Day in the Life of a Happiness Engineer

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Over the past year or so, quite a few of my colleagues here at Automattic have written “Day in the Life of…” posts on their personal blogs about, well, what a typical day is like for a Happiness Engineer. If you’re interested in learning more about we work, given all the freedom that we’re given to set our schedules (mostly) and choose our location (anywhere in the world!), you can catch most (maybe all?) of the posts by checking out the [#a8cday](https://wordpress.com/tag/a8cday%5D tag.

I generally work Monday to Friday, although on very rare occasions I might pop into Slack or our ticket queues over the weekend for an hour or two. Since my husband works a standard M-F job, though, I like keeping my own work hours n sync with his.

A lot of my colleagues like to ease into their workday day by catching up on p2s, the ever-growing collection of internal blogs (organized by team and/or project) that all together represent the heart, soul and critical organs of our global, distributed organization. Bug report? It’s on a p2. Odd behavior in the network? It’s on a p2. Discussion about how we can expand our live chat availability beyond North American hours? It’s on a lot of p2s.

I, on the other hand, like to jump in feet first and immediately kickstart my day by live chatting with users right at 7:00 am. Live chat is an essential part of the day for most Happiness Engineers, and the amount of time we dedicate to the task on a daily can vary depending on one’s team and daily schedule. On my team (Phoenix, which is primarily responsible for assisting Business and Enterprise users of WordPress.com), we aim for a total of 5 hours of live chat per day.

Because I’ve been spending a lot of time managing the roll out and maintenance of our Google Apps integration and deployment, I’ve temporarily cut back a bit on my support load to focus on doing a lot of testing, QA, and debugging of the product, but I still try and dedicate a minimum of two hours of live chat a day. The morning hours in particular represent a busy time for our Business users, so we HEs who staff those early blocks typically juggle a steady flow of user chats.

Every now and then, I’ll get a user or two with a particularly tricky issue that requires some debugging and testing, or who may be new to WordPress or website building in general and who needs a little more assistance. When that happens, my shift might end up extending well past the two-hour mark. (I think my personal record for longest user chat was just over 2-1/2 hours.) It’s not very common for my shift to bleed so far into mid- or late morning, but just in case I try not to schedule anything in the next hour after my chat shift, just to give myself that much of a buffer.

When I’m chatting, I do very little else besides skim p2s.  We also have a very active Slack in-house community, and while I long ago decided that reading the backscroll of messages that happened overnight or over the weekend while I was away was a futile exercise, I still like to quickly glance through my favorite channels and see if there’s anything critical I should be aware of.

For the most part, though, if I’m not actively in a chat, I’ll keep an eye on our #livechat Slack channel. That’s probably one of the most active channels in our company, one that’s lit up nearly all hours of the day or night. If we get a question in live chat that we’re not sure of, that’s the channel we throw it into for assistance. A user’s post has odd formatting? We paste the link into the channel and ask anyone available if they are seeing the same thing, and if so, what they might think is causing it. (With over 300+ themes, and new ones being launched every week, it’s almost impossible for any one person to know the unique features of each and every one.)

Compared to the intensity and singular focus of live chat, the rest of the day tends to be a little bit more relaxed. Once my chat shift is done, I may take my four dogs out for long walks – also in shifts, natch, as I don’t like being dragged in four different directions – and then go for a long run to clear my head.

When I get back, I usually take the dogs out to the backyard for more playtime for them and stretching for me. Then, it’s back inside for a quick shower and snack before plopping myself in front of the computer again in my home office.

For the last few months, I’ve devoted most of my non-chat hours every day to responding to queries and bug reports about our users’ Google Apps accounts, so if you purchased one from us and had questions or issues with it, chances are you either chatted with me about it, or I’ve spent time helping another Happiness Engineer with it. I review our debug logs, create a surprisingly large number of spreadsheets to help me keep track of and investigate problems, and help our developers with fixes and patches. I’m not a developer at all, but I do love the problem-solving aspects of the job and relish the thought of troubleshooting especially tricky bugs. I may have never written a line of code (although I did take computer science in high school and created simple BASIC programs!), but I’ve learned to pick through the Google Apps API documentation and learn the basics of how an account is created. I put on a “Focus” playlist on Spotify, have my bottle of ice-cold water at the ready, and I can get lost in the debug logs for hours.

