Automattic Transition (days -50 to 78)

Since I reported last summer that I’d accepted a job offer with Automattic I’ve been writing about my experience of joining and working with Automattic on a nice, round 128-day schedule.

My first post covered the first 128 days: starting from the day I decided (after 15 years of watching-from-afar) that I should apply to work there through to 51 days before my start date. It described my recruitment process, which is famously comprehensive and intensive. For me this alone was hugely broadening! My first post spanned the period up until I started getting access to Automattic’s internal systems, a month and a half before my start date. If you’re interested in my experience of recruitment at Automattic, you should go and read that post. This post, though, focusses on my induction, onboarding, and work during my first two months.

(You might also be interested in other things I’ve written about Automattic.)

Kitting Up (day -37 onwards)

Dan in front of a crowded desk: two large monitors, a regular-sized monitor, and a laptop are visible, among clutter.
I could possibly do with a little more desk space, or at least a little better desk arrangement, after the house move.

With a month to go before I started, I thought it time to start setting up my new “office” for my teleworking. Automattic offered to buy me a new desk and chair, but I’m not ready to take them up on that yet: but I’m waiting until after my (hopefully-)upcoming house move so I know how much space I’ve got to work with/what I need! There’s still plenty for a new developer to do, though: plugging in and testing my new laptop, monitor, and accessories, and doing all of the opinionated tweaks that make one’s digital environment one’s own – preferred text editor, browser, plugins, shell, tab width, mouse sensitivity, cursor blink rate… important stuff like that.

For me, this was the cause of the first of many learning experiences, because nowadays I’m working on a MacBook! Automattic doesn’t require you to use a Mac, but a large proportion of the company does and I figured that learning to use a Mac effectively would be easier than learning my new codebase on a different architecture than most of my colleagues.

Dan working on a MacBook covered with Automattic stickers, wearing a WordPress Diversity t-shirt.
Working on location, showing some Automattic pride. You can’t really make out my WordPress “Christmas jumper”, hanging on the back of the sofa, but I promise that’s what it is.

I’ve owned a couple of Intel Macs (and a couple of Hackintoshes) but I’ve never gotten on with them well enough to warrant becoming an advanced user, until now. I’ll probably write in the future about my experience of making serious use of a Mac after a history of mostly *nix and Windows machines.

Automattic also encouraged me to kit myself up with a stack of freebies to show off my affiliation, so I’ve got a wardrobe-load of new t-shirts and stickers too. It’s hard to argue that we’re a company and not a cult when we’re all dressed alike, and that’s not even mentioning a colleague of mine with two WordPress-related tattoos, but there we have it.

Dan wearing a WordPress hoodie and drinking from an Automattic bottle.
Totally not a cult. Now let me have another swig of Kool-Aid…

Role and Company

I should take a moment to say what I do. The very simple version, which I came up with to very briefly describe my new job to JTA‘s mother, is: I write software that powers an online shop that sells software that powers online shops.

Xzibit says:
It’s eCommerce all the way down. Thanks, Xzibit.

You want the long version? I’m a Code Magician (you may say it’s a silly job title, I say it’s beautiful… but I don’t necessarily disagree that it’s silly too) with Team Alpha at Automattic. We’re the engineering team behind, which provides downloads of the Web’s most-popular eCommerce platform… plus hundreds of free and premium extensions.

There’s a lot of stuff I’d love to tell you about my role and my new employer, but there’s enough to say here about my induction so I’ll be saving following topics for a future post:

  • Chaos: how Automattic produces order out of entropy, seemingly against all odds,
  • Transparency and communication: what it’s like to work in an environment of radical communication and a focus on transparency,
  • People and culture: my co-workers, our distributed team, and what is lost by not being able to “meet around the coffee machine” (and how we work to artificially recreate that kind of experience),
  • Distributed working: this is my second foray into a nearly-100% remote-working environment; how’s it different to before?

To be continued, then.

John wearing a WordPress t-shirt.
I’m not the only member of my family to benefit from a free t-shirt.

Onboarding (days 1 through 12)

I wasn’t sure how my onboarding at Automattic could compare to that which I got when I started at the Bodleian. There, my then-line manager Alison‘s obsession with preparation had me arrive to a thoroughly-planned breakdown of everything I needed to know and everybody I needed to meet over the course of my first few weeks. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves little breathing room in an already intense period!

Leslie Knope (Parks & Rec) presents a pile of binders, saying
What it felt like to receive an induction from the first boss I had at the Bod.

By comparison, my induction at Automattic was far more self-guided: each day in my first fortnight saw me tackling an agenda of things to work on and – in a pleasing touch I’ve seen nowhere else – a list of expectations resulting from that day. Defined expectations day-by-day are an especially good as a tool for gauging one’s progress and it’s a nice touch that I’ll be adapting should I ever have to write another induction plan for a somebody else.

Agenda and Expectations Checklist for Dan's first day at Automattic
Both an agenda and a list of expectations for the day? That’s awesome and intimidating in equal measure.

Skipping the usual induction topics of where the fire escapes and toilets are (it’s your house; you tell us!), how to dial an outside line (yeah, we don’t really do that here), what to do to get a key to the bike shed and so on saves time, of course! But it also removes an avenue for more-casual interpersonal contact (“So how long’ve you been working here?”) and ad-hoc learning (“So I use that login on this system, right?”). Automattic’s aware of this and has an entire culture about making information accessible, but it takes additional work on the part of a new hire to proactively seek out the answers they need, when they need them: searching the relevant resources, or else finding out who to ask… and being sure to check their timezone before expecting an immediate response.

Onboarding at Automattic is necessarily at least somewhat self-driven, and it’s clear in hindsight that the recruitment process is geared towards selection of individuals who can work in this way because it’s an essential part of how we work in general. I appreciated the freedom to carve my own path as I learned the ropes, but it took me a little while to get over my initial intimidation about pinging a stranger to ask for a video/voice chat to talk through something!

Meetup (days 14 through 21)

Dan with a 50 South African Rand note.
How cool is South African currency? This note’s got a lion on it!

I’d tried to arrange my migration to Automattic to occur just before their 2019 Grand Meetup, when virtually the entire company gets together in one place for an infrequent but important gathering, but I couldn’t make it work and just barely missed it. Luckily, though, my team had planned a smaller get-together in South Africa which coincided with my second/third week, so I jetted off to get some facetime with my colleagues.

Dan sitting on a rock on Table Mountain, Cape Town, with a sunset in the background
When they say that Automatticians can work from anywhere, there might nonetheless be practical limits.

My colleague and fellow newbie Berislav‘s contract started a few hours after he landed in Cape Town, and it was helpful to my journey to see how far I’d come over the last fortnight through his eyes! He was, after all, on the same adventure as me, only a couple of weeks behind, and it was reassuring to see that I’d already learned so much as well as to be able to join in with helping him get up-to-speed, too.

Dan with a pair of African penguins
The meetup wasn’t all work. I also got to meet penguins and get attacked by one of the little buggers.

By the time I left the meetup I’d learned as much again as I had in the two weeks prior about my new role and my place in the team. I’d also learned that I’m pretty terrible at surfing, but luckily that’s not among the skills I have to master in order to become a valuable developer to Automattic.

Happiness Rotation (days 23 through 35)

A quirk of Automattic – and indeed something that attracted me to them, philosophically – is that everybody spends two weeks early in their first year and a week in every subsequent year working on the Happiness Team. Happiness at Automattic is what almost any other company would call “tech support”, because Automattic’s full of job titles and team names that are, frankly, a bit silly flipping awesome. I like this “Happiness Rotation” as a concept because it keeps the entire company focussed on customer issues and the things that really matter at the coal face. It also fosters a broader understanding of our products and how they’re used in the real world, which is particularly valuable to us developers who can otherwise sometimes forget that the things we produce have to be usable by real people with real needs!

Happiness Live Chat screenshot, customer's view.
Once I’d gotten the hang of answering tickets I got to try my hand at Live Chat, which was a whole new level of terrifying.

One of the things that made my Happiness Rotation the hardest was also one of the things that made it the most-rewarding: that I didn’t really know most of the products I was supporting! This was a valuable experience because I was able to learn as-I-went-along, working alongside my (amazingly supportive and understanding) Happiness Team co-workers: the people who do this stuff all the time. But simultaneously, it was immensely challenging! My background in WordPress in general, plenty of tech support practice at Three Rings, and even my experience of email support at Samaritans put me in a strong position in-general… but I found that I could very-quickly find myself out of my depth when helping somebody with the nitty-gritty of a problem with a specific WooCommerce extension.

Portering and getting DRI (days 60 through 67)

I’ve also had the opportunity during my brief time so far with Automattic to take on a few extra responsibilities within my team. My team rotates weekly responsibility for what they call the Porter role. The Porter is responsible for triaging pull requests and monitoring blocking issues and acting as a first point-of-call to stakeholders: you know, the stuff that’s important for developer velocity but that few developers want to do all the time. Starting to find my feet in my team by now, I made it my mission during my first shift as Porter to get my team to experiment with an approach for keeping momentum on long-running issues, with moderate success (as a proper continuous-integration shop, velocity is important and measurable). It’s pleased me so far to feel like I’m part of a team where my opinion matters, even though I’m “the new guy”.

A woman carries a large cardboard box.
“Here, I found these things we need to be working on.” Pretty much how I see the Porter role.

I also took on my first project as a Directly Responsible Individual, which is our fancy term for the person who makes sure the project runs to schedule, reports on progress etc. Because Automattic more strongly than any other place I’ve ever worked subscribes to a dogfooding strategy, the online store for which I share responsibility runs on – you guessed it – WooCommerce! And so the first project for which I’m directly responsible is the upgrade of to the latest version of WooCommerce, which went into beta last month. Fingers crossed for a smooth deployment.

There’s so much I’d love to say about Automattic’s culture, approach to development, people, products, philosophy, and creed, but that’ll have to wait for another time. For now, suffice to say that I’m enjoying this exciting and challenging new environment and I’m looking forward to reporting on them in another 128 days or so.

Evolving Computer Words: “Hacker”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

Anticipatory note: based on the traffic I already get to my blog and the keywords people search for, I imagine that some people will end up here looking to learn “how to become a hacker”. If that’s your goal, you’re probably already asking the wrong question, but I direct you to Eric S. Raymond’s Guide/FAQ on the subject. Good luck.

