#172 – The async work culture at WordPress: Using an internal blogging system | Matt Mullenweg & Sam Corcos
Matt Mullenweg (00:06):
When we start debating more like people than ideas, so if someone says, “I have this much experience,” or, “Why don’t you trust me?” or anything like that, when we’re debating or reversing a position or anything like that, that is really more about person than the work.
Matt Mullenweg (00:24):
And I almost never want to comment about the person, really, ever. I only want to talk about the work, I only want to talk about the ideas. But often, if we’ve worked really hard on something, it can feel like we’re being personally attacked or personally reproached when the idea is reversed, or undone, or debated, or we’re asked to defend it. So, cultivating that detachment from it is just, I think, a lifelong process.
Ben Grynol (01:04):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health and this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is A Whole New Level.
Ben Grynol (01:30):
So, it was 2003. Matt Mullenweg was 19 years old. He was a freshman at the University of Houston and he started working on this product, one that we know now synonymous with blogs around the world. It’s called WordPress. And so, this product ended up getting some traction. Eventually, he ended up dropping out of school shortly after this. And by 2005, he moved to San Francisco to pursue this world in tech.
Ben Grynol (01:59):
Now, he’s got one of the biggest remote-first companies in the world, very large distributed team. The company is Automattic, they’re the company behind WordPress, WooCommerce, Jetpack, Simplenote, the list goes on.
Ben Grynol (02:12):
They’re a distributed team of more than 2,000 people in 97 countries, speaking more than 120 languages, around the world. And the common goal is to democratize publishing and commerce so that anyone with a story can tell it. What does this have to do with Levels?
Ben Grynol (02:28):
Well, as a remote team, Matt and his crew of Automatticians, as they call themself, more than 2,000 people, they do a lot of communicating and they’re very much asynchronous in nature on the way that they are set up as a remote company.
Ben Grynol (02:42):
In an average week, they might send more than 800,000 different messages, lots of different comments, maybe 15,000. Where did these numbers come from? Well, on their website they’ve got this sense of ongoing work. Last week alone, there are 845,933 messages with 14,756 comments. It’s a lot of communication overhead.
Ben Grynol (03:04):
How do they manage it? Well, when it comes to what we are trying to learn, what we’re trying to get better at, it has to do a lot with being async and remote. So Sam Corcos, co-founder and CEO of Levels, he sat down with Matt and they dug into this idea of scaling teams remotely.
Ben Grynol (03:19):
How do you coordinate? How do you provide information and maintain this sense of being async? Well, you can be as async as possible, but no more. At least that’s the way that Matt says it. Anyway, no need to wait. Here’s a conversation with Matt and Sam.
Sam Corcos (03:40):
We’re just over 50 people now. We’ve been fully remote from day one. Most of the questions are related to scaling remote teams and I know you guys are really some of the OGs of remote work.
Sam Corcos (03:53):
I’m curious to learn, to see around some of the corners and see if there are any solutions that you figured out that could address some of the problems that we have right now.
Matt Mullenweg (04:09):
I will say, it’s a historical document, so not currently accurate. There was an author named, Scott Berkun, who joined Automatttic when we were around 45 or 50 people.
Sam Corcos (04:20):
Matt Mullenweg (04:21):
Wrote a book about his next one or two years.
Sam Corcos (04:24):
Oh. No kidding. I got to check that out.
Matt Mullenweg (04:27):
It’s called The Year Without Pants. So, this stuff is not as relevant now. We were definitely a little more of a culture that hung out and drank a lot and that sort of thing. A little more, I would even call it, bro forward back then. Which isn’t us now, but just for a point in time, when we were in literally an identical spot that you’re in.
Sam Corcos (04:56):
This is more of a tactical question. So, we have found that the concepts of remote and async are pretty strongly intertwined. My exposure to other companies that try going remote, but don’t also embrace async, it ends up being just a lot worse. You just spend a lot of time, I think you mentioned this on a podcast that I listen to, kind of get the worst of both worlds and this hybrid intermediate step is pretty brutal. How async is Automatttic?
Matt Mullenweg (05:31):
As async as possible and no more.
Sam Corcos (05:34):
Matt Mullenweg (05:34):
Well, I think that synchronous is really beautiful. So, when I say that we try to be as async as possible, I don’t mean to downplay any of the incredible value of what we’re doing right now.
Sam Corcos (05:50):
Matt Mullenweg (05:51):
Because if this were, I think a lot around network architecture, if our ping times to each other [inaudible 00:06:00] and act and that took five minutes to come back, that would slow the rate at which we can iterate on our ideas together in this conversation.
Matt Mullenweg (06:10):
But let’s make sure that we focus that synced time to create something that’s really valuable, like this conversation, or that we both have the information that we want beforehand, so that our conversation isn’t just catching up, it’s more like the debate or discussion.
Matt Mullenweg (06:33):
For something like this, it’s actually good because the information you want is essentially my life I have lived and your questions are all the life you have lived. So we’re both fully caught up. But let’s say this was about some aspect of our product, and you knew it really well and I didn’t, it wouldn’t be as a productive of a conversation. If it was this widget over here and I didn’t really know that widget that well.
Matt Mullenweg (06:58):
So, I think getting everyone to the same baseline understanding sounds simple, but is actually really, really hard. And it’s worth checking in, like, “Hey, I heard you say X, Y, Z,” that means zed or whatever, and then going back and using that same time for when it’s most useful.