If and when I find the source of a bug, I’ll compile everything into a report that I’ll publish in a p2 post, cc-ing the relevant developer(s) and, if necessary, alerting the rest of the Happiness team in case it affects more than a handful of users.

I usually try to end my day by 4:30-5:00 pm Central, as that gives me time to tie up any loose ends, relax, and take the dogs out for another romp in the backyard before I start preparing their dinner. If B. catches the early train, he’s generally walking through the door a few minutes before 6:00, but if not, then he’ll be here by 6:10 or so.

Every now and then, I might log back in after we’ve all had dinner and are relaxing in front of the TV, but otherwise, I try to keep evenings free for just the family.

I know quite a few people might read this and think, “Wait, I thought you guys can work anywhere you want, whenever you want, and travel all the time?!” Well, yes, we do, and this year alone I’ve been to San Antonio, Portland, Phoenix, Miami, and Park City for work. Last year I traveled to Palermo, Italy; San Francisco; Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Park City, UT; and Kauai, all for work as well. I’m not sure where I’ll be next year just yet, but I do know that in January I’ll be spending a week with my teammates in Phoenix, and again for our annual company “Grand Meetup” in the mid- to late fall at an as-yet-undecided location.

Still, most of my work still takes place online, at home, surrounded by my motley crew of four-legged pups and, in the evenings and weekends, my husband. And that’s exactly how I like it, the soothing predictability and stability of it. Some of my colleagues choose to be nomads, working from wherever in the world they can find solid wifi and a decent cup of coffee. I traveled thousands upon thousands of miles when I was much younger, and once devoted months of my life to a big, life-altering backpacking trip that took me from Dallas to Australia and a dozen points in between. I grew up straddling two cultures and zooming between two continents. I know what it’s like to be a nomad. It’s an exhilarating adventure.

But now I also know what it’s like to settle down. To plant my feet on solid ground and keep them there for a while. I like the rhythm of our days, the million opportunities to sit in the backyard on a breezy summer’s day and enjoy the feel of my dog’s warm, happy breath on my neck. I like coming home at the end of a business trip and be welcomed into my family’s joyful embrace. I like waking up in the morning and knowing that my day is going to be like (for the most part!). For some, that may be a terrifying thought, but for me, a woman who had such a peripatetic life in the past, it’s the very definition of a happy life.

Bootstrap for your accounting/invoicing

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As a freelancer, I know I should be keeping close track of my income, let alone my expenses, but for some reason I’d yet to really grasp that until very recently. Until January I’d only really been freelancing part-time, so whatever income I was making was small enough so that my tax forms weren’t too difficult come every January. Indeed, since I learned of the magic that is TurboTax Home & Business, taxes have never been much of a problem. In fact — shhh, don’t tell anyone — I actually rather enjoy doing my taxes.

I know, sick, huh? But when you’ve been getting consistently large refunds every year, you kinda enjoy seeing the amount tick upwards on the top right hand corner of your computer screen as you merrily click your way through the software. (And yes, I realize that large refunds are a sign that I haven’t been paying attention when I fill out those W-2s and am basically giving the government a big, fat loan for free, but honestly, I’d rather do that than owe taxes on April 15th. It’s just not fun.)

Starting January of this year, though, I started freelancing full-time. As in, the only paychecks coming in with my name on it are those directly stemming from my own marketing efforts and querying rather than from punching a clock at some office every morning. If I slack off one week, I can count on having a pretty pitiful payday, if at all. Plus, now I have more personal expenses than I usually would had I been content to be, well, normal, i.e., I need business cards, travel time to appointments and interviews, stationery, a new printer, some more office equipment, etc., all of which come out of my pocket, not from some generous corporate benefactor (i.e., the supply and requisitions department).

