Automattic Grand Meetup MMXVI

Saturday was the first day I’ve felt back to myself and on the Atlantic timezone since the end of the 2016 Automattic Grand Meetup. So far I’ve written several posts about the trip but wanted to post about my thoughts overall. Talking about the zip line adventure or the wwwp5k only goes into some of the planned fun we do. We also do a lot of work planning, and having awesome discussions.

One of the great things we all do I’ve posted about before as well, our flash talks. Each Automattician prepares and gives a maximum of four minute presentation on any topic they want. With the company getting so big this takes up a lot of time. This year we had four rooms setup to allow four streams of flash talks to be going on at the same time. They were broken up over the week. This means at most you can only see a quarter of the flash talks, but every one is also recorded so you can watch them later as well. I love flash talks. Both watching others and learning a bit about them or what interests them, and even though they make me very nervous, even giving my own.

One of the first days was dedicated a team day. This allowed us to get together in our own teams and do some planning and in person discussion which doesn’t happen very often. One of our team members wasn’t able to make it, and shortly our team will grow by one, but all of us there had worth while discussions and spent time showing each other a bit of our typical work flows to share how we work.

Near the end of the time we opened it up so that we could have a Happy Hour. This was a spot and time where the whole Happiness Team could get together. There were tables setup and seeded with questions to start the discussion. We would then move people around to other tables so you could meet even more people.

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I mentioned we have fun too right? This was at the closing party photo booth!
We had town halls for the whole company where our CEO, spent until early morning hours at the front of the room fielding questions and having discussions with all who could stay up as well. There were lots of other town halls throughout the week which were similar style for different groups throughout the company. Such a great way to get an understanding of where other teams are and what their plans are.

There are also projects and classes which you can signup for ahead of time and spend the week working on. At the end of the week the projects all do a demo day showing what they have worked on. It’s inspiring to see what can be accomplished in such a short time. The classes are all taught by co-workers sharing the knowledge they’ve learned with others. This year I took a class on People and Project management put on by a couple from our HR team and one of the team leads who I highly respect.

One of my favourite parts are the meals. We have an internal site, and now app thanks to one of the meetup projects, where you can keep track of all the other Automatticians you’ve met. This data is used to help assign people to meals with people they haven’t met. Having small groups who may not know each other doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but because everyone is so approachable it almost always leads to interesting conversation where I learn lots. It was also very entertaining to look around the restaurant and see it being almost completely taken over by co-workers. Picture this group in the pictures below spread out in restaurants throughout the village.

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Support at the Grand Meetup

One of downfalls which we are still learning to best deal with is how to handle support during a week when everyone is meant to be learning with each other. In addition to the project and classes some people do choose to do their regular job during the meetup. So for Happiness Engineers that involves doing support. In some years past we have closed our support contact forms with a message letting our customers know where we are and what we are doing and when we will be back at it. This year we tried not to completely close it but leave it open for some of our newest customers on WordPress.com. Other products handled things similar as well.

With WordPress.com support we still ended up quickly getting a large number of tickets submitted in a short time. It was clear we were going to fall behind in our response times. Some of this is expected and we booked time for when we arrived home for many people to spend time answering as many as they can to get caught back up. To make that job easier though we sent out a call asking for people to get together after dinner one night and answer tickets. This ended up being a highlight of the week for me. We had people who don’t normally do support join us. We had people who support other products join us and help answer our WordPress.com customers. With this group of people we spent a couple of focused hours going through tickets and were able to answer a large amount. It was really something to watch and be a part of. There were some pictures floating around, but I wish I had taken a step back and taken one myself.

Since we’ve been back we have been able to get caught back up and ready to start this week strong. There have also been talks already about how we can make more improvements for next year and holidays. This isn’t all coming from the Happiness team either! It really makes me happy to be with a company so dedicated to support.

To finish off here are some more pictures from my trip and walks around Whistler Village.

Worldwide WordPress 5k

During the Grand Meetup one of the events organized was the wwwp5k, a Worldwide WordPress 5k. It’s something that has been going on for few years now where WordPress users can run 5k from anywhere in the world and yet do it together by blogging about the experience. Even though you can do it alone and from anywhere we figured it would be a good chance for a bunch of us to do it together.

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It was a chilly rainy day in Whistler BC, but the scenery was beautiful and the company was lovely. It’s been a while since I’ve done much running and being over tired, wet and cold, so things were very slow. It worked out really well though because part way through I met up with a co-worker who I’ve wanted to spend some time with. It allowed us, through long breathes, to chat and come in together.

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Every time I get a chance to spend some time and chat with one of my co-workers I’m reminded how amazing each of them are. At the Grand Meetup it is even evident without directly interacting with anyone. The level of organization and planning that goes into this event is mind boggling.

Even this event there was about a large number of us who all came together at 7am to run and walk the course. This year it was also arranged that for each Automattician who ran we would donate to Souls4Soles. Just one more thing to make me proud to be working with all these people and for this company.

