The Year Without Pants – WordPress.com and the future of work
There were a number of reasons why I picked up the latest book by Scott Berkun: I wanted to know how WordPress made a profit, I thought there was an outside chance it would explain how to do some of the seemingly impossible design tasks on a WordPress website, and I wanted to know why there was a picture of pants on the front cover.
Scott Berkun is a designer and project manager who also writes management books. These include “Making Things Happen”, “The Myths of Innovation”, “Confessions of a Public Speaker and “Mindfire: Big Ideas or Curious Minds”. He writes for titles including Wired, the New York Times, the Economist, Fast Company and Forbes, so his biography in itself made the book worth exploring.
Berkun wrote this latest title (The Year Without Pants – WordPress.Com and the future of work, published by Jossey-Bass price £17.99) because he had been recruited by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg to run a development team for a limited period of time.
I could have stopped at this point, because it seemed to point to the book being about writing computer code. Which it is. Unexpectedly, the book is gripping.
The first few pages contain praise from a very impressive list of fans, including Joe Beliore VP of Microsoft, Guy Kawasaki, a former evangelist at Apple and Tom Standage, the editor of The Economist among many others. But does this mean it is more than a technical book about elegant http? You won’t believe this, but it is a page turner.
Berkun describes the ‘alternative’ culture of WordPress exquisitely. This is a company which doesn’t use email, where everyone works remotely from around the world, where everyone is tasked with having deliverables every two weeks and which claims to be the 16th most popular website on the planet.
So how does it work? What impact does Berkun have when he joins and how does a free blogsite make money?
All of this is revealed in thriller style, as Berkun describes how he sets up his team, fosters the group spirit, and deals with the Achilles heel of the company. This is a really interesting one. WordPress designers are tasked with creating new add-ons for the site, but no-one seems to be tasked with sorting out the lack of interoperability, the problems that can occur with conflicting software releases, and basic design issues that affect the User Experience, but that don’t make the top of the WordPress designers’ priority lists.
There is much to be learnt from this book about working well in teams, about stepping back and seeing a product as your customers see it, and about doing the important tasks, even if these are the hardest and least attractive to everyone.
Did I learn how to be more creative with images on a WordPress site, and how to put anchors in without writing code? No absolutely not. But I now know that these User issues are inherent problems and that no-one else can do it either, which makes me feel much better- (about my own capabilities, if not about WordPress).
The pants question stays a little unclear but is to do with Berkun entering an ufamiliar territory.
Write a launch press release even before you have built the product, because if you can’t think of a compellingly simple explanation for customers, then you don’t really understand why the feature is worth building.
To quote William Gibson: “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed.”
From Pascal, one of the members of Berkun’s team: “If I had more time, I would write a shorter email.”