I Picked the Right Blogging Platform! (Book Review: The Year without Pants)

Before starting this blog I compared blogging tools in 2011. These two facts about WordPress and Automattic did win me over:

Now I have read the book on Automattic’s corporate culture:

The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

Scott is a former Microsoft manager and long-term author and speaker. He has been hired my Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg to help introducing the first tier of middle-managers ever to Automattic’s so far flat hierarchy. Scott accepted, provided he can write a book about his experience. For him it was a test: Will he still be able to do the work of management and not only write and speak about it?

The book is a blend of personal essay and reflection of work and management in the tech world, and palpable anecdotes from a very peculiar workplace.

He did his duty in the trenches as a Happiness Engineer:

You get access to real tools and work on real things. If you do well, you’re offered a job. If you don’t, you’re not. The many phony parts of hiring, from inflated résumés to trying to say what you think the other party wants to hear, disappear.

At the end of this stint in support Scott admits how much easier work of a writer is – in contrast to the relentless never-ending flow of clients’ tickets:

This pressure made me feel like a wimp for complaining about writing deadlines or tough lecture audiences.

I guess skeptics would say a venture such as WordPress can hardly work – hadn’t they been successful for years now:

The business is firmly grounded in Open Source software. In 2002 18-year old Matt Mullenweg forked the copylefted software used for his own photoblog as its lead developer had left. In August 2003 there were over 10.000 blogs running on WordPress. For an extensive account of WP’s history see this.

The central values of the organically growing WP culture were: Transparency of discussions, meritocracy of authority earned – not granted, and the longevity of the project – which should live forever even if Matt himself would once give it up.

There is free WordPress.org for self-hosters, the service WordPress.com and other products by Automattic – according to Scott the business model was difficult to explain at times.

Based even on my own anecdotal experience of using WordPress.com I can say that it works – I pay for the Custom Design Upgrade for two blogs and think it is a fair deal.

Employees are fiercely independent, curious, and funny individuals, working at locations all over the world.

Many of them are former independent WordPress designers and developers – so probably people who don’t like to be (micro-)managed, who are fine with being paid for results and not for office face time or hours put in.

They do meet in person occasionally, and costs of meetings in real live compensate for savings due to lack of offices.

Matt Mullenweg – whom Scott describes as a renaissance mind with an epicurean desire to understand basically anything – has written down a creed:

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.

Using colorful anecdotes and funny screenshots of WP-internal communications Scott demonstrates which key factors are important to make this work:

Mastery of asynchronous, written communication

Chat-like message exchange is preferred over audio or video calls, and tracking and discussion of work items is done using a blog called P2 (named after the theme used).

The reason for the first is probably surprising – and it might even sound discomforting to those who are stressed out by the constant stream of popups brought up by corporate instant communication tools: WP employees’ communications is based on the assumption that anybody else is working on some items in parallel or having some Windows open. It is not expected that people respond instantly to chat requests and some lag is allowed for – in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of calls.

Everyone understands it’s just a window on the screen and that you may be focusing on other things.

You could discuss pro’s and con’s of online meetings endlessly but I think Scott perfectly nails it:

Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.

P2 communications is reminiscent of those legendary nested e-mail threads – I answer inline in redI answer in greenI answer again in blue… I praise collaborators to the skies who are capable of following and processing such nested communications – you can literally do whole projects by asynchronous e-mails.

Everybody at Automattic can on principle read every P2 conversation. This, I guess, provides for self-regulation, and it limits the tactical use of communication tool, such as subtle hints by picking CC recipients etc.

WordPress people compensate for lack of cues in face-to-face communications by letting personality shine through written communications. Scott says that WP internal communications is refreshingly free of corporate world jargon:

No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.

From my few but pleasant encounters with WP’s support team I can attest to that.

WordPress’ culture seems to be positively self-selecting for people who fit in.

Insider humor

Sharing a common sense of humor is in my opinion the single best indicator of how well you will get along – and work! – with somebody. It is even more indispensable in this distant working environment.

Laughter leads to running jokes, and running jokes lead to a shared history, and a shared history is culture. What is a friend, a brother or sister, or a partner but someone you share important stories with?

Also the title of the book is a running joke. For a reason no one could explain later the prompt above the comment box on Scott’s teams’ P2 site turned from What’s on your mind? into

Do you know where your pants are?

No incentives

It was my conviction ever since that any sort of company-internal competition and incentives for individuals or teams will not do overall goals any good. The dissipation of energy invested in facing competition will outweigh the benefits of challenging individuals to go for stretch goals.

