AOL? Really! My First Year as an AOLer

Time flies. It’s been a year since I joined AOL as part of Matte Scheinker‘s Consumer Experience team. At the time my teammate and fellow ex-Yahoo Christian Crumlish wrote a post, “AOL?!? Really?” that captured the disbelief and shock among friends and relatives who heard about our new gig. And honestly, it wasn’t what I’d expected my next move would be when I decided to leave Yahoo! a few months earlier.

The AOL described to me was in the process of reinventing itself: an aging internet icon that acknowledged the need for fundamental change, that didn’t shy away from the dark corners of its product portfolio. The role was intriguing too. The Consumer Experience mission: to “ensure that AOL only builds and launches the highest-quality products.” The three of us were “ninja janitors,” cleaning up the mess of AOL. We might be accomplished designers and product strategists — but no job was beneath us. The promise: be a part of AOL’s turnaround. Develop standards and practices. Dig in with product teams in need of help and make things happen. Learn from industry veterans. Become better product managers, designers, and most of all businessmen in the process. Learn how to make change happen.

And what a year it’s been. I’ve designed, helped code, and launched AOL’s employee phone book, project database, and social network. I’ve worked with teams across AOL (Mapquest, AIM, AOL Mail, Truveo, AOL Help, and more) to help them refine their experiences — and received tremendous gratitude in the process. I’ve managed agency contracts. I’ve crisscrossed the country on trips to New York and Dulles, VA. I’ve presented to Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO. I’ve given a talk on HTML5 and CSS3 to other product managers. Currently I’m coordinating the relaunch of a major media site.

I’ve also found typos and tracked down the right people to fix them. I’ve spent hours graphing the distance from top-of-page to top-of-content on AOL and non-AOL sites. I’ve found tiny problems with rounded corners and helped fix them. I’ve given ad-hoc Photoshop lessons. I’ve cleaned up other people’s trash in conference rooms. I’ve bugged our CIO about problems with our internal systems. I’ve eaten at Chili’s because I couldn’t find my way around suburban Virginia and I was hungry.

All of these things have been satisfying in their own way. Presenting to the CEO is pretty exciting. But finding a typo and knowing how to get it fixed is empowering. And the breadth of tasks — combined with the constantly-shifting landscape at AOL today — means I encounter new challenges, new things to learn, every week.

Of course there are bad days. Really bad days. Days when I’ve been reduced to speechlessness by legacy bureaucracy, technology that was obsolete ten years ago, lack of motivation, organizational whiplash as we acquire new companies, or (perhaps worst of all) good people beaten down by years of corporate stagnation. It is both better and worse because I can’t ignore these things, because I’m here to help fix them.

I don’t hear a lot of “AOL?!? Really?” anymore. Usually it’s more like, “AOL? I think I heard something about them,” or, “AOL? There’s something going on over there, isn’t there?” The tide has turned. We’ve been noticed for our innovative brand and for new products like AOL Phoenix, Moviefone for iPad, PLAY for Android, and the forthcoming Editions for iPad. We’ve made a big bet with Patch, expanding into hundreds of communities. We’ve made some strategic acquisitions, like TechCrunch and Huffington Post on the media side and Thing Labs, Rally Up, and about.me in consumer applications. My bad days have grown fewer, further between, and less bad. We’ve attracted a ton of talent. We’ve renovated our offices. We’ve become the market leader in toilet humor. There’s an energy that just wasn’t there a few months ago.

AOL’s new digs in Palo Alto
We’re dog friendly
Our kick-ass whiteboard walls

To suggest we’d won would be incredible hubris. We’ve fixed so much, but there’s more to be fixed. Turnarounds are hard, and we’ve got our work cut out for us. Yet the progress we’ve made is exciting, things continue changing for the better, and I’m glad to be here. AOL is an intriguing and unique place to be right now, and the bet I made in joining has certainly paid off.


Originally published at operationproject.com on May 12, 2011.

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