VIP team Grand Meetup in Rotterdam

I’ve spent the last week in Rotterdam with all of the Automattic VIP team. A Grand Meetup is a very strange beast. It is the one time a year we all get together in the same physical space and is a mixture of a week-long co-working session, conference and party.

For me, it started last Friday when I set off around 6 AM heading to Cardiff airport ready to catch my flight. Traffic was light as it was so early and I arrived at the airport in plenty of time. It was a lovely surprise to find there was no waiting around at either check-in or security, with no queues. I had to take nearly everything out of my carry-on bag and place it all in trays for an x-ray, before going through the body scanner. This was a new experience for me as I’ve just been through metal detectors before. I was waved out of that for a quick pat-down and to have a metal detector wand waved around before collecting my carry-on stuff and being sent on to the departure area. I was able to sit down in a nice quiet restaurant with a coffee and a sandwich, in an environment which was easily as good as those I’ve had in proper executive airport lounges before.  After a while, we all get the call to board up, and after the plane is ready to fly we are told we will have a 15-minute wait before take-off as there is an air traffic restriction in place.

We land at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam after an uneventful 1-hour flight. I breeze through passports, baggage claim and customs before heading to the Meetup point to meet the driver taking me to the hotel. The drive takes around an hour and I arrive at the hotel just as a large group of my colleagues are congregating in reception to go out for lunch, leading to many hellos and hugs the second I get through the hotel door. I check-in with our event planners who are manning a welcome desk for us in the foyer where we can pick up our lanyards and any of the dozens of different badges they had available to indicate everything from interests, groups you belong to, pronouns and if you are feeling overwhelmed or want people to active come and talk with you. Then it’s over to the hotel reception, pick up my room card and head up to the 22nd floor which will be my home for the week.

The room is nice enough even if the desk is a little on the small side considering I will be working from my room for a couple of very early morning on-call shifts. It’s a long way down!

I take some time to freshen up a bit before heading down to the 6th floor, where all the conference rooms are and we have many of them booked out for the week. These range from a big room where we will have the keynotes and large group sessions, through to small meeting rooms, a chill-out room, and new for the VIP GM is a jam room which has a full set of band equipment set up for us to play with for the week. Whilst we have had some people on site for a couple of days to provide support and cover whilst everyone else travels, this is our main travel day so other people continue to arrive throughout the day, and we all take the opportunity to catch up with people we haven’t seen since either the last VIP GM in Montreal Canada all the way back in August 2018, or our EU dev and triage meetup in Lisbon back in March.

Travel day is always intentionally scheduled light, the only thing on the schedule is an evening get together at Foodhallen across the road from the hotel entrance for folks who have arrived already, we are all given a €30 gift card to get some food and drink, whilst spending time with our colleagues and settling in after travel. I grab some beers and a crispy chicken rice bowl, which was really nice but the guest paging system didn’t work meaning when I went and asked if it would be much longer after waiting an hour I was told the pager couldn’t have worked as they paged me 30 minutes before, so they made a fresh one up there and then for me.

Saturday starts with breakfast in the hotel restaurant before the town hall session with our C level folks, where we find out the details for our 2020 GM which is going to be in Philadelphia. During the opening remarks from our CEO, the huge Erasmusbrug next to the hotel opens and most of us are staring out the window as the bridge lifts up right next to us. In his closing comments, Nick mentions he really wants to know what was going on outside earlier as he missed it. This is followed by lunch and team sessions in the afternoon. The evening is a welcome reception at Boompjes Rotterdam where we take the VIP team photo for this year and have a great social evening before heading back to the hotel where some folks head off to the bar whilst several of us re-purpose the jam room and turn it into a karaoke bar for the evening. Something that went down so well, it is now going to be a fixture of future VIP GMs.

