October 13, 2015

Layoffs and Loyalty in a Liquid Valley

Layoffs Are Painful. Even if the X Doesn’t Land on You
(Image: Dreamstime)

In seventeen years of work in Silicon Valley, I’ve only left a job by choice once — in 2011, when I made the jump from being a partner at my own consulting group to join Google. The other three times, my employer informed me my time was up, and at that my services were no longer needed, loyalty be damned.

In two cases, the startup I worked for ran out of funding, and once, the new VP wanted to change things up, bringing in somebody they previously worked with instead of going with the team they inherited. When it comes to a debate between the company succeeding versus your being comfortable, the CEO will never pick you.

Layoffs Suck.

Layoffs initiate feelings of numbness and outrage, fear and self-doubt. People cry at almost every layoff, even if their jobs were spared. Others yell or curse under their breath as they are escorted out of the building, having already handed in their security badges and seeing their work files, along with hundreds or thousands of email threads, no longer relevant, slip from their view.

I’ve seen companies hire armed guards to patrol the building, in case of retaliation, and once arrived at work the morning after a reduction in force to find a brick had been hurled through the HR VP’s office window, making the premises a crime scene.

Layoffs suck. Getting laid off sucks. Seeing coworkers lose their jobs sucks. Laying people off.. sucks. When a company cuts staff, they are admitting something has failed and needs to change. They’re not growing fast enough. Too many people were hired to do not enough things. Something isn’t working. Today, Twitter laid off 336 people. That’s a lot. Not the 30,000 reported layoffs at HP, but a significant number, one that wasn’t supposed to happen at one of the tech industry’s most discussed companies.

In recent months, gallons of digital ink have been spilled on the frothy technology market we see today. Talk of unicorns and skyrocketing Bay Area housing prices focuses a microscope on the top one percent of success, while many on the outside look in wonder why they haven’t joined the vaunted three comma club. Effort and skill aren’t enough. You need luck too.

I’ve been lucky enough (so to speak) to be present at a number of layoff rounds in my near two decades in the Valley. Let’s talk about it. It’s human.

May 1999

After eight months as an E-commerce analyst at a low-revenue startup during the dotcom heyday, my boss rolled up to my desk in his chair, and in halting English, crowned by his Russian accent, told me the lead investor was done with his little experiment, and we, in two weeks, would no longer have jobs.

His crowning quote: “You and Ferris (my colleague) are laid off. I am fired.”
More: Real Valley Stories: You Stay, Your Boss Has to Go

January 2001

Somehow I escaped that layoff with my desk intact. I took a different role with the sister company in the same building. While that was unusual, and I put in nearly two solid years at the company, it too fell on hard times.

Our $1 million in seed funding (at a $10 million valuation) was running dry. By the end of 2000, we were asked to work without salary, waiting for a follow-on round that never came.

A few weeks into the new year, my boss, the VP of Marketing, called me into a meeting to say he was laid off. In fact, all of sales, business development, and marketing, myself included, were done. Only the engineers would stay behind to clean up the mess.

I lingered around the full workday, wasting time on the Internet, until a friend flew into the San Francisco Airport, as we were set to go to MacWorld Expo the next day. He helped me lug my PowerMac G4 and monitor to my car, and I was done. The next day we saw Steve Jobs introduce iTunes.

November 2001

After a brief three weeks out of work, which seemed like an eternity, I landed at a fast-talking hardware storage startup with $30+ million in the bank, en route to a 72 million Series C round that May, which valued us above $300 million. But our gaudy goals, combined with product slips, ruthless competition and a shocked economy after 9/11 meant we just weren’t meeting expectations.

With rumors buzzing in the hallways for weeks, we cut 15–20% of staff on a Friday after Halloween, said goodbye to our crying coworkers, and were battered by a huge reality check. Our charismatic CEO swore up and down in a mandatory all hands meeting that afternoon in the company breakroom that we would never have to experience this again. He was wrong.

April 2002

Five months later, we had another all hands meeting. But our CEO was missing. In his place, the chairman of the board, who informed us that he, not kidding, was the new CEO and that our previous CEO was visiting family, in Italy.

There was no mob hit, but the following week, we browsed the Active Directory from our Windows machines at the office, and quietly sat shocked as we saw red minus signs on dozens more of our coworkers, whose accounts were immediately made inactive.

I looked up to see two of my best friends in the hard working Inside Sales team grab boxes at their desk, and punched the cubicle wall.

