[the palaverist]

Thursday, February 14, 2008

[a clicker's life]

Yesterday I got lost in Google.

From DoubleClick's offices on the tenth floor of 111 Eighth Avenue, there's a back way that lets you out on Ninth Avenue, by Chelsea Market. To get there, you go down a stairway to the eighth floor, where Google has offices and its vaunted Hemispheres Cafe (a sign on the door says "Watch for Tailgaters"), and along a series of hallways to a bank of elevators.

The way down was fine, but on the way back up, I couldn't remember which stairwell led back to DoubleClick. I tried one and then another, climbing until I was out of breath. Back on the eighth floor, I fell in behind three casually dressed people who were talking about "python code," hoping they were Clickers, but when they turned into the stairwell, they headed down.

Thoroughly disoriented by now, I decided just to take the elevators to the lobby and walk around the block, and I was about to press the button when around a corner came Chealsea, who used to be a technical writer when I first worked at DoubleClick, from 1998 to 2001, and is now a product manager. She duly guided me back to our offices — "It's stairwell D for DoubleClick is how I remember it," she said — and suddenly we were back.

Coming back to DoubleClick after six years away has been something like yesterday's experience over and over: alternating waves of disorientation, bewilderment and welcome familiarity, garnished with tantalizing glimpses of Google.

Much has changed at DoubleClick since I jumped ship in the early waves of the dot-com collapse, back in September of 2001 (before 9/11). DoubleClick became a highly profitable company in those lean years, but for the technical side of the business, it was a painful period of stagnation. In 2005, DoubleClick was purchased by private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, and its founders, Kevin Ryan and Kevin O'Connor, quietly left the company. The infusion of cash and the new leadership injected new life into the organization, and it was around this time that my former boss, Karen Delfau, began to implement Scrum, an innovative methodology for developing software.

Traditionally, software has been developed according to the waterfall method, in which each phase is completed in its entirety before cascading down to the next: the product managers talk to the clients to find out what's needed, then they pass on their detailed specifications to the engineers, who work in isolation until they finish and hand everything over to QA for testing. Once the testing is through, the product moves down the line again to customer support, and then out to the clients, and by this time it usually looks nothing like what the clients originally thought they wanted, and anyway it's now three years later and the clients want something else entirely.

Scrum takes a completely different approach: cross-functional teams of product managers, programmers, testers, interface designers and technical writers work together for "sprints," which are 30-day efforts to build something. You obviously can't build a whole new product in 30 days, but you can usually add a button, clean up an interface, smarten up some back-end logic, speed up a process — in other words, produce actual, working business value.

Scrum is a big part of why I decided to come back to DoubleClick. For someone who remembers the old days, when it felt like the tech writers were the only people who ever talked to anyone outside our own group, the idea of getting all these different experts into a room together all at once — daily — is actually pretty thrilling. I've started to learn how this new process works, and as good as it is in theory, it's even more impressive in action. Astoundingly, working software really does get produced every month. Even more astoundingly, the whole process is driven by specific customer demands, and even the engineers seem to have internalized the idea that if the customer doesn't want it, there's no point in building it.

Another change — still potential rather than actual — is the purchase of DoubleClick by Google. The Federal Trade Commission has given the merger its blessing, so now the final hurdle is European approval, which looks likely. If the deal goes through, we'll almost certainly get access to Google's food (yes, the software industry is at its heart a hungry teenager playing video games at 4 am), and most likely to their other benefits as well, which are legion and legendary, and include things like on-site massages and a philosophy that says workers should devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects.

These differences from the DoubleClick of yore are balanced by the many things that have stayed the same. My cubicle is right outside Karen's office, bringing back memories of my awkward early days with the company, when I tended to fool around too much, and Karen moved me close so she could keep an eye on me. This is decidedly not why I'm sitting there now, and it's actually nice to be able to talk to her regularly. When I moved in, Karen gave me back my old name-plate, which she'd kept all these years. And when I logged into the employee intranet, I found my performance review from 2000.

In fact, a lot of people I used to know are now vice presidents like Karen, or running various departments. At first I worried that this would be awkward — that they would see me as beneath them now — but in fact it has turned out to be a great asset, and I find that I have sources of information and assistance available to me that are hard to come by for some of the other writers.

The culture, too, remains much as it was. I wore a suit my first day, and was told by several people not to do anything like that again. Karen told me her New Year's resolution was to wear jeans to work more often, and my manager, David, claims that one of the best things about his job is not having to shave every day. On the weekend before the Superbowl, I asked Ken, my other manager (he's transitioning out), if I could come in a bit late on Monday. "You remember what it's like here on Mondays," he said. "Nobody's here." People come in when they come in, leave when they leave, and often work from home. There's still a game room, now outfitted with a Wii, an Xbox 360 and a PS3 (a full Rock Band kit is available and frequently in use), along with the more analog pleasures of ping pong, foozball and billiards. There is a meditation group that meets daily for 15 minutes at noon in a conference room. There is pizza on "Two-Slice Tuesdays" and bagels on Friday mornings, and other food regularly appears and then quickly disappears. This afternoon, admittedly a Friday, my conversation with Ken about the ad-serving methodolgy white paper was interrupted by a remote-controlled helicopter, which came crashing down in the next cubicle over.

DoubleClick is still ethnically diverse, with a particularly high number of Indians and Chinese. We have our Indian parterns in Pune on the phone each morning at our daily scrum meeting, and I was tickled to hear one of our own engineers here in New York refer to "257,000" as "two lakh fifty-seven," in a meeting (no one seemed to notice). One group that is notably scarce is Koreans, although a Korean-American user interface designer spotted my name and title written in Korean on the whiteboard in my cubicle and has begun to ask me the occasional question in Korean.

Along with the culture, there are continuities in the documentation that are both pleasing and a bit daunting. To get myself reacquainted with DoubleClick's software, I went to the customer support website and began reading through the white papers — only to discover that they're still largely as I wrote them six or seven years ago. The style guide and procedure manual is still the one I wrote, and still in use. I'll admit to feeling flattered that my writing was good enough for DoubleClick to coast on for all this time, but it also suggests a certain laxity in the update cycle.

These continuities make my return to DoubleClick feel like a homecoming of sorts — one of my former colleagues even scheduled in Outlook a "Fatted Calf Lunch: Return of the Prodigal." Indeed, I am coming to realize just how foreign the environment was at the South Korean Permanent Mission to the UN. The daily effort of cultural translation had become so ingrained that I had lost sight of the energy it took, and of the ways in which it was isolating. It's nice to be back among people who are my peers, not only professionally but socially. Example: I had some dealings with a guy in internal support who was wearing a sparkly storm trooper shirt and has "THERE IS NO TRY" scrawled on his whiteboard. When I brought him my inherited laptop to be wiped clean, I asked him to take this R2 unit down to Anchorhead and have its memory flushed, and he knew what I was talking about!

I have really, really needed this. I have needed an environment where there is flux, possibility and challenge, where there are lots of interesting new people to meet, where there's room to be ambitious and to grow. I'm still finding my feet, but I'm excited and interested and happy. It's good. I'll keep you posted.

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