So I was delighted to read this:

How do you know if you’re doing a good job? They all shrugged simultaneously and I laughed. Unlike most corporations that emphasize performance evaluations, none of them were particularly concerned. … It seemed to them like an odd question to even ask. … It was not a promotion-oriented culture. Instead they cared mostly about how much value they were getting out of the work.

Frequent shipping of features

Against mantras of quality control and change management new features are rolled out all the time. I believe the reason why this has worked great so far is that risk management best practices are applied in an intuitive way: Features to be shipped are small, or their dependence on other features can be cut down. The overall risk of breaking anything major is negligible – and glitches be fixed quickly based on feedback in the production environment.

I think that all those controls in larger organizations rather prevent people from taking personal accountability – and Scott confirms this:

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. American football players take more risks, not fewer, because of their padding.

Geeky, but end-user-centric

Probably my impression is due to the fact that Scott has led Team Social that dealt with building features like WordPress JetPack that adds WP.com features on top of the self-hosted version.The team used some funny ‘socialist’ hammer and sickle symbols for their internal site.

His team put in many hours in trying to understand the experience of normal users WordPress wanted to serve – and I think this spirit and the idea to democratize internet publishing can be felt when working with WP. They tried to feel what a user feel who struggles with getting his or her first posting done – as astonishingly:

50 percent of all blogs never publish a single post.

A tricks that help are writing an internal launch announcement for a feature long before it had been launched – forcing you to focus on the value of this feature.

Tame the bureaucrats and policy enforcers

Another pet peeve of mine – I remember myself in a job role that theoretically had demanded of me to chide entrepreneurial small departments that they don’t adhere to corporate standard IT hardware procurement guidelines or that their website they didn’t comply with ‘CI rules’.

The volunteer culture Automattic inherited from WordPress, where contributors were under no obligation to participate, defined a landscape that granted wide autonomy to employees. Schneider and Mullenweg went to great lengths to keep support roles, like legal, human resources, and even IT, from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.

T-shaped employees

This means having some very deep skills in a specific area but in addition the abilities to quickly become fairly knowledgeable in other fields – and applying that skills hands-on as needed, just as any in sort of start-up environment.

This is counter the culture (in ‘mature’ corporation) of denying to do X because you are not qualified, it is beneath you, it has not been included in your shop description, or nobody commanded you to do it.

Caveats

The book provides is a much needed real-live positive example of a company who has ‘got it’ – among cheerful analyses of a New World of Work and gloomy critique of debatable implementations (The documentary Work Hard – Play Hard having being one of the finest).

But Scott  warns against trying to copy WP’s culture and tack it on an existing one – e.g. by scheduling company meetings in open space style without and agenda, hoping that employees will simple start working together spontaneously – as they did in Seaside, the artificial settlement that served as the set of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. It was a company meeting that

looked more like a party at a very nice but geeky college dorm.

Chances are that in a different culture such experiments would be loathed just as other team morale events or the casual Friday, or any socializing event moderated by external psychologically trained moderators with a questionable agenda.

Conclusion

It is not only possible but beneficial to work on serious and sensitive stuff in remotely dispersed teams of self-motivated individuals. Scott’s account is convincing – he often emphasizes that he had been skeptical: He had considered his earlier success as a manager critically dependent on being in the same room with people and looking them into the eye.

The importance on a common culture and humor cannot be overstated. The most daunting crisis morphs into legends soon to be told by the fireside, if you are still able throw on some Douglas Adams’ or Monty Python quotes or give your test servers funny names such as panic.com.

I don’t think this is an IT / geek thing only – geekiness might help as there is this globally available template of a culture (42!) that fosters common humor. But I don’t see a reason it cannot be applied to other work that is in essence based on shuffling data – and communicating in an asynchronous way already:

The very idea of working remotely seems strange to most people until they consider how much time at traditional workplaces is spent working purely through computers. If 50 percent of your interaction with coworkers is online, perhaps through e-mail and web browsers, you’re not far from what WordPress.com does.

Many stories about famous start-ups are written when they have grown up – when they have scaled.

I am a small business owner by choice and I often ask myself – probably based on bias – does anything good have to scale? Scott answers this question confidently with No:

…greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.

So in summary I consider it a great book, highly recommended if you use Automattic’s products are are just curious, or if you are an ‘office worker’ or a manager of those and thinking about the best way to work as a team.

It is an honest and entertaining manifesto:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.

Communist heart

Honoring ‘Team Social’ (Wikimedia)

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25 thoughts on “I Picked the Right Blogging Platform! (Book Review: The Year without Pants)

  1. I’m awfully interested in the logic by which groups operate. There’s something amazing when a group of people are able to work better than they could as individuals, and I suspect it’s something very closely related to the way a group of people can, with good intentions and reasonable processes, come up with catastrophically bad decisions.

