Yesterday’s Internet Today! (Woo DM 2023)

The week before last I had the opportunity to deliver a “flash talk” of up to 4 minutes duration at a work meetup in Vienna, Austria. I opted to present a summary of what I’ve learned while adding support for Finger and Gopher protocols to the WordPress installation that powers (I also hinted at the fact that I already added Gemini and Spring ’83 support, and I’m looking at other protocols). If you’d like to see how it went, you can watch my flash talk here or on YouTube.

If you love the idea of working from wherever-you-are but ocassionally meeting your colleagues in person for fabulous in-person events with (now optional) flash talks like this, you might like to look at Automattic’s recruitment pages

The presentation is a shortened, Automattic-centric version of a talk I’ll be delivering tomorrow at Oxford Geek Nights #53; so if you’d like to see it in-person and talk protocols with me over a beer, you should come along! There’ll probably be blog posts to follow with a more-detailed look at the how-and-why of using WordPress as a CMS not only for the Web but for a variety of zany, clever, retro, and retro-inspired protocols down the line, so perhaps consider the video above a “teaser”, I guess?


This checkin to GC88Z3D SANT PAU DEL CAMP reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

Found with fleeblewidget during a meander around the city. She saw it ahead and remarked on the beautiful building before I’d even told her that was where we were heading. Greetings from Oxford, UK. Gracias por el caché.

Dan and Ruth in front of a monastary gates, smiling and waving.

Dan and Ruth in front of a monastary gates, smiling and waving.×

Automattic Privilege

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).

World map showing the locations of Dan, his immediate team, and its parent team. There's a cluster of nine pins Europe, a few pins further East in Russia and Indonesia, one in Cape Town, two in North America, and one in Central America.
I’m the pink pin; my immediate team are the green pins. People elsewhere in our parent team are the blue pins. Some pins represent multiple people.

Thinking about timezones, there are two big benefits to being where I am:

  1. 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).
  2. 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

English is Automattic’s first language (followed perhaps by PHP and Javascript!), not one of the 120 other languages spoken by Automatticians. That’s somewhat a consequence of the first language of its founders and the language in which the keywords of most programming languages occur.

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.

Treemap showing languages spoken by Automatticians: English dominates, followed by Spanish, French, German, Italian, Hindi, Portugese, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Afrikaans, Dutch, Green, Catalan, Cantonese, Romanian, and many others.
Languages self-reportedly spoken by Automatticians, sized proportional to the number of speakers. No interpretation/filtering has been done, so you’ll see multiple dialects of the same root language.

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.

World map showing the locations of Dan, his immediate team, and its parent team. There's a cluster of nine pins Europe, a few pins further East in Russia and Indonesia, one in Cape Town, two in North America, and one in Central America.× Treemap showing languages spoken by Automatticians: English dominates, followed by Spanish, French, German, Italian, Hindi, Portugese, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Afrikaans, Dutch, Green, Catalan, Cantonese, Romanian, and many others.×

Holidays in the Age of COVID

We’ve missed out on or delayed a number of trips and holidays over the last year and a half for, you know, pandemic-related reasons. So this summer, in addition to our trip to Lichfield, we arranged a series of back-to-back expeditions.

1. Alton Towers

The first leg of our holiday saw us spend a long weekend at Alton Towers, staying over at one of their themed hotels in between days at the water park and theme park:

2. Darwin Forest

The second leg of our holiday took us to a log cabin in the Darwin Forest Country Park for a week:

3. Preston

Kicking off the second week of our holiday, we crossed the Pennines to Preston to hang out with my family (with the exception of JTA, who had work to do back in Oxfordshire that he needed to return to):

4. Forest of Bowland

Ruth and I then left the kids with my mother and sisters for a few days to take an “anniversary mini-break” of glamping in the gorgeous Forest of Bowland:

(If you’re interested in Steve Taylor’s bathtub-carrying virtual-Everest expedition, here’s his Facebook page and JustGiving profile.)

