Team Happiness @ Automattic

Team happiness is not some abstract, far off nirvana that is sought after but can’t be achieved; it's a way of running a company.

At Automattic, you can see that the whole team get a sense of purpose and fulfilment out of their work, which is far greater than any perk. The 10 year old company behind, Akismet, Jetpack and VaultPress, has a 100% distributed workforce of almost 400 people scattered across 37 countries, where all communication happens online, across different platforms, rapidly, often in acronyms, and entirely in public.

To understand how Automattic really gets it right, it’s worth understanding the science of motivation. Dan Pink, author of Drive, breaks motivation down into three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. The combination of these three, more so than money, perks or if/then rewards is what drive people to do their best work, and consequently what results in happy teams.

This is plainly obvious when you talk with anyone at Automattic and see that they’re not just there for the paycheck. They turn up every day to work because they believe in what Automattic stands for and because every process in the company is geared around making both the world and the team a better place.

What is most brilliant is that Automattic don’t simply write these values down, they live them day-in day-out. Let’s have a look at how ingrained these values are throughout the company:


Automattic Creed

Automatticians (as they call themselves) love the level of autonomy, flexibility and trust that’s given to them. They love that they can take their daughters to afternoon gymnastics or work wherever there’s an Internet connection, in an environment and on a schedule that works for them. They value the opportunity to work on things that aren’t assigned to them and participate in special projects with different team members. To them, flexibility and freedom are priceless.

“When you work with a distributed team, the only way you measure if they are working is on their output. Did they do what they said they would do? Where is the result of that work?” says Sara, addressing the skepticism surrounding the idea of working in a distributed team. “It’s frighteningly easy to notice when a distributed co-worker checks out or becomes disinterested in what they’re doing…they stop communicating, they stop creating. There’s no output.”


Automattic Creed

Automattic’s decentralized, open-source culture is a natural extension of WordPress, the open source blogging platform. Open source is a method of writing software where anyone can make an update or contribution. When this model is applied to an entire company and not merely to its code, it has powerful applications.

“Because everything's out in the open, people keep their standards high” says Dan, a Code Wrangler for Automattic, who explains that anybody within the organization can comment on your work - they can literally grab a piece of your code and test it out. “Success comes in part from getting feedback and buy-in to the things you produce and it puts [us] under the right kind of pressure to make something great.”

That’s why “I will never stop learning” is the part of the Automattic Creed that resonates most with employees. Another Code Wrangler, Timmy, explains “I’ve been and seen a lot of coders plateauing out, getting bored and switching jobs as a result. People here take time to help each other out and help each other learn.” He goes on to describe a culture that is collaborative, iterative and supportive, where nobody is bigger or better than the next person, and feedback is meaningful. UX designer, Isaac, adds, “Everyone around you wholeheartedly wants you to excel and evolve.”


Automattic Creed

We all have a natural desire to contribute to a greater cause and do meaningful work. With WordPress representing 24% of all websites on the Internet, any small change is seen or felt by millions of people around the world, and Automatticians take that responsibility very seriously. Ian, Developer at Automattic, loves that WordPress, as part of the open source movement, “gives people the freedom to customize software to fit their exact needs and desires. It also encourages people to collaborate on shared tools that benefits everybody and that everybody can build on top of.”

“We’re supporting freedom of speech and expression, growing small businesses, giving voice to a new generation of professional journalists and everything in-between.” adds Dan.

Velda, a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, sums it up perfectly when she says “I feel like I'm helping people get their voices out there. We're making a difference, and I love that.”

Hiring As an Audition, Not an Interview

Trust is critical in building a team with this much autonomy. When every discussion, chat and document is accessible to everyone in the company, you need to make the right hiring decisions.

That’s why Automattic employs a very rigorous hiring process, one that resembles an audition versus a traditional interview. It involves:

  • An interview, which is typically unscheduled and informal, done over text chat.
  • A paid trial, where candidates work as contractors on actual tasks for 3-8 weeks, as if they already had the job. The tryout process allows teams to efficiently assess skills and cultural fit.
  • A final interview with CEO Matt Mullenweg, also over text, skype chats or instant messenger, where he can get a sense of the person and where in the organization they’d be challenged and have an opportunity to excel.

Team Happiness

Spending five minutes with any of the Automattic team, you realise that perks alone don’t build a company of happy, motivated employees. Creating a culture of team happiness is the result of much deeper human needs; autonomy, mastery, purpose.

In an age of yearly job hopping, we need more than ever companies who are focused on the long term growth and happiness of its people. Being part of a team culture where everyone feels valued and see that they are contributing to a greater cause, is much more important than free lunch and ping pong tables. More importantly it lasts longer.


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