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Yahoo: The Marissa Mayer Turnaround

 

Critics spew well-meaning generalities when criticizing Marissa Mayer’s first moves at Yahoo! They fail to see the urgency of the company’s turnaround situation, the need to refocus the workforce and spruce up the management.

Last July, Yahoo! elected a new CEO, their seventh or eight, I’ve lost count. Marissa Mayer is an ex-Google exec with a BS in symbolics systems and an MS in Computer Science from Stanford, just like Scott Forstall. After a 13-year career at the biggest Cloud company on Earth, Mayer brings relevant experience to the CEO position of the once-great Web company. She also happens to be female but, unlike a predecessor of the same gender, Mayer doesn’t appear to feel the need to assert power by swearing like a sailor.

Power she asserts nonetheless. Barely pausing to deliver her first child, Mayer set to work: Yahoo! apps were too many, she vowed to cut them from 60 to the dozen or so that support our “digital daily habit“. Hiring standards have been seriously upgraded, the CEO wants to review every candidate to weed out “C-list slackers“. People were shown the door, starting in the executive suite. Some were replaced by ex-Google comrades such as her newly-appointed COO, Henrique De Castro.

The changes have been met with intramural criticism, from charges of Google cronyism to moaning over her meddling with the hiring process (“Yahoo’s Mayer gets internal flak for more rigorous hiring“). The complainers might as well get used to it: Mayer knows who she’s competing against, she wants to win, and that means Yahoo! needs to attract Valley-class talent. If she can pull them from Google, even better. The insiders who complain to the media only advertise their fear — a bad idea — and unwittingly make the case for Mayer’s higher standards.

The new sheriff is a high-intensity person. Friends tell me she also reviews new apps in great detail, down to color choices. (Didn’t another successful leader so annoy people?)

The protests over Mayer’s hiring practices and (supposed) micromanagement are nothing compared to the howls of pain over Mayer’s most controversial decision: No more Working From Home.

The prohibition is an affront to accepted beliefs about white-collar productivity, work/life balance, working mothers, sending less CO2 into the atmosphere. Does Mayer oppose a balanced life and a greener planet?

No, presumably — but reality intrudes. Once the king of the Web, Yahoo! stood by and watched as Google and Facebook seduced their users and advertisers. In 2008, in an effort to bolster its flagging on-line fortunes, Microsoft offered more than $44B to acquire Yahoo. The Board nixed the deal and Yahoo! kept sinking. Right before Mayer took the helm in July 2012, Yahoo’s market cap hovered around $16B, a decline of more than 60%.

The niceties of peacetime prosperity had to go. Unlike her “explicit” predecessor, Mayer doesn’t stoop to lash out at the protesters but one can imagine what she thinks: “Shut up, you whiners. This is a turnaround, not a Baja California cruise!”

In the Valley, WFH has long been controversial. In spite of its undeniable benefits, too-frequent abuses led to WFH becoming a euphemism for goofing off, or for starting a software business on one’s employer’s dime, an honored tradition.

Telecommuting requires a secure VPN (Virtual Private Network) connection from your computer at home to the company’s servers. These systems keep a traffic log, a record of who connects, from what IP address, when, for how long, how much data, and so on. Now, picture a CEO from the Google tradition of data analysis. She looks at the VPN logs and sees too much “comfort”, to be polite.

Mayer did what leaders do: She made a decision that made some people unhappy in order to achieve success for the whole enterprise (toned-up employees and shareholders). After seeing Yahoo! lose altitude year after year, the criticism leveled at Mayer makes me optimistic about the company’s future: Mayer’s treatment hurts where it needs to.

