Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Future of Work


This time I look at a book that describes the author's experience working for a company with essentially no physical offices and with workers all over the globe. He draws some conclusions about the future of work.

The Year Without Pants: Wordpress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, San Francisco, 2013, 266pp, ISBN 978-1-118-66063-8, www.josseybass.com, $26.95)

In the July/August 2010 Micro Review, I briefly discussed Scott Berkun's  Confessions of a Public Speaker, a book he wrote while trying to make a living as a talking head. But in the 1990s Scott distinguished himself as a development manager at Microsoft, where he was instrumental in making Microsoft's belated embrace of the web and browsers successful. His other books qualify him to be called a management guru, so it was with trepidation that he stepped back into a management job.


The back story

About the time my review of his last book came out, Berkun was a WordPress blogger and a consultant to Matt Mullenweg, the creator of the WordPress blogging software and founder of Automattic (note the extra "t" so the company name includes Mullenweg's given name). Automattic runs wordpress.com, one of the most popular sites in the world. Approximately half of all WordPress-based blogs are hosted there for free. Mullenweg wanted to try a new organizational approach within Automattic. Partly as a result of Berkun's advice, he split the company into ten teams, and he invited Berkun to lead one of them. Berkun agreed to join the company as an employee. Going in he made it clear that he would leave to write this book in approximately a year. He wound up staying for a year and a half, the last few months of which as a team member after recommending that one of his team members be promoted to succeed him.

The book tells a fascinating story -- fascinating because of both the personal details and the company's unique organization. In the early 1980s I read Tracy Kidder's _Soul of a New Machine_, and the personal side of Berkun's book reminds me of Kidder's story. Kidder was a reporter and not a participant, but he did see some of the same dynamics at work as the ones Berkun describes. The workers who were passionate about the goal made the project succeed by working behind the backs of the hard-driving project managers. At Automattic, there are no hard-driving managers, and everything is out in the open -- almost painfully so -- but passion and commitment are the prime motivators.

As a development project leader in the 1960s, I read John Kenneth Galbraith's _New Industrial State_.  Galbraith said many things in that book, but the one I remember nearly 50 years later is that in order to succeed, companies must abandon top-down decision making  and recognize that management will increasingly lack the knowledge needed to make day-to-day operational decisions. In this era of agile organizations, that seems like a quaint insight, but getting from there to here was a long, bumpy ride. Automattic, as described in Berkun's book, seems like the culmination of that journey.


A virtual company

In January 2003 Matt Mullenweg established the WordPress open source community by forking code from b2/cafelog, a GPL-licensed open source project  whose founder had stopped supporting it. Mullenweg's founding principles were transparency, meritocracy, and longevity. In August 2005, distressed about the existing options for deploying WordPress-based blogs, he founded Automattic with three community volunteers and no venture backing. They designed an anti-spam plugin called Akismet -- still one of the first things a new WordPress blogger installs -- and used income from that to keep Automattic afloat until they could obtain more substantial financing. Toni Schneider joined the company as CEO in November 2005, and he and Mullenweg jointly managed a totally flat organization until they created teams in 2010, when the company had 60 employees.

Automattic has a simple business model. They sell upgrades to bloggers who want more than the many features they can get for free. They sell advertising on a few popular blogs, and they work special deals with premier clients like CNN, _Time_ magazine, CBS, and NBC Sports, which host their websites on WordPress.com.

Because of the way the company started, it was completely natural for everyone to work where they pleased. While the company eventually acquired highly desirable premises on Pier 38 in San Francisco, employees rarely used them, though Mullenweg occasionally called on locally based employees to come in as props when media representatives or premier clients came calling.

Mullenweg regards remote working as ideal. It flattens everything, producing higher lows and lower highs -- a generally more mellow experience. Automattic can afford to be a low-friction company because it supports the WordPress community and relies on satisfied customers. It feels little competitive pressure. It doesn't need schedules because it doesn't do marketing. It has minimal hierarchy, so decisions can be made with little fuss.

Most of the time employees communicated on IRC and their team blogs (known as P2s). While email was by no means prohibited, few Automattic employees used it, because it is closed. If you do not receive a copy of an email message, you have no way to find out about it. Every word ever typed on IRC or a P2 is archived and available to every employee.

The whole company held occasional all-hands get-togethers face to face in exotic places, and teams did the same somewhat more frequently. A tradition for these events, which usually lasted several days, was to decide on team projects to develop and publish before going home.


Berkun's role

Berkun's team was called Team Social. Their job was to invent things that made blogging and reading blogs easier. In his year leading that team, they developed Jetpack, a WordPress plugin designed to make wordpress.com features available to WordPress-based blogs hosted on other sites. It's the other first thing a new WordPress blogger installs. They also unified the commenting facilities of all WordPress blogs in order to integrate IntenseDebate, a popular commenting product that Automattic had acquired because it worked on other blogging systems as well.