Matt Mullenweg (07:23):
And then asynchronous, the other nice thing about asynchronous is that it is usually recorded. Asynchronous is usually around forever. So for us, that’s P2, wordpress.com/p2, which is our internal blogging system, which is like our internal blockchain. Almost like a blog chain, you could call it, where every comment is the organizational blockchain of every decision that’s been made in the company, including offhand ones and really long essays and treatises.
Matt Mullenweg (07:55):
And they’re all permalinked, they’re all addressable, they’re all composable, if you will, from a programming point of view. Which is really, really useful, especially when you’re trying to figure out why something happened a certain way years later. Which, if you’re successful, you will be. There’ll be a bunch of new people who weren’t there and they’ll be like, “Hey, why is this door red? Because nothing else in this room is red.” And you’re going to have to, like, it’s nice to have an indexed record of how that conversation happened and why that decision was arrived at.
Sam Corcos (08:29):
Yeah. That actually neatly ties into two of the other topics that I wanted to cover. One is around context collapse and information filtering. And the other is around communication mediums.
Sam Corcos (08:46):
I’ll start with the context collapse problem, where I think we started to really feel this around maybe 40 employees. That was the time when it was no longer possible for everyone to know what everyone else was doing. And you could just spend all day, every day, just reading up on what other people were doing at the company and not doing any work.
Sam Corcos (09:16):
And it started to get really stressful for people. And we had a good conversation with Darren Murph from Gitlab. He reframed it as, “Do people ever complain about there being too much information on the internet?” And the answer is no. That means you don’t have a volume of content problem, you have an information filtering problem. And that was a helpful reframing. But we still haven’t solved that problem.
Matt Mullenweg (09:47):
I love that reframing, by the way. Go, Darren.
Sam Corcos (09:50):
I’m curious, as you’re on a much larger scale than we are, so I’m sure you’ve come up with some mechanisms and systems. So, understanding how do you figure out what information should be available to each person, push to each person, discoverable by what teams.
Sam Corcos (10:12):
When somebody writes a 5,000-word memo, how do you ensure that the people who need that information get it effectively in a synthesized way? We’re just starting to bump up against this problem and I imagine it’s only going to get, I think it actually gets polynomially worse as we add more people.
Matt Mullenweg (10:33):
Yeah. Blessed be the curators, right?
Sam Corcos (10:36):
Matt Mullenweg (10:37):
So, I think that it becomes really important, the greatest gift you can give to your colleagues is great summaries, you know? And we have a few people in our organization that do that just for fun, they read a ton of stuff and they make a little weekly newsletter or collect their links. So things that people do on the internet, you can do within your company. And if someone has a predilection to that, that is both an incredibly helpful and incredibly powerful position in the company, to be the one that reads a ton of stuff and then distills it down and saves everyone else a ton of time.
Matt Mullenweg (11:16):
Because now, in terms of accessibility, I like for it all to be fully accessible. So, if I want to go read that 5,000-word thing, I should be able to click on it and get to it. So, in terms of [inaudible 00:11:28] control, I tend to err on the side of, within the company, every link always works.
Sam Corcos (11:36):
Matt Mullenweg (11:37):
But I’ve definitely clicked on those and loaded them. And sometimes see a long post with a hundred comments on, I’m like, “Ooh.” So we have two, what’s the word, abbreviations that we use a lot in Automattic, TLDR, which is very common. Too long, didn’t read.
Matt Mullenweg (11:58):
So, that’s a nice thing to put at the top. So, we do that as a convenience. Or sometimes we’ll summarize a thread and pin a comment to the top of P2, that says like, “This was where this all ended up.”
Matt Mullenweg (12:09):
Sometimes, I’ll ask people to reply to something at the very end. Because often, scrolling to the bottom, it’s good to see what the latest thing is and just say, “Hey, we ended up X, Y, Z.” Or, “Here’s the latest version of this.” Just so there’s always a path to the latest information or the best information.
Matt Mullenweg (12:29):
I call this yellow arrows, inspired by the Camino de Santiago, which is a pilgrimage trail, couple hundred miles. I think there’s a lot of different ways you could take, but it’s going through cities and countryside and everything, so there’s like lots of wrong turns you can take. And so, just over the years, people painted these yellow arrows on trees, wall and everything. And sometimes, you’ll turn some place and the yellow arrow will point the other way.
Matt Mullenweg (12:53):
It is not a committee that painted all these, it’s literally been hundreds of people walking, hundreds of people taking wrong turns. And so, if you ever take a wrong turn, you can leave your little yellow arrow, which is usually a link, to the place where you found out you were looking for.
Matt Mullenweg (13:11):
And that’s what I love about hypertext. It’s not like you can put a copy of your keys every place you look for your keys, you know?
Sam Corcos (13:19):
Matt Mullenweg (13:20):
But online, if you look five different places to find this particular metric, you can link it from all those places pretty easily.
Sam Corcos (13:29):
Matt Mullenweg (13:29):
Or try to remind people, if it’s just text, let’s update it frequently and make it very easy to update.
Sam Corcos (13:37):
Yeah. I think redundancy in text, in digital medium, is something that is underappreciated. There’s no cost to adding a link. And so, it’s really easy to keep things redundant, and just linking things together has a ton of value.
