A couples weeks ago I attended my very first annual company Grand Meetup in Orlando, FL. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I had been told by many that the GM is really exhausting but “in a good way”. They weren’t kidding! I met so many fellow Automatticians and was completely blown away by how open and kind everyone was, the company culture I’m so fond of is not just a facade, it’s the real the deal. Automattic is a 100% distributed company with 807 employees in 69 countries speaking 84 different languages. There are no official offices and we all literally work from anywhere and everywhere. The GM is our opportunity to meet face to face and bond. Sound interesting? We’re hiring!
Anyway, enough gushing…
I arrived on Saturday in the early evening and took the shuttle to the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista hotel where the GM is hosted and our rooms are booked. I was struck by how the whole hotel was decked out for the Grand Meetup. Even the staff at the registration desk were wearing Automattic T-Shirts! Oh and my room card was also a custom Automattic Grand Meetup card! After checking in and picking up some really neat swag I headed to my room where I relaxed for an hour before joining the Welcome Party being hosted at the pool.
The Welcome party was fabulous. There were open bars and buffet tables positioned along all four outer edges of the pool. I grabbed a drink and mingled for several hours talking to teammates and meeting new coworkers.
Sunday started off with breakfast and the opening remarks by Matt Mullenweg. The rest of the day was dedicated to our teams. I spent most of the day meeting the rest of my Hogwarts team and spending quality time with my Hogsmeade squad. We played various games (my favorite by far was Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza).
Later in the afternoon the entire GM gathered to do a company photo and eventually we all split out to do individual team photos.
Cheryl Strayed, the author of the book Wild, gave our opening keynote on Wednesday and I got a signed copy of her book!
Ann Dunwoody also gave a keynote but unfortunately I missed it. I was so burned out and not feeling well so I slept through 90% of it and only made the last 10 minutes. I was really looking forward to seeing her speak so I was really bummed. Not all is lost however, they did record it and I’ll be able to watch it when it’s available.
I signed up for the WordPress: Practical Development and Debugging class. I was told to stretch outside my comfort zone and oh I definitely did! I walked into the class knowing absolutely nothing about WordPress core development, plugin development, or even the PHP! The classes were 5 – 6 hours per day for 3 days and it’s crazy just how much a person can learn in that amount of time! I ended up writing a custom plugin called RV Travel Log which is about 70% complete. I plan to continue working on it in my spare time. Basically this plugin adds the following metadata fields to a blog post:
- Campground name
- Start date
- End date
- Total Cost
Then that metadata is saved when the post is published and is then displayed when the post is viewed. All of that is working. The final touch is to create a page that prints out all the campground metadata into a nice table for easy consumption. I have a rough copy of that working, but still have a bunch of cleanup to do.
Every newmattician (new Automattic employee) was required to give a 4-minute flash talk at the GM. I stressed over what topic I was going to choose and agonized over each slide in my presentation before finally submitting them on the day they were due. Flashtalks were scheduled throughout the week in various blocks of times and in different locations in the hotel. My flash talk was scheduled for the International Ballroom…yup, that’s the big’un! My four minutes in the spotlight felt like an eternity! My heart was beating so fast and I thought for sure I bombed the whole thing, but so far all the feedback was that it was great and I didn’t seem nervous at all. Sweet! My flashtalk was titled My Journey to Nomadness: The adventure before the adventure. My full deck of slides can be viewed here.
Harry Potter World
Tuesday was THE MOST EXCITING day of the week. Automattic rented out Diagon Alley in Harry Potter World after hours!! We had that whole section to ourselves! Delicious food vendors were sprinkled everywhere as well as popup bars for grabbing adult beverages between rides. I hooked up with several fellow Hogwarts people and we hit the first couple of rides hard and fast. It was crazy to experience Escape from Gringotts and The Hogwarts Express with NO LINES!! Heaven! I did Escape from Gringotts 3 times, the train once, and Men In Black once.
