On May 1, 2021, Frank Furedi — a former Trotskyist turned right-wing libertarian — penned a column for the Australian fuming against “woke capitalists.” He reserved particular ire for Atlassian cofounder and co-CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, a man he said “personifies the businessman turned culture warrior.”
This wasn’t the only press that Cannon-Brookes and his business partner Scott Farquhar received that week. The media is fascinated by the mystique of Australia’s larrikin software billionaires. While Atlassian may be domiciled in the UK and listed in the United States, its public image, built around a kind of twenty-first-century Australian pseudo-egalitarianism, is homegrown.
Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar claim they began the business because they “didn’t want to wear a suit to work” and only wanted to make the starting salary for a grad in the industry. This informal blokishness is part of the company’s ethos. Atlassian’s values, proudly displayed on their website, stress that one of the tech giant’s key aims is to be an “open company, no bullshit.” The firm’s aversion to polished self-presentation is an integral part of its brand.
Even Atlassian’s products keep a low profile — so low, in fact, that many people don’t really know what the company does. This has been a running theme in commentary on Atlassian. In December 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald asked “Atlassian … What do they do again?” Three years later, they published another puff piece entitled, “Atlassian: The $30 Billion Tech Giant Nobody Understands.”
We cannot, however, allow ourselves to be fooled by Atlassian’s public image. Understanding Atlassian is key to grasping changes in contemporary workplaces and the politics of tech billionaires, “woke” and otherwise.
So, what does Atlassian do? The simple answer is that they make project management software for developers. This includes products like Confluence, a corporate wiki built for sharing documentation; and Bitbucket, for collaboratively tracking and managing changes to code. But Atlassian’s flagship product is Jira, which it describes as a “powerful work management tool for all kinds of use cases, from requirements and test case management to agile software development.”
The rather boring nature of Atlassian’s products contrasts sharply with the company’s world-changing ambitions. Atlassian claims that its business will help to launch a wholesale “disruption” of work. In their own words, they don’t just sell products but “practices” that help “teams to find new ways to work.”
Atlassian’s marketing material offers a vision of a world in which workplace decision-making has been decentralized and hierarchies toppled. “Teams” — the essential unit in Atlassian’s world — are free to realize their collective genius collaboratively and remotely. Never mind the power differences within them.
Underlying this is a techno-utopian worldview. To develop this vision, Atlassian even employ a designated “Work Futurist,” Dom Price. Price likes to reference the work of Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, whose Fourth Industrial Revolution argues that new digital technologies are creating a paradigm shift in the way we live and work.
Price uses this periodization to set out a vision of workplaces that are “networks,” not “ladders,” in which robots have taken up “repetitive, mundane” tasks. This, Price argues, will leave workers with more time to “do interesting work” and get involved in strategic planning.
If you take a closer look at a workplace “disrupted” by Atlassian tools, it seems more like a cyber-Taylorist dystopia than a world freed from drudgery by machines. For example, the McCorvey Sheet Metal Works used Trello — a subsidiary of Atlassian purchased in 2017 — to replace their paper-based system for production processes on the shop floor.
Implementing Trello involved breaking down tasks into a set of digital “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done” lists. This cataloguing system is inspired by Kanban, the scheduling system developed by engineers at Toyota in the 1970s. Trello allows McCorvey Sheet Metal Works to “visually track jobs in the pipeline … and see when jobs were taking longer than expected, and who needed help in getting their job to completion.”
The upshot is that Atlassian has given McCorvey’s management an even greater insight into the production process. Whether this is a utopia or a dystopia depends on where in the production process you stand.
Managers are the target audience for Altassian’s vision of the future of work. If there were any doubt, an interactive marketing infographic called You Waste a Lot of Time at Work makes their intentions clear. We are told that 91 percent of people daydream during meetings, and that for every workday, two hours are spent recovering from distractions. One graphic from Atlassian’s infographic reveals that “60 percent or less of work time is actually spent productively.”
Atlassian concludes with a call to “Stop the trend!” And their pitch seems to be working. Over the last financial quarter, the company grew its client base by over two hundred thousand.
Changing the World for the Worse
If changing the way we work wasn’t a grand enough goal, Atlassian has also taken up political and social issues, both domestic and international. Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes have led the charge, regularly intervening in day-to-day questions. These range from backing plans for elite Australian private schools to go co-educational to attending the UN Climate Action Summit.
Cannon-Brookes is particularly outspoken on environmental issues, arguing that it is now necessary for “business leaders to provide leadership in areas of the community,” or risk losing their workforce.
There is a connection between Atlassian’s forays into the world of politics and its technocratic vision of the world. When you sell billions of dollars’ worth of management software, it is easy to think that tech innovation can solve all the world’s problems.
In an interview on his “politicization,” Cannon-Brookes told the Sydney Morning Herald that he saw “two problems with politics.” The first was that “people start with a given position … they can’t apply logic to it, they can’t sit there and go: ‘What is the best solution here? Let’s go with that,’ because there are interest groups.”
His second issue is with the “government’s inability to experiment” because “you get voted out, or the other guys are like, ‘Oh look at those idiots, that was never going to work.’” He compares this approach unfavorably to that of startups. In budding companies, according to Cannon-Brookes, there are “lots of experiments going on constantly that work or don’t work and then flame out.”
In other words, the government should operate more like a tech startup, presumably one that uses Atlassian software and management practices. All that is needed are solutions — but the messy world of politics gets in the way.
Regulation and restructuring do not have much of a place in Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar’s vision of how tech companies ought to be run. When Facebook blocked Australian users in response to a media code introduced by the federal government, Farquhar backed Facebook down the line. “Poor government regulation,” he argued, was hampering the tech industry and its “wider benefit to society.” Atlassian then issued a set of principles it wants governments to adhere to when setting regulation for tech companies — so much for experimentation and teamwork.
In response to Atlassian’s dire warnings that Australia won’t keep up with other nations in the tech race, the New South Wales government built Tech Central, a “technology and innovation precinct” in Sydney. Atlassian will take center stage, with a new 180-meter-tall headquarters. It is a monument to the notion that “technology can turbo-charge Australia’s recovery” and “create jobs, ideas, and innovation.”
As the writer and academic Gavin Mueller has argued, “technology developed by capitalism furthers its goals … compels us to work more, limits our autonomy, and outmaneuvers and divides us when we organize to fight back.” This is particularly true of technology that is developed to manage work processes, including Atlassian’s software, despite their attempts to sell it as a “disruptive” form of liberation.
Until we develop the digital platforms needed to organize strikes and genuinely disrupt work, socialists may have to rediscover the Luddite approach that has, as Mueller has argued, always lain hidden at the heart of the workers’ movement.