Scott Berkun: “The Year Without Pants” | Talks at Google
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Scott Berkun: “The Year Without Pants” | Talks at Google

September 2, 2019

[APPLAUSE] SCOTT BERKUN: Hello. How you guys doing? Good. You guys are awake. You’re all around me. You’re surrounded. I’m surrounded. Which is good. I am wearing pants. Have no fear. Most of you seem to be
wearing pants, as well. As best I can tell. Very good. So I have an unusual
story to tell you. About an unusual book. So as a writer–
so I’m a writer– I make a living writing books. This is my fifth book. And I’m a critic of other
writers, as most writers are. I think that we have a problem
with expertise and punditry right now. That it’s very
easy for people who maybe used to do something
years and years ago and became famous for giving
advice or being experts about things,
arrogantly give advice and write books about the five
ways to be more innovative. Or the ten ways to do this. And they get a lot of
prescriptive advice about things that
they probably haven’t done in a very long time. And I think that’s a problem. And as someone who’s made a
living for the last decade as an author, I’ve
been afraid that I have become victim
of the same thing. So I’ve been looking
for an opportunity to go back into a real job. Of course writing is very
difficult and very real, but it’s not real in the
same sense of actually having to manage a team of
people, and make a product, and try to make revenue
and all those sorts of challenging tasks. Then I thought
that at some point, I should go back and
see how much of what I had written in
other books and advice I had given other people
that I actually practice. So that’s the story behind this
book, “The Year Without Pants.” I spent a year working
for And I’ll tell you more about
WordPress and about what I did there, but this
is an unusual story to tell because the book is
not structured around the ten tactics, or the ten
tips, or the five tricks. Instead, what I wanted
to do with the book was to actually
honestly document what it’s like to be a manager
at a new company on a new team in a culture that is still
figuring out what it is. I don’t know of any
book that has done that. There are many books that you
read that profile companies. And there have been
many books about Google that I’m sure you have read. But those books are typically
written by outsiders. They’re typically
written by journalists. People who are not engineers. People who are not veterans
of start-up companies or making products. And often they have
to trade their sharper words or their more
critical thoughts to get access to write the
book in the first place. So this opportunity
was unusual in that I had no restrictions on
what I could write about. And the story as to how I got
hired is also very interesting. So before I started
this career as a writer, I worked for a decade–
about a decade, nine years– at a little
company called Microsoft. And I worked on a product
called Internet Explorer. I worked on Internet Explorer 1. And I worked there
for about nine years and then I left to write books. And one of those
books happened to be read by the founder
of WordPress. A guy named Matt Mullenweg,
who started WordPress, the open source blogging
platform project in 2003. So he and I knew each other. We’d exchange email
here and there. Every now and then
he might ask me for a little bit of advice
about project management. Or managing teams of people. And at some point he decided
that the company, which up until 2009 had been
completely flat, so of the 50 employees there, they all
reported directly to him. All the developers
and designers, completely flat company. They started to recognize that
there were limitations to that. And that maybe they needed
to try something else. And what they’re going to try
was this radical, crazy idea called teams. Form into teams. But they had never
done this before. They weren’t sure what to do. And part of Matt Mullenweg’s
mad genius notion for how to figure
out how to do this would be to form the
company to about 10 teams. And to pick one person
from outside the company to manage one of those teams. And that person was me. So I was hired to be one of the
first team leads at the company and to help them try to figure
out how to change their culture and how to make a slightly
more structured environment work at the company at all. So That’s my story and if you
choose to tweet or broadcast anything I’m saying,
that’s great. My hashtag, my handler
rather, is berkun and the hashtag
for any discussions of the book while I am
on this tour is #nopants. Which I think is really cool. One Of the pleasures of being
up there and using names for books is if you
pick the right name, you get to come up with
crazy little hashtags and other jokes. So I take great pleasure in
that and I hope that you do, as well. So let me tell you a
little bit about WordPress. How many of you have
heard of WordPress? Just sanity check. How many of you– I shouldn’t
ask the second question. I won’t ask that question. So WordPress has
had enormous success in part because of
it’s open source roots. Currently, it has about
70 million websites that run on WordPress. It’s about 1 in 5 of all blogs
and websites in the world are powered by WordPress., which
is where I worked, is actually a
corporate entity that runs WordPress in
a hosted format. WordPress’s software is free. WordPress where you go to get free hosting, as well.
