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.
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.
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.
“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 the traveller who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.
This weekend, May 27, marks the 15th anniversary of the first release of WordPress. It is an understatement to say that I am immensely proud of what this global community has become, and what it has created. More than 30% of the top sites on the web are now powered by WordPress, I’m writing this in our next-generation editor Gutenberg, and every day I meet someone who is building something interesting on WordPress or pushing our shared project in bold new directions. If you can believe it, growth has actually been accelerating.
I am thankful to Mike for helping make WordPress a reality, many dedicated folks in the years since, and to all of you who are dreaming up the next 15 years. 😄
Many in the open source world are like Moses in that they speak of the Promised Land but will never set foot there. If I spend the rest of my life working and we don’t reach almost all websites being powered by open source and the web being substantially open, I will die content because I already see younger generations picking up the banner.
Elif Batuman, who was recently a Pulitzer finalist for her novel The Idiot, has a stunning story in the New Yorker on Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry, “People who are short on relatives can hire a husband, a mother, a grandson. The resulting relationships can be more real than you’d expect.”
You think from the title it’s going to be one of those gee-whiz stories or vaguely condescending toward Japanese, but what follows is actually an incredibly poignant and powerful view of society through a lens I had never imagined before. It’s a #longread but I hope you take the time to sit with it this weekend. You may need a swordsman.