Good and Evil

This past Friday, my car got hit by a motorcycle. There’s a story there, but this post isn’t about that. Rather, it’s about people’s perception of the rider.

He must have been speeding.

He must not have been paying attention.

He must not know how to ride.

None of this is actually true, though. He wasn’t speeding, he was paying attention (mostly) and is a veteran rider with about 25 years experience.

Generally, I think for “most people”, it’s maximally convenient and efficient to categorize things (and people, and ideas) in the most extremely polarizing way, and then work inwards towards an understanding or acceptance of that thing.

I also think this is why I have hard time navigating the world; I think of everything as inside-out vs. outside-in. My starting line is in the middle, and my Good-o-meter(TM) swings based on whether I found joy or pain in that thing.

There are currently a few members of our local village government that have reputations for not being very friendly, for having ideas & beliefs that go against the grain, and for being a bit confrontational. And that reputation has glorified them into villains, which is pretty silly if you stop and think about the individuals.

There is no Good and there is no Evil. There is no right and there is no wrong. There is only circumstance and action, or a lack of either or both.

Everyone chooses how to act or feel based on their awareness of what’s appropriate, what’s possible, and what their level of maturity is in dealing with those situations. The circumstances for this motorcyclist are different than mine with my car are different than the eyewitnesses.

It’s easy to feel like someone closing your issue on Github makes them a terribly stupid person who does not understand the importance of the issue you’ve raised. It’s easy to think your WordPress core ticket sitting around for 5 years means no one cares. It’s easy to say someone sucks because of something they’ve said or done you don’t agree with.

It’s easy to assume that mass shooters are crazy, that they’ve snapped, or any other extreme set of rules that polarize the perpetrator. Who knows, and the why almost doesn’t even matter, because it doesn’t change the outcome, and not much will be done to prevent similar outcomes in the future. What if someone broke his heart, and he couldn’t cope? Do we suddenly try to prevent all future heartbreak?

There will always be unpredictable terrible circumstances created by human-kind, and it requires collective bravery and awareness to reduce the consequences of those harmful decisions. (And full disclosure, it’s my experience in my own life that “most people” are neither aware nor brave, meaning my outlook on the pool of resources available to make positive change is, honestly, bleak.)

It’s equally easy to say homosexuality is evil. Or being pro-life is evil. Or white-dudes are evil rapists. These are all obviously incorrect assessments; and… think of all the times you’ve identified something as bad (or felt wrongly profiled by someone) and imagine that there are millions of people that find genuine joy in that thing without you.

Instead of starting with good or evil, please train yourself to start from the middle and let the circumstances steer your assessment about the variable value of a thing in your life. Actively avoid extremes, and politely remind others that people are people, and heroes & villains are figments of their imaginations.

Be objective. Be sincere. Be better.

Everything is a Variable

I like to say, that the job of a software engineer is to define variables, and honestly I don’t think it’s really much more than this. Everything in life starts off simple, and can end up as complex as you choose for it to be.

This process is traditionally called “architecting” and at one point in my career I was told I was a brilliant architect by someone I later came to admire quite a bit, Andrew Nacin. Whether or not that’s actually true, is irrelevant, because Andy said so and that’s all anyone should need to hear.

For most engineers, their accidental measure of success is how complex of a problem can I solve. This isn’t just true for software, but for all artists, makers, and creators – it’s a form of validating oneself to say you’ve leveled up and accomplished something more challenging than the time before. It’s learning, and evolving, and shaping your mind by enjoying new experiences, and it’s addicting like everything else in this world.

Ultimately, I think the thing that separates a good engineer from a bad engineer, is the ability to take complex ideas & relationships, and make them as simple to understand & interact with as possible, for as wide of an audience as possible.

In WordPress, this has traditionally meant introducing flexibility in the form of actions and filters, but for the future of WordPress development, this is about to change dramatically.

If you’re not familiar, WordPress developers have been living in a bubble compared to the rest of the PHP world, and this bubble is about to pop in a huge way when the ability to use versions of PHP higher than 5.2 becomes commonplace.

