God Protect Us From Amateurs!

The buck stops with the CEO

At 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, I sat down at the computer and received the following message from Yahoo!:

We are undertaking some essential, but extensive maintenance to improve Yahoo! Mail. During the maintenance period, some users may experience problems accessing Yahoo! Mail. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience. Your account is in great shape and we are working to have it available again as quickly as possible. —Yahoo! Mail Team

I could not access my email.

Site Maintenance: The Right Way to Schedule It
The 2001 Target Marketing Direct Marketer of the Year was Jan Brandt, who went to work as marketing director for a ricky-ticky little start-up called AOL when it was in a cat fight with CompuServe and Prodigy. Brandt single-handedly masterminded AOL’s rise to become a corporate behemoth so vast and so stinking rich that it bought Time Warner (in what turned out to be the worst M&A in the history world business).

When AOL was tiny and struggling, Brandt’s life for three crazed years was a series of 7-day-a-week solo all-nighters. From my cover story:

AOL’s peak times were at night. If 3,000 members were online at the same time-which was a common occurrence-the system was taxed to the limit.

Marketing reports could not be run until 3 a.m., because until that hour all hardware was employed servicing members. Brandt used to go home, walk the dog, eat dinner and fall asleep in front of the TV. Her wake-up alarm was the theme music from reruns of “Law & Order” at 3 a.m. She would groggily boot up her computer to look at the most up-to-date membership report—the flash counts of members, revenue in and cancellations. Every night for three years she lived in fear of the entire house of floppies collapsing. But the members inexorably kept rolling in. Since Brandt worked all day and [AOL’s Director of Operations Matt] Korn worked all night, their basic communications were via instant messaging during the wee hours of the morning. Her life was sheer madness.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at dennyhatch.com.

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  • Ivan

    Isn’t it highly likely that there was a good reason for the 7:30am maintenance? Maybe the service was under attack from hackers, maybe they learned about a zero-day exploit that had to be fixed immediately, or maybe there was a dependence upon a vendor that couldn’t respond until morning. There are any number of potential reasons that have nothing to do with how the CEO chooses to spend her time and money.

    Even in the most professional organizations, outages are sometimes unavoidable, and being able to communicate to your customers about those outages is an important competency for an organization to maintain. Certainly, the out-of-service message could have been better. That’s why, rather than snide remarks about the CEO, I would have liked to read your analysis of that out-of-service message with recommendations for its improvement — again, under the warranted assumption that the timing of the outage could not be avoided.

  • Lisa Jeffries

    I think the first problem is that you used Yahoo! Mail. All Ymail jokes aside, at this point in their scale and structure, I doubt the decision to have downtime made it all the way to a C-level exec’s office, especially if it wasn’t network-wide. Email is just one of their many products, so the real fault lies with the product manager or technical manager who made the decision to run the service at a peak time. The should be the most in tune with their individual product and users.

  • tony the pitiful copywriter

    This could be the beginning of your departure from Yahoo! Mail?

    Even NCDOT here in God’s Country knows to work on certain roads before and after rush hour.

  • Rebecca Cashman

    wow, sounds like you were crabby that you were unable to read your email exactly on your own schedule! I recall you writing emails about how you loved Yahoo! mail. Not so much anymore? Or just not the CEO?

    Since I know you are not a techy, here are some insights from the view of someone who was raised around technology…. AOL is for folks who do not know much about computers, networking, technology, etc.

    Sometimes websites and webservers have hiccups. Most likely this "glitch" happened at an inopportune time and the IT folks were furiously fixing it. And again, most likely this was not a planned outage.

    Pointing fingers at someone like the CEO is probably wrong. Remember when you point a finger, 3 are pointing back at yourself! It was most likely the call of the Tech manager or director or VP of that department.

    What were they to do? Just have that glitch continue on until 3am your time? To me, that is preposterous. It would be way better to get it taken care of RIGHT THEN.

    I do not know any IT department who PLANS an outage or service disruption during peak hours. It is unheard of. So this had to have been a glitch that needed immediate attention.


