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Secrets of Product Development and What Journalists Write

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Before I came out to California to work at Yahoo, I watched the business and culture of Silicon Valley from a distance. I read lots of the trade rags, tech web sites, and books about early Internet companies (the Netscape era).

One of the things that amazed me about Internet companies (usually the portals) was how quickly they built things and were able to react to each others moves with frightening speed. Company X would do something amazing and new only to be leapfrogged by Company Y just a few weeks later.

They were putting on one hell of a show and it was all amplified by the crazy bubble of the late 90s. I loved it.

The tech and business press would say things like “in response to Company X, Company Y has just…” or “in an effort to defend their business from Company Y, Company X today launched a new…”

I saw headlines like that all the time and still see them today.

Today there’s one important difference: I’m on the inside now. For the last five and a half years, I have had a front row seat to the inner workings of what I used to imagine (with the help of a small army of journalists and reports).

Now I see it first hand and hear about it from coworkers and friends at other companies. And you know what? It’s even more insane than it looked from the outside.

So I’m going to let you in on a little secret about how products are developed at large companies–even large Internet companies that some people think are fast on their feet.

Larger companies rarely can respond that quickly to each other. It almost never happens. Sure, they may talk a good game, but it’s just talk. Building things on the scale that Microsoft, Google, AOL, or Yahoo do is a complex process. It takes time.

Journalists like to paint this as a rapidly moving chess game in which we’re all waiting for the next move so that we can quickly respond. But the truth is that most product development goes on in parallel. Usually there are people at several companies who all have the same idea, or at least very similar ones. The real race is to see who can build it faster and better than the others.

Think about this the next time a news story makes it sound like Yahoo is trying to one-up Google. Or MSN is “responding” to last week’s launch of a new AOL service.

It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of it all. But reality is often quite different than what you read.

As a side note, I’m sure this is even more true in the world of hardware and consumer electronics. But I have no direct experience with that world.

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Jeremy Zawodny is the author of the popular Jeremy Zawodny’s blog. Jeremy is part of the Yahoo search team and frequently posts in the Yahoo! Search blog as well.

Visit Jeremy’s blog: Jeremy Zawodny’s blog.

Secrets of Product Development and What Journalists Write
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