Transcript of Episode 7: Matt Mullenweg on Working Remotely
(This is a transcript of New Robot Overlords Episode 7: Matt Mullenweg on Working Remotely, published March 30, 2013).
Myk Willis: My guest today is Matt Mullenweg, founder of Automattic, a company best known for developing the WordPress blogging platform. Matt is also a principal at Aubrey Capital, an angel investment and research company. Matt, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
Matt Mullenweg: Oh, happy to be here.
Myk: Today’s topic is how technology has enabled geographically disparate people to work together on endeavors that used to require co‑location. We’ll focus primarily on business and the how the workforce can today be more distributed than in the past. First question for you. As someone who’s grown a business to over, as I understand it, 100 employees in over 100 cities around the world, why do office buildings exist anymore?
Matt: [laughs] I don’t know. We need someplace to put all the cubicles.
Matt: There are certain things that are always going to require you being in the same physical place as somone else. Even if you work together virtually or distributed, as Automattic does ‑‑ we’re actually over 150 people now ‑‑ there are still times that you want to get together. We do it a few times a year for every team. Primarily, I think that we’re still stuck. The majority of the world is stuck in this factory model where, if someone does not physically have their butt in the seat and at a desk, they’re not working. The world is a lot more advanced than that. We have the technology to not require that anymore.
Myk: It was in the news just last week. I’m sure you saw Marissa Mayor, the ex‑Googler who took over at Yahoo. She made headlines, at least in the tech press, with her decision to end this long‑standing remote work policy that they had a for a lot of workers. Her human resource director sent out a memo that said in part, “Being at Yahoo isn’t just about your day‑to‑day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices.” If Marissa had come to you for your advice on this topic before she’d made a decision like that, what would you have said to her?
Matt: It’s impossible to know. I’ve never worked at Yahoo and never worked remotely at Yahoo, so it is tricky to know what the context was. Were people maybe abusing the privilege? One of the most important things you can do if you’re going to work distributed is hire passionate people who are going to be self‑motivated. Perhaps Yahoo’s problem wasn’t that they were distributed but that they just had the wrong people in general.
Myk: I’ve heard a lot of criticism more about maybe the management of those people, too. People were saying it’s not the people’s fault that they’re not productive if their managers forget they exist, or along those lines.
Matt: [laughs] Fundamentally, if it was a people performance problem…I heard they leaked something that some people weren’t even logging into the VPN. Well, then deal with that. Don’t punish everyone because a few people are abusing the system. If you have an unmotivated person, forcing them to come to an office everyday isn’t going to motivate them.
Myk: The freedom from distraction is something that people bring up a lot as something that is an advantage for someone like a software developer to work remotely. Do you think that knowledge workers are actually more effective when they’re physically separated?
Matt: I think they’re more effective when they can focus. There’s not an office that you can walk through in the world that doesn’t have people with headphones on. When you think of what a headphone is, it’s essentially a signal to everyone else that, “Hey, I’m trying to do some work here. Give me a little space. Don’t interrupt me.” Or try to block out the ambient noise that’s inherent in most office configurations. If people do have a productivity boost, it’s just that they don’t have those distractions, assuming they have a good home work environment, which isn’t always true, of course.
Myk: When you’re working remotely, though, do we have those same kinds of signals to say, “Now is a good time to call me or to send me that IM”? The headphones or the intense concentration on the screen are signals that only work when you are local. If you have 150 people spread all over, when do you know is a good time to have a chat with that person on the other side of the country?
Matt: I think it’s important that we don’t fall into the same traps, the factory model of thinking, when you’re distributed that you do when you’re in an office. Yahoo talked about people being logged into the VPN. Often, it’s logged into IM or IRC. IRC is really big at Automattic. Requiring people to be logged in all day doesn’t mean they’re working. [laughs] Maybe that logging out is actually really important. That’s actually pretty common around Automattic. We’ll have people turn off email and IM for half a day to get to really power through some things.