5. Meanwhile, in Preston

The children, back in Preston, were apparently having a whale of a time:

6. Suddenly, A Ping

The plan from this point was simple: Ruth and I would return to Preston for a few days, hang out with my family some more, and eventually make a leisurely return to Oxfordshire. But it wasn’t to be…

Screenshot from the NHS Covid App: "You need to self-isolate."
Well that’s not the kind of message you want to get from your phone.

I got a “ping”. What that means is that my phone was in close proximity to somebody else’s phone on 29 August and that other person subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

My risk from this contact is exceptionally low. There’s only one place that my phone was in close proximity to the phone of anybody else outside of my immediate family, that day, and it’s when I left it in a locker at the swimming pool near our cabin in the Darwin Forest. Also, of course, I’d been double-jabbed for a month and a half and I’m more-cautious than most about contact, distance, mask usage etc. But my family are, for their own (good) reasons, more-cautious still, so self-isolating at Preston didn’t look like a possibility for us.

Ruth and Dan in a car, in a car park.
Ruth and I went directly to a drive-through PCR testing facility.

As soon as I got the notification we redirected to the nearest testing facility and both got swabs done. 8 days after possible exposure we ought to have a detectable viral load, if we’ve been infected. But, of course, the tests take a day or so to process, so we still needed to do a socially-distanced pickup of the kids and all their stuff from Preston and turn tail for Oxfordshire immediately, cutting our trip short.

The results would turn up negative, and subsequent tests would confirm that the “ping” was a false positive. And in an ironic twist, heading straight home actually put us closer to an actual COVID case as Ruth’s brother Owen turned out to have contracted the bug at almost exactly the same time and had, while we’d been travelling down the motorway, been working on isolating himself in an annex of the “North wing” of our house for the duration of his quarantine.

Barricade with signs reading "Quarantine: Zombie Outbreak"
I set up a “yellow zone” between Owen’s quarantine area and the rest of the house into which we could throw supplies. And I figured I’d have fun with the signage.

7. Ruth & JTA go to Berwick

Thanks to negative tests and quick action in quarantining Owen, Ruth and JTA were still able to undertake the next part of this three-week holiday period and take their anniversary break (which technically should be later in the year, but who knows what the situation will be by then?) to Berwick-upon-Tweed. That’s their story to tell, if they want to, but the kids and I had fun in their absence:

8. Reunited again

Finally, Ruth and JTA returned from their mini-break and we got to do a few things together as a family again before our extended holiday drew to a close:

9. Back to work?

Tomorrow I’m back at work, and after 23 days “off” I’m honestly not sure I remember what I do for a living any more. Something to do with the Internet, right? Maybe ecommerce?

I’m sure it’ll all come right back to me, at least by the time I’ve read through all the messages and notifications that doubtless await me (I’ve been especially good at the discipline, this break, of not looking at work notifications while I’ve been on holiday; I’m pretty proud of myself.)

But looking back, it’s been a hell of a three weeks. After a year and a half of being pretty-well confined to one place, doing a “grand tour” of so many destinations as a family and getting to do so many new and exciting things has made the break feel even longer than it was. It seems like it must have been months since I last had a Zoom meeting with a work colleague!

For now, though, it’s time to try to get the old brain back into work mode and get back to making the Web a better place!

Screenshot from the NHS Covid App: "You need to self-isolate."× Ruth and Dan in a car, in a car park.× Barricade with signs reading "Quarantine: Zombie Outbreak"×


We took a family trip up to Lichfield this weekend. I don’t know if I can give a “review” of a city-break as a whole, but if I can: I give you five stars, Lichfield.

Dan in front of Lichfield Cathedral, early on Sunday morning.
It’s got a cathedral, which is quite pretty.

Maybe it’s just because we’ve none of us had a night away from The Green… pretty-much since we moved in, last year. But there was something magical about doing things reminiscent of the “old normal”.

Dan and the kids in a bed at a hotel.
“I’m so excited! We get to stay… at a Premier Inn!” At first I rolled my eyes at this joyous line from our 4-year-old (I mean… it’s just a Premier Inn…), but it did feel good to go somewhere and do something.

