My experience on Trial at Automattic

I recently finished my (unsuccessful) Trial at Automattic, but it was such an eye-opening experience, that I wanted to share it with the wider world to show what an incredible company it is to work for, and to see some of what’s behind one of the busiest websites in the world.

Automattic logo

Last week, I finished my Trial at Automattic. While I wasn’t successful in my bid to work for a company that I hugely admire, I appreciate the experience and insight that I was able to gain from my few weeks working with them.

How it all began

I’ve been toying with the idea of giving up engineering as my career and moving into web development full-time, as I’m enjoying it a lot more.

My plan had been to do freelancing full-time, but to give up a steady professional salary and benefits for the uncertainty of freelancing is daunting. If someone could pay my salary for 6 months while I build up my workload and client list, I could easily earn well in excess of what I make as a professional engineer. However, I haven’t had any applications for someone willing to do that for me.

So when I read that my friend Dustin Hartzler had recently landed himself a job at Automattic, it turned on a light bulb in my head. I started considering whether I wanted to work for Automattic, and the more I read, the more I wanted to jump right in (I’ll explore the benefits of working for Automattic later).

With that, I looked over the available positions and decided that a Happiness Engineer would be a good fit for me: I had an extensive of knowledge of WordPress and I liked helping and working with people, so I set about putting in an application.

The jobs page at Automattic indicated that you should hear back (one way or the other) with a couple of weeks of submitting your application. After six weeks had passed, I sent a follow-up email in case my email had got lost somewhere. Another several weeks had passed before I just decided they probably weren’t interested and forgot all about it.

Shortly thereafter, I finally received an email, saying that they were interested in talking to me, so we set up a time to chat on Skype.

I chatted with two of their employees, who both work on the Happiness hiring team, and introduced myself to them, while they asked a few questions of me, exploring my technical knowledge and customer service skills. After an hour with them, they were sufficiently happy for me to do a mini-project for them so that they could evaluate my writing skills. They tasked me with writing a support document that outlined how a user could create a new post from their WordPress app.

I spent a couple of hours on it and sent it back to them, after which they asked me back for a second interview (again, over Skype), which happened just a few days later.

At the end of that interview, they evidently decided that I had what it took to explore my abilities further and offered me the opportunity to work for them on Trial.

Trials are a mandatory part of the hiring process at Automattic: it allows them to see how good you are at the kind of work that you’ll be undertaking if hired full-time, but it also allows you to evaluate them as an employer – working remotely isn’t for everyone and their systems are far removed from what most people are used to in the corporate world, so there can be pain points for some people.

With the offer of a Trial, we set a date for me to get my training (two full days) and I was raring to go!

What’s involved

Automattic Trials are not for the faint-of-heart. They are gruelling, especially if you’re married, have children, or have a full-time job (or all three!). You’re expected to put in 20-25 hours of time with them per week, so that you can keep up and do enough for them to be able to evaluate your capabilities.

On the plus side, you aren’t working for free: you’re paid an hourly rate of $25, which is pretty decent I think, considering that it’s essentially an extended interview.

Trials last for 3-6 weeks, depending on how well you’re doing and whether you’ve performed to a level that Automattic would feel comfortable hiring you full-time.

My experience on trial

Before I even started with my training, I was given access to most of the internal systems within Automattic, including the internal directory, with every employee’s name and address, and access to their proxy server, which protects access to these most secure sites. Security is taken really seriously at Automattic (understandably so) and it can feel burdensome with all of the hoops that you have jump through to access some of the systems (like two-factor authentication, SSH, proxy servers and complex, unique passwords). However, as they state, it becomes normal after a short while, and you have the added advantage of feeling like a secret agent when you have to log in.

My first two days were spent training. We (I trained with two others) started out by learning how employees at Automattic communicate: since the company is completely distributed, communication is critical to ensure that everyone is on the same page and things aren’t left to chance, inspiring an internal motto of “Communication is oxygen”. In fact, they’d rather that you over-communicate and state something obvious, than under-communicate and miss something important.

I was rather surprised to read that most of the internal communication is done through their blogs (running on the P2 theme [now updated to O2 – play on “communication is oxygen”]), Skype and IRC. IRC!?! Is this 1994?

Actually, IRC was amazing, and immensely helpful throughout my Trial. Everyone has it open at all times, so if you’re ever in need of help, you can just shout and someone will jump to the rescue.

Beyond learning about communication, we were shown how to use all of the tools that Happiness Engineers use on a daily basis to perform their work.

