When I woke up on Thursday, I was met with the devastating news that the Russian-Ukraine conflict had escalated. My first thought was, of course, whether anyone in the WordPress community lived in any affected areas. Then, I questioned what I could possibly do about it from halfway around the world.
I can’t comment on the specific politics of this conflict and, for what it’s worth, I can’t for the life of me think of the “right” thing to say. But when I don’t know where to start, I generally like to start small. So, I’ll share what I’ve been thinking about for my communities these past few days.
While I am certain that my words—no matter how carefully chosen—cannot possibly change the hearts and minds of nations with which I am wholly unaffiliated, I am equally certain that in my own communities there are people who are longing to learn how to help. I know I am.
As the world faces war, it’s also the same world in which kindness, community, and integrity co-exist—you are testament to that. WordPress is built on the commitment of thousands of contributors from all over the world to a unified mission. I’m sure many of you are in solidarity with those affected by this week’s events.
If you want to show your support, check in on your fellow contributors, friends, or families and let them know it’s okay to ask for help. You can also donate to a nonprofit that offers material relief or refuge to those in Ukraine. And of course, do what you can to stay informed. The world is a much more connected place today than it’s ever been. With all eyes bearing witness, learning, and paying attention, we are better equipped to move toward resolution.
But as you do all of these things to support your community, however you’re defining it, remember that you do not personally hold all the responsibility for “making things work” today. We are all here as part of a passionate and compassionate global community—please be gentle with yourselves and others.
I used to think there was nothing more stressful than being in the midst of a stressful thing. When you’re in the middle of something, it’s all raw and electric and the ways out aren’t always a sure bet. In the past nearly 600 days, I’ve learned that there is something more stressful—being in the midst of a situation with an undetermined length.
The first time a team member brought the news of COVID-19 to my attention Jan 17, 2020. And during the following months as we were all trying to pivot and work through the apparent crisis, I remember thinking that this wouldn’t have a huge effect on us. “WordPress has been distributed forever, we won’t have many adjustments to make.”
Life Imitated Work
What I hadn’t anticipated was that the processes of our work (Zoom calls, coordinating across timezones, collaborating/communicating primarily via text) were going to become the processes of every other area of our lives. For many of us we now not only have distributed work, we have distributed learning/teaching, distributed exercise/wellness, and distributed celebrations/grieving.
And when every part of your life mirrors the way you work, it can be hard to separate your self from your work.
Earlier this year, my Chief of Staff shared a podcast with me that was exploring the dangers of letting the definition of your work become the definition of your self. I learned that “career enmeshment” is the borrowed term used to describe this phenomenon, and while folks may have ways to cope with this in normal circumstances, I know that that past 18 months are not very normal.
First, Some Grounding
As we approach the time of year where organizations of every stripe (non-profit, for-profit, commercial, or otherwise) start gathering plans for the near future, you might find that it’s hard to get your bearings when the world is so unpredictable. When you can’t be sure which way is up, it’s always best to start by finding the ground.
That can be as simple as listing your recent projects and tying them directly back to your organization’s mission.
As an example, here is how that would look for WordPress project maintainers. In 2020, maintainers did the following work that shows a commitment to “democratize publishing”.
Contributed to an ongoing contributor-focused effort to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in WordPress through:
transparent communication (i.e. regular project round up posts, live streamed working sessions, etc),
mentorship (Core cohorts, LearnWP cohorts, etc),
and the willingness to help new contributors learn by failing safely (WP5.6).
Contributed to ongoing user-focused efforts to not only lower barriers of entry, but also to reduce the effort to level-up through:
the proliferation of block patterns,
small (but meaningful) a11y changes over time,
and the regular shipping of self-serve content on learn.wordpress.org.
Contributed to an ongoing ecosystem-focused effort to make the web a safer place through:
user facing auto-update functionality,
dedicated attention to HackerOne reporting,
and the thankless work to keep our underlying technology up to date.
As WordPress maintainers, you all met the challenges of 2020 where they were, and did great work to grow through them, rather than let them stop your progress.
Second, Some Reconnection
After you’ve gotten your mind around what you know, it’s time to spend some time reconnected with what you believe. Knowing what inspires you, what drives you, and who you are when you aren’t working can help reconnect you to the values that bring you to your work every day.
Break things into smaller wins – Many of us make plans that focus on single massive goals in a year, but this is the year to instead have smaller milestones to look forward to. Instead of big plans that could be foiled by things outside your control, it makes sense to create more frequent creative/celebratory/processing moments. I have said before that “the value of routine can’t be overstated”, and these little speed bumps in our routine can remind us to reset.
