Very excited to share the news that Revue is joining Twitter. I’m a huge fan of the idea of better newsletters and Automattic was the largest investor in Revue. I’m looking forward to seeing what the very talented team will do as part of the Twitter network. Also many thanks to Kevin Kelly and Om for introducing me to Revue early on.
After you’ve watched the amazing poem from Amanda Gorman, check out the new WhiteHouse.gov that re-launched today using WordPress & Gutenberg with a number of cool features including dark mode, text zoom, a totally responsive layout, and a Spanish version of the site. The site is clean, fast, and accessible. It’s exciting and an honor that the online home for the Executive branch is on Open Source software, and I’m proud WordPress can carry the torch that Drupal lit in 2009.
Besides Gutenberg, poking around I noticed a HTTP header and HTML comment encouraging people to join USDS, and this great #46 easter egg in the theme file:
Anyone notice any other plugins? I haven’t spoken to him directly but I’d be shocked if Nacin wasn’t involved with this one. I’m also curious if any of the WP agencies were involved, it has touches of 10up but I don’t see any mention of it on their site or Twitter. Hoefler&Co credits Wide Eye Creative with the design.
I noticed a few people happy that some previous pages and files on the old site were returning 404 errors, like the controversial 1776 report, but on this I think the webmasters of the United States of America should demand better, since Cool URIs Don’t Change. Previous websites are all saved by the National Archives, but there doesn’t appear to be any sort of norm for automatically redirecting links that went to any subdirectories or addresses under WhiteHouse.gov.
There are WP plugins that could help, like Redirection, but also perhaps the root domain itself could always redirect to a subdomain, like 46.whitehouse.gov, so we’d have a consistent domain and permalinks for everything, and then each new administration would get a new subdomain.
I turn 37 today. I look around and I feel incredibly lucky to be writing this after a topsy-turvy year. I have health. I have friends whom I love. These are all good reasons to feel optimistic about the future. A few unconnected thoughts today:
My father had me when he was exactly 13,300 days old, and this year I passed that number of rotations of the Earth.
It’s hard to plan when so much is changing, so resolutions this year haven’t felt the same. But in times like these it’s even more important to plan for the long-term. A look back, once a year, is enough to remind of what remains.
I’m so thankful for the internet. It’s where I learned and practiced my trade. It’s where I connect every day with the most interesting and eclectic group of people I could imagine, a modern day Florence during the Renaissance. I hope to make a lot more internet and enable others to do the same.
Many years ago I said “Technology is best when it brings people together.” This quote has taken on a life of its own on motivational posters and images. When I first said it I think I had in mind WordCamps and meetups and other physical gatherings; this year it transformed for me seeing how technology brought together those separated by the pandemic. This year has appeared divisive, so it’s easy to overlook how many times people came together. It’s like the old saying, it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you get up. Fall thirty-six times, get up thirty-seven.
Of all the smart home upgrades I’ve made, replacing all my regular smoke detectors with Nest Protects (Google’s smoke detector) has been the one that I regret the most.
I don’t really need a smart smoke detector. It doesn’t need to talk, connect to wifi, and cost hundreds of dollars. I don’t need it integrated with my Google account which is impossible to share, so I need to be personally involved to replace one.
But other smoke detectors are just so unsightly, and the Nest is light years ahead of the competition from a design standpoint.
There’s such an opportunity for something that looks as good as the Nest, but doesn’t require two-factor authentication to replace. I didn’t want to call it dumb but beautiful, so let’s say “autonomous and beautiful” appliances and home devices. I still want it to be smart, but if you’re going to have the risk profile of a device that connects to the internet, it needs to be worth it, like Brilliant, Sonos, smart TVs, or connected cameras.
I’m becoming more wary of any hardware that requires an app, just because of the natural decay of non-SaaS and non-open source software. Van Moof bikes are beautiful, but will they still connect well when iOS 24 is out and Bluetooth has been removed from iPhones for security reasons?
I recorded two interviews very far apart from each other, but which have surprisingly both come out today. The first is for one of my favorite sites on the web, Farnam Street. I was honored to be episode 100 on their Knowledge Project podcast. Knowledge Project is probably one of the podcasts I’ve listened to the most since it started. Please check out their other guests as well, they really do have the most interesting conversations with the most interesting folks.
