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