Escape from Gringotts was by far the best of the rides available that night. The ride definition describes it best:
Enter Gringotts™ bank beneath the massive fire-breathing dragon at the far end of Diagon Alley™. Inside, walk through the bank’s grand marble lobby and see goblins hard at work. Then, get ready to take a journey through cavernous passageways that lead deep underground as you climb aboard this mind-blowing, multi-dimensional thrill ride. You’ll face the bank’s stringent security measures while navigating perilous subterranean vaults. Along the way you’ll encounter Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But you’ll have to evade the wrath of malicious villains Voldemort™ and Bellatrix, as well as trolls and other creatures that stand between you and a safe return to Diagon Alley™.
The Hogwarts Express was adorable and a very tamed experience. If the Hogwarts Castle had been opened it would’ve been AMAZING, but just getting on the train and heading out to the castle only to immediately drive back made it a tad boring. Still totally worth it though! You really get submersed in the experience. Even waiting in line for these rides is a part of the experience.
Men in Black was okay. I wasn’t expecting a slow rollercoaster ride through streets covered in aliens that you then have to shoot, so I think that may have been part of my disappointment. I still had a blast though and had the highest score on my team: 240,500!
Silent Disco, The Void & Hanging Out
There was always something going on at the GM and I’m certain I missed a bunch of stuff. I didn’t even know about the party suite until halfway through the GM. Every night I’d stay out until 2, sometimes 3am just hanging out with new friends. You could find people at the hotel bar, outside smoking, scattered about the public areas of the hotel on their laptops or tucked away in various suites or meeting rooms designated for all sorts of activities like band practice, karaoke, or card games. There were all kinds of events hosted by fellow Automatticians as well – like coffee and beer sharing events, where people would bring their favorite local coffee grinds or locally brewed beer, do an exchange, and then drink to experience something new.
There was also the Silent Disco, which was BRILLIANT! I’d never even heard of such a thing until the GM. We had 3 different DJ’s spinning different genres of music. Participants would put on these really high quality headphones and use a switch to move between the 3 channels. Each channel had a different color: red, green and blue. I think I spent most of the time on blue? I’m not sure, whatever the trance channel was. I’d be dancing away and then suddenly see everyone slowly start to switch to the same channel like a silent colorful wave which was really fun to watch when you didn’t have the headphones on. A beautiful visual representation of how a rumor spreads 🙂
Disney Springs was a short walk from the hotel so a handful of us took off to browse the shops and then do THE VOID! The Void is a Star Wars full immersion 3D experience. It’s only maybe 10 minutes long, but you put on this helmet and vest, and suddenly you are transformed into a Storm Trooper! You do this “ride”(?) in groups of four. Thuy, Daniele, and Sylvester were my companions and once the helmet was on, suddenly THEY also turned into Storm Troopers! It was so trippy! Together we walked into a room where we were magically transported high in the skies on a space craft of some sort. We were rebels working undercover to retrieve and important artifact. We even got to battle Darth Vader!
CEO Townhall & Project Demonstrations
Thursday afternoon and evening was dedicated to the CEO townhall where Matt Mullenweg literally answered questions in an open forum for HOURS! I was totally impressed, and I learned a bunch. This started at 4:30p and didn’t end until around 11:20pm! That’s dedication! It’s a big change to work for a company so focused on transparency and inclusion.
Project demonstrations were given Friday afternoon. Everyone is given the option to pick either one multi-day class or project to work on during the GM. If someone chose to work on a project, then they (along with the other members on the project) would present the work done during the GM to the company. I missed some of the presentations (thankfully, again, they are all recorded), but the ones I did see were fascinating. My favorite thing about the presentations was learning about new teams and internal products.
Closing Ceremony @ Epcot!!
To close out the GM, we partied the night away at a convention center in Disney World!! We had food, drinks, and the Automattic Bands!!! Who knew there were so many talented musicians at Automattic!! I felt like I was at an actual concert, but way better. I played pool, air hockey, and danced. Eventually we were all led into the park to take in Epcots IllumiNations.