One year ago today, I tweeted:
✨ first day @automattic ✨— cate, a human being (@catehstn) November 7, 2016
Three weeks after that, when my support rotation ended…
As I recall, my friend James described it as “the most low key new job tweet”. I pointed out the extremely descriptive emoji for my job title, and he said “I felt both enlightened and informed”.
I think he was being sarcastic.
I hear the thing to do is to write one of those omg I have a new job and I’m so excited posts but that’s not my style. Not that I wasn’t excited – I was, I still am – but it always seems a bit dangerous to be excited in public about something I haven’t proved I can do yet.
In the final year of my undergrad, I was a teaching assistant. I remember this dude from my course – I don’t think I knew his name at the time, and if I did it’s long forgotten now – said “why are you a TA?”
Just the usual drive by misogyny, I guess. But it’s the kind of question I worry about, the kind that I don’t want to invite (where invite is… showing up and doing my job?) until I have a good answer for it myself.
And the timing. I was coming into this out of a failed startup. I’d taken ~6 weeks between finishing my job search and starting, and gone all the way to Tuvalu to escape everything. I was still kinda wrung out from that experience. The US election results came in, and the world seemed to be ending. I finally believed Brexit would happen. It didn’t seem like a time to be excited about things at all, let alone in public.
Anyway, I started with three weeks in support. This was eye-opening, as I saw the ways in which the app was confusing and failing our users. The queue was embarrassingly long, I worked on better FAQ answers, trying to get better, faster, answers to the people who had a simple question that they should never have needed to ask at all. It is weird, and more than a bit intimidating, to start in a job that I didn’t apply for and didn’t think I would be good at. But perhaps that’s the point – I learned a lot.
My job title was emoji for a reason. A way to own my responsibilities, but in a cute, not-too-threatening way. Finished in support, I am the . There were three teams, with three leads. I was somehow responsible for all of it. I spent a lot of time listening, making sense of things. I knew people were nervous about change, so worked to be accessible and transparent. Trying to turn a disconnected non-team into a high performing one. My first two weeks as , I did a 1:1 with every person on the team, and flew from Buenos Aires to Philadelphia for WCUS where I met Matt (the CEO, who had recruited me) and one of the team leads for the first time. The lead – Will – and I ran user tests together. Saw in real life some of those things I saw in support.
I took all this information and tried to figure out where to start. What is a symptom, and what is a cause?
Some time in December, I cried and allowed myself to question if I had made the right decision.
I put that question in a box and kept going.
- We clarified the purpose of each project and started talking about timeframes.
- We started doing daily standups.
- We revamped our bi-weekly updates (now with more emoji).
- We defined new projects that put user benefit at the centre.
- We took a hard look at the ways we were failing users.
- We shipped something.
- We started talking about user empathy – we challenged ourselves to use the app as a user would.
- An engineer got so annoyed by a piece of terrible UX we called “the seven item monstrocity”, he prototyped a new media picker experience over a weekend.
- We changed up team leadership to have five teams, including a design team.
- We set better standards around clarity, feedback, and 1:1s.
- We thought about on-boarding, and defined a process for it.
- We shipped again.
- We worked to make the leads a team.
- We were moved out to become our own division, with me reporting to Matt.
- We failed. But this time we talked about it.
- We shipped more.
- We worked to be more accountable – to each other, and the wider organisation.
- We kept shipping.
- We revamped our hiring process, and opened it up again.
- Ship. Ship. Ship.
At some point… we became a team. When we got together at the Grand Meetup, it was really noticeable. We did an exercise called “Plusses and Deltas”, the plusses were things we had worked so hard on. The deltas included things that really showed how far we’d come.
Our design lead wrote about the process of building the design team, and I love it because it captures something of the hard work, and where we are now compared to where we started.
For me, I learned how to onboard and ramp up new managers. I levelled up my communication and coaching. I invested in getting better at product. I conducted interviews via text for the first time. I made ever more elaborate spreadsheets as I got further away from writing code. I got better at setting an example then letting things go. I reached new limits of how much I can get done in a week. I made hard decisions, and I had hard conversations, and I got better at both of them. I experienced that when you help a manager level up, a team levels up, and it was amazing. I built relationships with my peers and appreciated the difference that makes.
The past year has been brutal. Exhausting, challenging… I’ve had my share of moments of doubt. But I work with people I really like, at the intersection of things (mobile, writing, open source) that I love. I wouldn’t change it for anything… so bring it on, year two.