Google Doesn`t Understand Platforms, Says Yegge

About three years ago, a senior executive at Yahoo issued what’s become known as the “Peanut Butter Manifesto.” This internal memo, which leaked to the press, accused the company of spreading itself too thin, like peanut butter, and said that it needed to focus before it was too late. Google engineer Steve Yegge just penned the Google version of this manifesto, and it’s causing quite a stir.

Danny Sullivan does a great job of taking apart the memo and translating it into non-engineering terms. To Yegge’s credit, the 5,000 word item, written on Google+ and not intended for public consumption beyond Google employees, reads very well. It was clearly written by someone who loves the company he works for and doesn’t want to see it fail in the face of competitors who Get It.

Unlike Brad Garlinghouse’s Yahoo memo, Yegge’s effort might actually have a beneficial effect. When Google and Yegge discovered that his “family intervention” had accidentally been made public, Yegge voluntarily took his post down. Neither he nor any representatives at Google asked those who had mirrored the memo to take it down, however. In fact, at the time of writing, you can find a copy of it here.

It’s worth reading the entire thing, particularly if you’re an engineer or have any interest in how software developers work and think. If you need a translation, it’s worth reading Sullivan’s post. At best, I can give you the “too long, didn’t read” summary, but I’ll do the best I can.

Before starting work at Google in 2005, Yegge spent about six years working as an engineer at Amazon. By his estimation, Amazon does most things wrong, while Google does most things right. But Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos got one thing right: the importance of platforms. Bezos, in fact, forced a mandate down the throats of his company’s programmers to “make all its data machine readable by different teams within Amazon and further, accessible to those outside of it,” according to Danny Sullivan. What this means is creating lots of application program interfaces (APIs).

This is where we come to Google’s problem. Google doesn’t think in terms of platforms that others can hook into and expand; it thinks in terms of products that are complete in and of themselves, and that get added to by engineers in the company, but not typically by third parties. That’s the gist of what Yegge is saying in his memo.

This problem became abundantly clear when Google+ launched. As Yegge explains, “We had no API at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call…the only API we can offer is to get someone’s stream.” This would not be so bad if Google had a Steve Jobs who knew instinctively what users wanted and could get engineers working right on it, but Google’s not that fortunate.

To drive his point home, Yegge considers the approach to games on both Google+ and Facebook. Facebook, he notes, offers tons of time sinks provided by third parties, to the point where everyone’s experience of the social network can be radically different. Google’s approach to the same problem, according to Yegge, is “Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: ‘Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let’s go contract someone to, um, write some games for us.’” The problem, writes Yegge, “is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.”

Normally, you’d think that’s a good thing, but what happens when you mess up your prediction? Someone else who actually does know what people want can beat you in the market. And in this case, if your competitors get platforms, they don’t have to beat you by themselves; they can set up the platform and let third parties have access to it, and the third parties can come up with better applications that beat you.

Yegge notes that most of Google’s rivals understand platforms. Microsoft has been doing platforms for 30 years; that’s what an operating system is, basically. Apple gets platforms. Amazon gets platforms. Even Facebook gets platforms, though they didn’t start out that way. According to Yegge, some people at Google get platforms, but their projects aren’t getting much support. And this worries Yegge, as he doesn’t want to see the company he works for and loves lose its way into the future.

I’m not going to say that Yegge doesn’t need to worry. If you read the memo yourself, you’ll see why; he seems to have an excellent grasp of the situation, as you’d expect from an engineer in his position. But the very fact that he could post the memo, see it leaked to the public, and suffer no reprisals says something about Google’s culture. Indeed, when Yegge took the post down, he notes that it wasn’t because Google’s PR people asked him to; they were very supportive and didn’t even hint at censoring him.

Rip Rowan, who shared the post, noted that “Google’s openness to allow us to keep this message posted on its own social network is, in my opinion, a far greater asset than any SaS platform. In the end, a company’s greatest asset is its culture, and here, Google is one of the strongest companies on the planet.” If Google finds the strength to listen to and learn from the experiences of its strongly opinionated employees, Yegge’s platform memo may help the search giant far more than Garlinghouse’s Peanut Butter Manifesto helped Yahoo.

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