In other words, I needed to get serious about what’s going in and out of my pocket and bank account, otherwise I could end up in a big, fat mess by the time the next tax season rolls around, and have to pay more than I need to.

Until recently I was using OpenOffice‘s Calc software (the open source equivalent of Microsoft Excel) and a manila folder to throw all my receipts and check stubs in. Not the most elegant of systems, but it does its job. The only problem was that still didn’t really help me get a good grasp of where I stood, and since I’m not the most expert user of spreadsheets in the world, inputting the data and getting good, reliable numbers could be time-consuming at best.

Enter Bootstrap. I can’t remember who first told me about this, but I’d like to send them a million virtual kisses for the recommendation. In a nutshell, Bootstrap is a small business accounting program that allows you to input your income and expenses into this Web-based interface, and voila! It calculates not only your profit but also your estimated taxes for that tax year. Right now they offer only federal tax calculations, but according to the site they’re working on adding state tax functionality as well.

Here’s a quick screenshot of the program:


As you can see, you have four critical tabbed pages: Income, Expenses, Taxes, and Reports. Under the Income tab, you can input the date; relevant information (payer, article, invoice and/or check number, etc.; and the amount. Punching enter or clicking Save will update the table for you. In the top right-hand corner, the software automatically calculates your profit, based on what you enter into the Expenses table.

Again, you’ll see that all you have to do is enter the date; the nature of the expense; the category under which the expense should be filed (here, Bootstrap uses the standard Schedule C categories used by the IRS); and the amount. Click Save, and voila! It adds it to your table.


The third tab is the most fun: Taxes. Here, you can view your approximate tax owed, based on the numbers you inputted in the Income and Expenses tables. Bootstrap notifies users that they use a conservative calculation system to determine your tax liability and that you might want to double-check using the IRS worksheet, but this gives you a very good idea of how much you will owe for each quarter.


The fourth tab is, of course, Reports. You can get a bird’s-eye view of the entire year, with the option of reviewing your monthly, quarterly, or annual profit-and-loss statements.

I absolutely love this software. I finally, finally know exactly how much I’ve made, minus whatever expenses I’ve incurred. I don’t have to say, “Oh, I think I’m reaching my goal for this month,” as all I have to do is fire up Bootstrap and know exactly whether or not I’ve met my goal for that month or even that quarter. And it’s super-easy, even for non-accounting folks like myself, to enter the data into the tables. Every time I get a check, I put it into the Income tab and let the software recalculate my Profit, Loss and Taxes for me. I do the same everytime I have an expense.

Plus, you can export any of these reports to Excel or OpenOffice Calc, so you can save your data on your own computer anytime. When the time comes for you to file your taxes, you have all the information you need to fill out your Schedule C form, without having to worry about digging through a year or a quarter’s worth of receipts and check stubs.

The site is still in its infancy, and the company is still tweaking it a bit to give it more features. The developers have been very helpful and responsive to my emails suggesting future add-ons (including one that would automatically calculate mileage deductions based on current IRS guidelines), so you know that they’re working on it. I highly recommend this to any small business looking for a basic accounting program. It probably is most useful for sole proprietors who file Schedule C forms with the IRS.

Again, I absolutely, positively recommend this program. If you’re wary of online accounting software, know that this only asks for basic information, including an email address and company name. It does not require that you input any other personal financial information, i.e., you are not requested to enter banking or credit card information. Indeed, there isn’t any place for that info.

At the moment use of the program is entirely free while they’re in beta testing mode. The developers write in their FAQ’s that they will probably charge for certain features in the future. Assuming that it’s a reasonable charge, I will probably continue to use this program and pay the fee. It allows me to do what I do best and make money from: write articles and market myself. I can leave the basic accounting to this program and let it do the work for me.

No more telephones?

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This is interesting. James of Men with Pens recently wrote a post about not using the telephone for business purposes anymore. He basically sums up his philosophy thusly:

These people who would hinge working together on my willingness to talk on the phone are turning their nose up at my skills and abilities for extremely poor reasons that don’t hold water. They question my character, my integrity and my personality based on a phone call.

