Web Performance Calendar

The speed geek's favorite time of year
2012 Edition

Steve is the Head Performance Engineer at Google where he works on web performance and open source initiatives. He previously served as Chief Performance Yahoo!. Prior to that Steve worked at General Magic, WhoWhere?, and Lycos, and co-founded Helix Systems and CoolSync. Steve is the author of High Performance Web Sites and Even Faster Web Sites. He is the creator of YSlow, one of the top 25 Firefox add-ons. He's created numerous performance tools and services including the HTTP Archive, Cuzillion, Jdrop, ControlJS, and Browserscope. He serves as co-chair of Velocity, the web performance and operations conference from O'Reilly, and is co-founder of the Firebug Working Group. He taught CS193H: High Performance Web Sites at Stanford.

The performance community is growing. With 17K members across 46 meetup groups it’s pretty easy to find someone else who cares about performance. But what if your company is new to the world of high performance websites? How can you make performance a priority within your organization? I don’t have a guaranteed recipe, but here are some key ingredients for creating a culture of performance where you work.

Get Support from the Top
If you’re lucky like me, your CEO is already on the web performance bus. It might even have been their idea to focus on performance, and you’ve been recruited to lead the charge. If this isn’t your situation, you have to start your evangelism at the top. You might start with the CEO, or perhaps COO or an SVP. The key is it has to be someone who is a leader across the different organizations within your company. The culture shift to focus on performance doesn’t happen in engineering alone. It has to happen across product management, marketing, sales, and all other parts of the company. You need to identify who the key leader or leadership team is and get them excited about web performance, and make them believe in the benefits it delivers.
Speak the Right Vocabulary
As an engineer you probably know how to sell to other engineers. “Optimization” makes a developer’s ears perk up. Speaking in terms of reduced regressions and fewer outages wins over folks in devops. But you also need to know how to speak across the organization both horizontally and vertically. The UX team likes hearing about better user metrics (longer sessions, more sessions per month). The folks in finance wants to hear about reduced operating costs in terms of hardware, power consumption, and data center bandwidth. Marketing and sales will light up hearing case studies about doubling unique users from search engine marketing as a result of a faster website. Make sure to use terms that resonate with your audience.
A key skill in evangelizing to upper management is knowing how to speak hierarchically – start with the high-level stats and drill down into the details if the need arises. I see many engineers who start with the details which many folks don’t have the time or background to follow. Start by showing a median and save the logarithmic scale charts in the “more slides” section.
Pick the Right Product
If you’ve convinced the senior execs to focus on performance, your next step is to pick a product to focus on. You want to pick a high visibility product, so that the wins are significant. But you don’t want to pick the company’s flagship product. It’s possible you might hit a few bumps on your first forays into adopting web performance. Also, you might have to alter the release cycle as you rollout metrics and start A/B testing. That’s harder to do with a product that’s the company’s cash cow. Start with a product that’s in the top 5 or 10, but not #1.
Pick the Right Team
The team you choose to work with is even more important than which product you choose. It all comes down to people, and if the team is too busy, has other priorities, or simply doesn’t believe in WPO (Web Performance Optimization) then you should move on to another team. You can always come back and revisit this team in the future.
I always have a kickoff meeting with a team that’s interested in working on performance, and I ask how many people they can dedicate to work on performance. I’m usually looking for at least two people full-time for 3 months. Sometimes teams think it’s sufficient to have someone spend 20% of their time working on performance, but this usually doesn’t have a positive outcome. If this is the company’s first engagement with web performance, you want to make sure to pick a team that has the mindset and resources to focus on the work ahead.
Pick the Right Task
It’s critical that the first performance optimization deployed has a significant impact. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting folks excited about WPO only to have their work show no improvement. For most websites it’s fairly straightforward to pick an optimization that will have a big impact. I’m reminded of Ismail Elshareef‘s case study about Edmunds.com getting 80% faster. He talks about how the first task they picked was making resources cacheable. After just a day of work they pushed the fix and cut their CDN traffic by 34%! This is the type of win you want to have right out of the gate – something that takes a small amount of work and makes a big improvement.
