Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Way I Work, annotated

pna I was fortunate enough to be featured in the July issue of Inc. magazine’s “The Way I Work” column. (Page 114, the one with Paul Graham on the cover.) The article is great and the photography very flattering, but it’s a little misleading. All TWIW articles are written in the first person, but not directly authored by the subjects, and we’re not allowed to see them before they’re published. These bizarre rules have some unexpected outcomes, and I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting the article in my own words and with lots of extra links. (You can read the original here.)

On a good morning there’s no alarm clock. I wake up with the sun and do my best to resist the instinctive urge to look at the computer or check email for at least an hour.

My vice of choice isn’t coffee, but the Kindle. Its electronic shelves are filled mostly with the business books  I read in order to grow up to be a real businessman (before someone figures out I’m not). At any point in time I have about 120 books downloaded. Interspersed between Drucker, Godin, and Buffett are classics like Seneca, which I wish I could read more often but only get to a few times a year.

Automattic, the holding company behind, finally got an office late last year at Pier 38, a beautiful open-floorplan space right on the Embarcadero. It’s about a five-minute walk from my apartment, but my preference is to work from home. We’re very much a virtual company where everyone primarily works from home (or their coffee shop of choice). The half dozen of us in the Bay Area will go in on Thursdays to have a little company, but six days out of the week the space is usually empty. But we throw some great parties there.

The team communicates mostly via P2, something a little like Twitter but password-protected, with real-time updates and threaded inline conversations. P2 is almost like a chat channel, but structured like a blog, and we’ve evolved to have almost a dozen across the 40 people at Automattic – serving a variety of purposes. We fill any gaps in communication by IRC, Skype, and, in a pinch, email.

In my home office there are two 30-inch monitors — a Mac and a PC. They share the same mouse and keyboard using Synergy so I can copy and paste between them. The Mac is mostly used for email and chat, while web stuff and coding happen on the PC. The keyboard is, of course, Dvorak, a more efficient keyboard layout that I switched to 10 years ago. I also have a Sony Z90 laptop with me all the time, whether I’m going overseas or just to the doctor’s office. I’m pretty rough on laptops, sometimes going through two a year. At home I like to geek out with home servers and networking, and sometimes find myself doing IT support for family, friends, and colleagues.

One of my favorite programs that we didn’t make is RescueTime, so much so I invested in the company. Hackers all know that you have to profile before you can optimize, and RescueTime runs in the trap of my computers and tracks how much time I spend on different things, sometimes with surprising results. My biggest time-suck is email, and to help out I wrote a WordPress plugin that filters people into folders based on their email address and priority settings which helps keep my inbox relatively clean. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, advocates checking email only twice a week but that’s too severe for me. I’m currently trying Leo Babauta’s approach from The Power of Less, which suggests small steps like checking email five set times a day instead of constantly. It’s like dieting: People who binge diet gain it all back. That happens to me with email.

Music is my muse and I listen to it all day. There’s a lot of jazz — Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins — but I’m also a big fan of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Method Man. I have an analog Shindo stereo that was hand built in Japan and the aural experience is mind-blowing. When you’re coding you really have to be in the zone so I’ll listen to a single song over and over on repeat, hundreds of times. It helps me focus. The other best way to focus is to turn off email and instant messenger. The moment that little toaster pops up and says “you’ve got mail” you’re taken out of the flow. You’re juggling variables and functions and layouts and the moment you look away it all falls to the ground — it takes you 10 minutes getting it back in the air again.

A big part of my job is to manage the support, usability, and product development people who are scattered all over the globe, from Alabama to Ireland to Bulgaria. My management strategy is centered on hiring: find extremely self-motivated and curious people and then give them the autonomy to succeed. There’s no manager looking over anybody’s shoulder, so everyone needs to be self-directed. For every person we hire there are hundreds of applications. We always start people on a contract basis first; that way we mutually understand what it’s like to work with each other. One of the most important things I look for in résumés is a history of contributing to Open Source projects, because I know these people will understand our ethos.

For four years I was the only developer on Akismet, our anti-spam service. It started because my mom had wanted to start a blog but I was scared she’d be bombarded by spam for Viagra and worse, think that’s what I looked at all day. We finally added a second engineer to the project at the end of 2008, which was weird for me but was necessary for growth, especially as I’m pulled in more and more directions.