Among the many critics of Mayer’s no-WHF decision, the one I find most puzzling — or is it embarrassing? — emanates from the prestigious Wharton School of Business (at the University of Pennsylvania). In a Knowledge@Wharton article, scholars make sage but irrelevant comments such as:

Wharton faculty members who specialize in issues pertaining to employee productivity and work/life balance were similarly surprised by Mayer’s all-encompassing policy change. “Our experience in this field is that one-size-fits-all policies just don’t work,” notes Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project. “You want to have as many tools as possible available to you as an executive to be able to tailor the work to the demands of the task. The fewer tools you have available, the harder it is to solve the problem.”

Nowhere in the article do the Wharton scholars consider the urgency of Yahoo’s situation, nor do they speculate that perhaps Mayer didn’t like what she found in the VPN logs. And, speaking of numbers, the Wharton experts provide no numbers, no sample size, no control group to buttress their statements. Our well-meaning academics might want to take a look at a recent blog post by Scott Adams, the prolific creator of corpocrat-skewering Dilbert cartoons. Titled Management/Success/Leadership: Mostly Bullshit, the post vigorously delivers what the title promises, as in this paragraph:

The fields of management/success/leadership are a lot like the finance industry in the sense that much of it is based on confusing correlation and chance with causation. We humans like to feel as if we understand and control our environments. We don’t like to think of ourselves as helpless leaves blowing in the wind of chance. So we clutch at any ridiculous explanation of how things work. 

Or this one, closer to today’s topic [emphasis mine]:

I first noticed the questionable claims of management experts back in the nineties, when it was fashionable to explain a company’s success by its generous employee benefits. The quaint idea of the time was that treating employees like kings and queens would free their creative energies to create massive profits. The boring reality is that companies that are successful have the resources to be generous to employees and so they do. The best way a CEO can justify an obscene pay package is by treating employees generously. To put this in another way, have you ever seen a corporate turnaround that was caused primarily by improving employee benefits?

Tony Hsieh, the founder and CEO of on-line shoe store Zappos, isn’t a blogger, cartoonist, or academic theoretician; he leads a very successful company that’s admired for its customer-oriented practices (culture, if you will). In this Business Insider piece, titled Here’s Why I Don’t Want My Employees To Work From Home, Hsieh is unequivocal about the value of Working From Work [emphasis mine]:

Research has shown that companies with strong cultures outperform those without in the long-term financially. So we’re big, big believers in building strong company cultures. And I think that’s hard to do remotely.

We don’t really telecommute at Zappos. We want employees to be interacting with each other, building those personal relationships and relationships outside of work as well.

What we found is when they have those personal connections that productivity increases because there’s higher levels of trust. Employees are willing to do favors for each other because they’re not just co-workers, but also friends, and communication is better. So we’re big believers in in-person interactions.

Who in good conscience believes that Mayer’s edict is absolute and permanent? You have a sick child at home, will you be granted the permission to work from home for a few days? Of course. Or, you’re an asocial but genius coder, will you be allowed to code at home from 10 pm to 7 am? Again, yes. Mayer saw it done, with good results, at her previous company.

With Mayer’s guidance, the patient has been stabilized and is on the road to recovery. But where does that road lead to? What does Yahoo! want to be now that it’s starting to act like a grownup? A better portal, a place to which we gravitate because, as an insider says, we’ll find more relevant fodder — without relying on “friends”? This would be a return to Yahoo’s original mission, one of cataloguing the Web, only with better technology and taste than Facebook, Google, AOL or even Microsoft’s Bing (Yahoo’s supplier of search data).

This leads to the $$ question, to Yahoo’s business model: advertising or services? With Google and now Facebook dominating the advertising space, how much room is left?

We hear Mayer is focusing Yahoo! on mobile applications. This sounds reasonable… but isn’t everyone?

In the search for a renewed identity (and profits), the question of alliances comes up. Who’s my enemy, my enemy’s enemy, irreplaceable partner/supplier, natural complement? In this regard, the Microsoft question will undoubtedly pop up again. I doubt Mayer has the utmost regard for Microsoft or for its CEO’s bullying style, but can she live without Bing? Is there an alternative? Also, what, if anything, could a healthier Yahoo! offer to Facebook or Apple?

The fun is just starting.

JLG@mondaynote.com

Data in the driver’s seat

 

Autonomous vehicles — fully or partially — will rely on a large variety of data types. And guess who is best positioned to take advantage of this enormous new business? Yep, Google is. 

The Google driveless car is an extraordinary technical achievement. To grasp the its scope, watch this video featuring a near-blind man sitting behind the wheel of an autonomous Prius as the car does the driving. Or, to get an idea of the complexity of the system, see this presentation by Sebastian Thrun (one of the main architects of Google’s self-driving car project) going through the multiple systems running inside the car.

Spectacular as it is, this public demonstration is merely the tip of the iceberg. For Google, the economics of self-driving cars lie in a vast web of data that will become a must to operate partially or fully self-driving vehicles on a massive scale. This network of data will require immense computational and storage capabilities. Consider the following needs in the context of Google’s current position in related fields.

Maps. Since the acquisition of Where2 Technologies and Keyhole Inc. in 2004, Google has been refining its mapping system over and over again (see this brief history of Google Maps). After a decade of work, Google Maps feature a rich set of layers and functions. Their mapping of the world has been supplemented by crowdsourcing systems that allow corrections as well as the creation of city maps where data do not exist. Street View has been launched in 2007 and more than 5 million miles of metropolitan area have been covered. Today, maps are augmented with satellite imagery, 3D, 45-degree aerial views, buildings and infrastructure renderings. All this is now merged, you can plunge from a satellite view to the street level.

Google’s goal is building the most complete an reliable map system in the world. Gradually, the company replaces geo-data from third party suppliers with data collected by its own crews around the world. To get an idea of how fast Google progresses, consider the following: In 2008, Google mapping covered 22 countries and offered 13 million miles with driving directions. In 2012, 187 countries where covered, 26 million miles with driving directions, including 29 countries with turn-by-turn directions. On the chart below, you can also see the growing areas of Google-sourced maps (in green) as opposed to licensed data (in red):

Apple’s failure in maps shows that, regardless of the amount of money invested, experience remains a key element. In California and India, Google maintains a staff of hundreds if not thousands of people manually checking key spots in large metropolitan areas and correcting errors. They rely on users whose individual suggestions are manually checked, using Street View imagery as shown here (the operator drags the 360° Street View image to verify signs at an intersection — click to enlarge.)

Google’s engineers even developed algorithms aimed at correcting slight misalignments between “tiles” (pieces of satellite imagery stitched together) that could result from… tectonic plates movement — it could happen when two pictures are taken two years apart. Such accuracy is not a prerequisite for current navigation, but it could be important for autonomous cars that will depend heavily on ultra-precise (think what centimers/inches mean when cars are close on the road) mapping of streets and infrastructures.

But, one might object, Google is not the only company providing geo-data and great mapping services. True: The Dutch company Tom-tom, or the Chicago-based Navteq have been doing this for years. As geo-data became strategically important, Tom-tom acquired TeleAtlas for $2.9bn in 2008, and Nokia bought Navteq in 2007. But Google intends to move one step ahead by merging its mapping and imagery technologies with its search capabilities. Like in this image:

Accurate, usable and data-rich maps are one thing. Now, when you consider the variety of data needed for autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, the task becomes even more enormous. The list goes on:

Traffic conditions will be a key element. It’s pointless to envision fleets of self-driving, or assisted-driving cars without systems to manage traffic. These goes along with infrastructure development. For instance, as  Dr. Kara Kockelman, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas at Austin explained to me, in the future, we might see substantial infrastructure renovation aimed at accommodating autonomous vehicles (or vehicles set on self-driving mode). Dedicated highway corridors would be allocated to “platoons” of cars driving close together, in a faster and safer way, than manned cars. Intersections, she said, are also a key challenge as they are responsible for most traffic jams (and a quarter of accidents). With the advent of autonomous vehicles, we can see cars taken over by intersection management systems that will regroup them in platoons and feed them seamlessly in intersecting traffic flows, like in this spectacular simulation. If traffic lights are still needed, they will change every five or six seconds just to optimize the flow.

