My new team at Automattic

Starting next week, I'll be shifting my focus at Automattic and joining our "WordPress Concierge" team.

It's a small group of talented folks who build custom WordPress sites for influential people and organizations across a bunch of different industries. I'll be creating and supporting the sites we work on while also helping to help the team scale up its internal tools and processes. I'm excited to flex a different mix of skills and ship some new kinds of things.

It's hard to believe that it's already been more than three years since I joined Automattic and began working with the VIP team, where I'm wrapping up my time this week. That role has been full of its own interesting and rewarding adventures that have taken me deep into the heart of the systems and tools that power the modern open web.

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On hiring people

After years of various roles in which I've been solely or jointly responsible for hiring people into businesses and organizations, I offer some thoughts on what I think works.

Hiring is ultimately about entering into a new relationship with someone. Actions and words that truly honor the joys, anxieties, vulnerabilities and interdependencies of that process will tend to make it more successful. Things that treat it as a cold, harsh, impersonal transaction will tend to make it (and your organization) less successful.

A successful process, by the way, could mean that someone is not hired just as much as it could mean they are. Clarity about the long-term fit is more important than short-term harmony and avoiding disappointment.

If you create an application, screening, interview and hiring process where people can check off a bunch of boxes that culminate in their employment, they will tend to optimize for that. It doesn't mean they are disingenuous or won't be good employees, but it may not be what you want as you build a team. Asking people to follow specific instructions is fine - it can be a good way to screen out bulk applications and clarify someone's interest. But lean more toward creating an interesting dance between equal partners, and then seeing how everyone feels when the music stops.

Keep candidates updated as much as possible at every step of the process. Let them know you've received their inquiry and when they should expect to hear a next response. If there are delays on your end in evaluating their application, say so. Try to respond to every candidate who follows your basic instructions about how to apply, no matter how far they make it in your process. Don't play mind games, you are not running Fight Club.

Résumés are useful as a summary of someone's professional identity, but should only be a starting point for understanding what they would bring to your organization. Putting together a flawless résumé (and possibly a cover letter) should be a baseline for understanding someone's attention to detail and ability to communicate clearly. A résumé with typos, lots of fluff or other problems can probably be discarded early on.

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Working for someone else

This week marks two full years of my employment at Automattic. I was fortunate to celebrate in person with a number of my colleagues as we hosted a workshop for our clients and partners in beautiful Napa, California.

People who know that I co-founded and built my own tech business before joining Automattic often ask me what it's like to work for someone else. My short answer is usually:

  • I miss some of the joys and challenges that go with being ultimately responsible for the success of a business venture...
  • ...but Automattic is a place where I am trusted with a level of autonomy that I'd be hard pressed to find in many other employment situations, and
  • I am mostly just enjoying discovering new ways of doing things and being a part of a bigger team with greater resources available for innovation.

This post is my longer answer. While working at another company it has been useful and interesting to notice what it's like to have a change in my professional identity, not be "the boss," enthusiastically support something I didn't create, and try to balance the joys of "employment" with the inner itch to again be a "founder."

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Distributed vs. In-Person Teams

TreehouseOne of the questions I get most since joining Automattic is about what it's like to go from working with a company where we were mostly collaborating in one office space in Indiana, to working with a fully distributed company, where everyone works from home, coffee shops, co-working spaces or similar spots around the world.

(The other main question I get is about what it's like to go from being "the boss" to working for someone else - a post for another time.)

The short answer: I'm appreciating and enjoying it, and I think it is the future of many kinds of work.

The longer answer follows.

The question of a distributed versus in-person setup for a team or company is discussed often in tech circles, perhaps even more so right now as tech companies face hiring challenges and consider related immigration policy issues. I feel like I've experienced both sides in some form now, having built and managed a web development firm for close to 17 years with a strong focus on working together in the same physical space (experimenting with remote workers along the way) and now having worked almost 8 months in a fully distributed configuration.

Going in to my new job, I was initially skeptical that I would find a distributed setup to be better than what I'd experienced working with my team in an office together. I thought it would be exciting, interesting and different, and despite all of the enthusiasm I'd built up for it (especially after reading The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work) at some gut level I still suspected it would be a kind of nominally acceptable, second-best alternative to working with people in person. Continue reading Distributed vs. In-Person Teams

I'm joining Automattic

wordpress-logo-stacked-rgbOne of the main reasons I get excited about Internet technologies is that they amplify the power of the written word and other kinds of creative publishing. Modern online tools enable bloggers, software developers, poets, journalists, novelists, chefs, filmmakers, marketers, photographers, artists, scientists, organizers and many other kinds of people to bring their creations to the world, at a constantly decreasing cost. And even through all of the cultural transformations we've seen spurred on by the Internet, the power of the written word remains - publishing can still change minds, start movements, spark connections, capture beauty, reshape lives.

Next week I'm joining Automattic, Inc., the company that makes WordPress, runs WordPress.com, and provides a bunch of other publishing-related tools and services. I'm joining the WordPress.com VIP team as a full-time VIP Wrangler, where I'll be helping to provide support, hosting, training, and other services to some of the biggest and best WordPress sites on the web (NY Times, TED, CNN, Time and more).

There are many reasons I'm excited about this, including:

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RP&L, Steve Saum and employee performance reviews

Barbary sheep ~ "head-butting"2012 has been a challenging year so far for the leadership of Richmond Power & Light, Richmond's municipally owned power company.

Most of the strife centers around the firing of RP&L General Manager Steve Saum; the short version is that the Board of Directors unexpectedly removed Saum from his position after a negative performance review, and Saum along with others are concerned that he wasn't given due process.  After the story hit the media, there's been additional concern about the way the RP&L Board has (or has not) communicated the reasoning behind their decision and what it means for the future of the utility.  There's a story in today's Palladium-Item with some new revelations about the proceedings.

Few are in any good position to pass judgment on these matters.  In my limited interactions with Steve Saum I've always found him to be a person of good intent and competence in his leadership.  I also know most of members of the RP&L Board well enough to say they are people of good intent and great care for the future of RP&L and the City.  (Full disclosure: I ran unsuccessfully for election to the RP&L Board last year.)  And no matter what you think of any of their actions or decisions, it's just a painful and messy thing when matters of someone's employment and livelihood (or managerial methods) become a topic of public conversation.

But even with the limited facts available about this series of events, it seems there are some missed opportunities to reflect on moving forward:

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Framing and Right to Work

WorkerThe Indiana General Assembly is advancing the so-called "Right to Work" legislation, with the state Senate expected to vote on the proposal Wednesday that the state House approved a version of last week.

Putting aside the substance of the legislation for a moment, the whole debate has been a fascinating exercise in political framing:

Using "Right to Work" as a label is a clever and strategic way to frame what the legislation is about.  If you are "for people having jobs," how could you dare be against their "right to work"? Any critic of "right to work" laws has to try to find some other meaningful label to use for themselves that isn't derived from the original name, but in doing so they lose some of the attention of voters.  (From what I can tell, the phrase "right to work" was introduced when a group of business owners in the southern U.S. formed the National Right to Work Committee in the 1970s to try to work against union efforts.)

The "Big Labor" bashing that happened last year across the Midwest set the stage for the "Union" label itself to be tainted to some degree in the minds of many voters ("Wait, are those unionized teachers really just trying to squeeze out every last taxpayer dollar while they sit around in luxury doing nothing? Golly!"), and so at least in part because of this association, I don't think unions have succeeded in being the rallying point for those who oppose these proposals.

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