Zip Lining Adventure

Zip Lining Adventure

One of the activities which was organized while we were there was a zip line tour. Even though I have a pretty bad fear of heights I’ve always enjoyed the idea of sky diving. Not sure I would be able to brave my way through that one, but zip lining through the British Columbia rainforest seemed like a viable option. When I made it to the top and started walking down the first set of stairs I was petrified. The only reason I noticed the hail / rain falling on us was because my glasses were getting covered. Relying on some advice from my smart co-workers and watching a very brave one go before me even though she was just as scared as I was helped me press through.

Like many things it was well worth the bit of initial discomfort. Once I got moving and was able to take in the view it was more peaceful. After the first line I just couldn’t wait to get to the next. The initial step at each line still made me nervous but each one was easier than the last.

Here are some more pictures from my zip lining adventure.

Happy Birthday Noah: A Flash Talk

Happy Birthday Noah: A Flash Talk

Last night I arrived home from this years Automattic Grand Meetup which was held in mountainous Whistler Village in British Columbia. The crisp air, scenery, and mouth watering food all add to the experience, but as always it’s the people that make it special.

One example of this shows itself when I gave my flash talk to a room of co-workers. Public speaking is not my thing and even though the mic was shaking in my hand it would have been a lot worse in front of a different crowd.

Last year I used donairs to share a bit about the region I live in. This year I gave a quick introduction to my family. It was heavily geared towards Noah though. As I explained in a bit more detail during my talk it wasn’t because he’s my favourite, the youngest, or our only boy.

People used to ask us because Noah has three older sisters if we just kept trying until we had a boy. For me I was pretty happy with three children and likely would have stopped there if solely my decision. Growing up with just my Mom and three younger sisters myself I was comfortable with all girls. While Jen likely would have had ten kids, she wanted all girls.

The running joke in our family is that Noah received is name because at the ultrasound where we found out he was a boy Jen screamed out Nooooo, Ahhhhhh! So we just shortened that up, put it together and there we have it, Noah.

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I explained it was because at home he was celebrating his birthday while I was up presenting.

Four minutes isn’t enough time to tell all there is about Noah so I shared just a few things. Things like his favourite pass times which are soccer, basketball, and I’m convinced, pestering his sisters. Talking about butts and farts to get reactions from them. Like the night a few months ago when I told him at dinner I would be missing his birthday this year. It had him thinking about his cake. He decided he wanted a butt cake and he was going to eat a piece of the crack. This received the reaction he was looking for. He did back off this idea when I offered a picture of mine to be transposed on the cake. I guess it was a little too real.

Even though he likes those reactions he’s also a sweet little boy. I knew when I made it home I’d have a hand made welcome home card waiting for me in my office. He also tells Jen and I that when we are old we can live with him and he’ll take care of us. My favourite part is he still loves to snuggle with his old dad.


The date and and time for our flash talks are usually randomly generated. This year I made a special request to be in a big room on Sunday morning which the overworked organizers helped me with. I did this so that I could make as many Automatticians as I could think about Noah on his birthday and help me record a little message so that he knew it.

As it turned out I didn’t get the biggest room and our CEO Matt Mullenweg was scheduled in the same session I was, so I’m guessing there was a large crowd in another room. Both are probably good things based on how nervous I ended up being. A special thanks to everyone who wished Noah a happy birthday with me. He played the video over and over and was very excited!

Looking back for an alternate path

You can’t change the past and I don’t believe it does any good to dwell on what ifs, or wishing you could go back and do things differently. That doesn’t stop me from occasionally thinking about where my life might be if I had made different choices at certain points in time, and then throwing these rambling thoughts down in a blog post.

In all honesty there is not much I would change if I had the chance. I’m very happy with where my life is right now. One thing I’ve been considering though is that, with the benefit of hindsight, I could have ended up at this same place except sooner.

There all kinds of mistakes and things I did when I was younger that put bumps in my road, or caused me to take wrong turns. The one that picks at me the most is the decision to go back to school to take Computer Science.

It’s not because I don’t see the value in the program or that I didn’t learn anything. In fact I really enjoyed my time at Acadia, the people I met, and I learned so much. The reason I regret it mainly is because where I ended up, and for how much of my degree I actually use, I didn’t need to go deep into debt in student loans to learn the skills and knowledge I now use in my career.

My time and money would have been much better spent buying and reading books specifically about web development. That is what I was really interested in and where I wanted to spend my career. Instead of writing command line Java programs I could have been building and experimenting with side projects or client work on my own.

At the time though all the local jobs with employers I thought would be good to work for wanted someone with a degree. Truly I didn’t even think about the possibility of working remotely at the time. Even though I was already doing it to an extent making websites for people I never met in person. It also didn’t occur that I would find a company where I really could make a career providing customer support. With those assumptions and narrow focus the logical route seemed to be to spend four years going to University.