It’s not that like wasn’t plenty of mask-wearing and social distancing and hand sanitiser and everything that we’ve gotten used to now: there certainly was. The magic, though, came from getting to do an expedition further away from home than we’re used to. And, perhaps, with that happening to coincide with glorious weather and fun times.

A balloon artist wearing a unicorn on her head makes sculptures for children.
Socially-distanced balloon modelling turns out to work, not least because you can hand one of those long balloons to somebody without getting anywhere near them.

We spent an unimaginably hot summer’s day watching an outdoor interpretation of Peter and the Wolf, which each of the little ones has learned about in reasonable depth, at some point or another, as part of the (fantastic) “Monkey Music” classes of which they’re now both graduates.

Ruth and John sit on a picnic blanket in a painted circle; the maquee for the band is behind them.
So long as you weren’t staring at the painted circles on the grass – for corralling families apart from one another – you’d easily forget how unusual things are, right now.

And maybe it’s that they’ve been out-of-action for so long and are only just beginning to once again ramp up… or maybe I’ve just forgotten what the hospitality industry is like?… but man, we felt well-looked after.

From the staff at the hotel who despite the clear challenges of running their establishment under the necessary restrictions still went the extra mile to make the kids feel special to the restaurant we went to that pulled out all the stops to give us all a great evening, I basically came out of the thing with the impression of Lichfield as a really nice place.

Dan in Lichfield city centre, deserted early on a Sunday morning.
Take social distancing to the next level: do your urban geocaching at the crack of dawn.

I’m not saying that it was perfect. A combination of the intolerable heat (or else the desiccating effect of the air conditioner) and a mattress that sagged with two adults on it meant that I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night (although that did mean I could get up at 5am for a geocaching expedition around the city before it got too hot later on). And an hour and a half of driving to get to a place where you’re going to see a one-hour show feels long, especially in this age where I don’t really travel anywhere, ever.

But that’s not the point.

Ruth and the kids eat breakfast
The buffet was closed, of course, but these kids were made for an “all you can eat” breakfast.

The point is that Lichfield made me happy, this weekend. And I don’t know how much of that is that it’s just a nice place and how much is that I’ve missed going anywhere or doing anything, but either way, it lead to a delightful weekend.

Dan in front of Lichfield Cathedral, early on Sunday morning.× Dan and the kids in a bed at a hotel.× A balloon artist wearing a unicorn on her head makes sculptures for children.× Ruth and John sit on a picnic blanket in a painted circle; the maquee for the band is behind them.× Dan in Lichfield city centre, deserted early on a Sunday morning.× Ruth and the kids eat breakfast×

Accidental Geohashing

Over the last six years I’ve been on a handful of geohashing expeditions, setting out to functionally-random GPS coordinates to see if I can get there, and documenting what I find when I do. The comic that inspired the sport was already six years old by the time I embarked on my first outing, and I’m far from the most-active member of the ‘hasher community, but I’ve a certain closeness to them as a result of my work to resurrect and host the “official” website. Either way: I love the sport.

Dan, Ruth, and baby Annabel at geohashpoint 2014-04-21 51 -1
I even managed to drag-along Ruth and Annabel to a hashpoint (2014-04-21 51 -1) once.

But even when I’ve not been ‘hashing, it occurs to me that I’ve been tracking my location a lot. Three mechanisms in particular dominate:

  • Google’s somewhat-invasive monitoring of my phones’ locations (which can be exported via Google Takeout)
  • My personal GPSr logs (I carry the device moderately often, and it provides excellent precision)
  • The personal μlogger server I’ve been running for the last few years (it’s like Google’s system, but – y’know – self-hosted, tweakable, and less-creepy)

If I could mine all of that data, I might be able to answer the question… have I ever have accidentally visited a geohashpoint?

Let’s find out.

KML from Google is coverted into GPX where it joins GPX from my GPSr and real-time position data from uLogger in a MySQL database. This is queried against historic hashpoints to produce a list of candidate accidental hashpoints.
There’s a lot to my process, but it’s technically quite simple.