Sunday saw us get together with our teams again in the morning, with me taking advantage of breaks in the schedule to catch up on the all-important Welsh rugby game in the quarter-final of the rugby world cup, before going for a stroll around the area, then heading out for some team bonding time in the afternoon, where we went to Fenix Food Factory to enjoy a freshly made stroopwafels at Stroop and a couple of drinks from the fabulous Kaapse brewers.  Before heading out for a team dinner at one of several local restaurants. Dev squad were at Loetje where I had a stunning steak, which came with sharing sized sides and a pile of bread to soak up the gravy. I headed off around 10:20 whilst the rest of the team were still at the restaurant as I was scheduled for a deploy shift from 4 – 7 AM local time as we still needed to support our clients around the world despite us all being in Rotterdam at the time.

After my deploy shift, it is time for breakfast followed by a nap, which means I miss the first half-hour of the morning session, and I’m not going to walk into the middle of a keynote with an external guest speaker, so I take advantage of the morning to hit the co-working room and get some work done. After lunch, I spend an hour with one of my colleagues which unblocks a lot of hiring activity, which sees me in the co-working room for the afternoon updating and progressing my entire pipeline of candidates. This evening we are all out at various restaurants around the area and have assigned groups. My group happens to be assigned to loetje which is where we were for the team dinner the previous evening. The steak was so amazing, I have it again. We were right next to the Rotterdam cruise ship terminal and when I walked out of the hotel to go to the restaurant I was greeted by a building that wasn’t there that afternoon. Well, actually it was just that a cruise ship had docked, but it was surprising to see something so huge suddenly appear where there had been a nice open view before. After dinner, one of the activities available is a beer share evening I had arranged beforehand. People who wanted to join in brought a couple of beers with them and we all shared some of our favourite beers from all around the world with folks who wouldn’t normally get a chance to try those particular beers. We all had small samples of all the beers and a great evening was had. The beers I brought along were one of my fave imperial stouts and I was told that I had to bring something along that I had brewed myself as some of the team were aware I had won the UK National homebrew competition with a beer I brewed a while back. I snuck off after trying 28 different beers, some of them are shown in the pictures below, and there were still around 10 – 12 beers left on the table that I didn’t get to try at that point, but I was still tired from the early start.

Tuesday I attend a couple of sessions in the morning, then sneak off for a nap as yesterday’s early start is playing havoc with my ability to concentrate, another session and some work in the afternoon before heading out for our last arranged seating dinner at a local restaurant. My assigned seating was with a group of people who I already knew fairly well, I had hired most of them, so I asked if I could switch table to spend some time with a different group of people I didn’t usually interact with. Building these cross-team relationships is one of the things the GM really empowers us to do, so it is good to take advantage of that at every chance. I was switched to a different table in a different restaurant which actually had me back at Loetje for the third night in a row. I’m seriously not complaining, the food was great there so I was quite happy to go back, and talking with some of the folks at the table who had been to other restaurants, this was by far the best one they had been to. Switching groups gave me a chance to spend some time with a triage and systems team colleague in place of more time with my dev team. This was followed by a fireside chat with Matt Mullenweg and our CEO where we had the chance to ask Matt anything. One of the recurring topics was the recent acquisition of Tumblr. After this, I got set up for karaoke again and ran that until around 3:40 AM but had to shut it down then as I was on deploys again from 4 – 7 AM local at which time the fog which had been about all night, had mostly cleared.

I went straight through the night and got to bed when I logged off deploys at 7 AM, getting up in time for lunch. I had an interview scheduled for the afternoon, so I hit the co-working room again, where I took the opportunity of being together in person whilst having an interview to do, to start interview training a colleague who is going to help with dev hiring for VIP.  That evening we are all at Euromast for our closing party. The views were amazing, the food and drink selection was less so. That evening back at the hotel, we have a bar set up for us on the meeting room floor, and we let karaoke run itself which sort of works but is much slower than someone getting people lined up ready to go. As I’m not running the session I put a song in the queue and do Passenger – Let her go accompanied for the chorus by some of my colleagues, including our CRO (Chief Revenue Officer), and jump up to join in on several other songs throughout the evening, including Total eclipse of the heart and Disturbed’s version of sound of silence.  We also get all the dev squad folks that were there together for Enjoy the silence by Depeche mode. I sneak off around 4:30 and head to bed whilst the party is still in full swing.

