Farewell, Twitter!

Dear friends,

The time has come for me to leave the Twitter flock.

If you are the sort of person who finds such things amazing, it is quite amazing that — in all of space and in all of time — a path of my life’s journey crossed with yours. And that too while together building a company that has surely put a little dent in the universe. I have a great sense of pride and gratitude to have been a small part of this. I hope and wish for you that a corner of your heart feels that way too. And I have full faith that you all are going to make this dent bigger.

As I write this, so many memories flash across my mind almost making me relive the feelings and emotions I have experienced these last five years. Of those that will endure though will be about all of you. Perhaps that is what it is all about when all is said and done. To work with people that you come to respect and to give your best so that hopefully they come to respect you too.

What am I going to do next? I am looking forward to the next phase. I don’t need a break, but I am going to take one. It is not going to be short either. It will involve reading and traveling and thinking. Definitely some recreational coding and perhaps a bit of writing too.

I sincerely wish you the very best in Twitter and in life. I hope that our paths will cross again sometime in the future.

See you

Pankaj

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A critique of the NYTimes article about Google’s big data study on interviewing

This New York Times article has been doing the rounds on Twitter recently. Titled “In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal”, it is a condensed and edited interview of Laszlo Brock, an SVP of people operations at Google. It is apparent to me that the title as well as the apparent nuggets of wisdom present in this article form just the sort of potent combination that invites endless tweets and retweets from the San Francisco/Silicon Valley echo chamber. Well done, Adam Bryant.

However, I find a few too many issues with this article that I am compelled to note. An article mentioning a big data study at a company as venerated for big data as Google naturally leads to wide-ranging conclusions. As I explain below, that would be wrong.

First of all, I read the article three times, but could not find anything emphatic in the body of the article that warrants the rather strong claim in the title that “Big Data may not be such a big deal”. On the contrary, Brock clearly says that just giving managers and leaders a visible set of measurements was enough for them to strive to improve. Yes, there is mention of the (organizational) context being important and the need for human insight, but even the most ardent fans of Big Data have never been heard to advocate jettisoning those. In another place, the article says “I think this will be a constraint to how big the data can get”. I can not help but wonder that the title might have been bolted on by some “social media expert” at NYTimes.

Then there are other questions the article and the correlation study mentioned raises.

Brock mentions that “the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.” Elsewhere, he says that the average team size is 6. Putting the two together, it means that 14% out of 6 i.e., less than 1 of the average team is made up of people who have not gone to college. In other words, Brock is very likely talking about bigger teams. It is not mentioned whether those teams are all engineering/product or contain other departments including some like support which apparently form a large part of Google? Or how many such teams are there? It is a bizarre piece of data mentioned by the article without saying how many such teams might be there.

The article cites a study at Google to detect correlation between interview types and success at Google after 2-3 years. It concludes that things like GPA, test scores, puzzles, brain teasers have no correlation and the only thing that correlates well is “structured behavioral interviewing”. At the very least, this deserves more explanation. Was the study done over all of Google, or only engineering or some other parts of the organization? Does the lack of correlation hold if you restrict to either top 20% or bottom 20%? Should everyone basically just do “structured behavioral interviews”? Now, I am myself a fan of behavioral interviewing (btw, here is a link if you want to read some examples of behavioral interview questions) and include a few such questions in my interviews of candidates at Twitter, but I can’t imagine the whole interview panel of an engineering or product position being of this sort.

Turning to the article’s juicy assertion that GPAs are not predictive of future success at Google, consider this from the article: “Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school.” So, Google still does ask those if you are a “just a few years out of school”? And if a candidate is experienced, I don’t know of anyone in Silicon Valley at least who would go with transcripts and GPAs, so the fact that Google also doesn’t is odd to mention.

My biggest gripe with the article is that since GPAs and puzzles are apparently not predictive in their study, what it leaves us at best is that we are back to square one. We are not told what is predictive so what are we to rely on? Lot of people would jump to the conclusion to not include those in an interview at all. But doing that would be wrong simply because who is to say whatever they would be replaced with will be more predictive…

To be sure, I am myself not a fan of going by GPAs and performance on brainteasers in interviews. I am not even casting doubts on that study at Google and in fact the results of the study look quite plausible to me, simply because in Data Analysis, not finding predictive variables is rather common. I am just distressed at the suggestive tone of the article. It invites wide-ranging prescriptions for how to and how not to interview. New York Times: I am used to better from you.

