COVID-19 and Acedia

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Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. COVID-19 has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.

In a blog post far from his usual topics, Schneier shares a word – albeit an arguably-archaic one! – that captures the feeling of listlessness that many of us are experiencing as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold.

Automattic Retrospective (days 207 to 334)

Last year, I accepted a job offer with Automattic and I’ve been writing about it every 128 days. I’ve talked about my recruitment, induction, and experience of lockdown (which in turn inspired a post about the future of work). I’ve even helped enthuse other new Automatticians! Since my last post I’ve moved house so my home office has changed shape, but I’m still plodding along as always… and fast-approaching my first “Automattic birthday”! (This post ran a little late; the 128-day block was three weeks ago!)

Dan in his home office (links to an interactive 360° panoramic photo with info points).
If you missed it the first time around, click through to explore an interactive panoramic view of my workspace. It’s slightly more “unpacked” now.

As I approach my first full year as an Automattician, I find myself looking back on everything I’ve learned… but also looking around at all the things I still don’t understand! I’m not learning something new every day any more… but I’m still learning something new most weeks.

This summer I’ve been getting up-close and personal with Gutenberg components. I’d mostly managed to avoid learning the React (eww; JSX, bad documentation, and an elephantine payload…) necessary to hack Gutenberg, but in helping to implement new tools for WooCommerce.com I’ve discovered that it’s… not quite as painful as I’d thought. There are even some bits I quite like. But I don’t expect to fall in love with React any time soon. This autumn I’ve been mostly working on search and personalisation, integrating customer analytics data with our marketplace to help understand what people look for on our sites and using that to guide their future experience (and that of others “like” them). There’s always something new.

Alpha project planning meeting via Zoom.
I suppose that by now everybody‘s used to meetings that look like this, but when I first started at Automattic a year ago they were less-commonplace.

My team continues to grow, with two newmatticians this month and a third starting in January. In fact, my team’s planning to fork into two closely-linked subteams; one with a focus on customers and vendors, the other geared towards infrastructure. It’s exciting to see my role grow and change, but I worry about the risk of gradually pigeon-holing myself into an increasingly narrow specialisation. Which wouldn’t suit me: I like to keep a finger in all the pies. Still; my manager’s reassuring that this isn’t likely to be the case and our plans are going in the “right” direction.

Kudos to Dan "for resolving a weeks worth of project issues in one day".
Our “Kudos” system can be used to acknowledge other Automatticians going above and beyond. I was particularly proud of this one.

On the side of my various project work, I’ve occasionally found the opportunity for more-creative things. Last month, I did some data-mining over the company’s “kudos” history of the last five years and ran it through vis.js to try to find a new angle on understanding how Automattic’s staff, teams, and divisions interact with one another. It lead to some interesting results: panning through time, for example, you can see the separate island of Tumblr staff who joined us during the acquisition gradually become more-interconnected with the rest of the organisation over the course of the last year.

Automattic Kudos social graph for September 2020
Automattic as a social graph of kudos given/received during September 2020, colour-coded by team. Were you one of us, you’d be able to zoom in and find yourself. The large “branch” in the bottom right is mostly comprised of Tumblr staff.

The biggest disappointment of my time at Automattic so far was that I’ve not managed to go to a GM! The 2019 one – which looked awesome – took place only a couple of weeks before my contract started (despite my best efforts to wrangle my contract dates with the Bodleian and Automattic to try to work around that), but people reassured me that it was okay because I’d make it to the next one. Well.. 2020 makes fools of us all, I guess, because of course there’s no in-person GM this year. Maybe, hopefully, if and when the world goes back to normal I’ll get to spend time in-person with my colleagues once in a while… but for now, we’re having to suffice with Internet-based socialisation only, just like the rest of the world.

I got married and had kids so you don’t have to

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I’m sure that the graveyard of over-optimism is littered with the corpses of parents who planned to help their children learn self-moderation by showing them the wonders of nature, but who realized too late that fields of wheat don’t stand a chance against Rocket League. I’m hoping that we can agree that computer games are good, but other things are good too, cf fields of wheat. I don’t want to have to sneak in my own gaming time after my son has gone to bed. I also don’t want to be a hypocrite; at least, I don’t want Oscar to know that I’m a hypocrite. Maybe we can play together and use it as father-son bonding time. This might work until he’s ten and after he’s twenty-five.

