The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work
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10%
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You can tell from my chats with Hanni and Barry that they were charming. And smart. And with only text, they conveyed personality and warmth. To work at a remote company demanded great communication skills, and everyone had them.
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Every corporation has the same platitudes for the importance of clear communication yet utterly fails to practice it. There was little jargon at Automattic. No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.
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We all suffer from bias in what we read, believing we see a wide range of ideas when in truth we filter on our politics and beliefs.
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No technique, no matter how good, can turn
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stupid coworkers into smart ones. And no method can magically make employees trust each other or their boss if they have good reason not to.
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The culture of WordPress grew practically, one decision at a time. He and other contributors made many decisions based primarily on what was best for the project, but eventually a philosophy emerged. I interviewed Mullenweg and other contributors to distill that philosophy down to three elements: Transparency. Since all discussions, decisions, and internal debates in the WordPress community are public, little is hidden. The spirit is that if you weren't willing to say something in front of your community, how much conviction could you have in it anyway? Meritocracy. Those who put in more time ...more
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Product creators are 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. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. 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.
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values aren't something you have; they're something you use.
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Anyone can proclaim to believe in anything. The question is how much of their actions reflect those beliefs.
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I will never stop learning. I won't just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there's no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I'll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation.
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I will communicate as much as possible, because it's the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that's insurmountable.
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Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don't work either.
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If the people in a meeting think it's a waste of time, then either they're the wrong people or what's being discussed is not important enough to justify a meeting.
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A company rule was that anyone could join any channel. There were no passwords or restrictions. Often you'd see people on other teams lurking in your channel. And even if you didn't see them, everyone understood that all of the channels were logged, meaning you could go to an internal website and find a searchable history of every conversation ever held in IRC in the company.
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Making good ordered lists is the fundamental thing any effective
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leader does, and it's the heart of popular planning methods like Kanban and SCRUM.
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Picking projects of the right size to fit into two weeks is hard if you don't estimate, and schedules that short preclude estimates.
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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.
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The fundamental mistake companies that talk about innovation make is keeping barriers to entry high. They make it hard to even try out ideas, blind to how much experimentation you need to sort the good ideas from the bad.
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The US and other national armies made similar observations about the magic of small unit sizes, and it's the basis for how they've trained soldiers since 1948.1 Larger groups were less likely to fire their weapons to defend themselves, but if they were trained in small units, their rates of fire increased.
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I couldn't help but consider what Washington Roebling, one of the engineers of the Brooklyn Bridge, once wrote: “Man is after all a finite being in capacities and powers of doing actual work. But when it comes to planning, one mind can in a few hours think out enough work to keep a thousand men employed for years.”
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He told me the central way he'd evaluate me was the quality of what made it out the door. It wasn't about the ideas I had or how I managed schedules. It wasn't how I ran meetings or how well liked I was. Those were all secondary. What mattered was what we shipped. And he told me the only reason anything good ships is because of the programmers.
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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.
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There is nothing wrong with tradition until you want progress: progress demands change, and change demands a reevaluation of what the traditions are for and how they are practiced.
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A central element in Automattic culture was results first.
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What mattered was your output.
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Every tradition we hold dear was once a new idea someone proposed, tried, and found valuable, often inspired by a previous tradition that had been outgrown.
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The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum.
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1. Hire great people. 2. Set good priorities. 3. Remove distractions.
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4. Stay out of the way.
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Instead of vice presidents seeing the problem as a lack of a tool or a secret method, they should realize they're in the way more than they realize.
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Granting authority is more powerful than any software, device, or method.
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But what always mattered most was went on in each employee's mind. We were trusted to figure out which tools supported our work styles individually and as teams.
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Hire Self-Sufficient, Passionate People
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Diversity of skill makes people self-sufficient.
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Self-sufficient passionate people are hard to find.
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Remote work is merely physical independence, and the biggest challenge people who work remotely face is managing their own psychology. Since they have more independence, they need to be masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it's avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.
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To set a regular pace for ourselves, we agreed to the following: Monday: Team meeting in IRC (10:00 a.m. PST, 6:00 p.m. for Peatling). Monday: Everyone would be assigned an MIT (Most Important Thing) to work on. Thursday: Everyone posts their status on our P2. Friday: I post a summary to other leaders on the leads' P2. There was a special P2 just for team leads. Monthly: I e-mail everyone for one-on-one questions about how they were doing.
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This was the minimum amount necessary to function as a team, and it worked well. When it didn't, everyone understood I was granted nag powers and could pester people in Skype who were late with things.
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A trick of leading creative teams is finding creative ways to nag people. You get more mileage if you make people laugh, even if it's at themselves, at the same time you're reminding them of something they've forgotten.
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Only a fool thinks all decisions are made in meetings. To pitch an idea successfully is often possible only in informal, intimate situations.
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To understand who people really are, start a fire. When everything is going fine, you see only the safest parts of people's character. It's only when something is burning that you find out who people really are.
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Today many managers love the saying, “You are what you measure.” They're convinced measurement is the secret to success and seek metrics to track—sometimes called KPIs, or key performance indicators, much like IBM executives did back then. Some companies, including Google, insist on having metrics to evaluate any decision, goal, or feature. Despite the popularity of this belief, it's easy to get lost in the very metrics that are supposed to help you find your way.
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Data can't decide things for you. It can help you see things more clearly if captured carefully, but that's not the same as deciding. Just as there is an advice paradox, there is a data paradox: no matter how much data you have, you still depend on your intuition for deciding how to interpret and then apply the data.
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Put another way, there is no good KPI for measuring KPIs. There are no good metrics for evaluating metrics (or for evaluating metrics for evaluating metrics for evaluating metrics, and on it goes).
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When a culture shifts too far into faith in data, people with great intuitions leave. They'll find employment where their judgment is valued rather than remain as an annoyance in some powerful equation maker's report.
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He frequently linked to charts and tables relevant to the discussion. Although he was not using these as a hammer to end arguments, he regularly referred to data as part of his thinking. He wanted a data-influenced culture, not a data-driven one. He didn't make data the center of the conversation but wanted to ensure they were part of it.
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At the heart of the debate over how to overcome the challenges of shipping good things is an idea referenced in the title of Eric Raymond's book The Cathedral and the Bazaar.1 The book, which is about observations on making software, raises a central question that is relevant to all work: Is it better to invest time in making a big masterful plan or instead to start immediately and figure it out as you go?
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The fear of big mistakes or falling behind schedule is what motivated most of the project management processes used around the world. The more experienced that managers are, the longer the list of bad things they've seen that they're trying to avoid. This is what I call defensive management, since it's designed to prevent a long list of bad things from happening. Defensive management is blind to recognizing how obsessing about preventing bad things also prevents good things from happening or sometimes even prevents anything from happening at all.
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I'd seen this before. The solution is vision. Someone has to define what we're trying to get to and clarify which ideas are both more and less important in completing that vision.
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