Over the weekend I was in Nashville with over a thousand other WordPress enthusiasts. I met a ton of people, learned a lot, and was able to share the annual State of the Word address with the audience, which is a big summary of what WordPress has been up to and where it’s going. This year we covered user testing, Gutenberg, 5.0, the future phases of Gutenberg, all the latest and greatest blocks, new minimum PHP requirements, the adoption of 5.0, and some event and community updates. You can also see just the slides. The Q&A is here in a separate video.
Yesterday I was able to have a great conversation with Adam from WP Crafter, a popular Youtube channel with over five million views. Adam said it was his first interview but you can’t tell, we had an excellent conversation that covered Gutenberg, the 5.0 release, why WordPress has done well so far, and what’s coming in the future. If you’d like more context than text or tweets can give for what’s happening in WordPress today, check it out.
Of course Friday and Saturday are WordCamp US, which returns to Nashville this year. Everything will be live-streamed for free, including my State of the Word presentation on Saturday, you just need to pick up a free streaming ticket.
Update: On December 6th we released WordPress 5.0. It was definitely the most controversial release in a while, but the usage and adoption metrics are looking similar to previous releases. I’m looking forward to continuing to iterate on the new block editor!
We are nearing the release date for WordPress 5.0 and Gutenberg, one of the most important and exciting projects I’ve worked on in my 15 years with this community.
I knew we would be taking a big leap. But it’s a leap we need to take, and I think the end result is going to open up many new opportunities for everyone in the ecosystem, and for those being introduced to WordPress for the first time. It brings us closer to our mission of democratizing publishing for everyone.
I recently visited WordCamp Portland to talk about Gutenberg and WordPress 5.0, which will also include the new default theme Twenty Nineteen, which you’re seeing me test out on this very site. There were some great questions and testimonials about Gutenberg, so I’d urge you to watch the full video and read the WP Tavern recap. I’ve also visited meetups, responded to review threads, kept an eye on support, and I’m in the middle of office hours with the core community.
As we head toward the release date and WordCamp US, I’ve put many questions and answers into a Gutenberg FAQ below. For those who have other questions, I will be checking the comments here.
It’s an exciting time, and I’m thrilled to be working with y’all on this project.
What is Gutenberg?
Gutenberg, for those who aren’t actively following along, is a brand new Editor for WordPress — contributors have been working on it since January 2017 and it’s one of the most significant changes to WordPress in years. It’s built on the idea of using “blocks” to write and design posts and pages.
This will serve as the foundation for future improvements to WordPress, including blocks as a way not just to design posts and pages, but also entire sites.
The overall goal is to simplify the first-time user experience of WordPress — for those who are writing, editing, publishing, and designing web pages. The editing experience is intended to give users a better visual representation of what their post or page will look like when they hit publish. As I wrote in my post last year, “Users will finally be able to build the sites they see in their imaginations.”
Matías Ventura, team lead for Gutenberg, wrote an excellent post about the vision for Gutenberg, saying, “It’s an attempt to improve how users interact with their content in a fundamentally visual way, while at the same time giving developers the tools to create more fulfilling experiences for the people they are helping.”
Why do we need Gutenberg at all?
For many of us already in the WordPress community, it can be easy to forget the learning curve that exists for people being introduced to WordPress for the first time. Customizing themes, adding shortcodes, editing widgets and menus — there’s an entire language that one must learn behind the scenes in order to make a site or a post look like you want it to look.
The idea with blocks was to create a new common language across WordPress, a new way to connect users to plugins, and replace a number of older content types — things like shortcodes and widgets — that one had to be well-versed in the idiosyncrasies of WordPress to understand.
The block paradigm is not a new one — in fact many great plugins have already shown the promise of blocks with page design in WordPress. Elementor, one of the pioneers in this space, has now introduced a new collection of Gutenberg blocks to showcase what’s possible:
Why change the Editor?
The Editor is where most of the action happens in WordPress’s daily use, and it was a place where we could polish and perfect the block experience in a contained environment.
