I’m starting a new job today as an Enterprise Growth Engineer on the WordPress VIP team at Automattic.
I’m a little bit excited.
If you know me at all, you know that no matter the title, my job in news has always been to evangelize for new technology to serve journalism. As a reporter, an editor, a product manager, a team leader — I’ve tried to give journalists the tools and training they need to successfully reach (and move! and impact!) their readers, while growing their audience and building sustainable models for the future.
WordPress has often been a part of that equation for me. I suppose my first of many CMS migrations was the move of my own blog to WordPress from Blogspot, even if it was only a few weeks after I started writing here. Later came a WordPress theme for the blogs at what was then Inside Bay Area (in the 19th iteration since, it’s currently the East Bay Times but has somehow maintained the stories I wrote as an intern in 2006), then a move of all the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s blogs from pMachine (an early Expression Engine product IIRC) to WordPress, plus a couple Joomla (and Mambo?) verticals, too. I used WordPress as a platform for podcasting, for daily video newscasts, for blogs, naturally, and even once drafted plans for a university journalism department website, among other non-news odds and ends.
When I left corporate media for the nonprofit news world in 2015, it felt like I was starting a tour of duty. I had heard the same phrase used by people taking government tech work at places like 18F, and it fit the way I felt at the time. Would I stay in the nonprofit world for good? What would I learn, and how would I use it in the future? Would I look for another nonprofit role when the first one ran its course?
I’ve been at Chalkbeat for more than 15 months now, working remotely on a permanent basis for the first time, after two six-month stretches at the beginning of my gigs with GateHouse and Publish2 way back in late aughts.
In those early, somewhat forced “work from home for six months and then move to our office please” situations, I had no idea what I was doing.
In Santa Cruz, employed by Rochester-based GateHouse, I worked at East Coast schedule in a West Coast time zone, working from around 6am to 3pm, and then showering and taking our infant daughter off my wife’s hands for a few hours so she could make some progress on her Ph.D. thesis in progress.
Ancient, pre-Slack tools like GChat and AIM were my tools for staying in close contact with our team, but in truth I spent most of my time on phone calls with staff at our community newspapers in the Central and Mountain time zones, so it sort of worked. It was kinda exhausting.
Also, I recommend showering before starting your workday.
Then, in Rochester, working for Virginia-based-but-mostly-distributed Publish2, it’s kind of a blur. I remember spending a lot of time in coffee shops, which can get expensive. I had a desk in the spare bedroom that must have doubled as our office. There was a lot of Skype, both text from group chat and long group calls where we worked out product requirements and outreach plans. It was pretty intense.
Cut to the last year or so, and I’ve been fortunate to stand on the shoulders of remote giants — well, maybe “build out my home office in the basement of remote office dwellers” might be more accurate.
Of all the advice I fielded about remote work over the years, having a an office with a door that closes was one of the keys, personally. And I have one. In the basement of our exurban townhome, at the far end of a hallway, out of the way, through the laundry room. Before this, we had been using it for storage / a spare bedroom that hadn’t hosted too many visitors lately. And before that, when we moved in? It had been set up as a home office. Of course.
When I took the job, I painted the wall I would be staring at all day in a grid pattern with blue paint samples salvaged from a drawn-out dining room accent wall color selection project. And I built my own standing desk (after much googling) with a relatively inexpensive hunk of butcher block countertop and some giant shelving supports. There are also some cute little lantern light strings and some borderline kitschy geek art, Mars travel posters, Star Wars stuff, a World War I poster urging action, a bunch of artwork by my kids, rotating new stuff in over time, and, just because it’s giant and framed and I had never hung it before, my NYU diploma.
The dog works with me all day.
Those are just the basics. Like, how to set up your own work environment so you don’t go insane alone in a windowless basement room all day.
Working with a mostly remote team? That’s a whole different barrel of wax. How to build remote culture, how to maintain lines of communication (oxygen!), how to make sure your distributed team has all the tools and time and support they need to feel connected?
“Sketching can be a valuable tool for collaboration, but it does not always have to happen on a whiteboard or on the same paper. On the Studio, we have everyone draw on individual pieces of paper that are later scanned and added to a project’s documentation. Not only is this more participatory, it also improves documentation.”
“Listen to your teammates and encourage them to share information on their backgrounds, their previous team experiences and how they prefer to communicate most days. Does a teammate’s culture influence how they approach conflict? What about how they make decisions? Identifying these subtleties, and knowing how to manage them, can be very beneficial during conflict.”
“Design a plan together about how you want to use each tool, and then write down these guidelines in a document that the team can access anytime. The bonus is that it also creates a training resource for new people joining the team.”
