Books: The Year Without Pants

I finished reading Scott Berkun’s book The Year Without Pants. The book tells the tale of Scott’s time at Automattic as the lead of Team Social, which worked on I’ve never read a book about a place that I’ve worked at, so I was curious to see things from his point of view.

I’ve worked at Automattic for over six years, well before Scott started there. We were always on separate teams and I never worked directly with Scott on any projects. As a result some of the things Scott talks about in the book take on a different angle than my own. While reading through the book I made notes on things that I wanted to expand on a bit, provide a different point of reference for, or just struck me as interesting. I’m including the page number for easy reference.

Page 10, talking about how for many people Automattic was the largest company they had ever worked for. I definitely didn’t fall into that camp. Oddly enough I’ve alternated between large and small companies, though not on purpose. Before Automattic I worked at a university that had thousands of employees. Before that I was at small regional ISP that never had more than 10 full time employees. Going back one more job I was at a large international company with more than 10,000 people across the planet. And the job before that was at a company with 20 people. That pretty much covers all of the jobs I’ve had as an adult.

Page 15, about IRC being an ancient chat program. When I mention to other people that we use IRC I’ll often describe it as being “as old as dirt”, meaning 1988. Being old doesn’t change the fact that it is still one of the best solutions to the problem of text based chat.

Page 16, about Automattic demanding great communication skills. In some ways we have to overcommunicate in order to make up for not all being in the same building.

Page 20, Caturday. Long running thing at Automattic from the world of LOLcats. On page 25 Scott shows a screenshot of some stats, and the week ends with Caturday. Some time ago a new hire at Automattic “fixed” the typo by changing it to Saturday. We had to explain the joke, then had them revert it back to Caturday 🙂

Page 25, experts don’t go back to regular jobs because regular jobs are hard. This is worth keeping in mind the next time you read an article or book from a professional expert.

Page 28, on jamming practices from one culture into another. This is a hard lesson to learn and I think most who have learned it have only done so through experience. Culture isn’t something you can easily transplant. Culture, like trust, is hard to build and easy to destroy.

Page 29, about trust. Trust is a really big deal in any company culture. The lack of it usually results in grinding political structures. High degrees of trust can result in the whole being so much more than the sum of the parts.

Page 42, remember how I mentioned that I described IRC being as old as dirt? I’m not the only one who thinks that way 🙂

Page 43, about many things at Automattic being inherited from the open source WordPress project. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that this is one of the core attributes in the formation of Automattic. In many ways it looks like a group of people working on an open source project that just happens to also involve money, sometimes.

Page 46, about the WordPress theme P2. One day I’ll write a separate post about how P2 came to be. Naming things can be hard, and sometimes beyond your control.

Page 48, on the communication break down between P2, IRC, Skype, and email. The ratio varies between teams. For my experience I’d say P2 and IRC are closer to 50 / 50, Skype and email nearly rounding errors. IRC was good for talking about something right now ( synchronous ) and P2 was good for things that weren’t nearly so time sensitive ( asynchronous ) or needed a better way to be tracked.

Page 54, about the size of a company being the ultimate goal. I’ve had conversations with people about companies that stay intentionally small. In the technology field it isn’t often that you come across people who want to have a limit to how big their company gets. I think there is an idea worth exploring in there.

Page 61, regarding killing a project or experiment. It isn’t easy to shutdown something that you’ve put energy into. That said, we could be better about letting go.

Page 104, data-influenced culture versus a data-driven one. I’ll give an example of one experience I had that shows how this worked. A new A / B test was launched around a signup flow and I was fairly certain that the new version was going to do worse because the resulting experience was so bad for the user. It quickly became clear that the new version resulted in more revenue. As a team we talked it over and decided against using the new version, even though it meant giving up some of that increase in revenue. I was happy we were able to agree on that because the user experience in the new version was one I’d never want to use. The results of the A / B test were one part of our decision making process, but it wasn’t the only consideration.

Page 111, vision. Someone having a clear vision of where things are going as a whole is a different dynamic in a company that focuses on individuals being super proactive about coming up with their own ideas on what to work on next. Not that you can’t have it, just that at some point you realize everyone can’t do everything. See also page 126 regarding clarity vs. quantity of ideas.

Page 132, “Without the time machine, all choices have the possibility of being wrong.” I need to put that on a t-shirt. Sometimes the value of making a decision outweighs any of the potential outcomes of the decision itself.

Page 134, on not being tied down too much by a pre-selected process. I’ve been asked before if Automattic uses [ insert current trendy methodology here ]. My answer has always been no. We work out what works best for us as a team, then start moving forward, adjusting along the way as needed.

Page 136, “To start big projects, you must have the capacity for delusion.” Probably also worth a t-shirt. At some point after going through enough big projects you learn that you always underestimate them at the beginning. Then after even more of them you learn that under estimating them is sometimes a good thing, because if you didn’t you would never actually start them.

Page 152, about work environments. When I talk with people about Automattic being a distributed company, I usually end up explaining that like most things it is about trade offs. Distributed vs. non-distributed is often less about which one is better and more about which trade offs you want to work with. The same is true of individuals. Not everyone is going to excel in a distributed situation, and that is fine, it doesn’t make them bad at what they do or who they are.

Page 171, talking about Team Social being stretched even further. When Scott joined Automattic I started working on the Akismet team. Our team was always stretched, with people in Melbourne ( Australia ), California, Utah, North Carolina, and England. From UTC that is +11, -7, -6, -4, and +1 for everyone playing along at home. Not the same broad and even distribution that Team Social ended up with, but not always easy either. But we made it work.

Page 198, a reference to the bike shed problem. Long time FreeBSD users will remember the bike shed post by PHK.

Page 200, on few people being willing to dive in and make changes. That is pretty much the opposite of my experience.

Page 200, about broken windows for good and bad. I think our ability to fix a bug that came up quickly is a good thing. There obviously has to be some balance with other things, but I would never want to lose our ability to go from getting a ping from a friend about something on our service being broken, to being able to reply that it has now been fixed, often in a matter of minutes.

Page 201, some people being afraid to post on a P2 because they think it is a megaphone and everyone is reading it. What is funny about reading that is that before we had P2, there was just one internal blog for all of Automattic and it was rarely used. It was common for it to only get one post per month. P2 changed that dramatically.

Page 225, “No one should be expected to carry the burden of a secret their peers would love to know.” Not worth putting on a t-shirt, but something that every leader should remember.

I could comment on every page in the book, but these were the points that I noted specifically as I read through it.

The book itself is an enjoyable read, and easy to get through. If you’ve ever wondered what things are like at Automattic, The Year Without Pants, is a pretty good window. Just keep in mind that it is from one point of view and that each team has a high degree of flexibility in doing things in a way that works best for them.

If you would rather live it than read about it, Automattic is hiring.