Goodbye Open (and Why I’m Staying at Yahoo!)

It’s that time again, to move on. The past three years have been a roller-coaster. Coming from a small startup after a decade in financial services technology, I got to learn, contribute, lead, and provoke open web development. My standards participation landed me a great job, relocated my family to the West coast, and introduced me to a lot of amazing people. It has been awesome.

Over the past couple of months I have been steadily phasing out my open specifications and standards involvement. The OAuth 2.0 core specification is the only thing I am still working on (OAuth is a keeper). Everything else has either fizzled away or lost its interest to me. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who talked to me or read my posts over the past few months.

First, let’s get the most important detail out of the way. I will be working on a new “startup”, building from ground up a new consumer web experience. No, I am not leaving Yahoo! In fact, I’m planning on sticking around for a while. This wasn’t an obvious conclusion, but one that I am extremely excited about (I’ll explain why in a second).

A startup at Yahoo! you ask? Well, you will have to wait a bit longer for more on that. We’re still working out the details. For now, I just want you to know that I am currently hiring a front end developer (in the Bay area). The project is probably going to use Node.JS, CouchDB, HTML5, JavaScript, OAuth, and other cool new stuff. This is a chance to combine startup environment with job security and stability. I plan to write a lot more about working at Yahoo! and this new project soon.

Taking Inventory

In the tradition of recoding my thoughts as I set on a new adventure, these are some of the things I worked on over the past couple of years (and I do mean to brag, a little):

  • OAuth – Leading author and editor of the 1.0, 1.0a (RFC 5849), and 2.0 specifications, as well as many articles and tutorials. Shepherded the transition from an open community to the IETF. Negotiated licensing terms. Coordinated the handling of a critical security flaw.
  • Open Web Foundation – First elected president, co-founder, and past chair of the Legal Affairs and Elections committees. Established bylaws, and managed the foundation corporate registration.
  • XRD – Lead architect and co-editor of the XRD 1.0 OASIS XRI-TC standard (pending). Previously authored the XRDS-Simple specification.
  • Well-Known URIs – Co-authored RFC 5785 for establishing a URI prefix for well-known locations, and a IANA registry (serving as the Designated Expert approving new requests).
  • Host-meta & LRDD – Authored a proposed RFC for a method locating host metadata for Web-based protocols, including a unified link-based resource descriptor discovery method. Work coordinated across many communities and standards bodies including W3C TAG.
  • OpenID – Leading participant in the redesign of the discovery layer and identity services.
  • Metalink – Served as document shepherded in the IETF for RFC 5854.
  • WebFinger – Co-author of a simple web-identity layer using account URIs (email-like identifiers) for the discovery of social and personal web identity information.
  • Portable Contacts – Helped with the initial draft. Facilitated discussions with the IETF vCard community.
  • OpenSocial – Represented Yahoo! in the foundation creation process. Provided the initial design for the IPR framework and governance model.
  • Discovery – Participated in specification efforts including Salmon, Activity Streams, OExchange, DiSO, Web Linking, and others, with focus on discovery services and architecture.

Is Open Dead?

Absolutely not. But I think the kind of open I was working on is mostly gone. This is not a bad thing, just the result of the changing industry, people’s careers, and economic conditions. For the most part, the movement that started with OpenID and OAuth is largely over. All the cool kids got grownup jobs and have been mostly missing. Think of the people you used to hear from on a weekly basis, and then try to remember when was the last time they had something new or provocative to say.

I have written extensively about the changing industry and the role of Google and Facebook in the new environment. Standards development goes through cycles of products and explorations. During the exploration phase, people come together with ideas and try to create a new marketplace by working together to invent new capabilities and opportunities. Email, HTTP, and HTML are some well-known examples. During the product phase, companies with specific existing requirements come together to either unseat the market leader, or to solve specific problems where there is no competitive advantage to go at it alone.

Three years ago the social space was a happening scene. Every day a new startup emerged with a new idea on how to make the web more social. Companies focused on specific communities or activities, and there was plenty of excitement. As the space matured, we now have Facebook as the clear winner with a lead that will be impossible to beat anytime soon. Facebook is to social networking what Google is to keyword search. Both are too far ahead of everyone else in their respective areas.

Got Product?

I am sure in a year or two we will go back to the exploration phase, but for now, we are deep in the product phase, and if you don’t have a product, you don’t really belong there. I have not been a fan of Yahoo!’s social strategy for most of the past two years. The vision coming from the top these days is a lot more promising, exciting, and aligned with where I think the company should go, but this was not always the case.

The reality is, that when it comes to the kind of technologies I’ve been involved in, Yahoo! has not been an important player. This did not impact my ability to lead during the exploration phase, but now without a leading product, it is very hard to be effective. If you want to develop new social web standards, you absolutely have to work at Facebook or Twitter. That’s where all the action is. Google might be trying its best, but in practice no one cares about social technology coming out of Google. They have also lost their leadership in most of the groups I have been active in (and not due to lack of trying).

