My last day at Yahoo!

05/14/2010
After over four years, spread over several teams and two continents, today will be my last day at Yahoo!

It’s been a pretty extraordinary ride, all things considered. I came into the company at the same time as a whole bunch of extraordinary people, a number of whom I’ve had the honour of working with at some time or another. I’ve met a whole bunch of brilliant, new, amazing people through the company – far too many in fact to list with any degree of comprehensiveness.

I’ve moved halfway across the planet to San Francisco and made a new life for myself, delivered talks on multiple continents, worked on and launched projects and done work that I consider the very best of my career, some in public and much behind the scenes. I’ve got a green card. I’ve filed a few patents with some brilliant people. I’ve seen the absolute best of Yahoo! and a fair amount of its worst. I’ve had some amazing highs and some significant lows. And–with the exception of falling over last year and paralysing my left arm for six months, which I could have done without–I don’t regret a moment of it.

There really is too much to talk about, but there are a few projects in particular that stick in my memory – projects that I’m proud to have been a part of.

The Yahoo! Hack Day programme was started by Chad Dickerson in 2006. He’d started off running them internally – twenty-four hour periods where creative designers and engineers could build and show off new features, technologies and projects to their peers using Yahoo!’s technology. Towards the end of 2006 he’d decided to take it to the next level and put together an amazing Open Hack Day at the Sunnyvale Campus for the general public. The event was an amazing success, loads of people came and produced some amazing stuff. He even managed to get Beck to come and play for everyone.

So when Matt McAlister started talking to me about doing an event like it in London, it sounded like a great idea. And after talking to old colleagues at the BBC, it started to look like a joint event between the two organisations might be even better. But the event really started to come together when Matthew Cashmore from the BBC and Yahoo!’s Anil Patel and Elaine Pearce got involved. Matthew Cashmore really was a force of nature, pushing us continually think bigger and grander and the event genuinely would not have happened without him. He was extraordinary. In fact he’s the main reason, we ended up at Alexandra Palace

The Hack Day event, which some of you will remember was so awesome that it got struck by lightning represented everything I think is great about our industry – a collaborative, creative, imaginative, productive event, full of passionate, optimistic people. And it would never have happened without all the great volunteers from both Yahoo! and the BBC.

Another project that I think sums up some of these qualities was Brickhouse – a new product development arm that Caterina brought into being at Yahoo in 2007. I was brought over to the US to act as Head of Product for the team, and the following year was one of the most productive and creative of my life. There’s a truism that consolidating your creative work into ‘external innovation units’ is a bad idea, and I tend to agree with that. But Brickhouse wasn’t about consolidating innovation into one part of the company, it was about adding another string to the company’s bow – it was about supplementing the creative work going on around the rest of the company with small (sometimes tiny) groups of creative people developing and launching new ideas that simply wouldn’t get developed elsewhere.

Obviously, not everything about Brickhouse was perfect, but even if I look back just at the things we got out the door in that year, I remain proud of work that was never less than prescient and interesting. Among (much) other work in development, we launched innovative platforms for achievements online, services to open up live broadcast to anyone, open platforms for sharing your location – all ideas to this day I’m quite comfortable standing behind.

It would take too long to list everyone who worked at, passed through, or helped out projects at Brickhouse–and I’d be bound to forget someone in the process–so instead I’m just going to mention (again) what a pleasure it was to work with Salim Ismail, Chad Dickerson and Mike Folgner. I hope I get to work with all of them again at some point.

The last project I want to talk about is Fire Eagle. When I first joined Yahoo! in 2005, Simon Willison and I wrote a list of some areas we thought could be really fascinating to work on, and which could be a really huge deal over the coming years. We’d become really interested in location and had come to the conclusion that every website on the planet could be enhanced in some way if you could add some element of location.

We didn’t work on that idea immediately, but it stuck with us, and a couple of years later we started playing with it more seriously with Paul Hammond and a small team at Yahoo Research Berkeley (whose work had initially inspired us). One thing lead to another, we brought the project into Brickhouse and launched it late in 2008.

I’m incredibly proud of Fire Eagle. The idea was early, perhaps, but clearly in the right direction. We could see location on the near horizon as a really big idea and we could also see some of the problems and worries it might cause. We spent an incredible amount of time thinking about the privacy implications of users sharing their locations. Many other services see privacy as a problem and attempt to gloss over it for their users. We thought of it as an opportunity and made the privacy features the core part of the project. Users could choose where to share, how much to share, hide themselves and change or retract their permissions at any time. I think we progressed the state of the art in that area. Someone once referred to Fire Eagle as the Pixies of the latest batch of Location Services, and if that’s at all true, it may be the biggest compliment I’ve ever received.

But yet again, the most important thing for me with Fire Eagle was the people I got to work with. If I had to say one thing to those who wonder how to make their companies more creative, it would be to hire amazing people. Amazing people are so much more important than ideas, because amazing people are idea factories. And when you find teams of people who can generate good ideas, enjoy working together and are also experts in their craft–and your work is just to support them, help them focus and get problems out of their way–then honestly, you can’t fail.

So I want to personally thank Seth Fitzsimmons, Samantha Tripodi, Jeannie Yang, Chris Martin, Ben Ward, Kevin Ryan, Phil Pearson, Rabble, Arnab Nandi, Simon King, Mor Naaman, Ayman Shamma and everyone else who worked on Fire Eagle at any point in its life. I learned an enormous amount from all of you.

Over the last year, I’ve been working to take some of the ideas that lie behind Fire Eagle and apply them more widely across Yahoo! by looking after the company’s User Location platforms. There’s not a lot more I can say about that at the moment, but I’m sure that you’ll see some of the stuff we’ve been working on over the coming months and years.

So what’s next? Firstly I’m taking a bit of a break. I’m going to be spending the next couple of months relaxing and visiting my friends and family in the UK. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to digest the last few years a bit and maybe do a bit more writing. And I’m already talking to a few people about some interesting new projects for later in the year. If you want to be one of those people, then feel free to contact me at tom [at] plasticbag [dot] org. It’s an exciting time to be stepping out into the industry. Wish me luck!

[Apologies to anyone who is having trouble posting comments. I think a server upgrade a while ago broke some stuff. I’ll try and sort it out once I’ve slept for a couple of days.]