Dan Luu on “You can only communicate one top priority”

Link post

h/​t to rpglover64 who pointed me towards this twitter thread in this comment.

Here’s Dan Luu’s take on what happens when orgs try to communicate nuanced priorities. (Related to my You Get About Five Words post)

One thing it took me quite a while to understand is how few bits of information it’s possible to reliably convey to a large number of people. When I was at MS, I remember initially being surprised at how unnuanced their communication was, but it really makes sense in hindsight.

For example, when I joined Azure, I asked people what the biggest risk to Azure was and the dominant answer was that if we had more global outages, major customers would lose trust in us and we’d lose them forever, permanently crippling the business.

Meanwhile, the only message VPs communicated was the need for high velocity. When I asked why there was no communication about the thing considered the highest risk to the business, the answer was if they sent out a mixed message that included reliability, nothing would get done.

The fear was that if they said that they needed to ship fast and improve reliability, reliability would be used as an excuse to not ship quickly and needing to ship quickly would be used as an excuse for poor reliability and they’d achieve none of their goals.

When I first heard this, I thought it was odd, but having since paid attention to what happens when VPs and directors attempt to communicate information downwards, I have to concede that it seems like the MS VPs were right and nuanced communication usually doesn’t work at scale.

I’ve seen quite a few people in upper management attempt to convey a mixed/​nuanced message since my time at MS and I have yet to observe a case of this working in a major org at a large company (I have seen this work at a startup, but that’s a very different environment).

I’ve noticed this problem with my blog as well. E.g., I have some posts saying BigCo $ is better than startup $ for p50 and maybe even p90 outcomes and that you should work at startups for reasons other than pay. People often read those posts as “you shouldn’t work at startups”.

I see this for every post, e.g., when I talked about how latency hadn’t improved, one of the most common responses I got was about how I don’t understand the good reasons for complexity. I literally said there are good reasons for complexity in the post!

As noted previously, most internet commenters can’t follow constructions as simple as an AND, and I don’t want to be in the business of trying to convey what I’d like to convey to people who won’t bother to understand an AND since I’d rather convey nuance

But that’s because, if I write a blog post and 5% of HN readers get it and 95% miss the point, I view that as a good outcome since was useful for 5% of people and, if you want to convey nuanced information to everyone, I think that’s impossible and I don’t want to lose the nuance

If people won’t read a simple AND, there’s no way to simplify a nuanced position, which will be much more complex, enough that people in general will follow it, so it’s a choice between conveying nuance to people who will read and avoiding nuance since most people don’t read

But it’s different if you run a large org. If you send out a nuanced message and 5% of people get it and 95% of people do contradictory things because they understood different parts of the message, that’s a disaster. I see this all the time when VPs try to convey nuance.

BTW, this is why, despite being widely mocked, “move fast & break things” can be a good value. It coneys which side of the trade-off people should choose. A number of companies I know of have put velocity & reliability/​safety/​etc. into their values and it’s failed every time.

MS leadership eventually changed the message from velocity to reliability First one message, then the next. Not both at once When I checked a while ago, measured by a 3rd party, Azure reliability was above GCP and close enough to AWS that it stopped being an existential threat

Azure has, of course, also lapped Google on enterprise features & sales and is a solid #2 in cloud despite starting with infrastructure that was a decade behind Google’s, technically. I can’t say that I enjoyed working for Azure, but I respect the leadership and learned a lot.