First up in the Sheryl show was a product manager named Dan Rubinstein. Dan resembled a Woody Allen figure: short, thin, nebbish, but without the crackling anxiety. Also a former Googler, he seemed like one of those old PM hands who always made sure to take good notes and get his weekly report in on time. He fronted for User Ops, which was the user police, and the user-facing version of what I did on the ads side. Ever wonder why your feed never features any form of porn or otherwise grotesque imagery? It’s because a team in User Ops has managed to sift through the billion photos uploaded a day, and pick out a pile of offensive needles in an Internet scale haystack.
On the screen now, Dan launched a demo of a tool that was essentially that: on loading the Web app, a raft of user photos appeared, which a User Ops “analyst” could easily click to eliminate, like plucking weeds from a garden. That image would be banished forever, including versions with small color changes or cropping done by veteran spammers and sketchy ad types. As he walked the room through the demo, he would click on an image of a kitten—kittens evidently represented the porny pictures they’d normally filter—and that kitten would be gone, as well as all variants of that kitten image. Click, ban, reload, click, ban, reload. A well-oiled kitten-banning machine, ladies and gentlemen.
Suddenly Sheryl interrupted: “So, what’s with all the kittens?”
Dan, a bit startled, peered at Sheryl, clearly confused.
“Why are all the bad photos kittens?”
Dan flatly replied, “We use kittens as the bad photos in demos, because the real bad photos are . . . you know . . . kind of obscene.”
“Right,” said Sheryl, “but why kittens and not something else?”
The room was deathly silent with thirty-plus sets of twitchy eyes rising from barely concealed phones and laptops to stare at Dan and his kitten-banning machine. You could almost hear everyone mentally asking in chorus: Yeah, what is it with the kittens?
Dan looked up at the screen as if noticing the kitten pics for the first time, and then turned to Sheryl and answered, almost under his breath: “Well . . . for demo purposes we don’t show really bad photos . . . so the engineers use kittens instead. Because, you know . . . kittens and cats are like, pu—
He stopped right there, but he almost said “pussy” in front of the Queen of Lean, Sheryl Sandberg. “Got it!” she expectorated. After sucking in a lungful of air, as if loading for a verbal barrage, she continued. “If there were women on that team, they’d NEVER, EVER choose those photos as demo pics. I think you should change them immediately!” Before the salvo had even finished Dan’s head was bowed, and he was madly taking notes in a small notebook. CHANGE PUSSY PHOTOS NOW! one imagined they read. He looked like a forty-year-old scolded child.
I was dying inside. You could feel either awkwardness or repressed laughter seething from everyone in the room at this unprecedented display of management wrath and PM folly. Demoing the pussy filter to Sheryl. Epic!
Dan limped along with the rest of his demo, and then it was my turn. After that high-water mark of incompetence, it was hard to fuck things up. I glided through the slides, lingering on the money shot: a plot of the number of ads reviewed versus human man-hours. The former was up and to the right (MOAR ADS!), the latter was flat (fewer expensive humans!). All was right with the Ads Review world. I drowsed through the other presentations and bolted at the first opportunity.