Keepin’ it real: how Automattic creates momentum on Day 1

Cate Huston, our illustrious mobile lead here at Automattic, was recently interviewed by GitPrime on how to create momentum while onboarding an engineering new hire. The entire interview is nicely summarized in the article tagline:

You get only one chance at a first impression — your hiring and onboarding process sets the tone for how your company operates, even before your newest team members set their passwords.

As a fairly recent new hire at Automattic, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on my own personal onboarding experience at Automattic using Cates major points in this interview as a guide. My hope is to marry the perspective of a new hire with the ideas put forth in the interview to see how well (or not) they worked for this single individual experience.

How we humanize the hiring process

“If we take a mindset of looking to get to know this person — to figure out how they work and what they excel at — we might still make the same decision in the end, but we would make it in a way that didn’t make them feel terrible,” Huston says. “We’re approaching it with this mindset of curiosity, like, ‘I’m just going to get to know you, and I’m going to try and understand what your strengths are and what areas you would need to develop to be successful on the team.’”

The interview process at Automattic was different from anything I had ever experienced before. First of all, I never once “spoke” to or “saw” anyone either on the phone or via a video conference until after I was already hired. My initial interview happened over Slack, and what a great way to address diversity and equality in the interview process. Had I had a more androgynous name, they wouldn’t have known I was a female until after I was officially hired, and no matter what they wouldn’t find out I was white and in my 40’s until after I was hired. Slack interviews remove possible problems with sexism, agism, racism, as well as bias based on looks, fitness/weight, or possible physical disabilities not effecting ones ability to perform a job. Conducting the interview over Slack removed all the noise around first impressions, where a whole host of situational factors such as nervousness and shyness can muddy the vibes and often lead to the most confident applicants beating out the most qualified.

My initial Slack interview with Cate was asynchronous and happened over a period of about 3 hours, during which Cate asked me a series of questions that drew out not only my work history, but my passions, my proudest moments, my learning experiences, who I was as a professional and an individual, and who I wanted to become. The whole process stayed true to the culture at Automattic where being a distributed company requires effective asynchronous communication. Cate easily and immediately established rapport with me through her honest communication style and her thoughtful follow-up questions. She wasn’t interested in “gotcha” technical scenarios or finding flaws in my answers, she was interested in how I fit into the bigger puzzle and whether or not I’d be happy at Automattic.

After the Slack interview I was given a code lab to complete. The lab was to take no more than maybe 5 hours and completed on my own time at my own pace. This was the proof that I at least understood how to write code and build an Android feature. Once I submitted my code lab for review, I was passed on to the next phase of the hiring process.

Testing for how people respond to feedback

Huston has interviewees do a trial project, where they write a feature in the actual app. But there’s no way that their first stab will be perfect. So they’ll get feedback on their approach—and that’s when she really learns about the interviewee.

“You see some people, when they get that feedback, go and do a lot with it and their next PR is so much better. I feel great about hiring those people,” she says. “Then you see people who say, ‘Well, you’re wrong,’ or, ‘You should have told me this,’ or…”

After the initial Slack interview and code lab, I was hired on as a trial contractor to work on their public Android Aztec-Editor project. I was paired up with a trial buddy who helped get my dev environment set up and worked with me through the process of taking a feature request, writing the code and associated tests, to finally submitting and documenting the changes in a Github PR. I got tons of feedback and the process took about 6 weeks. The feedback process was honest and fair, and I always felt like the intention was to have the best possible solution and not to pick apart my work just for the sake of criticism.

I ended up working two projects during the trial period so they could really gauge my abilities in different areas. My PRs went through several iterations to perfect my logic and implement changes based on feedback. What a great way to see if an engineer can do the job, but there was so much more happening during this period. I was added to a bunch of company Slack channels and was interacting not only with my trial buddy, but with the company as a whole. During my trial I got a perfectly accurate and unfettered cultural experience at Automattic. By the time I finished my trial period, not only did Automattic know I could do the job and would work well with the team, but I knew I wanted to be a part of that team. There was no mystery, we both knew exactly what we were getting into!