Good point, James. Not being a big phone person myself, I can totally relate. I can spend hours on the telephone, which may be great when I’m chatting with a friend or family member, but not so much if I’m trying to get a project done. Still, I’m not sure I’d be willing to give up the phone completely. Sometimes it’s easier to just conduct quick business over the phone, especially if you or your caller has a simple question. Why complicate things by making people fire up their computer just to throw you that question?

What do you think?

Organization tips for women writers

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B. teases me ever so gently sometimes for being such a workaholic. Even on my so-called “easy days,” I’ll rattle off a list of tasks that I accomplished, oblivious to my defiance of the meaning of the term “easy day.” Still, like a lot of women, I find myself often running around in several different directions, frustrated that there aren’t more hours in the day and wondering how to maximize my precious time.

I haven’t quite figured out the key yet, but I have learned a few things in this experiment in productive-and-fulfilling living. I still manage to make most of my weekends free for fun and spending time with B. while maintaining a pretty good schedule of work during the week, so I think I’m on my way to finding that elusive balance of work and play that all of us so long for.

  • Minimize housework. This is a big one for me. I loathe housework anyway, so my work is the perfect excuse to avoid it. B. dislikes it as much as I do, although we both do our even share so the other person doesn’t feel exploited. What we do instead is try and minimize the circumstances that create housework, e.g., we don’t wear our outdoor shoes at all when we’re in the home. No outdoor dust = minimum dirt to vacuum.
  • Lower your expectations. Theoretically, I would love a home worthy of a Better Homes & Gardens layout, but realistically, that ain’t gonna happen. Instead, I aim for clean, if not neat. As a true-blue Filipino, I never, ever go to bed without having cleaned the kitchen, but I don’t have to have an immaculate living room. Newspapers sometimes pile up on the floor or the coffee table, and books and other detritus sometimes stay on the floor for days, if not weeks. However, neither of us sweat it if we can’t get around to tidying things up for days, if not weeks. Life is too short to worry about every single dust bunny under the couch. I prioritize my day and my schedule and plan accordingly. Eventually, the housework does get done, but it’s not the #1 thing on my list.
  • Demand help. Don’t just sit around and get all passive-aggressive, hoping that your husband will take the hint about taking the trash out. Yeah, it can be annoying to have to keep asking, but you’ll only resent him if you don’t and he neglects to do it. If you must, make a list of his assigned tasks and place it on the refrigerator where he can’t miss it. Have him check it each week (or every day). I know, it sounds kind of maternal, but trust me, most guys worth their salt want to help. They’re either just too lazy or don’t know how, but if you give them direction, they’ll rise to the occasion. I remember a hilarious Dave Barry column about the difference between a man and a woman’s idea of clean. Men have different expectations of what constitutes “clean.” It’s not wrong, just different. If you want him to learn your expectations, you need to teach him.
  • Don’t expect perfection. Okay, so you’ve taught him your expectations, and he’s still not getting it. Or maybe he gets it but isn’t quite living up to them. Remember, though, that they’re your standards, not his. You might want to really think about whether or not it’s worth the hassle and frustration of having to constantly nag him to do things the way you want them to be. Besides, what makes you think you’re more perfect than he is? I know I want the bathroom to look a certain way, but I’m also aware of the fact that I have my own habits that annoy B. We overlook each other’s flaws, though, and focus instead on what’s good about the other person. Do the same for your spouse. See “Lower your expectations” for more hints.
  • Learn to say “No.” I used to be really bad about this, and I still have my moments, but I’m getting better. I had a hard time declining social invitations and requests for assistance, thinking that of course I could squeeze it in and that I couldn’t possibly turn so-and-so down. Well, you know what ends up happening. Your schedule ends up dictated by the needs of others so that you can’t get anything of your own done. Plus, you wind up resenting others for infringing on your time, when really it’s your own fault for not recognizing your boundaries and sticking to them. Just say “no” to any social or professional or even familial obligation that could potentially overtake your plans. You’ll be surprised at how dispensable you really are, and how much more you could get done if you weren’t at everyone’s beck and call.
  • Clean up your office. Oooo, another big one for me. I’m currently in the middle of yet another mess, but I do take some time each week — half an hour, tops — to try and put things in some semblance of order. Buy baskets and filing boxes and whatever else you need to be able to put things in their proper place. What’s often the cause of piles and messes is the lack of a place to put things. Avoid that by making sure that everything has its place. Try and set aside some time each week or every other week to organize your things. You’ll be grateful each time you quickly locate something on your desk, whether it’s a proposal or a valuable piece of research, so that you can proceed immediately to work without wasting time on needless searches.
  • Make a schedule and stick to it. I’m still working on this, but I had some practice when I was toiling away at day jobs and was expected to do certain things at certain times during the day. I’m still tweaking my weekly schedule, but it helps that I have a monthly goals list taped above my desk. Whenever I work on my schedule, I check it against the goals list and see if each of the tasks I’ve assigned myself bring me closer to one or more of the goals on that list. If it doesn’t, then I lower its priority and schedule it accordingly. The schedule and the goals list are thus closely related, and I can end each day with a sense of accomplishment.

