Working at automattic (complete, this time :P)

Well, I think its time. I have been working for Automattic for three months and it’s time to write a post about it. Mostly, because I’m trying to convince several people of applying to join us, and everybody always asks me the same. “But how it is to work for Automattic?”.

And the answer is: Amazing.

But let me explain myself. As you probably know if you are reading this, I joined the company last April, to work as a javascript engineer in one of the teams, team mercury. The company has a wide range of products besides WordPress.com (gravatar, jetpack, cloudup, simplenote, etc), but lots of the teams are not assigned to a certain product. They are assigned to work in some objectives on the long run, and that could include working on several different projects to reach them. Our main focus as a team, right now, is to work on Jetpack Manage.

For those of you who are not familiar with WordPress community, Jetpack is a WordPress plugin that Automattic provides for free, that gives your site a ton of new features… and one of them is the ability to manage your self-hosted sites from your account dashboard at WordPress.com. Why would you want to do that instead of using the good old wp-admin of your site? Well, because our UI is a thousand times better, and also allows you to manage all your sites from a single, unified dashboard.

And well… that amazing UI is our main focus as a team, right now.

Now you know what I’m doing here… let me tell about how it is.

When I joined, I was expecting this to be an amazing new experience. The amount of responsibility on my shoulders (130 million users), the impact my code will reach, the resources the company could offer, the level of the team I was joining … everything was way beyond what I was used to. Don’t get me wrong, Spanish start-up (or the internet, or whatever you want to call it) scene is full of great engineers, great companies and amazing projects to work at. But the money that Spanish industry moves is very small compared with the US, and the budgets are always tight, the teams are small, and the reach you get can’t really be compared with the big, US internet giants.

What has surprised me is that Automattic goes way beyond that. It’s all that, yeah, but it’s much more. Yeah, you have a lot of resources… yeah, the team level is amazing … but there are several things I didn’t really expected and completely makes the company a marvelous place to work at.

Autonomy & trustfulness

Automattic comes from the open source world. The founder, Matt Mullenweg, recruited the first employees from the people who already were working with him in WordPress, as OSS contributors. And that permeates to the whole company. The level of independence each team has is beyond belief. Yeah, we have some objectives and some zones where we need to focus our work at. But beyond that, we are completely free to decide when and how and who. And that goes also to your individual work. If I decide I’m going to expend the week refactoring X because I need it to make easier my work at Y, nobody will raise a single brow. Not only that but each decision from product, to code, to design, are widely debated internally. And your opinion really counts, even if you’re just a recent hire.

And the company has completely interiorized the remote work creed. In this the open source origins are, again, clearly showing. It’s not only that you can work whenever you like and wherever you are… also, nobody will check that you have been connected 8 hours a day, or what you have been doing each minute. They only matter about you doing your job. If the quality of your output is good and you’re communicating with your colleagues, they don’t care that you only spent 3 hours, at 4 AM, to get it done. The output, not the hours, is what matters.

Developers and designers first

In the company, the main roles are the ones related with creating our products. Developers and designers. And the rest of the roles are ‘support roles’ for those who are working on the product. So no one from a business team will ever ping you on slack requiring to drop everything you’re doing to do some special request for this ultra-important client that needs to get done by yesterday.

Project

We are currently working in making the experience of using WordPress something amazing. And WordPress (at large, not only sites hosted on WordPress.com) powers 24% of the whole internet. So our job includes to pick a potentially one-quarter of all the sites on the net and gives them a management app that rules. How cool is that?

In top of that, we are using (and contributing to! for example, do you know that socket.io original author, Guillermo Rauch, works for Automattic and the project is supported by the company?) the best tools OSS can offer. For example, all the new work we are doing in the WordPress.com dashboard is a react app (we even sponsored React Europe Conference last month), which we are now adapting to flux.

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Half of team mercury, working at our San Diego meetup

Code Quality

In the past, WordPress has been known for its not-so-great code quality. This is something that is the doom of any large project with backward compatibility requirements… but it has let a big imprint in the company. Now, the amount of care we put in new code is something I haven’t ever seen. We have several layers of code formatting checks, an extensive style guide (enforced automatically), and even with that, is not strange to see a pull request with more than 50 comments on them. And people really takes their time reviewing the PRs… they put care into understanding the code, they download it and test it on their machines, and lots of times you get very good suggestion on how to improve the code from your colleagues. That’s the dream of any developer.