Shane and I cover turnarounds, how environment affects performance, pros and cons of distributed work, uncovering your lacuna, mental models, and patterns of decision making.
On a completely different vein, I did a deep geek-out on technology and content management systems with Gina Trapani and Paul Ford, two of my favorite technologists, on the Postlight podcast. We covered a lot of tech history, my thoughts on Chromium and Mozilla’s Gecko engine, structured data, Gutenberg, and a lot more. If you’re a developer or a long-time WordPress community member you’ll enjoy this one, but it might be esoteric or technical if you’re not immersed in this world. Here’s a Spotify embed of the episode:
In both we do touch on my idea that, on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for all proprietary software drops to zero. (Hat tip to Fight Club.) Proprietary software is an evolutionary dead end. You can think of open source packages like genetic alleles that have a higher fitness function, and eventually become the fittest organism. The longer I spend watching mega-trends in technology, the more I see that pattern everywhere, from encyclopedias to cryptocurrencies.
Instead of sharing what’s in my backpack this year, I want to share the apps and pandemic purchases that were meaningful to me, along with a few words on each. Something I haven’t shared with you yet on this blog is… I went down a #vanlife rabbit hole and ended up camping and working remotely a decent chunk of the year. I learned a ton and feel much more resilient. So this is a phoneful and truckful update of my year.
First I’ll start with apps, these all link to Apple’s app store but almost all have Android equivalents that I also use:
- Calm and Waking Up — Very different but both incredibly valuable meditation apps. I had an 82-day streak with Calm this year! I wouldn’t have survived without these.
- Fitbod — You tell the app what equipment you have, how much time you have, and it gives you a workout like a trainer would, rotating muscle groups.
- Streaks — An app for starting and tracking habits. This is a funny one because I actually stopped using it because it worked. The things I was tracking on Streaks became daily habits and I stopped using the app every day. The same thing happened for me with Zero, my daily fast became part of my routine so I’d only use Zero if I was doing a longer one.
- Tumblr — It was so nice to have a social network centered around creativity and humor.
- Asana — Getting organized helped lessen anxiety.
- Pocket Casts — I switched to this because it syncs between devices, and I used my Android device a lot especially while driving.
- AllTrails — I spent more time in nature this year than almost any previous, and AllTrails was an amazing way to find great hikes.
- The Economist — The most insightful news, and the weekly cadence helped me avoid the wild variance of the daily news cycle. My favorite news app.
- YouTube — Wow, there’s a lot of stuff on here. This was the year I started to “get” why people spend so much time on YouTube. Some favorite finds were Jacob Collier and Mark Rober.
- Walmart — Surprisingly good on road trips for curbside pickup orders scheduled a few hours ahead. Yes, I have now joined 95% of the US population.
- Blueground and Avantstay — Good for longer stays in places. I found both through Airbnb, which is still the king.
- Food apps in order of usage: DoorDash, Uber Eats, Tock, Toast TakeOut.
- Camping apps in order of usage: AllTrails, Chimani, Recreation.gov, iOverlander, Boondocking, FreeRoam, Harvest Hosts.
- App I deleted and re-added the most: Twitter. I love the things I learn from using it, but hate feeling like I’m wasting time.
When on road trips I found Android Auto running off the Pixel 5 much more reliable than CarPlay, which would frequently freeze up on me. Things have improved with iOS 14, but I still always use the Pixel when I’m on a longer drive.
I also have been living with my Mom since July, including her two cats and new Coton du Tulear puppy. Pets are humbling! It’s been great to learn how to support them best, as I last lived with animals when I was in high school and wasn’t that conscious of the responsibility then.
Amazon says I made over 850 orders this year, more than double from any previous year. Here are the non-tech purchases that ended up having a big impact on me:
- SmartMouth mouthwash — Available in travel packs as well, this is magical for having great breath, which you’ll notice more now that you’re wearing a mask all the time.
- Marvis Royal Toothpaste — Delicious! SLS-free! I switch between this and the SmartMouth toothpaste which works better but isn’t as luxuriously tasty.
- Theragun — Because you can’t get a massage.
- Hurtle vibration platform — Really weird but seems to shake the stress out of you, especially if you stretch on it for 5-10 minutes.