Robert Heaton, of Programming Projects for Advanced Beginners fame and reverse-engineering device drivers that spy on you (which I’ve talked about before), has also been blogging lately about his experience of Dadding, with the same dry/sarcastic tone you might be used to. This long post is a great example of the meandering thoughts of a (techie) parent in these (interesting) times, and it’s good enough for that alone. But it’s the raw, genuine “honesty and dark thoughts” section towards the end of the article that really makes it stand out.

The Unexpected Solace in Learning to Play Piano

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…while I practice, I have to simultaneously read, listen, think, translate. Every synapse of my brain is so utterly overwhelmed, there is no capacity left to think about the world out there.

When Christoph Niemann published this piece about learning to play the piano during the most-lockdown-y parts of the Coronavirus lockdown, it rang a chord with me (hah!). I, too, have experimented with learning to play the piano this spring/summer, and found a similar kind of Zen-like focussed calm emerge out of the frustration of staring at a piece of sheet music and wondering why I couldn’t for the life of me get me fingers to remember to do when they got to that point.

I started out with – after following some random links off the back of finishing the last bit of work for my recent masters degree – a free course in music theory by the OU, because I figured that coming in from a theoretical perspective would help with the way my brain thinks about this kind of thing. I supplemented that with a book we got for the kids to use to learn to play, and now I’ve now graduated to very gradually hunt-and-pecking my way through Disney’s back catalogue. I can play Go The Distance, Colors of the Wind and most of Can You Feel The Love Tonight barely well enough that I don’t feel the need to tear my own ears off, so I guess I’m making progress, though I still fall over my own hands every time I try to play any bloody thing from Moana. 20 minutes at a time, here and there, and I’m getting there. I don’t expect to ever be good at it, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless.

But anyway: this piece in the NYT Magazine really spoke to me, and to hear that somebody with far more music experience than me can struggle with all the same things I do when getting started with the piano was really reassuring.

Lindsey Stirling/Johnny Rzeznik String Session

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One of the last “normal” things I got to do before the world went full lockdown was to attend a Goo Goo Dolls concert with Ruth, and so to see two musicians I enjoy team up to perform a song and share some words of hope and encouragement for a better future beyond these troubled times… feels fitting and inspiring.

Also awesome to see that Stirling’s perhaps as much a fan of Live in Buffalo as I am.

Fun diversion: I never know how to answer the question “what kind of music do you like?”, because I increasingly (and somewhat deliberately) find that I enjoy a wider and wider diversity of different genres and styles. But perhaps the right answer might be: “I like music that makes me feel the way I feel when I hear Cuz You’re Gone recorded from the Goo Goo Dolls’ concert in Buffalo on 4 July 2004, specifically the bit between 4 minutes 10 seconds and 4 minutes 33 seconds into the song, right at the end of the extended bridge. It’s full of anticipatory energy and building to a wild crescendo that seems to mirrors the defiance of both the band and the crown in the face of the torrential rain that repeatedly almost brought an end to the concert. Music that makes me feel like that bit does: that’s the kind of music I like. Does that help?”

Sour Grapes… a Murder Mystery in Lockdown

It had been a long while since our last murder mystery party: we’ve only done one or two “kit” ones since we moved in to our current house in 2013, and we’re long-overdue a homegrown one (who can forget the joy of Murder at the Magic College?), but in the meantime – and until I have the time and energy to write another one of my own – we thought we’d host another.

But how? Courtesy of the COVID-19 crisis and its lockdown, none of our friends could come to visit. Technology to the rescue!

Jen, Dan, Suz, Alec, Matt, JTA and Ruth at Sour Grapes
Not being in the same room doesn’t protect you from finger-pointing.

