I listened to an interview today with a German doctor who is part of Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). He talked about Ebola and was impressively clear and convincing about the topic. I learned more in 20 minutes than in all the previous weeks of Ebola coverage in the news here. For example that MSF has been at the forefront of fighting this outbreak since Spring and that they’ve been sounding the alarm bells about its scale and seriousness for half a year, with the international community dragging their feet for an embarrassingly long time. His description of the conditions in affected countries, what MSF are doing to help, and why it’s pointless to panic about Ebola in Europe and the US made a lot of sense. The doctor in the interview is the head of a hospital in Switzerland, and he is headed back to Sierra Leone next week to help. It was a good reminder of what a great organization MSF is and that I had not donated to them in a while.
Colin tagged me to reveal what podcasts I listen to. I’m subscribed to a few, but these three are the ones I listen to frequently:
– The Slate Gabfest, a weekly political roundtable, smart, witty, occasionally subversive.
– Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, multi-hour long, epic history podcasts, told in a gripping and conversational style.
– The Rachel Maddow Show, her audio only podcast is fun to listen to, she has a great radio/podcast style and there are no commercials.
This summer I got the chance to travel down the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. The trip was organized by a friend of ours, Tom Huntington, a former river guide who has traveled rivers all over the world. Our group was 18 people plus guides. Most of us knew each other from having our kids grow up together, and we all got very close on this trip. We spent a day at the Grand Canyon’s rim, then got up before sunrise to hike the Bright Angel trail down to a place called Phantom Ranch at the center of the canyon where we got picked up by the boats. Then we went down the river for eight glorious days, alternately floating, going over white water rapids, stopping for waterfall hikes and lagoon swims, and setting up camp on the sandy shores every night. Beyond the amazing scenery, history, and natural beauty, I felt transformed by the simplicity, quiet, and the closeness to the elements and to my fellow travelers. I was sad to have the trip end – it’s a place I want to go back to for sure.
- Michael Galpert: Dollar a day Cyclones of SF Define Success Toxic Employees iOS Keyboards (must read)
- Hiten Shah: Love it or change it It just works 17 books every startup founder should read Everyone on the same page (must read) Do hard things that scare you My favorite interview question for early stage startup candidates.
- Toni Schneider: The office space pendulum Deep linking Stop watching me Childhood confessions Nerd culture, the good and the bad
- Om Malik: Break 3 things to read this weekend Apple & rise of the carrier antagonistic SIM Card Mimi Valdes makes Happy Long day Why blame others
Ash Patel, my former boss at Yahoo, told me yesterday that Yahoo’s offices these days feature all open space floor plans. When I worked there 10 years ago, everyone was in a private cube. The pros and cons of open floor plans vs private offices have been discussed at length over the years and big tech companies seem to slowly oscillate between them, once a decade switching from all private to all open and back. The current trend seems to be all open space with noise canceling headphones for the people who want privacy. Open spaces have advantages; they look better, foster more interaction, and they don’t have as much “jockeying for the nice office with the windows” going on. But they are more distracting and don’t work that well for people who need to focus for long periods of time – a private space is really helpful in that case. Ideally, an office would offer both. Open spaces for collaboration/inspiration and private spaces for taking that inspiration and turning it into action. Depending on the job, I think a good balance is about 20% collaboration and 80% heads down execution (I know some people will disagree). At Automattic, we have found a balance with collaboration that happens during in person meetups and in virtual get-togethers (video conferences and chat), and execution that happens in peoples’ home offices. In centralized companies with physical offices I could imagine a similar model where the office serves as collaboration space one or two days per week, and the rest of the time is spent working from home (different teams could use the space on different days to avoid having it sit empty a bunch). This type of office could be really fun to create because it could be 100% focused on collaboration needs, more like a clubhouse or a cafe than a traditional office.
I’ve been at a conference for the last two days and a topic that’s been coming up a lot is deep linking for mobile apps. Three separate people have mentioned a company called Branch Metrics as someone who is doing interesting things in this area. Deep linking helps app developers who are looking for more ways to get people to discover their apps (among other things). The current ways are cumbersome – I’m probably not the only person who thinks that the little banners that pop up on my mobile web browser, trying to get me to install a new app, are not very effective. Clicking on those links takes too many steps (app store, password, install, app/user signup) and when the app finally runs, it starts without any of the referrer info or original context of where I came from. Seems like an area that’s about to see a lot of change and growth.