Culture

The authentic star of Automattic is the culture of the company. I’ve worked before in companies with great teams, with people that were closely knitted, enjoyed working together and created a great environment… But Automattic is light years ahead of any other place I’ve known of. Everybody is so friendly that at the beginning it can be even confusing. But also you don’t feel like that friendliness is forced, like the kind of “everybody has to be happy by royal decree” spirit some kind of companies tries to implement. Also, the first priority of everyone in the company seems to be to help their colleagues in their work.

The individual thing that shocked me most was the openness of the company. Mind you, most of the company discussions take place in internal blogs, called p2s (for the theme they use, “p2”, that turns them into a mix between a microblogging platform and a forum). And, every automattician, have access to every P2. I can go to the human resources site and see how much the chair of the new team lead that begins next month has cost to the company. I can see how much money the company have done the last month. I can read the notes on the meeting someone have had with someone from another company discussing a partnership. And I can comment and discuss at any of those issues, and not ever be ‘out of place’, even being a new hire.

A good example of this happened in my first team meetup. All mercury flew to San Diego and spent 5 days there doing stuff… and for a couple of that days we were joined by Dave Martin, creative director (as in “manager of all the designers”), and one of the six members of Bridge Team (the team lead directly by Matt Mullenweg, the CEO, in charge of deciding the long-term goals of the company, yearly objectives, etc). One of the nights he was with us, we all sat down in a room and he held an “Ask Me Anything” session. And well… we did. For a couple of hours, mercury guys asked him a lot of questions. Some of them quite direct and ‘hard’ to answer from someone at upper management. Questions about the relation with the investors, about how they affect the decisions the company takes, about where we were heading both financially and as a company, the future plans for our products… And Dave answered everything, without trying to sell us anything, without the need of painting a brighter picture… just data and answers that not always was the ones that someone worried about giving a brighter-than-reality picture of the state of things would have given. And then, the next morning, he woke up earlier and cooked a burrito breakfast for all of us. This is hardly something I see someone from upper management at any other company of Automattic size doing, to be honest.

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Panorama of most Mercurians, plus Dave Martin, at La Jolla, San Diego

Conditions

As I said, I already was expecting that the level of resources the company can mobilize to be in an upper league than any other company I have worked at. You know, the Spanish software industry has a lot of talent, and very ambitious projects… but the amount of money it can attract is just a fraction of the money even the small-sized US companies can get. In my previous job, we were trying to open some space for us in the US online advertising space. We were an ultra-specialized product, and even in that narrow field, our (American) competitors had 10x our resources. We were competing with companies with 300 employees, with our humble 10-persons team. The month before I left the company, we checked up one of our competitors site’s careers page… and they were looking for 30+ engineers and designers. They had 3 times our size … just in open positions.

And we were not an exception… that’s the usual conditions of any Spanish company trying to compete in a global space. And, of course, that translates into tight budgets, scarce equipment, long hours, etc. And for once, I wanted to find myself in the other side.

And well, Automattic is one of the giants of Internet, and it shows. Before even I officially started, the company have already spent more than 4000€ in computer equipment and furniture for my home office, no questions asked. But is not only about money… I was kind of skeptical about the “unlimited vacation” policy until I saw it working. You know, there are stories about companies with this kind of policy where you have unlimited vacation … that never ever get approved once requested. But here, If you are taking less than a week, you don’t even need any official approval… you just need to post that you’re taking some days off and you are set. And people really do it all the time.

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My home office

Also, the company offers unlimited paternity / maternity leave. You just pick whatever time you feel necessary. One of my teammates is in the middle of his 2-month paternity leave right now, for example. Also, when you reach to your 5 years anniversary as an Automattic employee, you can get a paid sabbatical period of three months. This is also a good indicator on how good the company is. Around 13% of current employees have been working 5 years or more for Automattic. I dare you to find any tech company with that stats.

In the three months I’ve been part of the company, only one person have left it. If we keep this ratio for a whole year, that would means 4 persons leaving the company per year. That’s a 1% of turnover rate. In tech. In an industry where attrition rates of 20% are considered normal. And we are talking about top talent, lots of them even living in San Francisco or New York, where the competition to get experienced engineers & designers is fiercer than anywhere else. But they stay at Automattic…

So… I hope I have painted a good picture about how it is to work for Automattic. And I hope I have convinced you to join us!

6 thoughts on “Working at automattic (complete, this time :P)

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