The Year without Pants

Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 11.20.33 PMThe Year Without Pants; WordPress.com and the future of work

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a consultant who got the rare opportunity to implement his own advice, he told WordPress they needed a team structure, and then worked for a little more than a year  as a team lead. In “The Year Without Pants” he writes about his time there, and examines how we work – and how we might work in the future.

I’m a WordPress fan, I’ve used it since 2007, so I should probably issue a disclaimer with this post. But although I know the tool I knew very little about the company that is said to power a fifth of the web and is behind 48% of Technorati-rated top blogs.

The whole philosophy of WordPress is to build an open source content management system that would be easy to use, intuitive, and give plenty of content options for users. Or as they say “WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.”

The company operated as a loose federation of freelancers working remotely, recruitment is by a “build something” test, work is chosen by individuals who post their builds directly, communication is via online tools – and in a brutal display of transparency it’s all logged and searchable by everyone. The company culture is a meritocracy where co-operation is rewarded. It’s a place where you can make something cool and see it in use the following day.

It sounds great, so what problems needed solving – why was a consultant called in?

  1. limited scalability; as long as everything is going through one leader it’s hard to grow, WordPress was 58 employees when Scott Berkun joined. It was time to distribute some responsibility.
  2. limited attention given to bigger complex problems; as long as everyone chooses their own work problems needing 3 or 4 brains will probably get left behind.
  3. loss of consistency; with programmers creating their own solutions not everything worked the same way, sometimes two tools were developed with similar functions, sometimes the way one thing was built made it hard to re-use later.

The tough challenge that founder Matt Mullenweg entrusted to Berkun was to address these issues without disturbing the great parts of the company’s culture. Berkun’s advice was to introduce a simple and loose team structure – and he got to see this implemented by working there.

The job offer Berkun signs includes a creed for how to work at WordPress and begins “I will never stop learning….” and ends “Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable” it’s a powerful and inspiring statement. He enters the team learning, as all new starts to WordPress do, the ropes of customer service, although his service delivery is a fraction of his colleagues. It’s a great place to start in a company – you hear the challenges  your customers face first hand. He then goes on to form a team made up of people he’s never met, and prove that a team working together, and working intensively can solve bigger problems – and ship.

I work in a big company, one that would be a machine bureaucracy under Mintzberg’s model, so about as far away from WordPress as you can get. Even so I read the book looking for what would work for us, what lessons were transferable.

  1. Meetings
    Berkun is damning of meetings “most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either”. WordPress uses asynchronous online tools for a lot of communication leaving people free to work on other things and uses Skype when that makes sense. The company also sponsors week-long meetups, where teams pick a project and ship by the end of the week.
  2. Team Size
    4 people. This is the level where productivity is maximised. I recognise this, and want to avoid the temptation in future to build “representative project teams”, instead try cutting the work up and get the teams small and productive.
  3. T-shaped Skill Sets
    Look for people with a broad skill set with one area of deep specialisation, if you choose complementary “deep skills” you can build a well rounded team with high flexibility.
  4. Measurement and Gaming the System
    We are guilty of the “what gets measured gets done” mentality, which means long discussions on KPIs, lots of reports and multiple dashboards. Berkun points out that “what’s get rewarded gets done”, and gives the example of rewarding programmers based on lines of code rather than what the code does.

There was also one statement I found affirming about the power of laughter. I’m pretty sure my team laugh at me every day, so I might have cracked this one. Berkun says “Laughter… is one way to build intimacy, something every healthy team needs.” This might be the thing I agree with the most, it’s amazing how much laughing together can help build a team. The shared jokes also help in the tough times.

For me this book is a really interesting insight into the world of WordPress, I’m an even bigger fan – I almost want to work there.

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One thought on “The Year without Pants

  1. Pingback: Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution | Change Meme

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