If WordPress was a company, it would have 20k employees all over the world making it probably the largest known remote organization on the planet. And you can be a part of it. Today, if you want to. I wish I knew that fourteen years ago.
My long and winding road to remote work
I was 20 when I started my first serious job hunt. I wasn’t yet out of University and my work experience included helping in my grandfather’s pottery shop, running a school newspaper and planting and picking beans for 6 months on a field somewhere in the middle of the UK.
I was lost. I didn’t know where to look for, the things I loved doing at the time – reading about media business models, browsing through advertising and marketing campaigns and ordering my friends around into random events, didn’t seem like anything that someone would like to pay me to do.
I knew I wanted to work in media, but not be a journalist. I also didn’t want to be stuck in an office for days and hated the thought of giving up my freedom, but I needed a job to be able to survive in the big city because the thought of going back to my parent’s house sounded like a complete disgrace.
The biggest problem seemed to be that I didn’t know what exactly I would be good at and that I had zero experience in any media related field.
Some friends recommended that I look for an internship to get some experience, but all the stories I’ve heard from friends who’ve had internships in Bulgaria, were that interns were used to doing all the dirty, crappy work, that they were not mentored or taught anything useful – they were just exploited as a cheap low-level work force.
So at the end of the day, I had to face facts: with zero valuable experience and no recommendations or connections, my options were very limited. The first thing I dropped was the idea of flexibility, then the requirement for interesting, challenging day to day work and the end – the media industry as a whole.
I ended up working at a call center for almost two years before I got my first really interesting, challenging job. It paid next to nothing, so for another year, I took night shifts at the call center to be able to afford to work at the other place and to do what, at that time, felt like the first real job I had.
I’m sure this is a familiar career story for a lot of you.
When I started looking for my first job I never considered that there might be a place, where I can start learning and developing skills, mentored by amazing, experienced people, where I could do something of value and feel appreciated for what I bring to the table and nurtured to keep going. And all this – on my own time, with flexible hours and without sacrificing my free time and lifestyle.
They say Remote work is the future of work
They say Remote work is The future of work – no offices, no commute, hire from anywhere, work with the best. As WordPress itself is created remotely, more and more companies using WordPress as the base of their business, are going remote, to take advantage of the talented people that have the most WordPress knowledge, who are distributed as well.
Why people love the idea of remote work
- Work anywhere
- From home
- From a Thai island
- From a boat
- From your remote mountain hut
- Make your own hours
- Go surfing in the morning
- Take care of the kids and family in your own time
- Adjust your job to your lifestyle – combine them instead of trying to fit in the ultimate work-life balance myth
- Don’t waste time getting to the office
- Get an interesting job
The challenges of remote work
- Dealing with time zones – how do you work with your clients in Europe, your developers in Australia and your PMs in the US?
- Working Asynchronously is not easy to learn or taught in University
- Online communication across cultures and different career backgrounds
- Working as a part of a remote team with no face to face interactions can be hard
- Documenting to death
- Need of a strong culture – a great remote company also needs a very strong culture where people are set on the same priorities and value the same things in work and life, otherwise, synergy is almost impossible.
It’s not easy to develop those skills out of the blue. You don’t get born with them and they’re not taught in school. So if you want to be a part of the remote work scene, and have no idea where to start, I’ll give you a simple solution:
But I’m not a developer!
Neither am I!
In 2013, I went to WordCamp Europe in Leiden and to its contributor day, completely unsure if there would be anything for me to do. I ended up sharing a table with Ze and the Polyglots and started translating WordPress to Bulgarian. I got hired exactly a year after I started putting serious time and dedicated efforts to giving back to the project. It was not my primary goal when I started contributing. It was the result of my consistency in showing up and doing good work around an area of the project that needed it – the Polyglots team. It was also a result of my involvement with the second WordCamp Europe.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that great people are not easy to find in today’s business world. When a company starts looking for people, the first thing it does is look internally, then ask their friends for recommendations. When a great WordPress company starts looking for people, the first place they look is the Open Source project.
If you are a developer, they’ll look into your code but also how you approach your work and how consistent and passionate you are about your work. But if you’re not a developer, they’ll look for something else – how well you communicate, how well you write, your people skills, how persistent you are, the way you follow up, the way you give and receive feedback, how creative you are. How often you take the initiative.
