Book Review

The year without pants

Before you think the book is about something sleazy, it is about Software Project Management with a fancy title.

Scott Berkun was a former Microsoft manager, in charge of first five releases of Internet Explorer. After which he turned to full-time writing. His earlier books on The Art of Project Management and Myths of Innovation are famous titles. WordPress is the Open Source blogging software that’s powering this very blog of mine. Its used by 60 Million other websites and is used by 22% of top 10 million websites. So when I saw a book by Scott Berkun writing about his experience working for a year+ as a team lead/product manager at “Automattic” which powers WordPress.com, I immediately bought it to my Kindle.

Scott was hired by the founder of WordPress Matt Mullenweg in August 2010 as employee #58 at Automattic.  Automattic is a commercial firm also founded by Matt Mullenweg uses WordPress open source software to provide an online cloud-hosted service of WordPress at WordPress.com with enhancements and additional services.

This is Scott’s first full-time employment after resigning from Microsoft nearly a decade ago and working as a writer/consultant. Scott says his objective to take up the assignment was to experience a “new” age firm’s culture, contrast it with Microsoft’s and to see whether he can follow the advice himself that as a freelance consultant he was giving to his clients. Scott works in Automattic for next 18 months and this book is a first-person narration of that. I like these first-person narrations and biographies on management and technology, as you get to see how others are doing it,  get exposed to alternate ideas and viewpoints. The last few books I read in this genre was The Maruti Story and I am feeling Lucky (Google Employee 59). 

As Scott narrates his first experiences as we get a feeling it is a company that is all counter-culture when it comes to its management style. All the (then) 50 employees were reporting to CEO or Matt directly, there were no managers in between. One of the reasons for Matt in hiring Scott was an experiment in introducing leads to the roughly 10 newly created teams. Automattic employees were mostly working remote from their homes or shared offices or coffee shops from around the globe. This indifference to a location or an office allowed Automattic to hire the best talent out there, which follows the culture of open source development, where a contribution can come from anywhere in the world. As a result, the company relies heavily on online tools including Skype, IRC (yes the old platform) and for Project tracking/Group discussion a WordPress template they call “P2”. Reading about P2, I can see my firm at Vishwak Solutions trying out Microsoft Yammer for similar purposes.

Because of people working across time zones and many comfortable doing multi-tasking Automattic’s employee interactions online tend to be mostly textual (typed) and not even voice/video. For myself who is comfortable with online tools and social, a phone call or a face to face “coffee” meeting is invaluable. Scott claims the company used little of email, which was surprising to me. Even in my small office of 60 people all sitting mostly in our Chennai office, I see email being used for everything from ideas to project tracking.  I am curious to see on this as what works on a Products company may not work on an IT Services company like mine – but this will be a good experiment for me to try out.

After joining the first task Scott gets assigned is to work for a month on their customer support team “Happiness” after a 6 half-a-day training. This idea of having every new employee to work in customer support sounded similar to one that Tony Hsieh follows in his company Zappos. Automattic uses its occasional company meets not for founder speeches, strategy outlining but for individual teams to double-down to code and release a new feature, a concept similar to early days in FaceBook and its hackathon culture. Scott then narrates how he gets his first team members. How they meet up for the first time after working for three months in a team offsite at Athens, Greece. It is at that meeting they plan to develop JetPack, one of the most popular plug-ins for WordPress. I am a big fan and user of JetPack especially iit’sanalytics features that it provides for free even for my self-hosted WordPress blog.

Scott says in Automattic culture there was no real central planning of features, individual engineers being smart work on items they see being talked in P2 by other teams or raised by customers in Happiness tickets. Being a manager myself and an entrepreneur this sounded like a dysfunctional idea and my gut feel says it can never work. Scott outlines the reasons why it works in Automattic. In 2014, Automattic has about 250 employees and I doubt whether that old federated approach still lives anywhere in the company. If in the first half Scott butt-kisses Matt for his brilliance, in the second half he goes about writing to Matt on the limitations of the online collaboration tools used by Automattic. Apart from that, you get a lot of preaching from Scott on management best practices and quotes.

The book was an easy read with sections that made you think. Apart from new online tools of collaboration, reading this book I learned  more about various tools of Automattic that might be of use in my work.


Also published on Medium.