Working with people you love

Automattic Meetup 2014

Automattic Meetup 2014 – Park City, Utah

I just got back from a fantastic week spent connecting and learning with some of my favorite people in the world, my coworkers at Automattic.

I learned how to analyze data in Python with Carly, and went skydiving with Prasath. After discussing common security vulnerabilities with Anne, Cami and I plotted a podcast about absolutely nothing, and recorded part of our first episode.

JR and Matt Husby helped me with a little WordPress plugin I’ve been working on, and Tammie assigned me my first theme to review. I forced Adam to give a talk on reverse Polish notation, and he forced me, in turn, to give a talk on whether there are aliens in our ranks.

This is only a very small portion of a very full week for 276 incredible people who are passionate about making the web a better place. It’s a week of hundreds of talks, thousands of conversations, and dozens of projects. A week that brings new energy and focus to the rest of the year.

It’s an intense week, but it captures only a portion of the ingenuity, the spontaneity, and the generosity that I’ve come to appreciate from my fellow Automatticians, and that they demonstrate throughout the year.

If you asked me four years ago if I thought it were possible to enjoy working, I’d be dubious. If you asked me whether one could ever genuinely love and respect all their coworkers, I’d hesitate.

Over the past four years, the people of Automattic have demonstrated to me that it’s possible to do work you love with people you love. It’s not common — not yet — but it’s possible.

Read what our founder, Matt, has to say about our meet-ups, and join us.

The Herd of Independent Minds

@ From Harold Rosenberg’s essay, The Herd of Independent Minds (1948):

The mass-culture maker, who takes his start from the experience of others, is essentially a reflector of myths, and is without experience to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside. Indeed it could be demonstrated that the modern mass-culture élite [...] actually has less experience than the rest of humanity, less even than the consumers of its products.

To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he alone trades his experience for the experience of experience. Everyone has met those culture-conscious “responsibles” who think a book or movie or magazine wonderful not because it illuminates or pleases them but because it tells “the people” what they “ought to know.”

I think the principle here extends beyond the mass-culture maker to include many mass-culture consumers. It’s a common sport to talk about what “the masses” think, feel, or do — often to the exclusion of what one’s self thinks, feels, or does.

Comments and chaos

@ Elizabeth Spiers touches upon comments in her return to personal blogging:

In the days before comments on blogs, you could generally have a thoughtful conversation online without everything degenerating into madness and chaos simply because responding to a post required that you wrote a post on your own blog and linked back. This created a certain level of default accountability because if someone wanted to flame you, they had to do it on their own real estate, and couldn’t just crap all over yours anonymously.

I’ve always thought comments are a losing proposition from both the perspective of the commenter and the blogger. The commenter consigns their thoughts to a third-party, as if blogs are scarce and hyperlinks expensive, and the blogger hosts a discussion that has practically no structure.

Spiers is right about flaming and the lack of accountability, but I’m equally irritated by the trivial utterances of assent that comments also bring. Blogging can help us enrich our connections to one another, and I think comments often cheapen these connections.

Political temperature

@ From Bertrand Russell’s Icarus, or The Future of Science (1924):

Some people think that we keep our rooms too hot for health, others that we keep them too cold. If this were a political question, one party would maintain that the best temperature is the absolute zero, the other that it is the melting point of iron. Those who maintained any intermediate position would be abused as timorous time-servers, concealed agents of the other side, men who ruined the enthusiasm of a sacred cause by tepid appeals to mere reason. Any man who had the courage to say that our rooms ought to be neither very hot nor very cold would be abused by both parties, and probably shot in No Man’s Land.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge a third kind of partisan. Namely, those who maintain the best temperature is a moderate temperature, not for reasons of comfort but solely because it is neither hot nor cold.

Making computers work for you

It’s been a little while since I’ve made computers actually work for me, rather than the converse, and I’ve been feeling increasingly manipulated by them (or more precisely, by many of those who program them).

That changes now.

Moving forward, I intend to be a lot more deliberate about what reaches my attention. The filters that social networks have constructed serve primarily their ends, not my own, so I will build new filters.

Just one simple filter: A few simple CSS rules that hide the Facebook home feed. Five seconds of work, and now Facebook works for me, as what I’ve always wanted it to be: A fairly dumb directory of my friends and interesting events. A way for me to find out what they’re up to, on my own time and when I’m interested.