Admittedly, each of the above is a work-in-progress for me, but as I progress in my career as a freelance writer and novelist, I find more and more ways to improve upon my productivity and organization to achieve my goals. What about you? Any tips you care to share? I’d love to hear them!

Productivity Plans

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Darren Rowse over at Problogger.net had a great post last week about batch-processing. Basically, Darren lets certain tasks accumulate until he has enough to justify setting aside a specific time to do them. He batch-processes everything from blogging to responding to emails to going through his RSS reader.

Good on him. I’m still trying to figure out the most productive times for me to do certain things. Lately it seems as if I’ve become rather scatter-shot again in my to-do list, tackling X for so many hours while neglecting Y. Not the most productive or lucrative way to pursue one’s daily schedule, mind you, especially when you have a ton of other things other than X and Y on your list. It’s not original, as Darren readily admits, but it works for him. I’m going to have to try that next week. I’ve already created a grid of sorts that carves up the week into half-hour increments, Monday through Friday, and have inserted when I think specific tasks should be addressed. Monday and Wednesday mornings, for example, will be devoted to writing queries, while Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Friday afternoons will be set aside for just writing. Other activities I need to do — blogging, email, phone, research — will take up other blocks of time during the week. I’ve even dedicated two hours on Friday morning to do housecleaning, something I loathe to do and try to minimize as much as I can. (By the way, I’ve been pretty successful on that front so far.)

I’m looking at this schedule now and realizing that this can’t be set in stone, as Darren’s pointed out. I have meetings scheduled sporadically, not to mention interviews, but I’m going to try and “batch-process” those as well, devoting only specific times and days for them rather than allowing them to be thrown all over the calendar. Plus, I think I’m going to see if I can get away with more phone interviews and fewer in-person ones, even for local subjects. As small as this town is, an in-person interview can take up at least an hour of time, not including travel. Most of my telephone interviews can be done in half an hour, and in the end I have all my notes already typed up in rough format on an OpenOffice doc.

Still, I’m going to give this a try. I once had a schedule much like this in college, which worked perfectly for me. I sketched it out each evening before going to bed and pretty much stuck to it during the day. I’ve since become a wee bit more “flexible” with my time, but that’s only resulted in my letting too many non-essentials take over my schedule. Let’s see how this one goes.

What about you? Anyone have a killer time management tip or trick they want to share? Lately it’s become an obsession of mine, so I’m always happy to hear what others are doing.

Email quandary

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How often do you check your email?

I have a part-time writing gig involving some freelance articles as well as a weekly column for the local paper. I also volunteer for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, helping out with events such as organizing the local awareness walk and trying to set up the first support group for patients here in the Grand Valley. I also maintain two blogs (including this one), both of which receive a fair number of emails and comments on a daily basis. And lastly, I do a lot of my research for my novel online, doing everything from scouring Web sites related to World War II/Singapore/comfort women, to subscribing to Google Alerts for any articles or blog posts that may come up that have anything to do with those subjects.