Data mining my own movements

To begin with, I needed to get all of my data into μLogger. The Android app syncs to it automatically and uploading from my GPSr was simple. The data from Google Takeout was a little harder.

I found a setting in Google Takeout to export past location data in KML, rather than JSON, format. KML is understood by GPSBabel which can convert it into GPX. I can “cut up” the resulting GPX file using a little grep-fu (relevant xkcd?) to get month-long files and import them into μLogger. Easy!

Requesting KML rather than JSON from Google Takeout
It’s slightly hidden, but Google Takeout choose your geoposition output format (from a limited selection).

Well.. μLogger’s web interface sometimes times-out if you upload enormous files like a whole month of Google Takeout logs. So instead I wrote a Nokogiri script to convert the GPX into SQL to inject directly into μLogger’s database.

Next, I got a set of hashpoint offsets. I only had personal positional data going back to around 2010, so I didn’t need to accommodate for the pre-2008 absence of the 30W time zone rule. I’ve had only one trip to the Southern hemisphere in that period, and I checked that manually. A little rounding and grouping in SQL gave me each graticule I’d been in on every date. Unsurprisingly, I spend most of my time in the 51 -1 graticule. Adding (or subtracting, for the Western hemisphere) the offset provided the coordinates for each graticule that I visited for the date that I was in that graticule. Nice.

SQL retreiving hashpoints for every graticule I've been to in the last 10 years, grouped by date.
Preloading the offsets into a temporary table made light work of listing all the hashpoints in all the graticules I’d visited, by date. Note that some dates (e.g. 2011-08-04, above) saw me visit multiple graticules.

The correct way to find the proximity of my positions to each geohashpoint is, of course, to use WGS84. That’s an easy thing to do if you’re using a database that supports it. My database… doesn’t. So I just used Pythagoras’ theorem to find positions I’d visited that were within 0.15° of a that day’s hashpoint.

Using Pythagoras for geopositional geometry is, of course, wrong. Why? Because the physical length of a “degree” varies dependent on latitude, and – more importantly – a degree of latitude is not the same distance as a degree of longitude. The ratio varies by latitude: only an idealised equatorial graticule would be square!

But for this case, I don’t care: the data’s going to be fuzzy and require some interpretation anyway. Not least because Google’s positioning has the tendency to, for example, spot a passing train’s WiFi and assume I’ve briefly teleported to Euston Station, which is apparently where Google thinks that hotspot “lives”.

GIF animation comparing routes recorded by Google My Location with those recorded by my GPSr: they're almost identical
I overlaid randomly-selected Google My Location and GPSr routes to ensure that they coincided, as an accuracy-test. It’s interesting to note that my GPSr points cluster when I was moving slower, suggesting it polls on a timer. Conversely Google’s points cluster when I was using data (can you see the bit where I used a chat app), suggesting that Google Location Services ramps up the accuracy and poll frequency when you’re actively using your device.

I assumed that my algorithm would detect all of my actual geohash finds, and yes: all of these appeared as-expected in my results. This was a good confirmation that my approach worked.

And, crucially: about a dozen additional candidate points showed up in my search. Most of these – listed at the end of this post – were 50m+ away from the hashpoint and involved me driving or cycling past on a nearby road… but one hashpoint stuck out.

Hashing by accident

Annabel riding on Tom's shoulders in Edinburgh.
We all had our roles to play in our trip to Edinburgh. Tom… was our pack mule.

In August 2015 we took a trip up to Edinburgh to see a play of Ruth‘s brother Robin‘s. I don’t remember much about the play because I was on keeping-the-toddler-entertained duty and so had to excuse myself pretty early on. After the play we drove South, dropping Tom off at Lanark station.

We exited Lanark via the Hyndford Bridge… which is – according to the map – tantalisingly-close to the 2015-08-22 55 -3 hashpoint: only about 23 metres away!

