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Can You Fire a Team?

I not saying that the Flash Player team has prima donnas nor that Adobe’s management can’t control them

iPad on Ulitzer

Yesterday, I finished my dinner in a French restaurant with traditional crème brulee. This time I've also ordered a small glass of Sauternes wine. Then we went to our friend's house to follow it with some good old port.  

But no matter what software developers drink or eat in February 2010, one way or the other the conversation will slide into a No-Flash-Player-on-iPad discussion. Apple pretends that they will never allow Flash Player on Steve's OS (SOS), because it's buggy.  Adobe's CTO, Kevin Lynch, states that Apple doesn't cooperate.

Jobs Has a Few Words for Google & Adobe



After the third round, I made a statement that when the dust settles, everyone will thank Steve Jobs for forcing Adobe to make Flash Player better and faster, which is a win-win situation for all application developers.

My drinking buddy responded that Adobe has a tiny group of hard core developers who work on Flash Player, have deep understanding of its internals, have the status of sacred cows, and Kevin Lynch can't put pressure on them regardless of what Steve says or wants.

When I hear about any prima donnas in IT, I'm getting easily excited. I believe that if any developer in any IT team starts exhibiting the prima donna symptoms, there's only one solution to this disease: s/he has to be fired.

My opponent was not so sure and replied, "You can't fire the entire team".

Don’t get me wrong, I not saying that the Flash Player team has prima donnas nor that Adobe’s management can’t control them... Actually, can you give a better than this explanation why the bug fix that caused Flash Player crashes was not deployed in production for more than a year?  Does it take Steve Job to have a product manager openly admin that they didn't pay enough attention to Flash Player bugs? Will it be different from now on? Anyway, after a couple of old ports it was interesting to dig into this direction a bit deeper.

I told my friends a story that happened with my friend Gregory ten years ago. Back than he had several gas stations in our state of New Jersey.  You may not know, but NJ drivers are not allowed to pump gas themselves. You just pull up to a pump, the gas attendant stops by, and you say, "Fill up, Regular please".  At least I say the same phrase during the last fifteen years - I lease cars and don't buy premium gasoline.

Gregory had about 20 attendants working for him. All of them were relatives from some Asian country. They were self-managed, low maintenance, and hard working people.   One day, the leader of the clan came to Greg and demanded raising salaries to all of them. Greg refused. Then the envoy said, "If you won't raise our pay, we'll all quit"

Greg quietly responded, "Go back and tell everyone that all of you are fired as of this very moment."  Greg had to temporarily lock his gas stations - he went to South Jersey, where the pay was lower, hired and relocated 20 new gas attendants. Greg has balls.  Yes, he lost money, but didn't bend to blackmailers who believed that they were irreplaceable.

You'll be surprised, but situation in the job market of gas attendants is very similar to what I see in IT. It's a pretty small world, all local recruiters know you, and employers require references from the previous place of work.

Two weeks later, the blackmailer came back to Greg begging to hire them back, but it was a little to late.

No, I don't think that developing Flash Player is as easy as pumping gas. But the source code of the latest build Flash Player is safely stored in a central repository, and if, for any hypothetical reason, Adobe executives will need to replace the entire team, they can do it within a month or so.  There are so many brilliant programmers in this country, you wouldn't believe it.

Sorry Flash Player folks, for using your team for illustrating my attitude to prima donnas in IT. I believe that you did a great job with this VM (trust me, I have something to compare with). But our conversation about your team did take place yesterday, and I've openly shared it with my readers. Yes, there is always room for improvement, but I'm sure there are plenty of non-technical reasons for the current situation in Mac OS and SOS.

I simply don't like prima donnas. Plus Sauternes. Plus the old port...

More Stories By Yakov Fain

Yakov Fain is a co-founder of two software companies: Farata Systems and SuranceBay. He authored several technical books and lots of articles on software development. Yakov is Java Champion (https://java-champions.java.net). He leads leads Princeton Java Users Group. Two of Yakov's books will go in print this year: "Enterprise Web Development" (O'Reilly) and "Java For Kids" (No Starch Press).

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Most Recent Comments
Yakov Fain 03/21/10 04:53:00 PM EDT

@roche It looks like you didn't get my message and analogies. I know that Apple simply doesn't want Flash Player on iPhone regardless of how good/bad the product is.

I also know that Adobe has good engineers, but I don't see that they have much support from the management. By support I mean providing enough resources for delivering software of superb quality.

Your statement about "internal assessments of Adobe's management by its own engineers" is great, but show me the money. Why in the world does it take two years to release the next version of Flex?
Inadequate funding.

Why Adobe substantially raised the licensing cost of LCDS leaving in the dust those IT shop who started using it?
Poor management.

Being a democratic and cool executive is nice but not good enough. They need to make the right decisions to get better external assessment too.

Yakov Fain

roche 02/10/10 05:24:00 AM EST

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Apple/Adobe conflict is how many people grant Apple the high ground in the discussion. Adobe isn't being deprived access to Apple products because of quality. It's being deprived access to Apple products because that's what Apple does.

First of all, consider the business diplomacy issues. Adobe wants access to Apple's platform, so it cannot be forthcoming with its retorts. If you read between the lines, Adobe's response is always "our quality isn't an issue, and our customers are asking for access". This is very much a guarded statement, staying polite and ambivalently taking the higher ground.

Now, consider Apple's track record. Apple isn't a software company, it's a hardware company that runs proprietary software. To save some reading, suffice it to say that Apple has never enabled an OEM to install its OS or products (save ITunes & Safari), reaping the benefit of a constrained support base. Compare that to Microsoft. As maligned as their products are, you can install Windows XP on any machine from a multi-processor server down to a netbook. It supports everything. Apple's game is to keep the hw/sw relationship very safe.

Taking that knowledge to their iPod/iPhone/iPad family of products, consider what else they fail to support. Anything available on PC/Mac via browser plug-ins is not supported in iP*'s Safari. Java, Flash, etc... None of it is supported.

Now consider the balance of Apple's business. There was a time where Quicktime took the bulk of online video market share away from Real and MS. Then came Flash. Now, Quicktime is a piece of history rather than the authoritative online video platform, and Apple hates that. iP's video is all QT, they've even painstakingly ported it for YouTube streaming consumption. Those scars are still relatively fresh, and this is the first high ground Apple has had over Adobe since.

So, the bottom line is that Flash isn't supported on Apple's portable products because Apple wants it that way. Because it makes business sense to stay polite, Adobe is just reiterating indisputable facts about customer demand and its own bug stats. Apple is at fault for making this a shooting match.

And, finally, the Flash team has taken their platform (Flash/Flex/Actionscript) from an obscure product with a proprietary language to a far-reaching platform with a codebase that reaps support from a global community of developers. I've worked with Actionscript before, during, and since its frequent upgrades enhanced functionality to compete with Java, Javascript, and C# as far as functionality and support are concerned.

With due respect, your article documents a phenomenon that might have worked with gas station attendants, but not the architects, implementers, and testers of a hugely popular platform with a fully functional API. I'd question your perspective with regard to management and professionalism, seeing your virtue (or lack thereof) regarding your "burn it down" policy toward what you perceive as prima donna engineering teams. Read glassdoor.com's internal assessments of Adobe's management by its own engineers. People are harping on them for not making Flash a bigger product. It seems no one with first-hand perspective or an empathetic mindset wouldn't feel the need to destroy an engineering organization to prove a point about salaries or process.