recently passed Yahoo! to be the 8th most
popular trafficked website in the United States. So is
amazingly successful. And it’s continuing to grow. It gets about 4 billion
page views a month, just to give you
guys a sense of scale I know you guys all know
about these sorts of numbers and metrics and how that
compares to other popular web properties. So a lot of the interesting
things and bizzaro things I’m going to tell you about
how worked and the experiment and how it
went with me working there, that there are a
lot of start-ups and small
entrepreneurial companies that do crazy, wacky things. It’s very popular for Fast
Company or Newsweek magazine to write stories about these
cute little start-ups that have crazy ways of working. But I offer you these
statistics not to impress you about WordPress or anything,
but just to represent the fact that this is not some jokey,
cute little start-up that just has nothing to lose. The company has been in
existence since 2005. So this is a stable business
that’s worked for a long time. And the fact that
they’re continuing to experiment and try new
things, I think is admirable. At least admirable. So this is the rundown of
all of the unusual things that I had to try to
figure out how to navigate. So the first is that no
one there uses email. No one uses email. Everyone gets an email account. There’s not some
mandate that says, thou shall not send email. But everyone has an email
account, but almost no one uses it. So in the year and a half that
I worked at, 90% or so of all the email
that I sent or received was with people
outside the company. Other partners,
or other customers that I had to work with. And that’s kind of mind
blowing if you think about it. You guys probably spend
a lot of your time in Gmail, you spend a lot
of your time sending mail, reviewing mail, and all that. Most of the modern
workforce does. And they completely
work in a different way. I’ll talk more
about specifically how they do that in a second. Second, everyone works remotely. And that’s one meaning of the
title “The Year Without Pants.” So the entire
company, there’s now about 200 employees
that work there. I was hired as employee
number 58 or so. So the book covers the time when
the company was about 55 people to about 120. But from the origins
of the company, everyone worked remotely. So it’s built into the culture. That every new hire
it’s assumed you will work from anywhere on
the planet that you wish. It does not matter,
nobody cares. The company is
naturally very diverse. Geographically and in
terms of time zones. There’s people working
in every time zone. So at any time, no matter
where you are in the world or what time zone you’re in,
you can log into the chatroom and you’ll find other
people that are actually working at the same time
as you somewhere else. There are very few
rules, obviously. The fact that
there’s remote work, by default, eliminates a
lot of the normal structure and process, and procedure. Even if you wanted to
be very micromanage-y, it’d be hard to do. Simply because you don’t have
control or even predictability about when people are
going to be online and where they’re going
to be working from. They use what’s called,
the fancy word for it is continuous deployment. So another reason why
they’re able to get away with so much autonomy
is that is a live service. And they have very
few restrictions about how features launch. So if you’re a
designer or developer, there’s not some
review board for how do you pitch ideas
for features, or how you decide what bugs you’re
going to fix this week, it’s very self-directed. And autonomous. Which means that there’s never a
large dependencies between code bases. There’s very rarely
a huge schedule that’s going to block
some work from being done. Which eliminates a lot
of the normal politics you have in most workplaces. So I’m going to talk to for
another 10 or 15 minutes about how some of
this stuff worked and what my experience was like. But since you guys have a
fascinating culture, as well, you guys are on the cooler
end, and more liberal end, and future-thinking end about
how workplaces should work. I know that. So I’m going to
talk for about 10 or 15 minutes just about to
give you more of the story. And then open the
floor for questions. So you should start thinking
now about what specific things you hoped I would
talk about and if I don’t cover that in
the next 10 minutes, that’s what the
microphones will be for. Cool? Not that you guys really
have a choice in the matter, but that’s how
we’re going to roll. So one reason why this
project was fascinating for me as a writer, most the
books I’ve written took about a year to write. Research and
everything included. This project took
me three years and I had to actually go and work at
a company for a year and a half in order to actually
do the stuff that would be in the book. So this was a real big
investment of time and energy. And one of the main reasons
I was interested in this is I think that there’s
fundamental problems with the workplace. With the modern workplace. With the knowledge workplace. I think that there are
things that are broken. And it’s not that hard
to find evidence of this. To find data that
supports that argument. There was a recent
study by Gallup. The Gallup polling agency
of American workers. This was done, I
think last year. And the study was
focused on engagement. Which is an unusual
thing to try and measure. Engagement was a
self-reported evaluation of how engaged people
were with their job. How engaged they were. And about 70% of the people
who responded to this survey and participated said they
were not engaged at work. About 30% of that number said
they were actively disengaged. Actively disengaged. That means you’re
not even faking being interested in
what you’re doing. [LAUGHTER] That’s what that means. That means you’re
like a brain surgeon and you’re operating
with you’ve got a scalpel in one hand
and the other hand you’re playing Angry
Birds or something. That’s what actively disengaged. So that’s about a
third of the workforce. And if you think about the
experiences you have in life with people who you know who
work at other places, people you experience in your daily
life at the coffee shop or at the insurance
agency, it show. We all have these
experiences with people where they are clearly
not interested in what they’re doing. Now I know from
my own experience, I’ve had a fair number of
lousy, lousy jobs in my life. I’ve done telemarketing,
I’ve been a waiter. Then all sorts of odd
job just to make it through college and whatnot. And I know that some of
those jobs, I was engaged. Not all of them, but
some of them I were. And it depended on
who I was working with and who I was working for. So I look at this number as
an indictment of management. As a discipline. That this means there’s