WordPress itself is a largely procedural codebase, meaning it’s relatively flat and simple. This was both by design, and by intention, because earlier versions of PHP had varying degrees of support for increasingly popular programming concepts. Future versions of WordPress will inevitably grow increasingly complex, but I for one am planning on sticking my neck out to ensure this happens only with great intention.

Once plugins and themes can (and will) start flexing more PHP muscle, the WordPress world has the potential to become a very scary place to work inside of, and it’s up to all of us to decide where to position the bar when it comes to code complexity and extensibility.

I’ve come across three WordPress based projects recently that appeared conceptually over-architected, re-solving problems in more complex ways than should have ever been required, considering the requirements and because APIs already existed to solve these problems in WordPress core.

I’m omitting the details from this post (we’re working it out, and my intention isn’t to negatively criticize) because I hope get people thinking deeply about what reusable code in WordPress has meant and should mean going forward. Here’s my take:

  • Code that others can quickly understand
  • Problems that others may need solving in their own projects
  • The ability to extend, unplug, replace, or override assumptions the code has made
  • Using existing code intended for it’s purpose, and sending upstream improvements if necessary to unblock your progress
  • It needs to be juice’able – shred it, direct it, blend it with any other code, and it will always act predictably

In the way that art mimics life, these rules are generally what I apply to real-life scenarios. If I can own (or build) a tool that solves many problems, and I can loan it out to someone that may need it, and that tool can be extended to suit many unique needs, it’s an obvious win. This might be a power drill, a table saw, a bucket, a car, a WordPress plugin, or just an idea I’ve had about some random life experience that’s worth sharing or blogging about.

If I can have 1 friend that I enjoy everything with, I’ll marry them so I can continue to enjoy everything they have to offer the world.❤

All of us are in different places, at different times, for different reasons, with different intentions and feelings and goals. We all have different experiences that lead us to unique conclusions about how to approach solving problems and addressing concerns and communicating our feelings. If you ask Mother Nature, this is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Each and every moment that passes results in new variables that require defining. What to eat, what to say, what not to say, how to say it, left or right, stop or go, yes or no. Engineers have trained their brains to quickly calculate the consequences of these rapid decisions, and we are difficult people to be around because we are 100 steps ahead and trying to think 101 steps backwards at the same time so what we do makes sense to the people around us.

So when I say that everything is a variable, I mean that it’s your responsibility to define the importance of the variables in your life to create a better tomorrow for the people around you. Hack the world, by being patient, and kind, considerate, and lovely. Learn how to recognize when someone needs help defining their own variables in their lives, and teach them how to in a healthy and constructive way.

$var;

 

Emotions

TL;DR – I have them, I can control them, but my dog can’t.

When I was a boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, I remember my parents had a retired greyhound named Taffy. She was pretty old, and shy, and I could tell she really loved me even though all I wanted to do was ride her like a horsey. I’m sure my sister has a photograph of Taffy and I together, but I couldn’t find one myself. I have a few fuzzy (ha!) memories of her, but what’s stuck with me most is how kind and gentile she was, even when anxiety and frustrations were high within our family unit.

I guess maybe it’s Taffy’s influence on me – her warm, boney ribs, and the way she smelled like corn chips and freshly mowed grass – that I’ve always considered all animals to be our peers on this planet. It’s hard to describe, considering at a primal level I think most species just want to dominate their environments, but I’ve always felt (see: emotionally) that all creatures big & small have “feelings” too.

This is probably as weird to read as it is to type, but maybe keep going so I can hopefully start to sound a little less crazy and maybe even begin to redeem myself in the world.

It wasn’t until the past year or so worth of really studying Mr. Paul the dog I came up with a thesis statement to summarize my observations, so here it goes, saying it out-loud in public for the very first time…

All living things only operate on emotional response. Some humans transcend with logical decision making abilities, only because basic needs are met with comfortable social rank.

I don’t know exactly how to prove this, but I know it’s true, and I’ll try to cite some observations to prove my point, and hopefully help this sound a bit less insane. Smarter people than me will probably note I’m playing fast and loose with words here, largely because academics are frustratingly slow to me, and I’m addicted to experiences. Cut me some slack, and drudge on.