The 2015-08-22 55 -3
Google puts the centre of the road I drove down only 23m from the 2015-08-22 55 -3 hashpoint (of course, I was actually driving on the near side of the road and may have been closer still).

That doesn’t feel quite close enough to justify retroactively claiming the geohash, tempting though it would be to use it as a vehicle to my easy geohash ribbon. Google doesn’t provide error bars for their exported location data so I can’t draw a circle of uncertainty, but it seems unlikely that I passed through this very close hashpoint.

Pity. But a fun exercise. This was the nearest of my near misses, but plenty more turned up in my search, too:

  1. 2013-09-28 54 -2 (9,000m)
    Near a campsite on the River Eden. I drove past on the M6 with Ruth on the way to Loch Lomond for a mini-break to celebrate our sixth anniversary. I was never more than 9,000 metres from the hashpoint, but Google clearly had a moment when it couldn’t get good satellite signal and tries to trilaterate my position from cell masts and coincidentally guessed, for a few seconds, that I was much closer. There are a few such erroneous points in my data but they’re pretty obvious and easy to spot, so my manual filtering process caught them.
  2. 2019-09-13 52 -0 (719m)
    A600, near Cardington Airstrip, south of Bedford. I drove past on the A421 on my way to Three Rings‘ “GDPR Camp”, which was more fun than it sounds, I promise.
  3. 2014-03-29 53 -1 (630m)
    Spen Farm, near Bramham Interchange on the A1(M). I drove past while heading to the Nightline Association Conference to talk about Three Rings. Curiously, I came much closer to the hashpoint the previous week when I drove a neighbouring road on my way to York for my friend Matt’s wedding.
  4. 2020-05-06 51 -1 (346m)
    Inside Kidlington Police Station! Short of getting arrested, I can’t imagine how I’d easily have gotten to this one, but it’s moot anyway because I didn’t try! I’d taken the day off work to help with child-wrangling (as our normal childcare provisions had been scrambled by COVID-19), and at some point during the day we took a walk and came somewhat near to the hashpoint.
  5. 2016-02-05 51 -1 (340m)
    Garden of a house on The Moors, Kidlington. I drove past (twice) on my way to and from the kids’ old nursery. Bonus fact: the house directly opposite the one whose garden contained the hashpoint is a house that I looked at buying (and visited), once, but didn’t think it was worth the asking price.
  6. 2017-08-30 51 -1 (318m)
    St. Frieswide Farm, between Oxford and Kidlington. I cycled past on Banbury Road twice – once on my way to and once on my way from work.
  7. 2015-01-25 51 -1 (314m)
    Templar Road, Cutteslowe, Oxford. I’ve cycled and driven along this road many times, but on the day in question the closest I came was cycling past on nearby Banbury Road while on the way to work.
  8. 2018-01-28 51 -1 (198m)
    Stratfield Brake, Kidlington. I took our youngest by bike trailer this morning to his Monkey Music class: normally at this point in history Ruth would have been the one to take him, but she had a work-related event that she couldn’t miss in the morning. I cycled right by the entrance to this nature reserve: it could have been an ideal location for a geohash!
  9. 2014-01-24 51 -1 (114m)
    On the Marston Cyclepath. I used to cycle along this route on the way to and from work most days back when I lived in Marston, but by 2014 I lived in Kidlington and so I’d only cycle past the end of it. So it was that I cycled past the Linacre College of the path, around 114m away from the hashpoint, on this day.
  10. 2015-06-10 51 -1 (112m)
    Meadow near Peartree Interchange, Oxford. I stopped at the filling station on the opposite side of the roundabout, presumably to refuel a car.
  11. 2020-02-27 51 -1 (70m)
    This was a genuine attempt at a hashpoint that I failed to reach and was so sad about that I never bothered to finish writing up. The hashpoint was very close (but just out of sight of, it turns out) a geocache I’d hidden in the vicinity, and I was hopeful that I might be able to score the most-epic/demonstrable déjà vu/hash collision achievement ever, not least because I had pre-existing video evidence that I’d been at the coordinates before! Unfortunately it wasn’t to be: I had inadequate footwear for the heavy rains that had fallen in the days that preceded the expedition and I was in a hurry to get home, get changed, and go catch a train to go and see the Goo Goo Dolls in concert. So I gave up and quit the expedition. This turned out to be the right decision: going to the concert one of the last “normal” activities I got to do before the COVID-19 lockdown made everybody’s lives weird.
  12. 2014-05-23 51 -1 (61m)
    White Way, Kidlington, near the Bicester Road to Green Road footpath. I passed close by while cycling to work, but I’ve since walked through this hashpoint many times: it’s on a route that our eldest sometimes used to take when walking home from her school! With the exception only of the very-near-miss in Lanark, this was my nearest “near miss”.
  13. 2015-08-22 55 -3 (23m)
    So near, yet so far. 🙄
Rain in Lanark, seen through a car window
No silly grin, but coincidentally – perhaps by accident – I took a picture out of the car window shortly after we passed the hashpoint. This is what Lanark looks like when you drive through it in the rain.
Dan, Ruth, and baby Annabel at geohashpoint 2014-04-21 51 -1× KML from Google is coverted into GPX where it joins GPX from my GPSr and real-time position data from uLogger in a MySQL database. This is queried against historic hashpoints to produce a list of candidate accidental hashpoints.× Requesting KML rather than JSON from Google Takeout× SQL retreiving hashpoints for every graticule I've been to in the last 10 years, grouped by date.× GIF animation comparing routes recorded by Google My Location with those recorded by my GPSr: they're almost identical× Annabel riding on Tom's shoulders in Edinburgh.× The 2015-08-22 55 -3 × Rain in Lanark, seen through a car window×