Additionally, the classic Editor was built primarily for text — articles have become increasingly multimedia, with social media embeds, maps, contact forms, photo collages, videos, and GIFs. It was time for a design paradigm that allowed us to move past the messy patchwork of shortcodes and text.
The Editor is just the start. In upcoming phases blocks will become a fundamental part of entire site templates and designs. It’s currently a struggle to use the Customizer and figure out how to edit sections like menus, headers, and footers. With blocks, people will be able to edit and manipulate everything on their site without having to understand where WordPress hides everything behind the scenes.
What does Automattic get out of this?
There have been posts recently asking questions about Automattic’s involvement in Gutenberg compared to other contributors and companies. There is no secret conspiracy here — as project lead I was able to enlist the help of dozens of my colleagues to contribute to this project, and I knew that a project of this size would require it. Automattic aims to have 5% of its people dedicated to WordPress community projects, which at its current size would be about 42 people full-time. The company is a bit behind that now (~35 full-time), and the company is growing a lot next year, so look for 10-15 additional people working on core and community projects.
In the end, Gutenberg is similar to many other open source projects — Automattic will benefit from it, but so will everyone else in the WordPress community (and even the Drupal community). It’s available for everyone under the GPL. If the goal was purely to benefit Automattic it would have been faster, easier, and created an advantage for Automattic to have Gutenberg just on WP.com. That wasn’t, and isn’t, the point.
Is Gutenberg ready?
Absolutely. Our original goal with Gutenberg was to get it on 100,000 sites to begin testing — it’s now already on more than 1 million sites, and it’s the fastest-growing plugin in WordPress history. There is a lot of user demand.
The goal was to both test Gutenberg on as many sites as possible before the 5.0 release, and also to encourage plugin developers to make sure their plugins and services will be ready. With everyone pitching in, we can make this the most anti-climactic release in WordPress history.
In the recent debate over Gutenberg readiness, I think it’s important to understand the difference between Gutenberg being ready code-wise (it is now), and whether the entire community is ready for Gutenberg.
It will take some time — we’ve had 15 years to polish and perfect core, after all — but the global WordPress community has some of the world’s most talented contributors and we can make it as good as we want to make it.
Someone described Gutenberg to me as “WordPress in 3D.” I like the sound of that. Blocks are like layers you can zoom in and out of. The question now is: What are we going to build with this new dimension?
Do I have to switch to Gutenberg when WordPress 5.0 is released?
Not at all. When it’s released, you get to choose what happens. You can install the Classic Editor plugin today and when 5.0 is released, nothing will change. We’ve commited to supporting and updating Classic Editor until 2022. If you’d like to install Gutenberg early, you can do that now too. The Classic Editor plugin has been available for 13 months now, and Gutenberg has been available for 18 months. Both have been heavily promoted since August 2018, and more than 1.3 million .org sites have opted-in already to either experience, so nothing will change for them when they update to 5.0.
How can I make sure I’m ready?
Before updating to 5.0, try out the Gutenberg plugin with your site to ensure it works with your existing plugins, and also to get comfortable with the new experience. Developers across the entire ecosystem are working hard to update their plugins, but your mileage and plugins may vary. And you can always use the Classic Editor to address any gaps.
As with every new thing, things might feel strange and new for a bit, but I’m confident once you start using it you’ll get comfy quickly and you won’t want to go back.
The release candidate of 5.0 is stable and fine to develop against and test.
When will 5.0 be released?
We have had a stable RC1, which stands for first release candidate, and about to do our second one. There is only currently one known blocker and it’s cosmetic. The stability and open issues in the release candidates thus far makes me optimistic we can release soon, but as before the primary driver will be the stability and quality of the underlying software. We made the mistake prior of announcing dates when lots of code was still changing, and had to delay because of regressions and bugs. Now that things aren’t changing, we’re approaching a time we can commit to a date soon.
Is it terrible to do a release in December?
Some people think so, some don’t. There have been 9 major WordPress releases in previous Decembers. December releases actually comprise 34% of our major releases in the past decade.
Can I set it up so only certain users get to use Gutenberg?
Yes, and soon. We’re going to be doing another update to the Classic Editor before the 5.0 release to give it a bit more fine-grained user control — we’ve heard requests for options that allow certain users or certain roles and post types to have Gutenberg while others have Classic Editor.
