Master remote work by contributing to open source projects

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.

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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.

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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.

Master Remote Work by contributing to Open Source projects Small.010I 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

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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

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  • 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:

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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.

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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:

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  • Front end
  • Back-end
  • Theme development
  • Plugin development
  • Stand alone software development
  • Translation management software development

Teams: Core & Meta | |

UX & Design

  • Q&A and User Experience
  • Accessibility testing and design

Teams: Design & Accessibility | |

Event management

  • Niche events management
  • Hyperlocal, national and international events
  • Web events
  • Events documentation and processes

Team: Community |

Online marketing

  • Brand awareness
  • Social media management
  • Guerilla marketing

Team: Marketing |

Software/Tech documentation writing

  • Inline documentation
  • Development documentation
  • User documentation
  • Building documentation repositories

Team: Docs |

Support and user management

  • Support engineer
  • Technical support
  • New user experience support

Team: 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 |

Training and teaching

Team: Training |

What else can you learn from contributing?

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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.”

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So show up

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at WordCamp Porto 2016 on May 14th. Slides:

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