We use the word “domestication” to talk about animals, largely towards pets & food sources, but we usually forget to apply that term to ourselves as a group of creatures roaming about the world. We pat ourselves on our shirt-covered backs and claim victory for having tamed other creatures through human selection, and we celebrate the undeniable fact we are in control of our own destinies. This seems pretty self-fulfilling now, and I’ll tell you why.

In my life, I’ve met dozens of people. They’re all different. You’re all different. We’re all different. But, the one outlier which really truly determines friend from foe is our perceived levels of domestication. Which is to say, are we on the same level, and do we both agree we can stay on the same level without threat or violation. Amongst the few billion people lingering about, and the few I’ve had the overwhelming pleasure to meet, there are only a few people that mutually agree “we’re cool” and put effort into maintaining said level of coolness for the duration of our lives together, and it makes me sad if I think about it too long.

The reality, I think, is it’s all a big accident, and we’ve just been lucky enough to win the evolutionary lottery several times in a row and we’ve brought generations of education with us (of which is starting to become ubiquitous or folk-lore at this point.)

In the 50’s, a guy named Dimitri Belyaev proved it took 35 generations to go from a big bad wolf in your neighborhood to not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good. The math here is shocking if you correlate it to humans – not that it actually accurately correlates, but if it did, consider:

  • The average dog, bless their hearts, lives about 10 years
  • Humans currently live for about 100 years
  • 35 generations of focused human canine selection is about 350 years max
  • Humans *could* go from wild killers to domestication in 3500 years, if we had some help to get us over the hump, if you will

Now, I know these numbers aren’t right. They’re a completely false shot in the dark at a loose correlation of data points that is impossible to prove in anyway actually matter. But for some reason, this math skews my perception of the human timeline in a funny way. Maybe 35,000 years was enough time to calm us down to where we are now. Maybe we were lucky enough to discover the benefits of self-selection in a unique way on this planet that boosted our evolutionary abilities into overdrive, galvanizing “ahead” of all other species whom are hanging out with us right now.

You know what I think actually gave us these abilities? Drugs.

Not actual drugs, though I bet those have profound effects also. I’m talking about preparing food in such a way that it tantalizes our senses and invokes emotional responses and experiences though delicious flavors and aromas that force our fleshy brain matter to level-up just to take it all in. Salt. Sugar. Caffeine. Fat. Alcohol. Manufactured, thoroughly processed, extreme intake levels of the most potent ingredients nature can offer us.

Today, we call it “junk food” but I believe once we discovered fire, and learned how to preserve meat, and how to salt the shit out of things to maintain their freshness, and ferment things to get us drunk, we drugged ourselves numb to our emotions which gave us the freedom to evolve the logistical decision making centers of our brains, which helped us create increasingly powerful concoctions & potions, which helped us level up, and on, and on…

So all this time, humans are leveling each other out, both with swords and celery salt. We still are to a certain degree, but we’ve collectively assessed a small group can continue to fight about nothing so the rest of us can continue to condition ourselves to procreate new and better versions of ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we befriend canines almost exclusively as companions, and whether they wanted to or not, we bred them to love us back, and, I think, they usually almost always do.

This, finally, brings me to the TL;DR of this entire bizarre rambling. My furry life-mate, Mr. Paul, has retaught me something I accidentally discovered when I was 3 years old: all animals are purely deeply emotional creatures, and while humans spend their entire lives trying to control them, animals are still fighting for the right to have the luxury to do so.

Paul the dog, is an emotional creature. I can see it, I can feel it. His immense sadness & confusion when I leave the house. His elation when I come home. The calm he feels by my side. The jealousy and distain he feels when I pet Penny the dog. His excitement when I say the word “walk” and his sorrow when I say the word “crate.” His brain understands no logic, only emotional responses to external stimuli.

He feels emotions as a constant, not as a variable. Birds only feel fear of starving, joy of being with their flocks, and excitement of migrating south again. Animals in captivity at zoos and shows only feel sadness and confusion at their predicament, they eventually grow complacent with the abuse of authority used to tame them, settling into depression so they can cope with their new jobs. No matter how compassionate zoo-keepers are, or how much money or time or care is invested in the well-being of exotic creatures, they’re not where they feel they belong, so they are not experiencing genuine joy in their lives, only whatever the opposite is.

