First off, it’s a great book. In The Year without Pants Scott Berkun gives a good view into the daily workings and culture of Automattic, the company WordPress among others. Here are some of my highlights from my Kindle.
He starts with the basic idea that WordPress supports:
Product creators are the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer.
While this is a really black and white view, it provides a good guideline for people that do not believe it. I always said that I do not want mere managers but impact, but by now I am happy to say that a good support group will improve performance a great deal. There are a few very nice words for new and old WordPress recruits:
I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
I like the general idea of such words and I really like that they are clear and specific. Often something like that is a lot of blah blah. Scott is taking a lot of time to discuss the idea of working remotely, with some good points, e.g.:
Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.
The inability to scale is one of the stupidest arguments against a possibly great idea: greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.
WordPress really has a simple way of working, something that Scott later says might be holding WordPress back from solving and building the real challenging and long running problems. Normally there are 7 steps for building things at WordPress.
- Pick a Problem
- Write Support and Launch Page
- Consider what data will tell you it worked
- Get to work
This is mainly made possible though being a real product led company. Everybody working at Automattic uses their products and wants to improve their products. Everyone is their own product manager. It is really interesting to think about whether this works in general or if it only worked as they had the time to turn profitable with the model and that without time pressure.
The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum. [...] The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role. The company stays as flat as possible for this reason. Schneider described his philosophy in this way: 1. Hire great people. 2. Set good priorities. 3. Remove distractions. 4. Stay out of the way.
This is actually similar to what Dee Hock said. You hire great people and then get out of their way. This is something I fully believe in. But it is extremely hard. Getting out of the way is actually harder than standard management. This is also true for remote work, it is surprisingly hrd to do. And one problem I saw is that you need to find a way to “come home” if you work from home.
Remote work is merely physical independence, and the biggest challenge people who work remotely face is managing their own psychology. Since they have more independence, they need to be masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.
One of the most fascinating parts of wordpress is how much they use data to make decisions and how much data they track, while at the same time allowing people to self manage and try things out.
data paradox: no matter how much data you have, you still depend on your intuition for deciding how to interpret and then apply the data. [...] When a culture shifts too far into faith in data, people with great intuitions leave. [...] Data was recorded about employees too, and not just their Happiness statistics. Since P2s were visible to all, MC recorded basic information about everyone’s activity. [...] The general advice you’d hear is that everyone should be active and communicate, but there were no quotas. It was a scoreboard, but one you had to go out of your way to find, much like my experience during my support tour. There was a mature balance of reporting data yet leaving people free to decide what they meant or how much they wanted to use in their thinking. [...] However, the only way the world learns of what makers makes, whether it’s art or trash, is when they’re brave enough to say it’s done and put it out into the world.
And the management system is very hands off, even in light of problems. I can really relate to that problem in some environments where the risk of an error is seen as more important than the chance of success.
Defensive management is blind to recognizing how obsessing about preventing bad things also prevents good things from happening or sometimes even prevents anything from happening at all.
Yep, you need to break things.
As a rule, everyone who launched something was expected to stay online for a few hours to ensure things went smoothly.
This made me laugh out load. I always had the same rule when talking to people, or a little bit harsher version of this. Sure, do something, you can break anything, just make sure you have the time to fix it. You break it, you fix it.
How can they work without schedules? How can there be no safeguards? Why wouldn’t things blow up and collide all the time? A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy. People drive faster, not more slowly, in cars with antilock brakes.
And very important: People do not want to break things. They want to serve happy customers.
Now for a few words that ring very true to me, especially the clarity part. You need to KNOW what you want and you need to make sure everyone understands it.
Ambiguity makes everyone tolerant of incompetence. [...] What I didn’t want was to spend days riffing on yet more ideas, only to return home was as much ambiguity as when we’d arrived. The bottleneck is never code or creativity; it’s lack of clarity. [...] you never invest more in your flank than your front line. If you did, you’d always be defensive, not offensive.
As to working remotely, here is the key point that Scott comes up with after having worked at WordPress for some time.
Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.
He also tried to add a bit of management system to get the big ideas going, but …
All combined, Automattic had a unique relationship to friction:
- No formal schedules
- Little competitive pressure
- No influence from marketers
- Minimal hierarchy/flat structure
Most people work at places with high friction from these sources and struggle to imagine working without them. There are entire jobs, like project management, based on applying friction and driving schedules. As work on Highlander and Jetpack intensified, I had to find ways to introduce friction into a culture that hadn’t felt it before.
He also again talks about great teams and that great teams beat any methodology.
Too often teams are imprisoned by methodologies when they should be empowered by them (a sentiment captured in the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, a set of simple principles for making software1). Methodologies are often another bad friction that managers impose, putting more faith in a bunch of rules than in the people they’ve hired. I’d take a great team with bad methods over a lousy team with great methods any day.
This also means that your focus should be on building great teams first and foremost. All else will follow.
A good idea: Always start with the interface first!
The natural mistake engineers make is to build from the bottom up. They leave the user interface last, assuming it is the least complex technology. This is wrong. Humans are much more complex than software, and since the interface has to interact with people, it’s the most difficult to do well.
And a last one, why I really still do not want titles that mean anything too specific.
Organizations become bureaucratic as soon as people define their job around a specific rule, or feature, rather than a goal.
Great book. Go buy it if you want to learn about the future of management.