Automattic and the ‘distributed workforce’, let’s reinvent the way we work

Maybe the company name Automattic doesn’t immediately ring a bell, but I’m sure WordPress does. Automattic is the company behind WordPress and also other web services such as Gravatar, Akismet, Polldaddy, … If you were to look at traffic numbers for all websites running on WordPress combined, they would be the 3rd biggest in the world, right after Google and Facebook. This website represents only a very tiny part of that :-)

It’s not WordPress as a product I wanted to talk about however. During an interview at the Golden Drum Festival about a week ago I was asked about how I saw the evolution of our business and the new challenges that might arise while competing more and more with tech companies, attracting the right talent and everything. I said first of all that I think one of the biggest challenges we face in attracting talent is no so much that we compete with tech companies but that we compete with companies that think very differently about how they are organised and maybe also how they are evaluated. It made me think of a conversation I had with Sara Rosso, responsible for the VIP services at WordPress, at LeWeb last year. She explained me how they are organised as a distributed workforce and I thought that was massively impressive.

Web_AuttomaticMap

Think about it. More than 130 people work at Automattic, spread over 27 countries or 80 different cities. You cannot not be curious on how they make that work. In case you’re a small startup you probably can image something like that for your own business but once you’re talking about several dozens or in this case hundreds of people that’s not so easy to do. Even if I look at myself, when I was still working at Microsoft they launched ‘The new world of work’ and when we moved into the new office around that time proof was there that technology can really help you organise your work in a different way. Since I worked for the London office but out of Belgium I often worked from home and there was nothing holding me back from doing my work just as fine as if I were to spend all that time in the office. And that was really not even that advanced back then compared to Automattic today.

The way they make it work is even more impressive. All internal collaboration is based on WordPress. They make little use of email internally, most of the communication happens on WordPress blogs. A result of that is that they’re also extremely transparent since pretty much everything on those internal WordPress sites can be consulted by everyone (internally). All other communication runs via IRC and on occasion a group conversation via Skype when IRC doesn’t suffice. Very little of the communication happens over the phone. All internal WordPress blogs are based on the P2 WordPress theme, a kind of mix between Twitter and Facebook. The expression “P2 it” is used by everyone, it’s a reminder to put information from a meeting, chat, … on the P2 platform. This way all decisions and information is well documented.

Tasks are organised in so-called ‘fire teams’ of 4-6 people and those teams have their own charter and their own objectives for the given tasks. They don’t work based on time tracking (something that would anyway be difficult based on how they are structured) and evaluation is fully based on reaching the goals that were set. And we all link evaluation based on goals but still how it’s organised here is very different than what’s commonly used. The smaller teams will maybe meet each other in real life maybe 2-3 times a year and once a year the whole company gets together.

The company also has an ‘open vacation policy’. This means there are no pre-defined number of holidays for an employee, they think that everyone should have the possibility to take the time for themselves and family and as a result should be able to plan their own time off.

It’s clear that the model Automattic is using probably is not workable within every industry. Looking at my own industry a lot has been written already about the importance of people sitting in the same space (or not). And I get many of the arguments but a lot of times they also sound very defensive towards the current structures and procedures and we all know you can only start innovating when you challenge that status quo. It does inspire me to think about different ways of working with people and I do see a clear benefit, the world basically opens up when looking for talent in when you could make that work. Location becomes a secondary consideration, whereas today it feels that for many people location is actually becoming more important than it used to be.

Photo credit Automattic.com

This place

This place is now almost 5 years old. And it has outgrown itself a bit. When I started blogging it was the center of my online presence, it was pretty much the only place that allowed me to ventilate thoughts as well as share the things that I liked. Over the last 5 years that has obviously changed quite a bit and over the last few weeks and months I’ve been feeling more and more unhappy with how this blog fitted in the total picture. With regular activity on Delicious, Twitter, Flickr, … and plenty of other places I’ve come to the decision that I need to make some changes to this blog that are beyond what WordPress.com allows me to do. That’s one reason.

Another reason why there’s a lot less activity here has something to do with planning. During my trip last weekend to NYC I came to realize that most of my blogging activity in the past was organized around the frequent trips/flights for work. With an average of one trip per 10 days or so, you can imagine that all the time at airports, planes, hotelrooms, … where ideal to organize your thoughts and do some writing. All that changed some 9 months ago when I left Microsoft, but it was only during that flight last week that it hit me how much I was organized around all that travel. And as such why I found it harder to find the time to write stuff recently.

All of that made me decide it’s time for something new. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what that might be, but not yet by who and when I can change it all. What is certain is that crossthebreeze.com will always be the center of my online presence, that it should be a place that connects everything in one location. Some kind of Friendfeed but then on my terms, or like Tumblr/Posterous but then with more options and where I can be in full control, or like… well you catch my drift :)

Care to help me out in developing that place? Let me know.

