All posts by Stephen Darlington

Facebook: The inside story

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. And the odd thing is that it feels like Steven Levy isn’t either.

I’ve read most of Levy’s previous books and, while he’s never been uncritical, there has always been a mostly positive spin. From Apple, to Google, to the “hacker culture” (including Stallman) I don’t recall any of his previous works quite being so down on their subjects.

It’s to the credit of Zuckerberg and his crew, then, that they were so involved in its creation. All the big names were interviewed on the record and, frankly, few come off well. Zuckerberg himself comes across as petty, jealous, arrogant and not terribly likeable. Even Steve Jobs had a fun, mischievous side.

That’s not to say the Levy doesn’t give credit where it’s due. The coverage comes across as fair, so maybe it’s more fair to say that reality is skewed against Facebook than this book!

It covers everything from Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook projects, through to its founding, move to California, early growth and the last decade of being practically ubiquitous.

Most of the early phases have been well documented elsewhere (including in the Social Network movie), which made the discussion of some of Facebooks biggest missteps, and the threads that connect them, the highlight. The focus on growth at all costs, the organisational split between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and the belief that connecting people is an unalloyed good seem to be the key to most failings and, disturbingly, they don’t seem to have learned that lesson.

Overall, it’s a fascinating, well written book about a troubling company. If we can’t avoid the company, we should at least try to understand it.

Meetings

After university, when I first started working, I jealously noticed people leaving their desks and attending meetings. I was left sitting at my desk, bashing out code. What was going on? What exciting things were being discussed without me? Sometimes they’d come back from the meeting and ask a random question. It was all very mysterious.

A while later I started getting invited to these meetings. I found what was being discussed. I discovered the mystery.

I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to avoid them.

Of course, meetings are not inherently bad. Sharing information, collaborating, making decisions are all vital functions of a company and you need meetings to do that. So why are they often so bad? And why do I spend so much time trying to avoid them?

Meetings are a cultural artefact. Good and bad etiquette isn’t evenly distributed. The companies with the worst meetings are also, ironically, the ones with the most.

What makes a good meeting? There are lots of articles on the web about this, so I don’t want to belabour the point, but, actually, I think it’s quite simple:

  • A defined function
  • The right people
  • The right duration

Missing any one of those means that the meeting is going to be a waste for at least some of those attending.

By “a defined function,” yes, I mean an agenda. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full and formal written agenda, but all attendees should know the point of the meeting. If they don’t, maybe you do need to write it down. I encourage people to decline meetings with an unclear objective1.

The “right people” to invite to a meeting is often driven by the org chart, but this is completely the wrong metric. You need the fewest people that can meet the objective of the meeting. Don’t include someone just because they’re “important.” Don’t exclude someone because they’re too junior. Include everyone needed to share information or make a decision, or whatever the goal. But no more than that.

One thing that infuriates me is where people in a meeting have no “function.”2 Everyone should have a clearly defined role. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there.

What about duration? I see two sides to it. First, work expands to fill the time available. Don’t do that. If you set aside an hour for a meeting but it actually only takes ten minutes, quit while you’re ahead. In fact, for people that tend to take a while to get to the point, I’ll deliberately book short meetings.

Conversely, if you’ve spent an hour going around in circles without making a real decision, maybe it’s time to call it a day. Your conclusion should be the information you need to actually make a decision, the people who are going to obtain it and, hopefully, when the next meeting will be.

Talking of “an hour,” that’s my benchmark for maximum meeting length. Anything significantly longer than that suggests to me that there isn’t sufficient focus or a tight enough agenda. And, perhaps more importantly, people are just not going to focus that whole time. They’re going to drift off into a dream world or check their phone. Why have them in the room physically if they’re not present mentally?

It all sounds so simple when you put it like that and yet we’re all guilty of Doing It Wrong. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that meetings should be deliberate, just like any other corporate artefact.


  1. There are exceptions. For example, I wouldn’t decline a meeting with a client but I would seek clarification. ↩︎
  2. When Dilbert was good, there was a character called the Meeting Moth. I think we’ve all worked with people like that. ↩︎

How to be right

Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a liberal caricature. James O’Brien is one too, and he knows it.

In his book “How to be right… in a world gone wrong” he goes through a bunch of topics, from Islam to Political Correctness, and debunks the common arguments, often using transcripts from his radio show. The chapter on The Age Gap is, perhaps, the one that made me think the most.

If you live in the same bubble that I do, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential reading. Which is not to say that it’s badly written or poorly argued or difficult to read. It isn’t. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. There’s just not a lot that’s new.

WFH

Since the whole world is now working from home (terms and conditions may apply), everybody else is writing their working from home tips. I didn’t want to feel left out.

The way I see it, there are two related aspects: first, how you deal with it; two, how your office culture deals with it.

If you’re asked to work from home, you need to make the most of it. But right out the gate, it’s important to note that it doesn’t suit everyone. It sounds good, but some people just find it hard to be productive when there are distractions, from housework to a Nintendo, and they find it hard to manage without the face-to-face social interactions. There are many reasons and there’s no shame in admitting it’s not for you.