This centered around the two support systems that they use (they’re in the process of transitioning) and the WordPress Network Admin.

Now, you have to understand that even though you’re on Trial, you are given a huge amount of trust. You’re given Super Admin privileges to the entire wordpress.com network, which means that you can do absolutely anything you want, including deleting people’s blogs, writing on any blog you choose, and changing the theme on any site you choose: it’s quite surreal having 65 million sites at your whim.

After the two days of training were over, we were thrown in at the deep end, to start responding to support questions. Inevitably, to begin with, there’s a whole lot of information to sift through, processes and policies to find, learn and understand, and a very steep learning curve, but with expert help just a “ping” away, you’re never alone.

Once a week, I would check in with the two employees who conducted my initial interviews (and saw me through the whole Trial process) as well as my assigned “buddy”, who I chatted with separately. They would look through the tickets I had worked on, offer up suggestions for improvement, and point out what I had done well.

It’s important to note that during Trial, they’re looking not for the absolute expertise you have, but your ability to improve and be malleable. Everyone comes in to Trial at differing levels of knowledge in different areas, so they’re looking for who can learn the most and improve the most, not necessarily be the best (though ultimately, they’re looking to hire people who can be the best in the world at what they do): after all, with a pool of about 4-5 billion potential employees (global population of working age), they have just 250ish, so you really need to be the best in the world at what you do.

I steadily grew more comfortable approaching people, answering tickets and looking for information. Automattic confesses that their systems are very much “organised chaos” because of the vast amount of information that one must sort through to find applicable information.

I started posting on the P2s, and commenting as if I was one of the employees and was made to feel very welcome by everyone. Automattic really is like a family: everyone truly cares for one another and great friendships are forged between colleagues. During my time on Trial, one of the employees had a relative pass away, and it was heartwarming to see how much everyone gathered around them and offered their support, encouraging them to take time off, offering to pick up their workload.

So it progressed, with me getting up at about 5.30 each morning to get in an hour or two before my full-time job, answering tickets over my lunch hour, and then getting in another couple of hours of work late at night after my wife and daughter had gone to bed (kudos to my family who put up with these hard conditions for a month).

Come week 4, I had my weekly chat with the hiring team. I was starting to feel really confident in myself, and was starting to get hopeful that the Trial would be over and they would be recommending me for hire (once Trials are recommended for hire, their details are passed on to Matt Mullenweg, who conducts a final interview over Skype, which I’ve heard can last for 4 hours or more – on the encouraging side, I heard that of 100+ people who had reached the “Matt chat” only 4 were not offered a job).

However, my excitement was quickly shut down when the employee who was leading the chat explained that they had been scrutinising my work (as is standard at week 4, when they’re looking to either make an offer, end the Trial, or give you another week or two to get your skills up to scratch) and felt that I would not be a good fit as a Happiness Engineer.

I was shocked to say the least, as I was either expecting to be recommended for hire, or to go on for another week, but I took the news well despite my initial shock. This was made easier by the pure professionalism with which business is conducted at Automattic, and I have to praise the hiring team for the manner in which they coached me, and discussed my Trial with me, even the hard conversations like telling me that they were ending my Trial.

And within a matter of minutes, my proxy access, access to P2s, Super Admin privileges and access to the support systems were all revoked. You can’t help but feel a little cold when that happens, but obviously that’s the way it has to be, and I don’t hold that against Automattic (if anything, it’s a testament to how streamlined their systems are, that at the moment a message is sent out to remove access, it’s not too much longer before those actions are taken).

Reflections on my Trial

I’m so thrilled and honoured to have been able to go on Trial at Automattic. It was amazing to see inside the incredibly well-oiled machine behind wordpress.com and to meet the incredible minds that make it all happen, even though I literally never spoke a single word to anyone – everything was done over IRC, Skype and P2s (because these can be referenced later – communication is oxygen, remember?).

My only criticism of my whole process from start to finish is that I wish they would have gone into more detail into why I was not a good fit for them. They had been so verbose and open up to that point about any question that I asked of them, but when I asked why they had come to the decision to not move forward, I was given a fairly generic response as they “couldn’t go into too much detail”. I can see how some people might get quite defensive and try to argue that “Automattic was wrong” and “I can improve”, but I was just genuinely interested in what it was that they saw as a reason why I wasn’t a good fit. I still hope that if they read this, they’ll do me that honour.