Sam Corcos (13:55):
We were talking about context collapse, and information filtering, and the synthesizer or curator role. There are companies, I know Amazon, they have many, many more internal comms people than you see at other similar technology companies. I think, part of the reason for that is their culture around externalizability in AWS. So, my guess is that their internal comms people also function as marketing people to some degree. Because they are, effectively, when you write a PR FAQ, it’s kind of the same thing as your marketing function.
Sam Corcos (14:39):
But I wonder, have you ever formalized this role of curator or have it just been something that happens organically?
Matt Mullenweg (14:49):
We do have various reportings that bubble up. So they naturally feed into each other, almost like tributaries of information that feed into a larger river. And you can just watch the river and get a lot of the gist of it.
Matt Mullenweg (15:05):
So, some things that are regular cadences for us is that we ask pretty much every team to do a every other week update. Actually, so weekly. Thursday, we call them Thursday Updates, because we used to do them all on Thursdays, but then we naturally spread them out throughout the week.
Sam Corcos (15:22):
Matt Mullenweg (15:23):
It was a little intense. So some do them on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, but they’re still historically called Thursday Updates.
Sam Corcos (15:29):
Matt Mullenweg (15:29):
And this is meant to be a summary of your group’s work that’s relevant for the rest, and jargon-free, and understandable for the rest of the company. So someone who’s not working on everything every day can see what you did.
Matt Mullenweg (15:45):
Our design group has been leading something they call Snaps, which are basically visual versions of this. So showing like a before and after, which is also really great.
Matt Mullenweg (15:58):
These also bubble up to monthly investor updates, which we share with the whole company. Do it for the external, do it for the internal. We also share our board meetings and other external communications to stakeholders with everyone internally.
Matt Mullenweg (16:18):
And that process, the nice thing, if you do it right, it’s not always perfect, but if you do it right, these things, the small things, make the big things easier. So the summaries get easier and easier, because you can look at the summary of the summary essentially, and say, “Okay, of these 30 things, here’s the 10 that were most interesting.”
Sam Corcos (16:37):
Yeah. And one of the other topics related to the cultural transparency and communication, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different media affects the way that people perceive information. I had a really good podcast with David Perell, who’s the writing guy, and he thinks a lot about writing. And I also had a conversation with Vinay from Loom, who thinks a lot about video as a medium.
Sam Corcos (17:11):
We’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with writing versus video versus all these different mechanisms for communicating in an asynchronous way, and we find ourselves increasingly gravitating to video for things like updates in the TLDRs and certain types of communication. And there’s a certain degree of interpersonal, I really think of something lizard-brained about seeing a human face and somebody’s tongue that really goes a long way towards building that trust and confidence in other people.
Sam Corcos (17:51):
So your company’s been around for a long time, since before a lot of these video tools were common. I’m curious how, if at all, you’ve embraced some of these tools and if that’s something that you thought much about.
Matt Mullenweg (18:10):
This is an area where I’ll say that we’re also evolving. I would say that we are very text-heavy. Oh, and to an earlier point, writing ability, it’s hard to screen for reading ability but you can screen for writing ability quite easily.
Sam Corcos (18:26):
Matt Mullenweg (18:26):
And that is a fantastic thing to screen for and hire. There’s almost no downside to looking for good writers in your hiring process.
Matt Mullenweg (18:40):
We are starting to use Loom and short videos, and in fact, this has led me to push our internal video product to have captioning, and easy speed up, and stuff like that.
Matt Mullenweg (18:57):
A hundred percent agree with you. The only downside I personally experience is that, if I’m trying to catch up on things on my phone, not going to lie, if you don’t have that audio, if you don’t have the AirPods, it’s not as accessible.
Sam Corcos (19:13):
Matt Mullenweg (19:13):
But other than that, and maybe with auto captioning, that will all go away. But it does feel like one of those things where, as long as you can speed it up, I think it’s fine. Because it is true that, I think, we can consume information faster than you or I naturally talk as humans.
Sam Corcos (19:30):
Oh yeah, for sure. Actually, I’ve seen data on this. I think where typical audio book and speed of which the average person reads, when that converges, is around somewhere between three and three and a half x speed of watching a video, which is much faster than most people can input information.
Matt Mullenweg (19:52):
If you want your mind blown, there’s also… People who are blind, apparently, parts of their brain, it’s reassigned to the audio processing and they can understand sped up audio at things that are totally illegible to you or I.
Sam Corcos (20:11):
Matt Mullenweg (20:12):
At 20 or 26 syllables per second. And I’ll send you a link to this, you can share with the team later to listen to. Because you can read the text that they’re speaking, and then hear it, and you’re like, “Wow.” But people can actually totally understand that, which is probably like if we played a 3x podcast to our grandparents, they’d be like, “How are you, blah blah blah.”
Sam Corcos (20:33):
Matt Mullenweg (20:34):
It’s kind of like training.
Sam Corcos (20:36):
Matt Mullenweg (20:37):
The brain is incredibly malleable and they do amazing things.
Sam Corcos (20:39):
Yeah, definitely. I have another tactical question of managing organizational complexity, specifically related to decision making. This is something a lot of founders that I’ve talked to, who reach this scale of around 50 people, decision making processes start to break in the, call it, pre-25 people’s [inaudible 00:21:07]. The decision making process was basically people come to me as the CEO with an idea and then I decide whether we do it. And then that’s the whole process.