The way you make things happen.
You don’t have to be a developer to be a great asset for both WordPress and your company.
Still don’t believe me? Here are a few things you can do on the project:
- Front end
- Theme development
- Plugin development
- Stand alone software development
- Translation management software development
UX & Design
- Q&A and User Experience
- Accessibility testing and design
- Niche events management
- Hyperlocal, national and international events
- Web events
- Events documentation and processes
Team: Community | http://make.wordpress.org/community
- Brand awareness
- Social media management
- Guerilla marketing
Team: Marketing | http://make.wordpress.org/marketing
Software/Tech documentation writing
- Inline documentation
- Development documentation
- User documentation
- Building documentation repositories
Team: Docs | http://make.wordpress.org/docs
Support and user management
- Support engineer
- Technical support
- New user experience support
Team: Support | http://make.wordpress.org/support
Software Localisation and translating documentation
- Learn how to translate software
- Learn how to prepare/translate localized documentation
- Learn how to build/extend translation management software
Team: Polyglots | http://make.wordpress.org/polyglots
Training and teaching
Team: Training | http://make.wordpress.org/training
What else can you learn from contributing?
How to work in a remote team
How to master communication across time zones and work asynchronously. My work in the Polyglots team requires me to speak to people from literally all time zones and think about all of them when planning or communicating. The WordCamp Europe team has 18 people in different time zones with different backgrounds and experiences. Weekly meetings, short and long term tasks as well as making complex decisions are a part of our day to day work.
The Gentle Art of online communication
How to talk to people, how to give feedback, how to receive feedback. Not to take things personally, to approach everyone with kindness and understanding. The concept of “Always assume no harm is meant”. These are things you’re forced to learn if you want to get things done in an open source project. Volunteers are people who take pride in their work, but people from different countries, continents and cultures express pride in different ways. They also express excitement, anger, and disappointment in different ways. It’s essential to learn to recognize the real message behind anything anyone says online and to learn to appreciate the differences of your teammates.
How to delegate
In an open source project, the bus factor is crucial. It’s so common for something to all of a sudden be left without a maintainer. We’re all volunteers and life happens. So one of the best things you learn while doing it is how to make yourself scares. This is a very useful mindset if you’re planning on leading a remote company. Or any company at all, to be honest.
How to lead with grace
It’s not every day that you can pick up a part of a project and just start leading. But with volunteer-run projects, the need for strong leaders is obvious. In a project like this, you have the opportunity to pick up a small part and embrace the responsibility of owning it. I got thrown into a leadership role without asking for it, but because I was passionate about my team and wanted to help out, I did my best.
Leading people is impossibly hard when nature made you a hot headed control freak
I failed on multiple occasions and I’m still learning. But it’s also rewarding and beautiful. And if you develop your leadership skills within a volunteer project, you will learn how to motivate people the right way in all your future errands.
How to be a great human being
And if not any of the above, contributing to open source projects will teach you how to be a great person. You learn that every day from all the people you work with. It’s an alternative universe where people are driven by different things than in the corporate world. Ask anyone what they love most about WordPress. You’ll hear one answer more than anything else: The people.
Decisions are made by those who show up
I find this quote by Aaron Sorkin to best describe the values that open source thought me.
Decisions are made by those who show up. Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day: civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance, you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy. Don’t ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.
Contributing can be a hobby, a way to do something of value to feel good and be a part of the community. But that hobby can ultimately lead to you finding flexibility, freedom and purpose in your day to day by landing an amazing job.
Fourteen years after I started looking for my dream job, I got head hunted and hired at Human Made and in the last fourteen sixteen months, I’ve been traveling the world while building amazing websites on WordPress and organizing important events alongside some of the brightest people in the industry.
This is, without a doubt, a dream job. You don’t need to spend fourteen years looking.
If I can rephrase the Sorking quote above so it fits my agenda, it would sound like this: “Things happen to those who show up.”
So show up
This is a transcript of a talk I gave at WordCamp Porto 2016 on May 14th. Slides:
25% of the web and growing – that’s the current distribution of WordPress
All types of projects are built with WordPress – from cooking blogs to corporate websites, to high traffic media sites to complicated CRM like projects and SaaS products. But is one platform really capable of doing all that well?