Few words have seen such mutation of meaning over their lifetimes as the word “silly”. The earliest references, found in Old English, Proto-Germanic, and Old Norse and presumably having an original root even earlier, meant “happy”. By the end of the 12th century it meant “pious”; by the end of the 13th, “pitiable” or “weak”; only by the late 16th coming to mean “foolish”; its evolution continues in the present day.

Right, stop that! It's too silly.
The Monty Python crew were certainly the experts on the contemporary use of the word.

But there’s little so silly as the media-driven evolution of the word “hacker” into something that’s at least a little offensive those of us who probably would be described as hackers. Let’s take a look.


What people think it means

Computer criminal with access to either knowledge or tools which are (or should be) illegal.

What it originally meant

Expert, creative computer programmer; often politically inclined towards information transparency, egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchy, and/or decentralisation of power.

The Past

The earliest recorded uses of the word “hack” had a meaning that is unchanged to this day: to chop or cut, as you might describe hacking down an unruly bramble. There are clear links between this and the contemporary definition, “to plod away at a repetitive task”. However, it’s less certain how the word came to be associated with the meaning it would come to take on in the computer labs of 1960s university campuses (the earliest references seem to come from around April 1955).

There, the word hacker came to describe computer experts who were developing a culture of:

  • sharing computer resources and code (even to the extent, in extreme cases, breaking into systems to establish more equal opportunity of access),
  • learning everything possible about humankind’s new digital frontiers (hacking to learn, not learning to hack)
  • judging others only by their contributions and not by their claims or credentials, and
  • discovering and advancing the limits of computers: it’s been said that the difference between a non-hacker and a hacker is that a non-hacker asks of a new gadget “what does it do?”, while a hacker asks “what can I make it do?”
Venn-Euler-style diagram showing crackers as a subset of security hackers, who in turn are a subset of hackers. Script kiddies are a group of their own, off to the side where nobody has to talk to them (this is probably for the best).
What the media generally refers to as “hackers” would be more-accurately, within the hacker community, be called crackers; a subset of security hackers, in turn a subset of hackers as a whole. Script kiddies – people who use hacking tools exclusively for mischief without fully understanding what they’re doing – are a separate subset on their own.

It is absolutely possible for hacking, then, to involve no lawbreaking whatsoever. Plenty of hacking involves writing (and sharing) code, reverse-engineering technology and systems you own or to which you have legitimate access, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of software, art, and human-computer interaction. Even among hackers with a specific interest in computer security, there’s plenty of scope for the legal pursuit of their interests: penetration testing, security research, defensive security, auditing, vulnerability assessment, developer education… (I didn’t say cyberwarfare because 90% of its application is of questionable legality, but it is of course a big growth area.)

Getty Images search for "Hacker".
Hackers have a serious image problem, and the best way to see it is to search on your favourite stock photo site for “hacker”. If you don’t use a laptop in a darkened room, wearing a hoodie and optionally mask and gloves, you’re not a real hacker. Also, 50% of all text should be green, 40% blue, 10% red.

So what changed? Hackers got famous, and not for the best reasons. A big tipping point came in the early 1980s when hacking group The 414s broke into a number of high-profile computer systems, mostly by using the default password which had never been changed. The six teenagers responsible were arrested by the FBI but few were charged, and those that were were charged only with minor offences. This was at least in part because there weren’t yet solid laws under which to prosecute them but also because they were cooperative, apologetic, and for the most part hadn’t caused any real harm. Mostly they’d just been curious about what they could get access to, and were interested in exploring the systems to which they’d logged-in, and seeing how long they could remain there undetected. These remain common motivations for many hackers to this day.

"Hacker" Dan Q
Hoodie: check. Face-concealing mask: check. Green/blue code: check. Is I a l33t hacker yet?

News media though – after being excited by “hacker” ideas introduced by WarGames – rightly realised that a hacker with the same elementary resources as these teens but with malicious intent could cause significant real-world damage. Bruce Schneier argued last year that the danger of this may be higher today than ever before. The press ran news stories strongly associating the word “hacker” specifically with the focus on the illegal activities in which some hackers engage. The release of Neuromancer the following year, coupled with an increasing awareness of and organisation by hacker groups and a number of arrests on both sides of the Atlantic only fuelled things further. By the end of the decade it was essentially impossible for a layperson to see the word “hacker” in anything other than a negative light. Counter-arguments like The Conscience of a Hacker (Hacker’s Manifesto) didn’t reach remotely the same audiences: and even if they had, the points they made remain hard to sympathise with for those outside of hacker communities.

"Glider" Hacker Emblem
‘Nuff said.

A lack of understanding about what hackers did and what motivated them made them seem mysterious and otherworldly. People came to make the same assumptions about hackers that they do about magicians – that their abilities are the result of being privy to tightly-guarded knowledge rather than years of practice – and this elevated them to a mythical level of threat. By the time that Kevin Mitnick was jailed in the mid-1990s, prosecutors were able to successfully persuade a judge that this “most dangerous hacker in the world” must be kept in solitary confinement and with no access to telephones to ensure that he couldn’t, for example, “start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone”. Yes, really.

Four hands on one keyboard, from CSI: Cyber
Whistling into a phone to start a nuclear war? That makes CSI: Cyber seem realistic [watch].

The Future

Every decade’s hackers have debated whether or not the next decade’s have correctly interpreted their idea of “hacker ethics”. For me, Steven Levy’s tenets encompass them best:

  1. Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

Given these concepts as representative of hacker ethics, I’m convinced that hacking remains alive and well today. Hackers continue to be responsible for many of the coolest and most-important innovations in computing, and are likely to continue to do so. Unlike many other sciences, where progress over the ages has gradually pushed innovators away from backrooms and garages and into labs to take advantage of increasingly-precise generations of equipment, the tools of computer science are increasingly available to individuals. More than ever before, bedroom-based hackers are able to get started on their journey with nothing more than a basic laptop or desktop computer and a stack of freely-available open-source software and documentation. That progress may be threatened by the growth in popularity of easy-to-use (but highly locked-down) tablets and smartphones, but the barrier to entry is still low enough that most people can pass it, and the new generation of ultra-lightweight computers like the Raspberry Pi are doing their part to inspire the next generation of hackers, too.

That said, and as much as I personally love and identify with the term “hacker”, the hacker community has never been less in-need of this overarching label. The diverse variety of types of technologist nowadays coupled with the infiltration of pop culture by geek culture has inevitably diluted only to be replaced with a multitude of others each describing a narrow but understandable part of the hacker mindset. You can describe yourself today as a coder, gamer, maker, biohacker, upcycler, cracker, blogger, reverse-engineer, social engineer, unconferencer, or one of dozens of other terms that more-specifically ties you to your community. You’ll be understood and you’ll be elegantly sidestepping the implications of criminality associated with the word “hacker”.

The original meaning of “hacker” has also been soiled from within its community: its biggest and perhaps most-famous advocate‘s insistence upon linguistic prescriptivism came under fire just this year after he pushed for a dogmatic interpretation of the term “sexual assault” in spite of a victim’s experience. This seems to be absolutely representative of his general attitudes towards sex, consent, women, and appropriate professional relationships. Perhaps distancing ourselves from the old definition of the word “hacker” can go hand-in-hand with distancing ourselves from some of the toxicity in the field of computer science?

(I’m aware that I linked at the top of this blog post to the venerable but also-problematic Eric S. Raymond; if anybody can suggest an equivalent resource by another author I’d love to swap out the link.)

Verdict: The word “hacker” has become so broad in scope that we’ll never be able to rein it back in. It’s tainted by its associations with both criminality, on one side, and unpleasant individuals on the other, and it’s time to accept that the popular contemporary meaning has won. Let’s find new words to define ourselves, instead.

Evolving Computer Words: “GIF”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

The language we use is always changing, like how the word “cute” was originally a truncation of the word “acute”, which you’d use to describe somebody who was sharp-witted, as in “don’t get cute with me”. Nowadays, we use it when describing adorable things, like the subject of this GIF:

[Animated GIF] Puppy flumps onto a human.
Cute, but not acute.
But hang on a minute: that’s another word that’s changed meaning: GIF. Want to see how?


What people think it means

File format (or the files themselves) designed for animations and transparency. Or: any animation without sound.

What it originally meant

File format designed for efficient colour images. Animation was secondary; transparency was an afterthought.

The Past

Back in the 1980s cyberspace was in its infancy. Sir Tim hadn’t yet dreamed up the Web, and the Internet wasn’t something that most people could connect to, and bulletin board systems (BBSes) – dial-up services, often local or regional, sometimes connected to one another in one of a variety of ways – dominated the scene. Larger services like CompuServe acted a little like huge BBSes but with dial-up nodes in multiple countries, helping to bridge the international gaps and provide a lower learning curve than the smaller boards (albeit for a hefty monthly fee in addition to the costs of the calls). These services would later go on to double as, and eventually become exclusively, Internet Service Providers, but for the time being they were a force unto themselves.

CompuServe ad circa 1983
My favourite bit of this 1983 magazine ad for CompuServe is the fact that it claims a trademark on the word “email”. They didn’t try very hard to cling on to that claim, unlike their controversial patent on the GIF format…

In 1987, CompuServe were about to start rolling out colour graphics as a new feature, but needed a new graphics format to support that. Their engineer Steve Wilhite had the idea for a bitmap image format backed by LZW compression and called it GIF, for Graphics Interchange Format. Each image could be composed of multiple frames each having up to 256 distinct colours (hence the common mistaken belief that a GIF can only have 256 colours). The nature of the palette system and compression algorithm made GIF a particularly efficient format for (still) images with solid contiguous blocks of colour, like logos and diagrams, but generally underperformed against cosine-transfer-based algorithms like JPEG/JFIF for images with gradients (like most photos).

GIF with more than 256 colours.
This animated GIF (of course) shows how it’s possible to have more than 256 colours in a GIF by separating it into multiple non-temporal frames.

GIF would go on to become most famous for two things, neither of which it was capable of upon its initial release: binary transparency (having “see through” bits, which made it an excellent choice for use on Web pages with background images or non-static background colours; these would become popular in the mid-1990s) and animation. Animation involves adding a series of frames which overlay one another in sequence: extensions to the format in 1989 allowed the creator to specify the duration of each frame, making the feature useful (prior to this, they would be displayed as fast as they could be downloaded and interpreted!). In 1995, Netscape added a custom extension to GIF to allow them to loop (either a specified number of times or indefinitely) and this proved so popular that virtually all other software followed suit, but it’s worth noting that “looping” GIFs have never been part of the official standard!

