Leaving Automattic

Yesterday was my last day at Automattic.

Leaving a remote job is a little unusual. When I checked out on the last day, I was sitting at home. I said goodbye to my colleagues online, and closed Slack. It was otherwise the same as any other Friday. There was no office to leave, no boxes to pack, nobody to hug, no hands to shake. The first sign that my employment was properly ended was an authentication error from the proxy server.

Fortunately, I had a chance to say goodbye to my team and a few others in person a few weeks earlier. Even after I gave notice, Automattic was generous enough to keep my booking to the team meetup in Portugal. It was great to have the opportunity to say goodbye and spend some time with colleagues (many who I hadn’t even met in person) before signing out a few weeks later.

Automattic was such a fascinating place to work. If you’re interested in the inner workings, I highly recommend The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun from his tenure at the company several years ago. It’s a pioneering company in so many ways – remote work, open source, HR, team structure, all are nonconventional in some way. Of course, like any company it has its challenges, but the way that these challenges are faced and dealt with is something I could never imagine in most companies of its size (600 and counting). Chats with HR are actually enjoyable, decisions are made based on facts more than politics, and everybody is incredibly switched on, interesting, and motivated. The hiring bar is high – it’s a long process including a trial period, so to get in you need to be good at your job rather than know somebody senior. I’ve made some amazing friends there, and had the opportunity to contribute to some really interesting (and open-source) projects.

With that said, it might be obvious from the above that it was a really tough decision to leave, honestly I think I’m insane to give up such a great gig. But I had ideas brewing, and once you get that itch it’s hard to avoid scratching it. The best part of leaving a remote company is that I’m no further from my colleagues and friends than before. We’re all still using the same internet, even if we no longer interact every day.

What’s next

I’ve decided to take some time to work on project ideas I’ve had brewing. I’ve added to a growing list of ideas over the years, and now I’m really keen to get started on some of them. I couldn’t build these while working a full-time job, both because it’s exhausting to use spare time to work and because Automattic isn’t so keen on moonlighting. So, I decided to rip the bandaid off and dive right in. I have some savings to survive on – by living extremely frugally I think I can stretch it to almost a year without income, and I plan to pick up a few freelance gigs along the way. Next week I’m moving house; once that’s out of the way I’ll let you know the details on the master plan 🙂

 

The Birth and Death of Facebook

The Birth and Death of Facebook

When Facebook first appeared on the scene, the dominant force was MySpace. MySpace was a hot mess. There was something refreshing about Facebook – it was clean, simple, fast. You could always find the person you were looking for by their real name. All while taking the personality and expression out of social networking. Everyone was reduced to a single blue-grey page with a few photos. No more auto-playing death metal when you visited somebody’s profile, or hot pink flashing text and sparkles. No more Comic Sans.

At the time, Facebook was useful, as a place to share photos and keep in contact with people even as they dropped their phones in the toilet.

Now, Facebook has overstayed its welcome in our subconscious. Everyone knows somebody who wants to or has quit Facebook. How did we get to the point where a service is now harming people, yet they struggle to leave it? Isn’t that the very definition of an abusive relationship?

It all started with engagement. The metric that internet companies crave. It’s the modern equivalent of ‘eyeballs’ from the internet bubble of the nineties. Engagement is typically calculated from metrics such as the number of posts you’ve liked, videos watched, time spent scrolling through the news feed. Management types love it. It gives a supposedly objective view across users of how engaged they are with your app, and you can make nice charts showing upward trajectories.

The drive for revenue has led to a drive to optimise ‘user engagement’. The more engagement, the more ad revenue, so the theory goes. But this endless race to squeeze every ounce of engagement has left users exhausted. The problem is that engagement does not equal satisfaction.

The news feed was the big turning point. It was through this feed that Facebook exploited our biggest human insecurities and the fear of missing out, whether intentionally or not. By definition, the news feed shows the highlight reel of our lives. The most liked – engaging – posts bubble to the top and quietly whisper, “What are you doing with your life?”.

As reward driven creatures we’re more susceptible to craving that ‘quick hit’ than we’d like to think. Through engagement testing, we as users have taught social networks how to push our buttons, and play games with our minds to keep us engaged. Have you noticed when pressing the “New Posts” button that randomly appears at the top of the feed, the posts are often hours old? It’s a sleight of hand that fools us into thinking something interesting has happened, and if you don’t catch it now you might miss it. It could be the difference between putting your phone down and scrolling for another hour.

Facebook wanted to be the social hub of the internet, the place where everybody would express their identity online. They were to connect the world, make it easier to communicate across borders. Instead, in the pursuit of revenue, their business transitioned to capturing and keeping the attention of the world, long enough to show relevant advertising. That’s controversial enough, without even touching on the issues of privacy and data ownership that have plagued Facebook.