- Bowflex Adjustable Dumbbells — I was lucky enough to get these before they sold out and became crazy expensive.
- Buckwheat meditation cushion — So much more comfortable to have a cushion, especially for longer meditation sessions. Here’s a smaller version I use on the road.
- Tons of Philips Hue lights — Got a ton of joy from playing with the colors on these.
- Cloth napkins — Felt so luxurious, easy to wash and re-use.
- Heated cat bed — My Mom’s cats are obsessed with this now.
- Sharonds hair cutting scissors — 10x better than the scissors I had lying around the house.
- Babyliss clippers — They’re gold and have a “Lamborghini” motor which is ostentatious but works great.
- Hair Apron Cape — You feel like a dog with one of those cones, but mostly works.
- Yeti Lowlands picnic blanket — Expensive but sturdy.
- Cliq camping chair — Super small and great design, but ended up using these less than I thought because we mostly just stayed on the ground on the Yeti blanket.
- Isdin foot care cream — Really softens your feet.
- Silicone tip cooking chopsticks or the ones with the spoon on the end.
- Roll-up drying rack — Goes great over the sink.
- Joseph Joseph nesting kitchen tools, nesting bowls — They’re so pretty as well.
- Hanging solar mason jar lights — Like fireflies in a jar.
- Matador Freerain32 waterproof packable backpack — My new favorite for hiking.
- Matador Transit30 packable duffle bag — I ended up using this way more than I expected.
- This bamboo table — Just the right size for eating or working on the ground.
- Ikea Frakta bag — Just a few dollars each and can hold so much, and available on Amazon.
Clothing and wearables, like much of the world I trended toward comfort and away from normal shoes and socks:
- Bumpers flip flops — Weird but you get used to them.
- Oofos slide sandals — Ridiculously comfortable, and this model looks like it has the Automattic logo on it.
- Glerups wool slippers — Like wool clogs, I wear the rubber-soled ones out if just stepping out for a bit.
- Patagonia Capilene Air baselayers — So warm! Addictive.
- Faherty Brand — I just love their whole look and feel, and have met the brothers before.
- Alo Yoga — Pricey but looks great and fun to workout in. I’ve had some quality issues with their items though.
- Lululemon — Especially their new tech canvas pants.
- Unbound Merino — My go-to shirt, also decent socks.
- Uniqlo — Great value, and no logos!
- Everything in the streaming post — I ended up doing a ton of press and talks this year as the world became more distributed. I also personally helped many others get similar setups.
- Everything Unifi — It’s a year I really appreciated solid internet.
- Retractable 50′ ethernet cord — I actually daisy-chained two of these to do an internal company town hall presentation.
- 25′ retractable power extension cord — I also carry two of these.
- Macbook 13″ M1 — It really is the fastest computer you’ve ever used. This replaced a maxed out 16″.
- Hyppr 100w USB-C charger — Smaller and better than Apple’s charger.
- Airpods Max — I didn’t want to like them but they’re slick.
- Airpods Pro Dekoni Tips — Great upgrade for normal Airpods.
- iPhone 12 Pro Max — It’s like a mini iPad. Camera with RAW support is fantastic.
- Apple Pro Display XDR — Wow.
- Pixel 5 — Pretty great that they got the fingerprint reader back in as FaceID with a mask is terrible, so this has become my primary device if I’m out for a walk.
- Pixelbook Go — For my Mom.
- Chromecast with Google TV — Bad name but great product. Truly. Really well designed.
- Kindle Oasis with the new warm light — Even though I read less this year, this made what I did read a pleasure.
- Sinjimou charging stand for iPhone and USB-C — Works great, really cheap.
- Megaboom 3 — Two of these paired together in stereo is the best sound, weight, and battery life combo I’ve found on the road and in parks.
- Garmin 945 watch — I’ve talked about this watch previously, but this year I discovered the GPS maps feature when in hiking mode, which can literally be a lifesaver. Amazing for going off-trail.
There you have it. As always, if you’ve tried something here and found an alternative that’s better, let me know in the comments!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Dorsey for the Distributed podcast, a conversation that ended up going a bit deeper and longer than previous episodes.