Sam Corcos (21:18):
And we are now at a point where I am no longer the person who has the most context on making decisions. And so, we need to push that decision making up to the tree, to more of the edges, so that people with the most context can make the best decisions.
Sam Corcos (21:35):
And so I’m curious, on a very tactical level, I think philosophically I’ve read a lot about how you think about decision making as an organization, where you want it to be as close to the edge as possible, and we’re very much aligned with that. So, this is less of a philosophical question and more of a practical question.
Sam Corcos (22:00):
If a PM on the team has an idea for a thing, what happens next and how do these decisions get made? How do conflicts get resolved and how do resourcing trade-offs get handled?
Matt Mullenweg (22:13):
Yeah. I think the important thing there is to break down the word decision into different types of decisions. And particularly, I like to talk about reversible versus irreversible decisions.
Sam Corcos (22:24):
Matt Mullenweg (22:26):
And the realm of irreversible decisions taking an investor. And the truth is it’s a continuum. If you took the wrong investor, you could buy them out. That’s a hard thing to do, you know? Versus, we can all think of easily reversible decisions, like many things in technology, like changing the color of things or a multi-variant test. So all on that continuum, you want to, I think, have speed. And I think where organizations fail is where they make reversible decisions slowly.
Sam Corcos (23:01):
Matt Mullenweg (23:03):
Or where they make reversible decisions without a feedback loop. So, if you imagine yourself making these reversible decisions quickly and with some sort of feedback loop, you’re in the best possible place for getting to the right answer. The hardest thing about this, I would say, is reminding yourself of it. And two, identity.
Matt Mullenweg (23:26):
And I still struggle with this today, especially in the open source side of things. Is that, when we start debating more like people than ideas, so if someone says, “I have this much experience,” or, “Why don’t you trust me?” or anything like that, when we’re debating or reversing a position or anything like that, that is really more about the person than the work.
Matt Mullenweg (23:55):
And I almost never want to comment about the person, really, ever. I only want to talk about the work, I only want to talk about the ideas. But often, if we’ve worked really hard on something, it can feel like we’re being personally attacked or personally reproached, when the idea is reversed, or undone, or debated, or we’re asked to defend it. So, cultivating that detachment from it is just, I think, a lifelong process.
Matt Mullenweg (24:33):
By the way, I make that same mistake too. “Just do it because I’m the CEO,” you know? It still happens, still. 17 years later. It’s not perfect, but just keep that in mind.
Matt Mullenweg (24:44):
And if you ever find a discussion is going off, it’s a good question to ask, “Oh, did this switch from being about the idea to maybe being about ourselves?” And if so, how can we reverse that and say like, “Hey, we’re all in this together, we all work together, we all get the paycheck from the same place, we’re on the same team. Let’s just figure out the best thing for our customers, or users, or process, or efficiency or whatever.”
Sam Corcos (25:10):
Yeah. One of the problems, we’re doing better at it now, but I don’t think we solved this, is we have had situations where we had agreement on whatever the decision was, in terms of like, yes, we should do a thing. And I’m thinking of one project in particular, that went off the rails, because we gave the person the thumbs up to do the project but we didn’t resource the project explicitly.
Sam Corcos (25:45):
And so, this person had this mandate and this expected outcome but not the resources to deliver on it, and it just created incredible frustration and conflict between them and other business units.
Sam Corcos (25:59):
So when it comes to that kind of decision making, I imagine, do we want to do the thing as something you have to decide? What are the resources needed to do it and are we allocating them? Are there any other things that we really need to take into consideration to make sure these things are done successfully?
Matt Mullenweg (26:17):
I’m sure we have also made that mistake hundreds of times, literally. So, don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s probably going to happen regardless.
Sam Corcos (26:24):
Matt Mullenweg (26:26):
I think that’s just a function of communication. So, if you’re saying yes to this, this means X, Y, Z… I personally avoid the term resourcing, or resources, because I feel like that level of abstraction sometimes allows us to not really think about what’s needed. Is it resources or is it two people working mostly full time for two weeks? You know, kind of get nitty gritty about it and really describe what is going to be needed.
Matt Mullenweg (27:04):
And then, sometimes even just describing it like to a five-year old, really being descriptive on the process, the people, the time, the sign-offs, whatever it is, it can feel silly but is remarkably helpful. Because even at the most senior levels, or people with decades of experience, you’d be surprised how many times everyone around the table’s nodding because they think they agree, but they all have a slightly different version of what they’re agreeing to in their head.
Matt Mullenweg (27:41):
And that might not be apparent, especially, if you sign off and then you check in a month later. You find out the month later that the thing that was built was not what we thought we all agreed to. And that still happens with us, too. And I see why that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for me as maybe the person who agreed to something that’s not what was built. I bet, it’s also frustrating to that person who built it.
Sam Corcos (28:04):
Matt Mullenweg (28:05):
Could’ve done that too if you just had a clear understanding. So, almost every organizational issue is some subset of a communication issue.
Sam Corcos (28:18):
Yeah. I’ve seen really good engineers quit companies when they work on a thing for three months and then find out afterwards that it was different than what needed to be built. And nobody wants to burn three months of their lives on something that doesn’t get implemented. It’s just not a fun position to be in.
