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Steve Yegge's SOA post

Stevey's Google Platforms Rant

I was at Amazon for about six and a half years, and now I've been at Google for that long. One thing that struck me immediately about the two companies -- an impression that has been reinforced almost daily -- is that Amazon does everything wrong, and Google does everything right. Sure, it's a sweeping generalization, but a surprisingly accurate one. It's pretty crazy. There are probably a hundred or even two hundred different ways you can compare the two companies, and Google is superior in all but three of them, if I recall correctly. I actually did a spreadsheet at one point but Legal wouldn't let me show it to anyone, even though recruiting loved it.

I mean, just to give you a very brief taste: Amazon's recruiting process is fundamentally flawed by having teams hire for themselves, so their hiring bar is incredibly inconsistent across teams, despite various efforts they've made to level it out. And their operations are a mess; they don't really have SREs and they make engineers pretty much do everything, which leaves almost no time for coding - though again this varies by group, so it's luck of the draw. They don't give a single shit about charity or helping the needy or community contributions or anything like that. Never comes up there, except maybe to laugh about it. Their facilities are dirt-smeared cube farms without a dime spent on decor or common meeting areas. Their pay and benefits suck, although much less so lately due to local competition from Google and Facebook. But they don't have any of our perks or extras -- they just try to match the offer-letter numbers, and that's the end of it. Their code base is a disaster, with no engineering standards whatsoever except what individual teams choose to put in place.

To be fair, they do have a nice versioned-library system that we really ought to emulate, and a nice publish-subscribe system that we also have no equivalent for. But for the most part they just have a bunch of crappy tools that read and write state machine information into relational databases. We wouldn't take most of it even if it were free.

I think the pubsub system and their library-shelf system were two out of the grand total of three things Amazon does better than google.

I guess you could make an argument that their bias for launching early and iterating like mad is also something they do well, but you can argue it either way. They prioritize launching early over everything else, including retention and engineering discipline and a bunch of other stuff that turns out to matter in the long run. So even though it's given them some competitive advantages in the marketplace, it's created enough other problems to make it something less than a slam-dunk.

But there's one thing they do really really well that pretty much makes up for ALL of their political, philosophical and technical screw-ups.

Jeff Bezos is an infamous micro-manager. He micro-manages every single pixel of Amazon's retail site. He hired Larry Tesler, Apple's Chief Scientist and probably the very most famous and respected human-computer interaction expert in the entire world, and then ignored every goddamn thing Larry said for three years until Larry finally -- wisely -- left the company. Larry would do these big usability studies and demonstrate beyond any shred of doubt that nobody can understand that frigging website, but Bezos just couldn't let go of those pixels, all those millions of semantics-packed pixels on the landing page. They were like millions of his own precious children. So they're all still there, and Larry is not.

Micro-managing isn't that third thing that Amazon does better than us, by the way. I mean, yeah, they micro-manage really well, but I wouldn't list it as a strength or anything. I'm just trying to set the context here, to help you understand what happened. We're talking about a guy who in all seriousness has said on many public occasions that people should be paying him to work at Amazon. He hands out little yellow stickies with his name on them, reminding people "who runs the company" when they disagree with him. The guy is a regular... well, Steve Jobs, I guess. Except without the fashion or design sense. Bezos is super smart; don't get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.

So one day Jeff Bezos issued a mandate. He's doing that all the time, of course, and people scramble like ants being pounded with a rubber mallet whenever it happens. But on one occasion -- back around 2002 I think, plus or minus a year -- he issued a mandate that was so out there, so huge and eye-bulgingly ponderous, that it made all of his other mandates look like unsolicited peer bonuses.

His Big Mandate went something along these lines:

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

  2. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.

  3. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team's data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.

  4. It doesn't matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols -- doesn't matter. Bezos doesn't care.

  5. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.

  6. Anyone who doesn't do this will be fired.

  7. Thank you; have a nice day!

Ha, ha! You 150-odd ex-Amazon folks here will of course realize immediately that #7 was a little joke I threw in, because Bezos most definitely does not give a shit about your day.

#6, however, was quite real, so people went to work. Bezos assigned a couple of Chief Bulldogs to oversee the effort and ensure forward progress, headed up by Uber-Chief Bear Bulldog Rick Dalzell. Rick is an ex-Armgy Ranger, West Point Academy graduate, ex-boxer, ex-Chief Torturer slash CIO at Wal*Mart, and is a big genial scary man who used the word "hardened interface" a lot. Rick was a walking, talking hardened interface himself, so needless to say, everyone made LOTS of forward progress and made sure Rick knew about it.

Over the next couple of years, Amazon transformed internally into a service-oriented architecture. They learned a tremendous amount while effecting this transformation. There was lots of existing documentation and lore about SOAs, but at Amazon's vast scale it was about as useful as telling Indiana Jones to look both ways before crossing the street. Amazon's dev staff made a lot of discoveries along the way. A teeny tiny sampling of these discoveries included:

  • pager escalation gets way harder, because a ticket might bounce through 20 service calls before the real owner is identified. If each bounce goes through a team with a 15-minute response time, it can be hours before the right team finally finds out, unless you build a lot of scaffolding and metrics and reporting.

  • every single one of your peer teams suddenly becomes a potential DOS attacker. Nobody can make any real forward progress until very serious quotas and throttling are put in place in every single service.

  • monitoring and QA are the same thing. You'd never think so until you try doing a big SOA. But when your service says "oh yes, I'm fine", it may well be the case that the only thing still functioning in the server is the little component that knows how to say "I'm fine, roger roger, over and out" in a cheery droid voice. In order to tell whether the service is actually responding, you have to make individual calls. The problem continues recursively until your monitoring is doing comprehensive semantics checking of your entire range of services and data, at which point it's indistinguishable from automated QA. So they're a continuum.

  • if you have hundreds of services, and your code MUST communicate with other groups' code via these services, then you won't be able to find any of them without a service-discovery mechanism. And you can't have that without a service registration mechanism, which itself is another service. So Amazon has a universal service registry where you can find out reflectively (programmatically) about every service, what its APIs are, and also whether it is currently up, and where.

  • debugging problems with someone else's code gets a LOT harder, and is basically impossible unless there is a universal standard way to run every service in a debuggable sandbox.

That's just a very small sample. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of individual learnings like these that Amazon had to discover organically. There were a lot of wacky ones around externalizing services, but not as many as you might think. Organizing into services taught teams not to trust each other in most of the same ways they're not supposed to trust external developers.

This effort was still underway when I left to join Google in mid-2005, but it was pretty far advanced. From the time Bezos issued his edict through the time I left, Amazon had transformed culturally into a company that thinks about everything in a services-first fashion. It is now fundamental to how they approach all designs, including internal designs for stuff that might never see the light of day externally.

At this point they don't even do it out of fear of being fired. I mean, they're still afraid of that; it's pretty much part of daily life there, working for the Dread Pirate Bezos and all. But they do services because they've come to understand that it's the Right Thing. There are without question pros and cons to the SOA approach, and some of the cons are pretty long. But overall it's the right thing because SOA-driven design enables Platforms.

That's what Bezos was up to with his edict, of course. He didn't (and doesn't) care even a tiny bit about the well-being of the teams, nor about what technologies they use, nor in fact any detail whatsoever about how they go about their business unless they happen to be screwing up. But Bezos realized long before the vast majority of Amazonians that Amazon needs to be a platform.

You wouldn't really think that an online bookstore needs to be an extensible, programmable platform. Would you?

Well, the first big thing Bezos realized is that the infrastructure they'd built for selling and shipping books and sundry could be transformed an excellent repurposable computing platform. So now they have the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, and the Amazon Elastic MapReduce, and the Amazon Relational Database Service, and a whole passel' o' other services browsable at aws.amazon.com. These services host the backends for some pretty successful companies, reddit being my personal favorite of the bunch.

The other big realization he had was that he can't always build the right thing. I think Larry Tesler might have struck some kind of chord in Bezos when he said his mom couldn't use the goddamn website. It's not even super clear whose mom he was talking about, and doesn't really matter, because nobody's mom can use the goddamn website. In fact I myself find the website disturbingly daunting, and I worked there for over half a decade. I've just learned to kinda defocus my eyes and concentrate on the million or so pixels near the center of the page above the fold.

I'm not really sure how Bezos came to this realization -- the insight that he can't build one product and have it be right for everyone. But it doesn't matter, because he gets it. There's actually a formal name for this phenomenon. It's called Accessibility, and it's the most important thing in the computing world.

The. Most. Important. Thing.

If you're sorta thinking, "huh? You mean like, blind and deaf people Accessibility?" then you're not alone, because I've come to understand that there are lots and LOTS of people just like you: people for whom this idea does not have the right Accessibility, so it hasn't been able to get through to you yet. It's not your fault for not understanding, any more than it would be your fault for being blind or deaf or motion-restricted or living with any other disability. When software -- or idea-ware for that matter -- fails to be accessible to anyone for any reason, it is the fault of the software or of the messaging of the idea. It is an Accessibility failure.

Like anything else big and important in life, Accessibility has an evil twin who, jilted by the unbalanced affection displayed by their parents in their youth, has grown into an equally powerful Arch-Nemesis (yes, there's more than one nemesis to accessibility) named Security. And boy howdy are the two ever at odds.

But I'll argue that Accessibility is actually more important than Security because dialing Accessibility to zero means you have no product at all, whereas dialing Security to zero can still get you a reasonably successful product such as the Playstation Network.

So yeah. In case you hadn't noticed, I could actually write a book on this topic. A fat one, filled with amusing anecdotes about ants and rubber mallets at companies I've worked at. But I will never get this little rant published, and you'll never get it read, unless I start to wrap up.

That one last thing that Google doesn't do well is Platforms. We don't understand platforms. We don't "get" platforms. Some of you do, but you are the minority. This has become painfully clear to me over the past six years. I was kind of hoping that competitive pressure from Microsoft and Amazon and more recently Facebook would make us wake up collectively and start doing universal services. Not in some sort of ad-hoc, half-assed way, but in more or less the same way Amazon did it: all at once, for real, no cheating, and treating it as our top priority from now on.

But no. No, it's like our tenth or eleventh priority. Or fifteenth, I don't know. It's pretty low. There are a few teams who treat the idea very seriously, but most teams either don't think about it all, ever, or only a small percentage of them think about it in a very small way.

It's a big stretch even to get most teams to offer a stubby service to get programmatic access to their data and computations. Most of them think they're building products. And a stubby service is a pretty pathetic service. Go back and look at that partial list of learnings from Amazon, and tell me which ones Stubby gives you out of the box. As far as I'm concerned, it's none of them. Stubby's great, but it's like parts when you need a car.

A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.

Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don't get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: "So is it the Stalker API?" She got all glum and said "Yeah." I mean, I was joking, but no... the only API call we offer is to get someone's stream. So I guess the joke was on me.

Microsoft has known about the Dogfood rule for at least twenty years. It's been part of their culture for a whole generation now. You don't eat People Food and give your developers Dog Food. Doing that is simply robbing your long-term platform value for short-term successes. Platforms are all about long-term thinking.

Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that's not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there's something there for everyone.

Our Google+ team took a look at the aftermarket and said: "Gosh, it looks like we need some games. Let's go contract someone to, um, write some games for us." Do you begin to see how incredibly wrong that thinking is now? The problem is that we are trying to predict what people want and deliver it for them.

You can't do that. Not really. Not reliably. There have been precious few people in the world, over the entire history of computing, who have been able to do it reliably. Steve Jobs was one of them. We don't have a Steve Jobs here. I'm sorry, but we don't.

Larry Tesler may have convinced Bezos that he was no Steve Jobs, but Bezos realized that he didn't need to be a Steve Jobs in order to provide everyone with the right products: interfaces and workflows that they liked and felt at ease with. He just needed to enable third-party developers to do it, and it would happen automatically.

I apologize to those (many) of you for whom all this stuff I'm saying is incredibly obvious, because yeah. It's incredibly frigging obvious. Except we're not doing it. We don't get Platforms, and we don't get Accessibility. The two are basically the same thing, because platforms solve accessibility. A platform is accessibility.

So yeah, Microsoft gets it. And you know as well as I do how surprising that is, because they don't "get" much of anything, really. But they understand platforms as a purely accidental outgrowth of having started life in the business of providing platforms. So they have thirty-plus years of learning in this space. And if you go to msdn.com, and spend some time browsing, and you've never seen it before, prepare to be amazed. Because it's staggeringly huge. They have thousands, and thousands, and THOUSANDS of API calls. They have a HUGE platform. Too big in fact, because they can't design for squat, but at least they're doing it.

Amazon gets it. Amazon's AWS (aws.amazon.com) is incredible. Just go look at it. Click around. It's embarrassing. We don't have any of that stuff.

Apple gets it, obviously. They've made some fundamentally non-open choices, particularly around their mobile platform. But they understand accessibility and they understand the power of third-party development and they eat their dogfood. And you know what? They make pretty good dogfood. Their APIs are a hell of a lot cleaner than Microsoft's, and have been since time immemorial.

Facebook gets it. That's what really worries me. That's what got me off my lazy butt to write this thing. I hate blogging. I hate... plussing, or whatever it's called when you do a massive rant in Google+ even though it's a terrible venue for it but you do it anyway because in the end you really do want Google to be successful. And I do! I mean, Facebook wants me there, and it'd be pretty easy to just go. But Google is home, so I'm insisting that we have this little family intervention, uncomfortable as it might be.

After you've marveled at the platform offerings of Microsoft and Amazon, and Facebook I guess (I didn't look because I didn't want to get too depressed), head over to developers.google.com and browse a little. Pretty big difference, eh? It's like what your fifth-grade nephew might mock up if he were doing an assignment to demonstrate what a big powerful platform company might be building if all they had, resource-wise, was one fifth grader.

Please don't get me wrong here -- I know for a fact that the dev-rel team has had to FIGHT to get even this much available externally. They're kicking ass as far as I'm concerned, because they DO get platforms, and they are struggling heroically to try to create one in an environment that is at best platform-apathetic, and at worst often openly hostile to the idea.

I'm just frankly describing what developers.google.com looks like to an outsider. It looks childish. Where's the Maps APIs in there for Christ's sake? Some of the things in there are labs projects. And the APIs for everything I clicked were... they were paltry. They were obviously dog food. Not even good organic stuff. Compared to our internal APIs it's all snouts and horse hooves.

And also don't get me wrong about Google+. They're far from the only offenders. This is a cultural thing. What we have going on internally is basically a war, with the underdog minority Platformers fighting a more or less losing battle against the Mighty Funded Confident Producters.

Any teams that have successfully internalized the notion that they should be externally programmable platforms from the ground up are underdogs -- Maps and Docs come to mind, and I know GMail is making overtures in that direction. But it's hard for them to get funding for it because it's not part of our culture. Maestro's funding is a feeble thing compared to the gargantuan Microsoft Office programming platform: it's a fluffy rabbit versus a T-Rex. The Docs team knows they'll never be competitive with Office until they can match its scripting facilities, but they're not getting any resource love. I mean, I assume they're not, given that Apps Script only works in Spreadsheet right now, and it doesn't even have keyboard shortcuts as part of its API. That team looks pretty unloved to me.

Ironically enough, Wave was a great platform, may they rest in peace. But making something a platform is not going to make you an instant success. A platform needs a killer app. Facebook -- that is, the stock service they offer with walls and friends and such -- is the killer app for the Facebook Platform. And it is a very serious mistake to conclude that the Facebook App could have been anywhere near as successful without the Facebook Platform.

You know how people are always saying Google is arrogant? I'm a Googler, so I get as irritated as you do when people say that. We're not arrogant, by and large. We're, like, 99% Arrogance-Free. I did start this post -- if you'll reach back into distant memory -- by describing Google as "doing everything right". We do mean well, and for the most part when people say we're arrogant it's because we didn't hire them, or they're unhappy with our policies, or something along those lines. They're inferring arrogance because it makes them feel better.

But when we take the stance that we know how to design the perfect product for everyone, and believe you me, I hear that a lot, then we're being fools. You can attribute it to arrogance, or naivete, or whatever -- it doesn't matter in the end, because it's foolishness. There IS no perfect product for everyone.

And so we wind up with a browser that doesn't let you set the default font size. Talk about an affront to Accessibility. I mean, as I get older I'm actually going blind. For real. I've been nearsighted all my life, and once you hit 40 years old you stop being able to see things up close. So font selection becomes this life-or-death thing: it can lock you out of the product completely. But the Chrome team is flat-out arrogant here: they want to build a zero-configuration product, and they're quite brazen about it, and Fuck You if you're blind or deaf or whatever. Hit Ctrl-+ on every single page visit for the rest of your life.

It's not just them. It's everyone. The problem is that we're a Product Company through and through. We built a successful product with broad appeal -- our search, that is -- and that wild success has biased us.

Amazon was a product company too, so it took an out-of-band force to make Bezos understand the need for a platform. That force was their evaporating margins; he was cornered and had to think of a way out. But all he had was a bunch of engineers and all these computers... if only they could be monetized somehow... you can see how he arrived at AWS, in hindsight.

Microsoft started out as a platform, so they've just had lots of practice at it.

Facebook, though: they worry me. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure they started off as a Product and they rode that success pretty far. So I'm not sure exactly how they made the transition to a platform. It was a relatively long time ago, since they had to be a platform before (now very old) things like Mafia Wars could come along.

Maybe they just looked at us and asked: "How can we beat Google? What are they missing?"

The problem we face is pretty huge, because it will take a dramatic cultural change in order for us to start catching up. We don't do internal service-oriented platforms, and we just as equally don't do external ones. This means that the "not getting it" is endemic across the company: the PMs don't get it, the engineers don't get it, the product teams don't get it, nobody gets it. Even if individuals do, even if YOU do, it doesn't matter one bit unless we're treating it as an all-hands-on-deck emergency. We can't keep launching products and pretending we'll turn them into magical beautiful extensible platforms later. We've tried that and it's not working.

The Golden Rule of Platforms, "Eat Your Own Dogfood", can be rephrased as "Start with a Platform, and Then Use it for Everything." You can't just bolt it on later. Certainly not easily at any rate -- ask anyone who worked on platformizing MS Office. Or anyone who worked on platformizing Amazon. If you delay it, it'll be ten times as much work as just doing it correctly up front. You can't cheat. You can't have secret back doors for internal apps to get special priority access, not for ANY reason. You need to solve the hard problems up front.

I'm not saying it's too late for us, but the longer we wait, the closer we get to being Too Late.

I honestly don't know how to wrap this up. I've said pretty much everything I came here to say today. This post has been six years in the making. I'm sorry if I wasn't gentle enough, or if I misrepresented some product or team or person, or if we're actually doing LOTS of platform stuff and it just so happens that I and everyone I ever talk to has just never heard about it. I'm sorry.

But we've gotta start doing this right.

Last week I accidentally posted an internal rant about service platforms to my public Google+ account (i.e. this one). It somehow went viral, which is nothing short of stupefying given that it was a massive Wall of Text. The whole thing still feels surreal.

Amazingly, nothing bad happened to me at Google. Everyone just laughed at me a lot, all the way up to the top, for having committed what must be the great-granddaddy of all Reply-All screwups in tech history.

But they also listened, which is super cool. I probably shouldn’t talk much about it, but they’re already figuring out how to deal with some of the issues I raised. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though. When I claimed in my internal post that “Google does everything right”, I meant it. When they’re faced with any problem at all, whether it’s technical or organizational or cultural, they set out to solve it in a first-class way.

Anyway, whenever something goes viral, skeptics start wondering if it was faked or staged. My accident was neither. While I have no proof, I can offer you what I think is the most convincing evidence: for the last six and a half years, I have never once ragged on Amazon publicly. Even just two months ago, in a keynote talk I gave at a conference, I was pretty flattering when I talked about my experiences there. I’ve always skirted any perceived shortcomings and focused on what they do well.

I still have a lot of friends at Amazon. In fact the place is chock-full of people I admire and respect. And up until now I have prided myself on my professionalism whenever I have talked about Amazon. Bagging on the company, even in an internal memo, was uncharacteristically unprofessional of me. So I’ve been feeling pretty guilty for the past week.

So. Without retracting anything I said, I’d like to paint a more balanced picture for you. I’m going to try to paint that picture via some true stories that I’ve never shared publicly. Nothing secondhand: it’s all stuff I witnessed myself there. I hope you’ll find the stories interesting, because it’s one hell of an interesting place.

Since Amazon started with Jeff, I’ll start my stories with one about Jeff.

Amazon War Story #1: Jeff Bezos

Over the years I watched people give presentations to Jeff Bezos and come back bruised: emotionally, intellectually, often career-ily. If you came back with a nod or a signoff, you were jumping for joy. Presenting to Jeff is a gauntlet that tends to send people back to the cave to lick their wounds and stay out of the sunlight for a while.

I say “presentations” and you probably think PowerPoint, but no: he outlawed PowerPoint there many years ago. It’s not allowed on the campus. If you present to Jeff, you write it as prose.

One day it came time for me to present to Jeff. It felt like... I don’t know, maybe how they swarm around you when you’re going to meet the President. People giving you last-minute advice, wishing you luck, ushering you past regiments of admins and security guards. It’s like you’re in a movie. A gladiator movie.

Fortunately I’d spent years watching Jeff in action before my turn came, and I had prepared in an unusual way. My presentation -- which, roughly speaking was about the core skills a generalist engineer ought to know -- was a resounding success. He loved it. Afterwards everyone was patting me on the back and congratulating me like I’d just completed a game-winning hail-mary pass or something. One VP told me privately: “Presentations with Jeff never go that well.”

But here’s the thing: I had already suspected Jeff was going to like my presentation. You see, I had noticed two things about him, watching him over the years, that others had either not caught on to, or else they had not figured out how to make the knowledge actionable.

Here is how I prepared. Amazon people, take note. This will help you. I am dead serious.

To prepare a presentation for Jeff, first make damn sure you know everything there is to know about the subject. Then write a prose narrative explaining the problem and solution(s). Write it exactly the way you would write it for a leading professor or industry expert on the subject.

That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.

You’re almost done. The last step before you’re ready to present to him is this: Delete every third paragraph.

Now you’re ready to present!

Back in the mid-1800s there was this famous-ish composer/pianist named Franz Liszt. He is widely thought to have been the greatest sight-reader who ever lived. He could sight-read anything you gave him, including crazy stuff not even written for piano, like opera scores. He was so staggeringly good at sight-reading that his brain was only fully engaged on the first run-through. After that he’d get bored and start embellishing with his own additions.

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. Who knows how smart he was before he became a billionaire -- let’s just assume it was “really frigging smart”, since he did build Amazon from scratch. But for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.

I mean, imagine what it would be like to start off as an incredibly smart person, arguably a first-class genius, and then somehow wind up in a situation where you have a general’s view of the industry battlefield for ten years. Not only do you have more time than anyone else, and access to more information than anyone else, you also have this long-term eagle-eye perspective that only a handful of people in the world enjoy.

In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

But how do you prepare a presentation for a giant-brained alien? Well, here’s my second realization: He will outsmart you. Knowing everything about your subject is only a first-line defense for you. It’s like armor that he’ll eat through in the first few minutes. He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon.

Trust me folks, I saw this happen time and again, for years. Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming. It’s a guaranteed facepalm fest.

So I knew he was going to think of something that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what it might be, because I’d spent weeks trying to think of everything. I had reviewed the material with dozens of people. But it didn’t matter. I knew he was going to blindside me, because that’s what happens when you present to Jeff.

If you assume it’s coming, then it’s not going to catch you quite as off-guard.

And of course it happened. I forgot Data Mining. Wasn’t in the list. He asked me point-blank, very nicely: “Why aren’t Data Mining and Machine Learning in this list?” And I laughed right in his face, which sent a shock wave through the stone-faced jury of VPs who had been listening in silence, waiting for a cue from Jeff as to whether he was going to be happy or I was headed for the salt mines.

I laughed because I was delighted. He’d caught me with my pants down around my ankles, right in front of everyone, despite all my excruciating weeks of preparation. I had even deleted about a third of the exposition just to keep his giant brain busy, but it didn’t matter. He’d done it again, and I looked like a total ass-clown in front of everyone. It was frigging awesome.

So yeah, of course I couldn’t help laughing. And I said: “Yup, you got me. I don’t know why it’s not in there. It should be. I’m a dork. I’ll add it.” And he laughed, and we moved on, and everything was great. Even the VPs started smiling. It annoyed the hell out of me that they’d had to wait for a cue, but whatever. Life was good.

You have to understand: most people were scared around Bezos because they were waaaay too worried about trying to keep their jobs. People in high-level positions sometimes have a little too much personal self-esteem invested in their success. Can you imagine how annoying it must be for him to be around timid people all day long? But me -- well, I thought I was going to get fired every single day. So fuck timid. Might as well aim high and go out in a ball of flame.

That’s where the “Dread Pirate Bezos” line came from. I worked hard and had fun, but every day I honestly worried they might fire me in the morning. Sure, it was a kind of paranoia. But it was sort of healthy in a way. I kept my resume up to date, and I kept my skills up to date, and I never worried about saying something stupid and ruining my career. Because hey, they were most likely going to fire me in the morning.

Thanks to Adam DeBoor for reviewing this post for potential Career Suicide.

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