    I’m also generally interested in corporate histories, although those tend to be most interesting after a company has gone through at least one or two generations and a severe crisis that shakes out all the mistakes that go back to the original organization’s structure, and gone on to form some fresh strengths and mistakes to survive that.

    • Yes – I am also very interested in group behavior. I have seen some research that claims to have proved that so-called Groupthink actually makes the output of group brainstorming an the like worse than the results of individuals… as, for example, the more vocal group members usually win, and more original solutions by introverted members are not considered. Groups rather seem to enforce mediocrity following that reasoning. But I guess, these are effects very difficult to put into numbers!

      • They’re results extremely hard to put into numbers, but I have sometimes been tempted to try building a simulation. Of course, there’s probably a good body of research gone into simulating group dynamics like that and I’d be better off reading what the research is and turning it into a game (SimCommittee? Sid Meier’s Bureaucracy?) instead.

    • I don’t disagree – maybe I would find a way to feel alienated by anybody I’d work for as an employee or long-term contractor…. and that’s one of the reasons I am self-employed and prefer short-term engagements.

  2. Love this, especially for being the opposite of traditional eceonomic assumptions (people are lazy by nature, work is something you get paid for because you hate doing it…)

  3. Wow Elke, fantastic post and review. There are more than few worthy concepts in Automatic’s cultural and values that I wish were adopted by my industry. For example, hiring based on matching sense of humour. This is a great one. The best teams know how to interact by gently ribbing each other without offense. It creates a bond like nothing else excepet perhaps a common foe. I currently work in a team that doesn’t understand this, and we could really use an injection of humour to get over all of this fake niceness. IMHO fake niceness is the very antithesis of good team culture and certainly not conducive to creativity. However this concept is far too radical for our group. Fake niceness is suffocation (contrast this to the concept of communication being the company’s oxygen as referred to in your post). Sorry about the tangent, loved your post. You may have just given me an idea for a post 🙂

    • Thanks, Judy! I guess the trick (as a hiring company) is to let your sense of humor gleam through your ‘company presentation’ in an authentic way. People who would not fit in would not even apply.
      I think I have used the same principles – though not consciously – as a consultant and contractor. I am sure that there are people who can’t relate to my websites and these won’t become clients. But on the other hand those clients who have read my stuff and hire me nonetheless are fun to work with. I even had clients who found my subversive sites interesting and only discovered afterwards that we work in the same industry / same niche.

  4. Nice review. Given that I tend to ‘live in my own little world,’ I had not idea that WordPress was such a progressive place, under Mullenweg’s leadership. When I first signed on to the platform I had lots of questions, most of which were answered by folks participating in one or another forum. Some questions, however, were directed to the folks at WordPress and they were really quick, really pleasant, and always able to come up with a solution which worked … quickly. I too feel that what I pay for the service is worth the investment. I also like that the platform is changing all of the time … but in ways which operate behind individual blogs … if you know what I mean … the changes don’t alter the entire platform. When I was a PC user I always resented it when Microsoft would put out a new OS which would have the effect of altering my world as I had come to know it. Anyway Elke … thanks for all of the good info … I am now prepared to go forward with a better understanding of WP. D

    PS: I have found a new photo platform … it’s called 500px … and I’m having to measure it up against Smugmug. There are a growing number of these and it’s kinda driving me nuts!

    • Yes, I agree – they add new features but not in the way e.g. FB or Google+ do it… changing the UI every several months in an annoying way. I want to have some level of control on how the blog looks like.

      I have seen some shares from 500px from other photographer friends… seems to grow quickly… Yes, it seems you ‘ought to be everywhere’ today and test new platforms all the time :-/

  5. On a personal level I must note that WordPress is the only so called social Media platform I truly enjoy. Twitter, for example, tends to be too pithy and Facebook is a just a place where spam is exchanged. Words press, on the other hand invites quiet contemplation, which is what I am mostly looking for.

    I must say that the closing manifesto – the one about paid work – is something I truly find refreshing.

    Very much enjoyed this post.

    • Thanks, Maurice! Yes – and I think the ‘values’ of the company providing the platform does make a difference. From the anecdotes in the book it really seems that WP people want to encourage publication by everyone – and not run a start-up that just generates cash based on users’ data and content.

        • I admit I rather thought of controlling drones and robots from your secret fortress! 😉 But of course you are right – it is more straight-forward to do creative work in this way!