Matt Mullenweg (28:38):
Sam Corcos (28:41):
Matt Mullenweg (28:41):
Unless, well, that’s different types of mistakes. So, if you burn three months and then you learned that that is a bad path to go down, that’s great.
Sam Corcos (28:50):
Matt Mullenweg (28:51):
But if you burn three months and then you learn that wasn’t what was intended in the first place?
Sam Corcos (28:58):
Matt Mullenweg (28:58):
That hurts, you know? Yeah, I think the former, you want more of, even. You know?
Sam Corcos (29:06):
Matt Mullenweg (29:07):
You’re closing off passive inquiry. But the latter, as few as possible.
Sam Corcos (29:12):
Yeah. The next big push that we have really, this month in August, is we’ve come to this recognition that we need to take performance management more seriously. And it really is in both directions. The thing that surprised me about this was how the… I have always heard of performance management from the top down management side of things, but the people who have been requesting this are actually the employees, like on-the-ground engineers. They want to know how they’re doing.
Sam Corcos (29:48):
And a lot of the one-on-ones I’ve done with people on the team, the problems that we need to solve are things like people want to know, are they performing? Are they advancing? Are they at risk of being fired? People want to know that and I think that’s reasonable.
Matt Mullenweg (30:06):
Especially, right now.
Sam Corcos (30:07):
Yeah, for sure. And I think, there’s a degree to which it is our responsibility as leaders to set people up for success in their careers, in their career growth, and help them reach their goals.
Sam Corcos (30:24):
So, I have other questions around performance management, but it seems like almost everybody has their own approach to it. At a high level, how do you approach this topic?
Matt Mullenweg (30:38):
It’s so huge because, basically, performance is the entirety of the job.
Sam Corcos (30:43):
Matt Mullenweg (30:43):
I’ll tell you things that we avoid. I don’t like the whole company evaluating things at the same time, even whole teams. So, what we try to do is spread it out throughout the year. Kind of like I said, we used to do all our Thursday Updates on Thursdays, and that was too much.
Sam Corcos (30:57):
Matt Mullenweg (30:57):
Now, it was spread out.
Matt Mullenweg (31:00):
How we’ve designed our internal HR systems is that, there’s not like a evaluation week or anything like that, but everyone is getting asked about one of their colleagues in some 360, like a colleague, a manager, a subordinate, periodically throughout the year on a rolling basis.
Matt Mullenweg (31:22):
So let’s say, Sam, you’re a manager in the middle somewhere. Hopefully, I’m getting some feedback on you, maybe every one to three weeks, from someone you work with. And so, let’s say you work with 10 people regularly, they might be asked three to four times per year, “How’s Sam doing?” And maybe a specific question each time like, “How is Sam’s communication style?” Or, “How is Sam…” You know? We had the questions, I don’t want to ad lib them.
Sam Corcos (31:59):
Matt Mullenweg (32:00):
Ones we’ve thought of and that tried to be, sometimes, they tie to our creed, which is at automattic.com/creed, which is kind of our values thing. And I find that really helpful as well, because it also helps you catch faster if someone’s struggling. That can happen for a variety of reasons, some of which the company can help with and some of which you can’t, but you want to be aware of anyway. And the company can help maybe by removing some responsibilities if someone’s going through a difficult personal situation, or health situation, or something.
Matt Mullenweg (32:39):
You know what, if someone you love is facing a existential health crisis, guess what? You’re not going to be productive. We all know that. You could try to. By the way, you’re going to try to, but it’s not going to be there.
Matt Mullenweg (32:57):
So, let’s just be aware of that and let’s make sure that that is an open communication. You don’t have to share even what it is, if you’re not comfortable with that. Maybe with HR, but you don’t have to share it with everyone if you don’t want everyone asking you about it or something. But just so that there’s a knowledge. That’s possible.
Matt Mullenweg (33:18):
As an aside, something we actually ended up with there as well, is a way for people to move to partial time employment for partial pay. We did some experiments in the company on like four-day work weeks and other things.
Sam Corcos (33:35):
Matt Mullenweg (33:39):
Honestly, we didn’t stick with it.
Sam Corcos (33:40):
Matt Mullenweg (33:41):
There’s obviously a division in marginal return to work.
Sam Corcos (33:44):
Matt Mullenweg (33:44):
And sometimes more work means more stuff gets done.
Sam Corcos (33:49):
Matt Mullenweg (33:49):
It’s not like a perfect 40-hour thing.
Sam Corcos (33:53):
Yeah. I actually think most of the data indicates the opposite of that diminishing marginal return. I think, most of the evidence that I’ve seen shows an increased marginal rate of return after some number of hours.
Sam Corcos (34:08):
People who work 10% more hours, difference between 40 and 44 hours per week, make about 30% more in terms of compensation. I think, this is maybe too in the weeds on this topic, but I think there’s a dead weight loss of communication, that might be 20 or 30 hours a week. And so, any time above that dead weight loss is actually very highly-leveraged. And so, I think it’s actually the opposite.
Matt Mullenweg (34:39):
I will also pause at that. Really effective asynchronous distributed organization maybe has a smaller dead weight.
