On My Relationship with Automattic, _s, and WordPress

Leaving a company never feels perfect. When I left Graph Paper Press in 2011 I was scared that my relationships with Thad and Chandra would slowly fade away. They didn’t, and we’re closer than ever before, but the fear was still there. Thad’s the best manager-slash-boss I’ve ever had, period, and Chandra’s like a brother. I’ve never felt more supported or respected at a job than I did with those guys; it was a special time and leaving it for the next Thing was hard because the experience of working with them was incredible day in and day out.

Quitting Automattic three months ago for the next Thing in my life was an easier decision on a personal level but a much, much more difficult decision on a professional, political, and social level. Would Ian or Lance hate me? Would Matt hate me? Would the Theme Division at Automattic forget me? Would my influence and impact in the WordPress theme world be hindered? Could I go back to openly but fairly criticizing Jetpack, WordPress.com, or Automattic without it being seen as sour grapes? Would I be banned from the Automattic HQ in SF? Would I still have agency to talk about the GPL or premium themes on both .org and .com?

In short, would my career with WordPress greatly suffer after leaving WordPress.com? It took me weeks to write my goodbye letter because I wanted to send the message that a) I’m leaving WordPress.com but I’m not leaving WordPress and b) I’m extremely grateful for the last several years.

It’s hard to express gratitude on one hand while also saying on the other hand that something about a relationship isn’t right anymore and it’s time to go. After a lot of time reflecting during the last several months, I’m simply convinced that there is a way to leave a company on okay terms, or there always should be a way to do it. There’s great fear in leaving a company like Automattic because it touches and influences every single corner of the WordPress universe, but I am absolutely convinced that you should be able to leave and continue not only contributing to WordPress but also make a good living from it.

I believe this so strongly that for the last three months I’ve continued contributing heavily to _s, submitting a bug report or two to Jetpack, figuring out ways to make the themes with Jetpack experience better, advising multiple current and upcoming premium theme shops on WordPress.com and .org on how best to leverage Jetpack and its features in their themes, and in general scouring over the codebases and commit logs of Automattic products because I believe in them and WordPress. For me, WordPress has always been more important than WordPress.com or Automattic; Automattic just happens to make a few products that I am fervent about making better.

This is why it was so easy to continue working on _s. I never really saw it as an Automattic project but a WordPress project that the best themers in the world work on. If you make themes for a living, you should either have created your own version of _s by now or you should help and contribute to _s, or Roots, or whatever Thing strikes your fancy. If you make money from WordPress themes, or are hired by someone who makes money from WordPress themes, it is your cross to bear to contribute in your own way to the theme world.

Last year at PressNomics Carl Hancock said that themes have become commodified. I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently, not so much about if what Carl said was correct or false, but about how we as themers can change that perception. At the end of the day a theme is an experience, for both a website owner and a website visitor. It’s your duty as a themer to tap into that experience the best way you know how, and when you feel you have valuable insight that other themers might benefit from, share it.

I believe in WordPress and _s. I also believe that Jetpack can be an amazing product. I think that WordPress.com and Automattic still have a lot to make better, both on the product side and the company side, but I believe in their mission and will continue to contribute to them in every way that I know how.