We’re all grown-ups, there are no fairy tales in software development and a one-solution-fits-all platform is nonexistent. So then how can this be?
Can there be a software platform that is perfect for both my grandma’s cooking blog and the complex website build of The Sun with hundreds of thousands of posts and a sophisticated flexible editorial management UX at the back?
This post is a modification of a talk called “We Need to Talk about The REST API” (Slides) that I gave at WordCamp London 2016 on April 10, 2016. In this talk, I looked into how the REST API helps WordPress get out of its comfort zone to become a part of a bigger technology stack.
The REST API – the next important milestone for WordPress
WordPress is constantly growing. The way people use and perceive WordPress over the years changes. When it started it was just a blogging platform.
- In 3.0, it started transforming into cms with the introduction of custom post types
- In 3.8 after a major redesign of the admin area and with a sophisticated media library and editor on the back, it started being more and more appealing for bigger publishers, developers started using it for larger builds
- With this, the business ecosystem around WordPress grew and developers started building complex services to extend it and compensate its flaws so it can work for big website builds (SEO, Security, Speed Optimization).
- And at some point, more and more people started using it as an application Framework.
Enter the WordPress REST API
WordPress 4.4 introduced the infrastructure for the REST API with the endpoints being planned to go in with the 4.7 release. The REST API is already developed as a featured plugin and used in production for many projects.
The REST API is the next phase and it will allow WordPress to be considered as a key element of larger, more complex projects. How? By providing a clear path to the WordPress content for any technology.
Why is this important?
If we think about WordPress as a real living and breathing creature, we need to admit – it’s got a lot of responsibilities. It needs to be nice to everyone! It needs to be modern, hype and tries to fit in with the other cool kids, it needs to be really bad ass and all powerful, strong and deep and sophisticated, but also very friendly and easy going to everyone new that would just like to say hello, have a quick convo and then go. It hosts huge parties for a lot of people every day and it does all the organising, preparation and execution alone!
It’s expected to be able to feed everyone and prepare hundreds of thousands of pieces of food, but at the top quality and very fast, otherwise the crowd will get impatient and will go eat somewhere else. But it also needs to entertain everyone while preparing the food, serving the food, cleaning after everyone, not allowing unwelcome guests to spoil the party all the while looking gorgeous in accordance to the latest trends.
And even though it’s got a Ph.D. these days, it needs to be friendly and obliging to everyone who still expects it to behave like it did in kindergarten.
If WordPress was a creature, it would be burnt out, stretched and probably at the verge of suicide because of the impossible expectations towards it to be good at EVERYTHING and execute everything itself.
If you think about it, it’s not far from how a gifted, experienced, knowledgeable control freak feels when they get too much on their plate. You want to do everything, the way you know is the right way to do things and you insist on doing it all yourself, even though you know there are people out there that, if you just give them access, if you allow them, can help you deliver better results for the guests at your party.
The REST API is for WordPress that strike of genius that hits control freaks just before they break that allows them to finally let go.
The REST API will teach WordPress to Delegate
To be the best it can be in the kitchen, providing the essence of the party, while leaving the delivery of the food, the presentation to the guests, the entertainment and the security of the party to the cool kids, who can do it better.
WordPress as a headless CMS
On of the biggest strengths of WordPress is it’s easy to grasp, comprehensive and full-featured publishing backend that is also extendable and customizable with the use of plugins
Authors and editors love publishing with WordPress. They like the rich visual editor, the easy way to add and manipulate images, the tools, the distraction free mode and many more small but significant gems that streamline content creation. WordPress is great for that.
The REST API will allow companies to develop products using WordPress just for its backend, separating it from the theming system, which nowadays, is used to create the front end – the design of the website, that the general audience sees.
That way there is no limitations of the technologies used to build the front end. Remember these guys? They’ll be constant companions to WordPress from now on and together they’ll do great things!
Use WordPress as a content management system to feed multiple front ends
Using the API, developers can use the content from one or multiple WordPress instals and deliver it to multiple front ends. You can use the content of a single WordPress install to feed a website, a mobile app of your choice or a particular part of a larger website that has different content management systems and several different channels it delivers to.