Hex editor view of a GIF file's metadata section, showing Netscape headers.
Open almost any animated GIF file in a hex editor and you’ll see the word NETSCAPE2.0; evidence of Netscape’s role in making animated GIFs what they are today.

Compatibility was an issue. For a period during the mid-nineties it was quite possible that among the visitors to your website there would be a mixture of:

  1. people who wouldn’t see your GIFs at all, owing to browser, bandwidth, preference, or accessibility limitations,
  2. people who would only see the first frame of your animated GIFs, because their browser didn’t support animation,
  3. people who would see your animation play once, because their browser didn’t support looping, and
  4. people who would see your GIFs as you intended, fully looping

This made it hard to depend upon GIFs without carefully considering their use. But people still did, and they just stuck a Netscape Now button on to warn people, as if that made up for it. All of this has happened before, etc.

In any case: as better, newer standards like PNG came to dominate the Web’s need for lossless static (optionally transparent) image transmission, the only thing GIFs remained good for was animation. Standards like APNG/MNG failed to get off the ground, and so GIFs remained the dominant animated-image standard. As Internet connections became faster and faster in the 2000s, they experienced a resurgence in popularity. The Web didn’t yet have the <video> element and so embedding videos on pages required a mixture of at least two of <object>, <embed>, Flash, and black magic… but animated GIFs just worked and soon appeared everywhere.

How animation online really works.

The Future

Nowadays, when people talk about GIFs, they often don’t actually mean GIFs! If you see a GIF on Giphy or WhatsApp, you’re probably actually seeing an MPEG-4 video file with no audio track! Now that Web video is widely-supported, service providers know that they can save on bandwidth by delivering you actual videos even when you expect a GIF. More than ever before, GIF has become a byword for short, often-looping Internet animations without sound… even though that’s got little to do with the underlying file format that the name implies.

What's a web page? Something ducks walk on?
What’s a web page? What’s anything?

Verdict: We still can’t agree on whether to pronounce it with a soft-G (“jif”), as Wilhite intended, or with a hard-G, as any sane person would, but it seems that GIFs are here to stay in name even if not in form. And that’s okay. I guess.

Evolving Computer Words: “Broadband”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

Until the 17th century, to “fathom” something was to embrace it. Nowadays, it’s more likely to refer to your understanding of something in depth. The migration came via the similarly-named imperial unit of measurement, which was originally defined as the span of a man’s outstretched arms, so you can understand how we got from one to the other. But you know what I can’t fathom? Broadband.

Woman hugging a dalmatian. Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels.
I can’t fathom dalmatians. But this woman can.

Broadband Internet access has become almost ubiquitous over the last decade and a half, but ask people to define “broadband” and they have a very specific idea about what it means. It’s not the technical definition, and this re-invention of the word can cause problems.


What people think it means

High-speed, always-on Internet access.

What it originally meant

Communications channel capable of multiple different traffic types simultaneously.

The Past

Throughout the 19th century, optical (semaphore) telegraph networks gave way to the new-fangled electrical telegraph, which not only worked regardless of the weather but resulted in significantly faster transmission. “Faster” here means two distinct things: latency – how long it takes a message to reach its destination, and bandwidth – how much information can be transmitted at once. If you’re having difficulty understanding the difference, consider this: a man on a horse might be faster than a telegraph if the size of the message is big enough because a backpack full of scrolls has greater bandwidth than a Morse code pedal, but the latency of an electrical wire beats land transport every time. Or as Andrew S. Tanenbaum famously put it: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.

Telephone-to-heliograph conversion circa 1912.
There were transitional periods. This man, photographed in 1912, is relaying a telephone message into a heliograph. I’m not sure what message he’s transmitting, but I’m guessing it ends with a hashtag.

Telegraph companies were keen to be able to increase their bandwidth – that is, to get more messages on the wire – and this was achieved by multiplexing. The simplest approach, time-division multiplexing, involves messages (or parts of messages) “taking turns”, and doesn’t actually increase bandwidth at all: although it does improve the perception of speed by giving recipients the start of their messages early on. A variety of other multiplexing techniques were (and continue to be) explored, but the one that’s most-interesting to us right now was called acoustic telegraphy: today, we’d call it frequency-division multiplexing.

What if, asked folks-you’ll-have-heard-of like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, we were to send telegraph messages down the line at different frequencies. Some beeps and bips would be high tones, and some would be low tones, and a machine at the receiving end could separate them out again (so long as you chose your frequencies carefully, to avoid harmonic distortion). As might be clear from the names I dropped earlier, this approach – sending sound down a telegraph wire – ultimately led to the invention of the telephone. Hurrah, I’m sure they all immediately called one another to say, our efforts to create a higher-bandwidth medium for telegrams has accidentally resulted in a lower-bandwidth (but more-convenient!) way for people to communicate. Job’s a good ‘un.

Electro-acoustic telegraph "tuning fork".
If this part of Edison’s 1878 patent looks like a tuning fork, that’s not a coincidence. These early multiplexers made distinct humming sounds as they operated, owing to the movement of the synchronised forks within.

Most electronic communications systems that have ever existed have been narrowband: they’ve been capable of only a single kind of transmission at a time. Even if you’re multiplexing a dozen different frequencies to carry a dozen different telegraph messages at once, you’re still only transmitting telegraph messages. For the most part, that’s fine: we’re pretty clever and we can find workarounds when we need them. For example, when we started wanting to be able to send data to one another (because computers are cool now) over telephone wires (which are conveniently everywhere), we did so by teaching our computers to make sounds and understand one another’s sounds. If you’re old enough to have heard a fax machine call a landline or, better yet used a dial-up modem, you know what I’m talking about.

As the Internet became more and more critical to business and home life, and the limitations (of bandwidth and convenience) of dial-up access became increasingly questionable, a better solution was needed. Bringing broadband to Internet access was necessary, but the technologies involved weren’t revolutionary: they were just the result of the application of a little imagination.

Dawson can't use the Internet because someone's on the phone.
I’ve felt your pain, Dawson. I’ve felt your pain.

We’d seen this kind of imagination before. Consider teletext, for example (for those of you too young to remember teletext, it was a standard for browsing pages of text and simple graphics using an 70s-90s analogue television), which is – strictly speaking – a broadband technology. Teletext works by embedding pages of digital data, encoded in an analogue stream, in the otherwise-“wasted” space in-between frames of broadcast video. When you told your television to show you a particular page, either by entering its three-digit number or by following one of four colour-coded hyperlinks, your television would wait until the page you were looking for came around again in the broadcast stream, decode it, and show it to you.

Teletext was, fundamentally, broadband. In addition to carrying television pictures and audio, the same radio wave was being used to transmit text: not pictures of text, but encoded characters. Analogue subtitles (which used basically the same technology): also broadband. Broadband doesn’t have to mean “Internet access”, and indeed for much of its history, it hasn’t.

Ceefax news article from 29 October 1988, about a cancelled Soviet shuttle launch.
My family started getting our news via broadband in about 1985. Not broadband Internet, but broadband nonetheless.

Here in the UK, ISDN (from 1988!) and later ADSL would be the first widespread technologies to provide broadband data connections over the copper wires simultaneously used to carry telephone calls. ADSL does this in basically the same way as Edison and Bell’s acoustic telegraphy: a portion of the available frequencies (usually the first 4MHz) is reserved for telephone calls, followed by a no-mans-land band, followed by two frequency bands of different sizes (hence the asymmetry: the A in ADSL) for up- and downstream data. This, at last, allowed true “broadband Internet”.

But was it fast? Well, relative to dial-up, certainly… but the essential nature of broadband technologies is that they share the bandwidth with other services. A connection that doesn’t have to share will always have more bandwidth, all other things being equal! Leased lines, despite technically being a narrowband technology, necessarily outperform broadband connections having the same total bandwidth because they don’t have to share it with other services. And don’t forget that not all speed is created equal: satellite Internet access is a narrowband technology with excellent bandwidth… but sometimes-problematic latency issues!

ADSL microfilter
Did you have one of these tucked behind your naughties router? This box filtered out the data from the telephone frequencies, helping to ensure that you can neither hear the pops and clicks of your ADSL connection nor interfere with it by shouting.

Equating the word “broadband” with speed is based on a consumer-centric misunderstanding about what broadband is, because it’s necessarily true that if your home “broadband” weren’t configured to be able to support old-fashioned telephone calls, it’d be (a) (slightly) faster, and (b) not-broadband.

The Future

But does the word that people use to refer to their high-speed Internet connection matter. More than you’d think: various countries around the world have begun to make legal definitions of the word “broadband” based not on the technical meaning but on the populist one, and it’s becoming a source of friction. In the USA, the FCC variously defines broadband as having a minimum download speed of 10Mbps or 25Mbps, among other characteristics (they seem to use the former when protecting consumer rights and the latter when reporting on penetration, and you can read into that what you will). In the UK, Ofcom‘s regulations differentiate between “decent” (yes, that’s really the word they use) and “superfast” broadband at 10Mbps and 24Mbps download speeds, respectively, while the Scottish and Welsh governments as well as the EU say it must be 30Mbps to be “superfast broadband”.

Faster, Harder, Scooter music video.
At full-tilt, going from 10Mbps to 24Mbps means taking only 4 seconds, rather than 11 seconds, to download the music video to Faster! Harder! Scooter!

I’m all in favour of regulation that protects consumers and makes it easier for them to compare products. It’s a little messy that definitions vary so widely on what different speeds mean, but that’s not the biggest problem. I don’t even mind that these agencies have all given themselves very little breathing room for the future: where do you go after “superfast”? Ultrafast (actually, that’s exactly where we go)? Megafast? Ludicrous speed?

What I mind is the redefining of a useful term to differentiate whether a connection is shared with other services or not to be tied to a completely independent characteristic of that connection. It’d have been simple for the FCC, for example, to have defined e.g. “full-speed broadband” as providing a particular bandwidth.

Verdict: It’s not a big deal; I should just chill out. I’m probably going to have to throw in the towel anyway on this one and join the masses in calling all high-speed Internet connections “broadband” and not using that word for all slower and non-Internet connections, regardless of how they’re set up.