something fundamentally broken about the basic notion
of how managers function and how they evaluate
their own work. And so, I was
interested in going to work at
for a bunch of reasons. First, it was a culture
that had no managers. Up until the point I was
hired, there was no such thing. And they were experimenting
with introducing a layer of management. Which is an unusual
situation to observe, much less participate in. And second, having had previous
experience as a manager, most of my career
at Microsoft was spent as a team
leader kind of guy. I was interested
to see what I could do to bring the good parts of
what good managers do and see if I could possibly use
that in a valuable way inside the culture. So that’s the story of the book. The book follows
my year of trying to hey, do any of these things
that I have in my toolkit actually matter anymore? Do they work? And the book follows me
experimenting and trying things out and failing in many cases. Succeeding in others. And eventually arriving
at some conclusions about how the function of management
in these nontraditional more employee centered environments. There’s good reasons why
management is so flawed. The primary one being that
the origins of management as a profession come
from the industrial age. And it was the robber baron
era of the industrial age that funded most of the major
business schools, at least in America. Not all of them,
but many of them. Vanderbilt, the Oil
Barons, Rockefeller, these are the people that funded most
of the major business schools that we have. And those industries,
banking, oil, railroads, most of the work that needed to be
done was industrial age work. So the central point of what
was thought to be creative work was done by management. So it’s no surprise the people
who come from MBA schools are largely trained
at executives are the most important
and central visionary force in any organization. And that may be true if
you’re managing people who are doing repetitive work. Who are in a factory
and they are basically applying Taylor’s time
and motion studies to how many widgets they can
make per minute or per hour. You could argue that maybe
that stuff make sense there, but as we have moved
into this knowledge age where most people
are making things, could be writing code, or
designing software, or writing blog posts, or it could
be making documents, or spreadsheets, but when
people are making things, that centricity on executives
I think is dubious. That’s rarely where the most
important visionary work is going to happen anymore. And there’s a lot of evidence
that support for the theory that innovation and progress
always happens on the margins, it happens on the people
who have the least at stake. So this notion that we’ve
inherited about what managers do and how they work
I think is flawed. And I wanted to
investigate that. The other interesting question,
it’s probably the most popular thing that
and Automatic is the name of the
company that runs is this
notion of remote work. It’s the question that
comes up the most. Right now, about
20% of all people who work in professional
jobs work remotely. And that number’s been climbing. And will probably
continue to climb. So right now it’s about 1 in 5. And if you consider
the number of companies that have liberal
remote work policies, where you’re allowed to work
from home one day a week. Or a few days a month,
the number’s even larger. And I think as tools
get better and better and there’s more things where
the work is done primarily through computers, I think this
number will continue to climb. There’s lots of
workplaces that I’ve been talking about the book now. It’s been out for just a few
weeks, but I’m on book tour right now so I got to lots
of places like you guys and I talk about in the book. And there’s lots of companies
who are just very freaked out by this remote work notion. And I am actually not a
super zealot about it. I don’t think everyone
should work remotely. But I think the
questions that it raises are really good
about why should you care about where people are. You should care about
how productive they are. And if they can be productive
on a jeep on safari in Africa that happens to have good Wi-Fi,
and the code they check in and the writing they do,
whatever their job is good, why should you care? If their coworkers are happy
with the collaboration that’s going on, why does it matter? So a lot of these
places where people get these very defensive
responses about remote work, I usually ask them
a simple question. What percentage of
your time in an office is spent working with
your coworkers purely through a computer? And they think about
it and it’s high. 50%, 60%. It’s really high. And I’m thinking email, anything
you do through a web browser. Could be a chatroom, it could
be a message board, Skype, or even on the telephone,
which is really one of the first kinds of
remote work we’ve ever had. It’s high. So if your work is mostly
mediated through a computer, your location is irrelevant. Does not matter. For the 30% or 40% of the
time that you actually need to be at a whiteboard
together, or at a meeting together, fine. But for the majority
of your time, if it’s spent through computers,
which most workplaces are. This number should not
be that surprising. You’re already
doing remote work. If you’ve ever had the
experience where you’re in a conference room where
one person is talking and the other 12
people in the room are staring at their laptop,
who here has had that happen? Most of you, right. What is going on there? You have one person talking,
12 people on their laptops doing something else, that
could be entirely done remotely. Anyway, so that’s the other
big question that comes up. 20% that number’s on the rise. So I had all of these
questions coming in to taking on this project. One was personal about my
own figuring out my relevance as an expert and
wanting to challenge myself to see how
much I practiced. Then there’s all these other
questions that come up. What other work
conventions do we have today, even in successful
workplaces, that make no sense or have no data to support them? Working 9:00 to 5:00 is one. I have yet to see a study
that says working 9:00 to 5:00 makes you more productive. There’s lots of evidence
to say that it doesn’t. Because usually that
means a commute. So that means 35 minutes,
40 minutes, an hour a day spent in frustration. Spent sacrificing time
just to get to a place. Where you’re going
to stare at a screen. I wanted to ask that question. Then there are other ones
too about dress codes. I’m talking to you guys
in the software industry and I can tell by looking at
you, you guys are well dressed, but we’re in the
software industry here and dress code is not really
an important problem anymore. For most the working
world, that’s not true. Dress codes are
