Thursday January 25, 2024
Anne McCarthy: Empowering Voices, Shaping the Future
Anne McCarthy is a Product Wrangler at Automattic and a long-time WordPress contributor, especially on the Core team.
In the last quarter of 2023, she led WordPress 6.4’s Core Triage Team – a major release spearheaded by members of underrepresented genders. Now, she is reprising her role as Core Triage Lead for the upcoming release, WordPress 6.5.
Since she works in a technical role, it was pretty surprising to learn that Anne started as a psychology student. But looking back at her life and its trajectory, it truly makes sense how her educational background shaped her tech career and her passion to connect and support people.
Read on to learn how Anne uniquely uses her psychology background for her career, her experiment with the Full Site Editing (FSE) outreach program, and how she pushes inclusivity awareness into action.
From Instructional Tech to Embracing Open Source
Anne’s journey with WordPress began in college. As a freshman, she landed a job as an Instructional Technologist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Little did she know this role would ignite a passion that would define her career.
Her day-to-day tasks revolved around answering questions, creating resources, and assisting students and professors to migrate to WordPress. Soon enough, Anne fell deeper into the world of WordPress, captivated by its power and flexibility.
“Very quickly, I fell in love with what WordPress is capable of,” Anne says. She started creating her own personal websites, which was a chance to dive deeper into the intricacies of how WordPress works.
But her time in college was a race against the clock. Due to financial constraints, she must graduate in three years.
This juggling act, however, proved to be a blessing in disguise. Balancing studies with work forced Anne to sharpen her skills with laser focus. By graduation day, Anne found herself wielding a stronger skillset than she realized.
Anne’s first WordCamp experience in WordCamp Raleigh 2013 solidified her love for WordPress and the vibrant community surrounding it. “It was a small, intimate, and wonderfully nerdy event filled with folks who really cared and wanted to talk in detail about WordPress,” she recounts. There, she started connecting with like-minded individuals who shared her passion for technology-based problem-solving.
But the full breadth of the WordPress community didn’t fully hit her until she attended WordCamp San Francisco in 2014. Witnessing the sheer scale and energy of the event opened Anne’s eyes to the global movement she was now a part of. From that moment on, her path was set. WordPress wasn’t just a platform anymore – it was a community, a family, and a calling.
Tech With a Human Touch
From her first role at Automattic as a Happiness Engineer to her current role as a Product Wrangler, Anne’s professional journey is a neat mix of technical expertise and fondness for human interactions. This fascinating blend finds its roots in an unexpected place: psychology.
“I feel like I use my psychology background both every day and not at all,” Anne says. She uses her psychology knowledge in a non-classical way – it serves as a silent compass, guiding her in approaching people, sharing information, reviewing an in-progress feature, and more.
“It grounds me in the truth of what we’re doing,” Anne asserts, “and that is building software for people to share whatever they want.” This “for people” mantra imbues her approach with a warmth often absent in the fast-paced world of tech.
As a Happiness Engineer, Anne championed positive customer experiences. After that, during her Developer Relations Wrangler days, she focused on fostering a positive experience for WordPress.org developers. These roles let her work with both sides of a product – the users and the creators. These experiences equipped her with a balanced perspective that now shines in her role as a Product Wrangler.
“I think of myself as embodying three roles: dot connector, accelerant, and doer,” Anne explains, describing her ongoing work. She aims to do this within Automattic at large and across the WordPress community.
Always on the pulse of innovation, she tries to get as close as she can to the latest advancements. Then, she goes the extra mile to share, gather feedback, and ensure it reaches the right hands.
Anne tirelessly empowers community involvement by identifying and figuring out roadblocks, sharing summarized updates, and facilitating insightful Hallway Hangouts. Her goal is to keep everyone connected, informed, and excited to participate in the ongoing evolution of WordPress.
But how does she stay organized with multiple projects progressing simultaneously? “By narrowing my focus. I don’t try to keep up with everything all the time, only the right things at the right time,” Anne responds.
Quarterly reminders help her maintain a broader perspective, but it’s ultimately the human connections that form the bedrock of her organization. Others’ input helps ensure nothing slips through the cracks, making for a thriving community.
Building Together: Inside FSE Outreach Program
In 2020, Anne spearheaded the FSE Outreach Program – an experimental program to encourage feedback culture and knowledge sharing around the then-developing full-site editing feature in WordPress.
Now, with FSE firmly cemented in the WordPress core software, the program has concluded its outreach function. It then transformed into a vibrant hub for focused discussions and collaborative exploration.
In its heyday, the program proved to be a magnet for a diverse spectrum of participants, from seasoned WordPress contributors to casual users.
