The co-CEOs of $26 billion Atlassian changed the way programmers work together. Now, they explain their plan to do it for everybody else too. (TEAM)


atlassian mike cannon-brookes scott farquhar

  • Australian software giant Atlassian’s products are a de facto standard for millions of programmers all over the globe. 
  • In an interview with Business Insider, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, co-founders and co-CEOs of Atlassian, talk about how they’re trying to reinvent teamwork for the modern era. 
  • Modern teams are open, they say — rather than decisions coming from the top down, everybody has access to the information necessary to choose a course of action as a unit. 
  • Atlassian tries to live its values around teamwork, too: It told employees about its 2015 IPO nine months before it actually happened, as sort of an object lesson in how openness can still work at the largest of teams.  
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For millions of programmers and IT professionals worldwide, Atlassian’s products are a major part of how their work gets done. So much so, in fact, that Joel Fishbein of BTIG Research recently advised his clients that Atlassian is so integral to customers’ working lives, it could probably raise prices without complaint. 

Atlassian’s first-ever product is still its biggest: Jira, first released in 2002. It has become the standard way for software teams to track their progress as they develop new features and squash bugs. In the years since, the portfolio has expanded into products like the make-your-own-Wikipedia tool Confluence and code-sharing service BitBucket. 

The company has always held that its very reason for being is teamwork: All of its tools help people work together, one way or another. Indeed, when Atlassian went public in 2015 — making cofounders and co-CEOs Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes into Australia’s first tech billionaires — it chose to list under the ticker symbol TEAM. 

Now, the $26 billion company is in the middle of a transition, doubling down on products for software teams while trying to broaden its appeal to other workers.

To that end, it’s been pitching a product called Jira Core at non-tech workers and making acquisitions like the popular productivity app Trello.

atlassian nasdaq

Atlassian wants to go after every team, in every industry — a theme you can expect to hear more about at its annual Atlassian Summit in Las Vegas, starting on Tuesday. 

For us, it’s that journey from solving one particular very, very, very, important use-case that’s been more and more important over the years, through to using that to be a jumping ground … for us to do more,” Farquhar tells Business Insider. 

Cannon-Brookes says that Atlassian has been laying the groundwork for this shift since the beginning.

To his mind, the original success of Jira is that it focused more on helping improve the dynamics of a software team, regardless of what technology they were using to build their products. That philosophy gives Atlassian a strong foundation go after other types of teams, too.

“That was a really smart decision of ours,” Cannon-Brookes says. “Not sure we fully processed it at the time, but that was a pivotal, pivotal difference.”

No Bulls–t

Atlassian does things differently than most of its peers. Atlassian famously employs no traditional sales force; rather, it relies on word-of-mouth and customers coming straight to its website for the vast majority of its business. It’s also well known for its very plain-spoken corporate values, displayed prominently at most of its offices, including “pen company, no bulls–t,” and “don’t f–k the customer.”

Read: We visited the new San Francisco office of $19 billion Atlassian, where every little detail is designed to help people work together

These values guide the way Atlassian does business, say the cofounders: Atlassian told employees about its IPO, including the planned date, nine months before it actually happened.

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In some ways, Cannon-Brookes says, it was a test of whether or not those principles would stand up to the rigors of being a growing, public company. If the date leaked, it would have been a big hole in Atlassian’s big bet that openness is the future of work. 

If we want to keep being open, we’re going to have to be able to keep things like this inside the building, and we did,” says Cannon-Brookes. “And we’ve continued to be a very open company about a whole lot of things, as we’ve had to make lots of different choices that come with being a growth company.”

Open by default

That kind of openness translates into key product decisions from Atlassian, say the cofounders.

Farquhar contrasts Atlassian’s approach to the likes of Google Docs: When you create a new file in most services, it’s only visible to you by default, and you can choose to add other people as collaborators. But in Atlassian’s products, creating a new Jira ticket or Confluence page is visible to the whole team by default, and you choose to lock it down.

It’s reflective of where Atlassian sees the puck moving in the way decisions get made at large companies. Farquhar says that as younger people especially join the workforce, they’re rejecting the traditional “command and control” managerial structure, where the top layers of management issue edicts to those lower on the org chart.

That’s not the way companies work today,” says Farquhar. “It’s more of a network approach where decisions are made at all levels, information gets passed to all levels, and you need to be open and transparent.”

Farquhar says there’s an additional benefit to being open about its values, too: It helps Atlassian find workers who are comfortable working in collaboration while turning away those who aren’t. This includes what he describes as “genius a—holes’ who believe themselves too good for this approach to teamwork. 

If you’re not collaborative, you’re not going to work out,” he continued.

What’s next

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the influence of Jira. The cofounders credit the product with helping shepherd in the era of so-called “agile development,” a process now standard across most of the industry for building software faster. 

Atlassian has doubled down on this strategy: Recently, it acquired startups including Opsgenie and AgileCraft, in a play to appeal further to software developers with tools for responding to IT service outages and plan software projects, respectively. It’s also recently revamped Jira significantly, in a bid to address user complaints that it had grown somewhat staid with age.

Read: $20 billion Atlassian explains why it’s blowing up its oldest product to evolve with today’s software teams

However, it’s also worked to go beyond those origins by expanding Jira to appeal to more types of teams, while betting on Trello as a simpler, more lightweight way to plan projects, that even many consumers appreciate. 

The bigger picture, says Farquhar, is that it’s a time of digital transformation, when every company is turning to tech for competitive advantage over their rivals. At the same time, programmers themselves have become a tactical advantage, as so many companies turn to building their own software to stay relevant.

And so, Atlassian’s experience with software teams in particular, and teamwork in general, becomes a real asset, Farquhar says. In fact, he wonders what took the world so long to realize that software is the secret sauce capable of changing the world. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever not believed that software is going be a big part of industry,” says Farquhar. “You know, it’s actually surprising that it’s now front of mind whereas it should have in front of mind 10 to 15 years ago.” 

New Jira Board

There are other advantages, as well, says Cannon-Brookes. Tools like Atlassian’s are a boon for the increasing number of companies hiring remote workers, freelancers, and other specialized experts from all over the world. Tools like Jira, Bitbucket, and Trello help keep everyone on the same page, no matter where in the world they are.

“There’s a reason companies are choosing to do that — they can get a lot of great talent from a lot of different places in the world, and a lot of different capabilities,” says Cannon-Brookes. “But that’s increasingly, I think, a challenge for companies that are used to working very hierarchically.”

Atlassian isn’t the only company trying to tackle these problems, by any means. Microsoft has enhanced its Office 365 suite to include several features that do at least some of what Jira does, and recently purchased GitHub, Bitbucket’s largest single competitor, for $7.5 billion. On the smaller side, startups like Airtable and Clubhouse have tried providing their own take on Jira’s core software-project planning features. 

Cannon-Brookes says that Atlassian pays attention to its competitors, but would rather not be defined by reacting to what they do. Instead, he says, he’d prefer that Atlassian stays focused on what customers need.

“We’ve always tried to think of competitors after customers just because I find putting it in reverse is a really hard direction,” says Cannon-Brookes.

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