On the shoulders of giants

Successful tech enterprises offer no end of lessons for those willing to hear them. We ask Scott Berkun to share his teachings on Automattic and the future of work

On the shoulders of giants

You might not necessarily be familiar with Automattic. But, without a shadow of a doubt, you’ll be familiar with its work. As one of the main driving forces behind the open source blogging and CMS tool WordPress – upon which 18.9% of the world’s top 10 million websites are built – Automattic has made a colossal contribution to the tech world. But its culture is perhaps its most significant innovation.

There are probably few people better suited to tell us about the lessons that can be learned from the tech giant than someone who’s been there. Renowned business author, speaker and former Microsoft whizzkid Scott Berkun spent a year working at Automattic, writing his book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, based on his experiences.

One of the most immediately striking things about Automattic is the fact that employees are spread around the globe, working in tandem without regular meetings and the standard structures that have become mainstays in the running of the average business. Berkun feels this is, at least in part, down to the nature of the talent tech companies work with. “That’s what people who are creators do; they create,” he explains. “If you stay out of their way, they’re going to make stuff. They don’t need a whole lot of meetings or structure to do what they’re trained to do.”

But the structure of the organisation was also inevitably influenced by something else: its product.

Open-source software, by its very nature, rejects unequal ownership and, if the product cannot be deemed the property of an organisation’s founders, it inevitably influences the way individuals approach their work. “Any open source project is basically a volunteer organisation,” Berkun comments. “That means that people can leave whenever they want; there’s no obligation for them to work and that changes the dynamic for how a manager or a boss treats people.” If the value of the work isn’t held by a few select stakeholders but by every individual who inputs, this makes top-down models of control utterly unfit for purpose.

However, the upside is that the level of engagement this provides actually negates the need for rigid control. As Berkun explains: “A lot of the things you hear about WordPress.com – how passionate people are about working there, how excited they are about their work and the quality of work that they do – is a result of this different attitude that the managers have.”

For some though, business structures that are essentially anarchic in nature can’t help carry connotations of chaos and concerns around oversight are perhaps inevitable. However, there were several factors in Automattic’s case that made this fluid structure more effective.

First of all, the company’s work doesn’t constantly need to go through a review process before it is deemed publishable. “There’s so much freedom about launching new work out to the world, people work in small increments,” Berkun says. Whilst this probably isn’t much comfort to those used to having a firm grip on the reins, this means that changes were minor and, if unforeseen problems resulted, they could be easily reviewed and altered. Berkun 72 explains: “People were comfortable working and giving feedback to each other in small increments then making adjustments and improvements at a small scale.”

One issue that Automattic did face in the use of a flat structure was one of accountability. Whilst execs Matthew Mullenweg and Toni Schneider weren’t necessarily calling all the shots, they were expected to have oversight over a lot of everyday decisions being made by staff. Things that would have been handled by middle management in a traditional organisation were ending up in front of Mullenweg and Schneider. “The flat structure was starting to become a problem because they were becoming bottlenecks,” Berkun comments. “Every individual employee went to them for whatever feedback or information they needed.”

And this is where Berkun came in, with the majority of The Year Without Pants centred on his journey implementing a team structure that acted in harmony with the company’s existing ethic. “With the same cultural values in place that we had as a flat system, the individual programmers, designers and writers still had a lot of power and influence over what they did,” says Berkun. Those leading a workgroup were there to support this process and supply feedback; additional structures like personal credit for the work of teams and higher renumeration were stripped away. As Berkun explains: “Being a team lead is a role, not a job.”

But there was a more fundamental factor at play, one that enabled a much greater degree of transparency than one sees in hierarchical companies. Given the remoteness of its staff, Automattic needed something that allowed greater trackability and accountability of communication than email. In addition to widely used tools like Skype and instant messaging, there was another tool that lent itself to this purpose: blogging.

This had huge benefits in terms of oversight, meaning that anybody in the company was able to offer advice and feedback around plans certain teams were implementing. Berkun explains: “It was possible that someone else in the organisation would be reading our team’s blog and go: ‘Scott, you really shouldn’t do that; we tried the same thing last year and here is what happened.’”

To an outsider, this way of working might pose potential issues, damaging the intimacy of the working environment and inviting interference from parties that didn’t have a stake in the work. Berkun admits this was his reaction before his time at Automattic. “But that was never a problem,” he says. “Open tools tend to lead you to a more mature way of communicating.” Many of the qualities executives want for their businesses – collaboration, mutual support and the transference of effective ideas from one area of the company to another – can actually be easily accessed through this more visible manner of communication, and ensured Automattic’s work was as efficient as possible.

For those wanting to learn from the best and stand on the shoulders of a giant, The Year Without Pants and the lessons learnt during the creation of WordPress will be a revelation, but Berkun feels the important thing is to follow the message, not the letter. “It’s very popular for business book authors to say ‘do these three things and you’ll be a billion dollar company’,” he remarks. “We all know there’s something empty about these promises.”

Instead, the important thing for directors and execs is having the courage to go beyond a template. “The obligation of leaders in a company is to experiment and be willing to try to work differently,” Berkun says.

Trialling measures – whether they be remote working, newer communication tools or something even more radical – is the first step on the road to finding more effective working practices. Berkun concludes: “If they continue with that culture of encouraging experimentation and trying to find better ways to work, they’ll pretty quickly approximate a lot of the benefits that they see and admire in a company like WordPress.”

Josh Russell
Josh Russell

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