Software and Other Mysteries

On code and productivity with a dash of unicorn dust.

The Year Without Pants

A few weeks back I attended React Europe in Paris. It was on its own a very interesting conference with tons of great talks, all available on YouTube. This post, however, will not deal with the awesomeness of Redux or the potential of GraphQL.

At the Automattic (most notably the company behind conference booth I was able to get my hands on a book called “The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work” by Scott Berkun. I covers the author’s experience of working as a team lead at Automattic for about two years, and since that sounds fairly boring, I think we understand the reason for the click-baity title.

So, seriously, about the title. It is a reference to the fact that Automattic is a fully distributed company, and as such one could very well be in a meeting with any number of colleagues whilst wearing nothing but tighty-whities. That’s a damn good title. I’m assuming the subtitle was added later when someone realized that only “The Year Without Pants” sounds like a movie starring Steve Carell and/or Jason Segel.

The reason I wanted to read this book was my interest in the postmodern view of management. I say postmodern both because it makes me sound smart, but also because it really is a reaction against the the typical modern 20th century way of managing employees:

  • fixed hours
  • fixed location
  • money as motivation
  • management hierarchies

I’m interested in this because I think the old way has gotten a lot of things wrong, especially when it comes to jobs with at least an ounce of creativity involved. At the same time, I always feel skeptical whenever someone starts talking about flat organizations and no management.

Scott Berkun was hired at a time when Automattic was growing rapidly. Previously the founder and CEO of the company, Matt Mullenweg (who is also one of the creators of Wordpress), could have complete insight to everything that was going on while letting people work on pretty much whatever they felt like. This is sometimes referred to as “no management”, a term I know has also previously been used at for example GitHub. This is obviously not true, since any company that lacks management won’t be a company for very long, so let’s instead call it a “light organization”. As more people were hired, however, the organization needed to gain some weight.

This is the very core of the book. How can a light organization grow without causing chaos? Which features of the old way of doing business are needed, and which can be ignored? And how do you introduce such practices without negatively impacting the company culture?

For example, the problem of managing a growing number of employees was dealt with by introducing a hierarchy. As far as I can remember, that word is not actually used in the book, but the employees where divided into small teams, where every team had a team lead. Berkun, who had a lot of experience as a manager at Microsoft, was hired as one of those leads.

That being said, the hierarchy at Automattic was a lot less rigid than the ones you will typically find at major (or minor for that matter) companies. People were still distributed and had access to most of what happened in all the other teams, not only the one they currently belonged to, but they were also expected to work on specific parts of the system.

At times the book reads a little bit like a sales pitch, but I do think that the author manages to point out the problems that will inevitably appear when working with a postmodern style of management. One such example is how when people get to choose which task to work on, they usually go with the low hanging fruit, the fruit which seems tastiest, or the fruit that just exploded on millions of users. Less often will people choose a tough, boring task even though it would greatly improve the experience of the end user. Apologies for not bringing the analogy all the way home.

All in all, “The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work” is definitely worth your time. It’s easy to read and it’s interesting to follow how Scott Berkun tries to apply his experience in management while simultaneously adapting to the culture at Automattic.