I took a copy of Michael Akers‘ murder mystery party plan, Sour Grapes of Wrath, and used it as the basis for Sour Grapes, a digitally-enhanced (and generally-tweaked) version of the same story, and recruited Ruth, JTA, Jen, Matt R, Alec and Suz to perform the parts. Given that I’d had to adapt the materials to make them suitable for our use I had to assign myself a non-suspect part and so I created police officer (investigating the murder) whose narration provided a framing device for the scenes.

Sour Grapes clue showing on an iPhone screen.
Actually, the interface didn’t work as well on an iPhone as I’d have expected, but I ran short on testing time.

I threw together a quick Firebase backend to allow data to be synchronised across a web application, then wrote a couple of dozen lines of Javascript to tie it together. The idea was that I’d “push” documents to each participants’ phone as they needed them, in a digital analogue of the “open envelope #3” or “turn to the next page in your book” mechanism common in most murder mystery kits. I also reimplemented all of Akers’ artefacts, which were pretty-much text-only, as graphics, and set up a system whereby I could give the “finder” of each clue a copy in-advance and then share it with the rest of the participants when it was appropriate, e.g. when they said, out loud “I’ve found this newspaper clipping that seems to say…”

The party itself took place over Discord video chat, with which I’d recently had a good experience in an experimental/offshoot Abnib group (separate from our normal WhatsApp space) and my semi-associated Dungeons & Dragons group. There were a few technical hiccups, but only what you’d expect.

Sour Grapes' command centre: the Host Panel
Meanwhile, I had a web page with all kinds of buttons and things to press.

The party itself rapidly descended into the usual level of chaos. Lots of blame thrown, lots of getting completely off-topic and getting distracted solving the wrong puzzles, lots of discussion about the legitimacy of one of several red herrings, and so on. Michael Akers makes several choices in his writing that don’t appear in mine – such as not revealing the identity of the murderer even to the murderer until the final statements – which I’m not a fan of but retained for the sake of honouring the original text, but if I were to run a similar party again I’d adapt this, as I had a few other aspects of the setting and characters. I think it leads to a more fun game if, in the final act, the murderer knows that they committed the crime, that all of the lies they’ve already told are part of their alibi-building, and they’re given carte blanche to lie as much as they like in an effort to “get away with it” from then on.

Sour Grapes: participants share "hearts" with Ruth
Much love was shown for the “catering”.

Of course, Ruth felt the need to cater for the event – as she’s always done with spectacular effect at every previous murder mystery she’s hosted or we’ve collectively hosted – despite the distributed partygoers. And so she’d arranged for a “care package” of wine and cheese to be sent to each household. The former was, as always, an excellent source of social lubrication among people expected to start roleplaying a random character on short notice; the latter a delightful source of snacking as we all enjoyed the closest thing we’ll get to a “night out” in many months.

This was highly experimental, and there are lessons-for-myself I’d take away from it:

  • If you’re expecting people to use their mobiles, remember to test thoroughly on mobiles. You’d think I’d know this, by now. It’s only, like, my job.
  • When delivering clues and things digitally, keep everything in one place. Switching back and forth between the timeline that supports your alibi and the new information you’ve just learned is immersion-breaking. Better yet, look into ways to deliver physical “feelies” to people if it’s things that don’t need sharing, and consider ways to put shared clues up on everybody’s “big screen”.
  • Find time to write more murder mysteries. They’re much better than kit-style ones; I’ve got a system and it works. I really shout get around to writing up how I make them, some day; I think there’s lessons there for other people who want to make their own, too.
Planning a murdery mystery
Those who know me may be surprised to hear that the majority of my work planning an original murder mystery plot, even a highly-digital one like Murder… on the Social Network, happens on paper.

Meanwhile: if you want to see some moments from Sour Grapes, there’s a mini YouTube playlist I might get around to adding to at some point. Here’s a starter if you’re interested in what we got up to (with apologies for the audio echo, which was caused by a problem with the recording software):

Pyjama Party Water Fight

There comes a point where you’ve run out of new lockdown activity ideas, and you just start combining random pairs of activities you’ve already done. This morning’s first activity was… “Pyjama Party / Water Fight”.