What happens after 5.0?
We’ve been doing a release of Gutenberg every two weeks, and 5.0 isn’t going to stop that. We’ll do minor release to 5.0 (5.0.1, 5.0.2) fortnightly, with occasional breaks, so if there’s feedback that comes in, we can address it quickly. Many of the previous bugs in updates were from juggling between updates in the plugin and core, now that Gutenberg is in core it’s much easier and safer to incrementally update.
What about Gutenberg and accessibility?
We’ve had some important discussions about accessibility over the past few weeks and I am grateful for those who have helped raise these questions in the community.
Accessibility has been core to WordPress from the very beginning. It’s part of why we started – the adoption of web standards and accessibility.
But where I think we fell down was with project management — specifically, we had a team of volunteers that felt like they were disconnected from the rapid development that was happening with Gutenberg. We need to improve that. In the future I don’t know if it makes sense to have accessibility as a separate kind of process from the core development. It needs to be integrated at every single stage.
Still, we’ve accomplished a lot, as Matías has written about. There have been more than 200 closed issues related to accessibility since the very beginning.
We’re also taking the opportunity to fix some things that have had poor accessibility in WordPress from the beginning. CodeMirror, which is a code editor for templates, is not accessible, so we have some parts of WordPress that we really need to work on to make better.
Speaking of which, CodeMirror was seeking funding for their next version — Automattic has now sponsored that funding and in return it will be made available under the GPL, and that the next version of CodeMirror will be fully accessible.
Finally, Automattic will be funding an accessibility study of WordPress, Gutenberg, and an evaluation of best practices across the web, to ensure WordPress is fully accessible and setting new standards for the web overall.
After WordPress 5.0, is the Gutenberg name going to stick around?
Sometimes code names can take on a life of their own. I think Gutenberg is still what we’ll call this project — it’s called that on GitHub, and you’re also seeing it adopted by other CMSes beyond WordPress — but for those outside the community I can see it simply being known as “the new WordPress editor.”
With the adoption of React for Gutenberg, what do you see as the future for React and WordPress?
The other beautiful thing is that because Gutenberg essentially allows for translation into many different formats — it can publish to your web page, it can publish your RSS feed, AMP, it can publish blocks that can be translated into email for newsletters — there’s so much in the structured nature of Gutenberg and the semantic HTML that it creates and the grammar that’s used to parse it, can enable for other applications.
And WordPress 5.0 is just the starting line. We want to get it to that place where it’s not just better than what we have today, but a world-class, web-defining experience. It’s what we want to create and what everyone deserves.
Was this post published with Gutenberg?
Of course. 😄 No bugs, but I do see lots of areas we can continue to improve and I’m excited to get to work on future iterations.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Gutenberg at two great venues recently. The first was at WordCamp Portland which graciously allowed me to join for a Q&A at the end of the event. The questions were great and covered a lot of the latest and greatest about Gutenberg and WordPress 5.0:
Last week I also joined Episode 101 of the WP Builds podcast, where as Nathan put it: “We talk about Gutenberg, why Matt thinks that we need it, and why we need it now. We go on to chat about how it’s divided the WordPress community, especially from the perspective of users with accessibility needs.”
They may be out of seats already, but I’ll be on the other coast to do a small meetup in Portland, Maine this week. As we lead up to release and WordCamp US I’m really enjoying the opportunity to hear from WordPress users of all levels all over the country.
- SDR Kashmir Travel Folio, made with this super-cool material called Dyneema, which is twice as strong as Kevlar and 15 times as strong as steel, but virtually weightless.
- Garmin Forerunner 935 which is a triathlon watch, so it can tell me how much I don’t run, how much I don’t bike, and how much I don’t swim. Crazy sensors on it, and it’s lighter than an Apple Watch, which I tried again to use this year but wasn’t able to handle another device in my life that I had to charge daily. It has a weird charger, pictured next to it, but only needs charging once every few weeks so I don’t mind at all.