You bring in good people, and you trust them. If someone works better by turning off IM, great. You worry about the output. The important things are that you can reach them in an emergency. Everyone has a phone, right? No one turns off their phone, because honestly, no one calls each other anymore. Then, too, if you need to…just that the expectations around communication are really met.
I think it’s also important to bring up this idea of collaboration is still really possible, in a virtual sense, in programming or pair programming. It’s actually pretty easy to do pair programming now over the Internet. If you want, you can even have a video Skype going, an audio Skype going. Just share a screen, essentially and program together. Almost any type of collaboration you can think of has an equivalent like that.
Myk: On the hand, it’s interesting that a lot of more traditional businesses feel like they have to work pretty hard to improve the collaboration of people who work in the same place. It’s funny that at the same time, as you point out, technology helps the developer pair program, share screens, that type of thing. I think it’s more and more common that companies adopt these open workstation layouts where you have doors set on their side, people working on them, just rows of workers in a big environment. There’s that typical scene you have where everybody has their headphones and they’re all staring into their MacBook or whatever.
Matt: I’m actually not a fan of that layout, personally.
Myk: Do you have any insight into why people think that that’s a good environment?
Matt: I think it’s fantastic for energy. I think it puts a lot of energy in a room. For that friendly, day‑long rapport, that perma‑conversation that happens when you’re naturally in context with other folks. People join and leave it by putting on and off their headphones, right?
Matt: If I were going to design an office that people would have to go to everyday, that we would expect people to go to everyday, it’d probably look more like a…Do you know Joel Spolsky? He writes the “Joel on Software” blog.
Myk: Sure, yeah.
Matt: They talked about their office. I believe Microsoft might do the same thing. Every engineer has a door. I think that’s pretty important. The funny thing is that Automattic actually does have a headquarters, although a lot of people don’t know that. In fact, we’re just getting ready to open up a new one. It’s a hybrid space. There’s a big, big open, actually almost cavernous large space that will have some long tables that people can work at and then a bunch of conference rooms. Just the idea that people can break out for whatever reason into any one of a half a dozen conference rooms, even though we’ll only have 15 people there most days.
Myk: There’s this book, “Imagine ‑ How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer. He recounts this story of Steve Jobs. It’s been recounted other places too, the way that Jobs was involved in the design of Pixar’s headquarters building. The interesting part of the story that Jonah’s trying to bring out is that Steve insisted on having a single set of bathrooms for the whole building. It’s a very large building. He made them put all the bathrooms in one central place in order to force people ‑‑ in particular, people from the different disciplines ‑‑ to have chance meetings over the course of the day. They all had to go to that place. To him, obviously, the in‑person meeting was a really important thing.
Matt: I guess the question is, is to and from the bathroom the best place to have those? [laughter]
Matt: You might be in a hurry.
Myk: He claims that there’s a whole generation of Pixar employees who have a hand‑washing story where they’re washing their hands next to some person that they don’t normally work with. They had some conversation that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. I think I’ve experienced that. That’s the water cooler thing or the shared kitchen in a small office where you bump into someone and say, “Oh, by the way…” That actually allows you to bond more as a team and maybe to achieve more.
Can we get that kind of cross‑discipline interaction and the kind of magic that can sometimes result from it in a world of remote workers and virtual meetings?
Matt: We do two things there. One, most of the communication in Automattic is public, meaning that there’s almost no email. We really only use email for external partners and HR stuff. Everything else in the company is on blogs. They’re private blogs. They’re only accessible to the company. If you wanted to, you could visit any one of the team’s blogs and see pretty much all their conversation, everything they’re working on, all their collaboration, all their mockups, going back since they started. This provides some pretty interesting cross‑collaboration and cross‑conversations that happen across teams.
For example, I get notifications on certain phrases. An internal project name we have is new dash. Anytime on any of our blogs, which now have between 800 and 1,000 posts and comments per day, someone mentions new dash, I actually get an email about that. It draws me into the conversations about things I’m interested in that I wouldn’t even normally hear about or know about.
The second thing is when we do happen to have people in the same city. For example, we have four folks in Portland. They have a few desks at a co‑working space. We try not to have any of them on the same team for two reasons.
One, it forces all the inter‑team communication to be on an equal footing with everyone else on the team. They’re online, essentially.
Two, we have a very tight‑knit team structure. A team is usually 5 to 10 people. They’re highly autonomous. They are cross‑functional. They have everything they need to ship, launch and iterate on the product.
When we moved to that, I did feel like we lost some of the cross‑intermingling. You will have clusters of people in certain cities. Having them all on different teams has been a nice hack to bring some of that back.
Myk: I’ve been a part of distributed teams in a few different scenarios, but mostly it’s been…Like, at a software company, when we had remote offices, each of which had clumps of, say, 20, 30 developers working in them, I actually had a pretty poor experience. I saw a lot of bad things happen there. There was a tendency for clumping, the people who were physically present. There was a development of an “us/them” type of mentality that it seemed really hard to stop from happening. It seems like that would be easier if everyone were essentially on their own island.
Myk: You wouldn’t be able to develop that kind of thing. But when people come together, it seems like they naturally do that. Aside from having people work on separate projects if they’re co‑located, has that ever been a problem in Automattic?
Matt: Not a problem we’ve tried to solve [laughs] I guess is a way to put it. One of the things about that is that it’s OK to have…I guess a way to put it is that we’re not anti‑office, actually. We are pro‑distributed. But even if there’s just one person in the city, if they want a co‑working space or to rent an office, we’re totally OK with that. In fact, we have a set budget. I don’t know what it is off the top of my head. Maybe $250, $300 a month that people can use to get a co‑working desk or a small office if they want to. Our main thing is just people trusting people to design their own work style. If you have a home that’s really small or, let’s say, you have eight kids running around all the time and five dogs and a bunch of chickens, maybe that’s not a productive place to work, and getting out of the house and into an office is what’s best for you. We try to let people do what’s best for them and not dictate one way or another.
Myk: The promise of telecommuting used to be that people would spread out. They wouldn’t all be, for example, crammed into the city. But from my vantage point, it really seems that cities are growing even more important for knowledge workers. It’s interesting. The factory workers moved out because there’s not the factories anymore, but these computer workers have moved in and filled a little bit of the void. Do you see that? If so, what do you think is behind this dominance of metro areas like San Francisco, New York City, and Boston?
Matt: The only thing that I actually bias towards is a good Internet connection. We have all types at Automattic. We have some guys who live 45 minutes out of Austin in what is essentially a couple‑acre ranch. [laughs] Goats and animals and gardens and the whole nine yards. We have folks in the biggest urban centers in the world, from New York to San Francisco to Tokyo to every place. It’s just personal. I don’t think one is right or wrong, to be honest. I love cities because I love the culture. I love art. I love museums. But I don’t think that’s necessarily right for everyone.
Myk: When I started my last company back in 2005, we were in Deerfield Beach, Florida. The way I would have to explain this to people, usually, is I’d say. “We’re in Deerfield Beach. It’s north of Fort Lauderdale, south of Boca.” They would say, “I think my grandma has a place there.” That was basically how I would have to triangulate on it. We tried to raise money. The first time we went to raise money, we found a huge geo‑bigotry, I came to call it.
You have an investment fund now that’s invested in a lot of companies. How important is geography for you when you consider an investment in one of these companies?
Matt: Not at all. [laughs] That’s the thing. Being in an urban center where talent is concentrated is only important if you’re artificially constraining yourself to only hiring people in that urban center. The first four guys at Automattic. Donncha in the south of Ireland; Ryan Boren, I believe, was in Dallas at the time; me in San Francisco; and Andy, who I want to say was in Vermont or Seattle. He was someplace. Didn’t matter. Now, did we know each other? Of course! We’d been working together on WordPress, the open‑source project, for years at that point. We knew each other just as well as if I had seen them every day.