Is it just me, or does “Pyjama Party / Water Fight” sound like a PWL song title?

Future Challenges for Remote Working

When the COVID-19 lockdown forced many offices to close and their staff to work remotely, some of us saw what was unfolding as an… opportunity in disguise. Instead of the slow-but-steady decentralisation of work that’s very slowly become possible (technically, administratively, and politically) over the last 50 years, suddenly a torrent of people were discovering that remote working can work.

Man in sci-fi jumpsuit and futuristic AR goggles.
Unfulfilled promises of the world of tomorrow include flying cars, viable fusion power, accessible space travel, post-scarcity economies, and – until recently – widespread teleworking. Still waiting on my holodeck too.

The Future is Now

As much as I hate to be part of the “where’s my flying car?” brigade, I wrote ten years ago about my dissatisfaction that remote working wasn’t yet commonplace, let alone mainstream. I recalled a book I’d read as a child in the 1980s that promised a then-future 2020 of:

  1. near-universal automation of manual labour as machines become capable of an increasing diversity of human endeavours (we’re getting there, but slowly),
  2. a three- or four-day work week becoming typical as efficiency improvements are reinvested in the interests of humans rather than of corporations (we might have lost sight of that goal along the way, although there’s been some fresh interest in it lately), and
  3. widespread “teleworking”/”telecommuting”, as white-collar sectors grow and improvements in computing and telecommunications facilitate the “anywhere office”

Of those three dreams, the third soon seemed like it would become the most-immediate. Revolutionary advances in mobile telephony, miniaturisation of computers, and broadband networking ran way ahead of the developments in AI that might precipitate the first dream… or the sociological shift required for the second. But still… progress was slow.

At eight years old, I genuinely believed that most of my working life would be spent… wherever I happened to be. So far, most of my working life has been spent in an office, despite personally working quite hard for that not to be the case!

Driver's temperature being checked at the roadside by somebody in full protective equipment.
Apply directly to the head! Commuting looks different today than it did last year, but at least the roads are quieter.

I started at Automattic six months ago, an entirely distributed company. And so when friends and colleagues found themselves required to work remotely by the lockdown they came in droves to me for advice about how to do it! I was, of course, happy to help where I could: questions often covered running meetings and projects, maintaining morale, measuring output, and facilitating communication… and usually I think I gave good answers. Sometimes, though, the answer was “If you’re going to make that change, you’re going to need a cultural shift and some infrastructure investment first.” Y’know: “Don’t start from here.” If you received that advice from me: sorry!

(Incidentally, if you have a question I haven’t answered yet, try these clever people first for even better answers!)

More-recently, I was excited to see that many companies have adopted this “new normal” not as a temporary measure, but as a possible shape of things to come. Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, Square, and Spotify have all announced that they’re going to permit or encourage remote work as standard, even after the crisis is over.

Obviously tech companies are leading the way, here: not only are they most-likely to have the infrastructure and culture already in place to support this kind of shift. Also, they’re often competing for the same pool of talent and need to be seen as at-least as progressive as their direct rivals. Matt Mullenweg observes that:

What’s going to be newsworthy by the end of the year is not technology companies saying they’re embracing distributed work, but those that aren’t.

…some employers trapped in the past will force people to go to offices, but the illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies who embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.

Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy, by Matt Mullenweg.
I’ve shared this before, I know, but it exudes Matt’s enthusiasm for distributed work so well that I’m sharing it again. Plus, some of the challenges I describe below map nicely to the borders between some of

Tomorrow’s Challenges

We’re all acutely familiar with the challenges companies are faced with today as they adapt to a remote-first environment. I’m more interested in the challenges that they might face in the future, as they attempt to continue to use a distributed workforce as the pandemic recedes. It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that what many people are doing today is a rehearsal for the future of work, but the future will look different.

