Ten Years Since My First Open-Source Contribution

Ten years ago Ryan Boren committed to the WordPress open-source project a two-line change I had suggested. I wasn’t ecstatic, but there was this warm feeling of being useful.

Screenshot of the commit message

In the next few years I regularly contributed to WordPress. Not too much, but often. What kept me around wasn’t programming itself or the hard technical challenges, but three other reasons: being useful,  the safe path to learning responsibility, and that everybody was so nice.

I contributed translations and code for the internationalization infrastructure (affectionately known as “i18n”).  Translators rarely know much about code and since a lot of the developers were from English-speaking countries they didn’t know much about encoding, unicode, or how to make texts easy to translate. I was in the lucky intersection of both and that exact place made me useful.

Our jobs often make us work hard to achieve great things together and it’s worth it. But they often fail to make us feel useful in the simplest ways. Not as a part of a big machine stomping ahead, or a part of a great team changing the world, but just as person helping another person with their problem. I helped translators with their formatting problems or developers, who had been struggling with encoding bugs for days. I wasn’t assigned to fix those problems, the fact that it was a human on the other side just felt good.

Then people started to notice. In about a year I became the maintainer of the internationalization corner of WordPress. Now I had responsibilities. But those were responsibilities with training wheels – vague and weak expectations, even vaguer schedule, all the freedom in the world, an easy way out (“I am busy at my day job” works wonders). My task was simple, but I started to understand what it’s like when people depend on you. At the time I was a junior developer at my job and there was always somebody looking over my shoulder and making sure I was making progress. It wasn’t like that with WordPress. If I wanted internationalization to be covered before a release, I had to take the initiative or it wouldn’t happen and many people would be left unhelped.

Motivation and responsibility aren’t usually part of the “contributing to open-source” conversation. And yet, that’s what I learned from my first years of working with WordPress. Most of my programming I learned elsewhere, but contributing to WordPress boosted my soft skills – I learned to write better, I learned to deal with (and ultimately help) random people on the internet, I learned to manage a project, without giving assignments, I learned to be motivated for the right reasons.

Less than three years after my first contribution, I joined Automattic. It is one of the biggest contributors to WordPress and the company behind WordPress.com. I have been working there ever since (more than seven years now), because the culture was built around the same open-source values. We strive to help people for all the right reasons.

I don’t know if you’ll be as lucky as me, but contributing to open-source projects seems worth the try.

What I am Reading Lately

Schedule regular check-ins with your direct reports, so that giving feedback — both negative and positive — becomes a normal part of the weekly routine.

Everything You Need to Know About Giving Negative Feedback by Sarah Green for HBR

Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?

Given I write several thousand words each day, there’s no room for “pre-gaming.”

The “game” IS the ritual.

Here’s How Maria Popova of Brain Pickings Writes, interview by Kelton Reid for Copyblogger

Most jobs are mediocre. Most people’s work is mediocre. Most products and experiences are mediocre. Most lives drift to mediocre. When you rise above the mediocrity, people will notice.

Thirty Things I’ve Learned by Nick Crocker

Lois wholly or partially created some of the most exceptional and memorable ads in history. For better or worse, behemoths of consumerism such as Tommy Hilfiger, Jiffy Lube, ESPN, MTV, and many others have ingrained themselves in American culture because of his indelible campaigns. The qualities that set Lois’s work apart from that of today’s advertising industry are a) his stuff was unapologetic and transparent about the fact that it was selling a product, and b) he used ideas to hawk products rather than the other way around.

Geoge Lois, interview by Rocco Castoro for Vice

What I am Reading Lately

I will try to post every month or so what I have been reading lately – books, essays, blog posts, code. Recently inspired by Om Malik’s similar column.

Yet if we look back over the last 400 years to ponder what ideas have caused the greatest changes in human society and have ushered in our modern era of democracy, science, technology and health care, it should be a bit of a shock to realize that none of these is in story form!

Powerful Ideas Need Love Too! by Alan Kay

A good programmer in these times doesn’t just write programs. A good programmer builds a working vocabulary. In other words, a good programmer does language design.

Growing a Language by Guy Steele (video on YouTube, transcript)

It turns out that the key to Apple’s creativity, speed, and adaptability is, on its surface, the exact opposite of the kind of free-wheeling creativity one might expect. It’s a checklist. A really long one.

Any company can copy the keystone of Apple’s design process (Quartz)

Thinking, Fast and Slow

The book cover Never has a book become more deeply ingrained in my daily life for such a short time. Every day, since the moment I started reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, I have either referenced it in a conversation or have noticed a situation, explained in the book.

Thinking, Fast and Slow contains all the psychological wisdom the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has gathered through the years. He’s almost 80 years old, this makes for a lot of wisdom.

The goal of the book is to give us names to the most common errors of judgement we make. In addition to the names there are a ton of amusing stories and insights into how our mind works. While most of the content isn’t unique, the value of the book is in its completeness. It covers all aspects of the way humans make decisions, both right and wrong.

If you answer with “yes” to at least two and a half of the questions below, move Thinking, Fast and Slow to the top of your reading list:

  • Have you wondered why very smart people have a hard time navigating in the outside world?
  • Have you ever submitted a sub-par essay, because the professor knew you were smart?
  • Have you ever negotiated over something?
  • Have you ever given money to a charity?
  • Have you ever evaluated (in your mind) whether a person is attractive or not?
  • Have you wondered why we trust some politicians even if we don’t know their work well enough?
  • Have you wondered why people love conspiracy theories?
  • Have you ever had to make an important work decision?
  • Have you ever had to make an important life decision?
  • Have you ever had to make a decision about anything?

Thinking, Fast and Slow is the most complete and in-depth popular work on how and why we make decisions, that I’ve read. It was worth every minute I spent with it.

Book: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Mortality sounds like a road trip motto. Coincidentally, I accidentally bought the book right before we set off on a road trip.

The moment I saw the small, hardcover book with the great serif on the cover I couldn’t resist. Yes, I choose my wine by the label, too.

Under the beautiful cover, Hitchens is dying of cancer. It doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? He’s not the first to try it, neither was the first who succeeded.

Mortality cover

The pleasant surprise was that the book isn’t about rethinking his life, feeling sorry he didn’t return that phone call in 1977, or trying to convince me I had to stuff my short mortal life with daisies, love, time for my family, and blueberry pancakes.

Instead, Hitchens tells us 6½ stories from “Tumortown”. Stories about different aspects of his experiences with having cancer. And with the cancer having him. And with the surrounding world having them both.

If you have read any of his previous writings, you already  know that he’s an ironically witty, straight-forward atheist. If you haven’t read any of his previous writings, you still don’t know that he’s an ironically witty, straight-forward atheist.

Staying witty, while dying at the same time sounds incredibly hard. I don’t know if Hitchens showed his true emotions in the book or he started believing in god and kept atheism just as a marketing tactic, but I don’t really care. All I know is that I want to be witty when I’m dying.

You Have The Time

“I don’t have enough time” is the most frequent excuse for not doing something. But that’s bullshit. You have the time. You just decided to spend it on something else.

Sometime last year I stopped saying “I don’t have the time”. And I’ve been happier.

Every time I want to say “I don’t have time”, I use the following template: “I can’t do this, because instead I will do X and it’s more important”. It made me think a lot more clearly and honestly about my priorities – “I wish I could help you out, but instead I will check continuously Twitter and Facebook”. There have been a ton of red flags like this.

Next time you say “I don’t have time” just think what are you doing instead and is it really more important.