My first year at Alley Interactive

Sometime around 2008 or 2009 I started WordPress development freelancing (and some design), which I think went pretty well. I ended up teaming with Blindspot Advisors, a small shop, which handled the selling and project management, while I got to do development. Come August 2013 I was presented with a temp-to-hire position at Blue Earth Interactive (St. Paul, MN). Working on-site with Blue Earth gave me my first taste in working with a team – and more importantly – working with people that are much smarter than I am.

I learned an insane amount working at Blue Earth, though on Tuesday, March 18th, shortly before my birthday I got an odd Google chat message from the HR person at 3:30pm and it wasn’t hard to see what was coming. I hadn’t been doing billable work for about 4 weeks at that point, and there didn’t seem to be any WordPress work coming in. Nonetheless, I found myself back on the market for a WordPress developer job that would challenge me. I didn’t want to freelance again as I knew I wouldn’t get the types of gigs that would actually challenge me.

So I did what any decent WordPress developer who’s spoken at a few WordCamps would do…


Needless to say, over the next week and a half I spoke with Jake Goldman (10up), informally with peers at WebDevStudios, a few local shops, and Alley Interactive (thanks to Nicole Arnold). Working with Alley Interactive seemed like the clear choice for me, personally: They are small enough that I ‘actually know’ everyone (which is hard in a remote setting), they are a VIP partner, I get to work from home, and my interviews with the partners left me with the feeling that I was walking into the unknown (should I get the job that is).

I was laid off on 3/18/14, and I was starting a new, remote job 4/1/14 (Alley Interactive is based out of Manhattan). This didn’t really allow for a lot of time for me to digest my professional journey over the previous 12 months and that was probably a good thing. Now Michelle Schulp can verify the fact that I was freaking the fuck out, and half thought one of the partners was going call me up and say “April fools! Like we’d ever hire YOU.” Clearly, I was in full imposter syndrome mode. This never happened.

After Alley Interactive learned that my personal computer’s local system was set up for grunt / vagrant, I started on that (though I soon got a company MBP). My first day was mostly spent getting set up to the ‘Alley’ way of doing things and a bunch of ‘hey nice to meet you’ via IRC (we’re now on Slack). My second day was spent, to my complete and utter horror, getting the New York Post running locally. Now if you’ve never touched a site that big, especially on your second day on the job, it feels like you’re going to rm -rf the entire project.

I was tasked with removing a css border (or something like that). It scared the shit out of me, but I did it. This all resulted in git / svn conflicts between operating systems and the VIP environment (which svn returned the entire project as ‘red’). Needless to say, someone else pushed this live, but I now have code on a WordPress VIP site! (pretty exciting!).

So with day one and day two behind me, not being fired yet (imposter syndrome again), enter day three. On day three I learned that I’d be starting my first VIP scratch build, and when I say ‘scratch,’ I mean I installed the project and index.php was COMPLETELY empty — I actually thought I white-screened it to be honest.

<time>… Months of development, blah, blah, blah. Learning stuff, blah, blah blah…</time>

I learned more on this project alone than the previous 5 years combined, which isn’t overly surprising, but still telling. The end product ended up pretty killer: Foreign Policy. My WordCamp Minneapolis talk on complex meta data relationships is based on this build, and I continued to use the lessons learned on every project since.

So lets get into the ‘working remotely for a year’ part. This isn’t as easy as most people think it would be, but can be just as, if not more so rewarding. Working remotely, and on a team, means Communication with a capital ‘C’ and this is key… Something that Alley Interactive does very (if not very, very) well. We use Slack, Zoom, and all the normal tools to talk to each other and I cannot give enough credit to Bridget McNulty and Andrew Short (who were both Project Managers at the time) for helping me through the first 6 months. The first few months is crucial, you must learn the team, their online personalities, learn when to say ‘no,’ and figure out who to go to when shit is just too much.

Side note: I also deal with depression / anxiety issues so ‘too much’ is certainly a relative term.

Being thrown into the deep end, having people like Bridget and Andrew on your side can make or break a developer. Hearing them say ‘OK, just don’t work right now, take a break, don’t burn out’ meant / means the world to me. Long story short, and especially when working remotely, if your employer does not see you as more important than ANY client, find a new employer, period.

At this point, I feel comfortable walking into almost any WordPress build and figuring out what’s going on, what need to be fixed / added, or where improvements can be made, but that certainly doesn’t mean I know it all.

Working with people smarter than you (or at least with more experienced) is probably the biggest benefit to working in a team, and I find that every day at Alley Interactive. Sure, I have ‘boring’ days, but every job does (whether it’s a development job or not). I actually brought this up to one of the partners recently, and he was able to guide me to ‘even if it’s a mundane task, find a way to make it better,’ and that says two things. First, I was comfortable with the partner to say  ‘hey I’m effing bored.’ Second, Alley’s leadership has the willingness to address it and offer ways to fix it. Honestly, I love my job, I love working for Alley Interactive, but that doesn’t mean I love EVERYDAY, and that’s okay.

Over the past year I have learned more than I ever thought possible, ended up working for a top WordPress VIP partner agency, got to go to Manhattan, and worked on some really big WordPress builds. All of this I couldn’t have conceived in 2008-2009, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. If you happen to a freelancer and feel like you’re doing the same things over and over again, are bored in your day-to-day job, and want to ‘move up,’ I highly encourage you to look at going in-house with a respectable agency either in your area or remotely.

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