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The Human API Manifesto

September 18th, 2018 · 11 comments

The Bezos Mandate

In 2002, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos sent a mandate to his employees that has since become legendary in IT circles. It reads as follows:

  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.
  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!

This directive, which some informally call Bezos’s “API Manifesto,” transformed Amazon.

To be sure, transitioning to these formal APIs made life harder in the short term for its engineers. It was also expensive, both in terms of the money spent to develop the new interfaces, and the time lost that could have been dedicated to projects producing immediate revenue.

But once the company embraced Bezos’s mandate, it was able to operate its systems much more efficiently. It also enabled the launch of the public-facing Amazon Web Services, which now produces a much needed influx of profit, and allowed Amazon’s web store to easily expand to encompass outside merchants, a key piece in their retail strategy.

The impact of the API Manifesto has since expanded to the IT industry as a whole. From start-ups to massive organizations, the idea that information systems are more valuable when interacting through clearly specified and well supported API’s has become common.

Last week, for example, the cofounder of an IT firm told me the story of how he helped a large financial services firm implement an API for a set of services that were previously accessed in an ad hoc manner  (think: batched FTP).

It cost the firm a little over a million dollars to make this transition. He estimates it now helps them earn an additional $100 million in revenue each year through a combination of cost savings and the new customer acquisition applications enabled by providing a clearly specified and accessible interface for these services.

On Attention Capital

When I heard about the API manifesto, a provocative thought popped into my head: could these same underlying ideas apply to communication between people?

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Habits vs. Workflows

September 11th, 2018 · 19 comments

Productive Pondering

As I transition from the slow freedom of summer to the constrained energy of fall, my thoughts have been gravitating back towards nuts and bolts productivity issues. One topic that keeps catching my attention is the distinction between habits and workflows.

When most people talk about personal productivity, they tend to focus on improving the habits they deploy to wrangle their work. For example, batching email, or deploying time blocking to control the flow of their day (which, as longtime readers know, I highly recommend).

There is, however, another relevant layer: the underlying workflows that dictate what you work on and how this work is executed. For example, if you’re a project manager at a consulting firm, and you spend much of your day emailing back and forth with your team members to get answers to questions from your clients, this behavior is an implicit workflow that dictates that asynchronous, unstructured messaging is your preferred method for extracting relevant information from your team.

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Charles Wagner’s 100-Year-Old Warning About Social Media

August 27th, 2018 · 22 comments

The Simple Life

Charles Wagner was a French reformed pastor who worked around the turn of the twentieth century. He preached a radical gospel that rejected dogma and promoted simple living and love of nature.

In 1901, he published a book titled The Simple Life, which angered religious authorities, but became popular in America once translated into English by Mary Louise Hendee.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled “Simplicity in Speech.” It opens with Wagner’s assessment of the current state of  human communication. It starts with a familiar claim:

“Formerly the means of communication between men were considerably restricted. It was natural to suppose that in perfecting and multiplying avenues of information, a better understanding would be brought about. Nations would learn to love each other…citizens of one country would feel themselves bound in closer brotherhood…Nothing could have seemed more evident.”

But even in Wagner’s time, it was clear that this theory wasn’t playing out as expected:

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A Brief Summary of the Social Media Reform Movement

August 23rd, 2018 · 28 comments

A Lonely Voice Finds Company

I’ve been publicly criticizing social media since at least 2010. For most of this period, most of the people I encountered were either puzzled or annoyed by my stance on these services.

When the event organizers first posted the video of my anti-social media TEDx talk, for example, they changed my suggested title, “Quit Social Media,” to something blander, along the lines of “Why deep work is important in the new economy.” I think this was a good-intentioned effort to make me seem less eccentric. I had to ask them to change it back.

When I subsequently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that social media’s role in career advancement was overhyped, I created such an uproar that the paper took the rare step of commissioning a response op-ed the next week with the sole purpose of refuting my dangerous ideas.

But then things began to change.

At some point in early 2017, as the various shockwaves emanating from the Trump election victory began to align and amplify, sentiment toward these services started shifting in ways I hadn’t noticed before.

I began, for example, to receive more notes of support and less confused looks when I told people I’ve never had a social media account.

Prominent figures suddenly announced they were leaving these services.

Last weekend, at the Kent Presents ideas conference, I sat on a panel called “The Social Media Crisis.” The crowd attending was so large they had to setup chairs in the hallway outside the auditorium doors.