Through repeated training sessions and with a consistent reward system, Paul the dog has learned how to navigate the world. He’s smart, and learns quickly. He’s intuitive – he knows when I’m about to leave the house and to go in his crate without me needing to say the word. Him and I are, for lack of a better way to put it, syncopated. We’ve mutually agreed our relationship is enjoyable and worthwhile, and we continue to grow together and learn together as our lives change and our family grows from 2 to 3 to 4 and more.

About a month ago, I was leaving the house to go to dinner, and at the end of our driveway was an injured bird, still alive, not bleeding, but clearly injured. My guess at the time was it had been hit by a car and bounced across the pavement onto our property, where it lay for who knows how long until I discovered it. In those moments, this poor bird did not know logic or fate, it only knew fear and pain. It was helpless, and scared, and hurting, and I was it’s only chance at relief.

I think most people would say it was just a dumb bird, and there’s a million other dumb birds like it out there, and you just put it out of it’s misery and move on. And, I guess pretty morbidly, there’s a part of me that agrees with that assessment. But I’m not equipped to do more good than harm, and I’m not comfortable ending a creature’s life, so I called Fellow Mortals Wildlife hospital and arranged to drop U-turn (yes, I named the bird) off at their facility so they could, with an educated mind and experienced hand, do what was best for this suffering animal.

I’m an emotional person living in a vulcanized world. And I think most of us are. We fool ourselves into believing this place we’ve manufactured for ourselves is civilized, so much so, many of us can now go our entire lives never experiencing the raw pain & emotion true helplessness and suffering entails. When someone survives a tragedy, we use the word “traumatized” to compartmentalize their emotions leaking out from the fragile vail of logic we all cover up with to navigate the day. Frankly, it’s all just lies to help occupy the time.

Love is the only word I can think of that everyone agrees means something different to everyone else. But animals without cloudy human logic feel love all the time. They feel relief of anxiety though perceived successes of food & shelter & warmth. They feel joy being reunited with their packs & groups. They find love, without looking, everywhere they are. When we find love, with people or pets or otherwise, our logical epicenters try to suss out all the ways it might or might not calculate, and our bias in either direction dictates the outcome of that relationship.

Not Mr. Paul, though… he just loves his family, and I love learning from him everyday.❤

P.S. This is probably the type of post that requires too much mental commitment to like or reply to because it’s all over the place, but if you made it this far, do it anyways so I can feel a bit less crazy about it all even if it’s not true.

I’m difficult to work with

When I was in third grade, my elementary school guidance counselor setup a meeting with my parents and I to talk about my behavior. I’ll spare you the details, but the gist is that “John has a high comprehension level and enormous potential but does not apply himself.” Whether or not that was or is actually true is debatable on some days and a ludicrous notion on others, but this interaction stuck with me, and possibly accidentally influenced the rest of my life, up to this point at least.

I’ve made it around the sun 36 times now, and in the past 28 revolutions since being told that my ability to grok how the world works was a super human ability yet to be seen in reality, I’ve identified several commonalities that boil down to one inalienable truth:

You’re difficult to work with.

I’ve been told this directly several times in my life, and twice recently, so let’s assume that it’s true.

  • I’m stubborn; I get that from my dad who is always right even after you have definitively proven him wrong with factual evidence to refute his theories. I’ve always found this endearing in a way; “prove that I’m wrong” was a fun challenge growing up and learning how the world worked, and I also actively try never to operate in that capacity towards others because as an adult, it’s hugely frustrating.
  • I’m observant; I get that from both of my parents who both were always living on the brink of poverty and needing to keep an inventory of every scrap, every opportunity, and every potential threat at what they had already accomplished or accumulated.
  • I’m passionate; I get this from my mom; her heart is bigger than her head, and her head is growing increasingly fuzzy. I want to make sure that people and things are taken care of, and I actively put forth my best effort to ensure the most positiver outcome occurs.
  • I “think too much.” I’m not sure when exactly this started or if it’s always been this way, or what exactly influenced my brain to work this way, but learning is my addiction and being fluent enough in everything to be able to hold down a conversation is a way for me to dodge any social anxiety I might have.
  • I expect too much from people. I expect people to understand my perspective as much as I understand theirs. I expect people to be as patient with me as I am with them. I expect people to be polite, and communicative, and respectful. I expect people to be considerate, kind, and compassionate. I’m constantly disappointed when they aren’t any of these things.