still something that is mandated in most workplaces. Then other things
like hierarchy, and meetings, this
question about email, I had all these big questions
I wanted to try and answer. So I’m going to give you
some of those answers and then I’ll open the
floor for questions. So this picture is my
team when I was hired. So this was taken in
September of 2010. And when I was hired,
my team was small. We had three developers and
we were all in the same place. What’s interesting, of course,
we’re all in the same place and what are we doing? We’re staring at screens. And on these screens,
we’re actually chatting with each other. This was a common occurrence. I’m sure it’s been a common
occurrence for you guys, as well. What’s unusual about
this photo, and what you can’t tell from
the photo is that it looks like we’re in some
kind of dumpy apartment with bad lighting. We were not in a dumpy
apartment with bad lighting. We were in a dumpy hotel room,
I’m sorry dumpy hotel lobby with bad lighting. And we happen to
be Athens, Greece. The reason why we were in
Athens, Greece is very simple. The people in this
room, all these guys who worked on my team were all from
different parts of the world. So Mike Adams on the
left was from California, Andy Peatling in the
middle was from Ireland, and Beau Lebens on the
right was from Australia. And the company
supported the notion that periodically, every
team should get together to be face to face to capture
all the intangibles you can’t get remotely. So even for a
company that’s 100% distributed and is a poster
child for remote work, there’s this believe from
the founders of the company, periodically you need to refresh
all these little things you get only when you’re together. Having the team
newly formed, no one had done one of these
meet-ups before, so we decide to go
and try to figure out how these things
would even work. And this is that photo. Now the challenge I had with
this team of developers, so I’m actually
not a developer, I have a background
in Computer Science, I knew halfway through my
Computer Science degree that I would never
be a good developer. So I tried to find
something else to do. I learned about UI design
and Project Management and that’s allowed me to
be a manager at Microsoft. I had enough of a
technical background to collaborate and
evaluate developers, but I’ve never really been one. So my role on the team, I
didn’t write a line of code. My job instead was that a
meta-job of figuring out what is a lead need in the
structure of this company and if I could figure
out how to do that, can I teach other lead at the
company to do the same thing? Now this was a huge challenge. This was a terrifying challenge. How do I figure out how a
team should work and add some kind of structure? Because that’s what a team is. Into a young, very
non-corporate, chaotic, developer-centric,
autonomous culture. What is my approach going to be? What tricks am I
going to employ? What tactics? Most of management
literature is just methodologies
where you just tell people what to do and put
boxes around everything. And I knew none of
that stuff would work. I didn’t like any of
that stuff anyway. But I knew none
of it would work. So I thought really
hard about this before I got hired to come up
with some kind of playbook. And the answer that I came up
with was embarrassingly simple. That I needed to provide
clarity and trust. Clarity and trust. It seems underwhelming that
this was my grand strategy just these two things. But I was convinced that part
of why that 70% engagement number in the general
workplace is so low is because managers failed
to provide these two things. They failed to earn the
trust of their employees, they failed to trust
their employees as well, and they failed
to provide clarity about why certain
decisions are made. So this is my playbook
in my approach. And when I was first
hired, the first thing I did as a lead was nothing. I decided that in
order to earn trust, I had to be patient
and just listen. So for the first few weeks
that we worked as a team, I didn’t really do very much. I was basically the scribe. I was a scribe. It was the only tool I
could use to earn trust. We’d have a conversation
in IRC or on Skype and I’d write up a summary and
I’d post it on our team blog. And I’d show that I
reflected what I heard, I distilled it down. And little by little, I
showed that I was not a moron and that I’d been
paying attention and I could think well. As management goes, that’s
a good curve to get over. I’m sure you’ve had
managers at your career where they didn’t
quite meet those bars. And then little by
little, I converted from being the scribe,
to being someone who initiated conversations. And then initiated
how we make decisions. And then eventually,
I tried to work my way to having enough trust
that I was effectively the leader of the team. And help decide the
direction and decisions and which things we
would do or not do. The technology here,
this is the thing that people usually
most want to know. Is how did we actually work. What was a day like? What was a week like? How did you get around email? And there were
three simple tools that we use for most
of our communication. IRC, Internet Relay Chat,
ancient program from like 1985. Very popular in open
source communities, which is why WordPress used it. Two is Skype. And three was blogs. Also not a surprise,
given that is a blogging company. Of course you’re
going to use the thing that you think
everyone should use. Those are the three tools. So 90% of our communication,
my communication with the team and the company
went through these three tools. IRC, which is in the photo
all the way in the left is effectively the hallway. That’s how I tried
to map my outsider experience at WordPress. It’s the hallway. It’s where you go to
interact with people you wouldn’t normally meet. The whole company’s
usually there. Whoever’s working. You can go in there and talk
to anyone about anything. If you have a
question or some bug you’re trying to
fix or something, you’re trying to track
down, you go in there and you ask a question and
someone invariably be, hey, yeah sure I’ll help you
take a look at that. It’s also where you go to have
social chats where something’s going on in the news,
you can go in there and have a conversation. It’s the hallway. That’s where the
serendipity happens. And that’s where
meetings often happened, as much as there were
meetings, which there were not very many of them. Skype was the equivalent
to one on one conversations and communication. So all the interactions,
or most of the interactions I had with my team,
would often be in Skype. Certainly, any
conversation I have with someone who’s on my team
where it was manager employee conversation, it was about
performance, or critique, or feedback, that’d
be done in Skype. And then blogs was