In other words, even without a full-time “day job,” I still get upwards of dozens of emails a day. Some of them pop up in my “personal” email address, which I’ve had for about nine years and which only a few friends know about. I never use it to subscribe to anything, nor do I use it for any business-related purposes, so I never get junk mail in that.

I do, however, have a “public” email address which I use to subscribe to online newsletters, sign up for contests and other events that I would like to keep track of. That’s the oldest, currently-existing email account that I have, dating back to 1997. I get at least 50 emails on that, mostly newsletters but also some junk.

Then there’s my work email address. That’s the one I use for job applications, sending queries to editors/publications, responding to emails from readers to my column/articles/writing blog, and other work-related correspondence. It’s not nearly as widely known as the public email address I use above — I try to keep them separate and not clutter up my work address with even work-related subscriptions — but it gets its fair share of traffic.

And of course, there’s the email address associated with my other, even more active blog. I have a good number of subscribers on that one, which means comments that need responding to and which show up on that email on a regular basis.

All in all, the number of emails I get per day is generally anywhere from 50-100, sometimes even more. That’s not an especially daunting number for many people, especially those in high-ranking executive positions, who may get literally thousands of email a day. Still, even a dozen emails addressed personally to you can take your entire morning — if not the whole day — just to read and respond to.

I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird email program, a fantastic and very stable open source software program that’s very similar to Microsoft Outlook. So similar, in fact, that Outlook users searching for an alternative will find it super-easy to make the transition. In any case, I’ve generally gotten into the habit of opening Thunderbird first thing in the morning and basically just keeping it open throughout the day. I only shut it down when I turn off my laptop, usually before going to bed.

I have it set to notify me of new mail every ten minutes. I’ve always been of the belief that one should respond to email as soon as possible, especially if an answer can be written in less than five minutes. It’s one less thing you have to worry about, right, not to mention the fact that in the process of doing so, you adhere to that classic time management rule: Handle each item on your to-do list no more than once. Get the email, read it for content, respond, and voila! You’re done with it.

Of course, as I’m sure you’ve found, jumping to answer each email the moment it drops in your box can have the exact opposite effect of rendering yourself incapable of completing any task you’ve set out for yourself that day. Studies have shown that it can take someone a long time to reorient oneself to the project at hand once one succumbs to the allure of the Inbox, the telephone and the occasional random visitor dropping by “to say hi.” Before you know it, the day’s over, you’ve answered all your emails and telephone calls but have yet to get to the second slide on your 45-slide PowerPoint presentation.

The phenomenally productive Trent over at The Simple Dollar allows himself two email sessions a day; the rest of the time, the email program isn’t just ignored, it’s turned off altogether. I know of someone else who answers email only once a day — first thing in the morning — after which he shuts Outlook off and doesn’t look at it again the next day. His clients have gotten used to that and are now in the habit of calling him if something is truly urgent. Even then, he only returns phone calls in the late afternoon, around 4:00. Is he productive? Hell yes. Has he lost any clients because of his lack of 24/7 availability? Perhaps. But he doesn’t really need them because he’s plenty booked now. His clients appreciate the fact that when he’s working on their project, he’s not constantly being interrupted by unrelated phone calls or distracted by a barrage of emails. When he’s working on a project, he’s single-minded in his focus.

I think I’m going to start doing that myself. I’ve found that my day can easily go down the drain with nothing to show for it but a handful of answered emails. I keep checking my half-dozen email accounts every hour, sometimes every half-hour, and when Thunderbird buzzes me with yet another message, I drop everything I do to read it, even if it’s not urgent.

I’m going to try and experiment with writing and answering emails only once a day, in the late afternoon, between 3:00-4:00. My energy levels tend to flag around that time anyway, making me less productive in the truly challenging and creative projects I have on my plate. I think that that may be the best hour for me to respond to emails and comments, as they generally don’t require the full-speed brainpower of, say, my novel or my writing assignments.

What about you? How often do you check email? Do you have an email response system that has worked for you?