Spotlight on Happiness Engineering

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If you’ve ever wanted to know more about what it’s like to work at Automattic or are curious about the role of a Happiness Engineer, check out this short video for a peek at what my workday is like. And if you’re a feline fan, watch for a brief cameo by my most camera-friendly cat, Finnegan.

I was honoured to be part of this Career Spotlights series for YES Montreal, an organization that provides resources and encouragement to English-speaking Montrealers looking to build a career in this city.

A GM in Canada

Bear side-eye
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This year I got to experience an Automattic Grand Meetup in my homeland for the first time. Granted, it took place in Whistler, British Columbia, 5000 km away from where I live, but it was still Canada! It was fun to watch nearly 500 of my colleagues encountering everything from poutine to the stunning Coast mountain range for the first time. They were even struck by small things I take for granted, like the ubiquitous Canuck politeness, in the form of “sorry” and “please” on signage.

The week was jam-packed, even more so than my last four Grand Meetups. (Has it really been five already? Seems impossible!) Highlights of the week include a class on WordPress plugin development taught by code wrangler Jennifer (I made something! And it’s on GitHub!); icebreakers and brainstorming with my theme division-mates; organizing an afternoon of painting for my colleagues, who blew me away with their creativity!); spotting a black bear (OMG!) munching on foliage by the side of the highway; swooping across mountaintops in the spectacular Peak to Peak gondola; and attending a thought-provoking workshop about diversity and inclusion by an outstanding facilitator, Y-Vonne Hutchison. And of course, countless chats with friends/co-workers from all over the world and a lot of good food. Oh, and I invented a cocktail that was one of three chosen to to be served at the closing party. (Automojitto! It was blue and yummy!)

As we’re a company full of bloggers, many of my colleagues have posted accounts of their week in Whistler as well. You can check out some of them under the #a8cgm tag on WordPress.com.

This year’s company photo was the most epic yet – check out my colleague Donncha’s account of how he pulled it off!

company-photo-sm

Hack Day? Yay!

Screenshot after remake
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A couple of times a year at Automattic we have a “Hack Day,” during which some of us work on a project that might not be part of our regular day or duties.

This year I rather spontaneously decided to join my teammates David Kennedy and Laurel Fulford — with input from a couple of our colleagues — in working on a remake of ThemeShaper.com, our team’s public blog devoted to WordPress theming.

It was loads of fun, and I love the result. We plan to keep iterating, as they say, but I’m pretty pleased with what we were able to do in about a day and a half. Hooray for Hack Day!

Before

before screenshot - ThemeShaper.com

After

after screenshot - ThemeShaper.com

Theam in Vancouver

Theam in a Frame
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My team at Automattic is the Theme Team, and I love that we’re more commonly known by our portmanteau, Theam. We got together in British Columbia this month for our team meetup, and it was great to hang out in person with the people I chat with every day online.

We collaborated on the next iteration of the exciting Components starter-theme generator project and didn’t let the mostly grey, wet weather stop us from enjoying some of Vancouver’s nature, food, and cultural highlights.

We took advantage of a break in the weather to brave heights at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. While I’ve been here several times and it’s admittedly touristy, I always love coming with new people and seeing their faces when they first catch sight of the narrow, wiggly bridge — and then the Cliffwalk!

One of the things I love about working at Automattic is that my colleagues are also my friends. I’m so glad I got to spend some time with you in person, my friends, and in my own country to boot. I hope Canada treated you well. Sorry about the weather, eh?

Hairstory: a father-daughter tale

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Every year at the Automattic all-company Grand Meetup, we each have to give a short presentation in front of our colleagues. This “flash talk” can be about anything at all – and it can be in any format we like, whether a more traditional talk with slides, a song, video, or interpretive dance: pretty much anything goes.

This year was my fourth Grand Meetup flash talk, and I decided I was finally ready to do something more personal. My past flash talks had been about growing garlic, the peculiarities of Quebec English, and foods from Quebec that everyone should try at least once… but this time would be different — it would be a story about me, my dad, and our hair.

