The Year Without Pants, WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun
What is it like to work for a company that breaks all the rules? Management expert Scott Berkun took a job at Automattic – the parent company of WordPress and WordPress.com – to find out. Office politics, hierarchies, production schedules and other traditional work structures do not constrain Automattic employees. They work remotely from around the world. They can be anywhere and work anytime since the firm judges them solely on the quality of their results. Berkun describes the positives and negatives of this revolutionary company and predicts how its example might influence the future of work. His witty stream-of-consciousness narrative engages, but leaves gaps – the reader must work to extract necessary management lessons. getAbstract recommends Berkun’s journey into the workplace of the future to entrepreneurs, investors, start-ups and leaders on every level.
- More than 60 million websites use WordPress software; the blogging site WordPress.com is the world’s 15th-most-used website.
- Automattic, founded by Matt Mullenweg, runs WordPress and WordPress.com.
- In 2010, management expert Scott Berkun joined WordPress as leader of Team Social.
- “Transparency, meritocracy and longevity” form the basis of WordPress’s culture.
- Automattic employees work entirely online from locations around the world.
- “Automatticians” use P2s (team blogs), Skype and the chat program IRC for most of their communication. They seldom use email.
- WordPress programmers and designers can launch products at any time, without deadlines or production schedules.
- Employees gather at annual “meet-ups” to work together and “ship” projects.
- Berkun’s team identified two major work projects: the commenting system, “Highlander,” and a plug-in called “Jetpack.”
- Jetpack had a successful launch in March 2011, which was followed by phase one of Highlander that June.
The Year Without Pants Book Summary
Joining the Team
In 2010, Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, asked management expert Scott Berkun to join his company, Automattic, which runs WordPress and WordPress.com. WordPress is the open-source software that powers 20% of the web. That translates to more than 60 million sites, including dozens of the world’s most popular blogs. Millions of bloggers utilize WordPress, the 15th-most-visited website worldwide.
Matt Mullenweg, then an 18-year-old amateur photographer, founded WordPress out of frustration. He had an avid commitment to open source and wanted to “democratize publishing” by making it available to everyone free of charge. He had been posting pictures on photomatt.net via Cafelog. He used the open-source license to copy Cafelog’s source code. The site had a “copyleft” license called GPL, which allowed Mullenweg to “create a fork” if the software he developed remained open source.
“Bureaucracies form when people’s jobs are tied strictly to rules and procedures, rather than the effect those things are supposed to have on the world.”
When Mullenweg announced his intention to fork Cafelog on his blog, UK programmer Mike Little offered to work on the project. They released the first version in 2003. It gained 10,000 users within months. The number of volunteer contributors grew, and by 2007, Business Week and Time magazines listed Mullenweg as “one of the most influential people in the world.”
“Unlike proclamations about culture that are easy to put in speeches and emails, it’s the small decisions that define a culture.”
Mullenweg formed Automattic in 2005 to provide the WordPress community with a server “where anyone, anywhere, could use WordPress completely for free.” Toni Schneider joined as CEO in 2008. When the firm’s spam protection plug-in, Akismet, made money, they were able to secure venture capital. Berkun joined in 2010 as the 58th employee.
“The single-sentence vision for WordPress had always been to democratize publishing.”
The company’s culture and philosophy touted “transparency, meritocracy and longevity.” The firm made every conversation and decision public, and allocated authority based on work product. The project’s open-source license guaranteed that it would continue no matter who was in charge. Automattic makes money with “upgrades, advertising, VIP” and “partnerships.” VIP clients pay a premium to host their websites on WordPress and receive extra benefits, such as a dedicated support team. Mullenweg has a practical attitude toward revenue generation. But he can afford to be patient, because Automattic is growing steadily and places solidly in the world’s top 20 sites.
The “Happiness” Team
Automattic employees work online from around the world. The absence of geographical boundaries allows the firm to hire the most talented people, wherever they live. The hiring process doesn’t include résumé reviews or interviews. The company gives each prospect a real project and hires those who successfully complete their task.