I think what people miss is that at that scale, running a company is not that different from running a large division of a company. No one asks Jeff Bezos how he’s CEO of both a retail company and a cloud computing one (AWS), or Tim Cook how he’s CEO of a hardware business and a services business, and of course with both of those examples the breadth of what the companies cover is much wider. Also as an added benefit, shareholders can choose to invest in Square and Twitter together or not.
All of that said, I think having a CEO-level seat at two of the most influential technology companies today does allow for accelerated learning, as organizational experiments will naturally happen at each company and then the best practice can be shared to the other. Jack wasn’t aware how much peer executives at each company meet with each other to share learnings, but that seems like an obvious win.
Readers of this blog will especially appreciate how much we talked about open source and cryptocurrencies, and his view on the three things he’s responsible for as CEO. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.
At the end of the year I usually deliver a speech to the WP community we call the State of the Word, that celebrates what we accomplished the previous year and shines a light on what we could focus on in the coming year. There’s always a great energy in the room and I love mixing with the audience before and after the talk. This year we did it online, which meant we could produce the talk a little more, and we made extra time for the Q&A afterward with answers not just from me but folks across the community.
One thing I’ll call out WordPress 5.6 had an all women and non-binary release squad of over 50 people, a first for WordPress and probably any large open source project. Also the market share of WordPress grew more in 2020 than it has in any year since it started being tracked!
If you’re curious about what’s next for WordPress, check it out:
Derek Thompson’s writing for the Atlantic has been some of the most interesting this year. His latest, The Workforce Is About to Change Dramatically, is worth a close read. He gives good arguments for and against how remote working will change real estate, entrepreneurship, and something I’ve been meaning to write about but he did a much better job, how the great migration happening away from superstar cities could reshape politics.
I sincerely hope that all the people moving to new places are registering to vote in their new home, as I did when I moved from San Francisco back to Houston in 2011. The following year was 2012 and in Harris County (Houston) with 4.263 million people, Obama won by 585 votes. I was one of those votes.
If you pick up a print edition of the Sunday New York Times today you’ll see the Corner Office interview with David Gelles in the business section.
A quote that seems to be resonating with people,
This column is called Corner Office, and most people who choose to have offices are usually the bosses. And I’ve been to the offices of billionaire C.E.O.s that have their own private bathroom, beautiful art and couches. But these are all things that you can have in your house. What I love about distributed organizations is every single employee can have a corner office.
Sometimes my corner office has been the corner of an airport floor next to a power outlet! I’ve also heard from colleagues that feel like their office feels like an unsupervised day care center since the quarantine started. The point I want to make is there’s a world of possibility that opens up when you move from the finite space of a shared office, and all the politics of dividing up the scarce resource of desirable space, to the infinite game where people can define their own “office” as the place where they will be most productive, and do so however they like with no penalties or restraints.
If you had the best space in the legacy office, you probably liked it and may even have had motivated reasoning around ineffable things that happened in the office like “culture” that would be impossible without it, but the average experience of an entry-level worker was not as positive. Now there can be a much more even playing field. At Automattic we have a home office allowance people can use to buy equipment they need to make their home work area comfortable and productive, and it’s the same if you’re leading a team of hundreds or if it’s your first job.
If you’d like to hear the entire conversation they’ve posted the original audio and interview that was distilled into the print version.
Kathleen Morrison, in News & Views (“Failure and how to avoid it” Nature 440, 752–754; 2006), notes that societies have often prevented collapse by adopting new technological strategies. In today’s world, where one of the most-talked about prospects for collapse is an epidemic of infectious disease, it is worth remembering that perhaps we already have the technological strategy to avoid it — the Internet.
Remote working, made possible by the Internet (‘telepresence’), is already a key component of national and business pandemic plans. Telepresence can inhibit viral transmission by reducing human-to-human contact. Prepared organizations can leverage telepresence to allow continued productivity and functioning of supply chains during an outbreak.
He explores these ideas as well in his Long Now talk in April 2010, in which he talked about Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization. Here’s an excerpt from that talk covering telepresence and telemedicine. Both videos have had under a thousand views so far. When you watch this remember that it was April, 2010!
This is the topic of his new book, The Safety Net: Surviving Pandemics and Other Disasters.
There were more good questions than we had time to get to, so at the end I suggested that we continue the conversation here, in the comments section! Comments are the best part of blogging.
