The MurkyGrey blog


Talking to people about technology

“United Breaks Guitars” and a lesson for acquired startups

Millions of people have already heard this story: Dave Carroll, a talented musician, flew with United Airlines. He checked in his guitar as luggage and then watched helplessly as United baggage handlers tossed his precious instrument around. Reunited with his guitar upon landing he discovered that as he feared, it had been broken. Dave tried in vain to get United to cover the cost of repair, but after a few months he received a final negative response from the airline stating that since he did not report his loss within 24 hours of collecting his luggage he is ineligible for any compensation. In response Dave wrote a song titled “United Breaks Guitars” and published it on YouTube:

The song became an instant hit on YouTube and on the iTunes music store; it quickly proved to be a PR nightmare for United. In addition to the sweet taste of revenge, it landed Dave a nice chunk of change from iTunes sales, two new guitars from the manufacturer, a serious boost to his popularity and a second career as a sought-after public speaker. It’s a great song: well-written, nicely performed, funny and catchy. Give it a click every time you feel like poking fun at United, the airline industry at large or poor Ms. Irlweg, but if we actually want to learn something from Dave’s guitar’s misfortune, let’s try to unravel the secret to the song’s popularity and the underpinning of the guitar incident.

A mountain of frustration

The millions of listeners who fueled the song’s popularity don’t just enjoy a catchy tune, they also relate to the songwriter’s pain and frustration on a very personal level. It is more than a song — it is a battle hymn for the hoards of frustrated airline passengers and for anyone who ever struggled with an uncaring and indifferent big-company “service” organization. Indeed, BoingBoing dubbed it “the complaint anthem”. Admittedly, airlines are the worst: you trust them with your life and your property while they seal you up in a metal tube and instruct you to sit down quietly while they abuse your trust. There is a lot of frustration built up there, and the song easily taps into it.

Who’s at fault?

Pointing fingers is fun, who should we blame for the guitar’s demise? Obviously the baggage handlers who tossed the guitar bear the most direct responsibility, they should have been much more careful. The trouble with accidents though, is that they tend to happen no matter how careful we are. Sure, baggage handlers can significantly reduce the rate at which baggage is damaged, but ensuring the complete safety of each and every checked item is entirely impractical.
When accidents happen, customer service should pick up the pieces. Three Chicago service agents (the ones “who showed complete indifference”) were perfectly positioned to avert the catastrophe and they dropped the ball gloriously. These service agents could have been more sympathetic, they could have asked for the claim check, tracked the item and told the concerned passenger where his luggage was, but most importantly they could have explained the process for reporting damaged luggage and emphasized that it must be done within 24 hours of landing. Just explaining the process would have prevented the PR disaster. Dave probably would not have become a fan of the airline that broke his beloved guitar, but he would have been compensated for the damage and likely would not have written “United Breaks Guitars”.

Who’s not at fault?

Ironically, the one person that Dave chose to name and shame in front of millions of YouTube viewers is hardly at fault. Poor Ms. Irlweg, the bearer of bad news, was wrongfully singled out. You see, second only to big-company customers in their helplessness are big-company employees, often rendered equally powerless by rules and procedures. By the time Ms. Irlweg received the claim the only thing she could do was note that the claim was not submitted within the 24-hour window and reject it.
This notion is not lost on Dave Carrol himself or on United. Dave all but acknowledged Ms. Irlweg’s innocence in his sequel song and United spokesperson Robin Urbanski stated that one of the steps they took following the incident was to “provide agents with a better way to escalate and respond to special situations”.

It’s all about process

Guitar tossing and careless service agents aside, what made this incident truly torturous is rules and procedures; a passenger who was not made aware of the rules in time and an employee who was rendered powerless by process.

And a lesson for acquired startups

Every now and then, a perfectly good startup turns around and gets itself acquired by an industry giant. When this happens, you (a perfectly happy startup employee) might wake up the next morning to find out that you have become… Ms. Irlweg; you try to get things done but find yourself suddenly bound by rules and procedures to the point of complete helplessness. It’s frustrating, and to make things worse all around you long-time employees of the industry giant seem to get their way with ease by invoking just the right rule every time.
Simply put, if you want to be successful in your new big-corporate job, you are going to have to take some time and learn the rules. You might want to:

  • Start by finding reliable and current information about rules and procedures. HR should be able to help you with that, if only you could figure out the steps to reach the rights person in HR…
  • Take the time to familiarize yourself with the rules (this may take a while).
  • As an interim solution, align yourself with someone who’s been around for a while (if you can find such an ally).

Do you have a hair-raising tale of horrific process or terrifying big-company acquisitions? Leave a comment

Things I have learned from my boss

I recently commented on a blog post that started with a tale of a lousy supervisor doing a truly horrific job of relaying negative feedback to a subordinate. It got me thinking about some of the miserable bosses I’ve had over the years. Not wanting to linger too much in negativity, I tried to conjure up some of the better managers I reported to. A good manager is hard to find, but when you have one, you often get to learn valuable lessons. Here are some things I have learned from one good boss.

Maintain a blame-free work environment

Finger-pointing is a toxic, counter-productive behavior, but there is more to it; in a software startup it is essential to move forward at a fast and efficient pace. A no-mistakes pace is simply too slow. To survive, we have to move at a speed that guarantees a certain rate of error. We must accept the fact that mistakes will be made and corrected on the fly, simply because a pace that yields no mistakes will not bring us to takeoff before the end of the runway. I once spent a few weeks at a client site in a foreign country where a culture of “no mistakes” prevails; as you may expect, everything was gold-plated to death. Time was regularly wasted on unnecessarily perfect performances, and on cover-ups when things didn’t go according to plan.
“No blame” does not mean “no accountability”. Anyone who’s ever worked for me has heard me say: “It’s OK to make a mistake and you will not be judged for it. Making a mistake and not learning from it is a different story”.

Don’t confuse “urgent” with “important”

You plan your day, week and month. You focus your efforts in a calculated effort to achieve very specific goals. Then someone rushes in screaming that the sky is falling and all progress is put on hold until the oh-so-urgent issue is resolved. There’s a hero’s aura about riding to the rescue and saving the day, but when the day is done, you are still a day (or a week, or a month) behind your schedule. The fires you are putting out may be real, or they may be artificial emergencies conceived to manipulate your priority list. Don’t let the moment’s glory distract you from executing your plan for too long. It may not be as urgent, but it is far more important.

Manage your personal productivity

Developers’ productivity is a complicated issue. First off, the disparity between individuals is huge. It is not uncommon for a star developer to be ten times as productive as an average, good developer. You will not find this kind of distribution with say, athletes or steel mill workers. On top of that, there are many subjective and even random factors at play; the estimates that we use to measure productivity are always partially subjective, and if Alice took a day to resolve one specific bug, while Bob took a week to resolve another, can you really say that Alice is more productive? Or was she just lucky?
Improving your personal productivity is a great way to get better at what you do, but as a developer you are the only one who can tell how productive your day is. You can expect your manager to measure your productivity over time, but when it comes to your day-to-day personal productivity — you’re on your own. The CEO of a company I worked for used to say: “It’s tough with you developers, even if I see you wandering around aimlessly all day, as long as you have that thinking expression on your faces, you could be working”. So watch your own personal productivity every day. You’re the only one who can do it, and you’re the one to benefit from it.

Have you had a boss worth remembering? Leave a comment.

* In case you were wondering: the mythical boss I am referring to is Alex Shapira. Alex has done wonders for many software companies, he’s an executive consultant now.