the dominant medium for all team interaction. So all the stuff that often goes
on an email, where there’s long discussion threads
about should we design it this way or that way? What about this? Most of that stuff
was done on blogs. Instead of being
in an email thread, it would be in a comment thread. The upside of this was that
all this stuff, certainly IRC and the blogs, are visible. It’s transparent. So anyone at the company
could go and read any of these things. Unlike email, it’s all
searchable and archival. Stuff lives on forever. [INAUDIBLE] you don’t
have to do anything. You get all of that for free. The downside was that
all the stuff is public. All the stuff is
visible to everybody. So I had some
challenges, and some of the critique that I have
with the culture of the company was that I found it was
hard to get truly, brutally honest critiques of work. Because people did
not want to look mean in front of
the whole company. It was also hard for
people, in some cases, to be truly expressive
of their opinions because they knew this
stuff would live on forever. And I could talk
more about how I tried, at least on my own team,
to overcome those challenges. Anyway, technologically
speaking, this is the story. This explains the
remote work process, it explains how we got
away with not using email. And it should be
maybe a mild surprise, these are all free tools. There’s no magic here. It’s like there was some special
video conferencing software that they used or invented. These are all cheap
and fairly old tools. Which I think is incredibly
telling about many answers to questions about why certain
workplaces function and why certain workplaces don’t. That it’s not about
the management method, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the culture. The culture being
the basic units of interactions and
assumptions in protocols that people have
naturally about how they interact with each other. So it turned out that at, I was shocked. That one of the biggest shocks
I had was everybody writes well. Everybody writes well. It was shocking. It was mind-blowing. I never thought that
would be a secret. Because every company in the
world has the same rhetoric. We are excellent communicators. We write clearly and
which, most people don’t. But that explains why
there was so little need for structure, why these
tools could be so lightweight. Because the tools can
never do the hard parts. Of having people have high
reading comprehension. Or people who are willing
to write generously, and carefully, and thoughtfully. Every team had its own blog. There’s a special theme,
WordPress theme that they use called P2, which solves
many the annoyances of blogs in terms of teamwork. So the P2 theme which is a
publicly available open source theme, works sort
of like Twitter. You go to the P2 or the team
blog, there’s a box at the top, you can type it whatever
it is you’re working on and you hit post. So there’s no dashboard or any
other admin UI to deal with. And that allows for very quick,
very fast, very lightweight updating and posting of things. And also they were
very personalized. So once the teams
were formed, there was this question of whether
teams would work at all. I think the P2 is the fact
that every team had one. Enabled some kinds of
tribalism to start. Where teams would
start to embellish, we’re all designers
and developers, they’d start to embellish
their team blogs. And that helped team cultures
to develop on their own. So I’m going to wrap up and
open the floor for questions in just a second. The story about my
experience there, I think is important not because I
advocate people copy everything that does, but
the example and the questions that they ask I think
are very important. About questioning
the assumptions we have about how work is done. And also forcing the
responsibility or making visible the responsibility
that managers and executives have to experiment
and be open to trying different ways of working. To be open and try
different ways of working. Remote work just being
one example of that. Any executive who
tells me that they have a good performing
employee who said, I want to try to work remotely
and they say, I would never let them do that, I
think is an idiot. I think they’re a fool. What do they have to
lose by experimenting and let someone try
working remotely? If they can actually work
remotely and perform just as well, that’s an advantage. You now have an employee
that is really happy doing the same amount of
work and will continue looking for ways to
work better and smarter. Which is what every executive
and manager should want. And maybe it’s not
working remotely. Maybe it’s trying to work
with less email centricity. Or maybe it’s trying to work
where a different tool was used to communicate or to manage
progress or whatever. There’s so much resistance
to even experimentation and trying. And I think that’s
the fundamental lesson I hope people get
from reading the book and hearing the story
of me experimenting. And them experimented but having
me come in as an employee. These numbers I think
are going to get worse in terms of employee engagement. I also think the numbers
of remote workers is going to go up. And those two trends
along makes an interesting example
that I hope people study. So that’s my talk. Thank you for listening so far. [APPLAUSE] SCOTT BERKUN: Thank
you, Mr. First Clap guy. It’s an important role. So I’ll open the
floor for questions. You guys came here. I am an open book, literally. So I will answer any
question that you’re brave enough to ask. Yeah? AUDIENCE: So was it
your experience that with this
nontraditional workplace that 100% of your employees
were engaged and productive? And if not, how did
you deal with that? SCOTT BERKUN: I think that
engagement was very high there. I couldn’t give you a
number because it wasn’t the kind of place that did
employee surveys and polls and whatnot. But certainly, my
team was very engaged. I had a really solid team. The company because of
its open source roots and because of how
they hire, engagement is a different story. So I should tell
you how they hire. Because it’s very unusual. And really clever. They don’t do interviews. Instead, and this will
blow your mind, it’s crazy. They hire you by trial. So if you make it
through referrals and they decide that they
want to possibly consider hiring you, you are
given an actual project that needs to be done. And hey, here you go. Go do it. Here’s access to some of our IRC
chatrooms, some of our blogs, some of our code base. You have access, go. We’ll pay you a little bit
of money, go build the thing. And that’s a radical idea in
the tech community, the business community, it’s radical. Oh, it’s too expensive,
it’s too painful. Then you think about how you
hire people in your own life. Like if you were having a
wedding and you wanted a cake, you wouldn’t go to the