I go out for lunch whenever I can, which fits well with my preference for no meetings before 11 AM. There’s something very personal about sharing food with someone; it’s a deeper connection than shaking hands in a boardroom. Often when I’m in town I’ll have lunch with Toni Schneider, my CEO. He and I get along super well which is one of the reasons I think the business has worked. He brings gravitas because he’s a digital native but also has great startup experience including being the CEO of Oddpost, a webmail company Yahoo acquired in 2004. Sometimes we’ll go to lunch at 12:30 and stay until 5.

In general, I’m pretty darn disorganized, late as often as not, and really bad at keeping a schedule. My PA is now focusing on office and event tasks so I’m in the market for someone new. Last year I was on the road 212 days and clocked 175,000 miles, which is seven times around the globe (according to Dopplr, a great travel journal I use). The bulk of my travel is to WordCamps, which are educational and networking events that celebrate blogging. Automattic held our first annual WordCamp in San Francisco in 2006, thrown together just a few weeks before the event happened. Now they’ve exploded all over the world and I’ve been to over 30 community-organized events from South Africa to the Philippines. I say they’re a great bargain: a full day of quality speakers, BBQ lunch, a cool t-shirt, and a party for $25. We just wrapped the largest WordCamp ever here in San Francisco with over 700 people.  Though I’d love to, if I went to every WordCamp I wouldn’t have any time to actually build WordPress, so I’m cutting back and trying to go to every other one. They are great fun, though; it’s a chance to be a rockstar for a day. In the Philippines after the conference was done I stayed almost two hours afterward taking pictures and autographing badges and laptops. I’ve even been asked to sign body parts. Really.

To document my experiences when I travel I use my Nikon D3 camera. My photos are autobiographical — my memory is so bad (and the travel pretty grueling) that I’ll forget everything about a trip, and the photos help trigger my memories. On the plane ride home I’ll process and edit the photos as a narrative of each day, a visual diary. On my trip to Vietnam last February I took 2-3 thousand photos. I’ve heard that the difference between an amateur photographer and a pro is that the amateur shows you everything they shoot. I’m somewhere in between — I’ll post maybe a quarter of what I take.

I used to think constantly about building an audience for my blog but now my attitude is that if I’m not blogging for myself it’s not worth it. I don’t force myself to post once a day, I just do it when it feels natural. Sometimes people complain — “Write more about WordPress; we don’t want to see photos of kids in Vietnam” — but I don’t really care. For my 25th birthday in January I published a list of 2009 goals on my blog. It included learning Spanish, learning how to cook, and posting 10,000 photos. Cooking has been a total fail so far; I go out for every meal. If you open my refrigerator you’ll find Girl Scout cookies and barbecue sauce. Photos are blazing along, half-way through the year and I’ve taken 20,000 photos and posted about 4,000 of them.

My blog is fortunate enough to get lot of comments and I read and manually approve each one. I think the broken windows theory — a broken window or graffiti in a neighborhood begets more of the same — applies online. I’ll happily approve a comment from someone who completely disagrees with everything I believe in, but if I get a positive comment with a curse word in it I’ll edit it out. My blog is like my living room: If someone was acting out in my house, I’d ask that person to leave.
I look at our numbers every day, usually after 5 PM PST when GMT goes into a new day. We have an internal dashboard where we track 500 to 600 statistics about everything from how often people are logging in to to how many words they’re pressing per day. Almost all of the numbers are real-time.

I do my best work mid-morning and super late at night, from one to five in the morning. Some people don’t need sleep, but I actually need a ton. I just sleep all the time, catching naps in the afternoon or a 20-minute snooze in the office. Our business is 24 hours — folks in Australia start their day around 4 PM my time and our guys and girls in Europe get going around midnight. Sometimes I’ll go out at night, come home from the bar at 2 or 3 AM, and then go back to work.

For WordPress we’re trying to set up a community that will be around 10 to 30 years from now, one that’s independent from the whims of the market. My role is somewhat like Linus for Linux or Shuttleworth for Ubuntu, affectionately referred to as BDFL, and it’s my responsibility to meet as many users as possible and direct the software in a way that reflects their interest. Last year I probably met 5,000 or 6,000 WordPress users, about half of them who make their living from it. We want to be like Google, eBay, Amazon — they all enable other people to make far more money than the company captures. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to create a movement.

My Mom started a blog a couple of months ago. Six years into this, and we finally made it easy enough for my Mom to use. (She hates it when I say that.)

If you ask questions in the comments, I’ll do my best to answer them.