This video accompanies a blog post of the same title. The content is basically the same – if you prefer videos, watch this video. If you prefer blog posts, go read the blog post. If you’re a superfan, try both and spot the differences. You weirdo.
This blog post is also available as a video. Would you prefer to watch/listen to me tell you about how I’ve learned to enjoy doing what I’m bad at?
There are a great number of things that I’m bad at. One thing I’m bad at (but that I’m trying to get better at) is being more-accepting of the fact that there are things that I am bad at.
I’m pretty bad in a pub quiz. I’m bad at operating my pizza oven without destroying cookware. I’m especially bad at learning languages. I’m appallingly bad at surfing. Every time my work periodically leans in that direction I remember how bad I am at React. And I’ve repeatedly shown that I’m bad at keeping on top of blogging, to the extent that I’ve periodically declared bankruptcy on my drafts folder.
So yeah, pretty bad at things.
But hang on: that assessment isn’t entirely true.
As a young kid, I was a smart cookie. I benefited from being an only child and getting lots of attention from a pair of clever parents, but I was also pretty bright and a quick learner with an interest in just about anything I tried. This made me appear naturally talented at a great many things, and – pushed-on by the praise of teachers, peers, and others – I discovered that I could “coast” pretty easily.
But a flair for things will only carry you so far, and a problem with not having to work hard at your education means that you don’t learn how to learn. I got bitten by this when I was in higher education, when I found that I actually had to work at getting new information to stick in my head (of course, being older makes learning harder too, as became especially obvious to me during my most-recent qualification)!
A side-effect of these formative experiences is that I grew into an adult who strongly differentiated between two distinct classes of activities:
- Things I was good at, either because of talent or because I’d thoroughly studied them already. I experienced people’s admiration and respect when I practised these things, and it took little effort to stay “on top” of these fields, and
- Things I was bad at, because I didn’t have a natural aptitude and hadn’t yet put the time in to learning them. We don’t often give adults external reinforcement for “trying hard”, and I’d become somewhat addicted to being seen as awesome… so I shied away from things I was “bad at”.
The net result: I missed out on opportunities to learn new things, simply because I didn’t want to be seen as going through the “amateur” phase. In hindsight, that’s really disappointing! And this “I’m bad at (new) things” attitude definitely fed into the imposter syndrome I felt when I first started at Automattic.
Leaving the Bodleian after 8½ years might have helped stimulate a change in me. I’d carved out a role for myself defined by the fields I knew best; advancing my career would require that I could learn new things. But beyond that, I benefited from my new employer whose “creed culture” strongly promotes continuous learning (I’ve vlogged about this before), and from my coach who’s been great at encouraging me towards a growth mindset.
But perhaps the biggest stimulus to remind me to keep actively learning, even (especially?) when it’s hard, might have been the pandemic. Going slightly crazy with cabin fever during the second lockdown, I decided to try and teach myself how to play the piano. Turns out I wasn’t alone, as I’ve mentioned before: the pandemic did strange things to us all.
I have no real experience of music; I didn’t even get to play recorder in primary school. And I’ve certainly got no talent for it (I can hear well enough to tell how awful my singing is, but that’s more a curse than a blessing). Also, every single beginners’ book and video course I looked at starts from the assumption that you’re going to want to “feel” your way into it, and that just didn’t sit well with the way my brain works.
I wanted a theoretical background before I even sat down at a keyboard, so I took a free online course in music theory. Then I started working through a “beginners’ piano” book we got for the kids. Then I graduated to “first 50 Disney songs”, because I know how virtually all of them sound well enough that I’d be able to hear where I was going wrong. Since then, I’ve started gradually making my way through a transcription of Einaudi’s Islands. Feeling like I’d got a good handle on what I was supposed to be doing, I then took inspiration from a book JTA gave me and started trying to improvise.
