Refracting thoughts about work — not yet fully formed
I just spent a week with most of my co-workers at our annual Grand Meetup, and — as usual — it’s given me much to digest and re-examine. There’s a lot that happens at the GM, and you can Google it to see what my peers have to say about it. Several times throughout the week all A12s are together (townhall, keynote speakers, opening remarks, closing party, and more), and an inexplicable frisson crackles in the air. It’s the feel of the energy that our developers and designers pour into our products, our Happiness Engineers imbue into our relationships with our customers, that Ops, Systems, Legal, HR, Finance (and more) trace through the invisible scaffolding they use to hold all the rest of us together. It’s potent, and it doesn’t just happen.
- A8c: Automattic
- A11n: Automattician
- A12s: Automattician
- Ops: Operations
- Sysops: Systems
- GM: Grand Meetup
- Open Source: freely making available code
- HE: Happiness Engineer
- Chuckle: plural noun for HEs
- LOL: Lead of Leads (my role in Happiness)
Much of my week was conversation. I worked on tickets, so I talked with customers, and with HEs who were training me, but I also hosted Office Hours for people to book with me, and I had many ad hoc conversations as well. Something that began to materialize throughout the week was that (some) HEs who work for me (I have around 110 or 115 HEs who I am accountable to) don’t necessarily know what it is that I do. Consequently, there’s a fair, vague skepticism about the work that I do. Many conversations I had this week were spent answering questions about my role, and better outlining what LOLs’ purpose is.
I see this gap as a fundamental blocker to building trust. As I thought more and more deeply about trust, the more I began to see trust as the single most important quality that leadership needs to cultivate and curate. Trust is a partnership. It must exist on both sides, and the premise at the root of trust has to be accepted by both parties or else it cannot develop. It is, simply, a relationship, a conversation that is the underpinning for every other transaction, whether that’s a conversation or reaching understanding, or pushing back, or pushing forward.
Loyalty is not trust. Loyalty can be nice to have, certainly. But loyalty is fickle. Loyalty can be bought, it can be forced, it can bind.
Passion without trust is disturbed. It will lead to divergence, because there is no attempt nor motivation to meet.
Dedication implies self-sacrifice, which can be necessary for some things, but it asks much of one without much of the other.
When trust is placed before loyalty, passion, and dedication, each of those things become stronger, truer, and more reciprocal. Trust assumes accountability, and that accountability must be honored, particularly by the person in the position in power. I am in a position of power, and the way I can help to foster loyalty, passion, and dedication so that these are not burdens to be borne, is by accepting accountability and building trust. Trust-first is incredibly powerful and should underpin everything we do.
At our townhall, Matt began by reading the Creed.
I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.Matt Mullenweg
Something that many A12s talk about after first being hired is how surprising it is to be so trusted. Trust is built firmly into most of our assumptions. We don’t always explicitly talk about trust, however. Something we tend to say instead is “With great power comes great responsibility” (Uncle Ben), and that is true, but assumed trust doesn’t scale.
To give you an idea of the massive amount of trust that all A12s have, let me tell you a story about something that happened earlier this year. Something I did wrong, and really pretty phenomenally dumb. By necessity, I’ll be fairly vague on the details, but trust me that you will be able to understand the scope. Our engineers and developers deploy code hundreds of times a week, sometimes hundreds of times a day. To do that, they need commit access. They are then able to commit code and push it live – making changes that anyone on the internet can see. I broke commit access for 80 minutes one day, for everyone in the company. I did this by thinking carefully, having a couple discussions that supported my thinking, and then deliberately removing a fence that would keep someone from doing exactly what I was going to do, and then trashing (unwittingly) a bunch of running programs. Our sysops lead pinged me, which is always a bad sign, and asked me a series of questions about what I was doing (to confirm my account had not been hacked). It was a deeply humbling day.
The result of that event was that we fixed properly the thing I was trying to fix, and I was asked to avoid doing that particular thing again. I was trusted to learn from my mistake.
Something I spend a lot of time talking about with all the leads who work with me is impact over intent. We want to be aware of the unintended consequences of everything we do (we can’t always imagine them all, but we get better over time), and we want to be focused on the impact that another A11n has, rather than trying to assign intent to their actions. So, for example, the impact of what I did in my example above was to derail productivity for everyone for more than an hour. My intentions were pure, I assure you, but the impact is what matters. Important here is that when you focus on impact over intent, you shift from saying “you are bad” to “this action didn’t work.”
Part of the Creed (“I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation.“) brushes against this. The first half is often somewhat misunderstood. But put it into the context of the above. Impact is what you do, and caring deeply about the impact you can have and want to have, will absolutely give you a reason to get up everyday. Money is also great, but when all things are equal, it doesn’t get you to do things you are passionate about. It doesn’t inspire trust or trust-first loyalty. Open Source intrinsically means giving work away, towards a greater goal. Doing well by doing good. Therefore, trust needs to be established between employee and employer. I trust A8c to take care of my financial needs by compensating me well (“all things being equal”). In return, I don’t think about my salary. When I get a raise, it feels great! For a few days. Then I go back to I thinking about what impact I can have on the chuckles of HEs under me. Similarly, I care about my community, and when I volunteer for work that benefits it, cash compensation doesn’t enter into it at all. Impact is solely my motivation.
Many of the conversations I began or continued with HEs this past week had to do with understanding why they have the questions they have. Accepting from them that I haven’t yet finished doing what I was supposed to do for them, accepting that we needed to rebuild trust. And what I expect back isn’t blindness — not blind loyalty, not blind dedication, and not blind passion. What I expect back is trust as well, and from there, we will do good and well.