In the late 1970’s Tracy Kidder captured a new kind of work ethic and (at the time) a novel kind of management when he wrote the business classic, “The Soul of a New Machine.” It was a rollicking good story about engineers building a new computer. The story was really about people, and teams, and how management could create a completely new culture where amazing work could occur. Long before we were using phrases like “knowledge workers” or referring to part of California as “Silicon Valley” he gave us a preview, a new choice really, of what leadership could look like.
Scott Berkun has done the same with his new book, “A Year Without Pants, WordPress and the Future of Work.” With warmth, humor, and finely crafted prose Berkun shares the story of his time working for Automattic, the tiny company behind WordPress–the 15th most popular website on the planet, hosting almost 20% of the top 10 million websites in the world.
Berkun is no passive observer in this story. After a decade working successfully as an author, he gave up that glorious life of freedom to work as a Project Manager at Automattic. He did actual work, and apparently did it well (having worked at Microsoft on Internet Explorer during the browser wars, he knew how to lead a technical project). His experience brings us gems of insight like, “The bottleneck is never code or creativity; it’s lack of clarity.” And, “Ambiguity makes everyone tolerant of incompetence.”
If you run a small firm, or manage people, or care about what the future of work might be, you’ll want to know this story. It should be required reading in business school. Not because Berkun makes any claims to know the future. There’s no way of knowing whether this book predicts the future, as Tracy Kidder did. Perhaps the set of open-source management principles he outlines will forever remain a wild outlier to traditional management theory. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Because his book will make you question assumptions you have not thought about in a very long time.
What’s it like to work in an open source culture? Berkun says Automattic is, “not managed at all in any conventional business sense.” The founder of Automattic, “went to great lengths to keep support roles like legal, HR and IT from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.”
Berkun illustrates both the bad and the good of working at Automattic with penetrating clarity. He shares that, “Meetings at Automattic were always qualified disasters. They happened so rarely, certainly in-person ones, and had so little urgency there was little pressure to get better at running them.”
There are also worthwhile insights into innovation and project management, “It’s never a surprise in great projects to find grueling work somewhere along the way … It sometimes takes ugly effort to make beautiful things.”
He offers insights into how to evaluate people, “The real story behind some people you meet with fantastic reputations isn’t notable talents or skills, but merely an exceptional ability to choose the right time to join and leave particular projects. The work of managers everywhere is rarely evaluated with enough consideration for the situation they inherited and the situations they faced that were not in their control.“
The book is a primer for how to be a project manager in an open source world. But don’t read the book today and expect to apply these lessons to your company tomorrow. Berkun cautions, “A great fallacy borne from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results.” And this gem, “Often acquisitions create a paradox: they’re hard to fit into a company for the same reason they’re attractive to acquire. The thing you want to buy reflects a different way of thinking, which has value, but that difference is at odds with the culture you already have. Like an organ transplant, natural antibodies will fight against having the new organ fit in. And the more you do to force it in, the less of what you wanted to acquire in the first place remains. The vast majority of acquisitions fail for this reason.”
Fair warning, once you start the book, it will be hard to put down. And once you finish it, you’ll need some time to go away and think about it.