By the end of the program, 140 individuals obtained a Test Contributor badge. This influx of curious newcomers showed that the FSE Outreach Program was more than just a feedback channel – it was a catalyst for community growth.
But navigating the tide of feedback could be dangerous. The potential for a feedback tsunami was a constant concern for Anne. “I actually pitched it as a private group before I got feedback to make it public,” she recounts. Data overflow occasionally occurred, especially with lengthy videos that were recorded multiple times.
“I only have so much time in the day, so I try to do my best to empower folks to report issues they want to see fixed and ensure I don’t become a “middle person”,” she explains. Her mission was to equip participants with the tools and channels necessary to report issues directly, fostering a collaborative feedback loop that could bypass intermediary bottlenecks.
In the process, the FSE Outreach Program not only built the platform, but also the community around it.
When asked about maintaining engagement and keeping the project on track, she acknowledges that her psychology background might come into play, especially during the program’s pandemic-stricken infancy.
With the Site Editor in its embryonic stage, six months from public testing, Anne had to improvise.
“I started by sharing early looks to get folks excited, holding Hallway Hangouts for more real-time dialogue, and doing larger Q&As to flush out early questions,” Anne says. These initiatives blossomed into blog posts like So You Want to Talk About FSE Part III, which showed Anne’s dedication to unearthing and amplifying hopes and fears regarding the development as early as possible.
By actively listening and responding to the community, she helped transform people’s aspirations into meaningful conversations. This ensured the program remained focused on what truly mattered. “To get people engaged, you must speak to what they care about,” she affirms.
Planting Seeds of Inclusion: Cultivating a Diverse WordPress Community
As an open-source project, WordPress is built up by contributors from around the world, regardless of their skill level, socioeconomic status, and other identifiers. Therefore, it’s important to have an empowered, inclusive community, so that everyone can continue making the most of the collective effort.
Anne herself is a consistent advocate for diversity, equality, inclusiveness, and belonging (DEIB) issues. She believes it’s important to create a safe space for everyone. As a part of the LGBT community, Anne knows firsthand the challenges faced by marginalized voices. Even though many spaces have become more inclusive, people from minority groups may still find it challenging to join a community and speak up about their needs.
Instead of urging forced participation, Anne offers a gentler approach. “Speaking from a minority perspective, I’d recommend trying to find someone from another minority group and asking about their experience,” says Anne.
Anne stresses that while it’s important to raise awareness about minorities’ needs, it’s also essential for them to have the right to decide if they feel safe speaking up or not.
She’ll happily put herself out there for people to reach out to, or to connect them with someone else who can speak more directly to one’s lived experience. “I will never, ever just tell someone to “speak up” – we need to do more to help folks feel safe and to have avenues to “speak up” anonymously,” she affirms.
The WordPress community has a #deib-working-group in the WordPress.org Slack channel, which Anne recommends as a good starting point. This act of acknowledging individual comfort levels creates a welcoming atmosphere where open communication flourishes on its own terms.
For companies or organizations seeking to implement effective DEIB practices, Anne emphasizes an alignment with their core mission. “Align with the company or organization’s mission and offer your unique value,” she says. “Instead of reinventing the wheel, support the voices of those already doing the work.”
For example, support organizations already dedicated to diversity within tech. Allocating resources, whether through time or funding, allows existing DEIB initiatives to reach their full potential.
One of Anne’s proudest moments within the WordPress community happened to be in the DEIB space itself. Collaborating with Google, she ran the Accelerate.lgbt event series that helped LGBT non-profits and small businesses with online tools and knowledge.
“We’d partner up with a combination of local WordPress communities, small business associations, and various co-workers I’d drag in to speak and offer a combination of talks and one-on-one sessions. It was hard work but so rewarding. It’s something I can’t believe I ever did,” she says. This initiative, born from passion and dedication, exemplifies the positive impact individuals can get through targeted efforts.
If you’re interested in WordPress but still unsure about how to give meaningful contributions to the platform, Anne has a simple answer: “Jump in!”
Anne encourages everyone interested in WordPress to join the WordPress.org team on Slack. Just announce that you’re a new contributor in a relevant channel and share your interest.
“Inevitably, fellow contributors will chime in,” she assures, “I have alert words set up for “first contribution”, so if you’re contributing to the Core team, I can personally guide you towards your first stepping stone.” Regular contributor meetings are also another entry point into the welcoming and vibrant WordPress community.
In the WordPress community, everyone lifts each other up. People like Anne not only help WordPress grow with their expertise – they also sustain a sense of belonging so that the community can continue to thrive.