Big companies, small companies

September 25, 2013

Large companies are notorious for succumbing to an excess of process; the term "small company" brings to mind a nimble organization, capable of making decisions quickly without red tape.

The other side of this agility is a lack of oversight. I once read (maybe Spolsky?) decscribe a launch checklist (e.g. "step 4: get legal to check trademarks") as a list of everything that's ever gone wrong at a company. Each accident throughout a company's history is followed by a postmortem that concludes with adding another item to the checklist of roadblocks ("next time, also verify the relevant twitter account is available"). With each year the process grows.

I've been thinking about this recently due to reading Nelson's post about getting spammed by Google Wallet. (I feel it's maybe worth highlighting my disclaimer: though I work at Google, I am a mere cog; my facts may well be wrong because I only know what I read online.) Nelson posted that he got an email from Google full of ads, without a link to opt out, and with a footer that claimed the message was a "mandatory service announcement".

I was surprised to read this in part because for the product I work on we recently wanted to email our customers. (Distinct from Wallet, "customers" here refers to people who've actually paid us money for a service we provide.) To send an email from Google, there is of course a process; as far as I understand it this involves integrating with a Google-wide service that manages tracking whether a given user had opted in to emails, provides them opt outs, etc. "Process" is often a bad word but here it seems reasonable enough. (I wasn't involved with this integration, I just heard about it. Remember: cog.)

And though I don't know the facts of what happened with this Wallet mail, it appears as if someone skipped the process. "It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission", we cry... and then spam. What went wrong? The missing element, I think, is that with a smaller group of people it's easier to get in alignment about goals and values. At some point, someone somewhere decided that sending this mail this way was ok when you and I can say it's not. (Nelson, who started at Google in 2001, didn't like it either.)

So maybe another way of looking at process is that it's a necessary evil, used to defend an institution against the wrong values. (This isn't to defend the idea but rather recognize it as inevitable.) Another way of looking at it is that this kind of process becomes necessary when you can no longer trust one another to do the right thing, which is pretty depressing and more or less the reason I quit working on Chrome.

PS: For all I know, in this particular case maybe someone just accidentally misclicked the wrong checkbox when sending the email, and the only lesson we'll learn is to add yet another step to the process to double-check the checkbox.