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The Year Without Pants, review: Work, but not as we know it

This book describes an ex-Microsoft employee's experience of moving from the software giant to the small, unconventional company behind the WordPress blogging platform.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

If you know nothing else about working at Microsoft, you've probably heard of the infamous stack ranking system, where employees are graded not just on their own performance but on a company-wide grade that puts a certain proportion of people in the lowest 4 and 5 grades. You couldn't get much further away from that than Automattic, the company behind blogging software WordPress, which epitomises the principles of mobile working. It has no offices, unlimited vacation time and very few managers.


If you do most of your work on a computer and you mostly interact with colleagues via email, social networks and web tools, why do you need to be in an office all the time? By doing away with offices, Automattic can hire someone who would do good work but doesn't want to move to San Francisco or Seattle or London, or anywhere else. Usually, remote working fails either because there's a core of people in the office who don't interact with remote workers well, or because managers aren't comfortable dealing with people they can't see. Automattic has no offices for workers to get cliquey in, but it covers the costs of getting together with co-workers every now and then in order to get the advantages of face-to-face working just often enough. And it has very little management — just one leader per team.

How would someone who used to work at Microsoft (on the Internet Explorer team) and left to write about management and innovation, cope with such a different way of working? If you grew up in the old school of management and believe there's a better way, does that work in practice? That's what Scott Berkun set out to discover, as chronicled in his new book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, working as the leader of 'Team Social', a small group at Automattic responsible for — well, whatever social features they want to be responsible for.

Out of the Microsoft office

Berkun alternates between explaining how Automattic works (it's more like a collective of paid volunteers than a traditional company), how his team came together to work on specific features and whether that's better or worse than the way most companies are run. This makes for a slightly odd mix of useful ideas, analysis and anecdotes about people who wouldn't normally be the stars of a book, including WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg.

We see them working in a hotel in Athens or an apartment in New York or the manicured town of Seascape (where The Truman Show was filmed), chatting in IRC and Skype an on a blog system that sounds very like Yammer, and playing shuffleboard, trying to get a limo to Grand Central Station and having running jokes about drinking ouzo even though they don't like it and not having to wear pants to work.

Berkun's account of what it's like to work in a virtual team day in, day out is most enlightening — simply because it's so different from what most employees do.

Those aren't normally things you'd care about when you think about how to run a company or how products are developed, but to Berkun they're as important as the fact that Automattic has no project management or QA system at all, because they're part of the culture that makes the company work. Six sigma, agile, 20-percent time, casual Friday, no-email Monday — if the management theories and bright ideas that work at other companies don't fit with your culture, they're not going to help you. Hardly anyone working on WordPress uses email, but their communication bad habits in the tools they do use are almost exactly the same — reinforcing Berkun's point that it's all about people. That can be frustrating if you're trying to apply the lessons of WordPress elsewhere: the culture works at the company because it works at the company.

Creative abrasion required

He's not uncritical, pointing out frequently that while there's no shortage of passion and motivation inside an agile company like Automattic, where employees are self-directed and empowered to concentrate on what they think matters, there can be a lack of vision for the big picture. Without strong leadership, people may not pick up on the obvious opportunities and small targets may not take you far enough in the right direction. You need the right amount of what Berkun calls 'creative abrasion' (his trademark footnotes provide excellent pointers to more information about this and other concepts) — getting the right balance between soul-destroying administrivia and having so much freedom you never focus on anything.

Sometimes Berkun's throwaway reminiscences about his time at Microsoft are more interesting than the culture at Automattic he's trying to highlight. For example, when he worked there, IE daily builds were classed as 'self-host' (anyone could run them), 'self-test' (run only for testing) and 'self-toast' (they'd destroy any PC you installed them on). And his quotes from Joe Belfiore about evaluating a manager by what the team ships, and remembering that the only reason anything good ships is because of the programmers building it, should be up on the wall at every software company.

There are plenty of lessons to learn from Berkun's year at Automattic too. Although the management principles he outlines could be useful, his account of what it's like to work in a virtual team day in, day out is most enlightening — simply because it's so different from what most employees do. Could you make it work at your own company? That's up to you.


The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work
By Scott Berkun
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
272 pages
ISBN: 978-1-118-66063-8
£17.99 / €21.60

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