When you can't take market share, take credit. That's the unspoken motto of Yahoo since Google overshadowed the Web pioneer, and no one has mastered the art like Salim Ismail, the desperately unpopular VP in charge of Yahoo Brickhouse, the San Francisco incubator charged with inventing the company's future. One Yahoo insider calls him "notoriously slimy," and points to Ismail's recent announcement of Fire Eagle as an example of how Valleywag's latest and lamest Silicon Valley Tool does his work.
Tom Coates, the London-based Yahoo who's actually running Fire Eagle, had been quietly talking it up among people interested in the project, which aims to make it easier for people to broadcast their locations across various websites. But when Ismail decided to make a big announcement and brief the Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch, Coates's name was nowhere to be seen. What's worse, his engineering team was still working on it and the project, which Ismail said would launch by the end of the month, wasn't ready to go live.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a clever exercise of the classic software-company management trick: Boss preannounces project in order to spur programmers to actually ship code. But Coates was irate enough to force Ismail to backpedal on his blog:
Lots of coverage, mostly good. However, it's important to note that it's just an announcement. The developer launch will happen later this month. Tom Coates and the team have been working tirelessly with some of the world's leading geo-coding experts, and we're almost ready.
There's nothing wrong with a manager hogging the spotlight. There's nothing wrong with using the press to manage unruly programmers. No, Ismail's sin was that he tried those gambits and botched them.
Brickhouse, an inspiring idea, is at once an object of envy and ridicule within Yahoo. With few successful projects coming out of the San Francisco incubator, Ismail's boss, Bradley Horowitz, have been trying to extend the brand to efforts housed in Yahoo's R&D labs and its Advanced Products Group. That, of course, will end up drawing more attention to the San Francisco group's failures.
What really makes Ismail a Silicon Valley Tool? Horowitz is using him. Ismail and Brickhouse are being set up to fail. If Brickhouse has another success like Pipes, expect Horowitz to take credit. And if Brickhouse flops for good? Ismail gets the blame. One almost feels sorry for him.
Ismail's plight wouldn't matter, of course, except for this: While the purple people play political games over who should get the most points for innovation, Google and Facebook are actually inventing useful new software. Maybe people at Yahoo are, too — but thanks to bosses who can't even steal credit successfully, you'll never hear about it.