The Front Line

So, Yahoo messed up today. They've messed up other days, too, but this was an especially red-letter day amongst other red-letter days, and this is one that has me ticked off.

For reasons I don't know, Yahoo laid off the highest level of Flickr's customer support, the people that end up filing bugs against the developers and helping the trickier cases get solved for the members. Those guys getting shown the door is as bad as it sounds.

When sites get larger, both in members and staff, the gap tends to grow between the people that build the site and the people that use it. Sometimes this happens with product decisions, but it almost always seems to happen with developers. Our job is to write and ship code to the best of our abilities, though, through no acts of spite or laziness on our parts, our code is not perfect. It's a fundamental nature of current software. We're human, we're imperfect, and we write bugs.

After we write and ship code that probably contains a bug or two (or three), our job is to then write more code, which will also contain bugs. It's a bad cycle.

This means that someone has to be in the middle, as the face of Flickr, acknowledging these mistakes and going to great lengths to fix things. This is often a thankless job, as users just want their problems to go away and developers (usually) don't like to be told they messed up. But they do it for the good, and for the love, of the site. Every bug that gets filed and every support case that gets carefully answered makes the site that much better.

After being a liaison between these two worlds long enough, you end up knowing more than anyone else on the team. When you have millions and millions of users that hit every button and link in combinations you would never dream of, then reporting the “interesting” outcomes of their explorations, these support agents become walking encyclopedias of the ins-and-outs of the site and with Flickr, there are odd edge cases waiting on every page. Having people on your team aware of everything the site does is huge. You literally can't buy that or replace it or outsource it, though it appears that Yahoo thinks it can.

With big sites, not only do you have bugs, but you have outages. These same agents that can recite all the guestpass-viewing conditions and know offhand whether a photo should be visible in Germany, also get to sit on the front lines and explain to users with emotions ranging from impatient to pissed-off that some section of the site will be back as soon as possible. This is not a position to be envied but one they always handled with grace and aplomb.

To be constantly deluged by the requests and demands from stressed users and keep showing up in high spirits day after day demands a special kind of character. Not only do you have the patience of a saint (imagine getting asked the same 3 questions, 50 times a day, every day) but also the tact to work with developers and product folks whose priorities are different from the users, as those things tend to go.

And that's probably the biggest thing that hurts: the users of Flickr lost their major advocates today. At product meetings and developer meetings, it would be these support folks constantly asking, “But what about the users?”

On a personal note, Flickr lost several good people today. If you had me name the top 10 Flickr employees that loved the site the most, half of them got handed pink slips today. Working with that entire team was absolutely one of the highlights of my time at Flickr and any other company that has a need for calm, intelligent, and resourceful customer support folks would do well to contact me or any other person that has ties to Flickr to get you an introduction.

To the support folk that are now ex-Flickr, you've got a stupidly strong alumni organization and we know how good you guys are — we're here for you.

I don't really know the real purpose of me writing this. I'm always hesitant to write anything good, bad, or otherwise about my past employers, but this one deserves to get called out. Yahoo made a major mistake today and there's no other way to interpret it. I'm mad and this is my soapbox.

Flickr-the-site will be fine but Flickr-the-culture took a huge hit today and those suits in Sunnyvale balancing some column or doing their thousandth “re-org” are completely to blame. I bet they don't even know what they've done and that's probably the worst part of the whole thing.