Automattic Engineering Culture on Key Values

Automattic is hiring engineers across mobile and web, frontend and backend. Recently we partnered with Key Values to highlight our top values, from open communication and open source all the way to flexible work location and a focus on teams.

Listing of Automattic engineering values on the Key Values website.

Top values include:

  • Open communication: As a distributed company, communication is our oxygen.
  • Open source contributor: We believe open source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation.
  • Committed to personal growth: The first line of our creed: “I’ll never stop learning.”
  • Flexible work arrangements: Set up remotely in a way that works for you — and take the time off you need.
  • High employee retention: Automattic employees tend to stay at Automattic: Our retention rate for Code Wranglers and JS Engineers is 86% over the last 5 years.
  • Heavily team oriented: Teams are how we organize our work, communication, meetups, and impact.
  • Engages with community: We are more motivated by impact than money.
  • Engineering-driven: First and foremost, we are an engineering company. Engineers are the ambassadors of our company and community.
A view of Automattic employees.

Check out the full list of Automattic engineering values here: https://www.keyvalues.com/automattic. And, if anything matches your interests and passion, please apply!

An Advice Process Paves the Way for Clear Decisions

In Brave New Work Aaron Dignan describes a wonderfully clear way to use an “advice process” to make better decisions.

Watch a short video on YouTube where author Aaron Dignan illustrates the advice process (at minute 4:45).

Start with consent by asking for agreement. Get buy-in and move things forward. This not consensus or everyone is 100% happy with it, instead it means it is safe to try.

Use an advice process. Whenever you’re about to make a decision that’s irreversible or could damage things, go seek advice from those who’ve done it before. And, seek advice from those affected by it.

This replaces the waiting and expectation for a leader to do something—top-down decision making—with your own judgement and responsibility.

Aaron Douglas: Being Mindful During Video Calls

Tips from my coworker and prodigious mobile app maker Aaron Douglas on being mindful during video calls. Great tips, not just for remote workers, either. “I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.”

The Dangling Pointer

Working remote means I’m on a lot of video calls. I’ve come up with a bunch of little tweaks to help with attentiveness and mindfulness during the call. It is important to show you’re listening.

Look at the camera often

When you’re in person you look at people’s eyes to show them you’re listening. Doing that on a video call requires a bit of counter-intuitive body language by looking at the camera. You won’t be looking at the person but they’ll see you looking directly at them. It’s a subtle difference but I’ve found it highly effective.

Also try to place the video call window up the screen towards the camera. Also decrease the size of the window so the person’s eyes are naturally closer to the top of the window (closer to the camera). When you’re not looking at the camera while the person is speaking it’ll still look…

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Kerry Liu on Team Leadership: Three Important Things

Insight on team leadership and management from my colleague and technical team lead extraordinaire Kerry Liu.

Remember these three things: don’t fall into the safety of your old job, listen, and provide useful feedback.

These are the three most important insights I gained from working as an Engineering Team Lead at Automattic. 

Read the full article: Three Important Things.

Lance Willett: My altMBA Roundup

I took part in the 20th altMBA group, April–May 2018. A wonderful experience! I highly recommend it for folks looking to challenge themselves, grow into leadership, and meet motivated folks with a similar mindset.

Screenshot from the altMBA info page.

The altMBA is an intensive, 4-week online workshop designed by Seth Godin for high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.

AltMBA website

I found the course a larger time commitment than expected, much more than 2-3 nights a week and all day Sunday. Ended up being every day for me, at least a few hours of homework, if not more. The main task of the smaller group you’re assigned is to review each others’ work—three to four homework assignments a week. My altMBA experience, like many things in life, gave me back much more when I put in more.

What I didn’t expect was that shipping my homework wasn’t all; I also reviewed and commented on my group members’ work, then had two more steps for each assignment: rewrite mine again based on the feedback, and then publish it publicly.

The small group cohort style and tools are familiar to those working remotely at a company like Automattic: Zoom, Slack, WordPress. There are coaches that help out at various times, but most of it is self-study or a small group effort. The altMBA team sends you a box of books ahead, and if I had to do it over, I’d read them more carefully. I referenced them a ton during the coursework and group sessions—and have continued to use many of the books as a reference.

Overall, the course was worth the investment in my case. I still keep in touch with my small group, including on the alumni website, and made a few great friends there. People still connect with me on LinkedIn to share stories, ask for advice, and check in on the work I shared—much of which related to taking bigger steps in my career. Indeed, the “forced” growth via the exercises and homework became essential to taking a bigger leap at work last year. I’m grateful.