I get up about 9 on Thursday which is the return travel day. I have a car booked to the airport at 12:30, the traffic is much heavier going back to the airport than it was arriving but we get there with loads of time to spare before my flight. My colleagues who shared the car already have check-in gates showing up, so we say our farewells and they head off to check-in whilst I stare longingly at the departure boards where my flight is the only one not to display a check-in desk. After standing around for 30 minutes or so and there being no sign of anything changing, I ask one of the staff who directs me to just go to lane 12/13 and check-in there. My ticket code, booking reference and passport all fail spectacularly to allow me to use self-check-in, leading to me being directed to the back of a long queue. After getting through check-in it is off to security. This has to be the speediest and least fussy security check I’ve ever experienced.  As I start to unpack liquids and laptops like I have to do everywhere else, I’m told to just leave it all in the bag and not worry. They bung it through the scanner, I go through the body scanner and get waved on through. At this point, I realise I had left my phone in my pocket going through the scanner but there wasn’t so much as a beep or even a raised eyebrow. Pick up my bag and head through to the departure area, where I grab some brunch, before taking a stroll towards the gate to find out where it is and bump into my team lead. We chat and co-work for a bit before I head off to the gate and get boarded. Another smooth flight back to the UK before landing back at Cardiff airport, at the same time we took off thanks to the time zone difference. Breeze through the airport and drive back home where I get reunited with my family that I’ve been missing so much all week.

GM 2019 was a fabulous experience which was taken to the next level with the addition of things like the jam room that we used for karaoke when my colleagues weren’t jamming, along with having so many more safe spaces and signage making the meeting room floor of nHow feel like a home from home. Getting to do this kind of all expenses paid travel is one of the many perks of working with Automattic and I’m very aware that it is a privilege to be able to do these things, however I’m also aware that travelling for business isn’t stress free and I always desperately miss my family when I’m away. That being said, I’m now looking forward to Philadelphia in July 2020 when I’m actually going to be away for my birthday and it’s a big milestone birthday as well.


Fancy joining us in Philadelphia next year? We’re currently hiring for several roles including WordPress engineers, sales, design and support roles. Why not apply and you could be sharing your experience of VIP GM 2020.



I wasn’t ready to apply

It all started here nearly 18 years ago when I got my first commercial software engineering role for a company that used to be in this building in Banner Street, London. Here I am all those years later, once again looking at this building.

Like many female engineers, along with folks from other under-represented groups of people in tech, I did not feel ready to apply for the role, so I didn’t. Instead, I was working there on the phones doing internet helpdesk when I was approached by the dev manager who had heard about the online game which three-quarters of the support staff were playing. One that I had co-written with someone else using PHP and was hosting on a colo server we were allowed as a staff perk. A very weighty book was dropped on my desk with the comment that if I could learn the computer language C then I had a job upstairs on the systems development team.

I’ve no idea at all what they are like to work for now, but over the years, I have seen so many people who started with them end up at top tier global brand name internet companies. I won’t pretend that every day with them was fabulous, and there were times I ended up crying myself to sleep. However, I wouldn’t be where I am now without the opportunity that was given to me by that dev manager all those years ago.

I don’t want to say there is some moral to this story or anything but to anyone from any of the under-represented groups in tech, who are putting off applying for a role because they do not feel ready, please stop putting it off. Some of you are far more ready than the people who are applying, and I’m saying that as someone who is hiring people. Whatever it is, maybe it’s applying for a job, starting a course or giving a talk, take the chance and do the thing. Whilst there is some possibility you really are not ready yet, you are probably far more ready than you think you are and you could well smash it right out of the park.

In truth, I fully understand how difficult it is to do. When I was made redundant from a previous role, I didn’t feel I was ready to apply to my current employer despite it being exactly the job I aspired to. I instead applied and worked somewhere else for another 4 years.

When I found myself again looking for a role and despite still not feeling ready I took my own advice and applied anyway. Whilst I have many good memories from those 4 years, where I was working elsewhere, I often wonder how different things could have been if I had applied in the first place instead of putting it off. So the story does have a very happy ending.