Most days, I get no more than about 10 minutes on the piano. But little by little, day by day, that’s enough to learn. Nowadays even my inner
critic perfectionist can tolerate hearing myself play. And while I know that I’ll probably never be as good as, say, the average 8-year-old on YouTube, I’m content in my limited capacity.
If I’m trying to cultivate my wonder syndrome, I need to stay alert for “things I’m bad at” that I could conceivably be better at if I were just brave enough to try to learn. I’m now proudly an “embarrassingly amateur” pianist, which I’m at-long-last growing to see as better than a being non-pianist.
Off the back of that experience, I’m going to try to spend more time doing things that I’m bad at. And I’d encourage you to do the same.
Ruth wrote an excellent post this month entitled Wonder Syndrome. It attempts to reframe imposter syndrome (which is strongly, perhaps disproportionately, present in tech fields) as a positive indicator that there’s still more to learn:
Being aware of the boundaries of our knowledge doesn’t make us imposters, it makes us explorers. I’m going to start calling mine “Wonder Syndrome”, and allowing myself to be awed by how much I still have to learn, and then focusing in and carrying on with what I’m doing because although I may not reach the stars, I’ve come a long way up the mountain. I can learn these things, I can solve these problems, and I will.
This really resonated with me, and not just because I’ve totally bought into the Automattic creed, which literally opens with the assertion that “I will never stop learning”. (Other parts of the creed feel like they parallel Ruth’s post, too…)
I just spent a week at a Three Rings DCamp (a “hackathon”, kinda), and for the umpteenth time had the experience of feeling like everybody thinks I know everything, while on the inside I still feel like I’m still guessing a third of the time (and on StackOverflow for another third!).
The same’s true at work: people ask me questions about things that I suppose, objectively, are my “specialist subjects” – web standards, application security, progressive enhancement, VAT for some reason – and even where I’m able to help, I often get that nagging feeling like there must be somebody better than me they could have gone to?
You might assume that I love Ruth’s post principally because it plays to my vanity. The post describes two kinds of knowledgeable developers, who are differentiated primarily by their attitude to learning. One is satisfied with the niche they’ve carved out for themselves and the status that comes with it and are content to rest on their laurels; the other is driven to keep pushing and learning more and always hungry for the next opportunity to grow. And the latter category… Ruth’s named after me.
Bnd while I love the post, my gut feeling to being named after such an ideal actually makes me slightly uncomfortable. The specific sentence that gets me is (emphasis mine):
Dans have no interest in being better than other people, they just want to know more than they did yesterday.
I wish that was me, but I’m actually moderately-strongly motivated by a desire to feel like I’m the smartest person in the room! I’m getting this urge under control (I’m pretty sure I was intolerable as a child and have been improving by instalments since then!). Firstly, because it’s an antisocial pattern to foster, but also because it limits my ability to learn new things to have to go through the awkward, mistake-filled “I’m a complete amateur at this!” phase. But even as I work on this I still get that niggling urge, more often than I’d like, to “show off”.
Of course, it could well be that what I’m doing right now is catastrophising. I’m taking a nice thing somebody’s said about me, picking the one part of it that I find hardest to feel represents me, and deciding that I must be a fraud. Soo… imposter syndrome, I guess. Damn.
Or to put it a better way: Wonder Syndrome. I guess this is another area for self-improvement.
(I’m definitely adopting Wonder Syndrome into my vocabulary, as an exercise in mitigating imposter syndrome. If you’ve not read Ruth’s post in full, you should go and do that next.)
[Nilay:] It is fashionable to run around saying the web is dead and that apps shape the world, but in my mind, the web’s pretty healthy for at least two things: news and shopping.
[Matt:] I think that’s your bubble, if I’m totally honest. That’s what’s cool about the web: We can live in a bubble and that can seem like the whole thing. One thing I would explicitly try to do in 2022 is make the web weirder.