- This is the latest 15” grey touchbar MacBook Pro, customized by Uncover to have the Jetpack logo on it. I like the keyboard quietness and performance improvements of latest generation.
- Fit Pack 2 from Aer is the same I wrote a whole blog post about last year, and I still love and adore it every day. They have a few bigger and smaller packs, but the quality is just fantastic and I love all the pockets. Mine is starting to tear a little bit by one of the shoulder straps, but I do keep ~18lbs in it regularly.
- This is a grey wool buff, which works as a scarf, a hat, or an eye cover if I’m trying to sleep. I tried this out because of one of Tynan’s also-great gear posts.
- Passport, because you never know when you’ll need to leave the country.
- Kindle Oasis with this random case on it. I dig that this one is apparently waterproof — which I’ve never tested — but doesn’t feel like we’ve found the perfect size and weight balance yet. Reading is my favorite activity right now so this is my most-loved item.
- Imazing 10k charger. Great capacity, charges via USB-C. (2nd year)
- I’ve started carrying around some stationery so I can write notes to people when I’m on the road. Now I just need better handwriting…
- Delfonics is a funky-cool Japanese stationery, and this 3”x4” Rollbahn notebook is tops, and actually fits in my pocket. The Amazon one linked might be larger, I found it at Paper-Ya on Granville Island.
- A small leather bracelet I got in Seoul, Korea.
- Two things here: a rolled-up chamois cloth for cleaning glasses, inspired by my late friend Dean, and a WordPress ring I wear sometimes.
- Three pens here: A cool customized one we did for Automatticians; a Lamy Accent 4pen which has red, blue, black, and a mechanical pencil built in; a Sharpie for signing stuff.
- Have gone away from the carbon fiber clip and now using this small Paul Smith card wallet.
- Apple Magic Mouse 2. When this one breaks I’ll switch it out for a black one.
- Charger for the MacBook Pro.
- A super small international adapter, which is also nice for converting the 3-prong in the next item into a 2-prong. It’s Lenmar but I’m not going to link Amazon because they’re charging too much, just picked up in an airport store.
- Probably my favorite new item of the year: I have given Native Union a hard time in the past but super love this combo extension cord and USB charger. It is an 8-foot extension cord, which is remarkably handy, has two AC outlets, 3 USB ports, and one USB-C. Total life-saver.
- A dyneema accessory pouch, retaW aoyama / tokyo fragrance lipcream, Aveda Peppymint breath refresher, Aesop Ginger Flight Therapy roller, a spray hand cleanser, and Mintia COLDSMASH.
- District Vision makes these these running sunglasses in Japan, which I found at the Snow Peak store in NYC.
- These sunglasses are a collaboration between Salt and Aether.
- A single-use packet of Sriracha. Hot sauce in your bag? Swag.
- A palo santo smudge stick, smells great when you burn it. I’m turning into a hippie.
- Hermes business card holder.
- iPhone XS with a Jetpack Popsocket.
- Pixel 2, now replaced by a Pixel 3 XL.
- This is a bag with some small opals I gave as a Burning Man gift.
- iPad Pro 10.5 and Apple sleeve with Pencil holder, which is still one of my favorite gadgets of the year. Everything about this device just works and is a pleasure to use, and I’ve already ordered the new 11″ Pro and related accessories.
- Half meter (the perfect size) lightning cable.
- Apple USB-C dongle.
- Cool multi-function USB cable with lightning, two micro-USBs, and USB-C. I give these away all the time now and it’s nice to pair with the battery in #8 because I know I can charge anybody with this thing.
- Short USB-C.
- Combo micro-USB and Lightning.
- Short lightning cable, just like 29.
- Velcro cable ties, great for tidying pretty much anything. I just take a few out of the big pack and roll them up to travel with.
- Retractable USB-C, don’t love these as they break but it’s the best of what’s out there.
- USB-C to Lightning, great for super-fast charging.
- My favorite USB-C hub so far, the Satechi Aluminum Type-C Multimedia Adapter with 4K HDMI, Mini DP, USB-C PD, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0, Micro/SD Card Slots. Pretty much everything you could possibly need.