My shipped projects are on Medium: medium.com/@lancewillett — the platform and format were required; otherwise I’d prefer publishing on WordPress. Here’s an article that made it back to this blog: A Napkin Sketch is Enough.

A Napkin Sketch Is Enough

In a brainstorming exercise with my group at the altMBA, I expected to dive deep into the work, tuning our understanding of business models while working under pressure to create as many ideas as possible in a short time. We did just that, relishing our creativity and ingenuity.

Yet the most satisfying outcome wasn’t how deep or wide we ranged as much as the practice of creating the right space for it to happen. Allowing discovery, allowing the best work to shine through. The moment created by the creative space was the true prize.

In our session there grew a playfulness and a natural building up of ideas as serendipitous intersections occurred where a concept, channel, or stream could be cloned to adapt to a new business idea. Growing, it created momentum and provided a sense of space — room to roam.

The diversity of the team made for richer output as we kept exploring. Ideas born from one member cloned rapidly into new ones by tapping into our backgrounds, affinities, and environments. Though we started together pitching and editing out loud, it was slow going. The pace accelerated only after a 45-minute switch to brainwriting, writing solo to bring more life to the list. We successfully avoided the problem of “one loud voice” by taking turns narrating and typing.

Creating the space to run together started with finding a format that built enough structure without slowing us down. We later dubbed this the napkin sketch for its simplicity.

The napkin sketch technique produces a great number of ideas without too much detail. Just enough to explain a business idea or “micro” business model to a friend in plain English.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Outline and pitch the business idea.
  2. Detail the basics only: value proposition, market, costs, and revenue.
  3. If you feel a spark, clone the sketch and adapt it.
  4. Repeat until you run out of ideas.

If you freeze an idea too quickly, you fall in love with it. If you refine it too quickly, you become attached to it and it becomes very hard to keep exploring, to keep looking for better. The crudeness of the early models in particular is very deliberate.
— Jim Glymph, architect

Jim Glymph (Gehry Partners, architects 1990–2007) explains the value of crude early models—what my altMBA group called “Napkin sketches.

Originally posted on Medium—and if Matt’s reading this, it’s required for the course. 🙃


Read my altMBA roundup for notes on the overall experience.

Flat Organizations: Not Reinventing Everything

Why a Flat Organizational Structure will Fail as You Grow is an insightful and thought-provoking study from Lighthouse, a software tool for managers. Keeping in mind when considering any decision that someone else — somewhere before — solved the same issue. From my personal workflow, to team processes and habits, all the up to key decisions on company structure.

There are a few advantages and many disadvantages to a flat organizational structure as you grow. We share how growth breaks a flat organizational structure

…if you think it’s a good use of your time to try to innovate in employee on-boarding, performance feedback, quarterly reviews, promotions or weekly all hands meetings, you are mistaken at best and destroying your company at worst.

Call ten friends who work at great companies and crowd source the best practices. These best practices are widely understood and broadly implemented, and the differences are minimal or arguably irrelevant.

 

Screen Shot 2018-04-25 at 08.37.44.png
Screenshot from the Lighthouse management blog.

What makes a company or product unique? What makes it exceptional? Even though we should continually seek to improve, a strong legacy most likely won’t come from rethinking the 1-1 check-in chat, how we process payroll, or even our technical toolkit.

By modeling organizational excellence on what is already known to work everywhere else we can focus our creativity and innovation on improving the product experiences that help our customers succeed.


Note: My colleague Cate points out that the origins of most technology company practices are outlined in Andy Grove’s classic book High Output Management (1983), describing how to build and run a company.

Inclusive Design, Day 14/15: Diverse Teams Make Better Decisions

This is day 14 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed any of the earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Inclusive and diverse teams make better, stronger teams — and these teams make better decisions. Because our work and thought patterns are influenced by our background and biases, working with a diverse group means not only fresh, new ideas, but we also counterbalance the tendency to design for people just like ourselves. A higher standard.

And that is why representation matters, not just to those who are represented, but to all of us. Because it expands our sense of what’s possible, and what we have reason to expect. —Cate Huston

Bring diversity into teams
Screenshot of the Automattic Inclusive Design Checklist, under Teams.

For maximum learning and a broader perspective, not limiting yourself to your immediate team or company; seeking out a wide variety of inputs from mentors, coaches, and other advisors.

If your team is limited and you don’t have the ability to expand, actively seek out people with other perspectives to consult or act as project advisors, and give special consideration to their feedback.


I learned from Sara VanSlyke and Trace Byrd at Atlassian that it also matters how a diverse team is represented, in their article “Illustrating Balanced and Inclusive Teams.”

As a company that wants to unleash the potential in every team, depicting people is especially important. How we represent the people who make up teams should be just as important. We’ve always known that the best teams are balanced; made of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, but our illustrations haven’t always reflected that.

An Atlassian team article
Screenshot from the Atlassian team’s article about illustrating their diversity.

The authors found that even though their team aspired to be more inclusive, how they represented themselves visually wasn’t keeping pace with the true diversity of the team.

Promoting diversity and inclusion within our brand is a persistent and multi-faceted effort. And it’s a challenge to depict diversity without it feeling merely perfunctory or symbolic until the reality of our industry truly represents the customers we serve and the world at large. More needs to be done outside of the brand to promote an inclusive workplace, but we’ve found that the results of constant vigilance and open conversation are worth the time and energy.

To truly represent our customers is something Automattic is improving — we still have a long way to go. If you missed the story about updating the WordPress.com brand illustrations to be more diverse, see Inclusive Design, Day 5/15: To See Yourself in Imagery — with illustrator Alice Lee and my designer colleague Joan Rho.

See also this YouTube series introducing Automattic employees from all walks of life. A diverse group! I’m proud to work with them every day.


For a thorough treatment of this topic, I highly recommend reading and bookmarking “On Improving Diversity in Hiring” from my Automattic colleague Cate Huston. In this in-depth article, she shares her hiring expertise to build diverse teams, everything from onboarding and recruiting to specific tips and tricks during interviews.

Screenshot from Cate Huston's post about improving diversity in hiring.
Screenshot from Cate Huston’s article about improving diversity in hiring.

This rule of thumb about stopping the behavior before someone is hired hit home with me as this is something I need to improve on personally. An off-color joke here, a comment there; I’m learning to speak up more when I notice these things.

A good rule for inclusion pre-work to diversity is to stop doing things you would have to change if the demographics of your team better reflected the demographics of the world. —Cate Huston

One practical tip shared by Cate that I’ve put to good use is Textio, a service to help make job descriptions more inclusive. I used it in 2016 to update the Excellence Wrangler job posting, replacing phrases like triage ruthlessly with triage efficiently.

Textio website screenshot
Screenshot of the Textio homepage.

Cate’s influence in the last year or so has helped me improve my hiring to be more inclusive, both in mindset and in practice. She’s inspired me to read more broadly, and think more openly.


In closing, a word from Scott Page via his Aeon article titled “Why hiring the ‘best’ people produces the least creative results:”

When building a forest, you do not select the best trees as they tend to make similar classifications. You want diversity.

(Scott has a new book out on this topic: The Diversity Bonus, How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. I haven’t read it yet.)

For day 15 of 15 of inclusive design, the last day, I’ll share a recap of all the inclusive design learnings I’ve shared in this series so far.


About this Inclusive Design series Tomorrow I’ll give a talk on inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018. Leading up to the conference I’ve been publishing notes on voices, stories, products, and other resources: everything I’m learning about this emerging practice. This is day 14 of 15. Read more about the series.

Maker Versus Manager

An oldie but goodie from Paul Graham: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.

maker-manager-screenshot.png

Posting this as a personal bookmark because it comes up often in conversations with new leads. When I talk to people new to management I highlight the mindset change from “just you” to “the team.” The context of an outward mindset is important — you don’t own your time when you manage more than your own time. Keeping track of everything changes drastically when you start paying attention to more that just your own time and tasks.

This explains the frustration of a work day gets cut short — which can happen if something comes up unexpectedly or you’re continually interrupted. The resulting “short period” of time for making or creating is essentially lost. The big project, like the essay or talk you need to start on, don’t get attention because you don’t have the time for deep work.

Another clue for discovering the maker-vs-manager mindset is how you view your calendar. By month — and not by week or day — means you could be in maker mode. If you care more about every hour or 15-minute interval, you’re likely in manager mode.

A visual note to illustrate this concept:

meetings-are-distracting.png
Screenshot from @phil_wade on Twitter illustrating how meetings appear to makers.

Meetings can be disruptive to makers, says @phil_wade on Twitter. This ties into the concept of “flow state” made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others. If you’re curious to learn more, search that name (hard to spell!) for his talks and books — and read my thoughts on the flow fallacy.

Mary Meeker: The Best Decisions Are Often Made by Diverse Groups of People

1 - diverse-decisions.png
One of the things I have learned about effective decision making is that the best decisions are often made by diverse groups of people. Saying or hearing these words is magic: That’s really interesting. I had never thought of it that way before. Thank you.

A gem from Mary Meeker I found when reading the 2017 Internet Trends report published by Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB). Via John.