bake and go, why don’t you tell me about your strengths
and weaknesses as a baker? Tell me about a baking
project that went wrong and what you’ve learned from it. Like you would
never, ever do that. You’d say, make me a cake. I’m hiring you to make
cakes, make me a cake. So they do the same thing. And because they are a tech
company, most of the employees are either designers,
or developers, or writers, people
who make stuff. They say, OK, go make stuff. And that process eliminates
many of the challenges that most workplaces do. Because a lot of the
trial projects fail. Some people are not
willing to put in the time. They already have a job, they
don’t want to do more work. To do a trial project, and trial
projects are usually small. But it’s going to take
a couple of weekends, it’s going to take some time. A lot of people
who say they want to work there, they just
give up on the trial. So that’s about engagement. How interested really
are you in WordPress? How interested are you
really in blogging? And maybe you think
you are because you’ve heard about remote work or some
other attribute of the company, but really, here’s a project. And that project,
that trial project also helps with filtering
people out there who are not suited
to be remote workers. Trial projects,
there is no schedule. No one tells you how much of
your trial to get done today. Which is the same way
the culture works. Even though we have teams
now, and I was a lead, it’s a very, very
hands-off culture. It’s Assumed that because you
are a developer or designer, you know how to
manage your time. You know how to get stuff done. You have a basic ability
to time management. So people who fail
the trial project are probably people who wouldn’t
make good employees anyway. Other questions? AUDIENCE: Perhaps you
were a little too generous to the existing
management paradigm. I mean if you look at the
auto companies that do well, they’re places like
the Japanese ones which get 2000 pieces of advice
from the floor each year, and through a
continuous improvement, get a better engagement. Your comments? SCOTT BERKUN: Sure. I think engagement is
largely about respect. And there’s lots
of workplaces where employees know
they’re not respected. It’s a very basic emotional
anthropological principle. I don’t think you need any
sort of fancy management method to know that. It’s about treating
people like people. And when people are
treated like people they tend to behave better. Because they feel better
about how meaningful the work they’re doing is. So you could look
at Toyota, which has a history of implementing
a lot of these methods that the US auto companies have
been trying to emulate or copy or whatnot, but we’re
prone to copying the method and believing that
there’s something magical in the techniques. It’s a very logical
view of the world. But there’s just something
natural and human about being willing
to treat people well. And that’s part
of the principles that I learned at about not just the platitude of it, but
you’re hired, you’re smart, you’re an adult. Why would we treat
you in a way that pretended like you’re a child? Which is how most
workplaces operate. Most restrictions
that workplaces have are very parental. Oh, that’d be bad for
you if you did that, so we’re not going
to let you do that. And that’s the
logic that they use. And we’re executives
and managers, so therefore, we
should be parenting. That’s our job. If we are not creating rules and
structures, what are we doing? There’s a sort of
nervous energy, I think, that managers have that
if they don’t feel like they’re active, they feel like
there’s something wrong. And therefore,
that’s a huge part of what leads to how much
micromanagement there is. They believe that
they have to be actively managing and
managing and controlling. Which defeats the purpose
of the organization itself. Yes, sir? AUDIENCE: So
WordPress is a company where almost everybody
works remotely. I’d love to hear your thoughts
on how to make a company culture work where
say, most people are in an office and some
people work remotely. Like how do you
get the people who are working remotely plugged
in with the conversation. Like what additional
things do they need to do? And people in the
office need to do? SCOTT BERKUN: So that
is a great point. That when you have a company
that has 100% or mostly remote, some of the
challenges are easier because everyone’s remote. So there’s no central
office with a bunch of people who are
remote workers. But what that means though is
that during the year and a half that I worked there, we
had every different flavor. That in some cases,
we’d all be remote. That was the majority. Sometimes we’d all be together. Sometimes we’d have
these meet-ups, but there’d be two or three of
my team that couldn’t make it. So we’d try, I ended up
with every different dynamic that I had to figure out. My answer is that there has
to be someone, at least one person, who takes into
account how much is not made– let me think about
this for a second. How much of what
goes on in the office is not manifested all digitally. Someone needs to be
thinking about that. Having had the experience,
or having thought about it, if I’m the only remote
worker on a project, we have our meeting on
Google Hangout or whatever. We have our meeting. Now I’m in the meeting,
I’m like, yeah I’m engaged, I get what’s going on. Then the next day,
stuff happens and I’m like, what the hell’s going on. And what happened is after that
meeting, or that [INAUDIBLE], there was some
other conversation in the hallway where
people go, oh, we shouldn’t do x, we should do y. And they start doing y. Meanwhile, I’m a
thousand miles away thinking we’re still doing x. So nobody thought
about how this stuff has to be reflected so the
other remote workers can see it. Now usually what happens, if
you’re the sole remote worker, you end up becoming
like Sherlock Holmes. Where you’re constantly
investigating, you’re doing like
investigative journalism, you’re trying to track down. Hey, did you guys meet after? What happened? You’re constantly in this mode
of fear that there’s stuff you need to know that you don’t. So the solution is
there has to be someone that is in the office,
probably whoever the lead is. Whoever has more accountability
for the project, who’s ensuring that that person does
not have to be Sherlock Holmes. That they’re getting
advice and tips and insight into what they didn’t
capture, because they’re not in the same building. That that stuff gets reflected. The easiest way to do that
is if the manifestation of the project is digital. So we had these habits,
the P2, our blog, that was the repository for
all of our conversations and all of our decisions. So even when two
of us might meet, our team eventually had eight
or nine people, if two of us happened to be the same
city at the same time and we did some work