The Verge interviewed Matt Mullenweg, and – as both an Automattician and a fan of the Web as a place for fun and weirdness – I really appreciated the direction the interview went in. I maintain that open web standards and platforms (as opposed to closed social media silos) are inspirational and innovative.
Emilie Reed‘s Anything a Maze lives on itch.io, and (outside of selfhosting) that’s clearly the best place for it: you couldn’t tell that story the same way on Medium; even less-so on Facebook or Twitter.
(This is yet another post about Automattic. Seee more posts about my experience of working at Automattic.)
Off the back of my recent post about privileges I enjoy as a result of my location and first language, even at my highly-multinational employer, and inspired by my colleague Atanas‘ data-mining into where Automatticians are located, I decided to do another treemap, this time about which countries Automatticians call home:
Where are the Automatticians?
To get a better picture of that, let’s plot a couple of cartograms. This animation cycles between showing countries at (a) their actual (landmass) size and (b) approximately proportional to the number of Automatticians based in each country:
Another way to consider the data would be be comparing (a) the population of each country to (b) the number of Automatticians there. Let’s try that:
There’s definitely something to learn from these maps about the cultural impact of our employee diversity, but I can’t say more about that right now… primarily because I’m not smart enough, but also at least in part because I’ve watched the map animations for too long and made myself seasick.
A note on methodology
A few quick notes on methodology, for the nerds out there who’ll want to argue with me:
- Country data was extracted directly from Automattic’s internal staff directory today and is based on self-declaration by employees (this is relevant because we employ a relatively high number of “digital nomads”, some of whom might not consider any one country their home).
- Countries were mapped to continents using this dataset.
- Maps are scaled using Robinson projection. Take your arguments about this over here.
- The treemaps were made using Excel. The cartographs were produced based on work by Gastner MT, Seguy V, More P. [Fast flow-based algorithm for creating density-equalizing map projections. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 115(10):E2156–E2164 (2018)].
- Some countries have multiple names or varied name spellings and I tried to detect these and line-up the data right but apologies if I made a mess of it and missed yours.
I’ve been thinking recently about three kinds of geographic privilege I enjoy in my work at Automattic. (See more posts about my experience of working at Automattic.)
1. Timezone Privilege
Take a look at the map below. I’m the pink pin here in Oxfordshire. The green pins are my immediate team – the people I work with on a day-to-day basis – and the blue pins are people outside of my immediate team but in its parent team (Automattic’s org chart is a bit like a fractal).
Thinking about timezones, there are two big benefits to being where I am:
- I’m in the median timezone, which makes times that are suitable-for-everybody pretty convenient for me (I have a lot of lunchtime/early-afternoon meetings where I get to watch the sun rise and set, simultaneously, through my teammates’ windows).
- I’m West of the mean timezone, which means that most of my immediate coworkers start their day before me so I’m unlikely to start my day blocked by anything I’m waiting on.
(Of course, this privilege is in itself a side-effect of living close to the meridian, whose arbitrary location owes a lot to British naval and political clout in the 19th century: had France and Latin American countries gotten their way the prime median would have probably cut through the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.)
2. Language Privilege
It’s also a side-effect of how widely English is spoken, which in comes from (a) British colonialism and (b) the USA using Hollywood etc. to try to score a cultural victory.
I’ve long been a fan of the concept of an international axillary language but I appreciate that’s an idealistic dream whose war has probably already been lost.
For now, then, I benefit from being able to think, speak, and write in my first language all day, every day, and not have the experience of e.g. my two Indonesian colleagues who routinely speak English to one another rather than their shared tongue, just for the benefit of the rest of us in the room!
3. Passport Privilege
Despite the efforts of my government these last few years to isolate us from the world stage, a British passport holds an incredible amount of power, ranking fifth or sixth in the world depending on whose passport index you follow. Compared to many of my colleagues, I can enjoy visa-free and/or low-effort travel to a wider diversity of destinations.