Sam Corcos (34:47):
Matt Mullenweg (34:48):
I have observed it even with myself. I’m 38 now. I’ve gotten Covid twice. I definitely feel it sometimes, where I just feel a little bit slower towards the end of the day. Or before, I might be able to do really great nighttime coding sessions. So for myself, I’ve seen managing, aligning my task with my energy levels is really important throughout the course of the day.
Matt Mullenweg (35:20):
In the morning, I’m really great at reading and understanding, especially long things. And towards the end of the day, I find that I can still read the long things but I retain a lot less of it. And so, I’ve just tried to shift that work. Morning is when I try to close a bunch of tabs. I even got a tab counter thing right now on this laptop. I’ve got, let’s see, 150 open.
Sam Corcos (35:45):
I have less.
Matt Mullenweg (35:46):
By the way, I peaked. When I started counting them, I have two laptops, where I had almost 500 per laptop. I was like, “My life is a mess, I need to cut it down.” And I realized I was trying to do it at the wrong time of day. So, I think there is something to that.
Matt Mullenweg (36:00):
And I also wonder, if you’re consuming things and getting more context, more is better. But there’s a generative part of work that I do feel more energy in the morning, or when I first get up, than I do when I’m tired, however you define that.
Sam Corcos (36:23):
Matt Mullenweg (36:25):
But the partial-work partial-day thing was just that. And because we don’t track hours, so I don’t think there’s almost anything, maybe support roles, there’s schedules. But we say, “Okay, if you want to move to an 80% expectations, so you’re doing about 80% of what someone working full time is doing, you can do that for 80% pay.” And you can move between them, not every day, but weekly essentially or something.
Matt Mullenweg (36:54):
So that way, some people might want to work a little less and make a little less during the summer, and that’s a real freeing thing to them. And it’s also really nice because they know that at any point they can turn it back up a hundred percent, and they’re not going to lose their job, or anything like that.
Matt Mullenweg (37:10):
So that was something we introduced in Covid, particularly, when people had a lot of home care or schooling or something like that. And we’ve kept it. It’s not used a ton, but people also appreciate knowing it’s there. And I have seen people also use it.
Matt Mullenweg (37:25):
We also have unlimited AFK. So it’s like how does that interact with the… But it’s more about expectations of accomplishments. So, we have unlimited AFK and we kind of have expect what someone working full time produces in a given week, month, quarter, year. You know?
Sam Corcos (37:43):
Matt Mullenweg (37:44):
So, those are all kind of complex interplays between those programs.
Sam Corcos (37:51):
And one of the other questions around performance management that we’ve been struggling with, and I know our company share a lot of similar philosophies, so I’m curious where you ended up on this.
Sam Corcos (38:04):
On the concept of transparency for performance management, we ultimately landed, for compensation, that compensation data is confidential and it’s not shared. I think, Buffer is one company where everyone’s compensation data is public. I think there’s actually a public spreadsheet and you can see it. But even some of the most transparent companies, like Bridgewater, compensation data is confidential.
Sam Corcos (38:39):
Performance is another one of those concepts that’s on a spectrum of transparency. At Bridgewater, they have baseball cards. You know where you stand and where everyone else stands, and what everyone’s strengths and weaknesses are, you know who the under-performers are. It’s visible to everyone at the organization, and at most other companies, is confidential. How you are performing is confidential. And so between, basically, you and your manager.
Sam Corcos (39:11):
So, I’m curious where you ended up on this concept of performance and how you got there.
Matt Mullenweg (39:19):
Hmm. We have some areas of work where the feedback loops are public. So, Support’s a great example.
Sam Corcos (39:27):
Matt Mullenweg (39:28):
Everyone can see everyone else’s, how many interactions they had and the ratings of those interactions. That’s maybe the thing in our company that’s closest to sports.
Sam Corcos (39:39):
Matt Mullenweg (39:40):
On the field and off the field. Off the field contributes to on the field. And on the field, I think, is pretty representative of our goals, which is a great customer experience. So, it’s not perfect because sometimes people give us low ratings because they’re unhappy with the product, not the support. But we know that.
Sam Corcos (40:00):
Matt Mullenweg (40:01):
Almost everywhere else, though, it’s so fuzzy. And I think that’s why a lot of companies don’t have an equivalent for Bridgewater, or like a baseball card, because the high performance is a combination of a thousand interactions that you have with your colleagues, with external partners, with everyone else.
Matt Mullenweg (40:27):
I’ll tell you the things that are most on my mind for performance management right now. One is, we hired a lot last year, 700 people last year.
Sam Corcos (40:38):
Matt Mullenweg (40:38):
Took us to about 2,000. Like many companies, we’re facing some headwinds and we don’t want to do layoffs. We invested a lot in hiring folks. And so we’ve explicitly said that, but we’re not trying to grow a lot this year. We want to maintain. Our revenue per employee is a bit low compared to others. Also, everyone who works for the company would love to make more, who doesn’t want to make more? But fundamentally, that is limited by our revenue per employee.
Matt Mullenweg (41:09):
So, I think it’s both good for the company and good for all the employees if we can increase our revenue per person and our output. And of course, that breaks down per role and other things. So, part of what we’re doing as well is saying that if you let someone go for performance, that replacement hire can happen maybe even when the performance improvement plan, or PIP, starts. Not even when the person is let go.
Matt Mullenweg (41:40):
I’ve been working a lot to… I found some areas where we’ve had a lot of feedback inflation.
