A year ago I started at Automattic, Automattic is the company behind WordPress.com, Akismet, Gravatar and other internet services. We have over 200 people in 20+ countries and 80+ cities and serve a billion visitors a month — and we have no office. Here is my recap of a year working in this distributed environment.
We prefer to call it distributed working instead of the more common remote working, because remote implies there is a central spot that you are remote of. While we do have a lounge space in San Francisco, it is not really HQ, more a co-working space you might find a small handful of locals there, but there are also hubs elsewhere that co-work together. The Bay Area is probably less than 10% of the company.
Remote working is receiving a lot of attention recently, for numerous reasons. The type of work many people are now doing is moving to all digital formats that only require a computer and a connection; employees tend to prefer the flexibility to work anywhere, and it can also be cheaper for the company.
A book looking at Automattic’s distributed work culture recently came out, the Year without Pants by Scott Berkun. Berkun worked at Automattic for two years to help create teams and embed himself within the company to experience the culture first hand. He left about six months before I started, so I never worked with him.
If you want to dive really deep into the behind the scenes at Automattic, this is the book. The company has changed a bit since Berkun started, around 4x bigger, so doesn’t feel the same to me; but the underpinnings are there.
My experience working at a distributed company
When joining Automattic, I was hesitant about not working physically together with everyone. At my previous company, everyone except Sales was in the same building in San Francisco. I joined there when they acquired my company, we were five people based out of Palo Alto. Even though it was only five people, 30 minutes away, we had trouble making that remote office work. We ended up shutting down the Palo Alto office and everyone had to commute to the city. This created an additional 30+ minute commute for most and we ended up losing a good engineer because of it.
So coming in to Automattic, I understood how difficult it is to not be together. Your company must fully commit and have a distributed mindset and culture. Automattic does, my previous company did not, which is not to say one is better than other, but you need the right mindset to make remote work work.
Counter-point: I was recently lucky enough to get a tour of Pixar, its an amazing place and they have no remote workers. Just about everyone in the company is at the single location in Emeryville. We toured the Steve Jobs Building, which Jobs designed to highlight being together, promoting interactions by placing bathrooms and eating areas in the center. They even move teams around as a movie goes through different stages of production to work closely with the next production team.
The company culture at Automattic is what makes it successful, it started and has always been fully distributed. A distributed workforce requires extraordinary levels of communication tools and channels in place. We have that in many forms, from our own P2 system, IRC, Skype, Google Hang-outs and even the occasional e-mail. More importantly the built-in habit and expectation of open communication since its not just one or two remote engineers, but everyone is distributed. Here’s another view from a co-worker hired soon after me, Remote Work Done Right
Work and Life
When I started, I was coming off paternity leave after my second daughter was born and my older daughter was approaching two. My wife was taking a leave from her job for a year so she can spend it with the girls, but we knew raising two under two was going to be a challenge for the first year or two. Confirmed.
Now you might be thinking, who cares about your family and situation, tell us more about the distributed company but it is key, I care. I’m an employee with a life and situations. Every one of us has things going on in their lives. How we fit into work and how work fits into our lives is a pretty critical factor.
I saw a recent slide about Github, which is also a distributed workplace that said "githubbers don’t miss dance recitals" – just great! The company is thinking about what’s real for their employees.See Github principles slides
Now it is true most companies can be flexible every so often so employees make the dance recitals. However, working from home I can help out by simply watching the girls for two minutes so my wife can go to the bathroom in the middle of the day.
Can I succeed in a distributed environment
Another concern I had when joining was can I be successful in a distributed environment. I’ve always worked directly with people, the last few years running an engineering team and doing little coding myself. Most of my problems were people problems and I find it works best to sit down and talk directly to help solve.
Success is hard to measure in just a year, I think it’s been a good year, not quite as well as I hoped but I always have high expectations and still learning how to get things done. This is somewhat expected at any new company and hard to say if a non-distributed work would help on-boarding or just takes time.
Occasionally we’ll run into problems that might be solved quickly by walking over and going out for a coffee. Especially as we continue to grow and have more and more teams, but every company I’ve ever seen runs into issues with inter-team work. It just requires a little more work and patience to work together, a benefit of our distributed nature is we are just as close to other teams as our own. We don’t have the tangible differences of different floors or other constraints to mentally separate us.
I won’t go much into the obvious and much discussed wins of distributed workplace: you can hire the best talent around the world; our Systems team has great time zone coverage; save money on buildings, etc.
A big plus and minus, is our meetups. Around four times a year, we do an in-person team meetup, and since we are all over the world, the meetups can be all over the world. I’ve traveled to Lisbon, Portland and Austin and missed Denmark due to a conflict with my daughters baptism. This is the minus side, traveling around the world is great, but I have a family and young girls so its extra hard for me being away especially on my wife. We “joke” on my team that the true cost of the meetup is when we come back; costs include: new fridges, remodeled rooms, dog for the kids, etc..
In summary, the year has been great, challenging in many aspects but to be expected with a new company, massive scale and a new distributed working style. It took some time to adjust but the positives by far outweigh the negatives, I enjoy the distributed aspects and working with some of the top technologist in the world.
Hiring plug: if all this sounds interesting and you want to make the web a better place for a billion people, we are hiring.