Thursday, July 1, 2010

Personality and Corporatism

Okay, two points along the theme of personality and corporatism:

GOOGLE

If you go to Youtube right now and look up any video (I suggest Diego Maradona's goal of the century), you'll see a little soccer ball icon next to the volume control (sadly unavailable on embedded videos). If you click it, it turns on the vuvuzelas.

Needless to say, this is funny.

What it indicates, though, is that someone at Google's Youtube division went up to their boss and said, "Hey wouldn't it be funny if we put a little button that put on the sound of vuvuzelas?" And their boss said, "Yes."

Obviously, this is a product of their much-lauded "twenty percent time." But separate to that, it indicates that Google is a company which values humor. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a love note to Google -- Google is a large enough company to encapsulate both the best and worst of everything -- but this is one aspect that seems ancillary, but is actually a big part of their success. After all, I think one of Google's greatest successes aren't the big things they do ("hey look at us we're going to revolutionize communication with Google Wave... no? anyone?"), but rather the small usability things they incorporate.

For instance, I laughed incredibly hard after I noticed that Google Labs has a little widget that checks your outgoing email for the word "Attached" or "Attachment," and if you use that word but don't attach anything, it says, "It looks like you forgot to attach something..." It's like an actually helpful version of Clippy, minus the annoying avatar. And I can bet you 100% that this feature started as a joke, because before someone did it it seemed like a joke.

I say this because at the company where I work at, there's the same sort of sense of humor. Back when it was a small company, the humor got expressed in the product -- the word "Cubulator" was used, for instance, as was the name "Shazzam" and a few meaningless acronyms.

But as the company has grown, we work with a lot of big, heavy-hitting clients now. And they have very little senses of humor when it comes to the product. This is not to say that the individuals we work with don't have a sense of humor, they're great guys -- it's just that humor in a product gives them the impression that the product is un-serious. They don't want an un-serious product made by a company that doesn't take their concerns seriously.

It comes up a lot in terms of process maturity. We do things loosely, because we're a small company that doesn't need a lot of formal processes the way that a multibillion dollar multinational might need to. But they have requirements that people they work with conform to certain processes. So slowly, over time, they try to remake the companies they work with or contract from in their own image.

And thus, programmers wind up keeping their humor to themselves, because they're focusing on delivering a serious product. I'm glad that Google continues to fight for the right of humor to remain not just part of employee culture but part of the public face of the company.

KAGAN

Which brings me to Elana Kagan, just to say that I find her to be a very corporate person -- she's really, really gone out of her way not to leave a paper trail of any wild opinions or anything. So I was expecting a cold, ironclad stance towards questioning. Instead, she went with humor a number of times:

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