  • Texmail

    Denny to the point again. They serve millions and it’s amazing it all works actually. But with so many millions they make some kind of trade-off, perhaps not thinking it through, though often, as you indicate at the cost of the customer.

  • Peter Hochstein


    The poem that follows is so long that I imagine many of your readers will not get to the end of it. However, when you started talking about amateurs in our business, it immediately came to mind.

    Back in the 1920s, a columnist for the New York Sun named Don Marquis claimed that a free verse poet reincarnated as a cockroach named archy (all lower case) was ghostwriting his columns. archy’s companions include a female alley cat of loose morals named mehitabel. And when mehitabel began living with a theater cat, this poem about amateurs in a business that should belong to professionals appeared in The Sun. Pay particular attention to the last four lines:


    i ran onto mehitabel again
    last evening
    she is inhabiting
    a decayed trunk
    which lies in an alley
    in greenwich village
    in company with the
    most villainous tom cat
    i have ever seen
    but there is nothing
    wrong about the association
    archy she told me
    it is merely a plutonic
    and the thing can be
    believed for the tom
    looks like one of pluto s demons
    it is a theatre trunk
    archy mehitabel told me
    and tom is an old theatre cat
    he has given his life
    to the theatre
    he claims that richard
    mansfield once
    kicked him out of the way
    and then cried because
    he had done it and
    petted him
    and at another time
    he says in a case
    of emergency
    he played a bloodhound
    in a production of
    uncle tom s cabin
    the stage is not what it
    used to be tom says
    he puts his front paw
    on his breast and says
    they don t have it any more
    they don t have it here
    the old troupers are gone
    there s nobody can troupe
    any more
    they are all amateurs nowadays
    they haven t got it
    there are only
    five or six of us oldtime
    troupers left
    this generation does not know
    what stage presence is
    personality is what they lack
    where would they get
    the training my old friends
    got in the stock companies
    i knew mr booth very well
    says tom
    and a law should be passed
    preventing anybody else
    from ever playing
    in any play he ever
    played in
    there was a trouper for you
    i used to sit on his knee
    and purr when i was
    a kitten he used to tell me
    how much he valued my opinion
    finish is what they lack
    and they haven t got it
    and again he laid his paw
    on his breast
    i remember mr daly very
    well too
    i was with mr daly s company
    for several years
    there was art for you
    there was team work
    there was direction
    they knew the theatre
    and they all had it
    for two years mr daly
    would not ring up the curtain
    unless i was in the
    prompter s box
    they are amateurs nowadays
    rank amateurs all of them
    for two seasons i played
    the dog in joseph
    jefferson s rip van winkle
    it is true i never came
    on the stage
    but he knew i was just off
    and it helped him
    i would like to see
    one of your modern
    theatre cats
    act a dog so well
    that it would convince
    a trouper like jo jefferson
    but they haven t got it
    they haven t got it
    jo jefferson had it he had it
    i come of a long line
    of theatre cats
    my grandfather was with forrest
    he had it he was a real trouper
    my grandfather said
    he had a voice
    that used to shake
    the ferryboats
    on the north river
    once he lost his beard
    and my grandfather
    dropped from the
    fly gallery and landed
    under his chin
    and played his beard
    for the rest of the act
    you don t see any theatre
    cats that could do that
    they haven t got it they
    haven t got it
    once i played the owl
    in modjeska s production
    of macbeth
    i sat above the castle gate
    in the murder scene
    and made my yellow
    eyes shine through the dusk
    like an owl s eyes
    modjeska was a real
    trouper she knew how to pick
    her support i would like
    to see any of these modern
    theatre cats play the owl s eyes
    to modjeska s lady macbeth
    but they haven t got it nowadays
    they haven t got it
    mehitabel he says
    both our professions
    are being ruined
    by amateurs


  • Will Ezell

    Once again, Denny kicks ass! Totally agreed.

    People tend to forget the other half of the definition of marketing – the encumbrance part:

    Marketing is ANYTHING that helps or encumbers the sale or use of your services and products – ANYTHING.