Evolving Computer Words: “Virus”

This is part of a series of posts on computer terminology whose popular meaning – determined by surveying my friends – has significantly diverged from its original/technical one. Read more evolving words…

A few hundred years ago, the words “awesome” and “awful” were synonyms. From their roots, you can see why: they mean “tending to or causing awe” and “full or or characterised by awe”, respectively. Nowadays, though, they’re opposites, and it’s pretty awesome to see how our language continues to evolve. You know what’s awful, though? Computer viruses. Right?

Man staring intently at laptop. Image courtesy Oladimeji Ajegbile, via Pexels.
“Oh no! A virus has stolen all my selfies and uploaded them to a stock photos site!”

You know what I mean by a virus, right? A malicious computer program bent on causing destruction, spying on your online activity, encrypting your files and ransoming them back to you, showing you unwanted ads, etc… but hang on: that’s not right at all…


What people think it means

Malicious or unwanted computer software designed to cause trouble/commit crimes.

What it originally meant

Computer software that hides its code inside programs and, when they’re run, copies itself into other programs.

The Past

Only a hundred and thirty years ago it was still widely believed that “bad air” was the principal cause of disease. The idea that tiny germs could be the cause of infection was only just beginning to take hold. It was in this environment that the excellent scientist Ernest Hankin travelled around India studying outbreaks of disease and promoting germ theory by demonstrating that boiling water prevented cholera by killing the (newly-discovered) vibrio cholerae bacterium. But his most-important discovery was that water from a certain part of the Ganges seemed to be naturally inviable as a home for vibrio cholerae… and that boiling this water removed this superpower, allowing the special water to begin to once again culture the bacterium.

Hankin correctly theorised that there was something in that water that preyed upon vibrio cholerae; something too small to see with a microscope. In doing so, he was probably the first person to identify what we now call a bacteriophage: the most common kind of virus. Bacteriophages were briefly seen as exciting for their medical potential. But then in the 1940s antibiotics, which were seen as far more-convenient, began to be manufactured in bulk, and we stopped seriously looking at “phage therapy” (interestingly, phages are seeing a bit of a resurgence as antibiotic resistance becomes increasingly problematic).

Electron microscope image of a bacteriophage alongside an illustration of the same.
It took until the development of the scanning electron microscope in the mid-20th century before we’d actually “see” a virus.

But the important discovery kicked-off by the early observations of Hankin and others was that viruses exist. Later, researchers would discover how these viruses work1: they inject their genetic material into cells, and this injected “code” supplants the unfortunate cell’s usual processes. The cell is “reprogrammed” – sometimes after a dormant period – to churns out more of the virus, becoming a “virus factory”.

Let’s switch to computer science. Legendary mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from showing off his expertise in calculating how shaped charges should be used to build the first atomic bombs, invented the new field of cellular autonoma. Cellular autonoma are computationally-logical, independent entities that exhibit complex behaviour through their interactions, but if you’ve come across them before now it’s probably because you played Conway’s Game of Life, which made the concept popular decades after their invention. Von Neumann was very interested in how ideas from biology could be applied to computer science, and is credited with being the first person to come up with the idea of a self-replicating computer program which would write-out its own instructions to other parts of memory to be executed later: the concept of the first computer virus.

Glider factory breeder in Conway's Game of Life
This is a glider factory… factory. I remember the first time I saw this pattern, in the 1980s, and it sank in for me that cellular autonoma must logically be capable of any arbitrary level of complexity. I never built a factory-factory-factory, but I’ll bet that others have.

Retroactively-written lists of early computer viruses often identify 1971’s Creeper as the first computer virus: it was a program which, when run, moved (later copied) itself to another computer on the network and showed the message “I’m the creeper: catch me if you can”. It was swiftly followed by a similar program, Reaper, which replicated in a similar way but instead of displaying a message attempted to delete any copies of Creeper that it found. However, Creeper and Reaper weren’t described as viruses at the time and would be more-accurately termed worms nowadays: self-replicating network programs that don’t inject their code into other programs. An interesting thing to note about them, though, is that – contrary to popular conception of a “virus” – neither intended to cause any harm: Creeper‘s entire payload was a relatively-harmless message, and Reaper actually tried to do good by removing presumed-unwanted software.

Another early example that appears in so-called “virus timelines” came in 1975. ANIMAL presented as a twenty questions-style guessing game. But while the user played it would try to copy itself into another user’s directory, spreading itself (we didn’t really do directory permissions back then). Again, this wasn’t really a “virus” but would be better termed a trojan: a program which pretends to be something that it’s not.

Replica Trojan horse.
“Malware? Me? No siree… nothing here but this big executable horse.”

It took until 1983 before Fred Cooper gave us a modern definition of a computer virus, one which – ignoring usage by laypeople – stands to this day:

A program which can ‘infect’ other programs by modifying them to include a possibly evolved copy of itself… every program that gets infected may also act as a virus and thus the infection grows.

This definition helps distinguish between merely self-replicating programs like those seen before and a new, theoretical class of programs that would modify host programs such that – typically in addition to the host programs’ normal behaviour – further programs would be similarly modified. Not content with leaving this as a theoretical, Cooper wrote the first “true” computer virus to demonstrate his work (it was never released into the wild): he also managed to prove that there can be no such thing as perfect virus detection.

(Quick side-note: I’m sure we’re all on the same page about the evolution of language here, but for the love of god don’t say viri. Certainly don’t say virii. The correct plural is clearly viruses. The Latin root virus is a mass noun and so has no plural, unlike e.g. fungus/fungi, and so its adoption into a count-noun in English represents the creation of a new word which should therefore, without a precedent to the contrary, favour English pluralisation rules. A parallel would be bonus, which shares virus‘s linguistic path, word ending, and countability-in-Latin: you wouldn’t say “there were end-of-year boni for everybody in my department”, would you? No. So don’t say viri either.)

(Inaccurate) slide describing viruses as programs that damage computers or files.
No, no, no, no, no. The only wholly-accurate part of this definition is the word “program”.

Viruses came into their own as computers became standardised and commonplace and as communication between them (either by removable media or network/dial-up connections) and Cooper’s theoretical concepts became very much real. In 1986, The Virdim method brought infectious viruses to the DOS platform, opening up virus writers’ access to much of the rapidly growing business and home computer markets.

The Virdim method has two parts: (a) appending the viral code to the end of the program to be infected, and (b) injecting early into the program a call to the appended code. This exploits the typical layout of most DOS executable files and ensures that the viral code is run first, as an infected program loads, and the virus can spread rapidly through a system. The appearance of this method at a time when hard drives were uncommon and so many programs would be run from floppy disks (which could be easily passed around between users) enabled this kind of virus to spread rapidly.

For the most part, early viruses were not malicious. They usually only caused harm as a side-effect (as we’ve already seen, some – like Reaper – were intended to be not just benign but benevolent). For example, programs might run slower if they’re also busy adding viral code to other programs, or a badly-implemented virus might even cause software to crash. But it didn’t take long before viruses started to be used for malicious purposes – pranks, adware, spyware, data ransom, etc. – as well as to carry political messages or to conduct cyberwarfare.

XKCD 1180: Virus Venn Diagram
XKCD already explained all of this in far fewer words and a diagram.

The Future

Nowadays, though, viruses are becoming less-common. Wait, what?

Yup, you heard me right: new viruses aren’t being produced at remotely the same kind of rate as they were even in the 1990s. And it’s not that they’re easier for security software to catch and quarantine; if anything, they’re less-detectable as more and more different types of file are nominally “executable” on a typical computer, and widespread access to powerful cryptography has made it easier than ever for a virus to hide itself in the increasingly-sprawling binaries that litter modern computers.

"Security" button
Soo… I click this and all the viruses go away, right? Why didn’t we do this sooner?

The single biggest reason that virus writing is on the decline is, in my opinion, that writing something as complex as a a virus is longer a necessary step to illicitly getting your program onto other people’s computers2! Nowadays, it’s far easier to write a trojan (e.g. a fake Flash update, dodgy spam attachment, browser toolbar, or a viral free game) and trick people into running it… or else to write a worm that exploits some weakness in an open network interface. Or, in a recent twist, to just add your code to a popular library and let overworked software engineers include it in their projects for you. Modern operating systems make it easy to have your malware run every time they boot and it’ll quickly get lost amongst the noise of all the other (hopefully-legitimate) programs running alongside it.

In short: there’s simply no need to have your code hide itself inside somebody else’s compiled program any more. Users will run your software anyway, and you often don’t even have to work very hard to trick them into doing so.

Verdict: Let’s promote use of the word “malware” instead of “virus” for popular use. It’s more technically-accurate in the vast majority of cases, and it’s actually a more-useful term too.

1 Actually, not all viruses work this way. (Biological) viruses are, it turns out, really really complicated and we’re only just beginning to understand them. Computer viruses, though, we’ve got a solid understanding of.

2 There are other reasons, such as the increase in use of cryptographically-signed binaries, protected memory space/”execute bits”, and so on, but the trend away from traditional viruses and towards trojans for delivery of malicious payloads began long before these features became commonplace.

Without The Bod

Eight years, six months, and one week after I started at the Bodleian, we’ve gone our separate ways. It’s genuinely been the nicest place I’ve ever worked; the Communications team are a tightly-knit, supportive, caring bunch of diverse misfits and I love them all dearly, but the time had come for me to seek my next challenge.

(For anybody out-of-the-loop, I’m moving to Automattic after surviving their amazing, mind-expanding recruitment process).

Bodleian staff badge and keyring
My imminent departure began to feel real when I turned over my badge and gun card and keys.

Being awesome as they are, my team threw a going-away party for me, complete with food from Najar’s Place, about which I’d previously raved as having Oxford’s best falafels. I wasn’t even aware that Najar’s place did corporate catering… actually, it’s possible that they don’t and this was just a (very) special one-off.

Partry platters courtesy of Najar's Place along with drinks and cake.
Start from the left, work towards the right.

Following in the footsteps of recent team parties, they’d even gotten a suitably-printed cake with a picture of my face on it. Which meant that I could leave my former team with one final magic trick, the never-before-seen feat of eating my own head (albeit in icing form).

Dan on a cake
Of course, the first thing I was asked to do was to put a knife through my own neck.

As the alcohol started to work, I announced an activity I’d planned: over the weeks prior I’d worked to complete but not cash-in reward cards at many of my favourite Oxford eateries and cafes, and so I was now carrying a number of tokens for free burritos, coffees, ice creams, smoothies, pasta and more. Given that I now expect to spend much less of my time in the city centre I’d decided to give these away to people who were able to answer challenge questions presented – where else? – on our digital signage simulator.