Those feelings of not being ready are still there, only now I have the role it shows up as imposter syndrome. I’ll let you in on a secret of the tech industry. Many people suffer from imposter syndrome.  Not many will openly admit to it but it is real. I know people who have been in roles 10 years or more who have admitted to me they also suffer it. For some of us, that will never go away.

I honestly hope you find yourself doing that thing you aspire to

Under-represented groups in tech

I recently attended a meetup where the focus of the evening was on the experiences and frustrations of people belonging to groups that are under-represented in the tech world.

The meetup was conducted in a co-working space in Bristol and from the start, the host went above and beyond to ensure everyone was included and felt safe to share whatever experiences they wanted to in any level of detail they felt comfortable. Knowing that it was a safe space really helped when it came to sharing my experiences. I’d just like to share some of the key things I took away.

As you know from previous posts, part of my responsibilities includes hiring developers for our team and one thing I noted immediately was that many people unrepresented in tech don’t feel they are qualified or experienced enough to apply for roles as they undervalue their skill, compared to many in over-represented groups who oversell their abilities.
As well as this being brought up by others at the event, I’ve been in that place myself and put off applying to my current employer for 4 years before going ahead and applying anyway.
The way I’ve been trying to address this so far is to be at events and places which are more open and welcoming to people belonging to these groups and to have conversations about my experience.

Outside of hiring, there were more takeaways and whilst I’m happy to say that my current employer does well in most of those regards, there is always room for improvement. Our distributed culture helps with some of these issues and other times it is a conscious thing we’ve done.

Promote an environment where people are valued for what they contribute regardless of appearance, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin colour or age etc.

Ensure that under-represented groups voices are heard and weighed equally with mainstream groups. A repeated theme was that females and female identifying members of tech teams would often have to co-opt a white CIS male colleague to promote their idea for it to even be considered.

Giving credit where it is due. One person may make a suggestion or statement, only to have to say “That was what I just said” 2 minutes later when someone else, normally a male colleague, said or paraphrased it and was credited with having the idea.

Provide safe spaces for groups of like-minded individuals to talk/vent etc

Assume good intentions whilst being prepared to compassionately correct or be corrected. This one was raised with regard to language choices and discussions where people were explaining things, fully aware that some terminology and labels can be triggers to different groups or individuals. Whilst the majority of people are not trying to offend anyone they may unintentionally use a term that triggers someone and in those situations, they should be prepared to be open to correction or prepared to correct if they are the one being triggered

Being mindful of other groups and how your actions affect them. Often the best results come from people outside of any given group seeing issues and calling them out, being the allies under-represented groups need and doing it from within their own groups. I recently saw a tweet that I regrettably cannot find any more. It went something like this.

We don’t need more women to talk to men.
We don’t need more gay people to talk to straight people.
We don’t need more transfolk to talk to CIS gendered folk.
We don’t need more PoC to talk to white people.
We don’t need more disabled folk to talk with able-bodied people.
What we do need is more straight CIS white and able-bodied people to talk to each other.

Thoughts from over a year looking after developer hiring for the WordPress VIP team

At Automattic, we tend to do things a bit different from many companies. for a start, we are a fully distributed remote company. There is no office and this frees us up to look for the very best candidates anywhere in the world, so to be successful, applicants need to stand out.

We usually include a couple of screening questions in our role descriptions that often tell us far more about the applicant than the CV or resume does. An example may be to tell us about an interesting programming problem you have worked on, and what was it that made it interesting. You can learn a lot about a candidate from their responses. Have they answered the question, was the problem itself trivial, did they either solve a difficult issue or was it really interesting for some other reason. This is a good way to find out what makes someone tick and if they are likely to enjoy the sorts of issues we deal with.

Bias is a two-way street. We are very careful to avoid bias and have resources and training not just for the obvious things, but also for unconscious bias and have a culture of checks and balances on each other. As we don’t have a hiring committee this is quite important so we stop bias creeping in. That does, however, mean we are looking for it and sometimes we clearly see it in candidates, even if they are not intending to express it. As part of what we are looking for is how well do candidates fit with our culture, it can be a warning sign when we see it. Being a female engineer may also mean I see this more than some of my colleagues.

