The Legend of Nicky Poot

Each year at the Automattic Grand Meetup, everyone gives a four-minute “flash talk” on any subject. Here’s the talk I gave this year.

Yours truly delivering this talk.

I’m sure we’ve all had this experience: you’re sitting around with a group of people when suddenly there’s a lull in the conversation. Everyone ran out of things to say, and now you’re all just sitting there awkwardly.

When this happens to me, I break the lull by suggesting we share embarrassing moments. Everyone tells a story about something embarrassing that happened to them. It’s a great ice breaker, and it’s especially good when the people don’t know each other very well. You all admit to something stupid you did, and suddenly you’re the best of friends.

This is exactly what I did a few years back at a mobile meetup when a bunch of us were sitting at a table staring at our phones to avoid eye contact. To break the lull, I said we should each share an embarrassing story, and I volunteered to go first.

The story I told was from age 16. Despite being an atheist, I was a member of a Presbyterian church youth group. Because there were girls there.

There was one girl in particular I had my eyes on, and one night at the youth group I was able to sit on the floor next to her while the pastor talked about something. I really wanted to impress her, so I leaned over to cooly whisper something in her ear.

And suddenly let out an enormous, completely unexpected fart.

I was shocked – I had no idea that was in there!

I hoped that nobody knew it was me, but that plan was foiled by the pastor. Right before my outburst the pastor said something like, “And Jesus said…,” and then when he heard my outburst he pointed at me and said, “But not like that!”

So everyone knew I was the guilty party.

From that point on, the girl I wanted to impress started calling me “Nicky Poot.” Twenty-five years later, I ran into her on Facebook. One of the first things she said was, “Hey, do you remember Nicky Poot?”

Who knew a single fart would have such a long shelf life.

So, there you have an example of an embarrassing story. If you’re with a group of people and there’s an awkward lull, just ask everyone to share something like that, and suddenly everyone is having a good time.

But take my advice: when you tell your story, don’t lean over. You never know what might come out.

Hire Remotely

When I read Paul Graham’s essay about how difficult it is to find great programmers, my reaction was the same as Matt’s: why not hire more remote workers?

Two years ago I was searching for a new job, and I only considered positions that enabled working from home (something I’d done for almost 20 years). Given what I’d heard about the huge demand for mobile developers I figured there would be plenty of options, but I was wrong – there were lots of jobs but all but a few of them required going to an office (and, in my case, moving).

That really surprised me. There are plenty of talented developers who have chosen not to live in overpriced tech hubs like Silicon Valley. If it really is hard for companies to find great programmers, then why don’t they stop requiring people to move to where they are and start allowing people to work from wherever they choose?

Test Driving Employees

From the NY Times:

“Employee trials work best for people in support, design and developer positions, said Matt Mullenweg, founder and chief executive of Automattic, the creator of WordPress, the blog and website tool. Still, every hire, without exception, goes through a two- to six-week contract period, and is paid the standard rate of $25 an hour.”

Employee trials are daunting, and downright impossible for many people. For some companies they’re completely unrealistic.

But the fact that Automattic had trials is one of the things that convinced me I wanted to work with them. I wanted to work alongside people who believed so much in what the company was doing that they’d go through the pain of a trial period.

The trial period was certainly painful for me. At the time I was working 60-80 hours a week at a job I wasn’t fully committed to, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d fit a trial period into that. But somehow I did it, and I’m glad I did because now I get to work with people totally invested in a shared goal.

PS: We’re hiring.

My First Week with Automattic

My first week after joining Automattic as a mobile developer was among the most unusual new-hire experiences I’ve had. Instead of jumping into the code, I did customer support – and I’ll continue to do it for another two weeks.

No, doing support isn’t punishment for some naughty bit of code I submitted. Everyone who joins Automattic is expected to complete three weeks of support before moving on to their new role.

The fact that Automattic expects this is one of the things that made me so interested in working with them. I love knowing I’m working alongside people who have all experienced what it’s like doing support.

I’ve written before about how developers should do tech support because it forces us to see our software through the eyes of our customers. Directly communicating with your end users is the single best way to find out what the problems in your software are and what you can do to simplify it.

I won’t claim, though, that my support stint has been easy. You’d think it’d be a breeze since I supported my own software for years, but this is the first time I’ve supported software I didn’t create and it has been truly humbling to feel like such a newb. Luckily, Automattic’s Happiness Engineers have been, well, happy to provide help when I’ve needed it (thanks, folks).

PS: Be sure to read Jason Munro’s excellent post about his initial experience at Automattic if you want to hear more about what it’s like to start here.

I Joined Automattic

Monday will be my first day working at Automattic.

In the past I’ve worked on consumer software and enterprise software, but this will be my first time working on open source software. It’ll also be the first time I’ve joined a company without my existing software coming with me. FeedDemon is going away soon, and I no longer work on either Glassboard or Social Sites. I’m starting fresh with Automattic, which is a very welcome change.

When I talked with Matt Mullenweg about Automattic, he mentioned being proud of the company he helped build. At the time I didn’t know too much about the company, but the more I looked into Automattic the more I realized why it’s something to be proud of – and why I wanted to work there.

They treat their employees the same way I try to treat the end users of my software. As a developer, I’ve tried to provide a great experience to those who use my software. As a company, Automattic tries to provide a great experience to those who work there. People stick with you when you provide a great experience.

They also, of course, make great software. I’m looking forward to a chance at helping them continue to do that.