——

PS: BTW, in my own constant search for the answer to the question “what sort of interview should I do”, here is a recent book by Nolan Bushnell (the founder of Atari and supposed father of the video-game industry, and apparently someone who launched the career of Steve Jobs). Though it seems a bit as if Bushnell might be trying to ride the Steve Jobs’ popularity wave, it still presents many out-of-the-box ideas on ways to go about interviewing, especially if you are looking for creative and exceptional engineers (as I am at Twitter).

Pandodaily is wrong about the reasons for why indians are supposedly not using twitter too much.

I just came across this blog post by Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda) on PandoDaily titled “Why aren’t more Indians using Twitter?”

I can’t comment on the stats she reports from Semiocast as I happen to be an employee of Twitter and Twitter does not publish country-wise numbers. But those stats are beside the point. Whatever they are, Sarah’s reasons have got to be incorrect because of the data presented in Facebook’s S-1 filing. To quote the relevant paragraph from Facebook’s S-1 [emphasis mine]:

As of December 31, 2011, we had 845 million MAUs, an increase of 39% from December 31, 2010. We experienced growth across different geographies, with users in Brazil and India representing a key source of growth. We had 161 million MAUs in the United States as of December 31, 2011, an increase of 16% from the prior year. We had 37 million MAUs in Brazil as of December 31, 2011, an increase of 268% from the prior year. Additionally, we had 46 million MAUs in India as of December 31, 2011, an increase of 132% from the prior year.

In other words, Facebook seems to be doing great in India. In fact, by some estimates, India is number 2 country for Facebook after the US.

All the four reasons mentioned by Sarah in her blog post (small online population, dysfunctional democracy, English not really being that common, not so rich middle class)
are not specific to Twitter and if they were right, Facebook’s stats in India would not have been what they are. As simple as that.

Understanding why (and when) any network gets popular in a certain region is a very difficult question. Social scientists (and more recently CS researchers) have grappled with it from many angles, and without much success. It would have been more interesting if @sarahcuda had blogged her thoughts about those nuances instead of using such a broad brush. (To be fair, she does express her surprise at the stats even given her “reasons”, but the thrust of the blog post is about coming up with generic reasons to explain the reported stats.)

Uses of Twitter as an alert system

I was recently asked by an acquaintance if there is a public compendium of the use of Twitter as a warning or alert system. I asked around within Twitter and several colleagues gave many useful pointers and tidbits. Since I could not find any public compendium, I thought I will create one from these responses. Please note that there is nothing official about this compendium, and it is most likely incomplete right now. Also, it is likely to get stale quickly though I will appreciate comments and help from anyone reading to keep this as inclusive as possible.

One important thing to note at the outset is that Twitter should not be solely relied upon as an emergency alert system. Twitter is still a new platform, and while it aims for high reliability, it is of course not (yet) 100% reliable. Hence, it should at best be used in addition to other warning systems.

Some illustrative Twitter accounts

Here are some examples of Twitter accounts used to provide alerts or warnings.

Other applications of Twitter

Other studies of use of Twitter and social media in crises

  • A report by Red Cross in August 2010. This was produced after a summit held by Red Cross, called “Emergency Social Data Summit”.
  • Analysing tweets was suggested to have been a quicker way of detecting and tracking the deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti than traditional methods, according to a study reported here.
  • Computer science researchers have systematically analyzed the problem of event detection using tweets as sensors. For instance, check out this publication titled “Earthquake shakes Twitter users: real-time event detection by social sensors.”

Work by Twitter itself in the area

Twitter, the company, has an “Ads for Good” program that gives away a quarter of a million dollars every year in pro-bono ads. 10K per month of these are given as both pre-emptive and post emergency critical tweets.

In 2010, Twitter partnered with one of Haiti’s leading wireless carriers, Voila, to allow users to get SMS upates from the @kwawouj twitter account.