- A pretty handy Ventev dashport car port charger that’s small and light. (2nd year)
- A few spare SIM cards, some SD cards, thingy to poke SIM card holder, and combo USB-C / USB-A 64gb stick.
- Lockpick set. (4th year)
- Bragi Pro custom earphones. For many years I had custom in-ear monitors, but the convenience of wireless overcame that, even before they started taking headphone jacks out of phones. Bragi now allows you to send in ear molds from an audiologist and they’ll make these custom true wireless headphones that fit and sound great, but I have trouble recommending because the case is so heavy and once got so jammed I almost thought I’d have to throw the whole thing away, and the app has never been able to “connect” for me because it gets stuck on turning on some fitness sensors. If it could connect I think I could turn off the other feature that is annoying, which is the touch controls that I find get triggered by my hat or when my head is against a chair. So, a qualified “maybe try this.”
- Sennheiser Culture Series Wideband Headset, which I use for podcasts, Skype, Facetime, Zoom, and Google Hangout calls with external folks and teams inside of Automattic. Light, comfortable, great sound quality, and great at blocking out background noise so you don’t annoy other people on the call. I’d love to replace this with something wireless but haven’t found one with as high fidelity audio.
- GL.iNet GL-AR750 Travel AC Router which I use to create wifi networks different places I go, which is often faster than hotel/etc wifi, and I can also VPN encrypt all my traffic through it. Pretty handy! But not user-friendly. Often keep it in my suitcase and not my backpack. I have a retractable Ethernet and micro-USB attached to it.
- Matte black Airpods. I love Airpods and these look super cool, I think these were from BlackPods which looks shut down now but Colorware has some alternatives. (2nd year)
- Westone ES49 custom earplugs, for if I go to concerts or anyplace overly loud. (4th year)
- An ultralight running jacket I think I got at Lululemon Lab in Vancouver. They don’t have anything like it available online right now but it folds up ultra-tiny, weighs nothing, and is a nice layer for on an airplane. My only complaint (as with all Lululemon products) is the low quality of the zipper. (2nd year)
That’s it for this year. As a bonus I’ll link some of my favorite other-bag items including toiletries: Muji dopp kit bag, these amazing travel bottles for creams, travel atomizer, Elysium Basis, Muji q-tips, Aesop Two Minds Facial Hydrator, Sunleya Sun Care SPF 15, folding brush / comb, Philips Sonicare Brush, Aesop toothpaste, Tom’s SLS-free toothpaste, Orabrush cleaner.
If you have any questions please leave them in the comments!
I recently returned from Orlando where Automattic hosted its annual Grand Meetup where nearly all of our 800 employees from around the world, spend a week together in the same place. (And yes, we’re hiring.)
Despite being a fully distributed company, I believe it’s still important to meet face-to-face — just not every day, in the same office. The Grand Meetup is our chance to get to know the people behind the Slack avatars and build relationships that can carry us through other 51 weeks of the year, when we’re working from more than 65 countries. It’s so much easier to hear the nuance in someone’s chat messages or p2 posts if you’ve hung out with them at Harry Potter World, or learned about their family, pets, and hobbies during a flash talk.
The week can be mentally exhausting, given that you’re often meeting many people for the first time. But we urge people to take it at their own pace, and the results are well worth the effort. Our data team actually studied the impact of the Grand Meetup on our work relationships — the connections established between coworkers using our “Meetamattician” tool were demonstrably closer after the meetup:
This year we were proud to welcome some incredible keynote speakers: Wild author Cheryl Strayed talking about creativity and writing; Automattic board member Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in U.S. Army history to achieve the four-star officer rank; Ari Meisel on delegating and automating your life; and Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier, on the panic attack that led him to embrace meditation and mindfulness.
I walked a week’s worth of the Portuguese path of the Camino de Santiago with a few friends, which was a nice bookend to my Rebirth and Yellow Arrows post at the beginning of last year. My feet are sore, and I have the first significant knee pain which has given me newfound empathy for the people I love who struggle with their knees. I traveled light and just brought an iPhone XS as my camera, and these are a few snaps of things I saw along the trail.
