My journey at Slide (part 3)
Prior to joining Slide, a friend of mine “whurley” had nicknamed me the “Angry Young Man” which I promptly put on my first set of business cards (my current business cards list my title as “Meta-Chief Platform Architect, Enterprise Edition”, I received them after mentioning a failed poaching attempt by LinkedIn to Max); when Top Friends went dark on Facebook, I was a little more than an “angry young man.”
Given my close involvement with the product, the amount of sleepless nights working on it, the actions against Top Friends felt personal to me, regardless of the posturing between Slide and Facebook’s executives. As hours turned into days offline, it became clear to me that the suspension of the application was far less about our privacy hole and far more about Facebook making an example out of Top Friends to the rest of the platform development community. The message was heard loud and clear by the majority of the developers that I knew, this is not your platform, these are not your users and you will play by our rules or we will wipe you from the face of the site. Building on the platform was not only no more fun, it was also a risky business decision.
At the time of the suspension, Keith and I had already started discussing what a “TopFriends.com” might look like, as the signals of platform instability for applications were already being sent. When Top Friends went offline, I prepared a few page outline for Max and Keith detailing “my vision” for what Top Friends would become, I was convinced by that time that its future lie as a social network unto itself, rather than a network contained bu another network (yo dawg..). Not content to simply be “vanity and personal expression” inside of Facebook, I wanted Top Friends to become a separate entity by itself, your VIP club on the internet, at one point there was even executive support for the drawing of users away into a destination site for Top Friends. When the seven days of suspension were over and Top Friends came back online, Slide’s strategy shifted drastically. Our new mission for TF on Facebook was to “get as close to Facebook as you can,” we were to integrate into a user’s experience as much as conceivably possible. Previously we had wanted to run as far away from Facebook as we could, taking our users with us, but the fear that was enstilled by the application suspension caused us to rethink that stance and push Top Friends to be a squeeky clean platform citizen, while we contemplated a possible exodus for FunSpace and SuperPoke!.
Around this time in Slide’s history I became quite jaded and cynical with regards to the platform, Top Friends had been neutered by Facebook, and my notion of what Top Friends should have been was neutered by Max. Regardless, we still had plenty of work that needed to be done to try to succeed with our new strategy. Months prior, Tony Hsieh (not the Zappos guy) the original Top Friends PM had failed to win the visa lottery and moved back to China, leaving TF without a product manager for some time. While we continued to look for senior PM to take on the role, I had to play both product and engineering manager (with help in both places every now and again). Quite the twist of fate for me, I had often poked fun at PMs at Slide, once creating a powerpoint (one should speak the language) titled “PM Flowchart”. The presentation consisted of one slide, with a fairly simple state diagram on it, one block labeled “Write Spec” had an arrow pointing to another block labeled “Bitch.” which pointed back at “Write Spec”. Suffice to say, product managers and I usually had a tenuous relationship.
Passionate about the product to begin with, I started meeting more and more often with Max and Keith to discuss product strategy for TF, in between doing my “real job” of Engineering Manager. Some meetings Keith and Max would square off and I would sit back and watch, other times Keith and I squared off against Max, I rarely took Max’s side against Keith’s though. Not that I always disagreed with Max, but he was at a slight disadvantage in these discussions, Keith and I generally shared a lot of fundamental ideas of what TF should be, stemming from months of discussing the product by his desk before he ever “officially” worked with the project. The transition over a year and a half from quivering in fear as the director of engineering cursed at me on Dave’s house phone, to arguing with the CEO about the product he pitched me on, was surreal to say the least. How I didn’t get fired is either a testament to my charm or Max’s patience.
In fall of 2008, when Seema finally joined as the Top Friends product manager, not only was I more than ready to relinquish the post, Top Friends was in the midst of an identity crisis. Our “facebook zerg rush” strategy of getting closer and closer to the platform played out as you might of expected (hindsight and all), Facebook redesigned the profile, changed viral communications channels and did a lot of things that were likely good for Facebook, but terrible for applications. TF had a lot of momentum on the “old profile” thanks to users dragging the TF profile box all the way up on their profiles. When Facebook rolled out their new profile which put applications not in the backseat, but in the way-back seat, the strategy of “be lovey dovey with Facebook” started to break down, they weren’t being lovey dovey back.
Times were also changing outside of Top Friends at Slide, the SuperPoke! Pets product was starting to take off and actually make money directly from users. This was important! Users, giving us money, for pixels! Brilliant! Being a much more reliable revenue stream than the advertising oriented model that FunSpace, SuperPoke! and Top Friends had been built around, Pets quickly became the “top” product at Slide. With ad revenue drying up for Top Friends, we were tasked with experimenting with virtual currency (like Pets) and ultimately “premium items” (like Pets) within Top Friends. It seemed almost as if Top Friends was changing visions, strategies and directions on a bi-weekly basis. One week we were building virtual currency experiments with “Top Dollars”, the next, virtual economy experiments with an “Own your friends’ profiles” feature, the next, premium virtual goods with “Top Gifts”. As the “Top Friends guy” and the manager of the engineering team, I was so confused and disoriented about what we actually did and where we were actually heading, I didn’t stand a chance at convincing Paul, Geoff and Jason of it.
2008 winding down, the writing was on the wall, Top Friends was not going to live long, at least the Top Friends Team wasn’t. We had gained a reputation of being very self-sufficient and competent, but with that autonomy came uncertainty from outsiders. I regularly had to remind coworkers that I was a Slide engineer, not a Top Friends engineer, regardless of the TF team’s internal view of itself as a “microstartup.” When we failed to meet goals set out for us, it was decided that the staff behind Top Friends were too valuable to spend time on a failing product.
Jason, Paul and Seema went to start a new project, while Geoff and I, together since the desktop client days, joined the Server/Infrastructure team. My personal “love” for Top Friends had all but dissolved by this point, I was sick of Top Friends, I was sick of Facebook, I was sick of policy, I didn’t care all that much about the product anymore. The breaking up of the team though, was crushing. As far war metaphors go, the TF team was a small rag-tag group of guerrillas, capable of taking large projects and finishing them in record time. We often talked about what we did as “playing jazz music” because our work had an improvisational style, but the trust and understanding of where we all fit into the act, allowed us to tackle large tasks in stride; that was all over though. The dream team was broken up.
My time on the server team at Slide is unfortunately a boring story of working with stellar engineers capable of writing solid code and deploying it without incident. As exciting as wood filler “this worked out just fine, the end.” After years of frenzy with Top Friends and the Facebook platform, my first project for the server team took three weeks to build, was pushed without a hitch and has only required two minor updates since. With my nose to the grindstone building services and scalable architecture, I went months without particularly concerning myself with “product direction”, company strategy and their ilk. The closest I would come to application development would be jumping up into application code to fix bugs, all the while cursing app developers’ laziness while conveniently forgetting how often I was guilty of the same offense in my tenure with Top Friends.
When I finally stuck my head back up, near the end of the summer, I started to realize that I was working at a different company than I remember joining. Slide had grown tremendously and changed direction once again. Since stepping back from the front-lines, I had changed and Slide had changed too.
It was about time Slide and I started seeing other people.
Continue on to the end