Introducing Courtney Robertson
Courtney has a background in teaching WordPress, working as a contractor with Modern Tribe, The Events Calendar, and first started using WordPress with version 2.5.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions, and our guests share their stories, ideas, and perspectives.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 106.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chat. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Courtney Robertson. Courtney has a background in teaching WordPress, working as a contractor with Modern Tribe, The Events Calendar, and first started using WordPress with version 2.5. She’s a mom of two toddlers and will share with us how she juggles work-life balance. I’m looking forward to hearing about that. Thanks for joining us. Hello, Courtney.
Courtney: Hi, there. It’s great to see some familiar faces today.
Liam: It totally is. How are you, Courtney? Welcome to the show. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, please?
Courtney: Yeah. My background is that I was a high school business education teacher. So, think the computer programming teacher. I was in the public schools for probably six years or so, and then I decided to let go of that and start running my own web agency. I did that for I want to say about eight years, and then babies came along.
Now I’m an independent contractor. I could still freelance on the side, but I do a lot of work at The Events Calendar. I speak and attend a lot of the WordCamps in the Mid-Atlantic region. I’m located near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, so that’s a little west of Gettysburg.
Tara: How did you get started as a teacher?
Courtney: Wow, that one, I think I just really always wanted to be in the computer lab when I was in high school. And so I would get passes during all of my study halls and any bit of free time that I had to go play around on Dos and Windows 95 before we had the internet available in schools.
I started in college with a major in social studies, and then I switched over to business said because again, I just kept gravitating back to the computers. Funny college story, my one coding class in college was in a lab that was brightly lit at sunset with a dim projector before they had computers available for the students to learn simple C. We would take the notes on paper, trek over to the computer lab, put our disks in, mount them to the drive, write them in PICO and VI, and telnet in the whole business. I decided I didn’t like doing things that way, and I wanted to teach kids a better way how to do that.
Tara: Wow, that is old school. When you started teaching, was the technology advanced by then or were you making the transition from that old fashioned way as a teacher?
Courtney: Well, the first year I had a cart and I pushed it classroom to classroom, and I had chalkboards and overhead. And we would visit computer labs depending on the class subject that I taught. I kind of taught a little bit of everything within business education. The next year, I had a SMART Board. A few years later, I switched school districts and jumped about 10 years back in time because of the way that the state-owned public school worked.
It was a unique school. And it sadly is no more. But the way that that school worked, they wouldn’t only allow us to use what the government itself was using at the Capitol. So our network was very behind the times. And again, it was a bit daunting and frustrating. That was also close to the end of my time in the classroom.
Tara: Did you teach WordPress at all? How did WordPress get wrapped up into this?
Courtney: When I was teaching, it was before WordPress really was making a scene, you know, jumping in at 2.5. That’s about what it was when I left the classroom. I was learning how to use WordPress a bit personally at that time, but I was teaching basic HTML and CSS at that point. And again, probably using a lot of the Macromedia products for that, I believe.
Liam: That’s pretty cool. I appreciate this is probably going to be a question that we have more time than we have more time to dig into. But how do you go ahead and put together a training program that delivers value on such an enormous, wide-ranging topic like you’ve just discussed? When did you have student for business education? Maybe one hour a week maybe two, or something like that?
Courtney: Well at the vo-tech setting, so if I focus it in on when I was teaching WordPress more recently, that was about three years ago. In that context, I first started them with, “We’re going to install WordPress.” I had a license given to us by desktop server so that we could run a local install. We ran into a lot of headaches because our computers on the network were set to basically wipe back to a standard as soon as we rebooted. Of course, then that really put a damper into a few of our options. With a lot of work, we were able to get something set up and working.
I taught them first how to work install WordPress. And then once the five-minute install process was done, I taught them basically how to be a good user, and the difference between posts, pages, custom post types, how to use some of the default themes. Then we went with how to modify some of the main themes. I was able to work out with Studio Press and a few other theme shops to get a license of one of their themes for our classrooms. So I taught them a little of how to tweak, make a child theme, tweak something as simple as the font color for headings in that child theme.
Then we looked at a little bit of how to write a really bare bone Hello Dolly style plugin, and just turn it on, make it work. But it was building as we went. I was using the LearnDash Learning Management System plugin, which is what a lot of people that are using, whether it is in a public school setting, or if they are creating courses and selling their courses themselves out on the web just for anyone to learn dash. Just one of the really solid programs for that.
So I was actually using that also as my grade book for my students. So I would have my own site that they would walk through the tutorials, and they could do this at home. I would record my SMART Board lessons as a screencast and stick it all inside the class. I really actually want to get back to doing some of that and build that program back up. But of course, I got a little bit waylaid in having children.
Liam: That’s a good reason to be waylaid, I should think. So, you left the classroom, you did freelance, you said for about eight years. Talk about that freelance. I imagine you just kind of had enough of the classroom and some of the headaches and the frustrations there and saw an opportunity to have a little bit more independence and open schedule. But what was freelancing like for you?
Courtney: I really enjoyed it. I covered a wide variety really of what a basic small business would need. So I worked a lot in my area with realtors. I helped them with their websites and then built it out to show them a little bit more tools on how to use social media effectively, starting with their own blog for the listing of their houses that were on the market or what was coming up.
Then I worked with a few more to help them integrate creating YouTube videos of the properties. And this was really right before we saw a lot of drones hit the market. But they would create videos and then I would show them how to link them back to their websites and get the most SEO value out of that. I really enjoyed working on that aspect of things. And I certainly won’t rule it out if it would fit my schedule at this time for work like that. I just find that I really also enjoy contracting and working with the big team now, and not needing to think as much about managing all areas of my business when I also am managing diapers.
Liam: Well, that I get. It’s hard when there are little mouths that have lots of needs and they can’t manage to care for themselves except smile very happily.
Liam: Tell us a little bit about Modern Tribe. What are you doing there, and how did that come about? That’s a highly respected organization.
Courtney: Yeah. Just two months ago, we got back from a fantastic team trip to Panama. It’s probably the highlight of my two years with them. I work primarily within what we would call the support team. So that answers questions. Like when Tara sent a question, and I noticed it was Tara, I said, “That’s my ticket. I’m going to answer that one.”
Liam: And did you just deleted it, or did you actually answer it?
Courtney: No, I definitely tried to answer that one. I think we were looking at a very unique way to customize our filter bar option.
Tara: Great memory.
Courtney: I definitely enjoy answering clients. That was something that was super well suited to the nap schedule chaos that was happening in my home. Because I had two newborns in the course of basically my time with Modern Tribe. I had my babies back to back, and we’re happily done with that now. But being able to quickly turn my computer on, clock in, do some work, and then, “oh, I got to go. Baby needs me,” clock out, go do something else and come back at any hour of the day has been really, really helpful during that time span.
Since then, I’m starting to grow into a bit more of a role managing our knowledge base. And so when people come to us with questions, we want to provide answers. They don’t have to wait on us to be able to get to that. We’re looking at some really unique ways of how we’re going to integrate that. But in the meantime, content has to be written. We’ve got new features coming out in our plugins or the screenshots change where we introduce Gutenberg. We were one of the plugins that was really pushing on getting Gutenberg out. Our developers are fantastic at jumping on something like that and running with it.
But of course, then you now have screenshots, videos, materials to support both in classic mode and in block editor mode. And what does that look like? And rushing to be one of the early people in on the market, there’s just nuances to that that we’re still ironing out, I’ll say it that way, getting things lined up visually. And making sure that a lot of the features are consistent between the two methods has been interesting.
It’s a lot to maintain a whole knowledge base that way. We’ve got over 260 articles right now and a lot of plans for more. I’ve been handling a lot of that. That still pulls into my teacher mindset, I think, of informing people how to do something in a way that meets them at their learning level.
Tara: You must be exhausted at the end of the day because it sounds like in your home and your work role, you are serving a lot of people and being asked to help people all day long. You sound like you stay home with your kids and work from home. Do they go to preschool or do you have care for them in the house? Or you’re juggling it all?
Courtney: I work at this point about 15 to 20 hours a week, which is nice. I can set my schedule. And outside of one or two meetings a week, it’s my schedule to set however I would like. So that’s been really great. And the support from the company has been fantastic. You know, being understanding of what that role looks like for our family has been huge. That’s a rare come by. I think even the culture there is a rare combine – even in other web agencies to similar to this.
But at the end of the day, working part-time having the children home with me, I love that I get to go do things like library story times, swim classes, all of those types of activities with my kids. And so far, no preschool yet because we were even too young for that. My oldest won’t be three until next month. I have to be on top of my schedule and know what’s going on and account for that.
Tara: You live for nap time. I can tell right now, I bet.
Courtney: Yeah. And the really early hours, my husband gets up for work at 5 am. So I’m up at the same time. I go out and I do my gardening then. I do some hobby stuff during the early hours. Or if it’s a rainy day, I work then and go out and play during nap time.
Tara: That’s great. That’s great. You said you’re going to talk to us about how you juggle your work-life balance. So you’ve described it a little bit. You have a husband who’s helpful in the morning, and you’re a good time planner. What other strategies do you have to juggle that work life, children, mom thing?
Courtney: Being a former school teacher, I can write curriculum. Being a business teacher, I already have a mindset for marketing. I wouldn’t call myself a marketing expert, but I’ve got an idea and a bit of a background and training in that. But I had to narrow my focus of what all I’m capable of doing. Because if you throw technology at me, I feel pretty comfortable to figure it out and help someone else that doesn’t know what they’re doing, figure it out too.
But I had to scale that way down and say, “What is manageable for this season per right now? What am I okay with doing because I’ve got this set of priorities? And where do I want to grow into and what do I want to do? And can I find some work that will let me grow with it as the situation evolves here at home?” That’s been a big benefit for us.
Likewise, knowing what’s on the calendar, planning in quiet dedicated work hours. If we’ve got a big product release going on, that tends to involve a bit more work on my end, getting all my material in and ready. So a lot of open lines of communication with our developers making sure that I’ve got enough of a heads up to give the other people that proofread things a heads up, making sure that I don’t plan too many activities for my family the days right before something going on.
And just again, stopping to reflect on what are my priorities, what’s going to bring a good balance to home, to work, to all of these things, and making decisions from that. I really have to rein myself in because I want to do all the things all the time all at once. And that doesn’t work well.
Liam: It sounds like you’re very structured. I want to ask a question as it relates to Gutenberg and documentation for The Events Calendar, and being a mom of two young babies. Gutenberg, perhaps not as much anymore, but in the earlier days changed daily, weekly, fortnightly. I can imagine a situation where Modern Tribe wants to launch version x, point y of its plugin on Tuesday, and Sunday evening, a new Gutenberg update comes out and it moves that one piece that you’re talking about in all of your screenshots and short videos. Has that happened? And if so, not to place blame, the question then becomes is how do you manage all of that if you’ve kept off life family schedule because the product of x point y is coming out? But that’s you have to go back and redo the four-hour work you’ve already done or the two or whatever the time block. How does that all work for you? And how do you not just pack it all in and say, “All right, we’re moving to the mountains, I’m out”?
Courtney: Oh, we’ve had those days. Actually, it hasn’t been Gutenberg. It was WooCommerce just a few weeks ago. They shifted update right around the time that we were about to integrate some newer features. I focus within The Events Calendar family of plugins. I’m now focusing in on event tickets, event tickets plus, community events and community tickets. So those are four plugins that I’ll deal with if you want to sell or get an RSVP free thing on your website and sell a ticket.
So we had a big release coming out, and we had to postpone it basically about a week just a couple weeks ago because we shipped something. It really didn’t so much impact the knowledge base type of work, thankfully. But what we are doing a little bit more proactively now, whether it is looking at our third-party integrations like with Woo, or core integrations, such as WordPress, I personally am running a staging site locally for all of my testing and checking client issues that is the Bleeding Edge [nightly?]. Risks with that because Bleeding Edge [Nightly?] mean that I might turn it on, and the next time it runs and update, the whole thing is broken. But the flip side is I get a quick eye on what’s coming, and if we’re having a conflict with that. So some of us are doing some testing like that.
Other times it is reading the release posts over on the P2 on the Make site, looking at what’s coming, waiting until maybe… the developers usually wait a little bit more towards release candidate status before they start doing conflict testing on things, especially if we’ve got a big feature coming out. So those are some of the ways that as a company overall we’re handling things as far as the knowledge base. Thus far, I haven’t run into a whole lot of issues other than now I just need to go back and show the blocks way to do all the same things again. That’s been the main issue.
Tara: You’ve got your eye on a lot of things. I’m going to transition over to the question that we asked everyone about success, because you’ve talked about what you do in your job and at home. Would you share with us, Courtney, how you define success, whether it is in your personal life as a mom, as a wife, as a person, and/or as an employee of a company, as a teacher? Any or all of the above. Maybe they all fit together somehow. But how do you define success?
Courtney: I think that I would look at it as, “have I done my best in all the areas that are my responsibility that I am committing to taking care of or taking a part in? Have I done my best? And have I gotten the support maybe that I need along the way? Anything that impacts other people, is it working out also with them?”
So if I were to take that down to my toddler – and one of them has some sensory processing issues, he was born prematurely, and we think it’s probably tied to that – the way his senses work is a little bit different than when you or I would have those same experiences. So transitions, we come home from one activity and we start doing something else, or there’s nothing on the schedule, we’re staying home to play. And oh, it’s raining, so now our normal routine is thrown off.
If I just decide to bully my way through, and “here’s what we’re doing today” with no transition for him that’s at his speed, that’s not going to work. I might say I did my best to try and do something constructive with that time with him, but if it doesn’t come off to him that well, then I need to work on what’s that look like, how does that work out.
The same thing would be true even in a work context for me. If I do my best, but ultimately, it wasn’t what the company needed, then I might need to get some support or do something different. I just have to be real about what are the facts of where we are, where do we want to go, and how are we in that process, I guess.
Tara: It’s interesting the way that you describe working with your toddler, and with your education background. I’m thinking that that must really come into play as well. It must be part of your personality, but doing customer support, you probably have people like your toddler. You know, people that you need to sort of discern that they’re really frustrated, and they’re not being nice to you, and you can’t take it personally.
I certainly have been guilty of sending some very frustrated emails to support people and then later realizing that I was out of line for being so frustrated. On the other hand, when you’re really frustrated, it’s hard to hide that sometimes. Do you think about that when you’re working with frustrated people? Most people who are asking for support probably are frustrated at least a little bit maybe or curious?
Courtney: Yeah. We’ve had a couple of people come in that, frankly, got fired as clients. I’ll say that. If they’re just flat out belittling somebody, if they’re unkind repeatedly, and a manager’s warning does not ease them, we might part ways with that client. But overall, most people come in, they may not necessarily be really happy to interact with us because they need something, but they come in and have at least a polite tone of voice.
When you get a question that is a little more irate, you have to brush it off. I think of myself in that situation like I’m the substitute teacher, and the kid is just livid about why the teacher is out and what’s going on, and what kind of a ruckus can I make to get my problem solved or get what I want. As best as I can, I try and just smile and help them. Physically, I try to smile. Even though I’m sitting there typing, it’s like, I have to think of how do I help this person, hears their need, and even if their emotions are all in the way, how do I get the answer to them. Sometimes that turns a customer around and they decide because you helped me this way, I want to put your product on all my other sites, or I want to increase my product usage to include other plugins. We’ve seen some of that happen. So it’s just a mindset shift to have I think sometimes about that.
Tara: And you’re also not face to face with them. Do you miss that interaction from being a teacher in a school where you are actually seeing people’s face light up when they figure something out?
Courtney: I think I lean on that need being fulfilled with our team meetings. I have two meetings a week, roughly, that are FaceTime with people. So I still get a little bit of that interaction there. If I’ve got a lot of upset customers, I certainly don’t miss seeing faces like that.
Liam: Fair enough. Fair enough. I want to flip back, if I can, Courtney, and talk a little bit about sensory processing. My own son has challenges in that area. And one of the things that you said, struck me is really important, and probably helps. And I want to ask you, but I wonder if it helps with the work you’re doing for Modern Tribe and support. You were talking about when something doesn’t go as planned for any number of reasons in the family schedule/life, you need to think about the way that your son thinks about things, even though it is very different to the way that your brain works. And you need to be cognizant of that and come up with a plan that will address that.
Certainly, I appreciate that very much in my own family. And it’s really enabled me to take whatever comes at me and say, “What is going on here?” Not “Why am I being yelled at?” And I just kind of wonder what your son might have taught you about that and how that plays into technical support, customer support at Tribe.