Start with Metrics
I’ve had several engagements where teams got so excited about the optimizations, they started deploying fixes before the metrics were in place. This is bad for two reasons. Without metrics you’re flying blind so you don’t know the actual impact of any fixes. But more importantly, it’s likely that the first fixes you deploy will have the biggest impact. If the metrics aren’t in place then you miss out on quantifying your best work! It’s best to establish the baseline when the site is at its worst. Occasionally teams don’t want to do this because they’re embarrassed by the slowness of the site. Just remind them how happy the execs will be to see a chart showing the site getting twice as fast.
Identify Your Replacement
Within the chosen team there needs to be someone who is aligned with you to take over your role. This is the person who keeps the team focused on performance after you’ve moved on to help the next team. He is the one who tracks the dashboards, identifies the changes that were deployed, analyzes the A/B test results, and prioritizes the next optimizations to work on.
It’s not scalable for you to be the only performance expert in the company. You want to build a virtual performance team that spans all the products in the company. At Yahoo! we called this team the SpeedFreaks. We had regular gatherings, a mailing list, etc. It was a great way to share lessons learned across the different teams and re-energize our excitement about making things faster.
Get Everyone on Board
Making and keeping the website fast requires everyone to be thinking about performance. It’s important to keep the entire company involved. There are several ways of doing this. One technique I see often is having realtime dashboards deployed at large gathering spots in the company. The Wall of Fame is another good chart. Eventually teams that are always at the bottom will start wondering what they have to do to get to the top. Getting time during the company all-hands meetings to review current performance and highlight some wins is good. Adding performance (speed) to the annual performance (HR) review form makes everyone think about their contributions in the past and plan on how they can contribute in the future.
Use Carrot over Stick
If you follow these tips it’s likely that you’ll start off having successful engagements evangelizing and deploying performance best practices at your company. After working with the choicest teams, however, it’s also likely that you’ll run into a team that just isn’t drinking the WPO kool-aid. This is more likely to happen at larger companies where it’s more challenging to create a cultural shift. If you can’t convince this team to apply the right amount of focus, one possible reaction is to bring in a senior exec to command them to make performance a priority and do the work. This might work in the short term, but will fail in the long term and might even set you further back from where you started.
Performance is a way of thinking. It requires vigilance. Anyone who has it forced upon them will likely not value performance and will instead look upon it as a nuisance that took them away from their desired focus. This person is now even harder to win over. It’s better to avoid taking the “stick” approach and instead use the “carrot” as motivation – t-shirts, bonuses, executive praise, shout outs at company all-hands, etc. No one enjoys the stick approach – the team doesn’t enjoy it and neither will you. Everyone comes away with negative memories. The carrot approach might not work in the short term, but it leaves the door open for a more positive re-engagement in the future.
Be Passionate
It’s likely you’re the “performance lead” within the company, or at least the one who cares the most about making performance a high priority. It’s not going to be easy to get everyone else on board. You can’t go about this half heartedly. You have to be passionate about it. John Rauser spoke (passionately) about this in Creating Cultural Change at Velocity 2010. He says you have to be excited, and relentless. I agree.

Creating a culture of performance at your company is about creating a culture of quality. This is especially true because best (and worst) practices propagate quickly at web companies. Code written for product A is reused by product B. And folks who worked on team A transfer over to team C. If product A is built in a high performance way, those best practices are carried forward by the code and team members. Unfortunately, bad practices spread just as easily.

Companies like Google, Etsy, and Betfair have gone so far as to publish their commitment to performance. This is a win for their customers and for their brand. It’s also a win for the performance community because these companies are more likely to share their best practices and case studies. If your company is focused on performance, please help the community by sharing your lessons learned. If your company doesn’t have a focus on performance, I hope these tips help you establish that WPO focus to create a website that has a better user experience, more traffic, greater revenue, and reduced operating expenses.