It’s Ridiculous That Your Company Doesn’t Give You a Paid Sabbatical

Three months off work. Paid. Every five years. That’s the Automattic sabbatical program. And I can’t believe more companies don’t do this.

The Automattic sabbatical is a benefit where every employee is encouraged to take 3 months off every five years at the company. (We’re hiring people passionate about the web, just so you know.) People take a long break from work and do something else, or nothing at all. If you do a search for “Automattic sabbatical” you can find plenty of my coworkers who have blogged about what they did.

It’s easy to write this off as yet another tech excess–like catered everything or laundry or twenty-four/seven massages–but if you look at the benefits and the cost it makes a lot of sense. Almost a no-brainer. Which is why, as it says in big letters up there, it’s ridiculous that your company doesn’t give you a paid sabbatical.

Sabbaticals make companies anti-fragile.

Netflix has a system called “Chaos Monkey.” It randomly turns off servers to test how robust their systems are. By simulating an outage, the engineers are able to build more robust systems that can deal with real outages. The parallel to a sabbatical is clear – it’s making key employees disappear for a little bit. When do you want someone with five years’ experience to train up the team on their job? For three months before sabbatical or the two weeks before they start a new job and leave forever?

I firmly believe this is one of the two most important things to understand about the benefit (the other is the cost, which I’ll get into below). It creates a system where the old guard regularly trains up newer folks to replace them. That means that the organization as a whole is stronger.

Sabbaticals make it easier to hire.

Did you click that hiring link up there, just out of curiosity? If so, you know how attractive a sabbatical program is to people. This may not be useful once more companies catch on and start offering sabbaticals, but for now it’s a clear advantage in hiring talent. Take advantage while you can!

The best way to make hiring cheaper is to not do it. When someone with five years experience leaves due to burnout or boredom, replacing them will take a long time. Keeping folks around and recharging them means lower turnover.

Sabbaticals are cheaper than you think.

There’s one other important thing: how much does this cost? None of this matters if the price tag is too high.

Well, it’s three months salary (and benefits). So your labor cost goes up for that person by 25%. But that’s every five years, so 25% ÷ 5 = 5% increase in labor costs per year. BUT that only applies to people who make it to five years, which is what? Half? So now we’re down to a 2.5% increase in labor costs. That’s less than the the 3% yearly cost-of-living increase!

So we have a way for your organization to organically get the most experienced employees to cross-train on their roles, that costs less than an annual cost-of-living raise AND it reduces churn AND it makes hiring easier. How is this not at more companies!?

Now, it’s true that this isn’t right for every company. If a company does not have to worry about knowledge transfer and retaining institutional knowledge, and it has a plentiful labor supply, it may not make sense. But for everyone else, time to ask your HR why this isn’t a benefit at your company! in Detroit

Automattic (my employer) has been partnering with Rebrand Detroit to get 100 local, small businesses online.

I’m thrilled that our international company is focusing on Detroit. If you are too (and you are reading this on May 17, 2017) you should come to the Rebrand Cities Salon this afternoon in Midtown.

Matt Mullenweg, the CEO, just posted these new ads showing some of the work that has been done so far:

Well… how did I get here?

Employee referral programs are killing diversity in the tech industry

Roughly 70% of tech companies have programs to encourage referrals and most importantly, referrals account for up to 50% of new hires in the US.

Unfortunately, an employee being asked to refer someone for a given position will almost always go for somebody who shares the same social capital: skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, degree etc.

I’ve had seven tech jobs. I got three of them as a referral from an existing employee. Importantly, those three jobs also accounted for the bulk of my professional growth. Furthermore, for the second and third jobs in that list I was referred by my network from my first referred job.

I got the best jobs of my career because I knew someone who worked at the company. Someone who was like me.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t deserve the job, wasn’t qualified for it or anything. But it’s useful to remember that someone without the same networks as me would find it difficult to compete with me for those jobs. At a macro level it means access consolidates around similar people. That’s a problem for companies, since diversity is good for business.

Referrals are cheaper and more successful than less targeted funnels. Referral bonuses seem like a decent thing too. A referral bonus is also a good answer to the question “if you’re paying that recruiter to hire people, why should I do their job for free?” I’ve earned a few referral bonuses over the years and I’ve known a couple of people who turned referral bonuses into a second income stream.

That post I linked glosses over another piece of referrals. When you are interviewing for a job, you are also interviewing the company to see if you want to work there. Tech workers are in a tight labor market (for now). Employers have a tough time finding talent. A large part of the reason I switched to the jobs at which I knew people is because I had social proof that they were good jobs.

I only switched jobs because people I trust told me it was a good place to work.

If referral programs are successful, if they make hiring more efficient, and if they benefit workers, then what is the problem? This could be a reminder that “what you measure, you improve” is both a promise and a warning. Changing the metrics of success changes all of that. However, employee retention and success are easier to track than the innovation benefits of diversity. One of my takeaways from Deep Work was “The Principle of Least Resistance:”

In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

So what is the answer for companies?  How do they fill that funnel while still convincing experienced talent to work there? I don’t really know, sorry. I know there are people who think about this deeply. If you know who they are please point me in their direction.

