when presenting: assume Jeff knows the subject really well (because he does) and that your amazing revolutionary idea is obvious to him. Also know everything about your subject, and expect Jeff to notice any tiny mistake you make.

Don't encourage the laziness of those who ask for tldrs. While your intentions are good, ultimately you're still an enabler.

While your intentions are good, I think the requester gave a good reason for wanting a tldr. The post is now deleted, but I'm pretty sure he said he was looking after kids at the same time. I'm all for encouraging people to spend time with kids rather than reading long articles.

Gee.. This guy loves writing.

Interesting read on Bezos. Did not know that he was like that. I added Yegge to my circles since he seems to tell a story well.

I still can't believe the first post was not a fake. Gosh, it didn't contain any figures. How in a data-driven company can you propose some analysis without them?

The same way people don't need any figures to accept that a law prohibiting murder is a good idea. You demonstrate a sufficiently compelling argument and often only words are needed.

Liszt was "famous-ish"? No wonder nobody knows him today.

Franz Lisp is named after him.

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