There’s an interesting piece here about Nick Denton stepping down yesterday as company president of Gawker media, the first “big web media company”.
The interesting, and tech relevant passage from his pretty readable memo is below. For reference, Kinja is gawkers editorial platform underneath. Denton is big and brash in the memo (which is basically his Christmas note / resignation) and there are a few interesting observations about the common trials and tribulations of software development in there.
“The problems I’m going to identify are common. Excellence in software development is elusive; no online publisher has yet succeeded in transforming itself into a platform…
The current principles of software product development hold that candidconversations–with developers, designers and users–lead to a better web experience. We lacked that necessary candor. We left too many opportunities on the table, too many known problems unresolved. And in our external communications, in our stories, we sometimes shied away from controversy, fearful of online critics. We weren’t ourselves.
We all understand how this works. Editorial traffic was lifted but often by viral stories that we would rather mock. We — the freest journalists on the planet — were slaves to the Facebook algorithm. The story of the year — the one story where we were truly at the epicenter — was one that caused dangerous internal dissension. We were nowhere on the Edward Snowden affair. We wrote nothing particularly memorable about NSA surveillance. Gadgets felt unexciting. Celebrity gossip was emptier than usual.
We pushed for conversations in Kinja, but forgot that every good conversation begins with a story. Getting the stories should have come first, because without them we have nothing to talk about.?..
…And the development of Kinja itself was a challenge. Our Tech department proclaimed a new era of multi-disciplinary cross-functional teamwork and collaboration. The reality: the best tech teams in online media in both New York and Budapest, with too many developers grinding away at re-factoring (thankful though we’ll be next year for that prep work). And a product manager on the 2015 design refresh had barely talked to the consultant who had driven the other major new project of the forthcoming year. Open collaboration in theory; the opposite in practice.
Who raised the alarm? Would I have even heard it? For a good 12 months from the summer of 2013 I was variously betrothed, distracted, obsessed by Kinja, off on honeymoon, obsessed by Kinja, off on sabbatical. I’m not sorry for that. For ten years, I’ve danced with this octopus. That’s what one person on Twitter calls Gawker: an octopus armed with chainsaws. I deserved a break.
When I was disengaged, I didn’t leave any real authority in place. In my absence, the company ticks along nicely; with the challenge of Buzzfeed and Vox, ticking along nicely is no longer enough. Even when I’m here, if I’m obsessed by something, other parts of our common project can spin off in unpredictable directions, causing me to overlook developing risks and opportunities. As Joel said, I am the company’s greatest asset — and it’s greatest liability. To be saved from myself, like many of us, I need partners in the fullest sense of the word, to take up the slack or keep me on focus. And I didn’t have them.
During this period I made a mistake in Editorial, hiring a talented guy whose voice and vibe I loved, who represented nerd values, and whom I thrust into a job which changed under his feet: he was competing with Lockhart Steele of Vox and Ben Smith of Buzzfeed, two of the most effective editorial managers in the business, each with the funding to go after the very best talent.
I was so obsessed with the design of Kinja discussions, I didn’t even think to warn that Gawker is always first about the story. I took that for granted. I was in so much in a hurry that I didn’t even look at other candidates, a cardinal sin. I made a mistake, and I’m sorry to Joel, and I’m sorry to those to whom he is a friend.
And during this time too, we embarked piecemeal on a software project whose eventual scope we barely imagined. Tom told me years ago he did not want to run the department beyond 30 people, that he wanted to get back to coding. Tech is now at 55 people. Tom didn’t push me. I didn’t want to mess with what was comfortable, the best relationship with a CTO by far that I’ve ever had in my career. And no other views were solicited.
So we attracted impressive technical talent — with our culture, audience testbed, and idea — and then we let those people down. We embarked on the Kinja expansion before we’d recruited the management; each major hire was reactive, each to fix a problem created by the last. Hire engineers. Now manage engineers. Oh no, we need product people. Lean, what’s that? I had to learn fast. It wasn’t quite that bad; but not that far off.”
Food for thought.