(Edit: I should note here that I think my parents are both amazing individuals. They’re brilliant in their own unique ways. They are savants that sacrificed their opportunities so that I could have mine, and I love and appreciate them immensely.)

This last one is (in my self-diagnosed opinion) ultimately the issue that makes me difficult to work with. I try not to offer unsolicited advice, but I desperately want to be helpful so when someone does ask for my opinion I have a well thought-out perspective to offer. That requires an education, which requires research, and doing this at scale with all the cool shit in the world requires an ability to comprehend something quickly and filter out anything that isn’t relevant.

In reality, though, what’s happened numerous times is someone asks for my opinion, and I blow their question out of the water with several layers deeper worth of feedback than they were probably asking for. Here’s an example based on a real life experience:

  • “What do you think of this new soup we are trying out?”
  • “I like it, but I don’t think it matches the rest of the lunch offerings.”
  • “Oh, okay. But the soup is good though?”
  • “It’s not bad, but it’s heavy on the spices and thicker than I expected it to be. And I think if I came in for an iced-tea on a hot summer day, that I wouldn’t want to pair it with a cup of tomato soup.”
  • “I suppose. We have a few days worth of ingredients so we’ll see how it goes. Thanks.”

Now, me… I don’t find this interaction off-putting at all, but the chef definitely does, and the manager who worked hard to make the decision to order the ingredients and put together the pairings and design the menu and bring out the ladder and chalk and write the specials on the board and convince everyone this was the right thing to do, doesn’t want to hear this feedback.

This type of scenario carries over to my current career, where interactions are largely public, relationships are largely friendly, interactions are usually with individuals I’ve known in some capacity for several years, but I still manage to piss off despite a lifetime of preparation to try and avoid conflict and accomplish cool stuff with people.

My hunch is that they’re probably right, and that working with me is difficult. Ironically, I don’t think it’s because I’m stubborn like my dad, or over-observant, or passionate, or think too much, but because I’m so fluent and familiar with every aspect and angle of every problem that needs solving under my umbrella of influence, that I’ve already:

  • Deeply assessed the entire situation
  • Tested several theories about what’s wrong
  • Cross-checked the results of my conclusions
  • Considered the social implications of communicating my feedback
  • Formulated a response catered to being direct, polite, jovial, and light-hearted enough to convey humor in whatever flaw it is we’re diagnosing and repairing

Ironically, even with all of this preparation, and time, and knowledge, and consideration, I’m still difficult to work with.  And they’re right, they must be, because it’s fairly consistent feedback spanning several years and groups of friends and relationships and what-not.

My conclusion is that, in one sense, I’m over-applying myself to compensate for a conversation that happened when I was 8 years old. I’ve become addicted to learning things and applying what I learn to prove to myself that I can. I learned how to build, tune, and race cars when I was a teenager. I learned how to write code and make video games. I learned about making wine, brewing coffee, working on the house, auto-cross, electrical, plumbing, accounting, hiring, firing, small engines, milling wood flooring, drywall, pressure washing, video production, mixing music, turntablism, art history, design, typography, security, microwave emitters, steam cleaning, public speaking, community service, whatever…

Basically, I unknowingly fueled the depression and anxiety of primarily inattentive ADHD. I included a link, but you can just search the web for it if you care to learn. Basically, my brain is a hummingbird that never lands, and is constantly on high-alert trying to observe and absorb, and there is no off switch within reach. When it’s time to communicate to someone else what’s been rattling around in my head for however long, it’s already been too long and I’ve worked too far ahead. The effort it takes for me to slow down to bring everyone else up-to-my-speed, means me sacrificing my momentum just so that people can think I’m difficult to work with anyways.

This doesn’t happen very frequently, but when it does it’s painful… it hurts my head to stop thinking so I can write down everything I just learned, with the knowledge that the recipient isn’t going to consider all of the angles that I did, and I’m too anxious about being perceived negatively to concentrate on communicating the depths of my thoughts effectively.