Normally I might show you a map here, but everything’s a bit screwed by COVID-19, which still bars me from travelling to many places around the globe, but as restrictions start to lift my team have begun talking about our next in-person meetup, something we haven’t done since I first started when I met up with my colleagues in Cape Town and got assaulted by a penguin.
But even looking back to that trip, I recall the difficulties faced by colleagues who e.g. had to travel to a different country in order tom find an embassy just to apply for the visa they’d eventually need to travel to the meetup destination. If you’re not a holder of a privileged passport, international travel can be a lot harder, and I’ve definitely taken that for granted in the past.
I’m going to try to be more conscious of these privileges in my industry.
When you hear that from a 2-year employee at a tech company, it’s easy to assume that they have a high staff turnover, but Automattic’s churn rate is relatively low, especially for our sector: 86% of developers stay longer than 5 years. So what’s happening? Let’s visualise it:
All that “red” at the bottom of the graph? That’s recent growth. Automattic’s expanding really rapidly right now, taking on new talent at a never-before-seen speed.
Since before I joined it’s been the case that our goals have demanded an influx of new engineers at a faster rate than we’ve been able to recruit, but it looks like things are improving. Recent refinements to our recruitment process (of which I’ve written about my experience) have helped, but I wonder how much we’ve also been aided by pandemic-related changes to working patterns? Many people, and especially in tech fields, have now discovered that working-from-home works for them, and a company like Automattic that’s been built for the last decade and a half on a “distributed” model is an ideal place to see that approach work at it’s best.
We’re rolling out new induction programmes to support this growth. Because I care about our corporate culture, I’ve volunteered myself as a Culture Buddy, so I’m going to spend some of this winter helping Newmatticians integrate into our (sometimes quirky, often chaotic) ways of working. I’m quite excited to be at a point where I’m in the “older 50%” of the organisation and so have a responsibility for supporting the “younger 50%”, even though I’m surprised that it came around so quickly.
I wonder how that graph will look in another two years.
I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
Lots of companies have something like this, even if it falls short of a “creed”. It could be a “vision”, or a set of “values”, or something in that line.
Of course, sometimes that just means they’ve strung three clichéd words together because they think it looks good under their company logo, and they might as well have picked any equally-meaningless words.
But while most companies (and their staff) might pay lip service to their beliefs, Automattic’s one of few that seems to actually live it. And not in an awkward, shoehorned-in way: people here actually believe this stuff.
By way of example:
We’ve got a bot that, among other things, pairs up people from across the company for virtual “watercooler chat”/”coffee dates”/etc. It’s cool: I pair-up with random colleagues in my division, or the whole company, or fellow queermatticians… and collectively these provide me a half-hour hangout about once a week. It’s a great way to experience the diversity of culture, background and interests of your colleagues, as well as being a useful way to foster idea-sharing and “watercooler effect” serendipity.
For the last six months or so, I’ve been bringing a particular question to almost every random-chat I’ve been paired into:
What part of the Automattic creed resonates most-strongly for you right now?
I volunteer my own answer first. It’s varied over time. Often I’m most-attached to “I will never stop learning.” Other times I connect best to “I will communicate as much as possible…” or “I am in a marathon, not a sprint…”. Lately I’ve felt a particular engagement with “I will never pass up the opportunity to help a colleague…”.
It varies for other people too. But every single person I’ve asked this question has been able to answer it. And they’ve been able to answer it confidently and with justifications for or examples of their choice.
Have you ever worked anywhere before where seemingly all your coworkers profess a genuine belief in the corporate creed? Like, enough that some of them get it tattooed onto their bodies. Unless you’ve been brainwashed by a cult, the answer is probably no.
Why are Automatticians like that?
For some folks, of course, the creed is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Regarding its initial creation, Matt says that “as a hack to introduce new folks to our culture, we put a beta Automattic Creed, basically a statement of things important to us, written in the first person.”