UPDATE 10/17: This Kickstarter was canceled.
I found a Kickstarter yesterday that promises to anonymize your internet browsing in a simple way – it’s a small box that sits between you and whatever internet connection you are using: the Anonabox. It’s designed for people who need anonymity, like dissidents and whistleblowers, but I’m guessing it’s attractive to anyone who is creeped out by constantly being watched and tracked while online. I assume that’s pretty much everyone?
When I was in 2nd grade, I was convinced that I would grow up to be a boat designer. I have a pretty clear memory of drawing lots of boats for a couple of years. Last week, I moved offices and found my 2nd grade drawing book. Sure enough, it’s full of boats (plus a good helping of cars and spaceships):
PS: I think my favorite is the red, 6-wheeled car with the massive body and the flat nose, though “Schneller Pfeil” with the 5 inboard motors is pretty cool too…
Yesterday, I discovered Pete Warden’s post “Why nerd culture must die“. I agree with much of it. From Google bus protests to the treatment of women in Silicon Valley, there have been many recent events in the tech world that have appalled me and made me worry about the culture and practices of our industry.
As tech has gone mainstream, it has touched our lives in many ways, some positive and some negative. The culture of tech – or nerd culture – has its roots in the the concept of the hacker ethic which celebrates sharing, openness, access to computers and information, and a general sense of quirkiness as its core values. The idea is that technology is fun and can improve lives and should therefore be spread everywhere and accessible to everyone. A good way to do that is to make it free and build it in a way that allows anyone to jump in and contribute. Projects like Wikipedia and Minecraft and the concept of open source software come to mind as great expressions of this idea. There are many more examples, and as a whole they’ve become so popular and pervasive that they have changed our culture, shifting people towards “nerd values” and promoting more sharing, openness and creativity in many areas of our lives. A good reflection of this shift is the changing meaning of the term nerd itself. A nerd has gone from being a socially inept weirdo to someone who is deeply interested in and passionate about a subject.
So far that all sounds very innocuous and positive. How did we get from that goodness to the people of San Francisco protesting tech workers in their Google buses, to woman after woman coming forward sharing horrible experiences at tech conferences and companies, and to startup founders being revealed as abusive, callous and misogynistic? I wish I had a good answer. Some of it seems to be rooted in a combination of privilege, tone deafness, and failure to mature. Tech is very successful, creates a lot of wealth, and passes that wealth on to people who are too young and inexperienced to handle it well – some become privileged snobs, driving up rents, evicting tenants, showing off with expensive cars, wines, and meals, complaining about homelessness, and so on. And when people point this behavior out, the reactions tend to be tone deaf, trying to ignore it as “not my problem” or explain it away with talk about all the good the tech industry does. We clearly need to do a better job understanding our impact and sharing our wealth. Like Pete says in his post, we – the nerds – are not the outsider rebels anymore who can be forgiven for being contrarian and odd, we’re the mainstream now and we need to grow up and act like it. But it doesn’t end there. We also need to become much more self aware about the ways in which we’ve excluded people from tech over time and hack our own culture to be far more inclusive, especially of women, and of people of all ages and races. The original hacker ethic was based on commendable, forward thinking values like sharing and openness. Inclusiveness needs to be added to that list.
Here’s a wrap up of Om’s #30daysofbloggingchallenge with the first week’s posts from Om, Hiten, Michael and me:
- 20 years of SAJA
- 3 things to read this weekend
- Hard Things
- A perception of anonymity
- One week, two cities – Sofia and Stockholm
- Feedback is a gift
- Learn faster than you think you can!
- You don’t need more advice, you need more practice
- You are not better unless your customers say so
- Stop comparing yourself to other startups
- Permission to want
- Price of shipping atoms
- Notes from Brooklyn Beta day 1
- New Middle Men
- You are not alone
Onwards to week 2!