If I wasn’t a cargo-shorts wearing pizza-eating white-dude that looks and acts pretty normal most of the time, and if it wasn’t something I felt I could control enough to navigate the world with relative ease, I’d call it a disability. It’s like being blind, and having people tell you that you’re difficult to work with because you can’t see.

When you consider the perspective of a self-aware recipient, being told that you’re difficult to work with is not feedback, it’s a personal attack, it’s dismissive, and it’s insulting. Combine that feedback with your efforts being voluntary, and it starts to look like management is actively sabotaging your experience.

It’s perpetually negatively self-fulfilling. If you tell someone they are a jerk, they’re going to get defensive which heightens their anxiety and excites them into acting like a jerk, and then you get to say they’re a jerk. It’s unfair, manipulative, and not indicative of true leadership ability or spirit.

What should happen in these cases, and what I actively put mucho effort to convey in BuddyPress, bbPress, and other open-source endeavors, is an appreciation for everyone’s efforts and perspectives, particularly if I initially disagree, because it’s important to me and the projects I represent that I fully understand all perspectives before I can rightfully come to any conclusion, and it’s important that the delivery of my conclusion be respectful of their time & feelings related to the matter.

So, fine… I’m difficult to work with. I’m probably difficult to work for, too. And difficult to be married to. And I’m confident Paul the dog thinks I’m a difficult puppy-master because I spent 2 hours drafting this all up instead of walking him around the block this afternoon. If you know me, or you think you want to, or you’re forced to interact with me somewhere for some reason, please try to give me the benefit of the doubt, and if you aren’t able to, expect for me to be pretty frustrated about it, because I’m trying my best and I expect you to do the same.

Defining Success

As a wee lad growing up in the 80’s, “success” was pretty clear:

  • Watch TV
  • Play video games
  • Listen to whatever music my parents do
  • Eat more sugar
  • Become an astronaut
  • Pretend to be sick to avoid school
  • Avoid gross girls
  • What the heck is the internet?

As a teenage man in the 90’s, “success” got a little more confusing:

  • Watch more TV
  • Play more video games
  • Find a genre of music I identify with
  • Acquire an automobile & cruise around in it
  • Find true love, ideally several times
  • Avoid anything that remotely looks like work
  • Pretend to be healthy so people like me
  • Talk to as many pretty girls as possible
  • What the heck is AOL?

As a pseudo-man in the 00’s, “success” was maybe not even an option:

  • TV sucks and is a huge waste of time
  • Video games suck, and take too long
  • Music is just samples of samples of samples
  • Automobiles are fun until someone steals them
  • Love is out there, but I need to love myself first
  • Perform odd jobs until something clicks
  • Pretend to be happy to convince myself it’s true
  • Avoid all girls because they are crazy, but try to “fix” them anyways because I’m a moron
  • That internet thing sure is neat

As a child in an adult body in the 10’s, “success” seems almost about right:

  • What’s TV again?
  • Independent video games are pretty sweet
  • Turn down whatever that is and get off my lawn
  • Love means never having to say “step away from the computer”
  • My job is translating the experiences and visions of my life into software
  • Pretend to like vegetables because I’ve avoided them my whole life
  • Make up for the suffering women experience from lifetimes of having man-boys like me call them gross & crazy back when I was young & ignorant
  • Help make the Internet be the best it can be

Today, right now, I define “success” as follows:

  • Use television to relax, educate, and procrastinate on purpose
  • Use video games to supplement my aging imagination
  • Use music to drown-out my wandering ADD-afflicted mind
  • Use love to fuel solutions to life’s problems
  • Use my job to improve the quality of relationships in peoples lives
  • Use the culmination of my career experience to build great things (like BuddyPress, bbPress, GlotPress, WordPress, & Flox to name a few)
  • Stop pretending and take action – if it’s not actionable, appreciate the experience and take notes
  • Appreciate my wife in a unique way each day, and make babies
  • Be compassionate and considerate above all else

When it comes to defining success, us Generation X’ers have had it pretty easy compared to our surrounding generations. Previous generations were pressured to get married, buy houses, go to college, not be gay, not be fat, not be themselves. More recent generations are pressured to be the best at everything or risk not standing out, scolded for always being captivated by the world that us previous generations have created for them, judged for not comprehending “just how easy they have it”, and shunned for expecting more return from less investment.