I do know that diverse workforces attract diversity. Knowing that there are people like you is reassuring for people, including me. Getting to a workforce where there are “people like you” (along whatever axis you’re considering) for candidates is the sticky wicket.

It’s not like there were no hurdles in getting those jobs, but it’s valuable to remember that a hurdle doesn’t prove an even playing field. What I can say is that when you are unpacking things like privilege and diversity, I think it’s important to ask “Well… how did I get here?

If Your Boss Could Do Your Job, You’re More Likely to Be Happy at Work

If Your Boss Could Do Your Job, You’re More Likely to Be Happy at Work

Studies of leaders often focus on their style or charisma, but we wanted to look at how workers are affected by their boss’s technical competence. That is, is the boss is a real expert in the core business of the organization? How much expertise does he or she have? Boss competence is, admittedly, a multifaceted concept. Hence we measured it in three different ways:

  • Whether the supervisor could, if necessary, do the employee’s job.
  • Whether the supervisor worked his or her way up inside the company.
  • The supervisor’s level of technical competence as assessed by a worker.

Using these three measures of supervisor competence, we found that employees are far happier when they are led by people with deep expertise in the core activity of the business. This suggests that received wisdom about what makes a good boss may need some rethinking. It’s not uncommon to hear people assert that it’s a bad idea to promote an engineer to lead other engineers, or an editor to lead other editors. A good manager doesn’t need technical expertise, this argument goes, but rather, a mix of qualities like charisma, organizational skills, and emotional intelligence. Those qualities do matter, but what our research suggests is that the oft-overlooked quality of having technical expertise also matters enormously.

I have mostly worked with technical leaders. I’ve found that the more aligned my job is with their experience and the core business, the happier I am.

The lesson seems to be to actively grow leaders in your core business area. And, if you want to change your core business area, to devote time towards growing leaders in that new area.

Mythical Man Month draws an interesting lesson from this idea:

I have earlier argued that the sheer number of minds to be coordinated affects the cost of the effort, for a major part of the cost is communication and correcting the ill effects of miscommunication (system debugging). This, too, suggests that one wants the system to be built by as few minds as possible.

The conclusion is simple: if a 200-man project has 25 managers who are the most competent and experienced programmers, fire the 175 troops and put the managers back to programming.

Brooks goes on to conclude that is not realistic, and the real solution is to break up systems to reduce communication overhead. But, when they read “put the managers back to programming,” I know some pretty great leaders who get excited at the prospect.

Calvin Bushor on Super Powers

My pal Cal wrote up a good piece on finding your super powers.

Once you are able to see yourself through this new lens, you will start to pick up on things you do that others don’t. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it comes from the Thank You’s of others. Sometimes it will slap you in the face! When you realize what your Super Powers are, you will feel like Superman when he realized he could fly… and shoot fricken lasers out of his eyeballs!

In my experience, I’ve been most successful when I play to my super powers and surround myself with people who can protect me from my (many) Kryptonites.

I’m an Automattician

At the beginning of August, I joined Automattic, a company that is closely tied to WordPress (but they are not one in the same). That probably means I should blog more.

I got excited about working at Automattic (or “a8c” as in an “a” followed by 8 letters followed by “c”) after talking with my once-and-future coworker Drew. Drew joined a8c last year and we were talking about how I love open source and the open web. He pointed out that a8c was all of those things and I should really look at signing on. The only hurdle was the hiring process.

Automattic’s hiring process is well documented (hn discussion) but appears to have evolved since that was written. My own process was résumé, then chat on Slack, then code test, then paid trial project, then a chat with Matt Mullenweg on Slack. Happily, that resulted in an offer and here I am.

The trial project is a great way to get to know how the company works, so you can get a feel for if this is really a place you want to work. Remember – interviews should be as much about finding out if you want to work there as a company finding out if they want you to work. Both parties are taking a risk with an accepted job offer. A trial project adds a lot of information which removes risk.

I’d love to tell you more about what I’m doing as a JavaScript engineer at a8c, but I’m not actually doing it yet. Everyone’s first 3 weeks is the same: support rotation. A couple days of training and then you are thrown into the deep end. It’s a really good exercise (and that word fits, since it’s something that creates growth even if it’s tough); it teaches you a lot about what users are doing and a lot about what goes on behind the scenes. It also communicates that the company really values user experience in a way no mission statement can.

I don’t know if the support rotation would work at other companies but it’s been a better on-boarding than I’ve experienced anywhere else. It might only work because WordPress is already familiar to new hires, unlike the financial services companies I’ve worked at in the past. It might be the culture of using internal blogs and chat so that there is a ton of searchable documentation. There’s also a tech talent war. I wonder if other companies would be able to hire if they said that you’d start off doing front-line support (and I wonder how many big egos a8c has avoided by warning new hires they’ll have to do front-line support).

I’m really excited to be working at a fully distributed company and at a place that believes in making the web a better place.