Category: Work

Working Remotely and Tangible Craft

Before I started working at Automattic (the folks behind and the Jetpack WordPress platform), I had a career in what I call progressive coffee: high end coffee, well made, ethically sourced, that kind of thing.

(I’ve written a little about my journey from a hospitality job to a job with a tech company here and here, if you’re curious about that)

While I was working at Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, Rhode Island, our biggest day of the week was Saturday, especially Saturday morning. One part of my job there was designing the layout of the employee space, as well as building and improving the training programs. Spending my Saturday mornings at the busiest location on the busiest day was a great way to ensure that my work was successful, and was adding value to the company and customers when the rubber hit the road.

During one of these shifts, I’d typically clock in 14,000+ steps: it is borderline insane to think about, now, when I struggle to get in 10,000 steps in a whole day!

Preparing really excellent espresso, tasting coffee to decide what to bring on as an offering: these are inherently and importantly physical and sensorial activities: awareness of the body and what it’s telling you is part and parcel of finding success in these pursuits. You have to not just heat the milk, you have to listen, to watch it, to gauge the temperature of the pitcher against your hand. You spend a lot of time focused on and attending to your sense inputs, using your body and its inputs in increasingly focused and demanding ways.

The combination of focused precise work (which being a quality-focused barista in a busy espresso bar absolutely is) with 14,000 steps meant that the days were cognitively and physically exhausting.

Moving away from this career into what I do now, working for a software company, and more specifically working fully remotely, was a real shift. It was a real change, in some ways I expected (I didn’t have to work on Saturdays anymore!) and in some ways I did not expect.

One of the unexpected changes was that I found I was attracted to hobbies that were much more manual: gardening at first, and more recently woodworking.

Over time I’ve come to realize that the part of me that is fulfilled by building things and planting vegetables is the same part of me that was fulfilled by those busy Saturdays: there’s a value to using the body, to getting to know what your body can do and how many amazing things you can teach it to accomplish.

Part of it, too, is that manual pursuits, physical crafts, impose humility on the practitioner: you cannot Google how to cut a perfect dovetail.

Well, that’s not true – you can Google it, and get lots of results! But, you can’t Google how to actually do it, like Neo in the Matrix. Once the saw hits the lumber, the truth comes out. There is no quick route: if you want to make beautiful things out of wood, you have to spend a lot of time making pretty ugly stuff first.

You simply have to put the miles on: there aren’t any shortcuts.

(This is also true for another new pursuit of mine – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but you’d have to substitute “make ugly stuff” to “get choked out by strangers” – different but the same!)

Like everything, becoming someone who works with code means re-learning everything I’ve known to be true again, in a new pursuit. I realized and came to appreciate the need for exposure, for time with my saws and chisels and on the mats – and at the outset it seemed so different from writing code. Coding, for the beginner, many times does feel like there are short cuts, with Stack Exchange, with other folks’ code or libraries, etc.

It turns out that what all those folks on Stack Exchange have been saying all this time (but are mostly ignored) is true: copy-pasting a solution that works is different from understanding the problem, from getting a deep sense of the solution and how to pursue it. It’s like buying someone else’s chest of drawers rather than building it yourself. It’s different from having the answer in your bones.

The more I learn, the more I learn that everything is the same. For me, I’ve learned that remote work is an amazing way to work, and writing software and doing data work is special, and important, and so satisfying: but the brain and the body, or my brain and body at least, really need that opportunity to do work in the physical space, to hold something, to engage in craft that doesn’t happen on my laptop screen.

If you are a remote worker, and you don’t have a hobby or pursuit that takes you off of your computer and into the garage or the gym – you should give it a try!

Fatigue: Emotional and Intellectual

I know not everyone follows my LinkedIn profile with rapt attention. That’s OK – I don’t follow your LinkedIn profile very closely, either.

So, you might not know; I’ve moved into a different-but-not-so-different role at Automattic (the folks behind, Woo Commerce, Jetpack, and a heap of other great stuff)

I was previously leading a support team, and have since moved into a role that we call a Data Analyst, on the Marketing team.