The downside of Zuckerberg’s exalted status within his company is that it is difficult for him to get genuine, unexpurgated feedback. He has tried, at times, to puncture his own bubble. In 2013, as a New Year’s resolution, he pledged to meet someone new, outside Facebook, every day. In 2017, he travelled to more than thirty states on a “listening tour” that he hoped would better acquaint him with the outside world. David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager, who is now the head of policy and advocacy at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the family’s philanthropic investment company, attended some events on the tour. He told me, “When a politician goes to one of those, it’s an hour, and they’re talking for fifty of those minutes. He would talk for, like, five, and just ask questions.”
But the exercise came off as stilted and tone-deaf. Zuckerberg travelled with a professional photographer, who documented him feeding a calf in Wisconsin, ordering barbecue, and working on an assembly line at a Ford plant in Michigan. Online, people joked that the photos made him look like an extraterrestrial exploring the human race for the first time. A former Facebook executive who was involved in the tour told a friend, “No one wanted to tell Mark, and no one did tell Mark, that this really looks just dumb.”
There seem to be three communication gaps outlined here in Evan Osnos’s revealing profile of Mark Zuckerberg: one is getting unvarnished feedback from your employees. Speaking as a fellow CEO and founder, it’s certainly hard to pop that bubble — see “the bear is sticky with honey.” There are a few techniques like skip-level 1:1 meetings, anonymous feedback forms, interviewing new hires, and 360 reviews you can do to try to counter this, but there’s no panacea and this one requires constant work as you scale.
The second gap is getting the unvarnished truth from your users — much easier, as they’re quite happy to tell you what’s what. I’ve recently started cold-calling (yes, on the phone!) some of our Jetpack customers just to understand what they love and don’t love about the experience and about how we can help them solve their business challenges. There’s a casual intimacy to phone conversations that just can’t be replicated in other user feedback forums. Pair this with good instrumentation throughout your product so you see what people do and not just what they say and you’re golden.
The third and last communication gap is the connection to the world as most people experience it. If your status, wealth, or celebrity reach a point that they are shutting you out from “real” experiences, take some risks and get outside of your comfort zone. As it turns out, this new GQ profile of Paul McCartney offered a tip on that:
McCartney tells me a further such story of a time he took the Hampton Jitney, the slightly upmarket bus service that runs from the Hamptons into Manhattan, because he was deep into Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and he wanted to finish it, and how he then took a local bus uptown, and when a woman blurted from across the bus, “Hey! Are you Paul McCartney?” he invited her to sit next to him and chatted all the way uptown. “It’s a way of not worrying about your fame,” he says. “It’s a way of not turning into the reclusive rock star. I often say to Nancy: I get in their faces before they get a chance to get in mine.”
Makes me wonder if Jack Dorsey still rides the bus to work every day. I think this is what Zuckerberg was attempting with his 30-state tour, and hopefully it was helpful even if the optics didn’t appeal to everyone — the daily habit of his 2013 resolution to meet someone new every day feels more powerful than the touristic 30-state one. But for an entity as large as Facebook maybe it’s moot, as Casey Newton pointed out in his newsletter last week it can be quite hard to pin the answers to Facebook’s real problems, and our democracy’s real challenges in the face of targeted online propaganda, to just one person.
Dan Walmsley has an interesting walkthrough on getting set up for WordPress and Calypso development on the new Linux mode on a Chromebook.
This morning I’m enjoying Seth Godin’s classic on Customer Service. Hat tip: Andrew Spittle.
There’s fascinating and terrifying feature article about Facebook, Duterte, and the drug war in the Philippines, written by Davey Alba. My first trip there was actually to Davao, and having been to the country several times and met so many bloggers there it’s hard to imagine what’s described. There are definitely echoes of the Wired feature on Facebook and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Both are good reminders that as technologists the tools we create can be used and leveraged in ways we wouldn’t imagine in our worst nightmares.
Brett Martin has an excellent longread in GQ, Houston Is the New Capital Of Southern Cool. I moved to San Francisco when I was 20, I hadn’t ever even been old enough to drink in Houston, but when I returned in my late twenties and really made it my home I was blown away at how much the city had changed in the time I had been away. Or maybe I just grew up enough to appreciate it. Regardless, Brett captures the verve and paradoxes of the city well.