There is still interesting work done by Blaine Cook, Status.net, and the federated social web folks, but it’s all too experimental, and I don’t see it anywhere near mass market anytime soon.

Standards is a Horrible Career Path

Late last year I came to the conclusion that my ability to be effective at my job is coming to an end. Yahoo! has been consistently supportive of my work, provided me with a wealth of resources, and gave me absolute freedom to “make the web better” (that’s how one of my managers described my job). This is very unusual, and something Yahoo! deserves a lot of credit for. Yahoo! repeatedly stepped up to support the community and provided resources without asking what’s in it for them, because it was what was best for the web. This is very rare in our industry.

I was faced with two options: find a new job where I can be effective again, or move on. Given my passion (and success) at developing open specifications and communities, I spent a considerable time and effort looking for a similar opportunity elsewhere. I talked to all the usual suspects, got some offers, got ignored a lot, and at the end arrived at the conclusion that it’s time to move on from standards. I do want to say that of all the companies I talked to, I was impressed with how respectfully Facebook handled the interaction. Can’t say that about some of the others.

I also realized just how destructive choosing standards as a career path can be. The standards world is very demanding and will suck every free minute you have. Most people contribute very little, and at the end, a handful of people end up carrying all the load. The problem is, no one wants to foot the bill for those suckers. Only a handful of very large corporations (mostly telecommunication and hardware) support employees doing standards full time, and mostly to serve their self-interest.

Anyone who ever met me knows that I am not the right person to represent a company line. I have my own voice, it’s loud (sometimes obnoxious), and I’m not shy of using it. I don’t know of any other company that allows its employees to speak their mind so freely and openly, even when they are in disagreement with the company’s official policy. Even our legal team has policies in place to enable that. I have often been out of alignment over Yahoo!’s OAuth and OpenID strategies. But at no time was I told to shut up, something at least one of my collaborators at Google cannot say.

At the end, especially during hard economic times, finding a role focused on standards is hard. It is especially hard when you have views that are not likely to always be in line with those of your employer. Kids – stay away from standards as a career.

It’s All About the Product

I miss building stuff. I miss writing code and seeing how something starts from nothing and progress into a working system. With the exception of the last three years, I have been building applications since I was 8 years old, using my first Sinclair ZX81 computer. When I was 11 a friend and I wrote a palm reading program. We got into trouble when we set up a stand at a local fair and gave someone a printout stating that her intelligent was below average. Hey, not my fault her head-line was so short.

More than OAuth, my passion the past few years has been discovery. It is very rewarding to see some of my work finally making its way to actual products. But most of the time it was just frustrating, putting all this effort in without any actual commitment from those building products. I still think discovery is going to be more and more critical as the web grows and becomes more distributed, but it will take a while longer before my vision can be fully appreciated.

Why Yahoo!?

That’s a great question, and one that I have been debating for almost a year now. It was a hard decision, but once I reached it, it was clearly the right decision, and I am super excited about the coming year. To get to my conclusion, there are a few factors you need understand. When considering a new employer, I mostly care about: their products, their culture, my manager, my team, and how they balance work-life. Technology, compensation, location, reputation, and IPO prospects have never made a difference to me.

So let’s go through them one by one.

Products –

Yahoo! is still working to define what it is. I have heard the official description but like most people, am still trying to figure out what it really means. What I do know is that we have the biggest audience on line, a long list of best in class properties, a leading brand name with unparalleled trust (no one is afraid of Yahoo! trying to take over the world), and a user profile that is exactly the people I want to build products for – normal everyday web users. If you get the core Yahoo! user base to use a new experience, your impact is massive – far beyond just web habits.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are all one hit wonders. Granted, these are some unbelievable wonders, and I have nothing but awe and respect for what these three companies are doing in their space. But let’s face it, they are known for one thing (Google has a few new promising areas like Chrome and Android), and working there most likely means focusing on improving an existing product rather than building something new.

I rarely use Twitter or Facebook. They don’t add much value to me. That’s in no way criticism of their products, just that I care a lot more about what people say on BackyardChickens.com than on Twitter or Facebook. Same goes for the people in my family. One of the reasons Facebook is such a success is the fact their employees are truly passionate about the product and use it intensely, and I think that that alignment is important.

Working for Yahoo!, especially these days, offers more opportunities to work on something new and exciting than anywhere else. It offers unmatched access to resources and audiences, and a management team that is eager to hear new ideas from every level of the organization.

Culture –

If it wasn’t clear by now, I value openness, directness, flat hierarchy, equality, diversity, and individuality. This list alone rules out a bunch of companies. Google’s approach is to build an army of (really smart, talented, and somewhat socially inadequate) clones. When you are hired, you don’t know what you are going to work on. Google’s hiring process is designed to make sure they hire great engineers that can do anything. This allows them to shift resources around as needed quickly, but in the three times I engaged Google over a job, I could not get past that. I will not take a job where I am just another engineer.

Facebook is much better, but their emphasis is mostly on coding skills alone. I could not figure out what Twitter’s culture is like (and I’m not sure if they know either).

