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The Year Without Pants: An interview with author Scott Berkun

Scott Burken shares his experience as one of the first managers in the history of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com.

Scott Burken is a Seattle-based consultant, speaker, author and one of the leading thinkers on creative thinking, team leadership and project management. In his most recent book, “The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and The Future of Work”, Burken shares his experience as one of the first managers in the history of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com.

This long-awaited book is a behind-the-scenes look at what is it like to work at WordPress.com, a company that made its way to success - it's the 15th most visited website in the world - without using emails, offices, meetings or any of other conventional work process.

We recently met Scott at his book launch party and we're happy to share with you this inspiring interview with some of his forward thinking ideas on the future of work.

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun

How is WordPress.com different from other companies? What did it choose not to do?

The list is long: they rarely use email, hire by trial instead of interviews, are open source, have a 100% remote worker workforce and have an open vacation policy. They are also the 8th most popular website in the U.S. and WordPress powers 20% of all websites in the world. They're an amazing story for many reasons.

With so little rules, how does a company guarantee work is done on time and everyone's remains profitable?

They hire people who love what they do. This means they are self-motivated and provided management stays out of their way, things go well. Ask any self-employed or entrepreneurial person the same questions and you'll get similar answers. What's different is WordPress.com launched in 2005, and has over 200 employees: they're not just a cute startup anymore.

WordPress.com operates as a completely virtual workplace. What are the benefits and challenges of remote work?

Benefits are you can hire the best talent in the world and people are evaluated on their output, not their age, color or gender. The challenge is employees have to communicate well, particularly writing.

From your experience, you found a formula for management. What are its key ingredients? Do you think this type of management can scale?

My hiring was part of a larger experiment to see if teams would work at all. The only formula I came up with was Trust and Clarity. If I could earn trust and provide clarity then I'd add value. Those two attributes are critical, but also rare in most workplaces. Of course it scales: do you know of any Fortune 500 company that functions with ambiguity and mistrust? Those are fundamentals - sadly, many workplaces never have those things.

At WordPress.com there are very few "turf battles, approval seeking, or the grandstanding that dominate many miserable email threads." How can large companies overcome these processes?

Two answers. First, put the power in the hands of the talent: designers, developers, writers, people who are professional makers. Management isn't really the talent we think it is - it should be far less central in any organization that profits by making products. Second, have rewards that require collaboration. If I know my raise is based on how much better I do than my peers, what do you think the result is going to be? We'll all be fighting to look better, and surprise, it's a war.

One of the Future of Work core values is collaboration. In this scenario, how is healthy competition seen? Is there still place for it?

It's not one or the other. Collaboration doesn't mean skip down the hallway holding hands. There's value in some kinds of friction and being pushed to think, explain, and grow. The best collaborations aren't all fun and games, they're relationships where people trust each other enough to push each other.

You share the idea that there is no "scientific evidence resumes and interviews loops are effective methods for hiring staff". What are the alternatives? How should companies are?

Referrals should carry far more weight: if my coworker actually experienced working with Sally, that's better data than 6 strangers interviewing her in a boardroom all day long. WordPress.com hires by trial which means you're asked to do an actual project, with actual work. Based on your ability to do actual work, you're hired or not. What could be simpler? It takes more time but better results always take more time.

Of all the things you learned at WordPress.com, what are the three most important lessons you wish companies and managers take away from your book?

The single most important thing I learned is most managers are cowards. They're afraid to experiment and learn which is a central element of their role as a leader. The grand lesson from the book, through the behind the scenes story of how WordPress.com functions, is for leaders to wake-up and stop managing by fear. Instead they should be trying different ways to manage and organize, learning every day from the results of those experiments how to get the best work from their employees.

If you could go back in time, would you have done something different as a team manager at WordPress.com?

Unless you have a time travel machine to loan me, I'm not answering that one.

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