Fortunately, none of these stereotypes are really all that accurate or inaccurate, and no one needs to allow them to define what success means in their own lives. Some days, for some people, just getting out of bed is a huge success. Maybe finding fresh water for your family is today’s success. The spectrum of success ranges from mundane to monumental, but it’s important to identify what it is before making any decisions, especially if success means making a decision that may impact others.

In my community, in my career, in my life, I see many successes go uncelebrated, and I think that over a long enough timeline it has a hugely negative impact on how people perceive the world around themselves.

  • The village I live in is a stereotypical bedroom community, largely populated by retirees and blue-collar laborers. As such, things move slowly and people quickly forget the positive changes happening around them.
  • When it comes to software development, it’s unlikely anyone understands what you do the way you do, even the people you work the most closely with. Taking time to appreciate little wins, tiny fixes, and monumentally insignificant details makes success practically define itself as you go.
  • Personally, sometimes I forget to reward myself with tolerance, patience, and adequate time to enjoy something that isn’t accidental work – like upgrading the bathroom, painting the walls, or playing any video game where grinding through levels is the reward for grinding through levels.

Maybe this is already obvious to everyone but me, but it’s important to define what success means in each area of your life, every day. If you don’t, you risk drifting aimlessly waiting for success to happen to you instead of making it happen for yourself.

Distributed

In 2010 I took a job with the fine folks at Automattic. Having been contributing to WordPress, BuddyPress, and bbPress since 2007, working with the biggest company in the WordPress ecosystem seemed like the next logical step in my career. If you somehow haven’t heard of them, they’re a great company with open-source in it’s heart and transparency in it’s soul; there’s so much publicly available about Automattic that I’m comfortable bypassing the details completely.

In short, it’s an absolutely amazing company to work for, and if you’re still reading this, you should probably think about applying.

Fast forward to 2013. After a few lengthy conversations with the most influential people in my life at the time about career goals, experiences, and my personal bucket-list, I came to the conclusion it was time to move on from the job I once thought I didn’t deserve to the job I needed to have, to keep growing, to keep learning… somewhere I would be able to make a larger impact on a smaller group.

Welcome to 10up.

10up is a company you likely know less about juxtaposed to Automattic, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive. 10up and Automattic both rely heavily on the success of WordPress to create and craft wonderful online publishing experiences, sometimes even in a collaborative way where 10up clients are hosted on WordPress.com’s VIP network, where I did code review and deployments for almost 18 months. One of my favorite parts of working at 10up was, selfishly, getting to interact with my favorite old colleagues at Automattic from the other side of the fence. I (somewhat discretely) left 10up in July, but don’t let that discourage you from applying. They’re hugely into giving back to the WordPress project, and they have some of the coolest clients you could ever hope to have. Again; if you’re still reading, you are likely a good candidate to be a future 10upper.

10up, much like Automattic, is a distributed organization of talented individuals located all around the world, choosing to meet in the midst of the internet chaos to create amazing things together. (Their distributed work environments are so similar, I didn’t even need to change payroll providers when I made the change.) There are hundreds of employees now, all working from home offices, coffee houses, planes, trains, automobiles… anywhere internet access allows. I’m curious who will be the first to push code from space, or a submarine, or some kind of dirigible. The sky isn’t even the limit anymore when you work in a distributed environment; the limit is you.

For all of the clearly amazing perks, make no mistake, this style and environment is not for everyone. There is an enormous learning curve, and working alone for years at a time, collaborating with people you rarely (if ever) see in the physical universe around you, undoubtedly comes with associated costs that are not made obvious until you’re already (feeling) committed to the cause.

When I started at Automattic I already knew what it meant to communicate effectively online; I’ve been doing it since around 1994 through AOL chat rooms, IRC channels, and SourceForge. Still, I didn’t truly appreciate what 100+ people across 100+ internally networked sites (used for managing projects and initiatives) would look like. The fury of activity, the fomo, the persistent connection & constant availability; it’s a lifestyle change not just for you and your career, but your family, friends, pets, etc…

You start carrying your laptop with you to dinner, because if something under your umbrella gets wet, you’re responsible for wiping up the mess. You meticulously configure notifications on your several devices to only alert you to the things you can directly impact and control. You stay up later, wake up later, pull a few all nighters; it’s exhilarating and rewarding and incredibly easy to slide into and painfully difficult to come out of. Maybe you get paired up with someone with different work habits than you, or are asked to work on a project you’re not passionate about. It’s not all WordPress all the time; it’s a job, where someone is paying you to do whatever needs doing, even if it’s not what you signed up for originally.