That last bit might sound a little selfish, but I think it’s not. None of us have the unconditional right to forcibly take others’ attention, and I’m certain none of us intend to, but the addictive qualities of Facebook (in conjunction with the never-ending content) produce just that result.

Another filter: No notifications, except those that I deliberately choose. Each and every notification constitutes a minor encroachment on our lives. One every so often might not be a big deal, but if you live with the defaults, you’re going to get notifications constantly. This is emotionally draining.

If a person acted the way that many notifications do, you’d think they were being psychologically abusive.

Therefore, all notifications are off, except ones that map to genuinely urgent items. This includes synchronous communications for work, and certain emails, but nothing else. I won’t neglect these non-urgent things, but I will deal with them deliberately. I hope to restore some meaning to the word “urgent”.

I don’t think computers are intrinsically useful, but rather that we must make them useful. By being a little more conscious of their effects, and by using them actively and to my own ends, I think I will grow to like them again.

On bright red hair

I dyed my hair bright red last week.

I’m unaware of any conscious motive for my having done so, and believe I just did it on a whim. Despite this, I fully intend to maintain the color, as I think it suits me. Plus, it turns out that people are capable of expressing a wide variety of reactions to something so seemingly innocuous as bright red hair, and I confess that I’m interested to see just how many different reactions will continue to surface.

Most reactions were positive or neutral, but I was surprised by how many reactions indicated that people have some very strong intuitions concerning bright red hair.

Within a few hours of having adopted bright red hair, I was called various homophobic slurs on three separate occasions in an area of town that is imagined to be tolerant. While I thought such a reaction was possible, I didn’t exactly expect it, and certainly didn’t expect the accusations to be so frequent!

The other reactions I’ve experienced weren’t so aggressive. Many people simply gawked, while others took to explaining to their curious children that it was somehow rude to acknowledge my admittedly unconventional hair color. Other parents subtly distracted their children from gaping at my hair, as if to dissuade them from getting any wise ideas. (I have faith in these children.)

Of course, of all these reactions, I thought the young maniacs shouting homophobic slurs were the most interesting1. Briefly I wondered why they would believe that hair color would be any indication of one’s sexual predilection, but I think they wanted to say more than that. I think they wanted to talk about gender expression. They wanted to say that decent people are not supposed to have bright red hair, and boys that do are just a little too delicate.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve never put much stock in this notion of gender. As best as I can tell, the concept is used as a kind of proxy for a wide variety of complicated things: behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Just as there is an INTP or ENJF, there are boys and girls and other genders too.

I don’t question that the concept may be useful or helpful in some circumstances for some people, but I am sure that it can also be quite harmful.

It seems to me that much of the enterprise of gender consists in inventing fictional kinds of people who are supposed to exhibit certain groupings of behavior, personality, interests, attitudes, and so on. Deviation outside certain acceptable ranges is answered with punishment, while conformity is met with approbation.

So, a boy with close-cropped hair is fine, but if the hair becomes a little too long (or a little too bright red), then there’s a problem. Just how great a problem it is depends partly on time and place.

Of course, all this is a very poor model of human identity and expression, and so when people invariably deviate from restrictive social norms, new terms will need to be coined to denote such people.

I think such terms may be useful for practical and political purposes; they can help such people find one another, and organize for common causes. However, ultimately, they’re probably pretty poor descriptors, and probably don’t capture some deeper reality.

Many people are much better acquainted with these issues than me, and face far more serious consequences for aspects of their persons that are much more important than hair color. But for my part, perhaps my bright red hair will serve as a helpful reminder.

  1. I think the fact that there are any reactions to bright red hair at all is interesting, and is probably a sign that we’re all a little more boring than we ought to be. Apparently, just as one may ignore the elephant in the room, one may pay significant attention to something as silly as hair!

The investigative mindset

@ Fellow Automattician Lance Willett on the investigative mindset:

Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules…

Rules and requirements change, and the context I work in is constantly changing. I’m more productive in my work by making good, informed decisions—not by the book. I can work smarter, gaining a new awareness of how everything works…

Often, the investigation takes me out of bounds—out of my “area”—that’s OK, and natural. I talk to other people outside my team, and I learn a bit more about how it all works together. I fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve raised my awareness.

The investigative mindset is useful in many occupations, and is also indispensable in life outside work. It’s a shame that our schools offer only superficial training in this regard, instead opting to focus on its opposite: The assembly line mindset.