“Instead of treating employees like children, which many executive staffs do, Schneider and Mullenweg explicitly desired an environment for autonomous adults.”
Before Mullenweg and Schneider created teams – each with its own leader – the company was completely flat. Every employee answered to Mullenweg. Berkun would soon head “Team Social,” which was charged with simplifying the writing and reading of blogs. But first, like everyone else, he began his training in customer support, as a member of the Happiness team.
“Two minutes into my first meeting, and I was already immersed in Automattic culture.”
Berkun signed onto Skype for his first training session from home with his dog Griz playing at his feet. Automattic culture encourages “Automatticians” to communicate with warmth, intelligence and humor via text messages on Skype and IRC, the employee chat program. If Berkun hit a snag, the manager of WordPress.com data centers could help from his home control center in Texas. By day’s end, Berkun had access and editing powers on any WordPress blog.
“The deal at Automattic was centered on quality of life, not just the quality of life while at work.”
Bloggers who encounter problems contact the Happiness team via email. In-house, these queries are called “tickets.” As Berkun worked on tickets, his trainers helped him or he posted questions on IRC. Employees responded to lend a hand in seconds. The firm tracked the customer service team’s progress, keeping extensive statistics on each “happiness engineer’s” ticket response and resolution. The demanding, relentless pace gave Berkun a valuable introduction to WordPress.
The online nature of remote work affects how Automatticians meet and communicate. Team Social met at designated times on IRC and conversed via text. Anyone in the firm could view or participate in the conversation. Each team creates an internal blog, called a “P2,” where people post questions, comments or ideas. Automatticians use P2s for about 75% of their communication, IRCs for around 14%, Skype for some 5% and email only 1% of the time. Mullenweg supplements online communication with periodic “town hall” meetings via webcam.
“Once you have two or three like-minded people, a culture forms that attracts more people with similar values and repels those that don’t.”
Text-only P2s do not offer the insights people gain from nonverbal communication. If conversations become dicey on the P2, people work out problems on Skype. Scott saw that some conversations worked better in real time or with fewer participants. He had trouble interpreting a lack of response. Did silence mean agreement, confusion or acceptance?
Berkun met his team in person at the company “meet-up” in Seaside, Florida. The annual meet-up is the one time a year that employees work together. Meet-ups eschew agendas, name tags, flip charts and other typical event accoutrements. Every team works on “shipping” a project by week’s end. As their project, Team Social chose “Hovercards,” which enable visitors to view a “business card” by pointing a mouse at a blogger’s name.
“An amazing thing about our digital age is that the person next to you at Starbucks might just be hacking into a Swiss bank or launching multiwarhead nuclear missiles continents away.”
WordPress programmers and designers do not conduct prelaunch tests or pass a review board. They launch products, fix bugs and evaluate usage any time. Programmers coordinate launches with other teams and monitor projects for several hours to ensure a smooth release.
Work flow at Automattic follows a seven-step process. Teams pick a problem to solve or an idea to develop. They write a “launch announcement” and produce a support page. Writing the announcement forces developers to explain the feature in simple terms. Teams determine the data and metrics that evaluate the product’s impact on the user experience. Programmers and designers work on the project. Finally, they launch the feature, weigh the data and fix bugs.
Quality of Work
Automattic’s culture focuses on quality of work and results. Its distributed work arrangement challenges traditional workplace structures and traditions. The company has no dress codes, schedules, hierarchies or workplace status symbols. From the beginning, the firm made it clear that it prioritized – and evaluated people on – “the code [they] produced, the designs they made, the tickets they resolved, or the comments they wrote.”
“Like a puck on an air hockey table floating around aimlessly, ideas need something to work against, a mallet or a wall – to use as leverage.”
WordPress’s culture encourages employees to learn by doing, and it promotes experimentation. Managers support creative staffers to enable their best work. CEO Schneider explains, “Hire great people. Set good priorities. Remove distractions. Stay out of the way.”
