Speed Above All Else

I've been at Automattic for 10 months and one of the most fascinating aspects about Automattic is how fast everything is. New projects will get spun up, team members added, and a minimum viable product (MVP) out the door in less time that it takes your typical company to green light the project. How is this possible? Automattic is faster than WooThemes ever was. And Automattic is 450 people and WooThemes prior to the acquisition was 50 people. How can a 400 people company move this fast?

The unbelievable speed is due, in part, to how empowered all employees are to solve their day to day problems.

Bottom Up Ideas

A good deal of the projects at Automattic are bottom-up ideas. They're ideas from people on the front lines (developers, designers, happiness engineers, etc.) and they're organized and launched by those same people. Everything at Automattic is transparent so there's no official stamp of approval. To get a project launched you just need to post that you're doing it.

The next step is to get other people to help you out. Most projects will require at least one developer and one designer so you'll need to get them involved. Since there isn't any official process to get a project rolling that means you have to attract people to your cause. At any point there are dozens of active projects that require attention and there's hundreds of potential projects someone could work on so you have to have a really good idea.

There are plenty of projects proposed that never get worked on and this is a good thing. There's a lot of discussion about these projects and many don't work out for a variety of reasons. When a new hire thinks, “why doesn't Automattic have an affiliate program?” they can find many discussions via search and if they're so inclined they can reopen the discussion.

Bottom up ideas make Automattic insanely fast. Problems can be solved almost immediately after discovering them.

Vision from the Top

Having the front line workers take care of front line problems means that the leadership team can focus on big ideas, hiring, acquisitions, infrastructure, and all of those projects that help the business itself grow. The leadership doesn't hand down detailed plans. They hand down goals & objectives. How a team will reach those goals is entirely up to that team.

Downsides of Bottom Up

Moving insanely fast comes at a price. It means that we follow the release early / release often mantra common in the open source world.

If we add a new billing report and there's a bug in it most people are technical enough to figure it out and report it. Or they may dig in and solve it themselves. This is usually fine for internal products.

But for public facing projects it's not a great experience. If you break the checkout on my e-commerce store with a hasty update that's a terrible experience. In fact, that bug could cost me a lot of money – even if it's only around for 24 hours.

I've been thinking about Linux, the WordPress project itself, and other open-source projects and they aren't always a huge success. I know Linux is installed on gajillions of web servers but I'm in a coffee shop right now and I'm surrounded by Apple machines. And Apple's software is closed source and well known for a brilliant customer experience.

And then I thought of Slack and how nice that experience is. And how IRC (open source) has existed for over 20 years and never looked that pretty. Not by a long shot. And I think that's because creating very well designed experiences is a tedious process which includes a lot of listening, observing, and researching in addition to doing.

Not Fun

Since getting people on board your project is so important some of the smaller more tedious or less interesting tasks get left behind. If you had to choose between reformat the csv file or integrate with the new DropBox API which would you choose?

Speed Matters

I know that speed matters and we can iterate so much faster than anyone else out there. I'm just not sure how we can close that quality gap. How can we motivate people to do the monotonous / less interesting tasks in addition to the exciting tasks? Good questions I don't have the answers for… yet. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Speed Above All Else

  1. Great post, Patrick! I think that’s where having front-line folks is SO critical to any business that relies on open source software. The front-line support engineers can provide the feedback on user experience; the really good ones will take ownership of the bugs and issues and coordinate with the development team to prioritize them so that users aren’t left with substandard experiences and products. If you have a well-functioning company where devs and support staff have good, ongoing communication, then the magic can happen.

  2. The more I read about Automattic, the more intrigued I am to apply some day. For now, I still love the independent thing, but Automattic sounds like a very cool team to be a part of. Thanks for the peek inside.

  3. I’m just not sure how we can close that quality gap. How can we motivate people to do the monotonous / less interesting tasks in addition to the exciting tasks?

    I’m not sure it really needs to be a this or that. I think a scenario where you have people specializing and dedicated each in development, testing and user feedback would be the best approach.

    You can launch quick, gather feedback from ‘users’ (open-source model) and reiterate in the next release, or you could do that internally, with a small subset focused on each task, (rather than expecting developers to do this or support staff to break away from their main priorities to maybe get some last minute testing in) and deliver a better customer experience in the end.

    Open-source is nice in that you can rely on the community to help you improve or support your product but there are plenty of people that use WordPress that aren’t suited to do this and that is exactly the market WordPress markets to. I think we owe it to them to deliver the best customer experience possible, which would have to include dedicated teams on product feedback.

    You brought up Slack as a great example, I’d be interested to see how they structure their projects/teams in this regard (if at all).

  4. Hey, Patrick!

    Thanks for the insightful post. More employees should write posts like these. I think Automattic works like a one big open source company. Since open source projects are a lot like this, a bunch of people who care about something get together and build something.

    Keep writing!

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