Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work (Wiley. Kindle Edition, 2013), is the most readable book about organizational culture that I’ve ever read. Usually these are deadly dreary things, either pedantic and pompous or full of some self-appointed business guru’s shallow ideas – or both. Berkun takes an entirely different tack, chronicling the year he spent working for Automattic, the company which maintains WordPress.com, and describing how and why it succeeds. AND it’s a good read, with lots more in it worth absorbing than I mention here.
Berkun says that the “gift of unusual organizations like Automattic is a reminder to open our minds. The problem with modern work, and one that sheds light on the future, is how loaded workplaces are with cultural baggage. We faithfully follow practices we can’t explain rationally” (pp. 74-75).
The internet makes it possible for Automattic to work the way it does, but only having the right people running things makes it happen. Matt Mullinweg is owner and founder, and Toni Schneider is CEO. Because of them, “the big cultural bet wasn’t on process but on people” (p. 61). Management is seen as a support role, and the organizational structure stays as flat as possible. Schneider’s philosophy is “1. Hire great people. 2. Set good priorities. 3. Remove distractions. 4. Stay out of the way” (p. 77).
Schneider sees product creators as “the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do.” These support roles include areas like management, legal, human resources, and information technology. “If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer” (p. 38). So the creators get the equipment and other things they need, even if supporters have to make do with less.
Employees can work or meet at Automattic’s offices when they need/want to, but the office space sees little use. The point is the quality of the work, not where or when it happens. Everyone works remotely, from wherever in the world they happen to be, which might be at home or in a workspace they share with others (who don’t work for Automattic) or anywhere else. If they lease co-working space they get a stipend, “another act of support for employees discovering how best to get work done” (p. 76).
Employees work in teams, and communication is mostly via IRC (internet relay chat), or posts on P2s (a P2 is a special blog theme made for internal Automattic communication), or via Skype – almost never by email. When teams really need to meet, they fly to places like Rome or Hawaii or Paris. Mullinweg encourages meeting in such places; the teams accomplish good work, bond, and emotionally recharge.
Critics of such innovations often dismiss them on the grounds that they would not “scale well.” Bergun says,
What good is something that scales well if it sucks? Why is size the ultimate goal or even a goal at all? If you’re the kind of person who loves … the place where you work, you don’t need it to be any bigger than it is. The inability to scale is one of the stupidest arguments against a possibly great idea: greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place. (p. 54).
I’m hoping Automattic doesn’t opt to “go big” because its purpose (and the WordPress copyleft license) is so delightfully radical: “The single-sentence vision for WordPress had always been to democratize publishing, which meant they wanted anyone, anywhere, who had something to say, to always be able to publish it for free” (p. 38). “In January 2011, when the threat of a federal bill referred to as the Stop Online Piracy Act threatened free speech, WordPress.com blanked out its entire front page, participating in protest with dozens of other websites” ( p. 39).
The WordPress philosophy boils down to three elements:
- Transparency. all discussions, decisions, and internal debates in the WordPress community are public,
- Meritocracy. Those who put in more time and made better contributions receive respect.
- Longevity. An OpenSource license means that WordPress, which was “born from a failed project” (Cafelog), can “live on and be useful in ways the original creator never imagined” (p. 35)
WordPress’ copyleft license is a GPL, or general public license. Automatic constantly improves WordPress and distributes the improvements at no charge to the entire WordPress community. Users need a server to host their free WordPress blog; they can use any server they want, but WordPress.com provides free basic server service and derives its income from space upgrades and other extras, such as custom site design, adding a domain, template upgrades, and so on.
Long live WordPress and small companies like Automattic that find ways to make work meaningful while they contribute to the public good.