This week I spoke with TechCrunch about one facet of distributed work that differs from physical offices — the idea of “office politics.” I can’t claim that distributed work will solve everyone’s personal differences, but I do think it relieves some of the pressures that might come from forced cohabitation and environments that are prone to interruption. They also have some great points from Jason Fried and and Wade Foster.
Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall soon flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of man! [….] A spring of pure truth shall flow from it! Like a new star, it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine among men.— Johannes Gutenberg
“We want to make the best tools in the world, and we want to do it for decades to come. I’ve been doing WordPress for 15 years, I want to do it the rest of my life.”
The last time I chatted with Kara was in 2013 in the back of a pedicab in Austin. This time I got to sit in the red chair at Vox headquarters in San Francisco, and per usual Kara was thoughtful, thorough and to the point: we talked about WordPress and the future of the open web, the moral imperative of user privacy, and how it all relates to what’s going on at Facebook.
(As it turns out, Facebook also is turning off the ability for WordPress sites — and all websites — to post directly to users’ profile pages. The decision to shut down the API is ostensibly to fight propaganda and misinformation on the platform, but I think it’s a big step back for their embrace of the open web. I hope they change their minds.)
Kara and I also talked about distributed work, Automattic’s acquisition of Atavist and Longreads, and why every tech company should have an editorial team. Thanks again to Kara and the Recode team for having me.
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.
Lawrence Pearsall Jacks in Education through Recreation, 1932
As Automattic keeps growing we’ve been bringing in a lot of talented people behind the scenes to help expand on our vision as we go from hundreds to thousands of colleagues, and hundreds of millions to billions in revenue. Recently, former New York Times digital executive Kinsey Wilson joined our team as president of WordPress.com, the Chief Design Officer of Axios Alexis Lloyd has joined as head of Design Innovation, the former CEO of Bluehost James Grierson is leading Jetpack partnerships, and today I’m excited to announce a change to my bosses, the board of directors.
Gen. Ann Dunwoody served for 37 years in the U.S. Army, and she is the first woman in U.S. Military history to achieve a four-star officer rank. She’s also the author of A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General, a book I really loved and highly recommend. Automattic’s board has had no new members since its founding in 2005, so this is our first addition in 13 years. I became familiar with General Dunwoody’s work while researching distributed organizations outside of technology, which led me to the military, which led me to geek out on logistics, which led me to her book and eventually flying out to Florida to meet in person.
Below is a brief interview with Gen. Dunwoody — we chatted with her about global leadership, finding your passion, and building a business.
We’re excited to have you onboard, General Dunwoody. It’s interesting — at Automattic we like to point out that we’re all over the globe (over 740 employees in more than 60 countries) but you oversaw 69,000 military and civilians across 140 countries! Were there any big leadership lessons from managing operations across such a wide range of distances, timezones, and cultures?
That’s a great question. When I started out as a young officer in the Army, the leadership philosophy that was espoused back then was “Leadership by walking around.” When you’re in charge of a platoon, a company or even a battalion or Brigade that is not globally dispersed this philosophy is very sound. When you’re running a global organization with 69,000 folks in 140 countries, you have to leverage technology to keep real-time communications flowing and keep leaders updated. I would host (with the leadership) a global video teleconference every Wednesday connecting every organization from Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Europe, etc. and sites — hundreds across the United States. Our headquarters would provide an operational update and then we go around the globe to get update from from everyone — what’s going well, where they need help or additional resources. In the old days I think people believed information was power and often withheld information to use for personal advantage, but I believe shared information is power. By leveraging the power of the entire industrial base we could solve problems in real time. I still travelled around a lot to see our people, but it is not possible to keep everyone informed and in the loop with current operations without leveraging technology.
I love your answer about “shared information is power.” Did you ever find it difficult to break down the silos and embrace that concept?