That’s all great, but can you show us some examples?
Sure. Let’s look at some projects that use the REST API in production.
Beyond the corporate website: The opportunities
- Create context-specific solutions
- Reusable, portable content
- Separation of concerns
- Familiar backend for authors and publishers
- Integrate WordPress as one part of a content-authoring workflow
Growth pains: the challenges coming with the REST API
By now we saw the opportunities the REST API will provide for WordPress. But as any complicated technology advancement, it comes with it all sets of challenges and changes for parts of the WordPress ecosystem.
The front end features of WordPress core get lost
A REST API-driven website loses frontend features that are linked to the WordPress theme system, like menu management and post previews. Front end developers need to take responsibility for re-implementing features that come for free with WordPress. If they are not rebuilt, users must do without them. When writing project specifications for an API-driven project, it will become necessary to be very specific about the features that the client needs and not just assume that because they are in WordPress they are available. To solve this problem, we anticipate the emergence of REST API base themes that rebuild WordPress features on the frontend. These boilerplate themes will be written in different languages and will provide a starting point for frontend developers to build on.
WordPress site builders will lose control of the front end
I got into the WordPress Ecosystem from traditional web development and I was able to start building sites on my own very fast with a couple of experiments and after taking a few front end courses online. That meant that with WordPress core, a premium theme and a bit of CSS tweaks I could build a site quickly and for many, many, many things that I previously had needed a developer, I no longer needed one.
When we created the first website for A Day of REST – the first WordPress REST API conference, we decided to go with a theme because the development team at Human Made was very busy, we didn’t have allocated dev resources and we needed to get the site up fast. So in a way, we took advantage of everything the ecosystem had to offer – core, a premium events theme, our own knowledge of how to tweak it to fit our corporate identity and the content, that I and Siobhan were in charge of.
In less than 2 days we had a site. But it wasn’t great. And not only it was not great, it wasn’t ideal for a conference dedicated to the REST API to not utilize the technology for its own website.
So Joe rebuilt the website in a weekend, using the REST API and a React power theme designed by Noel. He also open sourced the code and created a cute little widget at the bottom of each page that allowed developers to see the API requests for each of the pages. Brilliant!
The problem is Siobhan and I did not realise the impact the theme would have on our publishing processes until Joe wrote about it and we started using the new site.
When using the REST API, it’s important to take this into account. That’s especially important when creating specifications for projects using the REST API for clients who might be used to the front end manipulating features of WordPress. Front end developers will need to rebuilt those as they are not yet a part of what comes packages with the REST API.
And this is, actually, one of the deal breakers for the merge of the API in WordPress core.
No more layout building from the visual editor
To be able to deliver data to multiple devices, the REST API will require the content to not be over formatted in the WordPress admin. That’s why REST API driven sites will not rely on WYSIWYG in TinyMCE for page layouts. Content will be added through modular page builders that format the content in a different way.
Progressive enhancement 😱
What will change?
- WordPress will become just one layer of a larger technology stack
- WordPress will be used for huge, enterprise projects
- WordPress developers will specialize in backend development
- WordPress will (finally) be adopted outside of the PHP communities
- New, funnelled, role-based admin interfaces will become much more common
What will NOT change?
- Themes and theme shops are not going anywhere
- WordPress will still be used for both cooking blogs and The SUN
- Backwards compatibility will not be forgotten
- WordPress’ mission will remain the same: To Democratise Publishing
Learn more about the REST API:
- Ryan McCue: Introduction to the WordPress REST API (video)
- Talking to 25% of The Web: A comprehensive guide to the WordPress REST API
- Official website and documentation (wp-api.org)
- WordPress core discussion about the REST API
- Joe Hoyle: The Building Blocks of a REST API project (video)
- Scott Taylor: The Live Coverage platform of the NY Times
A very special thank you to Scott Evans for the amazing panicked, burnt out Wapuu and to the creative community of wapuu designers for their inspiring work.
My mom’s chicken soup has no equal anywhere else in the world
I can sum up my year of wandering the globe with that simple statement, but as it’s something that everyone discovers at some point in life and has nothing to do with location independence, I can try and be a little more insightful.