That aside though, I can’t praise them enough – everyone that I encountered was so willing to help with what may seem to be the most trivial questions. And they were just nice people: it made getting up early and staying up late that much easier when you could have a chat and a laugh over IRC with like-minded people.

There are so many benefits to working for Automattic, that it can be hard not to get excited at the prospect of working for them. For example, you make your own schedule, they have an open vacation policy, you’re encouraged to do some 80/20 activities and speak at WordCamps (expenses paid), travel the world on their dime (I mean the world too – recent meetup locations have included Budapest, Mexico, Israel, London, Tokyo, Hawaii and Argentina) and your benefits are covered 100%.

I encourage anyone who’s looking for a career move to check out the jobs that are open at Automattic to see whether they think they’d be a good fit and to apply. If I could work for any company (other than my own), Automattic is leaps and bounds at the top of that list. Who knows – maybe I’ll apply again one day. For now though, I need to catch up some sleep!

Further reading

Distributed Happiness

It’s Time to Get All Real Up in Here About Automattic Trials, Y’all

Fully Automattic – Joining the WordPress.com Family

Thoughts on Automattic from Erick Hitter

Joining Automattic as a Happiness Engineer

Working at Automattic

Inside Automattic, the company behind wordpress.com

Step Into the Office-Less Company

If you have any questions on being on Trial at Automattic, or about working for Automattic, leave a comment and I’d be glad to give whatever insight I have.

Author: Dave

Dave is many things. Most importantly, he's a husband and a father to Ellie and Jack. Almost as important, he's British (though he lives in Florida). Following on from there, he's a WordPress developer and civil engineer, has an unhealthy love of hummus, is vegan, likes cider, wants to travel to Iceland and Japan, loves solving puzzles and is a realist.

33 thoughts on “My experience on Trial at Automattic”

  1. Fair play to you Dave, you gave it your all and no doubt you have learned some important skills you can utilize in other areas. Just because you were not a fit for them does not mean that you did not do a good job!

    I am a fan of anyone giving something like this a go and for that you should feel proud. Fair play dude, fair play indeed.

    1. Cheers Ben. I have no regrets and certainly didn’t come away feeling like a failure in any way, but was thankful for the ability to see how Automattic works. Very cool experience.

      1. Good to hear chap, little bit jealous! Was thinking of giving it a go myself after reading your experiences felt inspired.

        Sadly though if you didn’t make it I have a slim to no chance!! lol ;-)

  2. You know what dude? I may well give it a go. Nothing to lose, plus the experience may well help me in other areas ;-)

    Will let you know how I get on, or not as the case maybe!

  3. It was great meeting and chatting with you Dave (in the little interaction we had)! Awesome postm very interesting and all the best with the next chapter :)

  4. Congrats on getting to the trial! I know Dustin as well and have since put my name in the ring to see if I can even get to the trial.

    I can understand the ‘want’ to know the reasoning behind not hiring you. The same goes for professional reviews – how can we can better improve ourselves if we don’t know what others are seeing?

  5. Very very interesting blog post – now I too would love to know why you weren’t chosen… if you ever find out, please consider adding a line to the bottom of this post! As a previous comment mentions: how can you improve if you don’t know the reasoning…

  6. I think the reason you didn’t get hired is simply because you’re not American and they have an unwritten policy of hiring Americans first.

    1. Hmmm, not sure I’ve heard that one before. Besides, I was on Trial at the same time as another person, who I believe is Filipino. She was hired.

  7. Hi Dave, thank you for writing this. My trial just ended today, and your description fits my experience to a T – I was feeling great, really starting to be confident and then bam, it was over, with very little explanation.

  8. Dave, this is a great post. I think they made a big mistake in not hiring you.

    My husband had his trial last year and experienced the same thing. He gave it his all, really poured his heart and soul into his work. They told him in the beginning of the trial that the customer always came first and he had to go above and beyond for each one. He did just that. He spent time with each customer until he was sure that they were happy and satisfied before moving on to the next customer. Then they ended his trial because he didn’t clear enough tickets per hour. He was shocked and, honestly, pissed off. During his entire trial they emphasized that there was no such thing as a status quo and the customer always came first, then bam “we don’t want you because you don’t clear enough tickets per hour”. What about customer service? What about engineering happiness, which is the whole point of the job? Automattic doesn’t care.

    Automattic only hires people that can clear tons of tickets in a short amount of time. They don’t give a crap about customer service. The job title “Happiness Engineer” is a joke. Patient and highly empathic people like you and my husband don’t get hired, instead they only hire people who can send out mass replies at once and keep their queues empty. The “Happiness Engineers” doesn’t give a crap about engineering happiness. They just want to do as little work as possible and still reap the benefit$$$.