The integration was called Project Highlander to suggest (a science fiction allusion) that it was a fight to the death between IntenseDebate and the other WordPress commenting facilities until only one survived. With 120 blog themes, WordPress had a large variety of ways of making and presenting comments, and those had to be unified before Project Highlander could succeed.

Project Highlander called on project management skills that Berkun brought to Automattic from his days at Microsoft -- skills that pushed Automattic in the direction of a more mature development process. This was a recurring theme of Berkun's time there. In terms of Eric Raymond's classic book _The Cathedral and the Bazaar_, Automattic had grown up at the Bazaar end of the spectrum. Berkun, based primarily on his time at Microsoft, brought in aspects of the Cathedral approach whenever that was a more effective way to approach a problem. Automattic had 60 employees when Berkun joined and 170 by the time he finished writing this book, so some evolution in the Cathedral direction was inevitable, but Berkun's expertise made it easier.

While embracing the Automattic way of working, Berkun also struggled against it. He had mastered the techniques of face-to-face interaction -- maintaining eye contact, reading body language, detecting emotional nuance, and so forth. He had to learn to compensate for the fact that virtual interactions made most of those techniques nearly impossible to use. In fact, one of his accomplishments was to move team meetings out of IRC and into Skype video.

Another problem Berkun identified, but really had no answer for, is the dynamics of online threads. You might make a thoughtful post about an important issue and see no responses. You have no idea whether anyone has read it or continues to think about it. Or someone might react to one small point in your post, and the thread mutates to focus on that point rather than on the one you set out to direct attention to. Berkun raised this issue by posting about it, and the responses frustratingly exhibited the very problems he hoped to highlight.

Berkun liked the company culture of fixing things immediately, but he noted that people respond to the most recent problem, and if something doesn't get fixed right away, it tends to be forgotten, regardless of its importance. Berkun tried to introduce a system of priorities that would make it more likely that tricky but important issues would not be swept under the rug. He hoped to engender more strategic thinking to go along with the company's tactical mindset.

Berkun also tried to institute some sort of usability testing. The programmers who worked on WordPress features generally came from the WordPress community, so they had reason to feel that they understood their target audience, but Berkun was able to identify many areas where users had difficulties that simple design changes would alleviate.


Highjinks

A major part of the story Berkun tells is about the people he worked with, how they worked together, and how they coalesced into an efficient team. Many of Berkun's anecdotes concern his team's meetings in places like New York, Seattle, and other more exotic places.

Seen from the outside, the team seemed like a bunch of hard-drinking young men, a few years out of college (more than a few in Berkun's case), who enjoyed playing around the edges of trouble. For example, on the way to a bar in Athens after the one they'd been drinking in closed at 2:00 am, one team member miraculously escaped serious injury. On a dare he jumped between 3-foot high traffic bollards spaced 4 feet apart and missed his second jump, crashing toward the sidewalk. As Berkun describes it, "either through Australian training for drunk jumping or a special Krav Maga technique he'd learned, midfall he realized his predicament and managed to tuck and roll . . . The silver-dollar sized patch of skin missing from his elbow seemed a fair price to pay, and he was glad."

Despite this sort of incident, their meetings in exotic places were highly productive. Their time together seemed to fill a need that their usual distributed virtual interactions did not. Oddly, though, when working side by side, they often continued to communicate through IRC and their P2, as if they were continents apart.


Lessons

The first lesson learned from Automattic is that a virtual company can exist and be productive. It's not the only such company; GitHub has a similar distributed structure. But Google, the dominant force in Silicon Valley, believes in co-location and with few exceptions requires employees to work in the office, not remotely. With Marissa Mayer's move from Google to the helm of Yahoo, that meme has taken root at Yahoo as well. Many other Silicon Valley companies have also held that belief for years. Partly, they believe it's a more efficient way to develop software, and partly they don't trust their employees.

Trust is the key. Automattic believes in hiring great people, setting good priorities, granting authority, removing distractions, and staying out of the way. The way Automattic works makes it no harder to detect slackers than if you were looking over their shoulders every minute of the day. But most Automattic employees come from a tradition of working remotely on open-source projects. They are self-sufficient and highly motivated, passionate about what they hope to achieve. Their way of working might not work for everybody, but it works for them.

Berkun believes that Automattic has answered many questions that the working world is afraid to ask. Results trump traditions, and the most dangerous tradition is that work is both serious and meaningless, as exemplified by _Dilbert_. A short definition of work is "something I'd rather not be doing." Automattic's management -- with its vision, mission, and long-term thinking -- may be atypical, but they have given work meaning. Automattic's workers have great freedom and take great pride in their work. And as Berkun's anecdotes show, they have a lot of fun.

This short and seemingly lightweight book actually contains a lot of meat, and I haven't covered all of it here. If you're interested in the future of work, you should read it.

This article appears in slightly different form in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of IEEE Micro © 2015 IEEE.

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