Earlier this summer, I was asked to submit an essay on how organizations will become more distributed in the future as part of a report on the future of work by the Economist. Here’s what I wrote:
A distributed company
I ran a software startup company called Automattic for eight years. We had a unique advantage when we launched our business: a running start. The software we were basing our business on – WordPress – had already been available for two years as an open source project. It had thousands of users which meant we had customers and revenues from day one. It also meant that there were dozens of open source volunteers working to improve the software in their spare time – an ideal talent pool from which to hire our first employees. But there was one big challenge: This group of volunteers was spread all over the world. There was Donncha in Ireland, Andy in Texas, Matt and Ryan in California. Should we be like other tech startups, open an office in San Francisco and ask everyone to move there? This turned out to be an existential question that shaped the core culture of our business and led us to become a pioneer in creating a distributed workforce. We decided to have everyone work from home.
As our business grew, people started joining the company from all over the world. We worked together via chat rooms and blogs where we communicated and collaborated all day long. Soon we realized that we wanted to spend some time in person, so we got together for weeklong coding retreats twice a year. All along, this distributed work environment felt right to all of us inside the company, but it caused friction on the outside. Partners thought it was weird that we had no offices (we later opened a co-working space in San Francisco for meetings and events). Lawyers and accountants warned us that we would soon be sued by someone about violating some labor or tax rule that we’d overlooked. Investors were convinced that our organizational chart would fall apart when we got to 30 or 40 people.
Before we even got to 20 people, a moment of truth arrived. Our product was doing very well – we were rapidly approaching 100 million users – and someone offered to buy our business for a very large amount of money. We had to decide if we wanted sell or keep going. If we kept going, would we raise more money and “grow up” by centralizing our business in San Francisco? We decided to stay independent, raise more money, and remain distributed. Why? Because even early on we could tell that working from home was incredibly empowering for our employees and a big competitive advantage for our business.
Our company is now over 260 people strong, working from over 30 countries and 190 cities across the world. The doomsday predictions from partners, accountants and investors never came true. On the contrary, our company is thriving. We’re #1 in our industry (WordPress currently powers 23% of all web sites on the internet) and employee happiness, retention and productivity are very high.
Based on our experience, I’m convinced that distributed workforces will bring change to many organizations and industries in the next decade. The change is driven by three main factors: flexible work, global talent, and open communications.
Employees on distributed teams get much more flexibility to shape their work lives. They control their schedules and work environments, they tend to have far fewer meetings and no commute, and of course they can live wherever they choose. For many people it comes down to something as simple as being able to take their sick kid to the doctor without needing permission from a boss or feeling guilty about leaving the office. Once an employee has experienced that kind of flexibility, they never want to go back to the old ways. The flip side is that distributed employees need to be more self-directed to get work done outside the traditional confines of set work hours and cubicle walls, which is not always easy and requires pro-active coaching and mentoring from the employer.
For a company, being distributed means having access to a global talent pool. There’s no need to compete over local talent. A distributed company attracts people from all over the world who raise their hand to say that they want to join this particular organization even though it’s thousands of miles away. The internet and our modern communication tools make those distances meaningless. If anything, distributed teams tend to work more efficiently because contributions are measured by results, not appearances, and because online tools expose just how arcane and inefficient it is to get groups of people into rooms all at the same time to discuss project status. Distributed workforces do cause increased HR complexities, but those are getting solved and are outweighed by the benefits of a global hiring pool.
Distributed teams tend to quickly abandon old communication methods like meetings and email, and transition to new, more real-time tools like chat and video conferencing. These tools are a must have for teams that work across lots of devices and time zones, and they have the added benefit of making information more open and more visible to the entire company. A particular team might use a real time chat channel for the majority of their communication, and that channel can also be made accessible to the rest of the company. That way anyone can follow along, contribute, and search old archives for information (which is much better than trapping organizational knowledge in email inboxes and meeting notes). Paradoxically, this increases visibility and openness for the entire organization despite people being in different locations. It also helps answer the first question many managers have when it comes to distributed teams: How do I know if people are working? Seeing someone’s daily activity in a chat channel is like seeing a heartbeat of their contribution to the organization.