If you’re familiar at all with Automattic’s naming policies, both for jobs and teams, yes, this is an outlier in the direction of the mundane in both cases. I went from being a Happiness Engineer on Team Athens (and also technically on Team Redwood) to being a Data Analyst on Customer Activation.

100% consistent with Automattic standard, though, are the many and varied hats that come with this role: at other companies my day to day work could be described as Marketing, Growth Engineering, SEO, SEM, Pay Per Click, Customer Success, Data Science, even a little bit of database architecture. It’s a lot!

(As a sidebar, I think the job duties and title change may make it seem like I’m making a career change or otherwise sort of changing direction – let me assure you, my focus continues to be on building explosive value for our customers. I’m expanding my tool set – not changing my approach.)

Today, was a cognitively demanding day. Working remotely means taking on a lot of responsibility for structure and organization of one’s work – I’m still figuring out how to do that the best way I can, in this new role. It also means being disciplined to push back distractions which are constantly at the ready in any browser window.

Spending hours looking at databases, considering queries, performance, outputs, accuracy – this is work, it’s real work, and it builds fatigue. A day of work, focused, attentive work, can certainly leave me in need of a deep breath and a long walk.

(I personally find it especially hard to think critically and well about SQL, statistics, databases, and so forth, near the end of my work day. It’s like I’m running out of gas.)

What struck me today was how different this kind of fatigue feels, especially compared to the kind of fatigue I’d feel after a tough day leading a team of Happiness Engineers. I’ve reduced them into two distinct types for the title – Emotional and Intellectual – but I’m sure there is some overlap, maybe some days more than others.

Maybe the difference is, in the lead role, the fatigue comes from trying to serve others, trying to hold them and their full personhood in your mind, whereas in this analyst role the fatigue comes from the intensely individual and personal kind of focus it takes to do it well, to take it seriously.

It does feel different to say to my wife, “I had a hard day – I couldn’t get the data types to reconcile the way I wanted,” rather than “I had a hard day – I think I really let some people down.”

Maybe they’re not different. Maybe I’m different.




It’s Good that Data is Man Made

There’s a post from the folks at Highrise that’s been going around Customer Support and Success circles over the last couple of weeks: Data is Man Made, from Chris Gallo.

As someone who writes and speaks about customer support and leveraging data to do customer support better, I’ve had this article dropped to me in at least two Slack channels. Folks get a sense of mirth, I suspect, from needling me with articles and arguments that run contrary to the sorts of things I write about, and try to be persuasive around.

Yes; I will admit that I found this piece hard to swallow at first blush. Opening with…

Here’s a secret from the support team at Highrise. Customer support metrics make us feel icky.

… is a guaranteed burr in my side. Arguing against measurement from emotional premises?

Continue reading “It’s Good that Data is Man Made”

A Civilian at World of Watson Part Two: Business

Back in October I was invited by IBM to attend their World of Watson event in Las Vegas – I wrote a little about it at the time.

Now that I have had some time following the event, I’ve been able to percolate and put my thoughts to paper, as it were. In the interest of you, dear reader, I’m splitting these thoughts into three different posts; Technology, Business and Philosophy. Note that there are no bright lines here: I’m sure to touch on each of the three topics in all three posts.

(I predict #1 and #2 will far outshine #3 in terms of traffic – such is life, friends!)

This post is the second, talking a little bit about Business. You can find my first post, discussing the Technology and my experience of it, here.
Continue reading “A Civilian at World of Watson Part Two: Business”

Research in the Right Order: When to Interview Your Customers

One of the parts of my work that I get the most satisfaction from, and the part that most consistently surprises me, is in listening to our customers. has a lot of customers. When you are dealing with a B2C company at this scale, it gets to be important not just to learn to listen, but learn to seek information in the right order.

(If you were at my SupConf talk, some of this is going to be very familiar!)

I like to talk to people – it’s part of who I am. I am an unapologetic talk-to-think-er. My most successful side hustle was a thinly-veiled attempt to get incredibly smart and incredibly busy cutting-edge farmers to talk to me. It worked! I interviewed them (and other members of their industry) for over a year. I think the art of the interview is a subtle one, and I’m the sort of person who literally reads books about different types of interviews.

Continue reading “Research in the Right Order: When to Interview Your Customers”