Some people, of course, prefer to spend some or all of their work hours in an office environment. Of the companies that went remote-first during the lockdown and now plan to stay that way indefinitely, some will lose employees who preferred the “old way”. For this and other reasons, some companies will retain their offices and go remote-optional, allowing flexible teleworking, and this has it’s own pitfalls:

  • Some remote-optional offices have an inherent bias towards in-person staff. In some companies with a mixture of in-person and remote staff, remote workers don’t get included in ad-hoc discussions, or don’t become part of the in-person social circles. They get overlooked for projects or promotions, or treated as second-class citizens. It’s easy to do this completely by accident and create a two-tiered system, which can lead to a cascade effect that eventually collapses the “optional” aspect of remote-optional; nowhere was this more visible that in Yahoo!’s backslide against remote-optional working in 2013.
  • Some remote-optional offices retain an archaic view on presenteeism and “core hours”. Does the routine you keep really matter? Remote-first working demands that productivity is measured by output, not by attendance, but management-by-attendance is (sadly) easier to implement, and some high-profile organisations favour this lazy but less-effective approach. It’s easy, but ineffective, for a remote-optional company to simply extend hours-counting performance metrics to their remote staff. Instead, allowing your staff (insofar as is possible) to work the hours that suit them as individuals opens up your hiring pool to a huge number of groups whom you might not otherwise reach (like single parents, carers, digital nomads, and international applicants) and helps you to get the best out of every one of them, whether they’re an early bird, a night owl, or somebody who’s most-productive after their siesta!
  • Pastoral care doesn’t stop being important after the crisis is over. Many companies that went remote-first for the coronavirus crisis have done an excellent job of being supportive and caring towards their employees (who, of course, are also victims of the crisis: by now, is there anybody whose life hasn’t been impacted?). But when these companies later go remote-optional, it’ll be easy for them to regress to their old patterns. They’ll start monitoring the wellbeing only of those right in front of them. Remote working is already challenging, but it can be made much harder if your company culture makes it hard to take a sick day, seek support on a HR issue, or make small-talk with a colleague.
Teleworker dressed from the waist up.
On the Internet, nobody knows that you’re only properly-dressed from the waist up. No, wait: as of 2020, everybody knows that. Let’s just all collectively own it, ‘k.

These are challenges specifically for companies that go permanently remote-optional following a period of remote-first during the coronavirus crisis.

Towards a Post-Lockdown Remote-Optional Workplace

How you face those challenges will vary for every company and industry, but it seems to me that there are five lessons a company can learn as it adapts to remote-optional work in a post-lockdown world:

  1. Measure impact, not input. You can’t effectively manage a remote team by headcount or closely tracking hours; you need to track outputs (what is produced), not inputs (person-hours). If your outputs aren’t measurable, make them measurable, to paraphrase probably-not-Galileo. Find metrics you can work with and rely on, keep them transparent and open, and re-evaluate often. Use the same metrics for in-office and remote workers.
  2. Level the playing field. Learn to spot the biases you create. Do the in-person attendees do all the talking at your semi-remote meetings? Do your remote workers have to “call in” to access information only stored on-site (including in individual’s heads)? When they’re small, these biases have a huge impact on productivity and morale. If they get big, they collapse your remote-optional environment.
  3. Always think bigger. You’re already committing to a shakeup, dragging your company from the 2020 of the real world into the 2020 we once dreamed of. Can you go further? Can you let your staff pick their own hours? Or workdays? Can your staff work in other countries? Can you switch some of your synchronous communications channels (e.g. meetings) into asynchronous information streams (chat, blogs, etc.)? Which of your telecommunications tools serve you, and which do you serve?
  4. Remember the human. Your remote workers aren’t faceless (pantsless) interchangeable components in your corporate machine. Foster interpersonal relationships and don’t let technology sever the interpersonal links between your staff. Encourage and facilitate (optional, but awesome) opportunities for networking and connection. Don’t forget to get together in-person sometimes: we’re a pack animal, and we form tribes more-easily when we can see one another.
  5. Support people through the change. Remote working requires a particular skillset; provide tools to help your staff adapt to it. Make training and development options available to in-office staff too: encourage as flexible a working environment as your industry permits. Succeed, and your best staff will pay you back in productivity and loyalty. Fail, and your best staff will leave you for your competitors.