    My husband was upset for a week then he shook it off and said, “It’s their loss.” It really is. They lost a wonderful, highly empathic person who was willing to give the company and its customers his all. This was a blessing in disguise, as shortly afterwards he landed a better job at a better company that actually cares about its customers.

    1. Haley,

      I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s experience. I’m not sure that I agree with your comments 100%: for example, I watched my stats as I was responding to tickets, and both the number of tickets that I returned, as well as the feedback score that I was receiving (from users whose tickets I had worked on) were well above those who were on Trial at the same time as me, despite which, I was let go and ultimately, at least one of them was hired.

      I also think that Automattic puts a heavy emphasis on engineering happiness, and there is no doubt in my mind that they work tirelessly to go above and beyond for their users and to be the best that they can be. All of the happiness engineers that I worked with were absolutely dedicated to assisting people and making them happy, no matter how angry or nasty they were being, and they were really good at it, so I can’t fault them there.

      I will agree that it is “their loss”. I feel like I would have been a good fit for the job, especially having seen other Happiness Engineers in their roles, I feel that I could have measured up to them, but alas, clearly there is a different plan for me, so I’m not dwelling on it too hard.

      All the best to you and your husband.

  9. Dave, now I think they made a BIIIIIIIIG mistake in not hiring you. You’re a very nice man and you have unwavering faith in WordPress even after they screwed you over. This might sound severe but listen to this…. I showed my husband our exchange, and he told me that he was exactly like you in his trial. He wrote this then sent this to me to post here so you can see…

    The blogger’s experience accurately reflects mine when I was doing my Automattic trial. My numbers were high. I closed 50-60 tickets a day and my feedback rating from users far exceeded the group’s average. The purpose of the job is right in the title Happiness Engineer. I made the users happy, happier than other Happiness Engineers did, if I must be candid. It’s all in the feedback. It seems as if the blogger aptly engineered that happiness, too. The core of the job is to keep customers happy, so I find it curious that the hiring team is so quick to dismiss trials who can do this aspect of the job exceptionally well, and hire trials with weak stats, riddled with negative feedback.

    I thought my numbers were okay, as I was told that Happiness Engineers closed an average of 40 tickets a day. I paid attention to my stats, but I still considered the customer experience more important than my status quo. It was right there in the Automattic Creed. I provided exemplary customer service, as required by the Creed. My trial buddy and other Happiness Engineers told me that my responses were excellent: I really knew how to engineer happiness. It’s bothersome that the hiring team did not honor the Creed and the true purpose of the job. Instead, they put a heavy emphasis on how many tickets I closed each hour. It was a ridiculous point to pick on, and it ultimately led to my demise as a prospective Happiness Engineer. Had I been more concerned about grinding out numbers, I would not have provided a superior level of customer service. Another thing I found bothersome was the way they communicated, or rather didn’t communicate, with me. One week they were taking their hat off to my performance, then the next they told me that I was not good enough. Zero communication.

    If I were Matt Mullenweg, I would be horribly upset with the way my hiring team handled the process. There is no doubt in my mind that they lost out on many talented people who would have done great things for the company and helped bring it to the next level.

  10. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences! I’m preparing my application for code wrangler. Your sharing somehow made me firm about it. Hopefully I can have a chance to enter the trial stage, though I guess it would be extremely hard given I have a wife, a child, and a full-time job.

    Hope that you already find the best career by the time I wrote this comment : )

  11. Great job on the prose and the way you related your experience. I have been working on a resume site for Happiness Engineer the last 3 weeks or so, and your excellent blog gave me a few tidbits on what to include and also what to expect if I get so lucky to make it to Trial.

    Best wishes for your future endeavors. I know you’re going to do great! :)

  12. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the well written account. I’m curious – how much of a tech background would a Happiness Engineer need? I’m excellent at Customers Service, and decent with WordPress? In your opinion, would a super smart, non-techy make it through the process?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Jenelle,

      Yes, I think the bigger requirement is an expertise in customer service. If you can make your way around WordPress, between the support articles and information available to happiness engineers as well as the expertise of other Automattic employees available to you at the click of a button, you’ll have everything you need to answer the bulk of questions. Most questions that came through in my experience were related to billing and domains – people trying to figure out what they were charged for, asking for domain renewals etc. There were far fewer “technical” questions and the bulk of the “technical” questions were merely how-to type questions, for which answers are easily found in existing documents.

