Sunday, March 10, 2013

Just When Did Silicon Valley Go Hollywood?

Wow.  If Justin Bieber hadn't had a lousy 19th birthday in London, the only thing I would have read from my LinkedIn “Influencers” last week was about Marissa Mayer and Yahoo!.  You may have heard: she stopped all telecommuting at the company, at least for now.  Like Buddy Bolden, she called her children home.  He to dance.  She for a little tap-dancing, one might guess.

Innocently enough, I thought it was just a policy change at Yahoo!, probably temporary or to be redefined later.  I was not even sure why it made the news, much less buried me in articles.  These kinds of decisions happen everywhere, all the time.  But mercy, was I ever wrong.   It turned out not to be a policy change at all, but an event.  A Silicon Valley event. The blogosphere erupted.  My Influencers influenced mightily.

One wrote,  “In the tech-savvy, eco-friendly Silicon Valley, demanding that employees follow an Industrial revolution-era work organization responsible for thousands of hours wasted in traffic, countless health issues and tons of CO2 in the atmosphere seems antiquated.”  Another was incensed, saying, “it just galls me to no end to read how Yahoo CEO Melissa Mayer, who first made waves for taking the high-ranking position when she was five months pregnant (and subsequently said two weeks of maternity leave, where she also worked from home, was enough time away from the office), declared in a memo to her employees that they would no longer be able to work from home.”  Another chimed in, “I had hope for Marissa Mayer. I’d thought that while she was breaking some barriers. . .that she’d use her platform and her power to make Yahoo! an example of a modern family-friendly workplace.”  Still another accused her of being Franklin M. Hart Jr. of 9 to 5 fame, “who didn’t believe in fancy-shmancy workplace productivity programs — just chain ‘em to their desks and crack the whip.”

There was a boatload of other outraged commentary seeking deeper meaning in telecommuting.   One technology pundit concluded, “It’s not about not trusting people to work at home. It’s about having a real trust in the infinite possibilities of what people can create together.”


Here is another possible take on what happened.

Start by recognizing that running a company is really hard.  A turnaround is even harder.  The chances of success are low and there’s not a moment to lose.

Good CEOs in those kinds of environments do not hesitate.  Mayer found a broken process, one that apparently included employees gaming the system.  A profitable, growth business might parce the players and handle the offenders one by one.  A turnaround has no time for such niceties.  Someone read the server logs and apparently people who were being paid a lot were only working a little.  What more visibility than that does a CEO need?  This is not a job for Big Data.  Yank the chain and things will improve immediately, if for no other reason than some unproductive scofflaws--who clearly don’t get the company's current position--will quit.  Get the good people back telecommuting soon, if it makes sense, and in the meantime take advantage of all that togetherness to work on some other desperate problems in need of some other immediate solutions.

You might say that’s building culture, and to the extent a CEO sends the “we’re not screwing around” message, it is.  More than anything, however, it was simply a leader fixing a broken process in a still floundering company.  No more, no less.  It was not an indictment of telecommuting.  It was not elitist.  It was not misogynistic.   It was not selfish.  It was not a failing of 21st-century community.  It was not a throwback to the Industrial Revolution.  It was not a litmus test for Western Civilization.  And most of all, it was not an event.

The real question is: Just when did Silicon Valley go Hollywood on us, anyway?  Facebook had its movie.  Google used its sacred home page to schlep a Vince Vaughn film co-starring its search engine.  Ad Week has a standing column called Tech Culture.  We track the world’s richest tech billionaires and report on their every cupcake.  "There is a feeling that techies are the new celebrities," said Eric Kuhn, an agent who heads the social-media department at United Talent Agency. "When I arrived in Hollywood, everybody had written a screenplay.  Now, everyone has an app."

The new new thing in Silicon Valley these days, the cutting edge innovation, is the event—a thing worth reporting only because there are reporters with blank screens paid to fill them up each day, whether anything happens or not.  To paraphrase Daniel Boorstin from his 1962 book, The Image, when the world was dull we used to complain that the world was dull; now when the world is dull we complain that the newspaper is dull. 

If you are a blogger beholden to metrics that track throw-weight instead of quality, and concerned about your cubic volume of Twitter followers, there is only one solution:  Take the dull and everyday occurrence and make it a dramatic event.

If you desire a real event at Yahoo!, it already happened, the day Jerry Yang drove away Microsoft and destroyed $12 billion in market cap overnight.  That was truly an event.  I have this awful feeling that he did it, in part, because Microsoft was on the backside of its Windows technology curve and no longer cool enough.  Not Hollywood hip.  Not Silicon Valley enough.  (It was, as I wrote at the time, the costliest “high-five” in tech history.)  

By the way, if you need a lesson on the underlying issues around telecommuting, read the Time magazine article from thirty years ago, January 1983, that named the computer “Person/Machine of the Year.”   Little has changed.  Control Data's “alternative site workers” felt isolated and deprived of the office social life. “This is not just a matter of trading gossip in the corridors,” the magazine opined. “Work itself, particularly in the information industries, requires the stimulation of personal contact in the exchange of ideas: sometimes organized conference, sometimes simply what is called ‘the schmoose factor.’”  One sociologist said, “The workplace performs the function of community.”

That was 30 years ago.  And, unfortunately, if you were on LinkedIn, most of last week.

Peter Drucker said the job of a professional manager is to optimize the performance of the people around him or her, including profit and integrity.  Leadership, he added, is about consistent behavior and trustworthiness, not charisma or showmanship.  I give the CEO of Yahoo! credit in this instance for being a professional manager, and I wish her company lots of luck.  If she’s going to end bad stuff with the kind of decisiveness she showed last week, the company at least has a chance.

And speaking of integrity, I hope she found and fired the person who leaked the memo in the first place.  There was nothing at all embarrassing about the message, but lots wrong with not honoring the integrity of internal company communications.

Now, let's just hope Google doesn't lay-off any of its gourmet chefs this week or we will never catch up on our Justin Bieber events.