Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review: The Year Without Pants

Recent surveys by Gallup have indicated that up to 80% of the American workforce is “disengaged” at work.  That is, these workers, across industries, functions and roles, don’t feel any passion or deep empathy for the work they do.  For many of us, work is simply something to do between 9 and 5, to pay the bills to allow us to do other things we find more interesting.

Other research has demonstrated that where people are truly engaged, some very interesting things happen.  Productivity increases, innovation increases, ideas, products and solutions are rapidly developed which exceed customer expectations.  You may have heard the saying “do what you love and you’ll never work again”, and cultures with high engagement demonstrate this point.  Have you ever heard of a company where employees must be forced to take a vacation, or who travel to exotic locales only to pull all-nighters to deliver a new software feature?

Scott Berkun, in his new book about WordPress entitled The Year Without Pants, has written an interesting book that delves into questions about engagement, especially about the structures and cultures of knowledge based organizations.  It’s hard to know exactly what Scott set out to do with The Year Without Pants.  There are aspects of work as soulcraft (Shopcraft as Soulcraft), aspects of his previous work on project management and some aspects of a first person narrative about work (eg Down and Out in Paris and London).  What I took away were insights and portents about the future of work, especially as three factors emerge: larger firms hollow themselves out through rightsizing and contracting, smart young graduates form their own social businesses and the world turns increasingly to knowledge based businesses.  The question to ask is:  what is the structure and culture of a new, social business that focuses on creating information or knowledge?  Can it have a different hierarchy and structure than the traditional structures of the past?  What type of culture and leadership is necessary to build and sustain it?  And, finally and perhaps crucially, will it scale?

Berkun didn’t know it when he asked me to review his book, but I’ve been through a lot of this change in parallel.  I’ve worked, like Scott in big corporations and in startups.  I’ve traveled through a number of roles and industries, trying to find interesting, engaging work.  I’m a WordPress user and blogger with two active blogs (see Relentless Innovation and Mistakes Innovators Make) on WordPress and one (Innovate on Purpose) on Blogspot.

The Year Without Pants is basically a rolling narrative of a guy with deep project management and corporate roots who becomes a “project lead” for a small but vital web startup.  The difference with this web startup is that it has millions of users and is based on an open source project and mentality, and is more accustomed to rapid, incremental and free form change over the waterfall approach more commonly used in traditional software development.  Berkun’s role is an experiment.  In a company that’s run by the bootstraps, where anyone can publish a feature, where there’s little formal quality testing or user experience design, can a person with little programming skills add value to a programming team?

As a former software guy myself, I marvel at the approach the WordPress team takes to manage its code base.  Automattic, the firm behind WordPress, spends little time on code base management, quality assurance testing, release candidates and user experience, believing it can rapidly prototype and gain feedback rather than plan and create major release candidates.  Given the passion that people have for WordPress and its dedicated followers, their belief in the company and its culture allows it a lot of latitude that wouldn’t be possible in an operating system or financial system, where accuracy and perfection are crucial.

Scott documents his period of time in the new project lead role.  He struggles and adapts to the geographic distribution of his team, with members in Europe, the US and Australia.  Automattic allows employees to live wherever they choose, and in small teams with good communication tools building rapid software releases, it’s possible to exist and even thrive this way.  Due to the distributed nature of the team, however, regular “meet ups” are in order all over the world.  Scott describes meetups in Budapest, New York, Portland, Lisbon and Hawaii.  Clearly it would be difficult for major corporations to send people on week long jaunts to scenic locations, but the Automattic culture is clearly a work hard/play hard culture.  Most of these meetups are like Fedex weekends, where new features are required to ship for WordPress.  They also serve to help bond distributed teams and reinforce corporate culture, and engage local WordPress users.

In retrospect it’s hard to categorize this book.  While it is a very good book and highlights some valuable lessons for business, I’m not sure it is a management tome.  Larger firms can’t replicate the culture or working style that Automattic has, and any firm working in a regulated industry would need far more quality assurance and testing rigor.  Automattic works because its people are so committed, so engaged and so excited about what they are doing.  In a small firm, building and retaining that excitement and engagement is possible, but I doubt it’s possible in a larger organization.  The Year without Pants probably most closely resembles the inverse of Down and Out in Paris and London, in which a person with deep experience takes on a challenging new role to understand a different perspective about work.  The Year without Pants is eminently readable, regularly quotable, and sure to become yet another Berkun classic.  

Berkun clearly likes the Automattic team and praises the culture and management style throughout the book.  While it sounds like an idea place to work, it clearly isn’t for everyone.  Many people crave structure, and order, and predictability that Automattic shuns.  Working in a distributed fashion is possible for highly engaged, highly self-motivated people who are competitive with each other.  Yet many people won’t thrive in that environment.  Berkun never says it directly, but I think he believes Automattic reflects the style of business many millennials will come to embrace, and perhaps he is correct.  In that regard I can imagine many small businesses creating great software and social experiences, but I’m not sure the model scales.  If the Fortune 500 are lumbering dinosaurs, Automattic and firms like it are the new mammals on the scene, waiting to take control of business as the older models die off.  But will there be enough manpower to create enough of these new firms to power an economy, or are firms like Automattic, while interesting, always relegated to be relatively small firms?  And, as the nature of work changes, does size really matter in an economy increasing focused on generating and managing knowledge and social experience?

What is clear is that Automattic, and firms like it, create and engender passion and engagement at a level that larger firms can only envy.  If there’s a lesson in The Year Without Pants, the lesson is that passion and engagement can overcome almost any obstacle.  These attributes create a culture that attracts interested, engaging and passionate people who view their job as a vocation and a calling, rather than a source of a paycheck.  As the boomers and Gen X’s retire from the scene, the way people are included and engaged may transform business as we know it.

This review is also posted on Amazon.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:27 PM


Blogger Larry said...

Thanks for the thorough review Jeffery. As you indicate, there is an apathy in today's workplace. It is frustrating to try and drag that forward. The larger question is how to reengage the employee to realize the potential waiting to be grabbed? May have to check out Scott's insights.

10:05 PM  

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