"Play Your Shards Right" on the big screen.
Among the games was Play Your Shards Right, a game of “higher/lower” played across London’s skyscrapers.

I also received some wonderful going-away gifts, along with cards in which a few colleagues had replicated my long tradition of drawing cartoon animals in other people’s cards, by providing me with a few in return.

Coworkers competing agressively for tiny prizes.
“Wait… all of these Javascript frameworks look like they’re named after Pokémon!”

Later, across the road at the Kings’ Arms and with even more drinks inside of me, I broke out the lyrics I’d half-written to a rap song about my time at the Bodleian. Because, as I said at the time, there’s nothing more-Oxford than a privileged white boy rapping about how much he’d loved his job at a library (video also available on QTube [with lyrics] and on Videopress).

It’s been an incredible 8½ years that I’ll always look back on with fondness. Don’t be strangers, guys!

Dan says goodbye to Bodleian colleagues
My department’s made far too much use out of that “Sorry you’re leaving” banner, this year. Here’s hoping they get a stabler, simpler time next year.

Time-Efficient Shuffling

Some years ago, a friend of mine told me about an interview they’d had for a junior programming position. Their interviewer was one of that particular breed who was attached to programming-test questions: if you’re in the field of computer science, you already know that these questions exist. In any case: my friend was asked to write pseudocode to shuffle a deck of cards: a classic programming problem that pretty much any first-year computer science undergraduate is likely to have considered, if not done.

Interview with paper visible.
Let’s play at writing software. Rather than a computer, we’ll use paper. But to make it sound techy, we’ll call it “pseudocode”.

There are lots of wrong ways to programmatically shuffle a deck of cards, such as the classic “swap the card in each position with the card in a randomly-selected position”, which results in biased results. In fact, the more that you think in terms of how humans shuffle cards, the less-likely you are to come up with a good answer!

Chart showing the probability bias for an incorrectly-implemented Fisher-Yates shuffle, for a 6-card deck.
If we shuffled a deck of six cards with this ‘broken’ algorithm, for example, we’d be more-likely to find the card that was originally in second place at the top of the deck than in any other position. This kind of thing REALLY matters if, for example, you’re running an online casino.

The simplest valid solution is to take a deck of cards and move each card, choosing each at random, into a fresh deck (you can do this as a human, if you like, but it takes a while)… and that’s exactly what my friend suggested.

The interviewer was ready for this answer, though, and asked my friend if they could think of a “more-efficient” way to do the shuffle. And this is where my friend had a brain fart and couldn’t think of one. That’s not a big problem in the real world: so long as you can conceive that there exists a more-efficient shuffle, know what to search for, and can comprehend the explanation you get, then you can still be a perfectly awesome programmer. Demanding that people already know the answer to problems in an interview setting doesn’t actually tell you anything about their qualities as a programmer, only how well they can memorise answers to stock interview questions (this interviewer should have stopped this line of inquiry one question sooner).

Riffle shuffling
Writing a program to shuffle a deck takes longer than just shuffling it, but that’s hardly the point, is it?

The interviewer was probably looking for an explanation of the modern form of the Fisher-Yates shuffle algorithm, which does the same thing as my friend suggested but without needing to start a “separate” deck: here’s a video demonstrating it. When they asked for greater efficiency, the interviewer was probably looking for a more memory-efficient solution. But that’s not what they said, and it’s certainly not the only way to measure efficiency.

When people ask ineffective interview questions, it annoys me a little. When people ask ineffective interview questions and phrase them ambiguously to boot, that’s just makes me want to contrive a deliberately-awkward answer.

So: another way to answer the shuffling efficiency question would be to optimise for time-efficiency. If, like my friend, you get a question about improving the efficiency of a shuffling algorithm and they don’t specify what kind of efficiency (and you’re feeling sarcastic), you’re likely to borrow either of the following algorithms. You won’t find them any computer science textbook!

Complexity/time-efficiency optimised shuffling

  1. Precompute and store an array of all 52! permutations of a deck of cards. I think you can store a permutation in no more than 226 bits, so I calculate that 2.3 quattuordecillion yottabytes would be plenty sufficient to store such an array. That’s about 25 sexdecillion times more data than is believed to exist on the Web, so you’re going to need to upgrade your hard drive.
  2. To shuffle a deck, simply select a random number x such that 0 <= x < 52! and retrieve the deck stored at that location.

This converts the O(n) problem that is Fisher-Yates to an O(1) problem, an entire complexity class of improvement. Sure, you need storage space valued at a few hundred orders of magnitude greater than the world GDP, but if you didn’t specify cost-efficiency, then that’s not what you get.

Stack of shuffled cards
If you’ve got a thousand galaxies worth of free space you can just fill them with actual decks of cards – one for each permutation – and physically pick one at random. That sounds convenient, right?

You’re also going to need a really, really good PRNG to ensure that the 226-bit binary number you generate has sufficient entropy. You could always use a real physical deck of cards to seed it, Solitaire/Pontifex-style, and go full meta, but I worry that doing so might cause this particular simulation of the Universe to implode, sooo… do it at your own risk?

Perhaps we can do one better, if we’re willing to be a little sillier…

(Everett interpretation) Quantum optimised shuffling

Quantum ungulations
If you live in a universe in which quantum optimised shuffling isn’t possible, the technique below can be adapted to create a universe in which it is.

Assuming the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is applicable to reality, there’s a yet-more-efficient way to shuffle a deck of cards, inspired by the excellent (and hilarious) quantum bogosort algorithm:

  1. Create a superposition of all possible states of a deck of cards. This divides the universe into 52! universes; however, the division has no cost, as it happens constantly anyway.
  2. Collapse the waveform by observing your shuffled deck of cards.

The unneeded universes can be destroyed or retained as you see fit.

Let me know if you manage to implement either of these.

Subscribe by Email

For the last few months, I’ve been running an alpha test of an email-based subscription to with a handful of handpicked testers. Now, I’d like to open it up to a slightly larger beta test group. If you’d like to get the latest from this site directly in your inbox, just provide your email address below:

Subscribe by email!

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Some people prefer to use their email inbox to subscribe to things. If that’s you: great!

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Yes, I ran a “subscribe by email” system back in 2007 but didn’t maintain it. Things might be better this time around. Maybe.

Retro-PESOSing my Reviews

When I arrived at this weekend’s IndieWebCamp I still wasn’t sure what it was that I would be working on. I’d worked recently to better understand the ecosystem surrounding and had a number of half-formed ideas about tightening it up. But instead, I ended up expanding the reach of my “personal web” considerably by adding reviews as a post type to my site and building tools to retroactively-reintegrate reviews I’d written on other silos.

Amazon customer review
The oldest surviving review I found was my grumbling about Windows XP Home edition being just a crippled version of Pro edition. And now it’s immortalised here.

Over the years, I’ve written reviews of products using Amazon and Steam and of places using Google Maps and TripAdvisor. These are silos and my content there is out of my control and could, for example, be deleted at a moment’s notice. This risk was particularly fresh in my mind as my friend Jen‘s Twitter account was suspended this weekend for allegedly violating the platform’s rules (though Twitter have so far proven unwilling to tell her which rules she’s broken or even when she did so, and she’s been left completely in the dark).

My mission for the weekend was to:

  1. Come up with a mechanism for the (microformat-friendly) display of reviews on this site, and
  2. Reintegrate my reviews from Amazon, Steam, Google Maps and TripAdvisor
Steam review for Hacknet
Steam reviews use a “thumbs up/thumbs down” rating system rather than a “5-star” style, but h-review is capable of expressing both and more.

I opted not to set up an ongoing POSSE nor PESOS process at this point; I’ll do this manually in the short term (I don’t write reviews on third-party sites often). Also out of scope were some other sites on which I’ve found that I’ve posted reviews, for example BoardGameGeek. These can both be tasks for a future date. ecosystem map showing Dan Q writing reviews and these being re-imported on demand back into
The lovely diagram I drew earlier this year? Here it is with the new loop drawn on.

I used Google Takeout to export my Google Maps reviews, which comprised the largest number of reviews of the sites I targetted and which is the least screen-scraper friendly. I wrote a bookmarklet-based screen-scraper to get the contents of my reviews on each of the other sites. Meanwhile, I edited by WordPress theme’s functions.php to extended the Post Kinds plugin with an extra type of post, Review, and designed a content template which wrapped reviews in appropriate microformat markup, using metadata attached to each review post to show e.g. a rating, embed a h-product (for products) or h-card (for places). I also leveraged my existing work from last summer’s effort to reintegrate my geo*ing logs to automatically add a map when I review a “place”. Finally, I threw together a quick WordPress plugin to import the data and create a stack of draft posts for proofing and publication.


My review of The Rusty Bicycle as it now appears on this site.
I was moderately unimpressed by Oxford pub The Rusty Bicycle. I originally said so on Google Maps, and now I can say so here, too!

So now you can read all of the reviews I’ve ever posted to any of those four sites, right here, alongside any other reviews I subsequently reintegrate and any I write directly to my blog in the future. The battle to own all of my own content after 25 years of scattering it throughout the Internet isn’t always easy, but it remains worthwhile.

(I haven’t open-sourced my work this time because it’s probably useful only to me and my very-specific set-up, but if anybody wants a copy they can get in touch.)

Cheating Hangman

A long while ago, inspired by Nick Berry‘s analysis of optimal Hangman strategy, I worked it backwards to find the hardest words to guess when playing Hangman. This week, I showed these to my colleague Grace – who turns out to be a fan of word puzzles – and our conversation inspired me to go a little deeper. Is it possible, I thought, for me to make a Hangman game that cheats by changing the word it’s thinking of based on the guesses you make in order to make it as difficult as possible for you to win?

Play “Cheating Hangman”

The principle is this: every time the player picks a letter, but before declaring whether or not it’s found in the word –

  1. Make a list of all possible words that would fit into the boxes from the current game state.
  2. If there are lots of them, still, that’s fine: let the player’s guess go ahead.
  3. But if the player’s managing to narrow down the possibilities, attempt to change the word that they’re trying to guess! The new word must be:
    • Legitimate: it must still be the same length, have correctly-guessed letters in the same places, and contain no letters that have been declared to be incorrect guesses.
    • Harder: after resolving the player’s current guess, the number of possible words must be larger than the number of possible words that would have resulted otherwise.
Gallows on a hill.
Yeah, you’re screwed now.