I’m less-optimistic than Matt that effective distributed working is the inexorable future of work. But out of the ashes of the coronavirus crisis will come its best chance yet, and I know that there’ll be companies who get left behind in the dust. What are you doing to make sure your company isn’t one of them?

Lucky Devil Eats

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Lucky Devil Eats

The lockdown’s having an obvious huge impact on strippers, whose work is typically in-person, up close, and classed as non-essential. And their work isn’t eligible for US programmes to support furloughed workers. So Lucky Devil Lounge in Portland decided to adapt their services into one that is classed as essential by providing a drive-through food service. With strippers.

This is Erika Moen’s comic about the experience of visiting the drive-through. Her comics are awesome and I’ve shared them with you a few times before (I even paid for the product she recommended in the last of those), of course.

Dan Q found GC4PV7E BFG #3– The Black Hairstreak

This checkin to GC4PV7E BFG #3– The Black Hairstreak reflects a geocaching.com log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

checkin

I first came to this series in 2014 – seems like a lifetime ago! – but got called away by something (a problem with the beta of Three Rings‘ Milestone: Promethium) before I could find more than the first one. Today, under our recently reduced lockdown and in an effort to save the kids from crawling to the walls, we came out for a walk along this side of the woods and quickly found this cache. TFTC!

Map of 51.79475,-1.116633

Automattic Lockdown (days 79 to 206)

Since I accepted a job offer with Automattic last summer I’ve been writing about my experience on a nice, round 128-day schedule. My first post described my application and recruitment process; my second post covered my induction, my initial two weeks working alongside the Happiness team (tech support), and my first month in my role. This is the third post, running through to the end of six and a half months as an Automattician.

Always Be Deploying

One of the things that’s quite striking about working on many of Automattic’s products, compared to places I’ve worked before, is the velocity. Their continuous integration game is pretty spectacular. We’re not talking “move fast and break things” iteration speeds (thank heavens), but we’re still talking fast.

Graph showing Automattic deployments for a typical week. Two of the 144 deployments on Monday were by Dan.
Deployments-per-day in a reasonably typical week. A minor bug slipped through in the first of the deployments I pushed on the Monday shown, so it was swiftly followed by a second deployment (no external end-users were affected: phew!).

My team tackles a constant stream of improvements in two-week sprints, with every third sprint being a cool-down period to focus on refactoring, technical debt, quick wins, and the like. Periodic HACK weeks – where HACK is (since 2018) a backronym for Helpful Acts in Customer Kindness – facilitate focussed efforts on improving our ecosystem and user experiences.

I’m working in a larger immediate team than I had for most of my pre-Automattic career. I’m working alongside nine other developers, typically in groups of two to four depending on the needs of whatever project I’m on. There’s a great deal of individual autonomy: we’re all part of a greater whole and we’re all pushing in the same direction, but outside of the requirements of the strategic goals of our division, the team’s tactical operations are very-much devolved and consensus-driven. We work out as a team how to solve the gnarly (and fun!) problems, how to make best use of our skills, how to share our knowledge, and how to schedule our priorities.

Dan in front of three monitors and a laptop.
My usual workspace looks pretty much exactly like you’re thinking that it does.

This team-level experience echoes the experience of being an individual at Automattic, too. The level of individual responsibility and autonomy we enjoy is similar to that I’ve seen only after accruing a couple of years of experience and authority at most other places I’ve worked. It’s amazing to see that you can give a large group of people so much self-controlled direction… and somehow get order out of the chaos. More than elsewhere, management is more to do with shepherding people into moving in the same direction than it is about dictating how the ultimate strategic goals might be achieved.

Na na na na na na na na VAT MAN!

Somewhere along the way, I somehow became my team’s live-in expert on tax. You know how it is: you solve a bug with VAT calculation in Europe… then you help roll out changes to support registration with the GST in Australia… and then one day you find yourself reading Mexican digital services tax legislation and you can’t remember where the transition was from being a general full-stack developer to having a specialisation in tax.