Oh my, yes. They weren’t just silos, they were silos with concertina wire around them! Parochialism was rampant and everyone wanted their own system and own their own information. We had over 200 stand alone systems that didn’t talk to each other. So to field and design an enterprise IT system that leveraged systems with the needed information to support “foxhole to factory” was challenging and exciting.
And how did you decide what technological means to communicate an idea or a directive, versus, say, meeting in-person?
I would say it depended on the idea. If it was personal, probably a phone call (one on one); if trying to generate support for an idea or transformational concept, meet in-person with my initiatives group to socialize the idea and get their input modifications and buy-in. Then Commanders conference to socialize idea with them, as they will have to implement it. Once socialized with leadership, we worldwide videoconference with the entire organization to define and describe the purpose, intent, how, and why — so everyone knew what we were trying to do and what their role was in execution. I found you cannot over-communicate when trying to make changes.
It’s an incredible accomplishment to become the first woman in U.S. Military history to achieve the four-star officer rank. Can you tell me about how things changed (or maybe still need to change further) in terms of your experience during your 37 years of service, and how you addressed diversity and inclusion in the military?
First, I certainly didn’t accomplish this by myself — I had a lot of help along the way! I joined the Army as part of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) back in 1975. A few years later they disestablished the WAC and began the integration of women into the regular Army. This was the first time women had the opportunity to have the same career opportunities as their male counterparts in the branches now open to women. The challenge for the women who came into the Army back then was to force the integration — fight being put into traditional jobs like being a secretary, admin, clerk, or cook — and fight to be platoon leaders, etc., to support and move the integration of women into the regular Army.
What I witnessed during my time in the Army was that the doors continued to open. Yes, there were roadblocks — but there were also many leaders along the way who were willing to help. I never worked for a woman. I worked for men who either believed in me or didn’t. My experience in my almost four decades was that the doors continued to open for women. I thought jumping out of airplanes was really neat — now my niece in the USAF is an A-10 fighter pilot, and we have women graduating from Ranger school!
On diversity, I realized that being the only female in many forums, my voice was hard to be heard. And I also realized that most folks promoted and surrounded themselves with people in their own image. What my philosophy was — and I still think it is an issue today — is that diversity is not about numbers, it’s about getting the best and brightest from all walks of life, to help leaders solve the very complex issues that face us today. Don’t surround yourself with only people that think or act or look like you.
Who are the leaders that inspire you today?
I think we are products of our past — Mom and Dad, even though not here on earth, gave me the values that still guide me. Many of my military mentors, Gen. Hugh Shelton, Gen. Pete Schoomaker, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, Gen. Dick Cody, are still coaches and mentors to me today.
Folks I admire: Warren Buffett, only met him once but I like his concern for the betterment of our country; Oprah Winfrey, although I have never met her I admire her for what she does for our country how she presents herself and how she handles herself — awesome; Gen. Mattis — wow, I admire him for taking on this extremely tough assignment for the good of our country and our defense. Secretary Gates served two administrations, Republican and Democrat.
People that inspire me are people I believe are true leaders — valuing honesty and having the best interests of the country at heart. No hubris!
I’m a huge fan of Mailchimp, but dang does the service get abused by folks aggressively opting you into mailing lists. I have a very early, very generic Gmail address that people put as a filler address into every possible service and it gets tens of thousands of list and spam mails. A good trick to find and unsubscribe from all the Mailchimp lists you’re on is to search for
mcsv.net and then select all, report as spam, and unsubscribe. Gmail doesn’t deal well when the unsubscribe list is taller than your screen, so you may need to hit
command + - a few times to make it all fit. Also according to this post, “you can also get in touch with our compliance team directly at email@example.com with the email address you would like to remove from all lists and they will be happy to further assist you there as well.” I will try that as well.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, and an interview about on the WP.com blog, Automattic has acquired the Atavist platform, magazine, and team. Looking forward to working alongside the team: we’re keeping the magazine going and it’ll complement Longreads, and integrating the best of the platform’s CMS and publisher features into WordPress.com and Jetpack and after that’s done providing an upgrade path so all of its publishers can move to being WordPress-powered.
I really love this thread and the replies sharing stories about Val Vesa’s experience talking about WordPress in an Uber / Lyft ride: