A year on the job

One year cupcake

Where does the time go? It’s been one year since I accepted a permanent position at Human Made as a Senior Project Manager, after 15 years of freelancing and a year-long sabbatical. These are some of the things I’ve learned.

Enterprise-level clients are not that much different from small business clients

I kept hearing this term, “enterprise-level”, and wondered what it meant. Somehow the way I would hear it referenced gave me the impression that it was more than just the scale of the budgets and the builds, that there was some other secret that eluded me.

Turns out that working at “enterprise-level” does have mostly to do with scale. The challenges I face today are much the same as they were when I worked with small businesses. Clients still want to work at fixed cost for the most part (and often at fixed scope and timeline too). People are attracted to WordPress for the same reasons—because it’s cost-effective and extensible. I still chase after content, spec and validation, and continue to manage the inevitable change requests.

As I dove into and discovered work at scale, everything else seemed the same. Except one thing: bureaucracy.

Budget committees, stakeholders across departments, people rotating in and out, and trying to help define the business needs for companies with hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of employees. Understanding and navigating this arena is nothing like being able to have a sit-down with two decision makers of a company who also happen to be the owners.

Remote work can still be lonely in a team

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to work for someone else after years of owning my own business*, was that I was tired of being on my own. More directly: I was lonely. All the event work I had done previous gave me a taste for that incredible dynamic when a group of people get together to make things happen. It’s magical. I wanted more of that, but to get paid doing it.

And I’ve had that. I’ve had some extremely satisfying moments when the team’s got its groove on, and a bunch of us are working in sync to build great things. When that energy is high, whether we’re winning or fighting against a really tough spot, I always feel an enormous sense of purpose and belonging.

But everyday is not like that. And on those down days, there are not always obvious ways to connect with people and maintain that sense of belonging when you don’t have a common physical space or something to actively bond around. I do find myself spending increasing time on our #interests-food slack channel smile

Hiring globally is not that simple

*I still own my own company.

The global economy has borders, and with those borders come varying laws and tax rules. Human Made has subsidiaries in countries where a significant number of employees reside, but for now I am the only Human living in France. So while I am very much treated like an employee—I have paid vacations; I work full-time; my work-related expenses are covered—I am, in fact, a contractor.

Regardless of business structure, there are two important distinctions between contractors and employees.

I can’t benefit from unemployment

When I moved to France, I discovered that unemployment is viewed much differently than in the U.S. Here, it is something to be coveted, a guarantee that no matter what happens in your employment situation, you’ll be taken care of. People negotiate getting fired, and there is now a legal way to have a “mutual parting of ways” that also allows employees to collect benefits they wouldn’t otherwise get if they quit a job. It is a form of security in a country that is risk-aversive and views precarity as something to avoid at all cost.

Whereas I have adopted many local cultural attributes in my 20 years in France, high aversion to risk is not one of them.

Legally, I can’t work for only one company

This is the one that threw me a little, and is probably valid for all European countries, not just France. I think I even knew this to be true in the back of my mind somewhere, but it was not on my radar as I started saying goodbye to my old clientele and transitioning to my new employed life.

Having only one client as a company is viewed as travail dissimulé, or “hidden work”, and therefore a way to avoid paying social contributions and ensuring job security (see last point). It’s meant to protect workers, and that’s a good thing. There is another option that I could’ve chosen, and that’s the portage salarial. There are companies that will act as intermediaries, holding contracts in your stead and acting as your employer. I know someone who’s worked in this way successfully for many years. The upside is it provides all of the benefits of being an employee, while not obliging the employer to set up costly subsidiaries locally. It is, however, expensive, to the tune of 100% of salary.

For the time being this means for me picking up some light consulting, possibly some teaching, on top of my regular workload.

Owning my company does provide me with a lot of advantages, including possible future plans (see below), which I may develop on in a future post.

It’s important to throw your assumptions out the window before embarking on new endeavors

No matter how much I would like to believe that I can enter situations without bias, without judgment and without expectation, it’s just not true. There is always an imprint of experience that follows me around, mostly helping me to navigate and make sense of the world, but that can lead me astray if I forget to question my assumptions in a healthy way.

I recently wrote about support and the idea that a lot of the bad feelings and negative experiences we have are caused by expectations we place on other people. This was inspired in part by this first year at Human Made—a time when I developed new relationships to people that I had previously known only either online and through community events—and in part by my work with WordCamp Europe and my new role this year as lead organizer.

While this has been the most difficult lesson I’ve learned all year, it’s also the most important one. It’s the lesson that is guiding me out of my previously very isolated life and leading me to be a better, more productive—and more supportive—team member and leader.

I know what a Project Manager does now!

I previously joked about not knowing what a project manager does, mostly because it was one of the expectations I did not have going into the job. Of course I know what the textbook role and responsibilities are, but in practice, because I’ve only ever managed all aspects of digital projects, I had no clear ideas of where some roles stopped and others started.

What I have learned is that there is still quite a bit of overlap, so that I continue to be able to bring a wide variety of skills and experience to the table. Besides making sure that projects are delivered on time, within budget and covering the agreed upon scope, I also contribute in varying degrees to:

  • Documenting projects
  • Building teams
  • Estimating projects
  • Writing proposals
  • Driving internal projects
  • Improving internal processes

In short, there has been no shortage of challenges in my transition from freelancer to PM!

When you get to the end of a 3 year plan, it’s time to make a new one

Right. I made a plan, and here I am. I got to where I wanted to go. Now what? A five year plan!

The number of years is irrelevant really, just milestones that allow me the right balance of living in the present while creating overarching goals to guide me toward the future. For me the best milestones I have are my age. At 42 I asked myself, where do I want to be at 45? And now the question becomes, where do I see myself at 50?

The exit strategy

Five years in a long time. While at 50 I may not be up for the high intensity pace of enterprise web development, I’ll be too young to retire. What will keep me busy and engaged in my older years? Well, I have a couple of ideas, and they involve an apple orchard, renovating an old cottage, and teaching yoga.

The strategy is to save money, and structure my finances and my new business entity to invest in those future ideas. If I get to 50 and am still thriving at Human Made, well, I’ll stick around as long as that’s still a good fit for both of us. Whether or not this plan will materialize is…immaterial. What’s important—what it gives me—is motivation, inspiration and peace of mind.

I am privileged AF

I work from my home in the beautiful Norman countryside. My morning commute is the walk from my upstairs bedroom (also where I practice yoga/work out) to my downstairs office. I eat home-cooked meals everyday. My husband works from home too, and so we share meals and take long walks together most days. We have a very low cost of living and almost zero debt. Human Made generously supports the work I do with the WordPress community, allowing me time in my work day to contribute, and covering my travel expenses for organizing and speaking at events. They also encourage my professional development, and so I can use my time for educational purposes, whether in the form of on and off-line classes or work-related conferences. I work with some of the keenest minds in the industry. I have a high level of autonomy and a steady paycheck. I truly feel and believe that my employers care about my well being.

I am GD grateful every MF day. ❤️🙏


Photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash.