Seven Years

On May 2 of 2011, I started work full time at a little company called Automattic that didn’t seem so little at the time. The company worked and still works remotely, meaning that many of us work in our pajamas from home or from wherever in the world our wanderlust takes us. I had worked for a company called Flock for about six years before, and that was a remote job too. The oldest of my two children will be 14 this summer, and I’ve worked from home for all but a few months of her entire life. It’s been such a privilege.

Every year, Automattic hosts what we call the Grand Meetup (“GM” for short), in which all who are able come together in one place. My first GM was in Budapest in 2011, and this was my first travel ever outside of the U.S. and Canada. We were about 80 people, and that gathering is pictured at top left in the photo below. Each year at the GM, we do a photo like this, and mine from this past September just arrived in the mail (see bottom right). We’re a little over 700 people now.

I don’t think of myself as a sentimental person in general, but I do have a very soft spot for these annual photos. I keep them grouped together on top of a filing cabinet in my office. I’ve worked one job or another, full- or part-time, since I was in my early teens (when I worked on farms and was paid in cash under the table), and I’ve been working as a grown-up with real grown-up jobs for very nearly half my life now. Although I’ve had any number of coworkers I liked, I’ve never worked with so many whom I liked so very much and with whom I’ve connected with as sincere a fondness as I do with many of the colleagues I’ve met through Automattic.

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Patch

For my day job, I have the whimsical title “Happiness Gardener.” Honestly I don’t love the title. When asked to provide my title for paperwork, I tend to just say “developer” since that’s the sort of work I tend to do, though you wouldn’t know it from my title. I work on the support team, providing debugging and tool support for colleagues who interact directly with the people who use my company’s products. These colleagues are called Happiness Engineers, a title that is still whimsical but from which does make a certain sense once you connect it to the role these colleagues fill. Getting from “developer” to “Happiness Gardener” takes a little more squinting, I think.

So, the Happiness Engineer position existed before the Happiness Gardener position. Back when there were a dozen or so (maybe even fewer) Happiness Engineers (HE for short) at the company, a developer was hired to fill the sort of role I now fill. The idea was that he would sort of clear out weeds by fixing things that affected HEs and customers, while also cultivating improvements that’d help HEs flourish in their roles, and so the Gardener title was born. I was later hired as the second Gardener. The original Gardener has moved to a different team after about 5 years in the role, and now I lead a team that has grown to 7 members.

Happiness started out as just a few people working together on one team, but over the years, sub-teams focusing on specific products or on specific types of support have formed, and now we’re around 100 people. Some teams have come and gone, or been renamed, and people have floated from one team to another. Over the years, a few in-jokes have popped up as well.

Employees at my company work remotely, from coffee shops, airplanes, their homes, and pretty much anywhere they fancy working from at which power and wifi are available. Once a year, we all get together for a big meetup. In preparation for this year’s meetup, some colleagues designed and ordered a bunch of patches for people who have worked in the Happiness organization. The patches are something like 1.5 inches in diameter, and each of the various teams and represented in-jokes have a patch. I knew about this project a few months in advance of the meetup and was uncharacteristically excited to get my hands on the patches. I’ve got a backpack embroidered with the WordPress logo (a perk of working for the company I work for), and I’m eager to get these patches stitched to the backpack.

Because my work tends to touch a lot of the Happiness subteams, I was deemed eligible for a bunch of the patches. Now I just have to find a way to get all of them stitched onto my backpack in a pleasing way. The Happiness Gardener patch is the one that looks like a rake. The origins and meanings of the others I’ll leave to your imagination for now.

Cardiff

In April, I went to Cardiff, Wales to do work on a project for my job. We got lots of work done but also did a fair amount of tourism. The coolest thing for me was visiting the Doctor Who experience and seeing lots of props from the show. We also visited a castle (some went to a second, apparently more impressive, castle). There were lots of gardens, and the city itself was pretty happening. One night we went to Chippy Lane, which is where one goes to get fish and chips when really terrifically drunk. We weren’t terrifically drunk, but it was a neat experience nevertheless. Here are a few photos from the trip.

The Year Without Pants

This summer, I attended a really good local conference called CodeStock at which I also sat in on what turned out to be a really bad session on being a remote worker. The original speaker for the session wound up not showing, so someone representing one of the conference sponsors stepped in to lead the session, since there was interest. So it was understandable that he didn’t have a bunch of information prepared. But he had worked mostly from a home office for a while, and he managed a remote team, so he felt equipped to lead a chat on the topic.

The problem was that he didn’t have a real understanding of how remote work ought to function. His advice seemed mostly to include ways of trying to shoehorn in-office work into a remote-office scenario. His approach, in other words, was to try to make working remotely mirror as closely as possible the experience of working from an office. I disagreed vociferously with nearly everything the man said, and it was all I could do to avoid rolling around on the ground in despair. I’ve worked from a home office for nearly a decade with companies that really embrace remote work as a new type of work rather than as a mere perk for workers, and so I figured that my experience probably wasn’t terribly relevant for the others in the session, who would likely be in just the type of environment the leader gleefully perpetrated and who gobbled up his well-meaning advice. I kept mum and swallowed my despair.

I’ve worked at Automattic for approaching three years now. We’re a fully distributed company, with employees happily working from at least a couple of dozen countries. It’s the best place I’ve ever worked, and I’ve been really happy at a couple of my other jobs. For a few months of my first year at Automattic, I worked with Scott Berkun, who has recently published an account of his time there in the form of a book titled The Year Without Pants.

I should go ahead and confess that this isn’t generally my sort of book. I like to read fiction, usually the more ponderous and confusing the better, and business books just don’t interest me a whole lot. I don’t have mental bandwidth for them. Still, it’s a book about my company and a book that — since I worked with Scott a little on a project to encourage people to blog daily — it was infinitesimally possible I might get a brief mention in (I don’t). So, tailor your reception of my brief review with this confession about my qualification for reading the genre in mind. My view of the book is that of an insider and not of a particular expert on business books.

Of course, being an insider makes the book hard to judge in a meaningful way. I know the people discussed in the book. I spent a few days last week actually hanging out with them at a company meetup, in fact (I’m famous by proxy!). And just as you hardly recognize your recorded voice as your own, it’s hard to know whether what someone writes about your company squares with 100% faithfulness to the company as you know it. Does the book have it wrong or do I?

Some of what Scott writes does seen genuinely wrong, or at least betrays a net cast too wide. For example, in writing about development process, he makes the unqualified statement that our method is to write a launch post prior to beginning feature development. This isn’t something I’ve ever done, though doubtless other teams within the company have.

Scott writes largely about the team he led while at Automattic, and I feel at times as if he assumes that team’s method of working represented that of the company as a whole. Whether he does so out of editorial expediency or out of myopia it’s hard to say. If it’s a defect, it’s a small one.

I don’t feel as if the book ultimately lives up to the promise of its subtitle (“WordPress.com and the future of work”). As a reader of a business book (if not an expert such reader), I expect something of a payoff or prescription for how the sort of work done at WordPress.com is leaching into the larger occupational consciousness, or of how other companies might emulate the Automattic work experience. The book does include three chapters that purport to make a sort of prescription, but the prescription is pretty squishy (necessarily — it’s the nature of the beast), and the chapters seem tucked into a book that mostly stands well enough on its own as a document describing Scott’s experience at Automattic. In other words, the book feels a bit like a memoir that got hammered sort of halfway into something that could be sold as a business book. I think I would have preferred straight memoir.

As semi-memoir, it’s a nice read. The affection Scott had for his team shines through, and the book shows enough of the work process to be instructive and thus not dismissed as pure personal fluff. You get a sense of the friendships that form at Automattic, which are unlike any I’ve had at past jobs (however much I genuinely like many of my past coworkers).

Put enough smart, compassionate, passionate people together in a company and great things happen. This is why Automattic is a great place to work. Scott touches on the fact and illustrates it in his portrayal of how his team was built and how they bonded and grew. I don’t think there’s a recipe for making a great distributed company, or if there is, it’s something vague like “use great ingredients,” which doesn’t make for a highly marketable business book.

If I weren’t an Automattic insider, I don’t know honestly whether I would have enjoyed Scott’s book or not. Chances are that I would have found it fairly interesting to read some of the stories he tells about individuals and gatherings. Chances are that I would have found some of the few prescriptions (e.g. “hire great people” and “set good priorities”) pretty disappointing, if inevitable and actually correct.

Read the book if you’re curious about Automattic and how we work, and I imagine you’ll find it interesting. If you’re looking for a cure-all for how to build a company, you’re probably doing it wrong to begin with, though maybe there’s something useful in Scott’s book at least in its portrayal of how one company has had great success with the distributed model. I don’t have enough distance from the subject matter to say much else, other than that Automattic is hiring.

Upgrading old WXR files with wp-cli

I recently had cause to try to import an old WordPress WXR export file into a more recent version of WordPress. There are some simple differences in the way the old files and the new files are formatted that keep this from working. The usual rigamarole for getting around this is to install a throwaway copy of the version of WordPress that the export file was generated with, import the file, and upgrade WordPress until you’re at the latest version. Then you export and the WXR is updated. That’s kind of painful and lame, though.

So, riding the wave of my recent fervor for wp-cli, I made a wp-cli command for doing the conversion. It’s called… convert-wxr.

Usage looks like this:

wp-cli --file=file-to-covert.wxr --outfile=converted-file.wxr

If you don’t specify an outfile, it just spews to the screen (you can redirect output to a file). It won’t clobber an existing file.

The script just does some simple regular expression and string replacements based on the differences I found between older and more recent WXR files. It’s entirely possible I missed some differences, but the conversions I tested seem to work well enough.

wp make-wxr

As part of my day job, I’ve lately been looking at trying to improve the performance of WXR imports into WordPress.com. This has meant, so far, lots of testing and profiling of code, and it’s meant my wanting to be able to generate export files that meet particular criteria.

For example, one useful test is to repeatedly import a file that contains 1,000 posts so that you wind up with a benchmark for how long it takes on average to pull in that many posts (so that you can try to make that number consistently lower). Not everybody has a test site with exactly 1,000 posts in it, and it’s sure no fun to manually generate that test data.

For another example, say you’re trying to understand what impact taxonomies have on import sluggishness. The WXR file lists tags and categories near the top of the file and imports them all at the beginning of the process. Then it associates terms with posts as it imports the posts later. In order to understand how the taxonomy import performs, it’d be useful to have a WXR file with exactly 500 tags for that initial import, with a few randomly assigned to the posts.

And say you wanted to learn how comments get bogged down. It’d be handy to be able to easily import a single post that had a great many comments, or to import many posts with either few or many comments each.

Enter make-wxr, a wp-cli command I wrote to help me generate just these sorts of WXR files on demand. Now, by typing a simple command into my terminal, I can instantly have a reasonably customized WXR file for testing various trouble spots in the WordPress importer.

After some initial skepticism, I only recently started using wp-cli as part of a big data migration, and now I’m a pretty big fan of the tool. My little command here is just a brand new baby, conceived and born within the last couple of hours. I already have some ideas for improvements (though probably not much time to implement them, since the itch I was scratching by writing this is now scratched). If you’re a developer who works with debugging WordPress with data of varying sizes and characteristics, maybe the new command will be useful. (If you’re a theme developer, you should use the standard WXR file, since it covers lots of test cases like long titles, menus, etc.)

Lisbon

I’ve just returned from meeting up with some coworkers in Lisbon, Portugal. It’s the prettiest city I’ve been to. I loved how the terra cotta roofs contrasted with the colors of the buildings, the greenery, and the sky.

It’s a pretty easy city to get around in. Taxis are surprisingly cheap and the drivers actually give you change, though they often seem not to know where your desired location is until they have an epiphany partway there. You tell or show them the address and they more often than not give you a long puzzled look. Occasionally they’ll consult a book that helps them out. Then they tear ass toward your destination, whipping around the streets, tailgating trolleys, and narrowly avoiding pedestrians. In spite of apparent confusion and the distinct impression that the drivers are just wandering to find the place sometimes, the fares still wind up being cheap. The ride is also generally somewhat Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride-ish.

We went to the aquarium, which was pretty nice but which I didn’t bother to take many photos of thanks to lighting and the sort of universality of aquariums. We also went to the Castle of São Jorge, which was really neat. After wrapping up at the castle, several of us wandered the old city for a few hours. Near the end of the trip, I stopped by the Estrela Basilica just a couple of blocks from our house, but I took no pictures of the interior because it was quiet and being an obnoxious American tourist there felt inappropriate. It was beautiful inside but also seemed somehow more used, more dingy, than some similar buildings I’ve visited.

We ate at several pretty good restaurants that were mostly reasonably priced. Cod is the thing to get if you’re into fish, though I heard from a native that they import most of their cod from Norway. Wine is absurdly cheap and pretty good. We bought plenty of bottles of utterly decent wine for two to three Euro each (less than four bucks).