The Year Without Pants

Eric Hall Review of The Year Without Pants

I just finished reading Scott Berkun’s excellent book: The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work (View on Amazon).  I found the book to be both encouraging and challenging at the same time.  The book was encouraging in that I’ve worked most of my 26 years in non-traditional settings.  While I may have had an office physically located with other employees, I rarely used it.  I’ve found that non-traditional work environments energize me.  I also found the book challenging.  It challenged me to think of new ways to communicate, to manage, and to lead.  By way of review, I decided to list my two biggest take-aways from the book.

But, before I jump in to the two biggest take-aways, let me set up the context of the book.  Author Scott Berkun worked for Microsoft for almost ten years.  The team he managed helped to introduce Internet Explorer.  He joined the team at Automattic for 2 years – both to help Atuomattic’s reorganization into a team based structure and to use his experience to write The Year Without Pants.

If you don’t know the company Automattic, let me bring you up to speed.  Automattic was found by Matt Mullenweg (hence the two T’s in the name).  Automattic is the parent company behind one of the internet’s most popular web and content publishing software WordPress.  Automattic manages the website WordPress.com.  WordPress.com users currently produce about 85 million new blog posts that generate 45 million new comments every single month!  Well over 409 million people view more than 21.5 billion pages on WordPress.com every month.  In addition, WordPress.org is the same software that is released to the entire world free of charge (open source).  Current statistics say that WordPress.org software powers 1 out of every 4 websites on the internet.  Obviously, it is an amazingly popular software, trusted by hundreds of millions of people.

But, here are the really incredible stats about Automattic.  Currently they have 644 employees!  In case that sounds like a lot, Facebook has well over 23,000 employees.  And, Automattic has no corporate offices!  None!  All 644 employees work remotely.  50% of the employees are USA based while 50% are based Internationally.  How the company is able to manage 644 remote workers while still maintaining phenomenal growth is at the core of Scott’s book.

While we could write about Automattic and how they have created such meteoric growth, I want to focus on two key take-aways from Scott’s book that I think are relevant to any organization.

Take-Away #1:  Email is bad

Email was first in 1972, over a decade before the internet (TCP/IP protocal) and two decades before the world wide web!  It’s an old system.  And, as such, it simply isn’t a good solution to modern communication.  Reading through Scott Berkun’s book describing how team at Automattic communicated, I was reminded of why.

Email doesn’t keep a record of a conversation for others to see.  As a result, we tend to copy too many people into an email just to be safe.  With a tool such as slack, I can simply jump into a channel and review a conversation any time I want.

Email doesn’t allow people to join nor leave a conversation.  It’s nearly impossible to add in a new person into an email thread.  I can add them to an email response.  But, it’s extremely difficult for that person to read the glut of response with the ever increasing indents.  It’s even harder to move out of a conversation.  Once I’ve been CC’d in an email conversation, there’s no way to leave.  In a more modern tool (I’m going to keep using slack as the example), I can simply leave the channel or the room.  Voila!  No more notifications.

Email can remain a good way to send a message to a person.  When I need to send a single message to a single person, email is a decent tool to use.  However, for any type of group and team communications the 30+ year old tool is simply out dated.

Reading The Year Without Pants, I learned that Automattic employees communicate with amazing effectiveness while rarely using email!  I’m pushing for a new tool for all of my team based interactions.

Take-Away #2:  Get out of the way

At WordPress.com team managers see their jobs as facilitators, not dictators. People are hired for their talents and the job of management is to stay out of talent’s way and guide it when needed.  In other words, employees are treated like adults.  Crazy idea, I know.

According to Berkun, the role of departments such as legal, HR, and even management was to support the creators.  Those who produced were the critical people at Automattic.  The other departments are in service of the creators.  The more I thought about this simple truth, the more I realized how antithetical it was to most work environments.  Typically those who do the production are tightly controlled by superiors.  Any change or deviation requires approval.  Time is tracked, forms are filled out, and behavior is managed.

At Automattic is appears that the opposite holds true.  The true rock starts of the organization or the creators.  The goal of everyone else is to stay out of the way as much as possible.  Meritocracy rules, and employees are evaluated solely on their output.  Simply put: get out of the way!

Want More?  Here’s a bonus links:

If you haven’t read the book yet, I definitely recommend it.  Not only is it a fascinating case study of Automattic meteoric rise, it provides insights that can transform how all of us work.

What do you think?  Is email bad?  What really is the role of management?  Could you survive in a remote work environment?  I’d love your comments and feedback below.

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