But this alone isn’t an explanation, because back then there were only around a hundred people in the company: nowadays there are over 1,500. So how can the creed continue to be such a pervasive influence? Or to put it another way: why are Automatticians… like that?
- Do we simply attract like-minded individuals? The creed is highly visible and cross-referenced by our recruitment pages, so it wouldn’t be entirely surprising.
- Maybe we filter for people who are ideologically-compatible with the creed? Insofar as the qualities it describes are essential to integrating into our corporate culture, yes: our recruitment process does a great job of testing for those qualities.
- Perhaps we converge on these values as a result of our experience as Automatticians? Once you’re in, you’re indoctrinated into the tenets of the creed and internalise its ideas.
- Or perhaps it’s a combination of the three, in some ratio or another. (What’s the ratio?)
I’ve been here 1⅔ years and don’t know the answer yet. But I’ll tell you this: it’s inspiring to be part of a team that really seem to believe in what they do.
Incidentally: if the creed speaks to you too, you might like to look at some of the many open positions! I promise we’re not actually a cult.
Plus we’ve been doing “work anywhere” for longer than almost anybody else and we’re really, really good at it.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like other blog posts about my time with Automattic: the recruitment process, accepting an offer, my induction, and the experience of lockdown in a distributed company, among others.
Since joining the hiring team at Automattic in the fall of 2019, I’ve noticed different patterns and preferences on text-based interviews. Some of these are also general interviewing tips.
- Send shorter messages
- Avoid Threads if possible
- Show your thought process
- Don’t bother name dropping
- Tell the story
- It’s not that different
Fellow Automattician Jerry Jones, whose work on accessibility was very useful in spearheading some research by my team, earlier this year, has written a great post about interviewing at Automattic or, indeed, any company that’s opted for text-based interviews. My favourite hosting company uses these too, and I’ve written about my experience of interviewing at Automattic, but Jerry’s post – which goes into much more detail than just the six highlight points above, is well worth a look if you ever expect to be on either side of a text-based interview.
This is my fourth week in the course, and I opted to revisit a video I made during my second week and try to do it again with more engagement, more focus, more punch, and more emotion. I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. Interestingly, it somewhat mirrors my Howdymattic video from when I first started at Automattic, but I pivoted my “origin story” a little bit and twisted it to fit one of my favourite parts of the Automattic Creed.
I’ve been doing a course provided through work to try to improve my ability to connect with an audience over video. For one of my assignments in this, my fourth week, I picked a topic out from the “welcome” survey I filled out when I first started the course. The topic: the Devil’s Quoits. This stone circle – not far from my new house – has such a bizarre history of construction, demolition, and reconstruction… as well as a fun folk myth about its creation… that I’d thought it’d make a great follow-up to my previous “local history” piece, Oxford’s Long-Lost Zoo. I’d already hidden a “virtual” geocache at the henge, as I previously did for the zoo: a video seemed like the next logical step.
My brief required that the video be only about a minute long, which presented its own challenge in cutting down the story I’d like to tell to a bare minimum. Then on top of that, it took me at least eight takes until I was confident that I’d have one I was happy with, and there’s still things I’d do differently if I did it again (including a better windbreak on my lapel mic, and timing my takes for when geese weren’t honking their way past overhead!).
In any case: part of the ritual of this particular course encourages you to “make videos… as if people will see them”, and I’ve been taking that seriously! Firstly, I’ve been sharing many of my videos with others either at work or on my blog, like the one about how GPS works or the one about the secret of magic. Secondly, I’ve been doing “extra credit” by recording many of my daily-standup messages as videos, in addition to providing them through our usual Slack bot.
Anyway, the short of it is: you’re among the folks who get to see this one. Also available on YouTube.
I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.
I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re an expert on”. The idea came from a talk I used to give at the University of Oxford.
I’m currently doing a course, through work, delivered by BetterOn Video. The aim of the course is to improve my video presentation skills, in particular my engagement with the camera and the audience.