A dystopian future where we’re permanently wired in to our smartphones might seem to be just over the horizon. I have faith that society will resist this, in the same way we keep other addictions at arms length, like caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

Despite Facebook’s meteoric rise in user numbers, I’d hazard a guess that the number of people who enjoy using Facebook is decreasing. If something doesn’t change, the company will start losing its best users to apps that don’t care to occupy your brain. Facebook is so ubiquitous it’s now considered a necessary evil in modern society, making the company overconfident and careless, and making Facebook ripe for replacement.

Photo by Matthew Henry

Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Divide and conquer: a proven, effective strategy. Pit everyone against each other, and they won’t come after you. It’s the strategy Trump has used to win his campaign, and the very same strategy that has kept us from making any real progress on economic equality.

How is it that a tiny percentage of the population holds most of the wealth and power, and seemingly few are criticising them? Are we so afraid of being called socialists that we refuse to accept the reality? Why do we instead continue to attack other poor or middle class people over jobs? It’s because those who hold that wealth and power have pitted us against each other – race v race, gender v gender, religion v religion – in order to distract us from getting together and fighting them. We’ve been played, big time.

Both sides of politics are at fault in this. While individual party members may genuinely believe in positive change, the US election campaign has demonstrated that in the end both sides are funded by the elites who care not what we fight about, only that we fight each other. For the longer and more fervently we fight each other, the less we focus on the real reasons for economic inequality.

Jobs are being taken away, and at a faster rate than ever, but not by migrants. Efficiency improvements are taking our jobs. Computers, machines, robots, operational efficiencies – these are killing off jobs everywhere, and not just blue collar work. This is not a future prediction, it’s a reality that has been playing out in front of our eyes since the industrial revolution. Neither is this a North American phenomenon, it’s happening worldwide. We’re now seeing a dramatic acceleration with dramatic consequences.

I’m all for giving up jobs to computers; it’s inevitable. But humanity as a whole needs to benefit from that time saved. The jackpot of these efficiency improvements must be distributed for society to continue functioning. This is not welfare. This is distributing the ongoing fruits of our collective labour. Right now, the benefits go directly to the owners of those mechanical and corporate machines, leaving the rest of us to fight among a diminishing job pool. Worse, some of those remaining jobs involve automating away more jobs. The elites would prefer we don’t consider the true cause of this reducing job pool, or we’d go after them. From that comes the weak narrative of “foreigners taking our jobs”.

Trump knows that the Mexican wall is ridiculous. It’s a way of saying “we are the haves, they are the have-nots” when in reality the situation is far more complex than that. He knows the wall will have zero effect on jobs. It’s a grand symbolic gesture to divide, while demonstrating how serious he is about tackling the issue of economic inequality.

Is Trump really serious about solving economic equality? He is part of the elite, after all.

Photo credit Ming Jun Tan

Working Remotely ≠ Working Alone

Working Remotely ≠ Working Alone

The biggest perk of working remotely is the freedom to choose where you work from. As an introvert I usually prefer working from home, it’s where I’m most focused and have everything set up the way I need it.

That said, working from home can be incredibly isolating. Hours often go by before I realise I haven’t spoken to anybody except my cat all day. The worst part is I don’t even have a cat. It’s so easy to ‘forget’ to socialise and let work time bleed into personal time. A common myth is that this is just something you have to accept when working remote.

One solution to this is coworking. It’s like working in an office but with the added benefit of choosing who you spend time with, and how often. An office without politics. An office whose existence relies on members wanting to spend time there, or they’d go out of business. One of the best things about coworking is the diversity of people that turn up. While there’s still an overwhelmingly techie demographic, designers, artists, musicians and businesspeople find a home in these spaces too. There’s no incumbent shared company mindset, because everybody works for different institutions, or often, just for themselves.

Last year, I spent most of my time working from a converted garage, under a house in an inner city suburb of Tokyo. Over the course of the year, it came to feel like my second home. From day one, everybody was incredibly friendly and welcoming and I formed some great friendships with like-minded people.

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I’m back in Tokyo again for one short week, and I can genuinely say I’m glad to spend time at Open Source Cafe again. It’s a place where I can actually look forward to going to work, which is hard to say about a dreary grey office with sterile fluorescent lighting or a noisy open plan echo chamber.

Working remotely doesn’t have to mean isolating yourself from people. For those with families, it can mean spending more time with the kids, or being able to take them to school. It can mean taking an extra long lunch break to catch up with friends visiting town, or working from somewhere far from home. It can mean cranking out some work on the plane or train, then taking a break at the destination. As with anything else there are of course challenges. Keeping track of where you spend your time and how effective you are becomes far more important for keeping a good work life balance. Overall though, I think the benefits are more than worth facing the challenges.

I’m not sure why so many information-age companies are still hesitant to allow remote work. As far as I can tell, it’s a win-win. Introverts get their time alone to block off distractions and focus, while extroverts can mingle where and when they want, and share ideas with a huge range of people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. Organisations can hire from anywhere in the world, have happier and more productive employees, and are forced to focus on performance via actual output instead of ass-in-seat-duration. Whether or not today’s companies can accept it, it’s the future of work.

By the way, we’re hiring.

Apple’s new Touch Bar isn’t a gimmick, it’s a stepping stone

Apple has already faced a fair amount of criticism for the new Touch Bar. I’m going to go against the grain here and say the Touch Bar is a useful stepping stone.

Why not just go full touch-screen?

Microsoft tried leaping straight to touch-screen with Windows 8, and ended up with an interface that wasn’t ideal for either touch or mouse. Apple might some day end up with a full touch-screen on the Mac, but you can’t just add a touch screen and call it a day. Third-party developers need time to develop touch specific interfaces, and the current macOS + touch would be a nightmare without significant changes.

The new Touch Bar is a stepping stone. It’ll encourage macOS developers to introduce multitouch functionality into their applications without compromising the existing experience. It may not be a permanent feature of future Macs, but I’m excited to see what it enables.

The Case of the Sleeping MacBook

The Case of the Sleeping MacBook

Sitting on the late night subway train home in Tokyo, I thought I’d try to finish off some code I’d been writing that day. I wouldn’t usually pull out my MacBook on the train, especially a busy Japanese train, but I’d snagged a seat and the problem was still swimming in my head and I thought I could knock it over on the 45 minute ride home.

But about 15 minutes into the trip, my screen suddenly turned black. Not like a freak-out, something went terribly wrong cut-to-black, but a gentle, Apple-like slow fade to black. The kind of fade to black you get when you actually ask your computer to go to sleep. That’s odd, I thought, that’s never happened before. My laptop wasn’t plugged into anything nor had I bumped the power button. I was simply typing away in a terminal when it happened.

It was around 10:30pm, and many of the passengers were lightly sleeping. The train was quiet and humming along quickly and smoothly. A drunk businessman fell into another man and apologised in English.

I pressed a few keys in an attempt to wake it up, and sure enough after a few moments the screen returned as if nothing had ever happened.

Nothing to see here, move along

I continued coding, chalking it up to a glitch in the matrix. A few minutes later though, it happened again. This time I took my hands off the keyboard. It woke itself up about 5 to 10 seconds later. Strange. I continued coding. It happened again. I kept my hands off. It was happening without any intervention, and with uncanny regularity, a few minutes apart each time.

Tokyo residents are incredibly talented at squeezing in some shuteye on the trains, even while standing. Often somebody will fall asleep, fall into the wall, wake up, fall asleep again and repeat over and over until – through some kind of sixth sense – they suddenly awaken just as the doors open at their stop. Maybe this culture was wearing off on my laptop. After all, my smartphone changes its personality to fit in when in Japan. Putting in a local SIM card disables the camera’s “shutter sound” setting, forcing it to always make a shutter sound, even when on silent, just like every single mobile phone in Japan.

This strange sleeping behaviour only started happening after I changed seats. About 15 minutes into the train ride the coveted end seat opened up, which has the benefit of being next to a dividing wall. This means you only have to sit beside one person instead of two. These seats are precious, they are always the first to be occupied. Was my MacBook aware that the end seat was significantly more suitable for sleeping, since you can lean your head against the dividing wall instead of falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder? Don’t be silly, a MacBook doesn’t have the capability to feel embarrassed. It was late, my head was still in programming-mode, and I thought I was going a bit mad.

Then it hit me. A week earlier, I’d noticed the compass indicator on my Android would go haywire on Tokyo’s trains. The magnetic field from the train’s electric motors must be doing something to my MacBook. But surely something more sinister must be happening with a magnetic field strong enough to put my MacBook to sleep… There are no magnetic disks in MacBooks anymore, and I wasn’t carrying any floppy disks so at least that wasn’t a concern.

What does the MacBook possibly have that would respond to a magnetic field?

The lid sensor.

mind blown

The MacBook uses a Hall effect sensor to detect the presence of a magnetic field. The magnets in the lid cause a change in the magnetic field, which the Hall effect sensor picks up, thereby putting the Mac to sleep. But so do the electric motors in Tokyo trains.

Since I still had a few stops to the destination, I tested this theory. Sure enough, just as the train started accelerating out of the station, my Mac would fall asleep. It then stayed asleep until the driver lightened his foot on the gas pedal and the train started coasting along.

tldr: Good luck using a MacBook on the Tokyo subway.