Yahoo! scores high on every one of my cultural values. The problem at Yahoo! is that the culture has been taken hostage by complaining, ranting, sarcasm, irony, and a generally depressing mood. The underlying culture is very much there, but it is hard to enjoy it given the general atmosphere. Part of the problem, is the constant hammering of the tech press, making a big deal out of every departure (much more than at other companies).

This is where Yahoo!’s collegial culture is counterproductive to its own best interest. Consider some of the recent high profile departures. Yes these are all smart, talented individuals. But with a few exceptions, these are mostly people who got pass on in a recent reorganization, failed to deliver a product, did not fit in a company focused on mass market consumer experiences, were offended that someone else got a better role or more control, or been there for more than 5 years. In other words, this is corporate business as usual.

The problem is, because Yahoo!s are so nice (people often wonder why they keep me), they will never leak out and share these negative realities to balance the news (we are known to leak plenty of other stuff). This is great for the individuals working there, because at some point, we all move on, but at the moment, it is taking a toll.

I am in no way blaming the press for any of the underlying issues, or for doing their job highlighting them. I don’t think the coverage is fully balanced (“People are running away from Yahoo!” vs. “Facebook stole another Google engineer”), and it is clearly one of the main factors casing the current mood. I only mentioned this as an example of how the culture and mood are linked.

My solution is simple. Two months ago I decided to try and stop complaining. No more sitting at URL’s (our café) bitching about everything we suck at. For now, it seems to work.

My Manager –

I think most people will consider this entire post as one big ass kissing. I hope those who know me see this for what it is – a public venting of my views, frustration, admiration, and random rants. I like to share my views, even when others find them inappropriate. It has made me plenty of enemies, but no one has ever claimed not to know where I stand or where they stand with me.

Keep in mind that I’m the guy who, on his first week at Yahoo!, was featured on Valley Wag under the headline: “New Yahoo: Joining up without severance package would be like ‘running into a burning building’” (I am still the number one search result for ‘running into a burning building’). With that said, I am going to simply state that my manager, Mike Curtis (head of Mail engineering), is awesome. I recently had the rare opportunity to pick my own manager and I think that says it all. I am also happy about the chain of command between me and the CEO.

My Team –

My discussions around a new role outside Yahoo! did not reach the team evaluation stage (with one exception at Facebook, where the team was great). So while important, it was not a big factor. What was, is my ability to build my own team, which is something I have always enjoyed doing. At Citibank, I twice built large teams building high frequency trading systems, and it is something I miss doing. I am not going to be building anything this big anytime soon, but I get to hire a couple of people today and that’s plenty fun.

Work / Life Balance –

This is Yahoo!’s number one asset and number one liability. If you are an employee, you will not find a better place to have a family, to have a hobby, or in other words, to have life beyond work. Between company events, benefits, and overall atmosphere, Yahoo! is the most welcoming place I have ever worked (or interviewed with) when it comes to having a family (our twins are turning 6 next month).

Beyond its culture, the reason for that is the profile of the employees. Being one of the few “old” web companies around, and currently attracting less young blood than its competitors, Yahoo!’s employees tend to have a family and are not the kind of people usually joining a startup. The problem, of course, is that this makes it harder to move fast and innovate at a competitive rate. Every time I visit Facebook I feel like (at 36) I’m the oldest guy in the room – the place is like a college campus.

But with the new management’s determination to innovate, and to give anything a try to accomplish that, I really believe Yahoo! is in a unique position to attract a large group of brilliant engineers, those not interested in the bootstrapping startup life, but innovative and passionate about building the next generation of web experiences. Being the place where you don’t have to choose between spending time with your family and changing the world through web innovation, is something Yahoo! has a unique opportunity to become, more than anyone else. We are clearly not there yet, but this is something I want to work on.

This is also why I believe Yahoo! has a better chance of understanding our audience, the same way Facebook truly understand theirs. Our company profile is very much the audience we seek to serve – everyone.

On to the Next Great Thing

It took me a while to get here, and after a yearlong search, I’ve decided to stick around and it feels right. There are still more things to figure out about my new project and the company, and like any “startup”, anything can happen and this can be short lived or a huge success (or anything in between). Many people I talked to these last few days told me I’m nuts, day dreaming, or naïve. Maybe I am.

But I’m having more fun than everyone I know, I got a great job, I’m paid well, my employer truly cares about my well-being, I get to spend quality time with my family, and I even get to play farmer in my spare time (chickens, ducks, bees, large garden and an orchard).

Can you say that, without qualifications, about your job?

I’m hiring a front end developer (you can start tomorrow), and Yahoo! has plenty of great jobs available in both new and core products. If you are interested, and available in the Bay area, email me at eran@hueniverse.com.

This blog will continue to highlight open standards, because that’s something I am still very much passionate about, but it will also offer more insight into life at Yahoo!, my new project, and whatever else is on my mind. This is going to be yet another fun ride. Stick around.

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