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The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work Kindle Edition
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Q&A with Scott Berkun, author of The Year Without Pants
You talk about having the right amount of "friction" – and that "few managers get it right." Yet one person’s friction is another person’s fight. How can a manager engineer "healthy" friction?
The book details how I managed one team in search of the right balance. Most management books are all theory – it's rare to read a real manager, of a real team, actually trying to make it all work. More so than any theory, reading well written accounts of how real managers manage does more than piles of theory books in helping managers see what's possible and how it's supposed to work.
Think of the best teacher you ever had. Now think of the worst. Both gave homework, both gave grades, yet the feeling you had about those same activities things was different with each of them. That's the way a good manager needs to think. Trust is huge: you trust a good manager to have good reasons for pushing you, just as you would for a great teacher. And much like teachers, there is no quick tip that separates good managers from bad: it takes time, experience and patience to learn.
You say in this book "the bottleneck is never code or creativity; its clarity" Is this the biggest issue in the way for companies trying to move forward?
Any moderate sized corporation is a wasteland of indecisiveness: it's all committees, review meetings and endless email chains. We all know too many people have veto powers. If you simply clarified who was the equivalent of a film director for a product, or a division, who was empowered to break ties, everyone would be freed to do better work: they'd spend more time actually working and less time fighting over turf. The Year Without Pants explores this in many ways, as the autonomy of the culture created bottlenecks of a kind all on their own.
What was the hardest aspect of working at Wordpress.com for you personally?
I'm exposed in many ways in The Year Without Pants. That's one of the meanings of the title. This book is honest and real: writing about coworkers and your boss is dangerous. It was by far the hardest book I've written. As an expert, my career is at stake in how well readers think I did at practicing what I've preached for a decade. And my coworkers who were there can challenge anything I wrote or said. I don't know of any book that's as revealing in so many ways about how work in the real world is actually done.
Results vs. Process seems to be a theme…and yet process helps to keep politics at bay …and power distributed …are they really either/or?
Only good processes keep politics at bay. Mediocre processes amplify politics by creating more turf and more restrictions. Any process should include a clause that defines when the process is no longer necessary. This never happens and the result is rules live on forever even after if their usefulness died years ago. Process should be a slave to results, but it rarely is. It's often the other way around.
This is a really interesting observation: "Every manager is kind of a new experiment, and any experiment that goes wrong should change." Do companies promoting someone to manager need to change what and how they evaluate success?
70% of all American employees are unengaged at work (Gallup 2013). All of those workers work for managers who are failing them. Management, as a discipline, is a failure: we are not, on average, good at it as a nation. We should be experimenting with the very notion of management itself: why not elect managers? Or promote them only on a trial basis? Or give the people who work for them the power to reverse a promotion? As wild as these ideas might sound I bet any of them would provide better results than that 70% number. The bar for management is that low.
As Americans it's absurd how we never consider democratic principles for management. Instead we have a system modeled on what: monarchy? Oligarchy? I'm no radical, but I am open to other influences in structuring how the powerful are chosen at corporations.
It seems that storytelling, relationships, humor – i.e. the humanity of WordPress.com – is so consciously intended – and with great results. But didn’t they launch it with this in mind? How would a 200 year old company, say, with layers of tradition even begin to try to change its culture to get at a more meaningful workplace?
My story at Automattic is all about culture change: It was a suicide mission for me to introduce traditional management ideas into a company born of open source, independence and autonomy. I was an outsider with a radically different set of beliefs and experiences, which makes the core story of the book one about culture change: or at least my insane attempts to make culture change happen.
Any 200 year old company didn't start that way. It was grown and you change a company the same way: you plant seeds and nurture them. One bright manager plants a small seed in their own team with some different rules. When they show better results than other teams, other managers follow. Soon there is a high performing minority and if the CEO has a clue they'll invest in how to make that minority the majority. One way to read the The Year Without Pants is "the year of attempting culture change." How can an expert on management be useful in a place that doesn't believe in management at all? That's my story and that's what the book is about.
From the Back Cover
"The Year Without Pants is one the most original and important books about what work is really like, and what it takes to do it well, that has ever been written."
—Robert Sutton, professor, Stanford University, and author, New York Times bestsellers The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss
"The underlying concept—an 'expert' putting himself on the line as an employee— is just fantastic. And then the book gets better from there! I wish I had the balls to do this."
—GUY KAWASAKI, author, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, and former chief evangelist, Apple
"If you want to think differently about entrepreneurship, management, or life in general, read this book."
