Maureen Govern says, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

AOL announced yesterday that Maureen Govern is now our ex-CTO. Her short tenure of just under 11 months spanned September 28, 2005, to August 21, 2006. She was brought in to “realign our technology resources to support the needs of our multiple businesses,” according to Jon Miller. Maureen affirms this saying, “All of this requires AOL to be on the leading edge of technology.”

If she was pressured to leave AOL yesterday over the search query data release, that is a very bad omen. For AOL, being risk-averse is a losing strategy. Punishing people for making innocent mistakes is a sure-fire way to only retain those risk-averse people. Those are not the kind of people who embody entreprenurial spirit–the kind of people who give AOL at least a fighting chance at launching products that might actually win in the marketplace.

It can take weeks to push the simplest of changes through our cumbersome development process. But, Maureen Govern’s “Who’s Who” page is already a 404. Go figure. (Yes, I understand it’s a simple copy change rather than delivering actual product functionality so it’s an unfair comparison, but it still highlights how AOL can react quickly, when needed.)

Wherever you are, wherever you go … Maureen, I wish you the best of luck. Keep doing what you think is best and right. It’s a pity things didn’t work out in your favor at AOL. Keep in touch, it’s a small world out there.



  1. Somehow, I doubt that, if your Google searches were “anonymously” released to the world, you’d consider it an innocent mistake.

    This is negligence of the first order, for a CTO, and I’m glad the “researcher” and his/her supervisor got canned.

    Would you really prefer the opposite — a culture where there are no consequences for doing phenomenally reckless and stupid stuff?

  2. The data was definitely not released by accident, sure. But, I think the manner in which the data was made avaialble (open to general public, perhaps not properly sanitized, etc.) was an honest mistake and not intended to violate anyone’s privacy.

    People in business do stupid stuff all the time but the current culture only penalizes them when the mistakes are public in nature. Of course, in a large Internet company like AOL, the biggest rewards come with the biggest risks: those which have a public impact. Harsher consequences for public mistakes doesn’t encourage the kind of innovation that’s required to pull AOL out of its hole.

    In short, yeah, I’d rather a culture that doesn’t discourage folks from trying to do the right thing, even if it means failing every now and then.

  3. Dossy,
    Yeah I kinda play a neutral card in all this as I didn’t know her. However yeah it’s always good to wish someone well :). Considering you call her “our ex-CTO” I assume you’re still with the company and your “clearing of the office” is not a permenant goodbye.

    I’ve emailed you.

  4. “[…] I assume you’re still with the company and your “clearing of the office” is not a permenant goodbye.”

    You never can tell what the future may bring, though.

  5. The effect of the CTO’s departure on the willingness of folks to continue to take calculated risks will depend on those people’s innate predisposition to risk. It will not affect mine and I suspect it would not affect yours. If your premise around risk taking is that when it backfires badly there are no consequences, then I am not sure what world you are living in or what kind of organization you want to be apart of.

  6. Julio, lack of success should be enough of a consequence.

  7. It’s not easy to fire a “C-level” executive. Maureen’s background is in telecom, not internet. With AOL moving away from selling dial up and walled garden and becoming a portal play (to compete with Google and Yahoo), I wonder if she already hadn’t been given walking papers and this was a great excuse to accelerate the process and make AOL look pro-active on this privacy issue. Not her fault, but AOL decided to move in a different strategic direction after they hired her and her skills / background don’t exactly match up with the new direction.

  8. To tell you the truth as AOL is an IPO company, it had to make big public sacrifices. An Architect, a VP and CTO is about as big as you can get, if AOL was not an IPO- then it would be a different story I’m sure.

    It is a shame to see the upper echelons go, I think Maureen was making some good decisions.

    But someone had to take responsibility for this. It was a screw up that should have never happened.

    Do the consequences of actions merit the level of discipline taken, or does the level conscious effort taken within the action merit it?

    If a physicist spills coffee on the control panel of a nuclear reactor, and sets of a major disaster- Do you let him/her keep their job because it was an accident or do you fire them for being stupid in having coffee around the panel in the first place and for causing such a disaster?

  9. oh my dont cry for me argentina!!!!!

    what the heckm is your problem the data of thousands is leaked an you wail what a fine person she is? are you serious? the damage is immense consider the possibilities? as you see dont reach me at aol any more?

    I was listed in the leak!!!

  10. Rick Gutleber says

    As with any highly public firings, I have to wonder if she was canned because it was specifically her policies, or lack thereof, that caused the problem (I have to think this went through a lot of people before it happened), or is AOL just throwing someone under the bus to look like they are taking this seriously?

    I have no doubts that they _are_ taking the problem seriously, but I’m really starting to wonder about this knee-jerk reaction to fire someone up high when something goes wrong… whatever happened to making the person repsonsible (or not, who knows?) fix the problem?

    If she personally okayed the release or made a policy that permitted the release to happen, yeah, there’s culpability, but it seems to me it was quite possible that this happened without her explicit knowledge… I don’t know either way.

  11. Rick, never forget our insanely litigious society. An admission of guilt means doom if it comes to defending any lawsuits that arise from this. An abrupt resignation is not an admission of guilt. You might want to infer it, but it’s just not the same thing, legally. (Of course, IANAL, but anyway.)

    I’m not so interested in assigning blame or determining guilt, here. (Else, I risk violating serious employee guidelines, I bet.) I just wanted to express my sadness that Maureen Govern is now gone and that I feel the way the whole incident was handled could have turned out much, much better than it had.

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