My Slack interview with the CEO, Matt Mullenweg, marked the final stage of my interview process and was a really nice touch. It allowed me the opportunity to develop a relationship with the person at the very top and to find out first-hand what drives Automattic. I was given the space to ask whatever questions I had, and Matt was just as easy to talk to as Cate was (although I was definitely a LOT more nervous). After many years in the industry I’ve learned that the CEO can make or break a company, and even if they don’t break the company, a bad CEO can kill the culture and make the employee experience miserable. Meeting Matt before accepting an offer gave me confidence in the Automattic culture and reinforced the positive experience I’d had up to that point.

Onboard and upward

Getting to know people during the hiring process will help you start them off in a position to hit the ground running. You’ll lose time (or worse) taking the “sink or swim” approach and letting them flounder about until you identify their strengths.

“My observation about onboarding,” Huston says, “is that you spend as much time onboarding somebody badly, as you do trying to fix it.”

Much like the hiring process, the onboarding process at Automattic was very different from other experiences I’d had. I was given a trainer buddy to guide me through the training experience where I went through a series of online “go at your own pace” courses that taught me about the products, the tools available for supporting them, and where to find answers. WordPress is a powerful product and my experience with it was very, very little, so it’s no surprise that I was overwhelmed by how much I needed to learn. At the same time I had everything I needed right at my fingertips and if ever I felt completely lost, I was given a capable training buddy to lean on for answers and constant encouragement.

Once the initial 3-day training was complete, I started my support rotation. The support rotation is a genius way of throwing a new hire into support for maximum effect during onboarding. Just as with the other stages, I was given a mentor/support buddy to ease me into everything. I was challenged to the max, but I quickly learned where to find answers, how to troubleshoot, and if ever I got stuck, my mentor was there to help me through it. The support rotation should be a gold standard on how to onboard new employees. It immerses you in the experiences of how our products effect our users – for better or worse. It acquainted me with the pain points and the power of everything that is WordPress on mobile, and quickly made me feel like a productive member of the team. I can’t stress the importance of feeling productive for a new employee. To really feel like you are “getting it” and that you’re “making a difference” is huge for morale and helps to launch the momentum needed for the next phase in the onboarding process.

Symptoms of poor – and successful – onboarding

“I feel like being onboarded well is a sense of belonging and accomplishment,” [Cate] says. “Those are responses you can encourage when you get someone a good project, you give them some good support, you pay attention to it and you value their opinion, and you encourage them to have a voice within the team.”

By the time I finished my support rotation, which by the way, every employee at Automattic does every year for a week regardless of position, I felt accomplished and successful. I didn’t know what to expect next or where I would be placed, but based on everything I had experienced so far, I knew I’d have a mentor or buddy, and plenty of support. I was not disappointed.

I was assigned a mentor with whom I would meet weekly to ask anything that came to mind or to flush out fears or frustrations. I was also assigned to my first team/project where the lead also met with me and constantly checked in on me to make sure I had everything I needed, and throughout it all, Cate was still an active presence and checked in on me often. The culture at Automattic thus far came across as a place where they really cared about their employees, and that impression was about to be put to the test.

Just one week after being assigned to my new team, I found out my Grandfather had passed away. Being so new to Automattic I expected to just work through the grief and be tasked with figuring out how to juggle flying back home to New York for the funeral with ramping up in my new team and project, but I was wrong. The moment Cate heard about the passing of my Grandfather I was urged to take a week off and be with my family. I was showered with love, hugs, support and constant assurances that my job can wait and to not stress it and to take the time I needed. After a few weeks back I had a bit of a breakdown and was again encouraged to take some additional time for processing and grief. Never once was I made to feel like my job was on the line if I took too much time off and didn’t get up to speed and back to work in a timely fashion. I was treated like a human and like family. Automattic even made a donation to a charity of my choosing (The Wounded Warrior Project) in my Grandfathers name.

From hiring to onboarding, Automattic stayed true to the culture they represent – a culture where communication is oxygenand we support each other in making the web and the world a better place. Automattic is a global distributed company brimming with diversity, forever striving to improve communication and the human experience for our customers, and for our fellow teammates. That’s something special…oh, and we’re hiring!

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