Know your concern vs your influence – None of us can control the vaccine rollout plan, but you can probably commit to “X pushups a day” or “Y minutes of fresh air”. We make time for what’s important, and following through on even the smallest challenge to yourself, helps to remind you that you have inherent value outside of what you’re able to do for others.
Get it out of your head – It can be hard to unplug right now, since screens are the safest interface with the world at the moment. And you might have Slack on all your devices just in case you remember something you meant to do. Instead, write it down (via paper, or a blog, etc) and process your list in the morning. The mental activity of remembering to do something can make you very anxious, and writing it down makes sure you don’t forget it.
What things do you do?
There are countless ways for us to re-engage with who we are, and to clear our minds for creative thinking/problem-solving. What are some of the things you do?
I want to take a moment to respond to the recent news of Richard Stallman’s return to the Free Software Foundation’s board. In short, I do not support his return as a board member.
It makes me proud that the WordPress project embodies the best traditions of open source and retires outdated traditions, or shibboleths, that do not have a place in our mission: to democratize publishing and grow the open web. For years, this community has been committed to championing underrepresented voices and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for those we rarely see in open source.
WordPress and the community that supports it has made an effort to move open source methodologies into a space that applies at the scale of the people who participate, not just the software we create. The high standards for welcoming behavior are held across the board. WordPress contributors lead with accountability, acknowledgment of error, and a genuine desire to grow based on feedback. Under the guidance of many thoughtful leaders, WordPress makes space for those who are committed to growth.
The work is never finished, both on WordPress and the community that WordPress seeks to foster. I look forward to working with everyone willing to help us make WordPress, and the web, a better place.
Today is my six year anniversary of becoming a full-time, sponsored contributor to the WordPress open source project. There are many ways I would describe it—rewarding, complex, cutting edge, difficult, ever-changing, meaningful—but at the end of the day, I want to be able to describe it like this:
For the past six years, I have supported a software that stands to bring more equity into the world, by unlocking opportunity and believing in the freedoms of open source. I have supported a community that strives to remove barriers to entry for that software, by uncovering what was once arcane and connecting to one another for strength. And I have supported a space that works to welcome those from whom we hear the least, but who could benefit the most from the tools that WordPress enables for them.
Happy Six Years to me! And cheers to the community that I serve!
World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.
World Health Organization
While I don’t specialize in mental health, I think everyone should consider themselves a stakeholder in their own mental health at the very least. For many of us, knowledge work is an active part of our weekly work routine. And even for those who don’t associate themselves with that, I encourage everyone to consider mental health as one of the many facets of health that we must all invest in (mental, physical, emotional, etc).
During my sabbatical this year, I spent a week exploring the state of my mental health and thinking of all the ways that I do and don’t care for myself enough. I ended up creating a mental health journal (as I affectionately call it) that is filled with space to clear my head, notes to myself for when I feel down, and things to track while we’re all experiencing the pandemic-specific slippage of time.
This little book is something that has come in handy almost every day since I created it. It helps me get out of my own way, and remember what “my way” is, regardless of whether I’m in the midst of an emerging crisis or floating through the unending emotional drain of a global pandemic.
I’m not much for flip throughs (I can’t imagine that anyone cares what I have to say that much), but I’ll share some of the primary components and can follow up with a flip through if folks would find that easier.
What’s In It
I used a Happy Planner notebook, in the mini size. I’ve been using their products for years because of the extensibility and quality, not to mention the disc bound system is very forgiving of errors and changed plans.
I have four sections: Goals, Track, Think, Know
This section is mostly as expected, with a laundry list of projects to do and habits to hone. It also has some pages with key questions for goal-setting (what would I do if money didn’t matter, what small changes could I make to improve my quality of life, what activities do I dread the most).
I also take time to write down why I have chosen some of my goals, because if I have learned one thing in life it’s that no plans survive contact with reality.
This section, in the time of COVID, is used to track the passage of time and to remind me of the things I do that don’t require being attached to a computer. Not because I can’t figure it out for myself, but because decision fatigue is a real thing. In those moments when you find yourself once again at the end of your crisis response reserves, it’s nice to flip open a page and see that your past self was looking out for you.
For me, this section includes visual layouts of:
things I’ve tracked so I can make changes
optimal routines for my work week
what makes me feel happy or sad
the books I’ve read
my hobby stretch goals
and when I last took time for myself
It also includes two weekly prompts for gratitude and big wins – moments that often go unremarked on right now.