“There’s no halfsies in a distributed team. If even one person on the team is remote, every single person has to start communicating online. The locus of control and decision making must be outside of the office: no more dropping in to someone’s office to chat, no more rounding people up to make a decision. All of that has to be done online even if the remote person isn’t around. Otherwise you’ll slowly choke off the remote person from any real input on decisions.”
“Finally I got into a routine which always helps me get into work mode no matter where I find myself: I get up every morning, get dressed & presentable (brush teeth & hair!) and leave where I’m staying to get a coffee, ideally an espresso. My ‘commute’ is self-enforced and is as far as the nearest coffee shop. When I step back inside, I’m ready to work.”
“Darth Overwork means well deep down. He knows there’s work to do, and he uses his once-Jedi powers to trick your brain into forgetting how to measure time and effort so you can do more work faster. Some may consider that a desirable skill. But the reason Darth Overwork is so scary, is because you usually can’t see him. You don’t know when your brain is being manipulated by him and when it’s not.”
Don’t be Darth Overwork. Be like Gillian, who works hard sitting in this chair all day, but also knows when it’s time to get up, go for a walk, and clear her head.
Seriously, when did we start calling new job news “personal news” and why? It’s professional news. It’s just me, getting a new job. Personal news is “we adopted a dog” (we did!) or “we’re having another kid” (we’re not!) or maybe “we’re moving to New York” (also not happening!).
But other things *are* happening.
I am excited to tell you that I have a new job starting next week.
I’m joining Chalkbeat to lead product and growth. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization that’s reimagining local news with a focus on issues of inequity in education. I’m grateful to be stepping into an amazing team in four cities, and I’m eager to help them grow and continue to build a sustainable model for nonprofit education news.
When the opportunity came up to get involved with an organization dedicated to covering high-poverty schools across the country, I jumped at it.
I’m grateful to everyone at Gannett for the opportunities I’ve had there over the past five years. It’s been a privilege to work with local journalists and technologists on the biggest challenges facing the news business. My mission in journalism has always been to make a difference at scale, and Gannett was the perfect place to do so.
But now it’s time to move on, and I can’t wait for everything that comes next.
Any questions? I’ll start.
Q: Chartbeat? Cool, real-time analytics are totally addictive!
A: They sure are. Love that stuff. Not working for them, though. It’s Chalkbeat, like the chalkboard beat, like education news. If there’s one thing I know about education, it’s that repetition can be important. Chalkbeat. Education news. In context. Chalkbeat. Dot-Org.
Q: It looks like Chalkbeat is in New York. Are you moving to New York?
A: Chalkbeat’s leadership team is in New York, but there are also teams covering the Denver area, Indianapolis, and Memphis, too. It’s a distributed organization, like many nonprofits and startup news orgs these days, and I’m not moving anywhere. Ask me about my new home office, and the standing desk I’ve been building. And the walls I’ve been painting. And the bed and dresser I have up for sale on Craigslist. Please, ask me about the furniture. Bring a truck to ask me about it.
Q: So… [whispers] …are you hiring?
A: SO GLAD YOU ASKED! As a matter of fact, Chalkbeat is hiring a Full-Stack Engineer. This person will work directly with me on product development. WordPress is the core of the proverbial technology stack right now, but there’s amazing work to be done on measuring impact (read about Chalkbeat’s MORI here), as well as other big ideas around audience analytics. We’re going to be supercharging Chalkbeat’s already strong remote culture with inspiration from Vox Product, 18F, Fusion, and others, so although New York or DC-based candidates would be cool, remote would work for the right candidate, too. You should ask me more about this role. You’re probably right for it. Yes, you.
Q: Is there one more thing?
A: You know there is. It’s about finding a new job you love. You don’t find a job by obsessively refreshing LinkedIn, or Glassdoor, or searching Idealist and Media Bistro and Journalism Jobs multiple times a day. Nope. Doesn’t work. Good luck!
Bit of an announcement to make, although if you follow me on Twitter, the first shoe of the pair dropped last night.
I’m joining Gannett Digital today, as Product Manager, Local Sites.
That means I’ll be working with more than 100 newspapers and broadcast news outlets, thousands of journalists, and helping them deliver information to a rather engaged audience of millions.
I like the sound of that.
For me, it’s a return to building and improving news sites on a large scale, but it’s also the same job I’ve always had in this business: Find, track, and develop the best ideas about the future of news, then hand them off to journalists packaged with the tools and training they need to put those ideas into action. And then keep bugging them about it until they do so.
For a variety of reasons, I left my position at Publish2 a few weeks ago. Thanks to all my friends there, plus everyone who made the job easy, especially the brilliant journalists in newsrooms across the country (and yes, around the world) who “got it” from the start, and were excited to try out everything I threw at them.