          • Yes, that does sound pretty geeky. Of course, I wouldn’t mind having a secret fortress, from which I can control drones via a hidden signal transmitted by a network of infected computers and mobile devices. But, alas, I am not a hacker, and I don’t have the funds to undertake such a problem. It seems, however, that the European Banks have too much money, maybe they’ll give me some…

  6. Great post. This week saw the conclusion of proceedings of an inquest into the death of a man who was left unattended for more than thirty hours in a Canadian hospital. I was very alarmed by the way the was dismissed by hospital, staff unions and those responsible as administrative or procedural problems which have since been addressed. The underlying problem was of greater significance: the man who died was a visible minority, and staff assumed he was passed out drunk, not dying. This assumption does not explain why he was at a hospital, and is counter to why one would think a person comes to a hospital. The lack of accountability made me do a double-take, and I feel some what shaken by the cold indifference of people fighting to maintain their jobs and the status that allows them to be paid very high, unionized wages.

    This discussion also suggests that some times it is simply better not to go through the normalizing processes toward management, even if this means eclipsing one’s self from leadership opportunities built into the system. Right now, there is a perception among young people in North America that no one is holding open the door for them anyway, so they may as well stop trying to fit in to a place they can’t even get in.

    My question, in the larger sense, of myself comes down to wondering at what point do we abandon failing systems and walk away, or do we still have a responsibility to enter into those systems and address those problems? Where is the line between apathy and engagement?

    • This.
      “…there is a perception among young people in North America that no one is holding open the door for them anyway, so they may as well stop trying to fit in to a place they can’t even get in.”
      It definitely applies to Europe, too.

      It’s the 70-year old successful managers and politicians that ridicule young people for being too meek and career-focused, not that revolutionary as the generation of 1968 was who – apologize for hyperbole – partied all the way through their obscure degree programs and discussed politics and Satre’s writings, then got jobs easily nonetheless in yesterday’s booming economy. Finally they became those serious leaders who lecture young people about their lack of adventurous spirits and yet demand all kinds of impossible things of the freshly minted graduates (see job ads), nearly working for free as temps / interns, sustaining a social system that will benefit those ‘leaders’ but most likely not the young people later etc.

      I applaud anything subversive that does away with these seemingly indispensable structures and symbols of power – in particular when done so playfully and in such an innocuous and likeable way.

      OMG – I got carried away – it seems the image I had chosen for fun reasons has inspired me in a weird way!

      • I can’t believe I wrote that sentence above…I meant: I was very alarmed by the way the ISSUE was dismissed (by hospital, staff unions and those responsible) as an administrative or procedural problem, which they say have since been addressed.

        I do see those job ads, and the amount of training, experience and specialized certificates needed to do jobs that once required only a simple, basic education (specialized skills were taught by the company as part of their unique work environments). I am reading David Brooks “comic Sociology” called Bobos in Paradise, which is both depressing and hilarious. It was published in 2000, right about the time that it seemed the job markets started to reflect a greediness among employers who could demand more and offer less. I think there is a lot of pressure on young people, right out of high school or university, to do their best to conform to such expectations. Too often, they go too fast and too far down the education path to back out of a career because they are told this is how they must do things; they are in debt and have no job, and we have a cultural mantra which seems to blame them for this. They get caught in the internships and the networking strategies, which come dangerously close to defeating them.

        Arg, I hate it too. And, I guess because I am trying to transition back into a career as my kids get older, I am personally involved in the same situation as younger career-seekers. Although, I was very lucky to have received some excellent mentorship in my earlier years… something that doesn’t seem to happen as commonly for young people now as it did when I was in my twenties.

        • My blog’s theme should have that Like Comment feature, too 🙂
          Thanks, Michelle – I hope I did not misinterpret your response too much, but anyway thanks for joining the off-topic conversation then! Yes – I fully agree, and it is weird that there is less mentorship although there is so much more talk about mentorship today.
          I do hope that individual self-starters can still make a difference – Mullenweg obviously was one, and I guess many of his employees have that mindset, too. When I transitioned from academic research to IT once I had zero qualifications and experience – but I felt the field was very open to people with very different backgrounds. It still is, compared to other professions… but I also notice the growing number certifications and degree programs… and how many of the former self-educated experts went back to school to get that paper that proves they know what they had actually known before they took classes.

          • I’ve noticed Comment Likes are on a few different themes, and maybe all of them? You can turn it on at Settings/Sharing in the dashboard; the option should be near the very end of the list if it is available.

          • Thanks – yes, the option is there! Haven’t turned it on now though … but on a second thought: If I do that now it seems that nobody had ever liked any comment before? Decisions, decisions…

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