Applied to millions of vehicles, traffic and infrastructure management will turn into a gigantic data and communication problem. Again, Google might be the only entity able to write the required software and to deploy the data centers to run it. Its millions of servers will be of great use to handle weather information, road conditions (as cars might be able to monitor their actual friction on the road and transmit the data to following vehicles, or detect humidity and temperature change), parking data and fuel availability (gas or electricity). And we can even think of merging all this with day-to-day life elements such as individual calendars, commuting patterns and geolocating people through their cell phones.

If the data collection and crunching tasks can conceivably be handled by a Google-like player, communications remain an issue. “There is not enough overlap between car-to-car communication and in other fields”, Sven Beiker, director Center for Automotive Research  (CARS) at Stanford told me (see his recent lecture about The Future if the Car). He is actually echoing executives from Audi (who made a strategic deal with Google), BMW and Ford; together at the Mobile World Congress, they were critical of cell phone carriers’ inability to provide the right 4G (LTE) infrastructure to handle the amount of data required by future vehicles.

Finally, there is the question of an operating system for cars. Experts are divided. Sven Beiker believes the development of self-driving vehicles will depend more on communication protocols than on an OS per se. Others believe that Google, with its fleet of self-driving Priuses criss-crossing California, is building the first OS dedicated to autonomous vehicles. At some point, the search giant could combine its mapping, imagery and local search capabilities with the accumulation of countless self-driven miles, along with scores of specific situations “learned” by the cars’ software. The value thus created would be huge, giving Google a decisive position in yet another field. The search company could become the main provider of both systems and data for autonomous or semi autonomous cars.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Linking: Scraping vs. Copyright

 

Irish newspapers created quite a stir when they demanded a fee for incoming links to their content. Actually, this is a mere prelude to a much more crucial debate on copyrights,  robotic scraping and subsequent synthetic content re-creation from scraps. 

The controversy erupted on December 30th, when an attorney from the Irish law firm McGarr Solicitors exposed the case of one of its client, the Women’s Aid organization, being asked to pay a fee to Irish newspapers for each link they send to them. The main quote from McGarr’s post:

They wrote to Women’s Aid, (amongst others) who became our clients when they received letters, emails and phone calls asserting that they needed to buy a licence because they had linked to articles in newspapers carrying positive stories about their fundraising efforts.
These are the prices for linking they were supplied with:

1 – 5 €300.00
6 – 10 €500.00
11 – 15 €700.00
16 – 25 €950.00
26 – 50 €1,350.00
50 + Negotiable

They were quite clear in their demands. They told Women’s Aid “a licence is required to link directly to an online article even without uploading any of the content directly onto your own website.”

Recap: The Newspapers’ agent demanded an annual payment from a women’s domestic violence charity because they said they owned copyright in a link to the newspapers’ public website.

Needless to say, the twittersphere, the blogosphere and, by and large, every self-proclaimed cyber moral authority, reacted in anger to Irish newspapers’ demands that go against common sense as well as against the most basic business judgement.

But on closer examination, the Irish dead tree media (soon to be dead for good if they stay on that path) is just the tip of the iceberg for an industry facing issues that go well beyond its reluctance to the culture of web links.

Try googling the following French legalese: “A défaut d’autorisation, un tel lien pourra être considéré comme constitutif du délit de contrefaçon”. (It means any unauthorized incoming link to a site will be seen as a copyright infringement.) This search get dozens of responses. OK, most come from large consumers brands (carmakers, food industry, cosmetics) who don’t want a link attached to an unflattering term sending the reader to their product description… Imagine lemon linked to a car brand.