So if you have a question we didn’t get to, please drop it below. If you don’t have a Gravatar yet now’s a good time to make one.
When Bill Gates was on Trevor Noah’s show it was amazing how much better quality his video was. I had experimented with using a Sony camera and capture card for the virtual event we did in February when WordCamp Asia was canceled, but that Trevor Noah video and exchanging some tweets with Garry Tan sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, even after I was on-record with The Information saying a simpler setup is better.
The quality improved, however something was still missing: I felt like I wasn’t connecting with the person on the other side. When I reviewed recordings, especially for major broadcasts, my eyes kept looking at the person on the screen rather than looking at the camera.
Then I came across this article about the Interrotron, a teleprompter-like device Errol Morris would use to make his Oscar-winning documentaries. Now we’re onto something!
For normal video conferencing a setup this nice is a distraction, but if you’re running for political office during a quarantine, a public company CEO talking to colleagues and the press, here’s a cost-is-no-object CEO livestreaming kit you can set up pretty easily at home.
Basically what you do is put the A7r camera, shotgun mic, and the lens together and switch it to video mode, go to Setup 3, choose HDMI settings, and turn HDMI Info Display off — this gives you a “clean” video output from the camera. You can run off the built-in battery for a few hours, but the Gonine virtual battery above lets you power the camera indefinitely. Plug the HDMI from the camera to the USB Camlink, then plug that into your computer. Now you have the most beautiful webcam you’ve ever seen, and you can use the Camlink as both a video source and an audio source using the shotgun mic. Put the Key Light wherever it looks best. You’re fine to record something now.
If you’d like to have a more two-way conversation Interrotron style, set up the teleprompter on the tripod, put the camera behind it, connect the portable monitor to your computer (I did HMDI to a Mac Mini) and “mirror” your display to it. (You can also use an iPad and Sidecar for that.) Now you’ll have a reversed copy of your screen on the teleprompter mirror. I like to put the video of the person I’m talking to right over the lens, so near the bottom of my screen, and voilà! You now have great eye contact with the person you’re talking to. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out is how to horizontally flip the screen in MacOS so all the text isn’t backward in the mirror reflection. For audio I usually just use a headset at this point, but if you want to not have a headset in the shot…
Use a discreet earbud. I love in-ear monitors from Ultimate Ears, so you can put one of these in and run the cable down the back of your shirt, and I use a little audio extender cable to easily reach the computer’s 3.5mm audio port. This is “extra” as the kids say and it may be tricky to get an ear molding taken during a pandemic. For the mic I use the audio feed from the Camlink, run through Krisp.ai if there is ambient noise, and it works great (except in the video above where it looks a few frames off and I can’t figure out why. On Zoom it seems totally normal).
Here’s what the setup looks like all put together:
After that photo was taken I got a Mac Mini mount and put the computer under the desk, which is much cleaner and quieter, but used this earlier photo so you could see everything plugged in. When you run this off a laptop its fan can get really loud.
Again, not the most practical for day to day meetings, but if you’re doing prominent remote streaming appearances—or if your child is an aspiring YouTube star—that’s how you can spend ~9k USD going all-out. You could drop about half the cost with only a minor drop in quality switching the camera and lens to a Sony RX100 VII and a small 3.5mm shotgun mic, and that’s probably what I’ll use if I ever start traveling again.
If I were to put together a livestreaming “hierarchy of needs,” it would be:
- Solid internet connection (the most important thing, always)
- Audio (headset mic or better)
- Lighting (we need to see you, naturally)
- Webcam (video quality)
We’ve put together a Guide to Distributed Work Tools here, which includes a lot of great equipment recommendations for day-to-day video meetings.
The main feedback we got at the time was that the blogging software market was saturated and there wasn’t room or need for anything new.
WordPress did have a philosophy, an active blog, a license that protected the freedom of its users and developers, a love of typography, a belief that code is poetry, fantastic support forums and mailing lists and IRC, and firm sense that building software is more fun when you do it together as a community.
We have relentlessly iterated across 38 major releases since then, and here we are.
If you’d like to celebrate with me, put on some jazz, eat some BBQ, light a candle for the contributors who have passed on, help a friend or stranger less technical than you build a home online, and remember that technology is at its best when it brings people together.