—Tim Ferriss, author, New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek
"With humor and heart, Scott has written a letter from the future about a new kind of workplace that wasn't possible before the internet. His insights will make you laugh, think, and ask all the right questions about your own company's culture."
—Gina Trapani, founding editor, Lifehacker
"The future of work is distributed. Automattic wrote the script. Time for rest of us to read it."
—Om Malik, founder, GigaOM
"Some say the world of work is changing, but they're wrong. The world has already changed! Read The Year Without Pants to catch up."
—Chris Guillebeau, author, New York Times bestseller The $100 Startup
"You'll be surprised, shocked, delighted, thrilled, and inspired by how WordPress.com gets work done. I was!"
—Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president, Microsoft
"Most talk of the future of work is just speculation, but Berkun has actually worked there. The Year Without Pants is a brilliant, honest, and funny insider's story of life at a great company."
—Eric Ries, author, New York Times bestseller The Lean Startup
- ASIN : B00DVJXI4M
- Publisher : Jossey-Bass; 1st edition (August 20, 2013)
- Publication date : August 20, 2013
- Language : English
- File size : 6123 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 277 pages
- Lending : Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #454,377 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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For me, there are three big ideas in this book:
1. You can only evaluate management in the context of culture. Here is a quote from the book that outlines this issue: "I'm certain that to learn from a place, you have to study how its culture functions. A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results. Much of what bad managers do is assume their job is simply to find new things to jam and new places to jam them into, without ever believing they need to understand how the system--the system of people known as culture--works." This explains the title of the book - it references an inside joke within his team. I can see why he would use this as a title, but I'm not sure it reflects the content or quality of the book. However, within the WordPress,com culture, it makes perfect sense...
2. Experimentation is an essential management skill. Berkun experiments throughout his time at WordPress.com. This is a central skill for innovating, and it is not practiced widely enough. He has great insights into the roles that data and judgement play in managing, and how experimenting and learning can contribute to both.
3. How do you manage if everyone is a volunteer? One of the interesting features of WordPress.com is that it originated in a open source programming project. Everyone that works on such a project is a volunteer, and this requires a much different management style than the more traditional command and control approach. Berkun's time at WordPress.com was part of a big experiment - introducing work teams and hierarchy into an open source style culture. The outcomes tell us a lot about how to manage effectively.
Scott Berkun has a great business mind, and he is a very engaging writer. This is an important piece of work, and if you are interested in what good management looks like and how it might be changing,you should read this book.
Despite this sentence being a quotation from the book - which is difficult to reconcile with the book’s subtitle - it is worth reading.
It is the description of Berkun’s assignment at WordPress. To put the style of work that Berkun describes into perspective, the WordPress group hosts 38% of the websites in the world. Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, sells WordPress related services such as hosting, backup, blogs and others. Two new blogs are started every second through its services!
The contemporary relevance of the book lies in the fact that Autommatic is a distributed organization: comprised of teams with members working remotely from one another. As anyone who works from home knows, as so many do of late, pants are not a prerequisite, hence the title. However, the enduring relevance of the book is in many of the practices that have made Automattic a $3billion company.
A caveat: the fact that certain practices are highly effective in one company, should not mislead anyone into thinking that they will necessarily benefit another. “A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results,” Berkun warns.
That said, learning how other successful companies operate is always valuable. I have long been a believer in the principle of ‘swipe and adapt’ articulated decades ago by Tom Peters.
The founder of Automattic, Matt Mullenweg, articulated his business principles in a statement now found in many places in the company and included in the letter of engagement of staff.
“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 never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I'll remember the days before I knew everything.
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.”
Mullenweg and Schneider the CEO, have deliberately kept support roles, like legal, human resources, and even IT, away from creative roles such as engineering and design. This prevents them from interfering and infringing on the autonomy of the people who actually make the money. This accords with Schneider’s principles of hiring great people, then setting good priorities, removing distractions, and staying out of their way.
The hiring process at Automattic doesn’t rely on interviews or the candidate’s ability to answer trick questions. Rather, talent is hired by trial which filters out people not suited for the work. If you do well, you are offered a job. If you do not, you are not hired.
The author’s induction was to work in customer support. Making new recruits work in support, forces everyone to take customers seriously: after all it is they who pay the salaries and it is they who need to be pleased, not a manager.
In his first placement, Berkun was not given forms to fill out, or checklists, or a childproof version to learn on, with all the dangerous things turned off. The training was indistinguishable from work. Colleagues were willing to drop whatever they were doing to lend a hand to a newcomer they didn't know. There were quotas of work to be completed, but they weren’t stated anywhere. Everyone knew that employees look at other employees’ statistics - that's part of how they evaluate each other.