That afternoon, our Marketing Communications Manager, on his honeymoon, called me at my desk to ask about the rumors. I couldn’t tell him that by the time he got back to the office, he’d be without a job. The next Monday, he packed up and joined the ranks of the unemployed.

June 2005

Having somehow lived through the post 9/11 recession, raising money when we needed it, and delivering a product that just enough customers liked for us to keep the VC checks flowing in, we were on our third CEO, fifth head of marketing, and fourth sales lead. Or something like that. Our stock options had been reverse split twice, first at a 550–1 exchange, and later, 40–1. They were worthless. So there was a lot of grumbling.

Amidst the grumbling, some things were working. The product was starting to find a niche. A few verticals swore by it. And we were able to raise a series AA - a recapitalization that essentially rebooted our financial valuation, and trashed the cap table, wiping out previous investors.

One of the requirements to the raise? Another reduction in force. But this time, instead of sacking the underperforming or most-recently hired, the company excised the bad apples who talked badly about leadership and expected failure.

When their pink slips came, they were happy to get them, and the company was happy to see them go. My old boss, and the IT manager, who closed his own account, literally had tee times set up at the golf course that afternoon, and groused about how long the layoff was taking, so they could make their appointment.

February 2009

As I pored over the tech newswires, I saw news that our chief competitor,NetApp, had missed earnings, and cut hundreds of jobs. Our newest marketing VP, the sixth to hold the role, had joined us from the NAS storage giant, so during our sales meeting, I tapped her on the shoulder and gave her the news. Her eyebrows shot up. She got up from her laptop, grabbed her phone and went to the hallway to start making calls.

One of those calls was to an ex-colleague of hers who had been impacted. The new marketing VP’s vision? Bring her old friend in as someone she knew, and give me the gift I’d watched play out in front of me many times — the layoff.

By April, I too got pink slipped and was on my own. My running clock of eight and a half years of loyalty got reset to zero.

You can lament the frequent job changers,
but the company doesn’t have loyalty to you.

In business, and particularly in the insular, navel gazing, Silicon Valley, it’s easy go Pollyanna and only talk about good news. The billionaires. The parties. The VC funds and App Store rankings. On the flip side, it can be easy to demonize the bad actors or complain about traffic, and the ripples of corporate decisions. But the truth is always in the fuzzy middle.

Loyalty is wonderful when you find a passion and team you can believe in. But it can all be discarded in an instant, through a fight with a manager, or a merger or acquisition that sees you as redundant. A stock market crash. A change in heart. A bad quarter.

Layoffs happen. They can make you question everything you worked for. All the thousands of hours you put in caring about the little things that got you to where you are. All the conversations and debates that made the product you own.

You have to reexamine what’s important and decide on a new trajectory. And it’s okay to take time to both feel and to heal. Being emotional is part of what makes us human, even in a data-driven world being taken over by robots. So yes, it hurts, and you are going to be angry. Furious even. But being laid off in 2015, in an active tech job world is a much different event than in the tighter, pessimistic environments of 2001 and 2008.

Twitter’s job losses today won’t be the last we’ll hear from current and past unicorns. Those who ride the highest, like Icarus, can be burned by the sun.

Disclosures: I work at Google, which is an occasional partner to Twitter, and assumed competitor in some ways. I have friends at Twitter. And any examples I use here related to my previous work experience are intended to be accurate, even if I missed a date or anecdote.

August 31, 2015

Having a Clear Call to Action Can Drive Real Results

As a member of the Google Analytics team, I regularly field questions at events or on our social channels about how online and offline activity can drive results, and what metrics have value. As no two businesses are the same, it's critical to determine the status of your company and find if your activity can bring impact to results that matter, be they clicks, leads, registrations, opportunities or real revenue. When the goals are determined, and you have stakeholder buyin, then you can start your work. (See: Measure What Matters Most)

Among the most common questions I see are those around driving visitors to a specific call to action. Most websites have many different routes for visitors to take, and the many choices can be overwhelming. But in some other cases, only one outcome is required, and all efforts should be taken to get the user there.

Nearly 15 years ago, I held a role with the inconspicuous title of eMarketing Manager at a company whose product line was in stealth mode. As we approached the launch date, our small marketing team debated how we were going to handle the first version of our website, and just what our calls to action were going to be.

Most Sites Have Many Calls to Action, Which Distracts Visitors

We knew our product would have a long sales cycle of more than six months, and the average sales price would be north of a hundred thousand dollars per unit. We didn't yet have any customer success stories, and our target markets were an educated guess, based on how we thought the product would perform, and colleagues' experience selling competitive products. We didn't even really have photos of the hardware we expected to sell, as that too was a work in progress.

