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What I learned at WordCamp Phoenix

WordCamp Phoenix 2018, which took place last weekend, was my second WordCamp. It was absolutely worth the flight to Phoenix, as the event was well organized and fun. I had a great time hanging out with some of the Red Earth Design, Inc. team members, meeting people in the WordPress community, and attending talks. Here are a few of my takeaways from the event.

Three of the RED team members at WCPHX 2018

WordPress is at the cutting edge

Since WordPress is an open source project, it can rapidly interface with new technologies. I had been hearing about how great GraphQL was as an alternative to REST APIs, so I was excited to hear Jason Bahl’s talk about WPGraphQL. I was encouraged to see that there is already a WordPress plugin that provides a GraphQL API for WordPress. I really enjoyed Jason's talk because he spent a lot of the time demonstrating the basic usage of the plugin and how it can be extended.

GraphQL logo

Having just released Plugin Notes Plus in the WordPress plugin repo, I'm interested in having an API available that provides data about the plugins installed on a site, including any plugin notes. I learned that the WPGraphQL plugin already provides a way to query plugins, so I could simply extend that endpoint to include plugin notes. During my free time at the WordCamp, I worked out the basics for how to accomplish that, so hopefully I can work that into a future release of Plugin Notes Plus.

Don't set too many goals

I attended Nathan Ingram’s workshop called "Taming the Whirlwind," which was about strategies to help a business succeed. Although I don’t run a business, I found some of the advice about setting goals interesting and useful.

One slide in particular stood out to me, which was data collected by the Franklin-Covey Institute about the number of goals a team set vs. achieved. According to the study, the more goals you have, the fewer you're likely to achieve. I'm sure there are nuances to this finding, but I have found it to be true in my experience that, the more goals or items on my to-do list, the less I'm able to focus on any one item.

Number of Goals 2-3 4-10 11-20
Goals Achieved 2-3 1-2 0

Working with a team is like improv comedy

Amber Pechin gave a funny and entertaining talk about how teams can be more creative and successful by following the basic rules of improv comedy. For example, follow the "Yes, and …" rule when brainstorming with a team. And think of ways to set up your fellow team members to succeed. It wasn't anything I hadn't heard before, but it was motivating. Ideally, a team that works well together can produce something better than any individual member could have, and everybody can enjoy the team's successes, no matter what individual role they played.

My efforts at improving my workflow are paying off

I've spent a lot of time in the past couple of years refining my WordPress development workflow. Carl Alexander gave a well structured talk about the concepts behind automated WordPress deployments. I liked how most of this talk kept to the high-level concepts behind workflow, but he stopped at various intervals to give specific recommendations for tools and services. His talk helped solidify the way that I think about workflow best practices and also validated that I'm finally doing it the right way.

I'm too old

Possibly the most important takeaway from the event was having an elderly woman tell me that I’m too old. Here's what happened: I was sitting and waiting for the talk on WPGraphQL to begin when an elderly women wearing a sequined outfit entered the room and sat next to me. While WordCamps attract a refreshing diversity of demographics in their attendees, I remember being slightly surprised to see someone like her at a talk about WPGraphQL.

The woman turned to me and said, “I’m trying to sit next to the youngest person in the room. How old are you, young lady?” I'm pretty sure she expected me to tell her that I was 25 or so. However, I decided to tell her the truth. “I’m 36,” I said. Her reply was priceless: “Oh dear, you’re too old.” Shortly after, she got up and left. I'm still not quite sure what to make of that encounter.

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Reflections from my remote team’s first in-person retreat

I’ve worked as a developer for Red Earth Design, Inc. since October of 2014 and, until recently, I had met only one of my fellow team members in person. Even though we have regular team meetings over video, and we chat on Slack, we were starting to feel like we could really benefit from an in-person retreat. Early in the summer, we decided that it was time.

Getting six remote team members together – who live in four different states and three different countries – was no small feat. It took a lot of planning and preparation, but on the day of the solar eclipse, the moon, the sun, and the Earth aligned, and our company converged on Chicago for the very first time. We spent two full days together, focusing on work activities in the morning and recreational or volunteer activities in the afternoon. You can read the official RED blog post about the retreat here.  Below are my personal reflections from the event.