Courtney: Oh, that’s a good one. My son and students that I’ve had along the way, students that have similar situations, a lot of times this shows up in ADHD and autism. Even independently of those two, it can show up. So just realizing and having that empathy and that understanding of not just everybody else’s got different learning styles. But then you add to it, the sensory thing, and that amplifies the need to address their learning styles to have empathy.
And I think that my son very much puts it front and center in my mind it’s the time to practice it all the time for me. I can’t just think about it, and then at the end of the day, like I’m a school teacher, pack my bag and go home. I’m home with him all the time. And so, I’m the one coming up with the schedule and the routine. We’re in the early years, so I’m the one wrangling all of that. But it’s a nonstop thing.
You need to be aware of when you’re with other people what they need as well. And sometimes that is a very direct conversation that is at their current ability level. My son can’t always express everything in his head. But most adults, you can ask them and say, “I don’t mean to be in any way offensive, I want to be very understanding of your situation. Can you help me figure out how to better help you?”
So with customers, sometimes that is a very clear, “here’s how to take a screenshot, please don’t hold your phone up to your computer or whatever. Don’t attach it in a Word file because I don’t have that, but here’s a good tool to go use to take a screenshot. Please send me exactly what you’re seeing. Or if you can take a video, here’s where to take a video, send that to me, and I’ll better understand how I can help you. I could see what you can see then.” To the best of my ability. I tried to practice that, but…
Liam: Yeah, that’s a good practice. I feel like I could talk about this for hours. But in the interest of our conversation, Courtney, let me ask you about advice. The question I’d like to ask you is, what advice have you been given or received or read and successfully implemented in your life? What’s the best advice that you’ve ever implemented?
Courtney: I would bring this back into my faith, and I would say to love others. The way that I would look at my faith is to say, to love others the way that God loves us. As a Christian that meant even going to a great sacrifice, and to still see that there’s a value. I mean, to be willing to take such a drastic measure, and I’m not saying that everybody needs to go to that degree necessarily, but to be willing to have such compassion and empathy, that you will go through so much for people that are not necessarily right in front of you at that moment in time, that’s still pretty profound.
I think in my own daily life, it’s expressing that empathy and compassion, whether it’s here at home with people I know all the time, with my coworkers that I interact with frequently, or if it’s a total stranger that I meet. I don’t necessarily need to get into the intricacies of their life, but I need to see the value of that person and to be able to express empathy at the right moment.
Liam: That’s good advice. That’s not always easy to do with people we don’t know intimately, especially if they’re irritating us, not a lot of us. To see them as human beings worthy of value, that’s hard to do.
What’s the technique or a tip that that… you know, how do you pinch yourself, so to speak, to remind yourself to do it when you’re just about to do something you don’t want to do? How do you work that back? How do you remind yourself? How do you follow that advice in the moment?
Courtney: In the moment, I’ve gotten to a point – and this was good practice in the classroom – of just taking a very quick second inwardly to say, “Okay, I need to calm down,” take a deep breath, step away from the situation. When dealing with children that have been crying for two and a half hours, sometimes I need to literally just go quickly to the restroom by myself, and they will deal with themselves. And I’ll come back out and I’ll be a little more composed.
With another adult, if I have said something, and I realized, “Whoops, I shouldn’t have said that,” to go back to them after the fact and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, if that came off weird. That wasn’t my intent.” and not pursue the conversation any further than it has to go. Just to acknowledge, “Whoops, I messed up. And let’s work on this.”
Tara: Yeah, it’s good communication. That’s central to most things. And you’ve talked a lot about empathy. And I think that also is at the root of a lot of good relationships. So thank you for sharing that with us. And thank you for sharing your story with us today. We are out of time already, Courtney. I don’t know how that went by so fast. But it’s really been a pleasure getting to know you a little bit better and hearing about what you do with your day. Where can people find you online?
Courtney: You can reach me on twitter, @courtneyengle.
Tara: Okay. And we can also put in support tickets on Modern Tribe event tickets and probably hear from you there as well.
Courtney: We’ve changed our process and I can no longer cherry pick and say, “I know Tara.” Sad.
Tara: I know how to find you on Slack. Thanks so much, Courtney. Really enjoyed chatting with you today. Have a great day.
Courtney: Thanks. You too.
Liam: Thanks, Courtney. What a pleasure. Have a great day. Bye-bye.
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