I hope you like it.

Transcript

Last year, my flash talk was on growing garlic. This year, I’m going to talk about growing hair.

Even before my birth, the subject of hair in my family was fraught with anxiety. You see, my dad Bob had an autoimmune condition called alopecia areata. By age six he’d already lost much of his hair.

He wore a hat constantly from 6 to 13 so the other kids wouldn’t bully him. They bullied him anyway; they knew what the hat must be hiding.

By 14 he began wearing a wig.

A pretty bad wig.

What had started out as alopecia areata was becoming alopecia universalis – as in hair loss everywhere. Eyebrows, eyelashes, leg hair, my dad was losing it all.

By his early twenties when he married my mom Ellie, he’d ditched the wig, and was attempting to pencil in the missing patches on his head instead.

Doctors didn’t know very much about alopecia back then – they don’t know much more today – but they thought there MIGHT be a genetic component, so my parents were understandably concerned this condition might be passed on to their kids.

So when their firstborn – me – came out with a small little head of dark hair, my folks were pretty relieved that I appeared to take after my mother in the hair department.

Still, my parents held their breath a bit as I grew older. Watching. Waiting.

The hair grew. And grew.

My dad stopped penciling in his head every day and eventually shaved off the last stubborn locks. They never grew back.

By the time I got to elementary school, it was clear that my thick, curly, unruly, hair was here to stay. My parents were very happy.

Ironically, I decided around that point I hated my frizz and wished I could just have straight hair, like the rest of my friends. My mom would blow-dry it for me in a vain attempt to turn tight curls into the straight hair I’d never have.

After certain really terrible haircuts – by hairdressers who hadn’t the faintest idea how to cut curly hair – I would go home feeling like I looked like Little Orphan Annie – but with MUCH less optimism.

After one particularly horrific haircut I professed to my mother quite earnestly that I needed to become a nun so I could hide my hair every day. Never mind that we were Jewish, that was just a detail. The Catholics needed nuns, surely something could be worked out.

When I got into acting, my hair took on a leading role.

Hair got big.

Hair got short.

I went through my own hat phase.

My yearbook photo was a big disappointment. I detested it so much I covered it up with a retake. This time, with a hat.

I went prematurely grey the summer I was 17. But it was just for a play.

As I got older, I gradually began to hate my hair less and less. Adolescent angst turned to adult apathy. It just didn’t matter so much anymore.

After meeting a cartoonist named Shane, he took a stab at drawing me. My hair had made an impact. You can see how he was trying to get it just right.

Five years later when we got married… he made this for our wedding cake

These days, my dad & I are both pretty accepting of our heads and our hair.

As I get older, grey hairs have come along. Real ones this time. I used to pull them out as they appeared, but in the wise words of a former hairdresser, “That’s probably not a good coping strategy.”

Will I dye my hair? Time will tell.

A few years back, a relative shared this picture of my great-grandmother Rose. I wouldn’t mind rocking the grey frizzy look as well as her someday.

The Techie Continuum – Redux

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Based on a post I wrote this past April called The Techie Continuum, I presented a lightning talk by the same name at this year’s inaugural WordCamp US in Philadelphia.

It’s a much more personal talk than I’m used to giving and it made me pretty nervous to give it, but I’m happy that it seemed to resonate with some people.

You can also watch the original over at WordPress.tv, along with dozens of other talks from WordCamp US, with more still to come.

Transcript

First, a story

Let’s start with a story my mother told me.

There was a website she wanted to show her co-worker – who I’ll call Barbara – so my mom gave her the URL. After a few minutes at her computer, Barbara became incredibly frustrated and said, “I can’t find the site!”

My mom went over to Barbara’s desk to see what was happening, and quickly realized that her colleague had put the domain into Google’s search box instead of the browser’s address bar. My mother couldn’t believe it, and patiently showed a wide-eyed Barbara how to get to the site directly.

