Yahoo Culture – What was, is, and Could Be

I am not a professional journalist. There are no ads on this blog, and I have a tiny readership. I use this blog to drive my consulting work in alternative channel marketing and product strategy. Therefore, I don’t have the kind of attributable and authoritative sources that other bloggers have on the inside of Yahoo.

What I do have is a small group of friends and professional acquaintances that are subject to all of the fear and loathing that career uncertainty brings. These folks are not VP’s or Directors, they are editors and community managers, product managers, and software engineers. I met most of them through my work at France Telecom (where I was a contract analyst for product strategy). FT opened doors for an ‘under the radar guy’, like myself. Lots of small Bay Area companies wanted to work with this EU telecom giant, but the only survivor of the internet’s halcyon days to visit the lab (while I was there) was Yahoo.

Anyhoo, when news of a round of anticipated layoffs started to surface, I wanted to collect some opinion from my small cadre of Yahoo contacts – not necessarily for a feature article on Yahoo buzz, but more for a perspective piece on the Valley’s work culture. I’m fairly certain that most folks in the techbiz are aware that prior to the Microsoft take over news, and long before the layoff news, there was a fairly rigorous re-organization taking place at Yahoo that coincided roughly with the departure of Terry Semel.

You may also recall the famous Peanut Butter letter by Brad Garlinghouse (a TechCrunch link here). The Garlinghouse manifesto was the early warning of an impending internal shakeup. Within my network of Yahoos, folks who perform the daily work at ye olde Purple Giant, all have been moved to new departments, placed under new managers, or have been bumped up or down a notch in perceived responsibilities. As a group, these salt-of-the-earth folks all received a small (though by no means symbolic) pay raise.

The following article is a smattering of paraphrased narratives collected with permission. As far as attribution, I was not able to secure the release of their identities, which is understandable in this climate of uncertainty. Perhaps, when the dust settles, said one, we can go on the record.

So, take these observations for what they are: thoughts and anxieties from the collective consciousness of Big Purple’s mid-level ranks, as paraphrased by an amateur blogger.

It’s a take on the culture of the valley we love and loathe so much:

Wilensky (That’s me): Did you see this coming? How far back were takeover or buyout rumors percolating?

Developer Community Manager (5 years at Yahoo): An implied threat of massive reorganization and /or a change in ownership has been in the air, like a sword of Damocles, for as long as I have worked at Yahoo. I personally believe that Yahoo’s woes predate the conception that Yahoo is being muscled by the likes of Google. Competition is a constant, and the execution of imaginative products is the true variable.

Internal Developer, Messaging Infrastructure (7 years tenure): I think that Yahoo was, in the past, the place to work if you had sexy, far reaching ideas, and this is still somewhat true. But, on the down side, there has been a lack of competent vision to weave these great technology threads together into a compelling property. I hate to blame this on management, it’s such a cop out. But anyone, inside or outside, can see at a mere glance that the destination known as, “Yahoo”, has become a diffuse, confused mess. It’s not a case of too many cooks, it’s a case of no Chief Chef. When a company’s public face shows confusion, it casts a pall on the rest of the property. This is one thing that Google has done well – a clean face, a strong set of services. This brand confusion (is Yahoo a media or personal information utility, or both?), has led to a concomitant weakness in revenue services.

Advertising Network Partner Relations Manager (8 years tenure): I second that. I know your question was regarding the reorganization, buyout, or otherwise, but I think that this brand and product confusion has hurt Yahoo in its advertising business – which pays the bills around here. If an advertising client can’t easily touch all aspects of a property, and if that page, that presence, is a confusing mishmash of mail, messaging, entertainment, etc., it makes my job harder.

Wilensky: What made Yahoo so different from other Web giants? Can it come back, and how would you have the brass effect such change?

Community blog editor (2 years): It seems to me, on the media side, that the marching orders have been very clear, but the leadership has been changing for the two years I have been an editor. I’ve had three managers. This has been unsettling. I would suggest that trying to reign in this management churn would go a long way towards healing some of the misgivings.

Senior Data Center Engineer (Just took a Quiet Buyout after 6 years): Yahoo was a place, even before I came here, where the bright and able could write a ticket, get a hearing, and sometimes walk a product to the top of the heap and onto the home page. Yahoo was a meritocracy, in many ways. That reputation is somewhat eroded now, lip service if you will. I was so pleased when Flckr and Delicious were brought on board, because I thought it might foreshadow a return to that philosophy of innovation and merit.

Me: Well, did these acquisitions in actuality bring back that ‘old purple spirit’?

Possibly, there may have been a short period of hope, but in the end…no. Somewhere around the Semel coronation, Yahoo went off the tracks.

In many ways, the hiring of a Terry Semel was understandable, given his entertainment credentials, but he propagated toxic management practices that Sue Decker only reinforced. The vision of the technical leadership was subverted.

As we see, Semel had to go. Now, Yahoo is in a quandary. Decker should go ASAP. Can I say something else?

(Me: Sure!)

We see how Yahoo lost its way due to bad execution in re-jiggering an internet property into a major entertainment portal. Not that one can’t pull it off, but by shaking up the culture of the technologists, and creating an unfocused Frankenstein and hodgepodge of services, we ceded the high ground to Google, who, though expansive in their services reach, always kept their focus on clear cut services and easily identifiable applications and destinations foremost. They also beat everyone at advertising, but that is an outgrowth of doing search well, and building a great infrastructure for keywords ads.

Hey! It’s me, Wilensky, the author of this blog. Everyone simmer down! Eat your sushi.

Question: “Did that last answer sum up for you what might be at the crux of the matter? (Heads nod).

The group went on for a while about a toxic distaste for Microsoft culture, which was not entirely unfounded as two of the interviewees were former Microsofties. They also drank some more, and started grousing about their managers getting long maternity leaves.

Me: Come on now, please! I ask you, who is staying until the bitter end, or a buyout, hands please?

All hands are raised. These are not, as I stated at the beginning of the article, Veeps and Directors, these are Yahoo’s working class.

Ok, everyone go home, get out of my house, I’m tired of writing about Yahoo. I’m a self employed consultant, and this writing about the topic du jour is very difficult.

Hey, before you all leave, do you think one of you guys can get me a contract over there? Guys?


Whew, It’s quiet here again.