together at a whiteboard, as soon as we were done,
we’d go and post on the blog. Hey, Fred and I just
met for an hour, here’s what we just
discussed and decided. So even though
people weren’t there. They at least understand
something has changed. And didn’t just go, Scott,
how could you guys meet without– OK, and then we’d
have a conversation about it. So the burden is
on the people who are in the same shared
space to document. AUDIENCE: Makes
sense, thank you. SCOTT BERKUN: Yeah, sure. AUDIENCE: So I just want to
point out one more thing. So Google has a lot
of remote offices, so a lot of the insights that
you’ve just shared with us and they’re in your
book are very relevant even though a lot of us
are not working from home. I think a lot of
people would agree that the relationship between
Mountain View and New York and other remote offices
sometimes reflects. SCOTT BERKUN: Sure, yeah. Yes, sir. AUDIENCE: I wonder if
you have any thoughts about the issues of scale. I mean I don’t know what the
headcount at WordPress was, but I assumed it was
probably much smaller than a place like Google. Do you think that
a model like that could scale up too
many thousands? SCOTT BERKUN: Yeah,
I think they it can. I think scale is an
interesting question. This is one of the most common
questions I’ve gotten so far. Just to give you the numbers. So when I was hired in 2010, I
was employee number 58 or so. And the time that I left, which
was 2012, the company was 110. And now they just crossed 200. As best I can tell,
at 200 there’s no signs of scale
affecting any this. And I don’t think that it will. I think that you think
of a product unit at any organization,
software wise or otherwise, a product unit
is about 100 to 200 people. You also have
Dunbar’s number, which is like 250, which says– I
think that number’s probably a sweet spot. I could imagine if the
company continues to grow, which it probably will. That there may end up
being product units that are about 150 to 200 people. And there’d be multiple ones. And at those levels in those
units, it would work fine. The challenge with them become
do you have now executives? Like another level of hierarchy? The culture’s very
resistance to hierarchy. What would those people do? They’re not makers anymore. So now they had this very strong
notion that leads were roles. It was not a profession
to be a manager. A lead was a role. And you need to be in
that role for a while, but you should have
some other skill set. Valve, the game company,
has a similar notion. That you’re hired because you’re
skilled in at least one thing. So I think that would
be the challenge. The other challenge, the other
way they get around this is, again, they do
continuous deployment. So there’s never this
huge dependency tree. And that’s what usually
causes problems at scale. Because you have a
group of 300 people that are waiting for this team
of 20 to get something done. And that creates all these
logistics and planning and any bureaucracy around that. And they avoid that because
everything is almost always live. It’s very rarely a
huge pile of work that is waiting to be deployed. AUDIENCE: So it’s actually
a two part question. So the scale example, actually,
I think a lot of people were thinking about. Its fine when you think
of a small company, but what if WordPress starts
releasing other products? Like how does accounting,
HR, how does it all work? And like the concept
of hiring by trial is fine because of
the field they’re in. How would that work? Like how did you
interact with HR? What if you had an issue
with something else? It’s fine if you’re
working development and you could do it
offline, and like sync up. But HR and things like that. And the second question
I had is how do you evaluate performance? SCOTT BERKUN: OK, so
the first question I don’t really know
how to answer that. I mean I think first and
foremost, forget Most things and most
companies don’t scale well. Like most companies fail. Most companies go out
of business in a year. Some crazy statistic
right there. Most companies don’t scale well. You happen to work for one
that has scaled really well, that’s abnormal. That’s unusual. So the same challenges
that any organization has to grow and deal
with growth and scale, those are big challenges
for any company. It’s not clear yet how remote
work factors into that or not. That’s really the best
answer that I can give. From my experience
working there, it seemed like
because of how much emphasis is placed on
employees, which I think could be said about Google’s
culture, as well, that diminishes risk of scale. There’s very little belief that
added a layer of management would solve any kind of problem. The second question
about performance. This is a weird,
fascinating thing. I still haven’t quite
rationalized in my head. There’s a bunch
of these questions that the book as someone
trying to be a manager, I was an outsider
and the book follows me trying to sort some
of this stuff out. Some of it I still
haven’t completely sorted out how I feel about it. Very complicated. But the performance thing. so the performance
thing, about two months into my tenure at
the company, my team was actually together
in the same place and the same physical
location for the first time. And we talked about some
stuff and it went fine. And I had enough
trust, I thought I could start asking some
of these bigger questions. I asked my team,
I asked them, how do you know if you’re
doing a good job? And they all looked at each
other and shrugged and went, I don’t know. I was, OK. At the same time,
that’s a bizarre answer, I kind of expected it. When you have an
open source project, you inherit a whole bunch
of values that are uncommon. A lot of the people who
get hired at the company believe in this project. And they worked on
it as a volunteer. It was something
they did anyway. And now they’re hired and get
paid well to work on a project that they believe in anyway. A project they would help along,
even if it wasn’t their job. So they’re not motivated
by getting a scorecard. They’re not motivated
by getting promoted. There’s not even a lot
of emphasis really, there’s some emphasis,
but not a lot of emphasis, certainly much less than
your typical company, on getting raises. People decide that
they want to work here after the trial
and all that stuff because they really like
the work life balance culture that it offers. That you can work
anywhere you want. No one cares. No one cares about your hours. There’s that much
independence and you’re allowed to be good
at what you do. So because people are so
happy with that trade, and it’s part of why
they chose to work there. These are not the performance
and raises and bonuses, all that stuff does
not come up much. Now that may be something that
changes five years from now when the company maybe
isn’t growing as much. Which is not as much free