WordPress 2 for iPhone

Trying out the new WordPress 2 app in the iPhone. IT beats me why this is a new app and not an upgrade to the v1 of which I had already but anyway the app looks handy and a good step up from the first version. Two things I still miss are the lack of access to your stats such as you can see at http://m.wordpress.com and … there is no more second point since inserting link just now takes away the comment I wanted to make related to the lack of an easy way to add links :)

Looks nice, now hit publish.

My mobile life

Sometimes I think I live on mobile. If there’s a device I really couldn’t miss it’s my mobile phone. Ask my wife, if on occasion I don’t take my mobile phone with me, she’ll wonder how it’s possible I forgot it. It’s just too odd for me to be without. According to my mom, it’ll grow on my ears one day. Whatever ;)

Anyway, it’s true that mobile is important for me, ever since I got my first mobile phone some 10 years ago. Every year I hope that mobile will really breakthrough, but unfortunately also this year won’t be the year of mobile, just like 2007, 2006 nor 2005 were the year of mobile. It’s that one prediction that I wish it were through, but you know it won’t be.

It’s not even in our hands. I think the devices are there, thinking of the N95, the iPhone and some Windows Mobile devices that are all capable of doing amazing things for such a small device. The iPhone has the interface to love, my HTC is less slick but comes with 3G, built in GPS and all the power of Office and Exchange on mobile. Or the N95 with it’s superb camera. And now I’m not mentioning a ton of other great features these phones have.

Apart from all that greatness, I’ve been a very active user of the mobile web for the last 6 years or so as well. First on WAP on my old Nokia 6310i for instance, later on Vodafone Live with a Sharp GX30. Back then I was still working on Kinepolis‘ new media strategy and we invested in this back then already. Today Kinepolis is still one of the very few Belgian companies with a decent mobile site, for which you got to give them credit. But even outside Belgium, there aren’t many mobile specific sites, which already resulted in a shout-out more than a year ago.

The mobile sites I currently use are: BBC, Bloglines, Gmail, Hotmail, Messenger, Dopplr, Facebook, Google Reader, Live Search, Kinepolis, MSN, Twitter, Technorati, Wapedia, Flickr, Yahoo and WordPress. I don’t really know many more that are of use to me, or that aren’t in a walled garden like Vodafone Live.

I also use client versions like Live Messenger (which you can download for all kinds of devices), the Live Search client as well as the Google Maps client, Yahoo!Go, … as well as apps that run in the Java environment on mobile like Gmail and Opera Mini. On the N95 I also tried the Widsets, but whatever the phone, the browse services still top them all.

Today, with the iPhone’s browsing capabilities, or other mobile browsers that enable better viewing of ‘normal websites’ on mobile we will probably skip the further development of mobile specific sites. With Skyfire for instance (see announcement) or Deepfish I expect to see more ‘regular’ browsing in the future.

Still, the problem remains, now even more than ever I guess. We will have access to every site we want, with great browsers but at what cost? There’s a good explanation why I use so much mobile: I can use it obviously but more important is that I don’t have to pay for it. The day I have to pay for it, I’ll cut back for sure, need or no need. How much I love the Wifi on these phones, that’s not truly mobile for me. It’s when in a taxi, or before checking in a plane, while waiting on someone, … that I love to use all my catching up. Not only in my sofa at home for instance.

So unless operators change their models on data costs, mobile will never really breakthrough and that’s sad. And yes you can discuss devices etc aren’t ready yet either, allow me to say they’re well ahead of the game when you compare them to operator attitudes. And I’m afraid they won’t change that soon either. There’s too much money to be made with TXT messages to allow you to use IM on mobile instead for instance. What’s your take?

PS: Also check out the upcoming FF for Mobile now we’re at it ;)

PPS: And Twitter, for god’s sake, at least add a replies tab to m.twitter.com will ya!

 

Blog design

I find myself slowly getting tired of my actual blog design these days. Looking back at when I actually changed to the current theme it seems to be almost a year ago, so I guess this is a yearly recurring thought. The biggest difference between now and then is that back then I really had it with the design, today that’s not the case yet. I just notice I’m getting ready for a change.

Together with this yearly design question, the self-hosting question pops up as well. I’m not a techie so I like the fact that I don’t need to care about any updates or hosting issues. That said, there are only that many themes you can choose from on WordPress.com and the limitations on adding code for widgets and tracking can be annoying from time to time as well. I understand the balance between the 2 current options you have with WordPress, it’s just that I’m not sure where I should go for today.

What do you think? I could use a bit of help on this one. Should I just leave all as is? Should I stay on WordPress.com and just get a new theme (like I did with my other blog a few weeks ago)? Or have someone do my own design and host the whole thing myself as well? I don’t know, you?