An Oxford coworking space.
Before the coronavirus lockdown, though, I’d sometimes find a coworking space (or cafe, or pub!) to chill in while I worked. This one was quiet on the day I took the photo.

Tax isn’t a major part of my work. But it’s definitely reached a point at which I’m a go-to figure. A week or so ago when somebody had a question about the application of sales taxes to purchases on the WooCommerce.com extensions store, their first thought was “I’ll ask Dan!” There’s something I wouldn’t have anticipated, six month ago.

Automattic’s culture lends itself to this kind of selective micro-specialisation. The company actively encourages staff to keep learning new things but mostly without providing a specific direction, and this – along with their tendency to attract folks who, like me, could foster an interest in almost any new topic so long as they’re learning something – means that my colleagues and I always seem to be developing some new skill or other.

Batman, with his costume's logo adapted to be "VAT man".
I ended up posting this picture to my team’s internal workspace, this week, as I looked a VAT-related calculation.

I know off the top of my head who I’d talk to about if I had a question about headless browser automation, or database index performance, or email marketing impact assessment, or queer representation, or getting the best airline fares, or whatever else. And if I didn’t, I could probably find them. None of their job descriptions mention that aspect of their work. They’re just the kind of people who, when they see a problem, try to deepen their understanding of it as a whole rather than just solving it for today.

A lack of pigeonholing, coupled with the kind of information management that comes out of being an entirely-distributed company, means that the specialisation of individuals becomes a Search-Don’t-Sort problem. You don’t necessarily find an internal specialist by their job title: you’re more-likely to find them by looking for previous work on particular topics. That feels pretty dynamic and exciting… although it does necessarily lead to occasional moments of temporary panic when you discover that something important (but short of mission-critical) doesn’t actually have anybody directly responsible for it.

Crisis response

No examination of somebody’s first 6+ months at a new company, covering Spring 2020, would be complete without mention of that company’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Because, let’s face it, that’s what everybody’s talking about everywhere right now.

Dan in a video meeting, in a hammock.
All workplace meetings should be done this way.

In many ways, Automattic is better-placed than most companies to weather the situation. What, we have to work from home now? Hold my beer. Got to shift your hours around childcare and other obligations? Sit down, let us show you how it’s done. Need time off for COVID-related reasons? We already have an open leave policy in place and it’s great, thanks.

As the UK’s lockdown (eventually) took hold I found myself treated within my social circle like some kind of expert on remote working. My inboxes filled up with queries from friends… How do I measure  output? How do I run a productive meeting? How do I maintain morale? I tried to help, but unfortunately some of my answers relied slightly on already having a distributed culture: having the information and resource management and teleworking infrastructure in-place before the crisis. Still, I’m optimistic that companies will come out of the other side of this situation with a better idea about how to plan for and execute remote working strategies.

Laptop screen showing five people videoconferencing.
Social distancing is much easier when you’re almost never in the same room as your colleagues anyway.

I’ve been quite impressed that even though Automattic’s all sorted for how work carries on through this crisis, we’ve gone a step further and tried to organise (remote) events for people who might be feeling more-isolated as a result of the various lockdowns around the world. I’ve seen mention of wine tasting events, toddler groups, guided meditation sessions, yoga clubs, and even a virtual dog park (?), all of which try to leverage the company’s existing distributed infrastructure to support employees who’re affected by the pandemic. That’s pretty cute.

(It might also have provided some inspiration for the murder mystery party I plan to run a week on Saturday…)

Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy, by Matt Mullenweg.
Matt shared this diagram last month, and its strata seem increasingly visible as many companies adapt (with varying levels of success) to remote work.

In summary: Automattic’s still proving to be an adventure, I’m still loving their quirky and chaotic culture and the opportunity to learn something new every week, and while their response to the coronavirus crisis has been as solid as you’d expect from a fully-distributed company I’ve also been impressed by the company’s efforts to support staff (in a huge diversity of situations across many different countries) through it.

I think our local red kites were mostly living on roadkill, and the lockdown means they’re not getting fed. They’ve also forgotten how to hunt: this afternoon I watched one get its ass handed to it by a medium-sized crow.