Until recently, you couldn’t find many media companies invoking such a no-link policy. Only large TV networks such as TF1 or M6 warn that any incoming link is subject to a written approval.

In reality, except for obvious libel, no-links policies are rarely enforced. M6 Television even lost a court case against a third party website that was deep-linking to its catch-up programs. As for the Irish newspapers, despite their dumb rate card for links, they claimed to be open to “arrangements” (in the ill-chosen case of a non-profit organization fighting violence against women, flexibility sounds like a good idea.)

Having said that, such posture reflects a key fact: Traditional media, newspapers or broadcast media, send contradictory messages when it comes to links that are simply not part of their original culture.

The position paper of the National Newspapers of Ireland association’s deserves a closer look (PDF here). It actually contains a set of concepts that resonate with the position defended by the European press in its current dispute with Google (see background story in the NYTimes); here are a few:

– It is the view of NNI that a link to copyright material does constitute infringement of copyright, and would be so found by the Courts.
– [NNI then refers to a decision of the UK court of Appeal in a case involving Meltwater Holding BV, a company specialized in media monitoring], that upheld the findings of the High Court which findings included:
– that headlines are capable of being independent literary works and so copying just a headline can infringe copyright
– that text extracts (headline plus opening sentence plus “hit” sentence) can be substantial enough to benefit from copyright protection
– that an end user client who receives a paid for monitoring report of search results (incorporating a headline, text extract and/or link, is very likely to infringe copyright unless they have a licence from the
Newspaper Licencing Agency or directly from a publisher.
— NNI proposes that, in fact, any amendment to the existing copyright legislation with regard to deep-linking should specifically provide that deep-linking to content protected by copyright without respect for  the linked website’s terms and conditions of use and without regard for the publisher’s legitimate commercial interest in protecting its own copyright is unlawful.

Let’s face it, most publishers I know would not disagree with the basis of such statements. In the many jurisdictions where a journalist’s most mundane work is protected by copyright laws, what can be seen as acceptable in terms of linking policy?

The answer seems to revolve around matters of purpose and volume.

To put it another way, if a link serves as a kind of helper or reference, publishers will likely tolerate it. (In due fairness, NNI explicitly “accepts that linking for personal use is a part of how individuals communicate online and has no issue with that” — even if the notion of “personal use” is pretty vague.) Now, if the purpose is commercial and if linking is aimed at generating traffic, NNI raises the red flag (even though legal grounds are rather brittle.) Hence the particular Google case that also carries a notion of volume as the search engine claims to harvest thousands of sources for its Google News service.

There is a catch. The case raised by NNI and its putative followers is weakened by a major contradiction: everywhere, Ireland included, news websites invest a great deal of resources in order to achieve the highest possible rank in Google News. Unless specific laws are voted (German lawmakers are working on such a bill), attorneys will have hard time invoking copyright infringements that in fact stem for the very Search Engine Optimization tactics publishers encourage.

But there might be more at stake. For news organizations, the future carries obvious threats that require urgent consideration: In coming years, we’ll see great progress — so to speak — in automated content production systems. With or without link permissions, algorithmic content generators will be able (in fact: are) to scrap sites’original articles, aggregate and reprocess those into seemingly original content, without any mention, quotation, links, or reference of any kind. What awaits the news industry is much more complex than dealing with links from an aggregator.

It boils down to this: The legal debate on linking as copyright infringement will soon be obsolete. The real question will emerge as a much more complex one: Should a news site protect itself from being “read”  by a robot? The consequences for doing so are stark: except for a small cohort of loyal readers, the site would purely and simply vanish from cyberspace… Conversely, by staying open to searches, the site exposes itself to forms of automated and stealthy depletion that will be virtually impossible to combat. Is the situation binary — allowing “bots” or not — or is there middle ground? That’s a fascinating playground for lawyers and techies, for parsers of words and bits.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com