On buying a house

@ George Bernard Shaw wrote that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, [while] the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”1

In my first month as a homeowner, I’ve realized both the pleasures of fitting one’s environment to oneself, and the terrible pains of doing the same. Beyond pains, you soon realize that there’s something fundamentally unsound about your project, but that the alternative is probably even less tenable.

As the owner of an old house previously occupied by tenants, you have the privilege of restoring old wooden floors to their former state. Your confidence in your ability to manipulate objects in the physical world increases, as you remove white paint from planks that haven’t been touched since Kennedy was in office, only to refurbish wood that was around when Emily Dickinson was alive. In some way, you’re contributing to history.

At the end of the day, however, you’ve only changed the surface on which you walk. It’s not objectively very impressive.

Still, it’s your surface, and you will not compromise.

  1. Maxims for Revolutionists, Man and Superman (1903)

Letter to Target

Dear Target,

The name of your company is apt, as we’re certain that many dreams across these United States involve hurling sharp projectiles at your architecturally uninspired retail locations. We assure you, however, that we’re unlike such dreamers.

We are unlike such dreamers, for we can no longer dream. Your company, which once inspired our love for weepuls and natural fibers, has left us:

  • Disillusioned,
  • Disempowered, and
  • Disenchanted.

You see, our loyalty has been based on your marketing yourself as a friendlier, more granola version of Walmart. A Walmart that supports gay rights, and also the color mustard. A Walmart that sells darling little doodads for the dorm rooms of doe-eyed college students. A Walmart that charges twenty percent more than the real Walmart, a premium that any self-loathing upper-middle class person is willing, even eager, to pay in order to help substantiate their fantasy that your employees earn a living wage.

Our complaint actually has nothing to do with any of this. Rather, it is with your cotton blanket selection.

At one point, Target, it was possible to purchase a twenty dollar cotton blanket from your housewares section. We’re often in the market for cotton blankets, as our domestic rabbit uses them for edible floor coverings.

Unfortunately for the past few months, whenever we run to Target for an emergency edible blanket, we’re confronted with aisles of polyester microfiber. Alas polyester microfiber is inedible, and no rabbit of ours will root around in it.

Now the only cotton bedding you offer is a fifty dollar “organic” cotton blanket. We’re willing to splurge for the benefit of our house rabbit, but fifty dollars for a blanket that will be consumed in two months is too high a price for assuaging liberal guilt.

We wouldn’t complain but we imagine many of your other loyal customers have infants, small children, spouses with sensitive skin, and adorable little rabbits named Thomasina, and that they would also prefer cotton to synthetic microfleece.

Elizabeth & Chris
Concerned Owners of a Treasured Pet

Letter to Barnes & Noble

Dear Barnes or Noble,

I’m not sure which of you will read this first, so I ask the one who does to inform the other. I ask this, because I cannot be sure which of you instituted the ban on baristas receiving tips, and to whom I should address my letter.

Earlier today I found myself in one of your stores1, looking for a copy of some book that you obviously do not stock. Convinced that I had to be mistaken, and that I only needed some rest before I would find it, I decided to take a break at the café, a passable place that one might believe to be affiliated with Starbucks2. After receiving my satisfactory beverage, I attempted to tip my barista.

They refused it, citing your prohibition, and left me to my fairly sufficient coffee substitute device. Surprised, I asked a manager about this strange practice of rejecting money, and they informed me that tips were not allowed, as it would produce envy among the booksellers. If baristas were allowed tips, the jealousy of booksellers would soon become intolerable, and there would be civil war in the store that sells some books but also puzzles and moderately interesting wall clocks.

Part of me is hesitant to write this letter, as I wouldn’t like to beat a dead horse (to bring a more literal meaning to the idiom). Your business model is quaint, and the Nook pursuit is probably a pleasant way to pass time. It’s all potentially respectable, but for these same reasons, I do not wish to treat you too harshly and ruin your fragile buzz, subtle and nearly imperceptible though it may be.

Nevertheless I write to you, hoping that you appreciate the implausibility of retail conflict, and ask that you allow your baristas to accept tips.


  1. This is a literal description of how I arrive at your stores; I simply find myself there. No intention on my part is to be inferred.
  2. Are your cafés affiliated with Starbucks? I truly do not know. It appears that you brew their coffee proudly; perhaps you are a party to some licensing agreement?