This article is based on a talk I did at WordCamp Torino on April 2nd, called “Gone with the wind: lessons learned from a year of location independence” in which I shared my takes from the past year on
Communication, productivity, and happiness.
In January 2015, I officially became a human. In other words, I was hired by Human Made – one of the top WordPress agencies in the world, 100% distributed with people working from several different continents and clients on both sides of the ocean.
Having contributed to WordPress and organised WordCamp Europe in 2014 with a global team of WordPressers from 6 different countries, I had already gotten a sense of remote work. I thought I was prepared and couldn’t wait to go fully remote, to be able to work from anywhere, make my own working hours and go travel the world.
Fourteen months later, after 21 countries on 3 continents, 12 conference talks, 4 organised events, 9 launched projects and 123,324 Slack messages (as of last week), here’s what I learned about winning at remote work.
Set expectations in writing. Meet them.
Not really a huge discovery for those of you whose main day to day consists of mostly client work. But what’s important in a remote company, is to do this with not just your clients, but your colleagues and mostly – yourself.
In a remote company how successful you are depends on your results. Nobody cares where you are and how you work, as long as things happen when expected and as promised.
At Human Made, we do weekly updates with our deliverables for the week (that we set for ourselves) and combine that with a report of what we did in the past week. Client communication loops are also weekly and if we can’t catch up in a call, we do it in writing.
Those weekly checkups are the pillars of our projects and help you structure your week and plan the following one better.
When expressing yourself in writing, always assume no harm is meant
Online communication is hard. Online communication across countries, cultures, languages and industry backgrounds is impossible. That’s why there are these simple rules to follow when talking to people online:
- Assume no harm is meant. Always. Strip the sentence of what you consider passive aggressive and get to the core message.
- Be constructive. Overcommunicate if you need to. To be sure if the other person means exactly the thing you’re assuming, state it and ask for confirmation. Do this, until you read “Correct”.
- Don’t take anything personally. In 95% of the cases, it’s not going to be about you.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Asking works better than demanding or stating expectations. Thanking someone for their effort to start the conversation goes a long way.
- When in doubt, be nice. Kindness is a universal language. In writing, it needs to be specifically expressed or it can be missed. Responding to aggression with kindness will have surprising results. Try it.
Communication is oxygen
In a remote environment, we use tools to replace the live interactions of the office. Blogs, Slack, Screen Hero, Zoom, Trello, Skype, Hangouts, Dropbox Paper cover our needs of live and asynchronous communication.
Oxygen deprivation is lethal. But so is overdosing on oxygen.
Because we need to compensate for the lack of facial expressions and body language, remote workers tend to overcommunicate to get their message through. There’s also the need for a virtual watercooler, which usually turns out to be the general chat channel. The urgency of live communication can quickly become overwhelming and that’s hurting the productivity and the health of the team. People feel guilty when they’re not able to respond to a message immediately or suffer from fear of missing out when they’re too far from the live channels. That’s why it’s important to set rules for yourself in terms of online / offline time and your availability for live interaction:
- Set Do Not Disturb mode for Slack (or Hipchat, or skype, or the other tools you use) and turn off all notifications once you get offline on all your devices
- Set clear expectations when you’ll be online and when not
- Be clear about the focus time that you need if you’ll be working but away from Slack
- Use asynchronous channels as much as possible. Which brings me to my next point:
Every meeting, every new turn of events needs to be put in writing so that the other members of the team can clearly see and know about it.
- New business development goes on the client Trello card
- Project development and progress goes into weekly meeting notes collected on an internal blog or Dropbox Paper / Hackpads
- Project specification changes go into the Project wiki on GitHub
Choose your daily goals early and carefully and stick to them
Keep your goals right in front of you throughout the day and avoid distractions until they’re completed. I use a Wunderlist for current tasks and love it: it’s web based and syncs across devices.
Learn and optimise
Self-check, monitor your ways and improve your processes. If you’re not already using a time management tool like Rescue time, try it for a couple of weeks. It’s going to help you learn more about the way you work.
Be prepared and take advantage of offline time
Work whatever happens. You can’t let the lack of wifi or the partying people around you distract you. They’re on vacation, but you’re not. Plan for offline:
- ABC! Always be charging. Don’t drain your computer battery while power is available. Keep your other devices charged as well.