      You should definitely apply, sounds like you’d be a good fit!

  13. Hi Dave,

    Agree with you. I just thinking that -in general- there are so many reason is taken when hiring decision is made, even if we have been a 100% prefect fit for the job. Some is not sensitive, and some other are too sensitive (and unnecessary) to be shared. A very simple example (well, perhaps not 100% match to this case) is when someone who is younger, faster, better educated, better work experience then us just suddenly show up and fill in that position -assuming only one position provided-. Should they explain this to us? There will be too much unnecessary debates for this.

  14. Hi Dave,

    Great Article. Are you able to provide any insight as to what a full time offer would look like compensation wise? $25 per hour is great for the trial run but is hardly a standard rate for a software engineer.

    Thanks,

    Dylan

    1. I’m afraid that having not been hired, I have no idea what a full-time salary would look like. One can only make educated guesses from what I have written about here.

  15. Nice reading about the hiring process, too bad you didn’t pass the trial. I have a doubt regarding the trial. Do they track somehow the hours you spend working? Since they paid you by hour, I guess they might use some time tracking software so they can measure both what you get paid and the input per hour. And what about the working hours, you get to choose how many hours and when do you work each day?

    1. They don’t track your hours: that responsibility falls to you. You track your hours and then invoice them. Obviously, they can see when you’re working from being on IRC and from the timestamps on the tickets you respond to, so it’s not like you can dupe them.

      And as for the working hours, yes, you make them yourself. One thing to note is that they prefer you to work in fewer, longer sessions than more, shorter sessions. I was advised half way through my trial that they wanted me to try and do fewer, longer shifts, as I was trying to squeeze in an hour before work, an hour over lunch and an hour or two after my daughter was in bed. That was hard for me because of my personal time constraints, which would have been helpful to know ahead of time.

  16. I see their point in wanting longer sessions, since it takes some time to get focus in your task once you start.

    I used to work for a startup using this modality. I got that freedom and indeed I ended up working more hours than expected, but from personal outsourcing experience I can tell you it’s not always the case. It’s easier to track if the work gets logged like answering tickets, however when coding it’s not that easy.

    However my question is more oriented from a employeer point of view, since I need to hire some people full time and already had bad experiences. So I got two questions:

    1) Once the trial is over, does automattic hire you full time with a fixed salary (e.g. $3000 per month) or do you still bill them per the hours worked? So that would be if you work 100 hours you bill $2000 (at $20 per hour rate)

    2) Do you think using a time tracking tool is a good idea or does it sound too invasive? I hired an outsourcer once and had my suspicions that he was working far less than he was hired for. Then we started using odesk time tracking tool and in fact he was, way less. I don’t even check the screenshots but at least he was being paid for what he worked. I know I wouldn’t be comfortable working like this, but in a remote working environment I don’t see much choice.

    1. Since I was never hired with Automattic, I don’t know much about their salary practices. I was only in their Trial and since I wasn’t hired, that’s the end of my knowledge I’m afraid.

      However, on hiring: if you can’t trust the people you’re working with to accurately report their time, you’re not working with the right people. I’d say that if the position is full-time, you should definitely use a salary. I strongly suggest that you list to this excellent episode of Apply Filters which talks over the very challenges you’re working through about hiring.

      Good luck and let me know what you end up doing :)

  17. Thanks Dave! This article was really one of the most helpful I’ve found and I’m glad to know that you came away with a good vibe in spite of the letdown. I recently sent in an application and have my first interview scheduled on Thursday.

    I wonder if you might answer a question for me. I’m applying to be a Happiness Engineer, but I, like you, am formerly trained in engineering (I graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in MechE last year). I’m scared that I’m not up to their technical requirements as I didn’t study computer science. Can you let me know what kind of technical languages/skills are most useful for working as a Happiness Engineer?

    1. Congratulations Christy and I’m excited to hear about your interview!

      From my experience, I wouldn’t be too concerned about your technical abilities. The bigger role as a Happiness Engineer is more that you’re proficient in customer service and can make people happy. I never touched any “code” during my Trial, but familiarity with WordPress (or at least the ability to pick it up by looking through the help documents) will be very useful.

      All the best, let me know how it goes.

    1. Adeline,

      No, between my 2.5 year old, a 7-month old, a full-time job and running my own business, I simply haven’t got time for this again, though I might be interested again one day. I think that’ll have to wait at least until I have time in my day for a full night of sleep!

      Good luck to you

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