But what we did have was a launch date, to coincide with the announcement of our product and corresponding news coverage. We had to ship a site with our new company name, and it had to give just enough information to keep people interested, even if we couldn't deliver all the details.

The BlueArc product page in February of 2001 (via Archive.org)

After some debate, we decided to make the website a massive demand generation tool, with every page driving us to a single call to action: Sign up for our newsletter. Every page had a button on the sidebar encouraging new signups, and where data was scarce, we had links to the newsletter. Even before we'd sent out a single issue, we had thousands of registered emails, ready to be updated.

Our Solution: A Single Call to Action from All Pages

Our monthly newsletter, which shipped with my name as the sender for more than eight years, gave us a consistent customer database to talk to for years, and was responsible, in the long run, for prospects, ongoing communication to soft leads, and updating the press and analysts.

This result was from keeping our mission simple. Instead of trying to dazzle visitors with things to download, an array of phone numbers to call, or videos to watch, we just took the casual visitor coming from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and gave them the chance to hear from us again, so that when our message was ready for them, we would have that channel in place.

When you know what to measure, driving toward a goal becomes easier. And if you don't, not only are you confused, but so are your users. This is a lesson I learned firsthand a decade and a half ago.

Disclosures: I work at Google on Google Analytics, and worked at BlueArc from 2001-2009.

July 30, 2015

Tech Company Shifts Position Sunnyvale as Major Hub for Next Decade

In Silicon Valley, some of the most prosperous cities and most sought after zip codes to live, raise a family and send kids to school, are directly dependent on the proximity to corporate headquarters of the leading technology companies. As some of the biggest companies are running out of room in their headquarter cities, the resulting demand for continued growth is putting pressure on neighboring communities. Sunnyvale looks like ground zero for this next wave.

Cupertino, home to Apple, the most valuable company on the planet, has a median home price north of $1.7 million dollars, up 15% year over year. Mountain View, home to Google, has a median home price above $1.3 million, up 20% year over year. And these high marks significantly trail the more upscale suburban locales such as Palo Alto ($2.44 million average) and Los Altos ($2.65 million average). Quietly sitting wedged between Mountain View and Cupertino, in a state of tug of war between Apple, Google and more companies, like Yahoo!, LinkedIn and NetApp, is Sunnyvale ($1.28 million average). Sunnyvale has not only seen the fastest increase in average home prices over the last 12 months, but is set up to see even more demand as jobs flow to the city. As a biased Sunnyvale homeowner and area employee, this is very interesting to watch.

Bay Area Housing Prices: High and Increasing

As the total land available to new workers entering the area or existing employees looking to leave apartments and find a home near their office stays static, the old rules of supply and demand are taking hold. Sunnyvale home prices are up 23% year over year, at a pace slightly above the surrounding neighborhoods, higher than the aforementioned Cupertino, Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos, but even quicker than Facebook's home, Menlo Park (up 17% y/y), or San Francisco, home to Twitter and many others (up 13% y/y).

Sunnyvale's Average Increase Highest Over the Last 12 Months

So why is this? And who cares? As somebody who has been working in the Valley since the rise and fall of the first dotcom boom in the late 1990s, I've seen ebbs and flows in the economy impact hiring, funding, area traffic and housing prices. Big names that once were major land owners and employers, like Sun Microsystems and SGI, can virtually disappear. But when large companies present stability and prosperity, they can be a magnet for skilled workers. And in the last two years, you have seen major announcements from Valley leaders, like Google, Apple and LinkedIn, announcing new campuses or building into Sunnyvale, as offices in neighboring Mountain View and Cupertino become saturated.

While much press has been spilt over Apple's amazing spaceship campus under construction in Cupertino, what few note is that this work, taking over an older Hewlett Packard lot, is snugly cornered on the border of Sunnyvale city limits, and the company has been snapping up buildings all over the city to manage growth. LinkedIn has been building sparkling new buildings in downtown Sunnyvale and looks poised to move thousands of workers there soon. Google has made headlines as they've taken over buildings from Juniper Networks and even took over nearby Moffet Field.

This expanded pressure from Cupertino on the South border, and Mountain View to the West and North, is pushing Sunnyvale costs and demand upward, much like new mountain ranges are formed under pressure from moving tectonic plates. And this isn't to say that Sunnyvale doesn't already have significant employment hubs of their own. The city's largest employers include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Synopsys, Broadcom, Infinera, Nokia, and and many of those I've already mentioned, like NetApp, Juniper and Yahoo!. But the new occupants in the city come armed with significant war chests and momentum, almost certainly strong enough to ward off any turndown in the hot tech economy or an eventual recession.