It may sound obvious, but being able to demonstrate skills is a key feature of a successful applicant. Whilst we don’t expect anyone to write code in an interview, as our roles require an in-depth experience of security and performance, being unable to give a simple description of any common security vulnerability is going to lead to us not moving candidates forward.

Being involved in hiring here has been a very different experience from previous roles and there are a lot of things I love about the process. I think the biggest of those is the way using a text-only interview format on slack helps to reduce a lot of potential sources of bias that you experience in face-to-face interviews and allows you to focus on the what and how things are being communicated, instead of who is saying them.

Fed up of travel adapters falling out of sockets?

Since I started working for Automattic, I’ve had to travel internationally for work several times. One thing I have had an issue with repeatedly is the different power sockets used around the world.

I have previously tried travel adapters and whilst they work, by the time you plug a PSU into the back of the travel adapter, they are normally too heavy for the socket to support as the weight is so far away from the wall, to begin with.  This was especially problematic for me in Canada where I couldn’t use my Macbook power adapter without wedging something under the back of it to stop the combination of the PSU and the travel adaptor falling out of the 2 prong socket.

My new travel companion for times I am away from home for several days and will need to plug in multiple gadgets is an IEC 4 way block. Using this is can use the same 4-way block everywhere and just get a standard IEC cable for whatever country I am visiting. This will give me 4 UK sockets and a couple of metres of cable without any risk of it falling out of the power socket any more.

You can find the one I am using at Amazon UK.

Diversity in the workplace

Diversity and inclusion is something we are hearing about with increasing frequency. That more people and companies are becoming aware of, and even championing a diverse workforce is a great step forward from the situation where, not that many years ago, it was usually either ‘Not a thing’ or, at best an afterthought.

Simply put, this is an effort to ensure people from varying backgrounds and groups are accepted, welcomed and treated equally with those from other backgrounds. Some of these differences may be obvious eg. age, race, gender, physical attributes and some less obvious like personality or educational background. Whilst there is an endless list of potential differences, inclusion is not about focusing on what makes each of us different from each other, but about including and empowering everyone irrespective of any differences.

Being a diverse person, inclusion is really important to me. In days gone by where society felt a need to apply labels for every point of difference, I would have had many labels applied. What with marital status, education, gender, gender identity, orientation, religious views, health and mental health, it is safe to say that I belong to groups of people that have regularly experienced a whole spectrum of negative exclusive behaviour, from being treated less favourably than others, all the way through physical and mental abuse to torture and murder. This makes me extremely nervous meeting new people. Whilst many people may experience some degree of concern around acceptance or rejection when meeting new people, not so many face concerns about a risk to their mental or physical welfare. I know people in similar circumstances who experience some, or all, of these on a daily or weekly basis. I’ve been fortunate to not experience the more serious issues in any workplace environment, although I have been treated unfairly in at least one company in the past.

Whilst my previous employers may have been supportive or inclusive to varying degrees, it is hard to find a company that has taken it to heart as much as my current company does. Diversity is there, right on our homepage. We do not tip a hat to it or pay lip service to it, we live it.  Each day we look to the things that unite us and support each other instead of looking for differences or trying to make people belong to some ‘other’ group in order to treat them differently or less favourably.

Some months ago I met my team in real life for the first time. I’ve been working with these people for months. Being a fully remote company, we have people all around the globe working from home or whatever location suits them best and this means we don’t sit down in the same physical space often. This required an international flight, which is itself a source of stress for most people, let alone those that have diverse backgrounds, followed by meeting all these new people and I can honestly say I have never met a more supportive and accepting group of people. I left that meetup looking forward to the next one. This is something I have seen again and again across the company.

I am so happy to be able to say that here at Automattic, I’m not afraid to say “I’m me, I’m not the same as everyone else”, but I know that really doesn’t matter or change how I am treated by my colleagues or the company. I am welcomed, respected and treated the same as everyone else.

If you would like to know more, we have a great page describing diversity and inclusion here at Automattic If you like what you see and want to be a part of it, we’re hiring, come and work with us.