This section is the best and the worst. It’s just blank pages that I’ve doodled some titles onto. The titles are all big, existential questions that I want to explore (so I can write about them here), or small and relentless fears that are hindering my progress through my everyday life. Because I am a happy planner, most of these pages have some supportive and semi-inspirational quotes to go along with them.
But mostly it’s just a non-judgemental place for me to clear my head and admit to what scares me.
And speaking of blind panic.
This section is my favorite. It has one sheet that logs important dates in my career (and a new page that charts my path) and the rest is just illustrations and doodles of things I have come to believe as a leader.
It has quotes that I say to my team leads all the time. It has my main recommendations about how to stay resilient. It has a tree of questions for when I’m worried. And page after page of guiding thoughts for when I feel the most at sea.
I add to these pages, and refer to them for self-guidance, almost daily. It is clear to me, now more than ever, that I know who I am and what my purpose in life is. It is my sincerest hope that what I reflect into the world matches.
What’s In You
I know that pen and paper isn’t for everyone, so I make the following recommendations lightly.
I think that some of what we will lose the most in future retellings of this time period is how fiercely human this reality made many of us. We will lose our handwritten notes, we will lose how we tried to improve our circumstances, and we will lose how we tried to help each other.
I will always write here, on this site, as I have for a decade. But I think there’s something to be said for the slow, tactile experience of creating something physical that can help you now and can capture who you were for the future.
I walk past a middle school at lunch every day. Most days we all just carry on with our own work (mine: dog walking, theirs: game playing), but today was different.
As I walked by the school yard, one of the kids kicked a ball over the fence and across the street. She asked if I would throw it back over, apologizing a lot as she did. It’s no real burden for me, so I retrieved it and threw it back over.
Another student asked if I could help retrieve a second ball, and then a third (there wasn’t a fourth). Again, not a problem, so I returned those balls as well. And then he said this:
“You’re so generous! Thank you! If I could pay you $100 I would, but I don’t have any money. Your dog is beautiful and healthy. Have a good day!”
Now, I can’t be sure of what drove him to have that little interaction with me. But I would like to imagine it’s a mixture of these things:
Having a very high valuation of time.
Having a very low valuation of a dollar.
Having an innate sense for the existence of reciprocity.
Which then led him to decide that, knowing that he needed to pay for the use of my expensive time, a compliment to my dog was worth $100.
Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.
Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.
Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.
Illustration: Design vs Development
As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.
A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:
unencumbered by deadlines
value form over function
A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:
unencumbered by manners
value function over form
Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.
These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.
The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.
But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls . Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.
When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.
Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.
Types of Safety
Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.
Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.
There are many “right ways” to be a woman in tech, and I hope that people have learned to welcome you with open arms. But at the same time, I worry that some women may not feel brave enough to ask if they are welcome.
I have something subversive to share with you.
I once felt that to be a woman in a male-dominated field (that’s just existing, not even excelling) you had to be as un-female as possible. I had this suspicion in the back of my mind that not allowing women to express themselves as women (but then also claiming them as part of your diverse workforce) — I had this suspicion that it was a lie.
Then I had two great chats with two great women, and I’m going to share their wisdom forever. And I’m writing it here so that you can, too.
Helen 侯-Sandí and I were at a WordCamp afterparty and wearing very fancy dresses. I told her I felt self-conscious because “it was too feminine” (it wasn’t) and her response was “Women have boobs. If we want women in technology, men will have to learn that boobs** aren’t what keep people from being developers.”
I told my sister I was having a heckuva time choosing the color of my laptop. I was stuck on “If I get a pink one, will anyone take me seriously?” and also “Should I be working to dignify WordPress overall” (by getting a dark grey laptop? idk). And she said to me “Anyone who will choose not to take you seriously because your laptop is pink was already not going to take you seriously. Get a pink laptop and remind them that women are leaders, too.”
That is when I saw through some distracting self-perpetuating nonsense:
Women, do not shame other women for being too feminine.
Women, do not shame other women for being too masculine.
Women, do not shame others for not fitting your idea of who they should be.
It’s hard enough out here trying to smash this towering patriarchy. Don’t hamstring everyone from within. Get your sister-phoenixes and get the heck ready to rise.
*Tech and medicine and any other male-dominated field out there. **The use of the word “boobs” isn’t a vocabulary choice that you would associate with my blog, and especially not in a post labeled “leadership”. However, I felt that given Helen’s notoriety, no one would believe me if I pretended that the word choice was anything but that.