Taken all together, we get increased flexibility over work environments which leads to happier employees; a global talent pool that helps businesses be more competitive; and more open communication tools that lead to more productive organizations. The changes an organization needs to go through to adopt distributed teams are not trivial, but the benefits are worth it and more achievable than ever in our connected age where we can turn on a phone or laptop anytime and connect to our co-workers anywhere in the world.
I’d like to try something different for today’s post: What is the most recent photo on your phone? Please email it to me and I’ll add it to this post. I’ll start with mine:
At the start of this year, I announced that I was stepping down as Automattic’s CEO. I also mentioned that I would be staying on at Automattic to work on new ideas and build new products. A number of people have since mentioned to me that it’s unusual for a CEO to stay around in a non-CEO role and asked what it’s been like. So here is an update.
My new job started with the idea of creating a team inside Automattic that would be the beginnings of a skunkworks or internal R&D type function. A function that overtime ensures that we don’t focus 100% of our energy on our big hit product, WordPress, but also look into new products and technologies that we might be in a unique position to bring to market. So step one was to assemble a team. I’m a huge fan of the small, product focused teams we have at Automattic, so this new team looks very similar to all the others in the company – 6 people so far, 1 designer, 4 developers, and 1 business person/team lead. We named the new team “Tinker” (because we’re tinkering on new ideas, and because of the Tinkers in Vernor Vinge’s Peace War, and because everyone likes Tinkerbell) and started gathering ideas for what to work on. We asked everyone in the company to write up their favorite ideas for side projects, ideas that sit outside their daily WordPress work and have been occupying their minds. We got several dozen ideas, and several themes that emerged among them. We then picked a few smaller projects to work on first as warm up projects for the new team. We built Postbot, a tool for photo bloggers who want to schedule lots of blog posts in advance, and we added new geo-location features to WordPress.com to let people tag their posts with locations from their phones or desktops. We also started diving into a mobile app for Gravatar, which got us to do a bunch of clean up work first to make Gravatar responsive and mobile friendly. Then the Gravatar app morphed into a larger, stand-alone project that got the whole team to learn Android development and launch an official new app called Selfies. We learned a lot from doing the Selfies app, including the discovery of what we think is an interesting new way of collaborative story telling. We’re now working on a more ambitious project that pulls together many of the pieces from the last 6 months into a new service that will be ready later in the year.
To answer the question of what the new role has been like: Fun, invigorating, and the switch from CEO to team lead has been smooth (our organizational structure at Automattic is designed to let people move around, including in and out of management roles). I enjoy being back on a small team, focused on product development. Our team is making progress towards the goal of branching from WordPress into new directions, and I hope and believe we’ll be doing more of this as a company in the future.
Team Tinker in action, taking selfies at our company retreat last month:
One of the best experiences I had this year was visiting colleges with my daughter Sophie. An exercise in bittersweetness, it made me sad with anticipation of her going off to college and excited for her after seeing so many cool places where she might end up. Across a couple of trips we spent time in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and LA (she also went to Boston and New York with Diane). We bumped into a few San Francisco kids almost everywhere we went, and while each school was impressive in its own way, we laughed at how similar some of their pitches were – complete with identical phrases and in some cases identical jokes. Clearly they’ve all been to each other’s info sessions. No word yet on where Sophie will move next year…
When I first met Diane over 20 years ago, she told me that one day she’ll switch from being a designer to being an artist. After many steps along the way – grad school, running her design business, getting married to me :), settling down in San Francisco, raising three awesome kids, overcoming serious illness – she had her first art opening last weekend as part of a group show at the Autobody gallery in Alameda. I’ve always been a huge fan of her work, and her recent pieces are some of her best yet IMHO. The opening was exciting, there was a big crowd with many great friends stopping by, Diane sold a lot of her pieces, and there was something special in the air – a rare warm Bay Area night with lots of people in the streets, Cuban music playing across the way, Giants fans cheering at the pub downstairs, a late dinner afterwards. I wish I’d taken more photos, but here are a few to give you a sense of her work:
PS: This is my first post as part of Om’s 30 days of blogging challenge.