Now, there’s something else you should know. This didn’t happen many years ago in the early days of the web when people were just getting used to browsers, it happened earlier this year. My mother is 70 years old, while Barbara is decades younger.

It’s so easy to assume that everyone knows how to put a URL in a browser’s address bar. Sometimes it takes this kind of story to remind us that not everyone does.

Knowledge bubble

Don’t assume everyone knows what you do, even if it’s something you consider extremely basic or obvious.

We’re all wrapped up in our own little bubble of knowledge. It’s so easy to forget that not everyone knows what we know.

Do I know enough?

It’s something I’ve asked myself many times after getting involved with web design and WordPress, and maybe you’ve asked yourself the same question.

When referring to myself over the years, I’ve always adamantly declared that despite whatever skills I might have, “I’m not a techie.”

I didn’t study computer science and I’m not what I’d call a “hard-core programmer.”

And yet some might point out the obvious. I’ve been sharing WordPress knowledge in forums and at conferences since soon after I started using it. My family and friends come to me for tech support of all kinds. I spent over a decade building custom websites for clients. I now help folks with technical issues all day, every day, and even get paid to do it. I solve people’s WordPress problems, quash quandaries, clarify conundrums.

Expert, guru, unicorn

Even so, I still wouldn’t dream of referring to myself as an expert, guru, or unicorn.

(And let’s not even talk about “rock star”)

Good things

Whenever good things have happened to me in my WordPress life, I made up explanations for them that didn’t involve my skills, experience, or knowledge.

Got accepted to speak at my first WordCamp! Ah, they just needed more women.

Helped someone at a WordCamp Happiness Bar? Their question was easy. Anyone could have answered it.

Asked to speak at WordCamp San Francisco? Well, that was only because someone else dropped out at the last minute. It had nothing to do with me.

Got hired by Automattic — to do, uh, tech support? Ha, I must have fooled them really well. Uh oh, wait til they find out I’m a fraud.

Does any of this sound familiar to anyone? Does it sound ridiculous?

A dream

Here’s an actual dream I had shortly after landing my job at Automattic, where I would be working alongside people I admired greatly.

Actually, a nightmare

My new boss, some guy you might have heard of called Matt Mullenweg, looked at the code for a website I’d built, decided I didn’t know what I was doing — and rescinded my offer to join Automattic, before I’d even started. I was going to have to tell all my friends and family that I didn’t actually have my dream job, after all. How embarrassing.

Subtle, huh? Interesting what comes out through our subconscious in dreams.

A combination of low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, and, let’s face it, a severe case of Canadianitis — has prevented me until very recently from truly believing that I may actually know a few things. Some stuff that might benefit others.

Imposter syndrome

But how did I start to overcome this, and how can you do the same?

Start small, like I did.

Pass it on

What’s one little thing you know how to do?

Know how to change the colour of a site title with CSS? How to set a scheduled post?

Help someone do it in one of the WordPress support forums.

Is someone in your local meetup group asking for plugin ideas for their project? Suggest your favourite and tell them why you love it.

Did you just learn how to do something cool with WordPress? Write a blog post and show others how to do it.

Before you know it, you’ll start to get more confident.

Help a friend or family member set up a WordPress site.

Volunteer at a WordCamp Happiness Bar. There’s nothing quite like seeing people’s faces light up in person when you’ve just solved a problem they’ve been struggling with – sometimes for months.

Then suddenly, after a short while, you might start to find that helping people with WordPress is addictive. In a good way.

Thank-yous

You’ll probably starting getting some thank-yous from people you’ve helped.

Hugs and kudos

At Automattic when WordPress users thank a Happiness Engineer for something we helped them with, we call those “hugs” and we share them with each other. Save your hugs. Show them to someone.

Has someone helped or inspired you? Send them a hug, privately if you like but especially in public. Send them a tweet, leave a comment on their blog. Lift up someone else and make their day.

We have an system at Automattic called kudos, which lets us send a short written message to a colleague we want to recognize for something they did to help us out, a job well done on a project, or anything else we want to call attention to. Kudos are visible to anyone within the company and I go back and re-read mine every once in a while, whenever I could use a warm fuzzy or two.

Dwell on praise

Dwell on your praise. Revel in your successes, small or big. Save it all up and look at it when your brain starts to have doubts again. You deserve it. Just think, if you’re afflicted with imposter syndrome there’s zero risk of your head getting too big. At some point along the way, I stopped saying “I’m not a techie.”

The techie continuum

The way I see it now, everyone can be found somewhere along the techie continuum, and perhaps, just maybe, I’m somewhere toward the higher end of it.

No matter where you are on the techie continuum, chances are you know a bit more about something than someone else. Don’t be afraid to share your knowledge with them. It feels good. It’s giving back. And maybe some day you’ll even start to feel like you know a few things.

It Was Grand

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Nearly 400 Automatticians descended on Park City, Utah, earlier this month for our annual Grand Meetup (GM). The intense in-person time together helps forge new bonds and reinforces personal connections that stay with us through our daily remote work after returning home. Here are a few highlights of my week.

Practical Development

I spent the first few days of the Grand Meetup immersed a programming class taught by Code Wrangler Jennifer. I refreshed my PHP coding skills and flexed brain muscles that haven’t had quite such a workout in some time. Jennifer possesses a rare gift – she’s not just a highly skilled developer, but she also has the ability to share that knowledge with others in an accessible way. I was lucky to be part of her group.

Collect Them All

My fellow Happiness Engineer Karen put together a set of colourful badges to represent the different teams and aspects of tech support we’ve each worked on. Some are just for fun; +t+d stands for “totes def” and somehow became a common abbreviation internally at one point. They remind me of the Red Cross swimming badges I used to get as a kid. Now to decide where best to show them off.

Happiness Badges

Yarn Party

Any Automattician can organize an activity or workshop for their colleagues at the Grand Meetup. As someone who’s never moved beyond knitting a rectangular scarf, my ears perked up when I heard that Andrea was planning a yarn party, where people could learn how to knit or crochet, or get help with a project. Sensing an opportunity, I picked up some beautiful soft blue and grey wool from my local knitting store, packed up my supplies in a wine bag (a delightful discovery), and during the knitting circle somehow convinced experienced knitter Shawna to help me get started. OK, so it’s still another scarf, but this one is tapered and multicoloured – look how cute!

The Paint Mixer

To counter some of the more adrenaline-heavy GM activities (Paintball! Go-karting! Alpine slides!), I brought in a local company to run a painting activity for anyone wanting to get creative. I was pleased to see everyone from Theme Wranglers and UI Designers to Happiness Engineers and Code Wranglers – many of whom had never painted before – take pride in their finished artwork.

Photos courtesy of The Paint Mixer

Picture Not So Perfect

One evening my colleague Marcus shared his passion for night photography and his handy exposure calculator. While I’d brought a tripod all the way from Montreal, it turned out my mighty little camera was not quite robust enough to capture shots of the stars, and every frame looked pretty much like this:

night photography

Fortunately, all was not lost in the photography department. Later in the week, Happiness Engineer Jen organized a photo tour with local pro David Schultz, who taught me how to use the manual settings on my camera – and happily didn’t make me feel inadequate for not having fancier gear. David guided us through some local nature trails and wildlife preserves and while we didn’t encounter any exotic animals – the most exciting creature I saw was a squirrel – the stunning fall scenery made it worth the huffing and puffing through high altitudes.

♦ ♦ ♦

The week featured many other memorable moments: a fun trip into town with my fellow theme-team members; an incredible closing party with performances by talented musician/singer Automatticians, a relaxing hot-tub hangout at the end of a long day; a workshop on how we can foster a more inclusive and diverse company; a cozy hot chocolate-fuelled knit-fest in my suite; and many good chats with colleagues I’d only previously talked with online.

Until we meet again next year, my dear Automatticians.