reign about what you work on, but that remains to be seen. Anyway, I worked at Microsoft
for nine years, a decade, as an author. I visit lots of companies. I go to lots of places, big
companies, small companies. I’ve never seen a
place where people were so happy with the total
trade offs of working there. These people just
they like what they do and they love how
they’re treated. And they like the trade. Their lives are good. And they feel they get
that good life because of the unusual choices that
Matt Mulleweg and Tony Schneider at the company have made. That was at least
my experience there. So their retention’s really
high for that reason. Some people may
want more structure and may want a bigger
house and that’s their focus for why
they have a job. They probably wouldn’t choose
to go through the trial. Because they realize
their culture isn’t focused on those things. Yeah, sure, the mics are open. AUDIENCE:So the follow-up would
be I think some of the things– there’s a part
about being happy, but then there’s also part
about pushing yourself. Like a lot of times
in your career, you get pushed into a stressful
situation and you make it out of there, so you know
you’re a better person but, if I always wanted to be
happy, I’d never force myself– SCOTT BERKUN: You’re right. Happy is the wrong word. Fulfillment I think
is a better word. But I should say though, that
because these are open source cultural roots, on an
open source project , no one’s ever really
forcing you to do anything. It’s a volunteer project. And there are certain
pressures depending on what responsibilities
you’ve take on. But any open source
project always has the flavor of volunteerism. And that’s just rooted in how
the company culture is set up. No one really ever, except
in certain situations, that’s not the fundamental driving
force as an executive, say, we must get this done
by Friday otherwise x, or y, or it’s not like a sports
team where there’s, we must get points tonight. It’s that Microsoft
was more like that way. Most American companies have
more of that spirit in them. This culture was not like that. And for better and for worse. I don’t mean to offer
it as idealized. I probably would have
more of that personally. That there was more
of like a clear goal. We had a this high
pressure situation. I probably would’ve
liked more of that. One of the challenges
in the book was one project
that we worked on was a project called Jetpack,
which was actually plug-in for WordPress that’s
an important plug-in, but it had to be done by
a certain date and time. Which no other project that
my team worked on had to do. So that was a
challenge to figure out how does this company and
this team that’d never worked on a structured project,
or worked on a release cycle, how could we figure
out how to do that? So there’s two chapters in
the book that are all about me trying to figure out how
to put into place some kind of structured process
for making that happen. Yeah? Last call for
questions, anybody else? One more question. AUDIENCE: This is maybe a
quick follow-up on that. It’s open source, but I don’t
know the exact business model. But at some point,
you’re hosting, you’re allowing people to host
their blogs with and you have these IRC servers. So you have some amount of cost? SCOTT BERKUN: Yes. AUDIENCE: So you need to
make some amount of money to pay for those things? So somewhere there’s
a motivator to say this isn’t all just volunteers. SCOTT BERKUN: Sure. AUDIENCE: It’s hey,
get things done. SCOTT BERKUN: Yes. AUDIENCE: Maybe you
could talk to that. SCOTT BERKUN: Sure, absolutely. So that was one of
the big questions I had going into the company. And there’s a
chapter in the book that talks all about
their business model and how they’re thinking
about that in the future. That the simple answer is that
WordPress is an open source project that started in 2003, and the company Automatic was formed in 2005. And the primary ambition was
to solve this hosting issue. That WordPress free
software, you still have to put it somewhere. But it’s also a corporation. Their ambition is to make money. And to support WordPress,
but to make money. makes
money three ways. One is through advertising. Very small amount
of advertising. How much that will change as the
company’s ambitions, who knows. But right now, it’s tiny. But because of how
much traffic they get, it’s a substantial
revenue stream for a company of 200 people. Second is upgrades. It’s a freemium model. So if you want more storage
space, you want a better theme, you want more
control over CSS, you pay a subscription
for those things. That’s they’re most substantial
and probably the most growth is probably with upgrades
and services around that. The third is VIP hosting. So there are some premier media
companies and corporations that host their blogs
and, in some cases, their entire websites on’s architecture. And they pay a premium for that. It’s not a
consumer-oriented service. And gets
revenue from that. So those are the
three revenue streams. Ads, upgrades, and VIP hosting. And the book does
talk about this. I had this having worked
at most corporations, there was a surprisingly
small amount of pressure on
revenue ambitions. In terms of feature direction. That most of the
emphasis was on growth, not surprising for
a young company, but they’re not young anymore. And on activity. So one of my team’s
jobs was trying to increase to do
user experience design work to increase
user engagement. How often people posted,
how often people commented, that was one of
my teams charters. The one other
thing I should say, it’s been fascinating is
many of these trade offs that they have made about giving
employees so much independence and these revenue choices
is a very long term vision for what WordPress and should be. And I found that inspiring. It’s very easy to talk
about our long term vision and then where is our
quarterly earnings, where’s our quarterly earnings? And most of the decisions
that Matt and Tony made were– even if I didn’t agree
with them, which in some cases I didn’t, but I understood why
they felt that was in the best long term interest
of the company and the WordPress
project itself. AUDIENCE: Thank you. SCOTT BERKUN: Sure. OK, well I hope
you guys check out the book and thanks
for listening. Thanks, yeah. [APPLAUSE]

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  1. Favourite part: On doing things by trial…

    When you hire a cake maker for your wedding, do you ask the cake maker "tell me about your cake making strengths and weaknesses? Or tell me about a baking that went wrong?…No, you say make me a cake! #management  

  2. IRC, Skype, Blogs used as tools for communication for team talk.
    I wonder if they would use GroupMap for team decision making….

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