Monday, February 25, 2013

The Trouble With Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer, the current CEO of the struggling Yahoo! corporation, has come under fire recently for a memo released by the company’s internal HR department. The announcement was simple: Yahoo would no longer allow their workers to work from home.

In and of itself, of course, this is mildly interesting news. Companies have come under increased pressure, for a variety of reasons, to allow some form of remote working. Various studies have also shown that it generally increases productivity as well. For many companies, especially newer companies with short legacies of their corporate culture, the transition has been relatively easy. (Obviously it depends on the type of work you are doing, but especially for tech companies remote working is fairly conducive for the industry.)

However, for Mayer, it’s a little more complicated. Being a relatively young female CEO of a tech company was newsworthy enough; the fact that she was pregnant at the time she took the position even more so. Many people heralded it as a welcome change to the generally male-dominated industries and would, perhaps, bring about a fresh new look at how workers interacted with the workplace.

Remote working, of course, has long been sold as a solution to the working parent. If a child is sick or there are appointments to attend, working from home or on the road can make the work/life balance much more manageable. And as businesses shift toward a more information-centered economy and the need for interaction becomes less important, it’s a change that generally makes sense. Telecommuncation tools have improved so well that entire departments can work effectively even though they are worlds apart.

So that is why it’s shocking that Yahoo—a relatively new company with a young and presumably forward-looking CEO—would take a step backwards in this regard. To be fair, Yahoo is in pretty sad shape; it has an identity problem with little in the way of future prospects, but it’s still a fairly big player in the industry.
However, the subtext of this move appears to be that productivity is lagging due to remote working, and as a company teetering towards irrelevance they can’t afford to have unproductive employees on the payroll. At this point, cracks start to appear in the veneer of the entire organization.  

As I mentioned above, studies have shown that working from home tends to increase productivity. There’s a variety of reasons for that—usually letting folks manage their time without the normal distractions of the workplace ends up being a net gain—but it’s not hard to think that there is a little bit of selection bias here. The people most likely granted approval to work from home have also proved themselves to be competent workers; if you let everyone do it, you’ll no doubt find the usual percentage of slackers who will ruin it for everyone, just as you do in-office. (I'm also not naive enough to think that even the most trustworthy and efficient workers use remote working as an excuse to slack off on occasion, but the entire enterprise usually ends up being a benefit.)

And here is where the usual snake-oil concept of management science starts to fall apart. In theory, a move like Mayer’s would increase productivity—those who are not in a position to work in the office will leave (rumor has it many of these individuals were promised remote working when they took the job, and now have to move), and those that are are too scared to start. Meanwhile, while some of the productivity killers will fall off, it hits everyone across the board. That’s the worst parts of that sort of management: punishing everyone equally with no regard to their actual productivity. A company who has an effective management in place would never see this as a problem. If your supervisor sees that you are unproductive, it’s part of their job to see why and take the appropriate action. If a remote work program is fostered properly--setting up appropriate guidelines and easily accessible benchmarks for performance and a fair and regular check on those who are abusing the system--there's no reason why it can't be a valid choice for everyone involved. If you are a manager and you have no idea if your employees are working or not, that's a fault of management, not just the employee.

A move like this from Mayer reeks of fear: instead of fostering the sort of atmosphere to allow creativity and productivity, she ignores a failing management style for the sake of a brute-force destruction of promises and job satisfaction. These are the sorts of steps you take when the ship starts sinking, not as a positive first step towards prosperity.

I won’t lie and say there’s a bit of hypocrisy in this entire episode that fills me with a little schadenfreude; feminists hailing her as a role model all of a sudden are trying to absolve her of blame when she single-handedly takes away one of the more potent tools for working parents. 

The Pledge: Make no mistake: Marissa Mayer has made it more difficult for working moms to keep their jobs at Yahoo. Stating anything else is a blatant falsehood. Still, it proves one thing for feminists: women can be just as shitty of a manager as men.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Academy Awards Predictions

Sadly, I don't have much of a dog in the fight this year for the Academy Awards. As usual, the Best Picture nominees (and, therefore, 90% of the Best Actor/Actress/Supporting/Director/etc awards as well, since they just nominate the same things repeatedly) are mostly movies no one saw and definitely under no circumstances no comedies (I am reserving judgement on Argo as to how it should be classified).

Like I said with my Grammy post a few weeks ago, I am very lukewarm with awards shows. While I appreciate the purpose, I find them to be more about politics and insider popularity than actual critical merit. The Academy Awards, in particular, I have difficulty with, mostly due to their insistence that comedies are not worth recognizing. Sure, every year they nominate some token "comedy" which is usually just a quirky drama rather than an actual comedy, but it very rarely ever wins. (Forrest Gump was the last one I would consider a comedy.) In my opinion, it's relatively easy to drag out some cause-of-the-week drama about race or social injustice from the writer's room and tear-jerk your way to the red carpet, but it's infinitely more difficult to pull off a comedy that isn't simply a string of lowbrow one-liners.

Anyway, of the nine movies nominated, I had heard of six and watched zero. About the only ones I really have any desire to see are Lincoln, Argo, and Django Unchained. You could probably convince me to see Silver Linings Playbook. And I have an uneven relationship with Tarantino films; While I end up liking most of them, I think a lot of them are flawed and not necessarily worth Best Picture Nominee status.

I literally have no opinion about the rest of the nominees. It's just the same as the Best Picture nominees.