You might think that this strategy would just involve changing the target word so that you can say “nope” to the player’s current guess. That happens a lot, but it’s not always the case: sometimes, it’ll mean changing to a different word in which the guessed letter also appears. Occasionally, it can even involve changing from a word in which the guessed letter didn’t appear to one in which it does: that is, giving the player a “freebie”. This may seem counterintuitive as a strategy, but it sometimes makes sense: if saying “yeah, there’s an E at the end” increases the number of possible words that it might be compared to saying “no, there are no Es” then this is the right move for a cheating hangman.

Playing against a cheating hangman also lends itself to devising new strategies as a player, too, although I haven’t yet looked deeply into this. But logically, it seems that the optimal strategy against a cheating hangman might involve making guesses that force the hangman to bisect the search space: knowing that they’re always going to adapt towards the largest set of candidate words, a perfect player might be able to make guesses to narrow down the possibilities as fast as possible, early on, only making guesses that they actually expect to be in the word later (before their guess limit runs out!).

Cheating Hangman
The game is brutally-difficult, but surprisingly fun, and you can have it tell you when and how it cheats so you can begin to understand its strategy.

I also find myself wondering how easily I could adapt this into a “helpful hangman”: a game which would always change the word that you’re trying to guess in order to try to make you win. This raises the possibility of a whole new game, “suicide hangman”, in which the player is trying to get themselves killed and so is trying to pick letters that can’t possibly be in the word and the hangman is trying to pick words in which those letters can be found, except where doing so makes it obvious which letters the player must avoid next. Maybe another day.

In the meantime, you’re welcome to go play the game (and let me know what you think, below!) and, if you’re of such an inclination, read the source code. I’ve used some seriously ugly techniques to make this work, including regular expression metaprogramming (using regular expressions to write regular expressions), but the code should broadly make sense if you want to adapt it. Have fun!

Play “Cheating Hangman”

Update 26 September 2019, 16:23: I’ve now added “helpful mode”, where the computer tries to cheat on your behalf rather than against you, but it’s not as helpful as you’d think because it assumes you’re playing optimally and have already memorised the dictionary!

Update 1 October 2019, 06:40: Now featured on MetaFilter; hi, MeFites!

Water Science

This afternoon, the kids and I helped with some citizen science as part of the Thames WaterBlitz, a collaborative effort to sample water quality of the rivers, canals, and ponds of the Thames Valley to produce valuable data for the researchers of today and tomorrow.

Annabel fetches water from the canal.
Our sampling point was by bridge 228 on the Oxford Canal: the first job was fetching water.

My two little science assistants didn’t need any encouragement to get out of the house and into the sunshine and were eager to go. I didn’t even have to pull out my trump card of pointing out that there were fruiting brambles along the length of the canal. As I observed in a vlog last year, it’s usually pretty easy to motivate the tykes with a little foraging.

Annabel and John assess the colour of the canal water.
Some collaboration was undertaken to reach a consensus on the colour of the sample.

The EarthWatch Institute had provided all the chemicals and instructions we needed by post, as well as a mobile app with which to record our results (or paper forms, if we preferred). Right after lunch, we watched their instructional video and set out to the sampling site. We’d scouted out a handful of sites including some on the River Cherwell as it snakes through Kidlington but for this our first water-watch expedition we figured we’d err on the safe side and aim to target only a single site: we chose this one both because it’s close to home and because a previous year’s citizen scientist was here, too, improving the comparability of the results year-on-year.

Chemistry experiments on the banks of the Oxford Canal.
Lots of nitrates, as indicated by the colour of the left tube. Very few phosphates, as indicated by the lack of colour in the right (although it’s still a minute and a half from completing its processing time at the point this photo was taken and would darken a tiny bit yet).

Plus, this expedition provided the opportunity to continue to foster the 5 year-old’s growing interest in science, which I’ve long tried to encourage (we launched bottle rockets the other month!).

Annabel compares her sample to the colour chart.
Which colour most-resembles the colour of our reagent?

Our results are now online, and we’re already looking forward to seeing the overall results pattern (as well as taking part in next year’s WaterBlitz!).

Using the Web for Exhibition Interactives

As part of the preparing to leave the Bodleian I’ve been revisiting a lot of the documentation I’ve written over the last eight years. It occurred to me that I’ve never written publicly about how the Bodleian’s digital signage/interactives actually work; there are possible lessons to learn.

The Bodleian‘s digital signage is perhaps more-diverse, both in terms of technology and audience, than that of most organisations. We’ve got signs in areas that are exclusively reader-facing to help students and academics find what they’re looking for, signs in publicly accessible rooms that advertise and educate, and signs in gallery spaces upon which we try to present engaging and often-interactive content to support exhibitions.

Test digital signage screen showing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Getting an extra touchscreen for the office for prototyping/user testing purposes was great, even when it wasn’t showing MLP: FiM.

Throughout those three spheres, we’ve routinely delivered a diversity of content (let’s just ignore the countdown clock, for now…). Traditional directional signage, advertisements, games, digital exhibitions, interpretation, feedback surveys…

In the vast majority of cases – and this is where the Bodleian’s been unusual (though certainly not unique) among cultural sector institutions – we’ve created those in-house rather than outsourcing them.

Dan sings into a screwdriver handle alongside three touchscreens.
Using off-the-shelf technology also allows the Bodleian to in-house much of their hardware maintenance, as a secondary part of other job roles. Singing into your screwdriver remains optional, though.

To do this economically – the volume of work on interactive signage is inconsistent throughout the year – we needed to align the skills required with skills used elsewhere in the organisation. To do this, we use the web as our medium! Collectively, the Bodleian’s Digital Communications team already had at least some experience in programming, web design, graphic design, research, user testing, copyediting etc.: the essential toolkit for web application development.

Pong on the Heritage Window (video wall) and a Tolkien-themed quiz on an i-Board (upright touchscreen)
Whether you were playing Pong on the video wall at the back or testing your Middle-earth knowledge on the touchscreen at the front… behind the scenes you were interacting with a web page I wrote.

By shifting our digital signage platform to lean heavily on web technologies, we were able to leverage talented people we already had to produce things that we might otherwise have had to outsource. This, in turn, meant that more exhibitions and displays get digital enhancement, on a shorter turnaround.

It also means that there’s a tighter integration between exhibition content and content for web and social media: it’s easier for us to re-use content across multiple platforms. Sometimes we’ve even made our digital interactives, or adapted version of them, available directly online, allowing our exhibitions to reach people that can’t get to our physical spaces at all.

Kiosk interface for an Ada Lovelace display in 2015.
Because we’re able to produce our own content on-demand, even our smaller, shorter-duration displays can have hands-on digital interactives associated with them.

On to the technology! We’re using a real mixture of tech: when it’s donated or reclaimed from previous projects (and when the bidding and acquisition processes are, well… as you’d expect at the University of Oxford), you learn not to say no to freebies. Our fleet includes:

  • Samsung Android tablets with freestanding kiosk frames. We run the excellent-value Kiosk Browser Lockdown app on these, which loads on boot and prevents access to anything but a specified website.
  • Onelan NTBs connected to a mixture of touch and non-touch screens, wall-mounted or in kiosk frames. We use Onelan’s standard digital signage features as well as – for interactive content – their built-in touch-capable web browser.
  • Dell PCs of the standard variety supplied by University IT services, connected to wall-mounted touch screens, running Google Chrome in Kiosk Mode. More on this below.
Chrome Dev Tools showing the Sheldonian Bust "Thinking 3D" exhibit
The browsers’ responsive simulators are invaluable when we’re targeting signage at five (!) different resolutions.

When you’re developing content for a very small number of browsers and a limited set of screen sizes, you quickly learn to throw a lot of “best practice” web development out of the window. You’ll never come across a text browser or screen reader, so alt-text doesn’t matter. You’ll never have to rescale responsively, so you might as well absolutely-position almost everything. The devices are all your own, so you never need to ask permission to store cookies. And because you control the platform, you can get away with making configuration tweaks to e.g. allow autoplaying videos with audio. Coming from a conventional web developer background to producing digital signage content makes feels incredibly lazy.

Shakespeare's Dead
Helping your users see your interactive as “app-like” rather than “web-like” encourages them to feel comfortable engaging with it in ways uncharacteristic of web pages. In our Shakespeare’s Dead interactive, for example, we started the experience in the middle of a long horizontally-scrolling “page”, which might feel very unusual in a conventional browser.

This is the “techy bit”. Skip it?

Using Chrome to run digital signage requires, in the Bodleian’s case, a couple of configuration tweaks and the right command-line switches. We use:

  • chrome://flags/#overscroll-history-navigation – disabling this prevents users from triggering “back”/”forward” by swiping with two fingers
  • chrome://flags/#pull-to-refresh – disabling this prevents the user from triggering a “refresh” by scrolling up beyond the top of the page (this only happens on some kinds of devices)
  • chrome://flags/#system-keyboard-lock – we don’t use attached keyboards, but if you do, you might want to set this flag so you can use the keyboard.lock() API to intercept e.g. ALT+F4 so users can’t escape the application
  • running on startup with e.g. chrome --kiosk --noerrdialogs --allow-file-access-from-files --disable-touch-drag-drop --incognito
    • Kisok mode makes the browser run fullscreen and prevents e.g. opening additional tabs, giving an instant “app-like” experience. As we don’t have keyboards attached to our digital signage, this also prevents visitors from closing Chrome.
    • Turning off error dialogs reduces the risk that an error will result in an unslightly message to the user.
    • Enabling “file access from files” allows content hosted at file:// addresses to access content at other file:// addresses, which makes it possible to write “offline” sites (sometimes useful where we’re serving large videos or on previous occasions when WiFi has been shaky) that can still take advantage of features like the Fetch API.
    • Unless you need drag-and-drop, it’s simpler to disable it; this prevents a user long-press-and-dragging an image around the screen.
    • Incognito mode ensures that the browser doesn’t remember what site was showing last time it ran; our computers often end up switched off at the wall at the end of the day, and without this the browser will offer to load the site it had open last time, when it runs.
    • We usually host our interactives directly on the web, at “secret” addresses, and this is generally preferable to us as we can more-easily make on-the-fly adjustments to content (plus it makes it easier to hook up analytic tools).

"Talking Maps" exhibition panel showing bioproductivity map.
Be sure to test the capabilities of your hardware! Our Onelan NTBs, unlike your desktop PCs, can’t handle multitouch input, which affects the design of our user interfaces for these devices.