Yes… you’re changing the world, usually for the better. You go Spiderman on the world at the expense of going Peter Parker on your life. You sacrifice things (or relationships) you love for a perceivably greater good. This isn’t unique to a distributed work environment, but I think it is easier to identify someone starting to lose it when they show up to the office wearing a latex suit flinging imaginary spider-webs at the ceiling VS reading between written updates because you haven’t physically seen them in 6 months.

I guess what I’m saying is, when you work without seeing your colleagues on the regular, it’s incredibly easy for extremely unhealthy habits to go completely unnoticed (or be unintentionally encouraged) for extended periods of time. In a physical office, you pick up on body language, subtle cues, inflection, cadence, and you can smell when someone had a rough night at the pub and maybe shouldn’t be pushing code to 60 million sites. When that closeness doesn’t exist, you learn to be hypersensitive to written tone changes, fluctuations in the frequency of communicating, and increases or decreases in all areas of output, otherwise you’ll never notice someone’s physical or mental health decline. I know this isn’t unique to distributed working environments (it kinda sounds like college) but it is much easier to fly under the radar for longer periods of time before anyone notices.

At the risk of derailing myself, I think working from home for extended periods of time and not going at least a little crazy makes you evolutionarily superior. I’m convinced our primitive minds aren’t quite wired correctly (yet) to work from isolated pods for 8 hours a day, sometimes 7 days per week, for the rest of our lives, even if we get to decide when and where and how to do it. Maybe we’ll find that balance someday, and the future of work may be a division of physical and virtual labor, but this transitional period we’re in right now (where the first of us are figuring it out) sometimes feels like a dark and lonely place.

Succeeding within a distributed workforce requires a very specific set of interpersonal skills (Luca talks more about them here.) You need to be empathetic and supportive, but can’t be sensitive to criticism. You need to be confident, but not arrogant, because that bleeds through the virtual folds quite profusely. Communication is, perhaps ironically, more important than output (technically, it IS output) because no one knows what you’re doing unless you tell them you’re doing it. Communicate early, clearly, constantly, and follow-up on your follow-ups. You need to find a pattern in the chaos, and either lead people through it or risk being absorbed by it.

To be honest, even after 2 decades of online collaboration and leadership, I’m not sure how particularly great I am at it compared to the people I’ve seen actually be great, but that hasn’t stopped me yet from experimenting and learning and growing. I do stay in touch with a fair few of my Automattic and 10up family members, but companies, even distributed ones, are purposely inclusive, so I also try not to encroach.

Speaking of companies, Flox is nearly shippable, and I’m putting energy on the side into an agency focusing on creating great community sites with BuddyPress & bbPress. If you have any leads, I will greatly appreciate you and them.

I’m leaving comments open for Q&A about working in distributed environments like Automattic’s & 10up’s. Please feel comfortable asking anything you’d like, and I promise I’ll answer to the best of my ability. If you work at Automattic or 10up, and have anything else to add, please feel free.❤

I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello

There’s no other way to say it; August 1st is my last day working at Automattic.

To my ex-Automatticians, thank you so much for the hospitality. You’re a great bunch, and I’m excited about what’s in the pipeline. It’s been an excellent almost-3 years, and it will only continue getting better.

To everyone else… don’t worry — I’m sticking around BuddyPress, bbPress, and Dotorg. I’ll still be speaking at WordCamps, teaching people about WordPress Development, and doing my best to influence positive thinking and change in the community where I’m able.

Anyone looking for the scoop, there isn’t one. No drama, no hard feelings, no ill-will — just time for me to double-down on what I’m most passionate about, and that’s BuddyPress, bbPress, Multi-network, and a few other ideas that have been floating around my imagination for a while.

Overall… I’ve learned some, loved some, lost some, and am extremely stoked about the future, which I’ll post more about in the coming days.