- Offline is going to happen while you travel, so don’t let that surprise or disable you. No wifi means focused time for in-depth work on a task and coding / designing / writing without distractions. Embrace it.
- If you need to be online and can’t afford the offline time (client meetings are a good example), always have a backup plan. I have a wi-fi dongle with me at all times or I’m prepared for tethering from my phone even when I’m in a foreign country. A local sim card with data might cost you different amounts around the world, but it’s worth it and your colleagues and clients will thank you later. Do the research before you get to the next country.
Happiness and Self-care
The risks of remote work are real and you need to be careful and disciplined to escape them.
People in all time zones and collaborators all over the world mean there’s always someone to talk to, tasks to execute and another thing to complete before you stop for the day. Burnout is real in the remote work environment, it’s dangerous. Fear of missing out leading to no time off is also pushing a lot of remote workers to never close their laptops. How to avoid it?
- Watch out for yourselves. Is someone online all the time? Are they constantly replying to messages even though it’s night time in their time zone? Call them out on it, check why that’s happening.
- Encourage others (and yourself) to take enough time off. We have a minimum required holiday at Human Made (everyone needs to take at least 28 days a year) but our overall vacation is unlimited and as long as you give enough notice, you are encouraged to take all the time you need
- If you’re feeling unproductive, stop. You can continue tomorrow. Don’t force yourself into working if you don’t feel well. Remember: results are what matter.
Isolation and loneliness
One of the biggest challenges remote workers face is loneliness and isolation. Live human interactions are important, so create opportunities for them to happen.
- If you don’t want to travel, go to a co-working space where you can meet like-minded people.
- If you love to travel, do it with other people. In 2015, I took a road trip around Europe with my colleagues and for a month we worked together, met several different WordPress communities, explored the continent and had fun.
- Get together every few months to hack on projects and spend quality time. Each year we have at least one get together with everyone else, but we also plan monthly co-working locations with just a few people or drop by someone else’s house, work together and sleep on their couch for a week or two.
The most important thing to do here is to recognise the risks and actively plan against them.
At the end of the day and after crazy 14 months, the best thing remote working gave me was the appreciation for the place I call home. Being away makes it that much sweeter when you finally go back.
Because location independence can also mean enjoying your mom’s chicken soup for a week or two. And after just 14 months of being all over the world, in my book, that’s right next to my month of early morning walks on the beach in Thailand.
Recommended remote working reads:
- WordCamp Switzerland, Sep 19th, 2015
- WordCamp Netherlands, Sep 26th, 2015
WordPress speaks more than 100 languages. Many people don’t realise that that’s one of the main reasons of the software growing globally to power more than 24% of the web. This talk will shed a bit of light on who translates WordPress and how you, as a plugin or theme author, can grow your products following the example of the core software. You get to meet the largest WordPress contributor team – the Polyglots – 4000+ people who donate their time and effort to get WordPress to as many people and place as possible.
- WordCamp Cologne, June 6th, 2015
- WordCamp Croatia, September 6th, 2015
This is a talk about contributing to WordPress for the right reasons and making the most of your contribution time. It covers the most common reasons people have started to contribute and kept contributing and gives a brief overview at all the different contributor teams on the project.
WordCamp Bratislava, April 23rd, 2015
As the WordPress ecosystem grows and the demand for high-quality professionals grows with it, clients want to hire the best in the field no matter where they are in the world. WordPress companies adapt too, hiring the best professionals no matter where they are. This gives WordPress professionals a unique flexibility and the opportunity to satisfy their passion for travel and adventure and to supplement their everyday life with a lot of awesomeness.
This talk is about the active, “on the go” lifestyle and how it helps you boost creativity & productivity and encourages you to never stop learning, which ultimately affects how you grow as the goal is not to reach a specific place but to always keep moving.
WordCamp London, March 2015
The story of The Openmedia.bg. How a small group of people is trying to improve the media scene in Bulgaria.
Open Media Foundation is a Bulgarian NGO that aims to provide smart solutions to some of the problems of local media using open source tools. This presentation looks in depth into the problems and shares the solutions of the co-founders of the foundation Petya Raykovska and Dimitar Dimitrov.