The two main theses of my professional career have been that distributed is the future of work, and that open source is the future of technology and innovation. I’ve built Automattic and WordPress around these, and it’s also informed my investments and hobbies. Just today, we announced an investment into a distributed, open source, and encrypted communication company called New Vector.
On the distributed front, the future of work has been arriving quickly. This week, a wave of companies representing over $800B in market capitalization announced they’re embracing distributed work beyond what’s required by the pandemic:
- Coinbase is going remote-first.
- Facebook wants to be “the most forward-leaning on remote work.”
- Twitter has allowed permanent work-from-home.
- Shopify is now a “digital by default” company.
- Square has indefinitely extended remote work.
- Spotify is allowing work-from-home through 2021.
Change happens slowly, then all at once.
The forces that enable working in a distributed fashion have been in motion for decades, and if you talk to anyone who was working in technology in the ’60s and ’70s they expected this to happen much sooner. Stephan Wolfram has been a remote CEO for 28 years. Automattic has been distributed-first for 15 years.
What’s been holding us back is fear of the unknown, and attachment to the familiar. I can’t tell you how many of the investors I see espousing distributed work once told me that Automattic would never scale past a few dozen people unless we brought everyone into an office. Or the CEOs who said this would never work for them, now proclaiming their company hasn’t missed a beat as tens of thousands of people started working from home.
What’s going to be newsworthy by the end of the year is not technology companies saying they’re embracing distributed work, but those that aren’t. Those who thought this couldn’t work have been forced by the pandemic to do it anyway, and they’ve now seen that it’s possible.
It was probably terrible at first, but now two or three months in it’s gotten better. We’ve learned and adapted, and will continue to do so. Necessity breeds invention. I promise you if you stick with it, you’ll progress through the levels of distributed autonomy. Over time people will be able to move houses, tweak furniture, buy equipment, upgrade their internet, and otherwise adapt to being more productive in a distributed environment than they ever could be in an office. Products and services are being developed all around the world that will make it even better. I’m so excited about how a majority of the economy going distributed will improve people’s quality of life, and unlock incredible creativity and innovation at work. (They go hand in hand.)
At some point, we’ll break bread with our colleagues again, and that will be glorious. I can’t wait. But along the way we’ll discover that things we thought were impossible were just hard at first, and got easier the more we did it. Some will return to physically co-working with strangers, and some employers trapped in the past will force people to go to offices, but the illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies who embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.
Sarah Holder at Citylab has an interesting article on a program that paid people $10,000, a year of co-working, and a subsidized apartment to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Traditionally, cities looking to spur their economies may offer incentives to attract businesses. But at a time when Americans are moving less frequently than they have in more than half a century, and the anticlimactic race to host an Amazon HQ2 soured some governments on corporate tax breaks, Tulsa is one of several locales testing out a new premise: Pay people instead.
I love this idea, and hope that after the permanent step-up in remote work from the virus we see much more internal mobility between cities in the United States.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Harris, author and host of the Making Sense podcast, for a wide-ranging conversation. Given the moment we’re currently living through, we naturally touched on the way companies are adapting to a new reality — one where remote work is a model to which they must adapt in a matter of days, rather than years.
As I mentioned to Sam on the podcast, “any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion, can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis has passed.” It’s a moral imperative. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that the chaotic and stressful first taste some workplaces are getting right now is one that inspires them to keep trying.
To make sense of this journey — from a company’s cautious exploration of remote possibilities to a fully realized distributed experience — I like to think of how it plays out through the concept of levels of distributed work, which I modeled after self-driving car levels of autonomy. I’ve seen some solid recaps of my conversation with Sam from Steve Glaveski and Steve Jurvetson, but here’s my gist of how distributed companies evolve:
- Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Imagine construction worker, barista, massage therapist, firefighter… Many companies assumed they had far more of these than it has turned out they really did.
- The first level is where most colocated businesses are: there’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, though in the case of many knowledge workers, people can keep things moving for a day or two when there’s an emergency. More often than not, they’ll likely put things off until they’re back in the office. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. You don’t have any special equipment and may have to use a clunky VPN to access basic work resources like email or your calendar. Larger level one companies often have people in the same building or campus dialing into a meeting. Level one companies were largely unprepared for this crisis.