Sam Corcos (41:49):
Mm. What does that mean?
Matt Mullenweg (41:51):
Where someone had really good peer feedback, and then I was speaking to a leader and they were like, “This person is not even showing up for work.” Some baseline things were not being met. And I was like, “Huh.” And so then, I went to HR. I was like, “It sounds like we should move faster to offer this person a severance.” And their response to me was, “But, wait. We just gave him a raise based on feedback.”
Sam Corcos (42:20):
Matt Mullenweg (42:21):
And I was like, “Wow, the company has utterly failed at this,” you know? Because what mixed signals. By the way, it’s not fair to that person at all.
Sam Corcos (42:27):
Matt Mullenweg (42:32):
So, just at every level, there was a failure there. So we have to go and look at the positive feedback they were getting. When was it? Was there some inflation there? What are the incentives? Are people just giving everyone positive feedback, because there’s no skin off their back if they do?
Sam Corcos (42:48):
Matt Mullenweg (42:48):
So, how does it reflect back on them, their performance, that they gave positive feedback to someone who wasn’t actually doing that well?
Sam Corcos (42:55):
Matt Mullenweg (42:56):
So, you kind of have to work your way through the whole web of interactions there. And that’s something we’re doing.
Matt Mullenweg (43:03):
And the final thing that’s on my mind a lot is areas where the entire team is rated as doing well, but we’re not meeting our business objectives. So, how can we have a high-performing individuals on a low-performing team?
Sam Corcos (43:16):
Matt Mullenweg (43:18):
Theoretically possible, but especially over the long-term, you have to, at some point, redefine performance for accomplishing those goals. It’s great that everyone’s working hard, communicating great, like a model colleague in so many ways. But if we’re not working on the right things, we should take a step back and readdress.
Matt Mullenweg (43:40):
And part of what we’re doing there is, in some places in the company, again, we’re 2,000 people, we’re pretty big, we’re taking entire teams and just saying, “Let’s work on something else.” And then that allows us to see like, “Were we just working on the wrong thing?” Which is actually what I think it was, or we worked on a problem the wrong way. Maybe we got too stuck in a certain path.
Sam Corcos (44:04):
Matt Mullenweg (44:05):
And so, let’s work on something just totally different and see how this group of people, who already know each other really well, who are already really well-aligned. They’re very talented, can apply themselves to a brand new problem.
Matt Mullenweg (44:18):
It kind of sucks because your identity’s attached to this thing you’ve been working on. But I hope that it also reveals where the problem is, or if there’s some other hidden performance issues on the team.
Sam Corcos (44:33):
Yeah. Those are some interesting things for us to think about. I can see how we could run into those at some point in the near future.
Sam Corcos (44:44):
On the transparency side, let’s say you have a team that seems to be doing well, but they’re not hitting their goals. I’m reminded of a podcast that I have with Marc Randolph from Netflix. And he says that, he had this line that’s really stuck with me, which is that, people notice what you tolerate. And if you tolerate poor performance, oftentimes, many people on the team know this before you do. And it’s really demoralizing when you are working really hard, but the people around you are not performing. And it’s not a super strong motivator to perform yourself when you notice that the company tolerates people who don’t really show up.
Sam Corcos (45:32):
And where I’ve struggled with this is that, the one version of the culture is you hold these people up as examples and you shame them, and when you fire them, and that seems like a very bad way to go about it, but the alternative is these people just sort of leave and nobody knows what the performance expectation is. And so, I don’t see a good solution here on how you handle that.
Matt Mullenweg (46:07):
I don’t know a good solution either.
Sam Corcos (46:10):
Matt Mullenweg (46:11):
Look, we do not publicly comment when someone’s let go for performance. In fact, we allow people to do their own goodbye post and things. And that’s just respect and dignity I think is important on the way in and out for folks. Hopefully, the ones on their team realize, the immediate team, and your whole company is probably small enough that maybe that’s most of the company will realize, but you don’t have to be mean about it or public about it.
Matt Mullenweg (46:46):
We occasionally will post to the whole company about something. We’re doing it right now, we just had one a few days ago. We let someone go because of expenses. So to me, when it’s an opportunity to both just really restate that that’s not okay. This person had actually doctored some expense things, which to me is very clearly almost fraud or [inaudible 00:47:14].
Sam Corcos (47:13):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Matt Mullenweg (47:15):
That’s a no-brainer. And also, reaffirm our culture of trust. We’re not changing our policies because of this, but we’re going to remind everyone this isn’t okay. And it’s a trust and verify, and this is what happened. Finance raised that this was unusual, HR looked into it and then we let this person go immediately. Just so folks know as well, because we have had it before, the same thing you said with performance. If you see someone ordering something really, really expensive at dinner and you’re like, “Oh. I’m going to get the burger and they’re getting the porterhouse or a $200 meal or something,” on the company dime, that also can be corrosive for trying to save the company money.
Sam Corcos (48:06):
Matt Mullenweg (48:07):
And so, I think those things are important. Also, things that everyone in the company can set an example of, particularly managers.
Sam Corcos (48:15):
Matt Mullenweg (48:16):
If we’re ever at a restaurant, I’m very conscious of what I order, the price of what I order. I don’t even know if someone even knows this, but I think they do. And if we’re going to celebrate something, or entertain a client or something, let’s be very explicit about that. “Hey, this client is paying us $4 million a year. We’re going to take them out and we’re going to order the nicest wine on the menu for them.”