I made this video based on the week 2 prompt “make a video 60-90 seconds long about something you’re passionate about”. The idea came from a blog post I wrote back in 2014.
Enfys published an article this week to their personal blog: How to use gender-inclusive language. It spun out from a post that they co-authored on an internal Automattic blog, and while the while thing is pretty awesome as a primer for anybody you need to show it to, it introduced a new word to my lexicon for which I’m really grateful.
The Need for a New Word
I’ve long bemoaned the lack of a gender-neutral term encompassing “aunts and uncles” (and, indeed, anybody else in the same category: your parents’ siblings and their spouses). Words like sibling have been well-established for a century or more; nibling has gained a lot of ground over the last few decades and appears in many dictionaries… but we don’t have a good opposite to nibling!
Why do we need such a word?
- As a convenient collective noun: “I have 5 aunts and uncles” is clumsier than it needs to be.
- Where gender is irrelevant: “Do you have and aunts and/or uncles” is clumsier still.
- Where gender is unknown: “My grandfather has two children: my father and Jo.” “Oh; so you have an Aunt or Uncle Jo?” Ick.
- Where gender is nonbinary: “My Uncle Chris’s spouse uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. They’re my… oh fuck I don’t even remotely have a word for this.”
New Words I Don’t Like
I’m not the first to notice this gap in the English language, and others have tried to fill it.
I’ve heard pibling used, but I don’t like it. I can see what its proponents are trying to do: combine “parent” and “sibling” (although that in itself feels ambiguous: is this about my parents’ siblings or my siblings’ parents, which aren’t necessarily the same thing). Moreover, the -ling suffix feels like a diminutive, even if that’s not its etymological root in this particular case, and it feels backwards to use a diminutive to describe somebody typically in an older generation than yourself.
I’ve heard that some folks use nuncle, and I hate that word even more. Nuncle already has a meaning, albeit an archaic one: it means “uncle”. Read your Shakespeare! Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for resurrecting useful archaic words: I’m on a personal campaign to increase use eyeyesterday and, especially, overmorrow (German has übermorgen, Afrikaans has oormôre, Romanian has poimâine: I want a word for “the day after tomorrow” too)! If you bring back a word only to try to define it as almost-the-opposite of what you want it to mean, you’re in for trouble.
Auntle is another candidate – a simple fusion of “aunt” and “uncle”… but it still feels a bit connected to the gendered terms it comes from, plus if you look around enough you find it being used for everything from an affectionate mutation of “aunt” to a term to refer to your uncle’s husband. We can do better.
A New Word I Do!
But Enfys’ post gave me a new word, and I love it:
Here are some gender-neutral options for gendered words we hear a lot. They’re especially handy if you’re not sure of the gender of the person you’re addressing:
Mx.: An honorific, alternative to Mr./Mrs./Ms.
Sibling: instead of brother/sister
Spouse: instead of husband/wife
Partner, datefriend, sweetheart, significant other: instead of boyfriend/girlfriend
Parent: instead of mother/father
Nibling: instead of niece/nephew
Pibling, Entle, Nuncle: instead of aunt/uncle
Entle! Possibly invented here, this is the best gender-neutral term for “the sibling of your parents, or the spouse of the sibling of your parents, or another family member who fulfils a similar role” that I’ve ever seen. It brings “ent” from “parent” which, while etymologically the wrong part of the word for referring to blood relatives (that comes from a PIE root pere- meaning “to produce or bring forth”), feels similar to the contemporary slang root rent (clipped form of “parent”). It feels new and fresh enough to not be “auntle”, but it’s similar enough to the words “aunt” and “uncle” that it’s easy to pick up and start using without that “what’s that new word I need to use here?” moment.
I’m totally going to start using entle. I’m not sure I’ll find a use for it today or even tomorrow. But overmorrow? You never know.