What will I think happen? My immediate guess is more or less a Lincoln sweep, but I'm not willing to put money down for that. Aside from that, I'll find out everything Monday morning when I wake up; I'm not staying up to watch six hours of self-congratulations.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Year Of The Symbolic Yet Relatable Animal

It turns out this past weekend was the Year of the Snake over in China. I realize that it's a huge traditional celebration over there, but, for me, trying to decipher exactly what year it is and what sort of animal it's supposed to be just confuses me. For me it is much like Mah Jong. I guess it makes sense because there is east and north and wind and flower and earth and I can't believe you guys made paper and fireworks but can't make a simple game without making it look like Home Ec and Algebra fused together and vomited out a deceptively unfun game. 

Anyway, the snake is supposed to be intelligent yet unscrupulous, kind of like a supervillain or Apple. It is also the year of the "water" snake, which is typically considered the "low" point of whatever it is we are looking at, akin to death or hiding. It is (of course!) also associated with the moon, which makes as much sense as one would think. So if you are going to travel to China any time soon, make sure you look out for hidden moonsnakes.

Still, i think it's time to revamp the whole "Year of the Blank" system. Sure, we're uprooting centuries of valid Chinese culture, but capitalism and FoxConn have done a lot worse to it in the last five years.

My proposals:

Year of the Twinkie: Represented by something golden and wonderful that was taken from us too soon, just to have it rise from the ashes of bankruptcy like a delicious cream-filled Phoenix and save us from ourselves in the nick of time.

Year of the Drone: Represented by a nameless, faceless object that will do all of your unenviable dirty work, and if things go horribly, murderously wrong you can show everyone how pure and white your hands are.

Year of the Catfish: Represented by a love interest that, for some inexpiable reason, you ignore all the warning signs know what, We're just gonna tell you now. It's really a dude. . It's not a girl, it's a dude. He's not calling you on the phone for a reason.

Year of the Raven: Represented by a purple raven with a look of abject emptiness in his eyes, where you can murder people with impunity and still get rewarded with a fairy-tale ending to your career. Allegedly.


Year of the Downton: Represented by a year that will take so long to go anywhere while everyone glances at each other giving knowing looks and yet still people go crazy over it because nothing happens for soooo looooooooong and yet everyone pretends the payoff is worth it and it is not.

Year of the Gaga: Represented by about two years ago.

Year of the Nuke: Represented by the fiery hot suns of a thousand galaxies that the Fearless Leader as created himself, right after his afternoon golf game. If Kim Jong Un has his way, anyway. You guys were all hot to get into North Korea in 1950, so what's stopping you now?

Year of the Reality Television Cooking Program: Represented by the inevitable show that will take Chinese delicacies, like rhino horn and tiger testicles, and cook up a meal good enough for a thousand housewives' Pinterest pages.

Year of the iPhone: which is still functionally identical to the previous iPhone and yet people will pay a month's wages one for it anyway. No wonder everyone hates us.

Year of the Honey Boo Boo: Represented by the drive to make a series of very bad decisions your entire life and still somehow earn  immense amounts of money and fame as a result.

Year of the Yuan: Let's just cut to the chase here: make money and be happy. And if you can invent paper and fireworks in the process, all the better.

Monday, February 11, 2013


I'm not one for awards shows. I mean, I have a latent interest in who eventually wins the big awards, such as Best Picture or Best Sitcom or whatever, but I'm certainly not going to sit through four hours of awards show nonsense to find out. The performances usually aren't that good, you have to sit through a lot of awkward and appalling speeches, and three-fourths of the stuff being awarded or performed I have no interest in. None of the major awards shows--Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, or Oscars--hold enough diverse interest for me to really care all that much.

That said, I really, really dislike the Grammys. I don't know why, although I have a pretty good idea. For the Emmys and the Oscars (I know literally nothing about the Tonys, so let's just pretend they don't exist), there is a limited pool of candidates. There's only about a 120 movies released each year that get nationwide releases, plus probably only a few dozen more that get smaller, limited releases (plus the various foreign film/short subject/etc. that no one outside of a few offices in New York and Los Angeles could conceivably have ever heard of). Sure, you probably haven't seen the dreadful critically acclaimed list of Best Picture nominees, but you've probably at least heard of most of them. And chances are you know who all the actors and actresses are. Same goes for television: chances are you are at least familiar with everything and everyone even if you haven't seen them. In either case, while you may not be in a position to know who should win, you can at least relate to a vast majority of what is going on.

Not necessarily so with the Grammys, however. Music is so diverse with such a wide range of artists it is very difficult to follow. If a TV show is a comedy exactly what that entails is usually pretty simple, but what constitutes "Rock" or "R&B" is a pretty wide spectrum of content. Plus both popular music and critically acclaimed music are (generally) niche pockets of popularity--a reasonably small sliver of the population knows the hot new things and an even smaller sliver of the population knows the obscure blues artist that the critics adore. No one had ever heard of, say, Mumford and Sons until they showed up at last year's Grammys. Add to this the obscure categories--I know there is a difference between "Album of the Year" and "Record of the Year," but no one has told me why--and it becomes difficult to care. Contrast this to the Oscars and Emmys where, while there are plenty of technical awards, you at least have a general idea of what it is they are awarding. Not so with "Best R&B Performance," "Best Traditional R&B Performance," "Best R&B Song," and "Best Urban Contemporary Album."

There are too many awards--and yet at the same time these awards have embarrassingly diverse styles as to be impossible to decipher. It's almost as if they are working hard to be meaningless. And while, in toto, they generally get things right, it just seems like the entire enterprise is useless. And, yes, the performances can be great, but there's this thing called YouTube where I don't have to listen to awkwardly read statements as acceptance speeches. I will pass.