- Level two is where many companies have found themselves in the past few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve accepted that work is going to happen at home for a while, but they recreate what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting, like Marshall McLuhan talked about new media mediums initially copying the generation before. You’re probably able to access information from afar, you’ve adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything is still synchronous, your day is full of interruptions, no real-time meetings have been canceled (yet), and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity — that’s the stage where companies sometimes install surveillance software on laptops. Pro tip: Don’t do that! And also: Don’t stop at level two!
- At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. That’s when you see people invest in better equipment — from a good desk lamp to solid audio gear — and in more robust asynchronous processes that start to replace meetings. It’s also the point at which you realize just how crucial written communication is for your success, and you start looking for great writers in your hiring. When you are on a Zoom, you often also have a Google Doc up with the other meeting participants so you can take and check real-time notes together. Your company has a zero-trust BeyondCorp security model. In a non-pandemic world you plan meetups so teams can break bread and meet each other in person a week or two a year.
- Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations. You tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of your legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy. You have a rich social life with people you choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work. If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world. Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.
- Finally, I believe it’s always useful to have an ideal that’s not wholly attainable — and that’s level five, Nirvana! This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun. 🤠
A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.
Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment. Close your eyes and imagine everything around you in a physical office: the chair you’re in, the desk, distance from a window, the smells, the temperature, the music, the flooring, what’s in the fridge, the comfort and privacy of the bathrooms, the people (or pets) around you, the lighting. Now imagine an environment where you can choose and control every one of those to your liking — maybe it’s a room in your house, a converted garage, a shared studio, or really anything, the important thing is you’re able to shape the environment fit your personal preferences, not the lowest common denominator of everyone an employer has decided to squish together for 8 hours a day. The micro-interactions of the hundreds of variables of your work environment can charge you and give you creative energy, or make you dependent, infantilized, and a character in someone else’s story. Which do you want to spend half of your waking workday hours in?
My talk with Sam covered many other topics, from communicating in distributed companies to the challenges businesses are facing due to COVID-19, so I hope you head over and listen to the rest or stream it on Youtube.
One heterodox recommendation I have for audio and video calls when you’re working in a distributed fashion is not to mute, if you can help it. When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing. If you ask someone a question, or they want to jump in, they have to wait to unmute. I also don’t love the “unmute to raise your hand” behavior, as it lends itself to meetings where people are just waiting their turn to speak instead of truly listening. I’m always hesitant to disagree with Seth Godin, but that’s been my experience.
So what should you do? Use the latest and greatest hardware and software to have the best of both worlds, a fantastic auditory experience for you and your interlocutors and little to no background noise.
To summarize, I recommend a wired, USB headset with a mic that stays a constant distant from your mouth and has a noise-canceling microphone. Save mute for coughs and sips of drinks.
The rest of this post I’m going to try out eleven different microphones and headsets, ranging from $35 to $1,000+, and record a short file on each, and intersperse some software tips for people on MacOS. You may want to listen to these samples with good headphones on to really hear the differences. I apologize some are louder than others, I didn’t edit to even out the levels, which Zoom or Skype would do automatically.
My previous top recommendation was the trusty Sennheiser SC 30, in my previous bag posts. It’s cheap and effective, but the cord was too long and it was USB-A. If you read no further, get this one and revolutionize how you sound on Zoom calls. Here’s how it sounds:
Sennheiser has upgraded to a USB-C version, with a much shorter cord, the SC 130. It feels and looks much better, you don’t need a USB-C dongle, and the sound quality of the earphones is quite bearable. The cost is about twice as much (~$70).
You can plug the USB-C into your iPad or Android phone as well and it works great, though the headphones can be a bit quiet on Android. Either of the above will spoil you for making calls, and you won’t want to go back to the old low-fi way of doing things.
In order to have a bit more flexibility I tried out the much more expensive ($134) Sennheiser MB Pro 1. I liked the freedom of wireless Bluetooth, but you can hear that the sound is much worse. Connecting over Bluetooth lowers the quality a ton, and also occasionally means you need to disconnect, reconnect, etc.