The stats are Sunnyvale are fairly pedestrian as Bay Area cities go. The last census reported just shy of 150,000 residents, and a workforce of nearly 120,000. The city has adapted to economic shifts, from agriculture to defense to microprocessing through Silicon Valley's first wave, and now, the Internet. With Google bordered to the East by water and marshlands, and Apple by rolling hills of past Highway 280, the growth point is aiming straight at Sunnyvale. Watch this space.

Disclosures: I work at Google, and live in Sunnyvale.

May 14, 2015

Preaching to Our Choirs and Setting Up Blinders for All Else

Just about four years ago, Eli Pariser raised some very real flags about the "filter bubble", concerned that many of us on the Web were limiting our viewpoints by following those people and companies with whom we were most aligned. Our personal positions on politics, sports, and yes, even technology, have us in a constant state of affirmation seeking, and the desire to be part of a group of like-minded people, to reinforce our position and strengthen our decided upon beliefs, that we just might be right. And should somebody in our streams disagree with us, or launch into an off topic rant, we can easily unfollow them, and "clean up" the channel.

At the time, thanks to tools like my6sense, where I was an advisor, and later VP of marketing, I said the filter bubble was "not bad" as options were always there to see new voices. While my6sense may not have been a massive consumer success, it was amazingly smart tool that solved the problem for me. But in the ensuing time, it's become even more clear that people, through constant following and unfollowing on our many social networks, are growingly subscribed to homogenous streams, and the content creators, be they bloggers, Tweeters, photographers or anything else, are limiting the subjects they discuss, to continue feeding the faithful.

As someone who gained a following talking about tech, new tools and communities, I've staked my position on the Web as an early adopter, a cloud proponent, a measurement advocate, and engaged social media participant. I have a pretty good idea of what topics will resonate with my audiences on the various streams, and what won't. I know that my discussing items outside of my bubble are seen as noise to those who have chosen to follow me, and they vote with their engagement, or lack of it.

More than nine years ago, shockingly, I saw this coming, when I talked about a Web divided, where people who espoused a certain view would flock toward an extreme community and not be interested in the opposite view. But it goes beyond picking a side in a discussion. What's happened is that people set up blinders to avoid discussion of anything else - including the content creators themselves.

There's a lesser-used feature in TweetDeck, which enables you to view a Twitter stream through the eyes of another user, surfacing public tweets from accounts they follow. During the Baltimore riots, while a huge portion of Twitter's audience was living through the accounts through the news media, or sharing their experiences about race and police, the Silicon Valley tech bubble largely stayed silent, as if there were two different worlds that didn't connect. I could log in to TweetDeck and pick any prominent voice in tech and see that, in their streams, there was no talk of Baltimore. Or race. Or Ferguson. While people marched in the streets, and dodged rocks or tear gas, the digerati continued to talk about who was raising money, the quality of pitch decks, or complaints about housing prices in San Francisco.

My tweets about Baltimore arresting police offers or links to why the situation exploded in the first place went unnoticed - while the streams continued to debate the future of wearables or the latest entrant into Unicorn status as a billion dollar startup. It was more than an echo chamber. It was a wind tunnel. And my daily journey into Feedly seemed to be no different than any other time. The same articles were written by the same people, about the same things. The same headlines begging you to click were thrown out there, only to be reshared and retweeted in a rush for page views.

Oh. I see you're tweeting about something that's not tech.

Maybe we've grown fatigued of outrage. Maybe there have been enough dramas and disasters and disappointments that we just don't react publicly. But I think there's more to it. We have been taught, thanks to our constant focus on engagement and numbers, that we have to speak to a niche. VCs talk to VCs. Engineers talk to Engineers. Startups talk about being a startup. We're becoming afraid of expressing a position that may cause a debate. We're refusing to talk about things that are uncomfortable, and we're closing our eyes to people who don't always care about the things we do. And I think that's dangerous. It sets us up to further carve out our cliques and become closed minded.

I mildly apologize for the irregular posts here of late. But part of the reason, beyond being busy, or focused on other things, is I don't want to be more of the same. The world is a vibrant tapestry, not monochrome, and I don't want to be the thirty-second person to talk about the same things everyone else is. We should embrace a world focused on curiosity, not compliance.