Meanwhile, in the application’s CSS code, we set * { user-select: none; } to prevent the user from highlighting text by selecting it with their finger. We also make heavy use of absolutely-sized/positioned, overflow: hidden blocks to ensure that scrollbars never appear, and CSS animations to make content feel dynamic and to draw attention to particular elements.

Annabel explores the Talking Maps digital interactives.
There’s no substitute for good testing. And there’s no stress-testing quite like letting a 5 year-old loose on your work.

Altogether, this approach gives the Bodleian the capability to produce engaging interactive content at low cost and using the existing skills of their digital and exhibitions teams. It’s not an approach that would work for every cultural institution: in particular, some of the Bodleian’s sister institutions already outsource the technical parts of their web work, and so don’t have the expertise in-house to share with a web-powered digital signage solution.

Shadows Out Of Time on a touchscreen
A few minor CSS tweaks to make the buttons finger-friendly and our Halloween game Shadows Out Of Time, which I’d already made web-friendly, was touchscreen-ready too. I wonder if they’ll get this one out again, this Halloween?

But for those museums that can fit into this model – or can adapt to do so in future – using the web to produce interactive digital content and digital signage is a highly cost-effective way to engage with visitors, even (or especially!) when dealing with short-lived and/or rotating displays.

It’s also been among my favourite parts of my job at the Bod these last 8½ years, and I’m sure I’ll miss it!

Counting Down

I wasn’t sure that my whiteboard at the Bodleian, which reminds my co-workers exactly how many days I’ve got left in the office, was attracting as much attention as it needed to. If I don’t know what my colleagues don’t know about how I do my job, I can’t write it into my handover notes.

You have [20] work days left to ask Dan that awkward question.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, boom.
So I repurposed a bit of digital signage in the office with a bit of Javascript to produce a live countdown. There’s a lot of code out there to produce countdown timers, but mine had some very specific requirements that nothing else seems to “just do”. Mine needed to:

  • Only count down during days that I’m expected to be in the office.
  • Only count down during working hours.
  • Carry on seamlessly after a reboot.

Screen showing: "Dan will be gone in 153 hours, 54 minutes, 38 seconds."
[insert Countdown theme song here]
Naturally, I’ve open-sourced it in case anybody else needs one, ever. It’s pretty basic, of course, because I’ve only got a hundred and fifty-something hours to finish a lot of things so I only wanted to throw a half hour at this while I ate my lunch! But if you want one, just put in an array of your working dates, the time you start each day, and the number of hours in your workday, and it’ll tick away.

Automattic Recruitment (days -179 to -51)

I recently announced that I’d accepted a job offer from Automattic and I’ll be starting work there in October. As I first decided to apply for the job 128 days ago – a nice round number – I thought I’d share with you my journey over the last 128 days.

Other people have written at length about their experience of being accepted (sometimes on the second or third attempt) or rejected by Automattic as well as about their interview process and the kind of person who works for them. Or if you prefer, there are more-objective articles about how Automattic’s hiring procedures are unique. My story, though is a work-in-progress: written contemporaneously and still unfolding (see if I’ve written more yet!).

The opening lines of Dan's initial interview with Automattic.
Automattic conduct their entire interview process via Slack online chat. I’ve still never spoken to any of my new co-workers by phone, let alone seen them in person. This is both amazing and terrifying.

Here’s my timeline so far:

Application (days -179 to -178)

Like many geeks, I keep a list of companies that I’ve fantasised about working for some day: mine includes the Mozilla Foundation and DuckDuckGo, for example, as well as Automattic Inc. In case it’s not obvious, I like companies that I feel make the Web a better place! Just out of interest, I was taking a look at what was going on at each of them. My role at the Bodleian, I realised a while ago, is likely to evolve into something different probably in the second-half of 2020 and I’d decided that when it does, that would probably be the point at which I should start looking for a new challenge. What I’d intended to do on this day 128 days ago, which we’ll call “day -179”, was to flick through the careers pages of these and a few other companies, just to get a better understanding of what kinds of skills they were looking for. I didn’t plan on applying for new jobs yet: that was a task for next-year-Dan.

Broad Street, Oxford
I love working here, but over the last 8 years I feel like I’ve “solved” all of the most-interesting problems.

But then, during a deep-dive into the things that make Automattic unique (now best-explained perhaps by this episode of the Distributed podcast), something clicked for me. I’d loved the creed for as long as I’d known about it, but today was the day that I finally got it, I think. That was it: I’d drunk the Kool-Aid, and it was time to send off an application.

I sat up past midnight on day -179, sending my application by email in the small hours of day -178. In addition to attaching a copy of my CV I wrote a little under 2,000 words about why I think I’m near-uniquely qualified to work for them: my experience of distributed/remote working with SmartData and (especially) Three Rings, my determination to remain a multidisciplinary full-stack developer despite increasing pressure to “pick a side”, my contributions towards (and use, since almost its beginning of) WordPress, and of course the diverse portfolio of projects large and small I’ve worked on over my last couple of decades as a software engineer.

VR Day at the Bodleian.
VR experiments are among the more-unusual things I’ve worked on at the Bodleian (let’s not forget that, strictly, I’m a web developer).

At the time of my application (though no longer, as a result of changes aimed at improving gender equality) the process also insisted that I include a “secret” in my application, which could be obtained by following some instructions and with only a modest understanding of HTTP. It could probably be worked out even by a developer who didn’t, with a little of the kind of research that’s pretty common when you’re working as a coder. This was a nice and simple filtering feature which I imagine helps to reduce the number of spurious applications that must be read: cute, I thought.

Automattic puzzle being solved
Fun and simple, and yet an effective way to filter out the worst of the spurious applications.

I received an automated reply less that a minute later, and an invitation to a Slack-based initial interview about a day and a half after that. That felt like an incredibly-fast turnaround, and I was quite impressed with the responsiveness of what must necessarily be a reasonably-complex filtering and process-management process… or perhaps my idea of what counts as “fast” in HR has been warped by years in a relatively slow-moving and bureaucratic academic environment!

Initial Interview (day -158)

I’ve got experience on both sides of the interview table, and I maintain that there’s no single “right” way to recruit – all approaches suck in different ways – but the approaches used by companies like Automattic (and for example Bytemark, who I’ve shared details of before) at least show a willingness to explore, understand, and adopt a diversity of modern practices. Automattic’s recruitment process for developers is a five-step (or something like that) process, with the first two stages being the application and the initial interview.

My initial interview took place 20 days after my application: entirely over text-based chat on Slack, of course.

Two men using laptops opposite one another.
For all you know, your interviewer might be hanging out in the same cafe or co-working space as you. But they probably aren’t. Right?

The initial interview covered things like:

  • Basic/conversational questions: Why I’d applied to Automattic, what interested me about working for them, and my awareness of things that were going on at the company at the moment.
  • Working style/soft skills: Questions about handling competing priorities in projects, supporting co-workers, preferred working and development styles, and the like.
  • Technical/implementation: How to realise particular ideas, how to go about debugging a specific problem and what the most-likely causes are, understanding clients/audiences, comprehension of different kinds of stacks.
  • My questions/lightweight chat: I had the opportunity to ask questions of my own, and a number of mine probed my interviewer as an individual: I felt we’d “clicked” over parts of our experience as developers, and I was keen to chat about some up-and-coming web technologies and compare our experiences of them! The whole interview felt about as casual and friendly as an interview ever does, and my interviewer worked hard to put me at ease.

Skills Test (day -154)

At the end of the interview, I was immediately invited to the next stage: a “skills test”: I’d be given access to a private GitHub repository and a briefing. In my case, I was given a partially-implemented WordPress plugin to work on: I was asked to –

  • add a little functionality and unit tests to demonstrate it,
  • improve performance of an existing feature,
  • perform a security audit on the entire thing,
  • answer a technical question about it (this question was the single closest thing to a “classic programmer test question” that I experienced), and
  • suggest improvements for the plugin’s underlying architecture.

I was asked to spend no more than six hours on the task, and I opted to schedule this as a block of time on a day -154: a day that I’d have otherwise been doing freelance work. An alternative might have been to eat up a couple of my evenings, and I’m pretty sure my interviewer would have been fine with whatever way I chose to manage my time – after all, a distributed workforce must by necessity be managed firstly by results, not by approach.

Dan using his computer with John and Annabel on his lap.
Scheduling my code test for a period when the kids were out of the house allowed me to avoid this kind of juggling act.

My amazingly-friendly “human wrangler” (HR rep), ever-present in my Slack channel and consistently full of encouragement and joy, brought in an additional technical person who reviewed my code and provided feedback. He quite-rightly pulled me up on my coding standards (I hadn’t brushed-up on the code style guide), somewhat-monolithic commits, and a few theoretical error conditions that I hadn’t accounted for, but praised the other parts of my work.

Most-importantly, he stated that he was happy to recommend that I be moved forward to the next stage: phew!

Trial (days -147 through -98)

Of all the things that make Automattic’s hiring process especially unusual and interesting, even among hip Silicon Valley(-ish, can a 100% “distributed” company really be described in terms of its location?) startups, probably the most (in)famous is the trial contract. Starting from day -147, near the end of May, I was hired by Automattic as a contractor, given a project and a 40-hour deadline, at $25 USD per hour within which to (effectively) prove myself.

As awesome as it is to be paid to interview with a company, what’s far more-important is the experience of working this way. Automattic’s an unusual company, using an unusual workforce, in an unusual way: I’ve no doubt that many people simply aren’t a good fit for distributed working; at least not yet. (I’ve all kinds of thoughts about the future of remote and distributed working based on my varied experience with which I’ll bore you another time.) Using an extended trial as an recruitment filter provides a level of transparency that’s seen almost nowhere else. Let’s not forget that an interview is not just about a company finding the right employee for them but about a candidate finding the right company for them, and a large part of that comes down to a workplace culture that’s hard to define; instead, it needs to be experienced.

For all that a traditional bricks-and-mortar employer might balk at the notion of having to pay a prospective candidate up to $1,000 only to then reject them, in addition to normal recruitment costs, that’s a pittance compared to the costs of hiring the wrong candidate! And for a company with an unusual culture, the risks are multiplied: what if you hire somebody who simply can’t hack the distributed lifestyle?

Automattic "Trial Code Wrangler" Contract
Page 1 of 6, all written in the USA dialect of legalese, but the important part is right there at the top: the job title is “Trial Code Wrangler”. Yeah.

