Surf’s Up

 

 

The business world is changing. It seems I’m riding the wave. High.

I’ve just come home from my company’s yearly retreat or, as we call it, the Grand Meetup. I have so many thoughts it’s been hard to come up with a coherent post to put it all together.

Automattic is a company known for creating WordPress.com, and it is now famous for reinventing the workplace.

All of our 500 employees are distributed – this means that Automattic does not have a central office where employees go to work. We can work from wherever we want, and as a result, we have automatticians (how we refer to ourselves) living in 50 different countries.

Many companies have tried the “work from home” approach, but it seems like Automattic is one of the few which have made it work. In 2016, when we are tethered to our smartphones and communicate with people around the world instantly, figuring out a way to make remote work a viable reality is a huge deal.

In an effort to promote relationships and collaboration, every year the company organizes the Grand Meetup (GM). The GM is a week-long get together where we are encouraged to get to know each other and collaborate on projects, learn new skills, and cross-pollinate ideas across virtual silos.

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467 Automatticians at the 2016 Grand Meetup in Whistler, British Columbia

To do that, Automattic tries to create environments for employees to meet each other in different contexts.

Here are some of the things we did this past week:

  • Flashtalks: each employee did a 4-minute presentation on a topic of their choosing. Some of these talks were funny, others educational, and some just plain silly. There was a Spanish automattician who showed us images of his home renovation. I learned about the wines of Portugal. I shed a tear when someone presented the life lessons he’d learned from his dog. It was fascinating, and I learned a lot about the people presenting.
  • Projects: in the weeks leading up to the GM, we suggested mini projects to be worked on during the meetup. These projects included improvements to our product, a new internal tool to make our jobs easier, the creation of a new app, and many others.
  • Classes: we could also choose one of a number of classes to take.
  • Meals: we went out to dinner in Whistler Village in groups of four. The dinners were all pre-arranged by the organizers, and they made sure we were dining with employees we had not yet met.
  • Town halls: we had several town hall-styled meetings in which we could ask questions of our CEO Matt Mullenweg and other leaders within the company. It was great to see how people communicate- discussions were open and frank.
  • Fun activities: we went hiking, zip-lining through the mountains, mountain biking, running…. We also sang karaoke, swing danced, played with virtual reality, played board games, showed off our talents during an “open mic” session, etc. It was really cool to see my coworkers in these unusual situations.

There was a lot more, including an epic closing party with live music performed by automatticians themselves.

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The saxophone player is Automattic’s CEO, Matt Mullenweg

My Takeaways

So, where do I start?

Automatticians are a special bunch.

During this week, we took over two big hotels in the heart of Whistler Village, and had access to an open bar for the entire duration of our stay.

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What the hotel lobby looked like for about 7 days. These are all automatticians.

I saw people having fun responsibly, being respectful to each other and to hotel staff.  I also saw countless examples of people helping each other.

Another amazing example of the spirit of my coworkers was when we all got together for a couple of hours to do actual work.  We noticed that the support ticket queue was really backed up, so we spontaneously organized to work and get the queue under control.

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Coworking to keep the plates spinning 🙂

I’ve never been part of an institution in which everyone is so happy to be in it.

What’s the secret? I think it’s a combination of factors.

First, Automattic produces services and products that are awesome. The company’s motto is to democratize publishing by making it available to everyone around the world. We all feel like we are making a difference.

Then there’s the culture. There’s a shared sense of responsibility. Though we are often in t-shirts and funny hats, there’s a feeling of being around grownups. I don’t mean “grownups” in a sense of having a diversified portfolio and owning a lawnmower, but in the sense that we are all responsible for our future and for the future of the company; that we have a job to do, and that it is important.

Complainers are scarce. Whiners non-existent.

The result is a group of socially aware, smart, attentive people who do the right thing, efficiently, and with panache.

And finally there’s the company itself.

I mentioned at the beginning that Automattic is redefining work. As a result, we are doing things in ways that nobody else is.

The upside is that we are leading the corporate world in how to tackle work in the 21st century.

The downside is that we have to make it up as we go. There are no consultants we can hire, no books we can read, no seminars we can take to learn how to do what we do, or what to do next.

As we discussed our products, how we work, and what to do next, we found ourselves often baffled by the unknown. The problems we have don’t yet have solutions. So it’s up to us to iterate and find the best way forward.

As I pondered how Automattic works, I kept remembering a scene from an old Disney cartoon called Saludos Amigos.

In that scene, Donald Duck is riding a llama in Bolívia, going across a suspension bridge. After a few mishaps, they find themselves standing on just a few boards, hundreds of feet up in the air. As the llama starts to walk forward, Donald grabs the last board and moves it to the front, so the llama has something to stand on. He then repeats that process, so the llama keeps walking forward:

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Why did I keep thinking of that?

Because at Automattic, we are at the forefront of work. We are doing things that have never been done, in ways that have never been tried.

We create the path we walk on.

We are riding the wave, but as we look around, we can see that it is because of our disturbance that the ocean is waving.

Automattic is meta. Matt’s name is literally in Automattic. We are self-referential, we have inside jokes, and we all blog using WordPress, the product we ourselves create. Our logo is a circle. We love looping GIFs.

Some of this self-reference is due to loving what we do. But some of this looping and inwards looking is a result of having no one else next to us to look at as we lead the way.

While this can be exciting, it does not come without challenges.

I truly believe that years from now, Automattic’s true legacy may not be WordPress, but how we created exciting products that impacted the world in a positive way, redefining workplace communication, creating an environment of respect and support, and having a ton of fun along the way.

I feel privileged to be a part of this group.

Thanks Automattic for the amazing 2016 Grand Meetup. I look forward to surfing some more.

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