How to land a job at Automattic
I interviewed Noah, a software engineer and recent grad, about his experience landing his current position at Automattic. Automattic is the company behind WordPress and that recently acquired Tumblr in 2019. The company has one of the most established fully remote cultures, with 1200+ employees in 77 countries.
How did you discover the opening for your position?
Basically I was looking for two types of jobs: one in the area I was moving to and remote jobs that I could do anywhere. While I was researching options for remote jobs, I found a spreadsheet with a ton of remote companies on it. I researched and compared the companies, and Automattic stood out, among others.
Here is the spreadsheet (thank you Noah for digging it up!).
How many applications did you send?
5-10 applications to remote job openings. I didn’t apply to 100 jobs. I probably applied to around 20 jobs total.
Why didn’t you apply to more?
One reason was that I had many responsibilities outside of schoolwork that kept me busy.
Another reason was that a lot of companies I was especially interested in had many steps to do for the process. One example is Basecamp, which had an application that took 2 hours to fill out. Remote companies need to get a better feel of who you are and how you work upfront. Making sure I had a good cover letter that wasn’t generic was how I got into the process with Automattic.
Did they actually read your cover letter?
They did. I didn’t know that while I was still in the interview process, but someone mentioned a few things from my resume and cover letter months after I started working.
In your resume, what do you think made you stand out?
There were two main reasons:
- I honestly think that I stood out because I was able to demonstrate the ability to work on a lot of different things at the same time. I was in leadership positions, and I was taking advanced elective classes. I was flexible and productive in many different areas.
- The other big reason was working at Zonder (www.zonderapp.com). I didn’t have much web-related experience beforehand, so that helped me learn. I was also in a leadership position at the startup.
Automattic just cares about finding someone with solid experience, no matter the number of years. Some people were hired from FAANG companies, some from a small startup, some switched their careers with bootcamps, and some just graduated college, like me.
Does that approach to hiring apply to all types of roles? I would assume that if they’re looking for a product manager to join a team, they would probably have an idea of how senior they want that person to be.
Right, it depends on the job role. Engineering makes up the majority of hiring at Automattic. Product management and data science have more specific requirements.
What did you put in your cover letter?
I tried to be genuine in the cover letter and not overblow anything. I truly found Automattic interesting and aligned with their core values and ideas as a company. I simply demonstrated that I would be a good culture and value fit.
How did you learn about their company culture?
Automattic’s pages on working with them are pretty detailed about their values and what to expect.
Read about The Automattic Creed here.
How long was the application process?
It took several months. I applied for the job at the beginning of November 2018. I didn’t hear back after applying until January 2019. Got an offer at the end of March 2019. Automattic has made a ton of progress in that area since I joined; they’re trying to streamline the process.
How did the process work?
The code test took me 10 hours and did not include any algorithm questions or high-level computer science topics. The challenges mostly have to do with different web-development topics, particularly in JS, PHP, and CSS.
The trial mostly has to do with Automattic’s work culture. They care about how you perform on a team at Automattic. For some people, this part takes a few weeks. I actually took a few months because I was very busy with school and another job.
Was your work during this project on real issues or features?
I don’t think they used anything I did during the trial. If you apply to another position like support, this part does involve real work.
Did the initial challenge take 10 hours because you wanted to get it perfect and submit top-notch work?
Yes, but there were also some topics I wasn’t very familiar with.
Did they pay you for your time?
Automattic pays candidates $25/hr for the trial. The code test was unpaid.
Did you have a video interview at some point?
Actually, all of the communication during the process was over text. I did not hear or see anyone over a voice or video call until after I was hired.
What is your role exactly on the engineering team?
At Automattic, you can define your own job and be in a lot of different roles. I’m assigned to the core WordPress project, where I do a lot of feature development related to some of our upcoming site-editing improvements, which is all open-source work. I also do a lot of internal maintenance tasks for our paid products. This week and next week, I’m on a maintenance rotation. I also do DevX-related work and automate internal tooling. Whenever I notice internal problems, I try to fix them myself. You can focus on what you like, and there is rarely pressure to work on things you’re not interested in.
Do you have coworkers who do not have a Computer Science degree?
Having a CS degree is not a super important requirement at Automattic. They don’t put a lot of emphasis on academic-related experience. Some have a background in high-level physics and went to a bootcamp, some were freelance web developers, and some had a lot of WordPress experience. People come from a variety of backgrounds.
Was it hard getting a remote job straight out of college?
If you haven’t done any internships or extra work on coding projects or have real-world experience, it’s definitely difficult to get a remote job. I had a pretty poor response rate, overall. I got one or two other interviews. Remote companies need people who can be productive without a lot of hand-holding. You get less training than at in-person companies.
What advice do you have for people looking to land a remote job?
Firstly, you need to know what’s important to the company you’re looking at. For Automattic, I knew that certain things were important to them, and I tried to demonstrate those during the application process. Some other tips:
- You need strong communication skills
- Be honest and humble about making mistakes and be ready to correct them for the future.
When I was given feedback throughout the interview process, I was very careful to improve those points. Being perfect right out of the gate is, well… most people aren’t going to be like that. If I had disregarded my feedback or been a poor communicator, I wouldn’t have the job I have today.
Every job posting asks for “good communication skills” without elaborating on what that means. What did you do to demonstrate that you were a good communicator?
You should demonstrate your achievements. You don’t want to boast, but you need to be active about communicating what you’re doing and how you’re being productive.
Say, I’m in all the channels on Slack, I’m doing work, and I’m pushing to Github. If I’m not mentioning that in my channel, it can be hard for people to notice it. If I see someone talking about what they’re working on, ex. “I’m looking into XYZ bug”, I see that they’re being productive. If someone is really inactive in the channel and hasn't said anything in a few days, my initial impression is that they’re not being productive.
Isn’t that what standups and issue trackers are for?
This is a bit less formal. It doesn’t have to be for every little thing. I sometimes just sit down after lunch and say I’m gonna look into why a certain thing isn’t working. People might not keep up with the ins and outs of tickets on an issue tracker unless they are directly involved in or have a stake in a ticket.
Constantly communicate with your team about your work.
I understand why Noah said issue trackers don’t solve that problem because a large feature can be stuck in the same progress status for a while. Internal stakeholders would likely be wondering if you’re currently working on that feature or another one, and would be prone to keep asking you about it. Team members would get to know you and how you work better if you send some updates. I didn’t realize until recently that communication on Slack was a large factor in what separated candidates when I used to hire for a remote startup. The best employees and candidates were the ones who had detailed standups and constantly updated the team on their progress and challenges. There were some candidates who were so reserved on Slack that we had to initiate conversation to find out that they actually needed help or that they were working on something that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about.
Know the company’s culture and tailor your application to it.
This is basically saying you need to do more than change the name of the company on your cover letter. I completely agree that if you do send a cover letter, it should be fully customized. When I wrote a customized cover letter, I would hear back with next steps nearly 50% of the time. With a generic one, the chances were less than 10%.
Landing a remote job straight out of college is hard, but it is not necessarily hard because of years of experience.
Showing that you can work independently and effectively in a remote setting is essential. The remote workstyle requires different skills and habits than that of an on-site job, so remote companies are looking for individuals who can overcome the challenges and utilize the advantages.
Find current remote openings from Automattic and hundreds of other companies here.