Highlights

Meeting everyone and hanging out together. It was fun to meet everyone after only interacting via computer or phone for almost three years. Our regular team video meetings gave me a good sense of what everybody was like, but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that comes from actually spending time together in person. I think all of our activities – from exploring Millenium Park to eating deep-dish pizza to playing Pictionary – really helped us bond as a team and connect personally.

Working together. We tried to be strategic in planning our work activities during the retreat, focusing on things that would be a lot easier to accomplish in person than over a computer. One of our main goals was to get everyone up to speed on an improved workflow. I think it was a good choice of activities, as it was the type of thing that requires frequently looking over each other’s shoulders and troubleshooting. We also had a number of business-related discussions, which felt a bit more comfortable in person.

Staying together in a big house. In the early stages of planning the retreat, we considered the option of staying in a hotel, but it seemed too impersonal for a team retreat with only six people. So we followed the lead of other small remote teams and rented a big house through Airbnb. And I’m really glad that we did. The house was in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and it was absolutely perfect. It was large, well equipped, and just a little bit quirky – with a full-sized mannequin in my bedroom. I especially liked the large dining table that we could all sit around while we worked. Oh, and the giant trampoline in the back yard was a nice perk.

Volunteering. Our company serves a number of nonprofits, and one of our core values is “making a difference.” So it made sense for us to spend some time volunteering as a team. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to arrange a volunteer activity because many organizations require an initial orientation session. Because we were all coming from out of town, and we only had an afternoon available to volunteer, we needed something where we could hit the ground running.

Luckily, I contacted Ricardo at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, and he was more than willing to accommodate us. He signed us up for a Wednesday afternoon food distribution shift, where we helped distribute food and carry out groceries for what seemed like an endless stream of food pantry clients. It was hard work, but I found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. And it was fun to see our team, for whom work is typically done sitting in front of a computer, perform the hard physical labor of schlepping heavy bags of groceries out to people’s cars.

Taking updated headshots. An underappreciated aspect of working remotely is that we’re constantly looking at team members’ headshots – whether in Slack or in Intervals, our project management system. Those headshots are often several years old, taken under poor lighting, and/or cropped out of a vacation or wedding photo. We decided that the retreat would be a perfect time to update our headshots.

Instead of hiring a professional photographer, I decided to borrow my dad’s fancy telephoto lens and pretend to be a photographer for a day. I took my photographer role very seriously, watching several YouTube videos on how to take a good headshot and reading several articles. This slideshow in particular gave some very helpful pointers. We took a lot of photos – both in our company t-shirts and in nicer shirts we’d brought, and we ended up with some decent headshots. Since the retreat, it’s been nice to see everyone’s updated headshot in Slack and Intervals.

Conclusion

The retreat was exhausting since we tried to pack so much into two days, but I returned home energized, excited about our team, and optimistic about the direction our company is headed. I like the freedom and flexibility of working remotely, but I think that periodic in-person retreats can be hugely beneficial for morale and productivity.

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How a WordPress contributor day changed my mind about the Gutenberg editor

I’ve been trying to become more involved with the WordPress community lately, so I was excited to see that the East Bay WordPress Meetup group was hosting a contributor day, where volunteers can come and learn how to contribute to the WordPress project.

Before the contributor day, I was well aware of Gutenberg, a block-based content editor slated to be merged into WordPress core in its 5.0 release, and had done a little testing with the plugin. However, I had read some critical blog posts about the new editor, so I wasn’t that enthusiastic about getting involved.

At the contributor day, it became clear pretty quickly that Gutenberg was the thing to work on. The meetup group set up a test site, and everyone was setting up accounts on the site and playing with the new editor. I grudgingly went along and quickly started to find bugs. I worked with one of the meetup organizers on filing our first GitHub issue (related to the inability to add or edit tags as an Author). Then I continued testing and submitted a few more of my own issues. By the end of the contributor day, I had submitted 3 issues on the Gutenberg GitHub repo, and our meetup group had submitted about a dozen in total.

When I got home, I noticed that someone had already confirmed one of the bugs I had reported. By the next morning, another issue I had submitted already had a pull request. I went to the contributor day with the goal of contributing to WordPress, and I ended up feeling like I had actually made a contribution, however small. And, surprisingly, my attitude toward Gutenberg went from apathetic to sympathetic. Sure, Gutenberg is a controversial project among the WordPress community, and I’m not sure what I’ll think of it once it’s merged into WP core. But I do appreciate that it’s an active project, and the more people who get involved in its development – even if you just submit a GitHub issue or two – the better it will be.