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.

Dan in front of a crowded desk: two large monitors, a regular-sized monitor, and a laptop are visible, among clutter.× Dan working on a MacBook covered with Automattic stickers, wearing a WordPress Diversity t-shirt.× Dan wearing a WordPress hoodie and drinking from an Automattic bottle.× Xzibit says: × John wearing a WordPress t-shirt.× Leslie Knope (Parks & Rec) presents a pile of binders, saying × Agenda and Expectations Checklist for Dan's first day at Automattic× Dan with a 50 South African Rand note.× Dan sitting on a rock on Table Mountain, Cape Town, with a sunset in the background× Dan with a pair of African penguins× Happiness Live Chat screenshot, customer's view.× A woman carries a large cardboard box.×

Note #16045

Who’d have thought that my onboarding fortnight at @WooCommerce / @Automattic would conclude with a very literal “on-boarding”. Hang five! 🏄🏼‍♂️

Dan and other members of his team head out into the sea with surfboards (animated GIF).

Dan and other members of his team head out into the sea with surfboards (animated GIF).×

Note #16042

Well, Cape Town, you were a blast. But now it’s time to get back to my normal life for a bit.


Note #16037

Seconds after I took this “penguin selfie”, a third penguin snuck up behind me and bit me on the arse. 🇿🇦🐧😧

Dan with a pair of African penguins

Dan with a pair of African penguins×

Note #16034

I now have no doubt that from the summit of Table Mountain is an absolutely unparalleled place from which to watch the sunset. 🇿🇦🌅😍

Dan sitting on a rock on Table Mountain, Cape Town, with a sunset in the background

Dan sitting on a rock on Table Mountain, Cape Town, with a sunset in the background×

Dan Q found GC7B84E Cape Town / Table Mountain Virtual Reward

This checkin to GC7B84E Cape Town / Table Mountain Virtual Reward reflects a log entry. See more of Dan's cache logs.

An easy find while out for a walk an the waterfront with some of my fellow Team Alpha Automatticians. Beautiful view and we got the best possible weather too. TFTC!

Dan in the frame, Table Mountain in the background.

Dan in the frame, Table Mountain in the background.×

Note #16013

Making magic happen alongside my new @WooCommerce Team Alpha buds in sunny Cape Town. 🇿🇦

Team Alpha in Cape Town

Team Alpha in Cape Town×