The cultural conversation surrounding social media, in other words, is undergoing a rapid and surprisingly complicated evolution.

With this in mind, I thought it would be a useful exercise for both my readers and myself to do my best here to briefly summarize my understanding of the current state of this burgeoning social media reform movement…

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Beyond Digital Ethics

August 9th, 2018 · 25 comments

Extremist Suggestions

Earlier this week, Zeynep Tufekci appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast. If you don’t know Tufekci, you should: she’s one of my favorite academic thinkers on the intersection of technology and society.

During the interview, Tufecki discussed her investigation of YouTube’s autoplay recommendation algorithm. She noticed that YouTube tends to push users toward increasingly extreme content.

If you start with a mainstream conservative video, for example, and let YouTube’s autoplay feature keep loading your next video, it doesn’t take long until you’re watching white supremacists.

Similarly, if you start with a mainstream liberal video, it doesn’t take long until you’re mired in a swamp of wild government and health conspiracies.

Tufecki is understandably concerned about this state of affairs. But what’s the solution? She offers a suggestion that has become increasingly popular in recent years:

“We owe it to ourselves to [ask], how do we design our systems so they help us be our better selves, [rather] than constantly tempting us with things that, if we sat down and were asked about, would probably say ‘that’s not what we want.'”

This represents a standard response from the growing digital ethics movement, which believes that if we better train engineers about the ethical impact of their technology design choices, we can usher in an age in which our relationship with these tools is more humane and positive.

A Pragmatic Alternative

I agree that digital ethics is an important area of inquiry; perhaps one of the more exciting topics within modern philosophical thought.

But I don’t share the movement’s optimism that more awareness will influence the operation of major attention economy conglomerates such as YouTube. The algorithm that drives this site’s autoplay toward extremes does so not because it’s evil, but because it was tasked to optimize user engagement, which in turn optimizes revenue — the primary objective of a publicly traded corporation.

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On Facebook’s Unique Weakness

August 1st, 2018 · 35 comments

An Anti-Social Response

Last week, Facebook reported weaker than expected second quarter earnings and warned investors to expect diminished growth. As a result, its stock promptly fell 19%, wiping out over $120 billion in market capitalization. No publicly traded US company has ever lost more dollar value in a single day.

This seems like bad news for the social media giant, perhaps the first indication that its struggles over the past couple of years are catching up to its bottom line.

But not everyone agrees.

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The Peacock in Menlo Park: On Open Offices and Signaling Theory

July 19th, 2018 · 27 comments

Photo by Pille Kirsi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/blue-and-green-peacock-1075821/

An Open Discussion

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a new study that took a careful look at interactions in an open office. It found, contrary to popular belief, that moving to an open format made people less likely to talk face-to-face with their coworkers, and more likely to instead send distracting digital messages.

Not surprisingly, these changes led to lower productivity.

This post sparked an interesting discussion in the comment section and my personal inbox on the question of why so many organizations are so eager to embrace open concept workspaces.

A popular explanation was the cynical claim that open offices are a covert attempt to lower costs.

This might be right in some instances, but thrift can’t explain why Silicon Valley giants like Facebook or Apple, who literally have more cash than they know what to do with, embraced open formats in their new billion dollar headquarters.

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Open Offices Make You Less Open

July 6th, 2018 · 81 comments

On Spatial Boundaries and Face-to-Face Interaction

Why do companies deploy open office layouts? A major justification is the idea that removing spatial boundaries between colleagues will generate increased collaboration and smarter collective intelligence.

As I learned in a fascinating new study, published earlier this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, there was good reason to believe that this might be true. As the study’s authors, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, note:

“[T]he notion that propinquity, or proximity, predicts social interaction — driving the formation of social ties and therefore information exchange and collaboration — is one of the most robust findings in sociology.”

But when researchers turned their attention to the specific impact of open offices on interaction, the results were mixed.  Perhaps troubled by this inconsistency, Bernstein and Turban decided to get to the bottom of this issue.

Prior studies of open offices had relied on imprecise measures such as self-reported activity logs to quantify interactions before and after a shift to an open office plan. Bernstein and Turban tried something more accurate: they had subjects wear devices around their neck that directly measured every face-to-face encounter. They also used email and IM server logs to determine exactly how much the volume of electronic interactions changed.

Here’s a summary of what they found:

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