It was close to this point, though, that I realised that I’d made a terrible mistake. With an especially busy period at both the Bodleian and at Three Rings and deadlines looming in my masters degree, as well as an imminent planned anniversary break with Ruth, this was not the time to be taking on an additional piece of contract work! I spoke to my human wrangler and my technical supervisor in the Slack channel dedicated to that purpose and explained that I’d be spreading my up-to-40-hours over a long period, and they were very understanding. In my case, I spent a total of 31½ hours over six-and-a-bit weeks working on a project clearly selected to feel representative of the kinds of technical problems their developers face.

That’s reassuring to me: one of the single biggest arguments against using “trials” as a recruitment strategy is that they discriminate against candidates who, for whatever reason, might be unable to spare the time for such an endeavour, which in turn disproportionately discriminates against candidates with roles caring for other (e.g. with children) or who already work long hours. This is still a problem here, of course, but it is significantly mitigated by Automattic’s willingness to show significant flexibility with their candidates.

I was given wider Slack access, being “let loose” from the confines of my personal/interview channel and exposed to a handful of other communities. I was allowed to mingle amongst not only the other developers on trial (they have their own channel!) but also other full-time staff. This proved useful – early on I had a technical question and (bravely) shouted out on the relevant channel to get some tips! After every meaningful block of work I wrote up my progress via a P2 created for that purpose, and I shared my checkins with my supervisors, cumulating at about the 20-hour mark in a pull request that I felt was not-perfect-but-okay…

My project in GitHub Desktop
I’m normally more of a command-line git users, but I actually really came to appreciate the GitHub Desktop diff interface while describing my commits during this project.

…and then watched it get torn to pieces in a code review.

Everything my supervisor said was fair, but firm. The technologies I was working with during my trial were ones on which I was rusty and, moreover, on which I hadn’t enjoyed the benefit of a code review in many, many years. I’ve done a lot of work solo or as the only person in my team with experience of the languages I was working in, and I’d developed a lot of bad habits. I made a second run at the pull request but still got shot down, having failed to cover all the requirements of the project (I’d misunderstood a big one, early on, and hadn’t done a very good job of clarifying) and having used a particularly dirty hack to work-around a unit testing issue (in my defence I knew what I’d done there was bad, and my aim was to seek support about the best place to find documentation that might help me solve it).

I felt deflated, but pressed on. My third attempt at a pull request was “accepted”, but my tech supervisor expressed concerns about the to-and-fro it had taken me to get there.

Finally, in early July (day -101), my interview team went away to deliberate about me. I genuinely couldn’t tell which way it would go, and I’ve never in my life been so nervous to hear back about a job.

A large part of this is, of course, the high esteem in which I hold Automattic and the associated imposter syndrome I talked about previously, which had only been reinforced by the talented and knowledgable folks there I’d gotten to speak to during my trial. Another part was seeing their recruitment standards in action: having a shared space with other candidate developers meant that I could see other programmers who seemed, superficially, to be doing okay get eliminated from their trials – reality TV style! – as we went along. And finally, there was the fact that this remained one of my list of “dream companies”: if I didn’t cut it by this point in my career, would I ever?

Dan, via Slack, says "I'm on the edge of my seat here! Shall look forward to hearing from you all when the time comes." and shared a picture of a nervous Fluttershy.
Two days later, on day -99, I shared what felt like an appropriate My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic GIF with the interview team via Slack.

It took 72 hours after the completion of my trial before I heard back.

I was to be recommended for hire.

Slack message recommending me for hire.
On day -98 I literally jumped for joy. This was a hugely exciting moment.

It was late in the day, but not too late to pour myself a congratulatory Caol Ila.

Dan with a whisky.

Final Interview (day -94)

A lot of blog posts about getting recruited by Automattic talk about the final interview being with CEO Matt Mullenweg himself, which I’d always thought must be an unsustainable use of his time once you get into the multiple-hundreds of employees. It looks like I’m not the only one who thought this, because somewhere along the line the policy seems to have changed and my final interview was instead with a human wrangler (another super-friendly one!).

That was a slightly-disappointing twist, because I’ve been a stalker fanboy of Matt’s for almost 15 years… but I’ll probably get to meet him at some point or other now anyway. Plus, this way seems way-more logical: despite Matt’s claims to the contrary, it’s hard to see Automattic as a “startup” any longer (by age alone: they’re two years older than Twitter and a similar age to Facebook).

The final interview felt mostly procedural: How did I find the process? Am I willing to travel for work?  What could have been done differently/better?

Conveniently, I’d been so enthralled by the exotic hiring process that I’d kept copious notes throughout the process, and – appreciating the potential value of honest, contemporaneous feedback – made a point of sharing them with the Human League (that’s genuinely what Automattic’s HR department are called, I kid you not) before the decision was announced as to whether or not I was to be hired… but as close as possible to it, so that it could not influence it. My thinking was this: this way, my report couldn’t help but be honest and unbiased by the result of the process. Running an unusual recruitment strategy like theirs, I figured, makes it harder to get honest and immediate feedback: you don’t get any body language cues from your candidates, for a start. I knew that if it were my company, I’d want to know how it was working not only from those I hired (who’d be biased in favour it it) and from those who were rejected (who’d be biased against it and less-likely to be willing to provide in-depth feedback in general).

I guess I wanted to “give back” to Automattic regardless of the result: I learned a lot about myself during the process and especially during the trial, and I was grateful for it!

Dollars! Photo courtesy Alexander Mils, via Pexels.
Show me the money!

One part of the final interview, though, was particularly challenging for me, even though my research had lead me to anticipate it. I’m talking about the big question that basically every US tech firm asks but only a minority of British ones do: what are your salary expectations?

As a Brit, that’s a fundamentally awkward question… I guess that we somehow integrated a feudalistic class system into a genetic code: we don’t expect our lords to pay us peasants, just to leave us with enough grain for the winter after the tithes are in and to protect us from the bandits from the next county over, right? Also: I’ve known for a long while that I’m chronically underpaid in my current role. The University of Oxford is a great employer in many ways but if you stay with them for any length of time then it has to be for love of their culture and their people, not for the money (indeed: it’s love of my work and colleagues that kept me there for the 8+ years I was!).

Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.
I’m pretty sure that most Brits are at least a little uncomfortable, even, when Dennis gives lip to King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Were this an in-person interview, I’d have mumbled and shuffled my feet: you know, the British way. But luckily, Slack made it easy at least for me to instead awkwardly copy-paste some research I’d done on StackOverflow, without which, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I’m allegedly-worth! My human wrangler took my garbled nonsense away to do some internal research of her own and came back three hours later with an offer. Automattic’s offer was very fair to the extent that I was glad to have somewhere to sit down and process it before responding (shh… nobody tell them that I am more motivated by impact than money!): I hadn’t been emotionally prepared for the possibility that they might haggle upwards.

Three months on from writing my application, via the longest, most self-reflective, most intense, most interesting recruitment process I’ve ever experienced… I had a contract awaiting my signature. And I was sitting on the edge of the bath, trying to explain to my five year-old why I’d suddenly gone weak at the knees.

John in the Clarendon Quad.
I wanted to insert another picture of the outside of my office at the Bodleian here, but a search of my photo library gave me this one and it was too adorable to not-share.

Getting Access (day -63)

A month later – a couple of weeks ago, and a month into my three-month notice period at the Bodleian – I started getting access to Auttomatic’s computer systems. The ramp-up to getting started seems to come in waves as each internal process kicks off, and this was the moment that I got the chance to introduce myself to my team-to-be.

"Automattic Bot" brings me into my team-to-be's Slack channel.
I can see my team… and they can see me? /nervous wave/

I’d been spending occasional evenings reading bits of the Automattic Field Guide – sort-of a living staff handbook for Automatticians – and this was the moment when I discovered that a lot of the links I’d previously been unable to follow had suddenly started working. You remember that bit in $yourFavouriteHackerMovie where suddenly the screen flashes up “access granted”, probably in a green terminal font or else in the centre of a geometric shape and invariably accompanied by a computerised voice? It felt like that. I still couldn’t see everything – crucially, I still couldn’t see the plans my new colleagues were making for a team meetup in South Africa and had to rely on Slack chats with my new line manager to work out where in the world I’d be come November! – but I was getting there.

Getting Ready (day -51)

The Human League gave me a checklist of things to start doing before I started, like getting bank account details to the finance department. (Nobody’s been able to confirm nor denied this for me yet, but I’m willing to bet that, if programmers are Code Wranglers, devops are Systems Wranglers, and HR are Human Wranglers, then the finance team must refer to themselves as Money Wranglers, right?)

They also encouraged me to get set up on their email, expenses, and travel booking systems, and they gave me the password to put an order proposal in on their computer hardware ordering system. They also made sure I’d run through their Conflict of Interest checks, which I’d done early on because for various reasons I was in a more-complicated-than-most position. (Incidentally, I’ve checked and the legal team definitely don’t call themselves Law Wranglers, but that’s probably because lawyers understand that Words Have Power and must be used correctly, in their field!)

Mac development environment.
Wait wait wait… let me get this straight… you’ve never met me nor spoken to me on the phone and you’re willing to post a high-end dev box to me? A month and a half before I start working for you?

So that’s what I did this week, on day -51 of my employment with Automattic. I threw a couple of hours at setting up all the things I’d need set-up before day 0, nice and early.

I’m not saying that I’m counting down the days until I get to start working with this amazing, wildly-eccentric, offbeat, world-changing bunch… but I’m not not saying that, either.

LABS Comic RSS Archive

Yesterday I recommended that you go read Aaron Uglum‘s webcomic LABS which had just completed its final strip. I’m a big fan of “completed” webcomics – they feel binge-able in the same way as a complete Netflix series does! – but Spencer quickly pointed out that it’s annoying for we enlightened modern RSS users who hook RSS up to everything to have to binge completed comics in a different way to reading ongoing ones: what he wanted was an RSS feed covering the entire history of LABS.

LABS comic adapted to show The Robot literally "feeding" RSS
With apologies to Aaron Uglum who I hope won’t mind me adapting his comic in this way.

So naturally (after the intense heatwave woke me early this morning anyway) I made one: complete RSS feed of LABS. And, of course, I open-sourced the code I used to generate it so that others can jumpstart their projects to make static RSS feeds from completed webcomics, too.

Even if you’re not going to read it via this medium, you should go read LABS.