What is the Future of Work?

I just read Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. For me, it was a mixed read.

Yes, you can make a totally distributed team work. What you need to do:

  • Make all of the work visible
  • Keep everyone focused on one project at a time
  • Keep all of the deliverables small
  • Focus on one deliverable at a time
  • Keep project teams small
  • Hire smart people who can figure out how to work together
  • Keep management as a light touch
  • Make sure you meet together to reinforce the ability to work together remotely
  • Use Low-tech tools because they  work better than high tech tools. They provide better access to people than many high tech tools

That was the good stuff.

Now, for the stuff I didn’t see and wanted to see. I’m a WordPress user. I run my site and my three blogs on WordPress. I’m a developer by training. I have worked in small startups and medium size companies. I wanted to see and feel the passion for the work. I wanted to see Scott change over the year and Automattic evolve over the year, to see what they learned. I didn’t.

For the first 15 years of my career, I was a developer or tester, working in small teams such as these. I wasn’t geographically dispersed, like these teams, but I worked in small teams, where we had small deliverables and we delivered. We never got houses together in strange cities, but we had the excitement of getting ready for releases and trade shows, and we made it. I can tell you stories of early breakfasts, lunches together, late dinners, and then the releases. I can tell you stories of conferences, where we did have hotel rooms together. I knew those people—some for just a little while, some for more than 30 years—just as well as I knew my family. I still stay in touch with some of them.

I wanted to read about that passion. About that commitment. About that involvement. In this book,  the only time Scott showed passion was when he described their in-person meetups. When the team was together. When they were working, but more when they were drinking and eating together when they weren’t working. Isn’t that interesting? If distributed or dispersed teams are the future of work, why was Scott’s passion so evident only when the team was together?

I wondered why. Maybe because there were no testers? It’s hard to keep testing your own code, day in and day out. But I think it’s more than that.

It’s because it was such a homogenous culture of young single men. Not a single woman was mentioned in this book. Not one. At least, I couldn’t tell that there were any women there.

Women change teams. Would the team still have gone drinking every time they got together until 2am or longer? Maybe. But, I bet they would have thought about their customers differently. Why? Because at least at that time, more women blogged than men.

Way back, when I worked with my small teams, we changed the interfaces for our products. Why? Because my hands were smaller than the men’s hands. We made things I could use. Yes, these were physical products. Our customers were happy. Not all of our customers were big men with large hands. And, I learned about color blindness early, because the men I worked with were color blind, so our system interfaces took what they could and could not discern into account. Some of our customers appreciated our thoughtfulness.

When you have team diversity, you can create much better products.

I didn’t see was any changes or evolution in leadership and management. I expected to see a change in Scott, the team, or the company. I didn’t. I saw no change in how Scott managed, or how he evolved. Did he change as a result of working for Automattic? I can’t tell.

Did his team members change? Well, there were two promotions, but, we as readers can’t tell why.

Automattic, the company, grew to be twice its original size. We are not privy to any of the changes, and I expected to see some changes. Nope, not a one reported.

When you read other books of this ilk, such as Soul of a New Machine, you read about the passion of the people for their work. You read how they changed. Nope, none of that here.

Other reviewers have exclaimed that this is the future of work. I hope not. No women developers? I hope not. Passionless, changeless, a senior manager making all the decisions in an opaque way? I hope not.

Here’s my vision of the future of work:

  1. Yes, hire people as feature teams, anywhere they are in the world. That’s why I wrote Is Offshoring Less Expensive? Exposing Another Management Myth.
  2. Hire diverse teams, including diverse personalities, women, people with diverse product experience. I explain how to do that in Hiring Geeks Who Fit.
  3. I did love the transparency of what to work on, and the fact that Automattic teams worked on small chunks of work. Totally agree on that. I’d love to see a roadmap, a vision that people could work towards. I like what Steve Johnson has been writing about agile roadmaps, and his book From Fragile to Agile has some great ideas.
  4. Deliver small chunks often, and get feedback. I don’t care what lifecycle you use. You don’t have to be agile to deliver small chunks often. Delivering often builds trust with your customer, whether your customer is down the hall or across the world. Then, when you want to change something, you have your customer’s trust to be able to do so.
  5. Managers are servant leaders, not chess masters.

The future of work is not about young single men working by themselves all over the world, coming together once a quarter to drink and meetup. That’s not the exciting part.

The exciting part is that there are smart people all over the world, men and women. We can use them on our projects, as long as we have the tools to incorporate them well. Those tools need to promote transparency; they don’t have to be high tech. Read Lessons Learned from Leading Workshops about Geographically Distributed Agile Teams to read the lessons that Shane Hastie and I learned.

Work is personal. Work is about connection. The reason Scott became passionate about the meetups is that he, as well as his team members, needed the connection. Sure, you can have distributed and dispersed teams. And, those teams need to connect.

Connected teams, teams who know each other will always deliver more and better than teams who don’t. That’s the future of work. How you make connected teams? That’s up to you.

5 Comments

  1. Johanna,
    Thank you for this review. I have not read the book, but I completely agree about needing diversity, connection, and passion in one’s work! For a good example of a distributed team that seems to achieve that well, the wikispeed story is a great one. Here is a video of Joe Justice talking about his journey: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8jdx-lf2Dw
    And to anyone in the DC area August 8, 2013, he’ll be the keynote at AgileDC.
    Andrea

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the insightful review! It’s a tall order to compete with Soul of a New Machine – that’s a really good book.

    I really like your comment about delivering in small chunks, whether you’re agile or not. That really gets to the core of agile.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the review Johanna. Sorry you were disappointed. A few thoughts.

    Most importantly I wanted to clarify facts about WordPress.com. The book ends with me leaving the company, but you can see exactly how diverse WordPress.com’s staff currently is on their public list of employees. which at a quick count has 39 women in a company of ~180.

    The book does mention Hanni Ross, the woman who was the team lead for the Happiness team at the time, in chapters two and six but she’s far from a main character in the book. Although the fascinating way the Happiness (support) team works, with *all* new employees working there for their first three weeks, is the focus of chapters two through four.

    I hoped the company photo in chapter 7, which shows exactly how diverse the company was, or, wasn’t, at the time (9 women to ~45 men if I count correctly) would help answer these broader questions, but a more explicit addressing of the question is certainly reasonable and something easy for me to consider in a future edition.

    Another point that could have been made clearer was geographic diversity. It’s mentioned early on the company hires the best talent anywhere in the world since no relocation is necessary, but the cultural diversity this offers isn’t emphasized. In the section on Results vs. Tradition I do strongly make the case that superficials are distractions, but I should have driven the point home harder that remote work, and as a result WordPress.com, helps reduce gender, age and other biases, since you see far more of a coworkers output than their outward appearances.

    You can see a map of all of their employees by location and it’s impressive. They are extremely diverse geographically: http://automattic.com/map/

    Reply
    • Scott, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. That’s very generous of you.

      I do agree that you can hire smart people anywhere in the world and together, accomplish great things. I tried to say that, in my admittedly brief summary of what I liked.

      Thank you for commenting.

      Reply

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  1. New PM Articles for the Week of September 16 – 22 | The Practicing IT Project ManagerThe Practicing IT Project Manager - […] Johanna Rothman reviews Scott Berkun’s new book about his remote work tenure at Automattic, “The Year Without Pants.” […]
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