Of course, right now it’s not much of a choice for most of us. The common tips are stick to a routine, actually get dressed, and have a specific, physical work place. All these are good. I’m not going to argue with those, but it’s not the whole story.

Is it all about maximising productivity? Not everything I do is about increasing the amount of work I do, not directly at least. By not commuting I gain somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours a day. Honestly, I probably do spend some of that working, but I also exercise and have dinner with my family. I try to get some reading in. Occasionally do household chores. Getting the balance between taking advantage of the situation and Getting Stuff Done is the challenge and the hardest bit is that it’s you that has to set those limits.

What I’m saying is, don’t be afraid to mix things up a little to keep your sanity.

And, finally, one of the best things is that I can control my environment the whole day. In practice, that means that I play music most of the time without having to wear headphones! Game changer.

The other side is how your employer and your colleagues manage. This is the hard bit.

These days the technology is pretty good. When I first worked from home a decade ago, I found it difficult. Now we have fast broadband, collaboration software like Slack and reliable web conferencing software.

But, as William Gibson said, the future is here it’s just not evenly distributed. Just because the software exists, doesn’t mean your employer allows you to use it. And just because you have it, doesn’t mean that your team will use it well1.

One of the problems I had a decade ago was that there was a big development centre where most employees worked and there were a handful of people, like me, working remotely. Because most people were in the office, we remote workers often got forgotten.

The current situation means that we’re all remote, which, as odd as it sounds, actually helps.

Participating in remote meetings, using Zoom or Skype or whatever, is a skill that everyone needs to learn. Mute if you’re not talking. Agree whether you are or are not going to use video — being aware that video uses more bandwidth which might be a challenge if multiple people are working from home!

Using Slack or Microsoft Teams is also a learned skill. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to new users, it’s err on the side of having discussions in public. It’s often tempting to directly message an individual or make channels private, but often the team can benefit from the answer or maybe the person you’re asking isn’t there currently.

Also, make sure you set aside a channel for chit-chat. You don’t only talk about work in the office so why would you expect that to be any different online?

What I’m saying is that working from home, counterintuitively, is a skill that everyone will need to learn. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you don’t know the etiquette of a web conference or a Slack conference. And managers who are used to being able to physically look over their staff will have to get used to trusting them to do their jobs.

As bad as this this situation is, if we all learn that our jobs can be completed without commuting and our managers learn not to micromanage, maybe we’ll come out of this with a stronger working culture.


  1. I’m leaving aside issues such as companies having VPN software but not enough licences. There’s no magic in solving this problem. ↩︎

Unix: A History and a Memoir

This is probably the geekiest book I’ve read in a long time. It’s basically one step up from reading the source code for your favourite operating system. Or perhaps having a favourite operating system.

What I would say is that Unix has been pretty much the only constant throughout my career. I started with Solaris and HP-UX at university. I installed an early version of Linux on my personal machine to avoid the thirty-minute walk from home to the university labs. I’ve done consulting, I’ve developed both vertical and horizontal applications1, C and C++, Swift and Java, banking and telecoms. Pretty much the only thing they’ve all had in common was some sort of Unix underpinning.

And that’s bizarre. So much of computing changes in five years, yet Unix wasn’t even new when I started at university!

This book is the story, the memoir, of one of the people who built it. And it’s fascinating but probably only for a relatively small audience. I loved the first chapter, where he name-dropped some of the people who Kernighan worked with. Plaugher. Aho. Ullman. Honestly, if you’ve not heard of them, you’re probably not the target market for this book.

Also, if you’re Richard Stallman, you’re probably not the target for this book either: in the last chapter, he says that GNU software is “open source.”

On the other hand, if you’re not Stallman and you know about some or all of the people involved, then you are the target for this book. Read it. You’ll love it.


  1. Is that common terminology? A “vertical” application is one that’s applicable only to one industry, such as a trading application. A “horizontal” application is usable by many, like a database or operating system. ↩︎

Never split the difference

If I took this book to heart, I should try to convince you to read it.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like this book, and I mainly took it out of the library so I could make the joke in the first paragraph (and others like it). I mean, negotiation isn’t my job. I’m not, like the author, a hostage negotiator. I’m not even in sales. The key, of course, is that we all have to negotiate from time to time. While I may not often have to negotiate money in my day job, I do have to agree on the scope of work. This is a form of negotiation. We all have to buy stuff or hire someone to deal with jobs around the house.

What I’m saying is this book won me around. Something that deals with “human factors” can never be a full instruction guide, but in ten chapters, from “mirroring” to trying to figure out those “unknown unknowns” Voss walks you through the whole process. The examples are varied, from sales to hostage negotiation, some more relatable than others, but they all serve their purpose.

Some areas you’ll have seen before. I’ve come across the suggestion to “mirror” previously But even in those cases, there are new suggestions or contexts to consider.

I guess the ultimate test is whether I’ll actually use the suggestions. Some will undoubtedly take some nerve, but I suspect most people will get something out it. I’m not sure I’m going full FBI the next time the need arises, but I absolutely intend to use some of the ideas around how best to ask questions and guiding people towards the correct — your — answer.