The key is that you go for the best people regardless of where they are. If you do that, it doesn’t matter where you start. Now, for partnerships, and funding, and things like that, is it important? Sure. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a venture capitalist about to write you a million‑dollar check to want to meet you in person first. But the world is pretty small. Yesterday I was in London. Today I’m in San Francisco. Tomorrow I’ll be in Seattle. It’s easy to get around everywhere.
Myk: You obviously have a lot of experience with being highly distributed. You point out that Automattic started with people who from the beginning knew each other and worked together in that distributed manner. Presumably, all developers, is that true?
Myk: Have you given a lot of thought to this problem for outside of development? Can other types of people effectively work in that distributed manner? Have you seen, say, a marketing organization that was as diffused as, say, development at Automattic?
Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Probably who pioneered this most in corporate America was sales teams. You have salespeople traveling the country, especially in old‑school sales models. Honestly, it’s fine for anything, I think, as long as the medium of what you create and interact with works on the Internet. For example, let’s say you’re an animator at Pixar, to go back to an earlier example, and you’re drawing on physical things. Perhaps to collaborate you need someone next to you looking at the physical thing you’re drawing or drawing next to you. Understood. But if it’s all digital, sure. And there’s collaboration tools so someone else can see what you’re drawing and talk to you at the same time, sure. It doesn’t matter.
There’s nothing inherent about marketing that requires you to be co‑located, but maybe you know something about marketing I don’t.
Myk: No. However, I will say you brought up sales teams. That’s an interesting one to me because in a lot of traditional companies, you essentially have everyone in a headquarters location except for a field sales team. I really do hate to make generalizations about people, but in the experience I’ve built up over the past few years working with field sales people, I do think they tend towards a different type of personality when compared to other people in a company.
They tend, on average, to be more individually motivated. They want their commission check rather than their stock options. I was actually thinking about a sales team and thinking about, they’ve been the remote worker for a very long time.
But I wonder. Is that individualism that they tend to have correlated in some way to the fact that they work remotely often? In other words, because they’re normally working on their own and not surrounded by other members of their team, is that something that has made them more of an individually motivated person?
Matt: Perhaps. I could understand that. I think in general, in the type of sales organization you describe, everything’s a lot more explicit. Turnover can be very high. There’s a super transparent and explicit, extrinsic motivation directly tied to money. Most jobs aren’t like that, though. If I’m an engineer, I don’t get paid on the number of lines of code I wrote that day. That would be incredibly dangerous, actually. [laughter]
Matt: I remember seeing a “Dilbert” where the pointy‑haired boss was like, “We’re going to do bonuses based on how many you bugs you fix.” The whole team starts going, “Woo‑hoo.” Wally says, “I’m going to go write some bugs for a Ferrari” or something.
Myk: One thing that we talk about a lot on this show is how the technology that we have clearly makes a lot of things much easier and more fun, but there’s a lot of unintended consequences, often, by our adoption of new technologies. The flip side of being able to work anywhere and everywhere is that it becomes increasingly difficult to actually leave work. You don’t have that physical separation between your work and your life. Today, though, work is blended into life almost continually through all the channels we have, generally squirting through our smartphones. Do you think that this always‑at‑work phenomenon is causing a decrease in quality of life for people?
Matt: Yeah, probably. When people think about a distributed workforce, their first question is, “How do you know everyone’s working?” This worry that people won’t work. We found the opposite problem. It’s that people overwork, and then they tend to burn out. You come out with almost reverse benefits. We’re talking about a thing where, if you hadn’t taken a day off in four works, it nags you. You get an automated email being like, “Hey, at least take one day off. Take a long weekend or something.”
Things to encourage people to provide more balance in their life, because it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s best if you can incorporate the resets or whatever it is that relaxes you and that you really enjoy into your week‑to‑week life, rather than it being something, you go crazy for 10 months and then binge vacation for two months. I don’t think that’s actually balanced.
Personally, I love taking off a day here and there a few times a month. A long weekend or a day at the museum or whatever it might be.
Myk: I worry a lot about the burnout thing and the fact that people are never turned off. You’re blending your work/life balance very naturally. Do you think that that’s typical of people today in general that have the smartphone in their pocket, or do you see this as something that’s going to be an even bigger problem?
Matt: I think what we’re brushing on here is that it’s not really a work or no work thing. It’s almost what you just said, a smartphone problem. We have this thing in our pocket that provides this variable positive reinforcement, this buzzing, and it’s going constantly throughout the day. If you let it, you’ll just be stuck on that loop of checking your phone, checking email, checking Facebook, checking Twitter, checking…You can be busy all day and not get a single thing done. I think that’s the more fundamental issue. How do we control our interruptions? Right now, I feel like the technology is in the driver’s seat there, not the people.
Myk: How do you see that problem getting solved, or doesn’t it?
Matt: I don’t know. I think everyone has to have their own breaking point. Maybe that point where it happens enough, and then you just realize in your own life that you can’t do this anymore.
Myk: I wonder if it’s going to happen naturally, or if there is just the same analogy with how calories are so easy to get now, obesity is a major epidemic. I really don’t understand how that’s going to fix itself. This just seems to me to be exactly analogous to that, but on a mental basis.
Matt: What are we going to do, have a regulation on how many notifications you can get per day? It’s a personal problem.
Myk: If Mayor Bloomberg can outlaw giant… [laughs]
Matt: Only 10 per hour. There’s a great essay by Paul Graham called “The Acceleration of Addictiveness.” He talks about how society develops antibodies to new technology that’s addictive. It takes a long time. When you think of the mass commercialization of cigarettes, call it around the teens, around World War I, to today, when cigarettes are definitely on the wane. They’re banned in most places. Kids don’t really smoke anymore. It’s not cool to smoke anymore, at least in America. That took the better part of 100 years, where five years ago, there was no iPhone.
We have this incredibly addictive technology driven by commercial interests, huge ones, that are getting more and more adept at triggering that dopamine, triggering that response. It feels good. You said sugar. I think of it more like carbohydrates. It’s this empty, filling thing. Information carbohydrates.
Myk: We actually have this technology economy now that is very much attention‑oriented, where your payoff is correlated with how much attention you can get from someone. It’s like this huge arms race of technology companies trying to tap‑tap, poke‑poke, poke‑poke, get you to notice them, get you to register, get you to look at them. It seems like the acceleration of addiction is being fueled by venture capital in some ways, that funds the latest thing to take, the next little social media piece to plug in to grab somebody’s attention. I just wonder if it gets to a point where you’re out of attention, where people are out of attention. We’re not there yet, but I wonder.
Matt: Every time there’s been a new technology, though, people have been scared for society. When trains started, people thought it was unnatural for a human body to move at that speed because we’d never done it before, and that it would mess all sorts of things up internally if we moved faster than 30 or 40 miles per hour. Telephones in people’s houses. Television broadcasting 24 hours a day instead of just 8 or 10 hours a day. All these things people have thought might be the end of society, but we’re pretty good at adapting. I worry a little bit, but I’m also incredibly hopeful because I think there is a wave of technology now and coming that uses these interruptive, addictive factors to make us healthier.
I use an application called Lift that helps you form daily habits. I know Tim Cook from Apple is very passionate about this space. I have an Up from Jawbone on my wrist that tracks my sleep and my movements and helps me optimize them, motivates me to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
The technology can be used for good as well. I think that’s going to be a big, big, big trend over the next essentially call it 5 to 10 years.
Myk: Yeah, I hope so. I think it’s overdue. Let me shift gears again. I want to ask you about the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Stephen Covey, that’s the author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” one of those classic books from…I don’t know when it was. He makes a point in that book that you can’t be efficient with people, you really have to go for effectiveness. When you’re communicating with other people, efficiency can play no part in it.
It sometimes seems to me that the technology that we use for communication is focused too much on the efficiency aspects and not the effectiveness aspects. Is there a need, is there white space for another generation of remote collaboration tools that are really thinking at a higher level about how to have effective conversations as opposed to efficient, quicker, easier ones?
Matt: No, I don’t think it’s a technology problem. It’s a people problem. Stephen Covey wrote that book in what, the ’90s, the ’80s? I know Peter Drucker was writing about this in the ’60s and ’70s. The technology enables whatever we do already. I can have a text chat. I can have a voice chat, like we are. I can have a video chat. I can have a screen sharing. Pretty much anything you do in person, you can do online. The question is, if you were in person, would it also be effective? I think it’s how you approach it, not what the medium of communication is. That’s almost trivial.
Myk: Maybe you disagree with this. It seems fairly well accepted that when you communicate remotely, you’re more vulnerable to misunderstandings. A telephone call, for example, you’re more prone to have misunderstandings than face to face, and an email even more so.
Matt: I think it’s about bandwidth. Text is low‑bandwidth, higher potential for miscommunication. Voice is better. You can actually hear a ton from the inflection of people’s voices. Maybe video is even better than that. I’m sure we’ll have something that’s the next generation of video, whether that’s 3D or higher‑def video or whatever. At some point, the screens are going to be so high‑resolution, the cameras will be so high‑resolution, there will be no discernable difference between someone standing in front of you and looking at them on a screen. You see this already with the Retina displays. They’re so beautiful.
Myk: But they are flat, and they’re in a little square that you hold in your hand, and there are timing issues on video. My personal experience. I use Skype on a regular basis because I live on an island. I use it a lot. It’s vastly better than a telephone call. It’s hard for me to explain why. I just usually look at the person’s head on the other side. It’s a much richer communication, but I still have to travel a lot so I can firm up those relationships in person. It’s not just about hanging out with them. A conversation with someone sitting in the same room feels decidedly different to me than a Skype conversation. You think that’s just a matter of bandwidth.
Matt: There are senses that aren’t being engaged, right? Touch, smell. It’s actually true that there are some things missing that you get when you’re next to someone. I watched a movie yesterday ‑‑ on the plane from London, actually ‑‑ called “Crash.” Really good movie, by the way. The opening scene, he’s is in a crash. One of the main characters says something to the effect of, in a real city, you’re walking around. The people are dense. You’re always brushing up against people. There’s touch essentially.
In L.A., you don’t. We’re surrounded by these containers of glass and metal. He says maybe that’s why we crash into each other ‑‑ to have that touch again. A human need for it.
Myk: Shaking somebody’s hand is still a pretty powerful thing.
Myk: I certainly have had experiences in the past with email where a simple misunderstanding leads to bad feelings which escalate. You point out that there’s a lack of bandwidth, so you can’t communicate terribly effectively. There’s this idea I’ve been thinking about, which is almost the opposite problem, which is that when we communicate online, we can actually understand more about another person than we would if we were communicating personally.
When you’re sitting right next to someone, I think there’s a fair amount of self‑censoring that we do with regard to what we’re going to discuss, based on these subtle clues as to whether the other party is going to agree with us or not.
Co‑workers with different views on politics, gun control, religion. You can sniff those things out with very subtle signals when you’re in person, and decide for the sake of the relationship, you’re just going to leave that off to the side and you’re not going to talk about it.
One reason that I hardly ever go to Facebook is because I learn more about the views of people I know than I want to.
Matt: Especially people you grew up with, right?
Myk: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s really amazing. This is almost like the opposite problem. I wonder, is the broadcast aspect of digital communication…? Or maybe it’s just this sharing ethos that we’re going into. A blog post, a Facebook “Like,” even. A re‑tweet. Is that actually preventing civility in our discourse by exposing more about our views on topics that we used to avoid when we were just speaking in person?
Matt: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with more of the views being exposed. I think certain mediums do afford less civil communication, for lack of a better way of putting it, and use that email or mailing list almost designed… When you think of how in an email thread, you might go line by line and reply in‑line to different parts, different sentences even, one by one. That’s not how a conversation happens. You would never do that. I would never interrupt you after every sentence to reply to it.
That’s, I think, more of the problem than the transparency. I’m friends with people who…we disagree on almost about everything, but we can still get along.
Myk: I don’t know if it’s true or not, but sometimes it feels, whether its political discourse or any of these big societal issues, that people are more entrenched than ever in their own ideology. It makes it more difficult to have a civil conversation.
Matt: No, I think the civil part is completely fair. But again, there are people who are jerks in person as well as online.
Myk: [laughs] Right, yes. You have a very strong stance on…it’s silly to limit yourself to geography. We have the technology to be able to communicate effectively. I want to bring up this interview that you recently did with “Fast Company.” They turned it into this little montage on how to have a virtual meeting. I think that that was focused on text‑based group meetings. Is that true?
Matt: I vaguely remember it so. Maybe, maybe not.
Myk: [laughs] In any case, they boiled down this conversation that they supposedly had with you, in true modern web fashion, into four bullet items. The bullet items were basically…these were your rules to have a good virtual meeting online. “Be extra nice.” That was the first one. “Make the call” was number two, which meant, “If there’s a misunderstanding, pick up the phone.” The third one was, “Focus harder.” In other words, don’t be distracted doing multiple things. The fourth was, “Give up Meetup.” Go meet someone in person.
When I look at that, each of those things seems to be explicitly highlighting limitations of the technology. “Make the call” and “Give up Meetup” are essentially explicit admissions of failure of the virtual medium to work as well as in‑person communication.
I want to ask you, what do you think would be an ideal virtual meeting setup? Will it ever completely match an in‑person one? Will you ever be able to have a virtual meeting setup that you won’t have to have these escape clauses about, “You might have to pick up the phone and talk to the guy,” or, “You might have to meet him at a bar and hash it out”?
Matt: Just because there are new forms of communication doesn’t mean the old one can or should go away. I think we can work very, very effectively together as a company, as teams, however. I also believe that it’s important to hang out with folks, to grab a drink with them, to share a meal, to break bread. We try to find the good balance of both. Offices force you to do it every day artificially. People end up actually not appreciating each other as much, even though they’re physically proximate constantly. We do it a few times a year. Call it two or three, maybe four weeks a year, people are together.
It’s actually pretty intense because you’ve been working with these people. You feel like you know them, but you haven’t had a drink with them yet, or you may not know the sound of their laughter or really understand their sense of humor. All of those things are important.
Sometimes I’m surprised with how people look. Like, the MPR broadcasters, how you imagine them looking and how they actually look.
Myk: To close out ‑‑ we’re just about out of time here ‑‑ do you think that the highly distributed nature of Automattic…? You’re 150 employees, spread all over the globe. Do you think that that is just an early instance of what is going to become more and more common in the near future, or do you think that it’s going to take a very long time for traditional companies to break out of their established habits of basically clumping everyone together into a physical headquarters?
Matt: I think it’s a generational thing. There will be a new generation of companies that just do this natively. Digital natives. There will be probably a very small number that make the switch, and then there will be the companies that do it the old way forever and eventually go away.
Myk: Which do you think Yahoo will be?
Matt: Ooh, good question. They seem to be doubling down on this in‑person thing. That said, they change strategies every nine months.
Matt: I don’t know. I really like Yahoo. I’m rooting for them. They’re very much the underdog right now. I really hope that they…I think they have the potential to do something really, really, really interesting and be looked at again alongside Google, Microsoft, Facebook and everyone else. I think they can do it. Like I said earlier, who knows what their context is? Maybe for what they’re doing, they need to do this. If you’re going to be distributed, then you don’t want to do it in a half way. You need to be either fully committed to it, or you probably should stop.
It sounds like they weren’t fully committed to it. They had some people abusing the system. They’re just going to go all‑in on this in‑person thing. You can create fantastic organizations that way. It’s just different. It’s a different way of doing things.
We don’t have a campus in Silicon Valley that has a revolving door between Facebook and Google and all the other companies in the area. We have a different thing. We compete with other companies that have different things like that. We’ll be competing for employees with 37signals and GitHub, our cohort.
Myk: My guest today has been Matt Mullenweg. Matt, great talking to you. Thanks so much for being on “New Robot Overlords.”
Matt: No problem.