“I could proudly say I'd simultaneously helped customers, improved my knowledge of the product, and befriended more than a dozen co-workers through actual work.” Hiring this way for a meritocratic culture, designed for autonomous adults, is simple, effective and brilliant.
When all work is done remotely, great communication skills are essential and everyone has them or they wouldn’t be there. At Autommatic communication is primarily via texting on open platforms so all the relevant people can see the chat and respond or be informed. In the US, corporations have the right to look at employees’ business communications. Corporate communications are corporate property. At Automattic, the rule is clear and fair: everyone, not just executives, has access to all corporate communications.
People are generally sceptical about the effectiveness of online meetings overlooking the fact that most in-person meetings, don't work either.
To augment communication and overcome the limitations of working remotely, informal Automattic staff gatherings are arranged periodically. People who have been collaborating and communicating via text meet in person “as often as family reunions and feel like them too, except everyone likes each other. And knows how to code,” Berkun reports.
The stereotypical company retreats have the same central element: crushing boredom and the desperate struggle to stay awake. They are endured by staff only for the location. At Automattic being a distributed company, the company retreat and meet-up has great significance. It is the only week all year that all employees are in the same place.
Instead of a series of presentations, the event focuses on launching new ideas for WordPress.com—not for practice but for real. Every team is instructed to pick a project for the week and see to it that it goes out to the public before they leave for home. The work at the event is similar to how work is done all year at Automattic, except this week it is done in person.
A central element of the Automattic culture is results first. “Nobody cared when you arrived at work or how long you worked. It didn't matter if you were pantless in your living room. What mattered was your output,” Berkun reports.
Their investment in paying for teams to meet is acknowledgment that some face-to-face experiences are essential.
When Berkun joined the company, he was told by an experienced employee: “Welcome to Chaos.” There were few rules there, and the ones that existed changed quickly. The best results require commitment to improvisation. In the case of Automattic remote work is a choice, today for many it is not, but when it is once again a choice, the lessons Berkun has gleaned through his year there will become even more relevant.
Readability Light -+--- Serious
Insights High --+-- Low
Practical High --+-- Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own.
Not to mention the author was at the company for a very short term, I felt as though he was not genuine in his own work. It seemed as though he needed to worked for a company who had a recognizable name [WordPress] to gain credibility. This fell short of my own expectations; I wanted to walk away with something useful and I just didn't get it.
Top reviews from other countries
The second problem is Wordpress might be big in some peoples' minds but at this time it was very small in terms of numbers and doing very simple straight-forward things so nothing really translates to the reader's world. Life generally is much more complex and challenging. There's nothing innately wrong with what Berkun says. It's just that talking about whether to have a button on the right side of the page or the left is just not enticing enough to keep turning the page.
One of the main problems is the book assumes that the reader has detailed knowledge of the product - and I don't. Never used it and only vaguely heard of it, so much of what he enthused about was lost on me.
Secondly the images don't work well on my Kindle. Can't see what any of them are meant to be.
Thirdly - I've got to 73% and don't really feel like I've got the insight promised in the blurb. I've project managed IT development and was expecting him to talk about something new....didn't get it.
Finally - the working methods sound SOOOOOOOOOOOOO outdated. For heavens sake - the team are spread across the USA (and some outside of it) and they use text based messages. When the author is enthralled by finally having a voice call with someone you feel like you're in a Twilight Zone.
Afraid I can't recommend it.
When I first picked up the book I expected it to be more of an instruction manual around distributed working than it actually was. Berkun does discuss some of these at a practical level but Berkun is clever in leveraging the opportunity given to very few people. Berkun was given unprecedented access to the company and he didn't squander it.
Some of the greatest insights in the book come not from the innovative, groundbreaking management techniques deployed at Wordpress but rather Berkun's insightful observations of human psychology and the interaction of people in work.
Whether you are interested in 'The Future of Work' or distributed working, if you are interested in taking a personal look under the hood of an interesting company that is changing the status quo then this is a great book.
One other side effect of the book is that it will probably open non-technical (and by this I mean programmers) readers eyes to just how much work goes into making seemingly small changes to such a complicated platform.
If I have one criticism, it is that Berkun doesn't directly tie up the questions that are asked at the start of the book around the impact of leaders in a chaordic creative environment. I would also like to see what the opinion of the leadership team of the experiment and what the lasting changes at the company were, I guess that time will tell.
I felt like every page had something worth highlighting.
Now onto the next ...