Oxygen Deprivation

I recently worked, briefly, for Automattic (the company that hosts this Web site, and approximately a zillion others, and whose founder created the WordPress software that powers roughly 1/3 of the whole Web). This is part of their hiring process — they believe the best way to see how a candidate would work with them, is to have this candidate actually work with them on a trial basis. Given the unique nature of their work environment (they’re a global, distributed company with no offices to speak of), this is not only possible, but essential.

Automattic has a company creed (like a mission statement but longer), and part of it is:

I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.

That sentence, more than anything else, made me think the whole project might work out. Regrettably, my experience was utterly unlike anything I might have hoped for.

While most of Automattic uses Slack, the team I worked with is a holdout and communicates primarily with IRC — think Slack, but ephemeral, if you’re not old enough to remember IRC (also, get off my lawn). Because of Automattic’s globally distributed nature, most of the folks on my team were unavailable when I was able to work on my trial project, probably asleep. (I could only work on things during my evenings and weekends; most of this team is a few hours ahead of me.)

The other mechanism this team used for communication is a WordPress blog (of course) using the P2 theme. Nothing wrong with this in and of itself, of course; I’ve used P2 for other projects before. It’s good for status updates and checkins, but not so good for a knowledge base or for documentation. When I wrote posts describing my progress, and asking for information I needed to proceed with my project, in general I was met with silence. Once, after a week, one team member provided partial answers to some of my questions, which was as good as I ever got.

I don’t know if this was a unique trait of this team, or if the “creed” is a bit of overblown puffery, but if they treat communication as oxygen my experience was nothing short of suffocating.

Oxygen Deprivation