Shortly after the Seaside meet-up, Berkun visited the Automattic offices in San Francisco. Headquarters, which resembles a comfortable student lounge at a university, is usually empty. Berkun missed the “passive data” people gain by working together. Online, you can’t read people’s body language or work style, or learn their patterns and preferences. People tend to filter themselves, posting only things that reflect positively on them or that they feel comfortable sharing. After several months working at Automattic, Berkun made note of the company’s habits and interactions:
- “Broken windows: good and bad” – Employees focus on fixes, and no one prioritizes tasks according to importance.
- “Big/ugly projects we avoid” – Incremental work sometimes bypasses larger, less attractive projects.
- “P2s have curious side effects” – P2s can create communication gaps.
- “Conservative ideas” – Automatticians tend to avoid “big ideas” or “big changes.”
- “Lack of usability methods” – The engineering-led design of WordPress adds unnecessary complexity.
Team Social settled into an informal work schedule, meeting online Monday mornings, posting progress reports on Thursdays and relying on Berkun to nag and keep other teams informed. They produced and shipped features, worked out bugs and prioritized projects. At Automattic, the Happiness Team is the first responder to any problem. If they can’t fix it, members post on the P2s or report it via IRC to get programmers involved. Each team prioritizes issues and resolves important ones quickly. Berkun found that minor problems fell through the cracks at times. He tracked issues for Team Social by making lists and putting them in priority order.
“Anyone who’s an expert, guru, executive or coach has likely lost any real sense of what real work is.”
Berkun organized a Team Social meet-up in Athens. The team commandeered the balcony of a local café and spent the first night bonding over the local beer, Mythos. Mullenweg joined them for the fun. Berkun wanted to use the time to identify Team Social’s next big projects. First, they zeroed in on improving the design of WordPress.com’s commenting system. The company acquired the plug-in Intense Debate in 2009, but it did not share code with WordPress’s commenting system. Programmers had to duplicate improvements, fixes and changes on both systems. The team named the ambitious project “Highlander.”
“It was the community at work: people were willing to drop whatever they were doing to lend a hand to people they didn’t know.”
In a “double down” move, team members also decided to pursue one of Mullenweg’s pet projects, to allow any WordPress blog, regardless of the host site, to be able to utilize the special features available to blogs hosted on WordPress.com. Team Social took on the project, in spite of the scope of Highlander, calling it “Jetpack.”
Team Social made slow progress in the weeks after Athens. Team members met in San Francisco to organize their workload. They mapped it out in two-week increments, assigned priorities and responsibilities, posted the map on their P2 and asked for feedback. The team continued to struggle until one member launched a redesigned sync system on Intense Debate. This first major success re-energized the team members.
“You could have teleported us to different corners of the planet, and provided there was Wi-Fi, we’d continue working without a hitch.”
Mullenweg and Berkun agreed to launch Jetpack at the March 2011 media event South By Southwest (SXSW). The strict deadline meant changes for Team Social. They had to create work estimates, conduct server compatibility tests and bring in additional team members. Team member Mike Adams made six task lists from the original San Francisco map; that organized the flow and determined the next steps. The team held regular voice meetings, which they found more effective than IRC sessions. Each designer and programmer tended to the items on his or her spreadsheets to drive the project forward.
“While we have a universal measure of wealth called money, there is no comparable measurement for meaning.”
During the team meet-up in New York City in February, members worked out of a Soho apartment, released an alpha version of Jetpack and asked Automattic employees to test it and report bugs. By week’s end, they made great progress, and cranked up the pace over the next several weeks. Jetpack launched at SXSW, and has since garnered more than five million downloads; it is one of WordPress’s most popular plug-ins.
After the Jetpack release, Team Social renewed its efforts on Highlander. At the next team meet-up in Portland, they focused on launching phase one – to make a new user interface for blog comments. The number and variety of incompatible themes made the work difficult. They enlisted the help of the Theme Team. Many Automatticians participated in a “virtual barn raising,” temporarily dropping their own work to help Team Social test themes and sort out bugs. Team Social launched the first phase of Highlander in June 2011, and received 300,000 new comments on the first day.
About the Author
Management expert, blogger and speaker Scott Berkun is the author of Making Things Happen, The Myths of Innovation, and Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds.