Steve Yegge’s Google Platform Rant:
A Best Practice of Silicon Valley

by Christopher Meyer on 10/19/2011

ispyHave you ever written a piece that was for internal consumption and mistakenly posted it publicly? Ouch!

That’s essentially what Google’s Steve Yegge did last week on Google+ when he inadvertently published “Stevey’s Google Platforms Rant” to the world.  As you’d imagine, it went viral pretty quickly.  And it elicited the expected public apology from Yegge (Posted at 3am…I can’t help but wonder how many re-writes he wrestled through.)

Go read it.  Far better than any business magazine piece, Yegge’s rant is a riveting, cinema vérité peek into two of America’s most successful technology companies: Amazon and Google.  Having worked in both, Yegge challenges how Google can build product platforms in an open innovation culture (Google) versus high control environments (Amazon, Apple).

Before delving into to Yegge’s content, one of the most captivating aspects of his rant is the contrast in tone and timbre to the mind-numbing Powerpoint presentations we all endure.  His voice is smart, compassionate and as Stephen Colbert might say, the rant reeks of one man’s “truthiness”.

Yegge’s rant reflects one of Silicon Valley’s best leadership practices.  By definition, innovators bristle when facing the status quo.  Part of the secret sauce behind Silicon Valley’s perpetual innovation machine is that Valley leaders would rather cope with the disruptive fallout from rants like Yegge’s than lose the astute passion behind them.

To Google’s credit, the post remains public.  Read it and ask how your company might respond to a similar posting be it private or public?

Unlike Earth Girls, Platforms Don’t Come Easy

Let’s return to Yegge’s main point:  Is it possible to build and evolve product platforms in Google’s high autonomy engineering culture.

As a devoted Amazon customer and admirer of their laser focus on customer experience, I can’t help but flinch reading about the dark side of their culture. Jeff Bezos comes across as a brilliant but tenacious micro-manager:

Bezos is super smart; don’t get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.

But like Steve Jobs, it’s Bezos’ tenacious clarity that stomps out the resistance that impedes most platform implementations.  I suspect it’s helped by the fact that Amazon’s business roots are retail rather than technology.  Metaphorically, Bezos cares more about the hole than the shovel used to dig it. Googlers like their shovels.

As noted The Attractive Platform Strategy of Facebook, Amazon and Apple, creating an attractive platform is a top-down undertaking.  A platform strategy imposes boundaries that everyone has to operate within.  Bottom’s up freedom leads to divergence.  Yegge tells us that Bezos required all groups to use common service interfaces as well as design them to be externalizable or be fired.  No ambiguity there.

This discipline is essential because there are always good reasons for exceptions.  Once they creep in, compatibility and support issues escalate rapidly.  Unique test requirements, suppliers and support procedures blossom such that in a very short time, the company is inflicted with a platform’s development complexity and cost while receiving none of the benefits.

In cultures that value autonomy such as universities or Google, operating norms invite and protect the open expression of ideas.  The promised efficiency of a platform can’t compete in the present with the cost of the constraints that come with it.   If there’s an issue I have with Yegge’s call to action for Google it’s that by affirming the importance of Amazon and Apple’s dominant, detail oriented leaders he underestimates the change required from Google leaders.

Wait a minute…What about Google’s Android?  Android has grown faster than Apple’s IOS and is the dominant global mobile platform.  Android was purchased by Google in 2005.  It wasn’t created there.  Google leadership smartly gave Android’s leader, Andy Rubin, more autonomy to evolve Android than other acquisitions.

That makes the real question what can Google take from Android’s success and use elsewhere?

Who Owns the Ultimate Product?

Yegge points out that a key difference between a perfect product and a platform strategy is who gets to determine the end product.  Amazon leaves that to retailers while Apple and Facebook defer to app developers.  In Yegge’s words:

But when we (Google) take the stance that we know how to design the perfect product for everyone, and believe you me, I hear that a lot, then we’re being fools. You can attribute it to arrogance, or naivete, or whatever — it doesn’t matter in the end, because it’s foolishness. There IS no perfect product for everyone.

As Apple learned with the iPhone, winning at platforms adds new responsibilities (see Apple’s New Platform Citizenship).  Developers, not users, make or break a platform.   Developer tools and marketing support are essential to create and evolve a platform.

To be fair, Apple stumbled onto these lessons.  When the iPhone was introduced, it was not an open platform.  There were no apps, developer kit or even App Store. Historically, Apple fears losing control over the user experience to outsiders.  Give Jobs et. al. credit for changing direction.  Yegge is challenging Google to make a similar change.

Yegge uses Google’s new social network product, Google+, as an example.  Yegge’s view is that Google+ is an attractive social interaction application but far from a platform.  He smartly points out that Facebook’s platform strategy is the real source of their competitive advantage.  The basic Facebook application is just the dock you walk down to get onshore.

Two Lessons

The top team at Google must have been taken aback by the public release of Yegge’s comments.  Who doesn’t cringe at having their laundry exposed in public?

Lesson 1:  Silicon Valley leaders have learned that most organization secrets are really just matters told to one person at a time.  Going public wasn’t planned for but I bet has raised the quality of platform strategy discussion inside Google.

Lesson 2:  Yegge’s contrast of Amazon’s tight-fisted tenacity versus Google’s technologically superior but open sophistication underscores the leadership discipline required to harvest the benefits of a platform strategy.

To Steve Yegge…I know it wasn’t intended but thanks for the smart peek inside.

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