Reimagining Work: Scott Berkun’s Year Without Pants at Automattic

Reimagining Work: Scott Berkun’s Year Without Pants at Automattic

From my desk at Xconomy San Francisco—aka my Potrero Hill apartment—I can look out the window at Highway 280, watch the traffic that crawls into the city every morning and back out every evening, and chuckle smugly. There’s never any traffic congestion on the commute from my bed to my coffee machine to my laptop. I’m a remote worker, and I love it.

Given that Xconomy is a distributed news network with editors in eight cities, almost everyone in the company works this way, except for the folks in our Cambridge, MA, headquarters. It’s a successful model for us. Not having offices keeps our overhead low, and ensures that our staffers spend a lot of their time out in the community, where they should be.

But here in San Francisco there’s a much more famous example of a distributed Internet company where remote work is the norm. It’s Automattic, the company behind the WordPress open-source content management system and the WordPress.com blogging platform. Automattic has an “office,” but it’s really more like a lounge, where local employees can come and go as they please and the company can hold occasional group events.

WordPress began in 2003 as a long-distance collaboration between a pair of programmers named Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little, and the pattern continued after Mullenweg started a company to expand the platform in 2005. By the end of 2006, Automattic had assembled a team of 18, drawn mostly from the community of volunteer WordPress contributors. But they were scattered around the world, and Mullenweg had not met many of them in person.

Even after Automattic instituted annual meetings where everyone got to meet face-to-face, most employees continued to work independently. And that’s how the company was still organized when Mullenweg invited Scott Berkun to join Automattic in August 2010.

Berkun is a Seattle-based project manager, consultant, and author who cut his management teeth leading parts of the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft in the 1990s. He’d done some consulting work for Automattic, and he feared that the company had gone overboard in its devotion to its engineers’ autonomy. Building great new features for WordPress.com would be easier, Berkun told Mullenweg, if the company organized engineers and designers into small teams. The team members could still work remotely, but they ought to coordinate their projects and report regularly to leaders, Berkun recommended.

Mullenweg agreed to try out teams as an experiment—and asked Berkun to lead the first one himself. Berkun agreed, on the condition that he be allowed to write a book about the experience after his tour of duty. He’s done that, which is how the world now has a book called The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. It’s an essential read for anyone who’s wondering if their own organization might benefit from a dose of decentralization; tempted to try being a remote worker themselves; or just curious about where WordPress.com came from and how Automattic really works.

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun

A student of organizations, Berkun writes that he arrived at Automattic feeling like “an old dog in a futuristic workplace.” He wasn’t sure whether he’d be productive as a manager working remotely from his team members, or even whether the traditionally flat culture at Automattic—with everyone reporting to Mullenweg—was ready for the idea of teams.

By the time Berkun left in January 2012, his team of four had proved its value by introducing some key new social features into WordPress.com. They’d gathered physically a few times—notably in Athens, Greece, for a few days in November, 2010—but otherwise they’d worked from their respective homes in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Ireland, coordinating their task lists and schedules via a combination of Skype, IRC (Internet Relay Chat, a 1980s-era chat protocol), and blogs. (Automattic employees engage in a constant online conversation about company projects using a collection of custom internal blogs known as P2s.)

Berkun concluded that distributed teams work just fine—as long as the people on them are disciplined, self-sufficient, and so passionate about their projects that they’d probably want to work on them even if they weren’t getting paid. That’s a pretty high bar, obviously; the supply of such people is limited. So it’s not clear to me, just judging from Berkun’s experiences inside Automattic, that giving employees extreme levels of autonomy would work well for most organizations.

On the other hand, it works great here at Xconomy, and I’m completely on board with what Berkun calls Automattic’s “results-first” culture. “It didn’t matter if you were pantless in your living room or bathing in the sun, swinging in a hammock with a martini in your hand,” he writes. “What mattered was your output.” If more companies respected their workers enough to measure them this way, we’d probably have a far happier workforce and a faster-growing economy.

I interviewed Berkun this week, and asked him to talk more about how The Year Without Pants came about, what he learned at Automattic, how technology undergirds remote work, and what he hopes readers will take away from the book. What follows is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Xperience: Is it true that you knew going into your year at Automattic that you wanted to write a book? If so, why did you want to write about them specifically?

Scott Berkun: Yes, that was the plan all along. I’ve known Matt on and off for years. A couple of years ago, he had me do some consulting for Automattic. He invited me to some company meetings and asked me to give him some feedback about how things were going and how I thought they could make the company run better. So I got a little bit of a sneak peek at the company, and one thing I thought would be interesting to do was to organize into teams. It was not rocket science to make that suggestion, but it was one of the pieces of advice I gave them to help improve productivity and address some of their other concerns.

A few months later, they decided to go head and do that. They contacted me and said ‘Hey, we are going to form teams, and we need some people to lead them. Do you want to come in and try out this whole idea of yours and manage one of the teams yourself?’ That is the high-level story.

The personal story is, I have written four books and have been doing this author-speaking career thing for about a decade, and have been successful doing it, but it’s a career laden with hubris. It’s easy to lose sight of … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • http://www.sqwiggle.com/ Matt Boyd

    Hi Wade, I seriously can’t believe that no one’s commented on this post! A big fan of Scott Berkun and think that he’s on point. I definitely don’t believe that it’s about the tools themselves, but the culture and people that use them. Building a distributed team is definitely a challenge and not for everyone, especially if you require a sort of social structure, although I do believe that this social structure can be created in a distributed team.

    I love the discussion that’s going around regarding distributed teams at this point because as new precedence are set, and new tools arise that make this structure easier to exist, then it’s a no-brainer that distributed teams will start to thrive. Again, I don’t believe it’s all about the tools themselves, but if that social structure can be implemented using these tools, then that’s a great thing.

    I really appreciate this interview and enjoyed reading it! Thanks!

    -Matt Boyd
    Co-founder of Sqwiggle

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Hey Matt. Thanks for your comment. I totally agree. As a founder or manager you need to decide what kind of culture and social structure you want in your company, then find people who will thrive in that culture, then find tools to support them. The culture and hte people have to come first.

      • http://www.sqwiggle.com/ Matt Boyd

        Thanks for getting back to me Wade! You rock!