After graduating I was able to sustain life being self employed doing web development for people. However I didn’t make it to a point where I was earning enough to repay my loans. For a number of years I deferred payments. This means there are still a lot of years I’ll be paying them back. Getting close to 40 years old and seeing the final date to having them paid so far away is a bit deflating.

This isn’t a complaint against student loans, I’m fully aware how fortunate I am that I was able to get loans, go to school, and then defer their payments afterwards. I’m just day dreaming about how I could have done it differently now that I have the benefit of looking back.

Even before I went back to school I was already on a path which could have led me to Automattic. My passion was in the web, I loved building things to help people, and helping people get a presence online. The whole while I was teaching myself how to do these things in my spare time. While building websites I came to a point where static html files weren’t the best way to do things and started looking at content management systems. Playing with things like WordPress and Joomla or Mambo at the time. In 2009 I signed up for a WordPress.com account, though I didn’t end up doing much with it for some time.

Later in 2010 I ended up hearing a Big Web Show podcast on 5by5 where Matt Mullenweg was interviewed. In it he talked about Automattic and in particular Happiness Engineers is what caught my attention. That was my first time starting to think that it could be a cool job, but put it out of my mind before looking into it because I was making money on my own. In that interview Matt also talked about a theory that the time was right for a product like WordPress to evolve and that if it wasn’t WordPress something else would have come along which met the needs of the web. My thought is that my career at Automattic is sort of like. A career like this, with a company like this, was needed in my life and we ended up connecting together.

If I hadn’t gone to University I could have learned a lot by myself in that same time frame and maybe when I heard that podcast I would have been more open to looking into working at Automattic. Then I could have been four years ahead in my career and without all the student loan debt.

Despite the regret I’m still just so thankful for having the life I do. With my family and career I really have nothing to complain about. Just in case my path wouldn’t have led me here without my going through University, than I’m even more grateful for my experiences I gained there and will try my best not to be so down on paying back the loans.

Evolving Support

For the past while I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to provide awesome support. While there are many aspects to that question I believe at the most basic level is to ensure you are there. Make it so your users can reach you easily and in a timely manner.

The concept itself is fairly simple, but despite that there is a whole industry which has been constructed around work force and scheduling. In the past I haven’t seen the specialized software and people involved be able to properly cover support without having either a lot of down time or a queue of users waiting to contact support. This could very well be related to the companies I worked with, or call centers in general. I think the answer to the problem is much more straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.

Businesses are always changing, your users may change and their expectations will undoubtably change. What worked before isn’t always going to keep working. Support needs to stay flexible and be able to adapt in order to provide the best support. The same applies to scheduling.

At Automattic we’re pretty well known for having very flexible schedules. In The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun the inside cover of the book mentions “There are no schedules, few meetings, and fewer rules.” That was likely the case when the company was smaller, but not 100% accurate today, especially in support. This quote from the book is more true though when it comes to schedules, “About a third of the company had children, and working remotely helped them manage the logistical challenges of raising children. Much like college students, they could be free to arrange their work schedules to fit their lives rather than constantly struggling with the pull of one against another.”

While we Happiness Engineers still get to choose our schedule to fit our lives, the reality in providing 24 hour support for our users dictates there is now a need for us to be flexible in when we choose to schedule ourselves. Even if it might not be our first choice for hours, if there is time which is under scheduled, we need to bend and fill in that area. Our job is to best support our users, so scheduling ourselves for best coverage is part of our jobs. We don’t ask anyone to work crazy hours, that is part of the benefit of having co-workers across the globe. For the most part we have people who are available to work in normal times for them which could be the middle of the night for me.

Our goal is to actually over staff our live chat coverage so that there is no queue and there is always a Happiness Engineer available. This goes along with what I mentioned earlier about call centers. If you overstaff it means there is down time. Luckily for us live chat isn’t the only way users contact us. So if chat is slow through communication and flexibility we can switch gears a little and reply to email tickets or help out in our public support forums.

This isn’t something we’ve perfected yet, but the goal we are working towards. It also isn’t the way things have always been done, but as our business evolves the way we approach and handle support has to move with it.

How to traumatize your child

Today I’m fairly certain I traumatized Caile. For the past few days she has not been feeling well. Picked up a bug which was going around.

Everyone else in the house has been busy and that left Caile and I at home alone. She relaxed and tried to get feeling better when I worked. She’s come along way and is feeling much better but we decided today would be the same.

A small glitch though. In the middle of the night I woke up with the same bug she had. So we hung out together being sick. 

While we were watching a movie I felt the urge and made my way out of the room. I was pretty weak and not feeling well as the next thing I knew I could hear Caile crying and asking me if I was alright. She was on the phone with Jen and very scared. Having made it to the bathroom I promptly passed out. It must have been a bit of time as Caile had run down two flights of stairs and then back up before I came to. 

She was pretty freaked out but after assuring both her and Jen I was ok she calmed down. I fee awful for putting her through that. I can only imagine finding your parent lying on the bathroom floor not answering you. Pretty sure my constant apologizing for the rest of the day might be annoying her though.