Matt Mullenweg (48:42):
And we’re going to say that beforehand. It’s not going to be on the fly thing or something. We’re all going to know this is going to happen. We’re all going to really enjoy that.
Sam Corcos (48:49):
Matt Mullenweg (48:50):
As like a celebration. So, those are important too. But just casually or on the fly, not premeditated, I think that can send the wrong message.
Sam Corcos (49:01):
Yeah. For sure.
Matt Mullenweg (49:02):
We’re very, very frugal on expenses and it’s so hard to maintain that frugality as you grow. And I actually really appreciate, this kind of economic turbulence is kind of the third we’ve been through in the history of our company, and every time we’ve gone through it, it’s made our company so much better.
Matt Mullenweg (49:22):
As much as I can say, “Hey, we need to be efficient, we need to be frugal, we need to be all these things,” when you’re hiring 700 people in a year, you know?
Sam Corcos (49:31):
Matt Mullenweg (49:34):
You pick up some extra, in terms of processes and efficiency and everything like that, and perhaps tolerating some low performance scenarios you just aren’t noticing or didn’t pay attention to.
Matt Mullenweg (49:46):
So times like this are really, really good to just loop back. And it’s something I’m doing with all of our teams now, is just going through every project and saying, “Hey, is this contributing to engagement or revenue? Or is this like paying down technical debt or maintenance and something we need to do continuously?” If it doesn’t fall into one of those three buckets and we show a certain proportion of each, let’s re-examine it.
Sam Corcos (50:14):
Right. Yeah, we’ve hired 30 people in the last year and that’s been its own set of struggles. I can’t imagine 700.
Sam Corcos (50:24):
One of the other questions, this is something that, we have hired relatively senior to date, I think much more so than is typical for a company at our stage. And so, things like mentorship and personal growth has not been as much of a priority. But as we’ve continued to get bigger and hire more people, who are maybe earlier on in their careers, we’re starting to notice that basically we can’t assume that everybody is a self-driven autodidact anymore.
Matt Mullenweg (51:02):
Sam Corcos (51:02):
And we’re struggling to figure out, mentorship just tactically seems a lot easier in a co-located team. You’re physically next to the person that can shadow you. Not even, let’s say, more junior people, but people who are not very senior in their careers need some guidance and mentorship. And we haven’t really been able to do that and I don’t think that we have a good process for that. So, I’m curious if that’s something you’ve thought about and how you achieved it.
Matt Mullenweg (51:33):
We’ll try to break that up into a few different things.
Matt Mullenweg (51:37):
We have a coaching program, so people can get reimbursed for coaching. We actually, at this point, have 30 coaches that are kind of pre-approved. We have a contract with them, et cetera, et cetera. So, if you want to get coaching, you sign up, you need to do this month-long course essentially, that’s a self-serve thing. And then once you complete that, you can interview a couple of coaches, pick your favorite one, and that’s all reimbursed. It’s very expensive, these coaches are typically a couple hundred dollars per hour.
Matt Mullenweg (52:09):
But I think it’s one of the best investments we make because they’re all familiar with Automattic, because they work with our people.
Sam Corcos (52:15):
Matt Mullenweg (52:16):
So they kind of know our weirdness and our quirks and everything versus a one-off. I think there’s an advantage to a coach working with several people in a company, and they’re totally outside of the management structure.
Matt Mullenweg (52:25):
So, these folks are just for you. They don’t determine your performance, they don’t give feedback on your conversation. They’re just like, so I think it’s even better than a manager. And if they’re good, hopefully they’re good, we do two-way ratings on them and we try to get rid of the coaches that get low ratings or show up late to meetings or something like that. They’re going to push you and you can bring your problems to them, like any good coach.
Matt Mullenweg (52:49):
By the way, every great performer you see in the world works with coaches.
Sam Corcos (52:54):
Matt Mullenweg (52:54):
LeBron James has eight coaches. He has a coach for everything. Not literally like a pinky-toe coach, but I’m sure some equivalent, where there’s something, maybe like a fast twitch coach or something.
Sam Corcos (53:04):
Matt Mullenweg (53:04):
You know? That’s awesome. And then, on the other side of that, I find meetups really important. So getting people together in person, especially now that that’s much more possible than ever, is a worthwhile investment. So our e-commerce business, we saw e-commerce payments slow down a lot this year. I think just as stuff started to shift from online to offline and maybe broader macro economic trends. So, I think that’s coming in like $30 million of revenue below plan.
Matt Mullenweg (53:43):
So of course, we looked at all of our budgets. And the one thing that we were like we’re not going to touch is our meetup budget. One, because, by the way, we saved a ton of money during Covid by not doing it. We were about 10 million a year, pre-Covid.
Matt Mullenweg (53:57):
And at two, I just feel, especially in a situation where perhaps half the company has not been to a meetup before, especially the bit start of the year, it’s just a really great investment for people to get together.
Matt Mullenweg (54:09):
And it’s also okay for this to be informal. It could just be two people getting together for a couple days. It could be just a co-working situation. You can definitely do it virtually with some screen sharing and everything. And you should do that too, especially for new people who might not be able to travel. But to a stinch, you’re able to get people together in person a few times a year, it is invaluable.