The power of the platform

What is the key to allowing large companies to move fast? Build great platforms. I first heard this insight being persausively argued in Mark Zuckerberg’s interview with John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly at Web 2.0 in 2010 – an age ago in internet time. 

In this clip he tells how he urges his people to “be fast and be bold”. He then talks about what it means to be agile. While small start-ups can do it easily, the larger you get the harder it is to move fast. But, he says, people can move quickly on top of a robust platform built on “solid abstractions”. 

I also remember being impressed with the speed that Yahoo! teams were able to build strong features on the back of solid APIs to things like single sign-on, maps and Flickr photos. Because the APIs are easily internally available, teams are able to function on the innovation rather than the plumbing.

Amazon is perhaps the supreme example of a company build on the power of the platform. Jeff Bezos has built a platform which can quickly turn its hand to selling just about anything. There was an accidental post by a Google engineer Steve Yegge which famously demonstrated the pain it took getting there, but there is no doubt that the platform approach is one of the main underpinnings of Amazon’s huge success. That same post argued that Google was, incidentally, some way away from the ideal which illustrates eloquently just how hard it is to get it right. 

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