All three of the Sennheisers above come in two-ear versions, which I prefer if I’m in a noisy environment, but at home I find the one-ear a bit more comfortable. I got excited about this $70 TaoTronics “Trucker Bluetooth” headset because it had Bluetooth 5.0 so I foolishly assumed it would have better quality, but it sounds really terrible:
But does wireless have to mean terrible quality? The Apple Airpods Pro ($249) are actually pretty decent, and you can easily switch them between your phone and your computer in the audio menu. If you haven’t tried the Pro version, the noise canceling is actually pretty amazing for something so small and light — I jog with them.
And one of the best sounding mics in this entire roundup was the wireless $119 Antlion Audio ModMic Wireless, which sound amazing, but you have to provide your own headphones to attach it to, and the entire thing ends up being fairly bulky and has its own wireless adapter. On the plus side, you can bring your own super-fancy headphones and get amazing audio quality. With certain headphones it did cause a buzz in the ear of the headphone I attached it to.
But hot dang that sounds good. If they made an over-the-ear USB-C version with an earbud, and had the mic be a little smaller, it would be work-from-home nirvana.
I ventured into the gaming headset territory for this SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Gaming Headset, which at first felt totally ridiculous with its own connector box, a million cables, etc, but goshdarnit grew on me. It has this really cool boom mic that extends out, and I think it’s the most comfortable headset I’ve worn for an extended amount of time. I tried it out via its proprietary 2.4ghz wireless connection + USB, and Bluetooth, and unfortunately the results weren’t great, including the Bluetooth being a little garbled. I hope Steelseries does another iteration because they’re so close, it just needs to be USB-C on the headphones, the cables, the everything, and super high quality recording.
One final entrant — how about just your laptop? Normally I would say this sounds terrible and judge people who didn’t use a headset, but John Gruber’s review of the new Macbook 16 had some really impressive audio files that intrigued me, so here it is, the Macbook Pro 16″, which starts at about $2,400. It’s a little boomy, but not bad.
Next up is the Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic, which is what I usually use to record the Distributed podcast, and costs about $400. This is milky and smooth. (I accidentally called it a Sennheiser in the recording.)
A favorite of voiceover artists everywhere is the Sennheiser MKH416 Super-Cardioid Shotgun Tube Condenser ($1,000), which I like the sound of and I also use for if I’m doing a fancy video setup and want super-good sound that’s not in the frame of the camera.
It’s a great sound, but the part of the house where I recorded all of these is pretty noisy with an AC unit on the other side of the wall, and there’s a ton of background noise in this.
Software eats the audio world
Just like photography has been completely transformed by software enhancing images to the point where the top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung smartphone camera is better than all but the very top pro SLR cameras, I think the same thing is going to happen for audio.
None of these clips are processed, which is why some of the volume levels are different, but I thought it would be fun to demo a tool I’ve been recommending to a lot of people.
There’s a $40/year program called Krisp.ai, which I first learned about in 2018 from this awesome post on the Nvidia developer blog, Real-Time Noise Suppression Using Deep Learning. What it does is create a virtual microphone, like a filter that exists between one of your physical inputs and what the software on your computer “hears.” For fun I re-recorded the MKH416 in the exact same place, but filtered through Krisp.ai:
Now the audio quality is not as good, it sounds a bit clipped, but throughout there is no more distracting background hums or noise. Krisp can be a little awkward to use but they’ve made it a lot more user friendly. You could mix Krisp with almost any option here and it would make it sound much better, in fact when I’m in a pinch my favorite go-to is Airpods Pro + Krisp.
With everything, a pro tip on MacOS is to hold Option when you click on the sound icon in your upper right taskbar, and it will let you select both input and output devices. Sound Preferences, linked at the bottom of that menu, are your friend. If a mic is too soft you can boost the input volume in the preferences. To choose a camera or mic in Zoom, click the arrow next to the mute button in the bottom left. In Zoom audio settings, under Advanced, they are starting to expose a number of new options for real-time audio processing.
The future sounds good.
I’ve really had enough of this term “social distancing.” That is not at all what we are looking for, is it? It should be “physical distancing.” In these times of rampant loneliness (especially for seniors), disconnection, and lack of empathy and compassion, we need the opposite — social connecting. And we need it under these circumstances more than ever. Let’s be creative in finding new ways to come together.Adam Gazzaley, M. D., Ph. D, University of California, San Francisco
Update: On March 20th, the World Health Organization has officially updated it’s recommendation to “physical distancing.”