Introducing Anthony Paul
Anthony is a railroad futurist at GE transportation. So unless you think you’re on the wrong podcast, we are talking to a WordPress person. Anthony has a lot of experience with WordPress. He’s also a hot sauce enthusiast.
Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.
Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.
Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.
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Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: I’m Tara Claeys. Today we have with us, Anthony Paul. I’m super excited to have Anthony here. Anthony is a railroad futurist at GE transportation. So unless you think you’re on the wrong podcast, we are talking to a WordPress person. Anthony has a lot of experience with WordPress. He’s also a hot sauce enthusiast. Welcome, Anthony!
Liam: Anthony? Greetings. Thanks for joining us today. I’m going to let Tara takeover in just a second, but I have to know…Siracha or not Siracha?
Anthony: I love Siracha, but it’s not hot enough.
Tara: What’s your favorite hot sauce?
Anthony: Ooh…I don’t know. I make my own hot sauce. I grow my own peppers, and I’ve had all of the hottest peppers around the world. The most unique sauce I guess is the sauce that I discovered at a burrito joint called Gator Stop. It has a hot sauce that has molasses and honey mustard, and they add things to it. It’s kind of like the A1 steak sauce of hot sauces. You can put it in anything. It’s just tastes right.
Tara: Do you like to get your eyes watering? Is it that kind of hot or do you have a line that you don’t cross?
Anthony: I do. I have tear gassed the house hot sauce. (all laugh)
Tara: You have to watch out. Just the vapors can cause you to cough and choke (from what my husband has made).
Tara: So Anthony? Tell us a little more about what you do.
Anthony: I’m part of an innovation team at GE. We do software for the railroad industry. I’m a behavioral scientist, so I take everything that I learned through my years of agency work in figuring out what are the questions our clients want to ask but aren’t actually asking and all that experience of getting information out of people. I now go out into the field for the railroad industry, and I shadow and talk to railroad engineers. I figure out what are the problems that they are trying to solve day to day. I take that back to my team, and we come up with concepts for software to help them with their business problems.
Tara: So it’s not specifically something like app and website related but not necessarily WordPress related?
Anthony: Yeah. It’s web applications. As of six months ago, I’m not using WordPress professionally anymore other than the occasional freelance gig. But I’ve been using WordPress since Miles Davis 1.0. So 10 years prior to my current position, I was in the typical design agency world where I was using WordPress all the time.
Tara: Ok. How did you become a behaviorist, a specialist in the type of UX stuff that you are doing now?
Anthony: Well, I went to school for graphic design. I had to take general education coursework. So I started taking linguistic classes and classes on the way we perceive color, iconography, the cultural politeness theory (all kinds of odd things) I thought they sounded interesting Really, I took the classes for fun. I took so many of the psychology, linguistic and behavioral science classes that I almost had accidentally ended up a minor. Instead, I took the clever approach of sitting down with my advisor and having her replace a bunch of classes that I was supposed to take with the ones that I took for fun so I could finish up my design degree. I went into the field as a designer and developer. Because I was a designer and a developer I had to translate information between the design team and the development team. So there was a lot of empathy and understanding of the head-butting between those two teams. I also filled in kind of the gray area between the sales team and the customer. So going back to what I was talking about with the railroads, in the agency I saw a lot of that where we go into a new business meeting or a kick-off meeting with the customer. You see the finance person or the marketing person who is really head strong. They need a specific thing in their website. They need a specific feature or need it to do a specific thing, and they are not really saying why. It was my job as the person with intuition recognizing that they’re having a hard time verbalizing something and figuring out a way for them to verbalize that thing that they need…so we can get to the root of what is the problem that they are trying to solve and ultimately give them a better solution than the feature they were coming with.
Tara: That sounds really interesting. It actually sounds a little bit like a sales job. I think it would be really hard to convince a client or a designer that what they’re doing or what they think intuitively is the right thing to do is actually not what research shows as the best approach. Did you find yourself a lot of times in conflict with them on those things? Did you find you learned how to persuade them to the facts or the research?
Anthony: Yeah, a little bit of both. I was learning how to listen to people’s pain points and then learning how to persuade them through the use of their own language. You know, something like convincing somebody of a feature that needs to be in there. I would lean inherently on something like accessibility, usability or best practices. That doesn’t necessarily communicate that idea to that person, but you can take those ideas so that accessibility or usability can be reframed in the context of search engine optimization or better conversion. If you talk about that feature in that value language to the person that you’re talking to, then you have a stronger say.
Tara: Yeah, that’s an easier sell.
Anthony: It’s both the listening and the reframing.
Tara: That makes sense I think. Everybody is interested in making a website perform better. If you can prove to them that what you’re proposing will do that, it would be a lot easier. Sometimes I think that’s pretty hard to do. So you’ve switched from agency to client (being a client and doing very different kind of work in a lot of ways). In the two or more different capacities that you served in your career, one the things we like to talk about on this show is how you define success. Do you feel like you’re on a trajectory where you’re trying new things? How do you define success?
Anthony: I think the reason my career has been all over the place is because I define success as constantly enjoying what I’m doing. That’s going to be professionally and technically challenging myself; it’s going to be learning from others, and being able to share exciting things I’ve learned with others. In all of my workplaces, when I felt like it was time for me to leave, the number one reason I left was typically because I felt like I wasn’t being challenged enough or I wasn’t able to share with my team. It was one of those two (if not both). It was getting broken down at some point. So in that regard, my career has left me being a little bit of the belief in the wind, in that at any given moment I’m looking at what is it next that I want to be working on personally and professionally? I keep driving toward that. That’s how I accidentally ended up where I am professionally in what I do. I could have continued down the design track. Specifically, I could’ve continued down a development track or even within user experience (which is the domain I practice in mostly today). I could choose something hyper-specific like information architecture. I could certainly make a career of that. I like understanding all sides of a problem. I like at any given moment in time figuring out which of those fascinates me the most and pulling toward that.
Liam: Anthony? Your description of success about constantly enjoying what you’re doing is really fascinating to me. I was particularly intrigued when you talked about how a big part of your work satisfaction is learning and sharing. Then you went on to clarify that when you are ready to move on to a new job, position, or career phase (depending on what you’re after) you talk about either wanting more challenges or you’re running into an inability to share. I wonder if that inability to share…if you just shed a little bit light on that…is it kind of a communication breakdown in a work environment? Is it more of you struggling to engage in a meaningful way? How does that come about when you say it is an inability to share?
Anthony: A lot of times when coming into an organization, at least with agencies with a skill set like mine that is a little bit weird, I’m being brought in under the guise of hey! We really want you to come in and establish this practice or build up this practice that is kind of galvanizer between a team. A lot of times it starts off with no holds barred. You have the ability to make waves and everything. Over time, that starts getting whittled down. So there is a political piece there that sometimes can start getting narrowed to the point that (it’s not that I’m not able to share or contribute) but I start feeling like it is not as meaningful a contribution that it would be if I were starting over.
Liam: I get that. I understand that. Go ahead.
Anthony: In addition to the narrowing, it’s also that it’s not an inability to share, but perhaps I’ve already shared a whole lot. So I designers and developers start taking user centered approaches. I see they’ve started using specific tools regularly like wireframes or gathering peers around them and having sketching studios to ideate on something really quickly. When I start seeing those patterns have erupted and they are taking over an agency I don’t need to be the Moses or the Jesus (or whatever) who does that.
Liam: Your work is done there.
Anthony: Yeah. My work is done.
Liam: Cool. Thank you.
Tara: Anthony? Tell us a little bit about your involvement in the WordPress community. Even though you’re not necessarily working in it right now as you said, you’re involved in it. I met you here in DC. Now you’re in Chicago. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Anthony: Yeah. So today I still speak at WordCamps all the time. I’m usually organizing one or more WordCamps. Outside of WordCamps, there are a lot of other camps that I am also involved in (ex: UX camp). I try to get involved in the design and development communities much as possible… a lot of behavioral science Meetups…I attend a ton of Meetups. That’s basically my involvement right now. It’s continuing engagement with the community. Historically, when I moved to Chicago for this position, I was leaving the DC community, and I was one of the people who helped revitalize the DC WordPress community. I co-organized that for a good number of years along with Aaaron Jorbin and Andrew Nason and some people in the early years. But that has transitioned to another larger group. My activity today is a lot, speaking, organizing, and supporting in any way I can. I have a personal mantra that if I’m not speaking at a WordCamp, then I’m (at least) volunteering at it. Even when I’m speaking, I’m generally also volunteering. I find volunteering at a WordCamp to be (even more so than speaking) the best way to meet anybody at a WordCamp.
Liam: That is a great way to participate. I totally agree with that. Thank you by the way for all that you do to contribute to the community. It means a lot to have somebody like yourself who is actively engaged and supporting. Thank you.
Tara: Yes. You’ve been a great help to me and a lot of people in this community and at other WordCamps where you have spoken. What would you say (can you remember back to when you started in the WordPress community) and you’re giving back a lot right now. How did you get started in it? Was it something that you relied upon?
Anthony: Yeah. Before the WordPress community; in college, I was part of the design community. It was part of the student chapter of AIGA, IIDA, IDSA (a bunch of acronyms for specific industries). I found a lot of value at that point in being a student, and I was one of the officers. We would organize events for students to go into agency environments with hands-on learning. What are the problems that agencies are trying to solve? What are the types of projects they are working on? It gave us a really quick sense of what the workplace is like and what all the different types of work you can do with the same type of degree? As soon as I started my professional career in DC that was something that I really missed from school. It was something I yearned for in DC. I became involved in the DC PHP group first. It was a very small group. They had a Listserv. When I started involvement with that is as an email Listserv. There were events on occasion but mostly it was people sending bulk emails to people on this Listserv, and it was great! I was a young professional. I had questions that I didn’t know the answers to. I knew that when I posted questions out there I would get dozens of answers at all different levels. It didn’t seem like anybody was judging any questions. So when Meetup came along, it was kind of the big game changer. Suddenly, we had regularly scheduled meetings for PHP. So I started searching Meetups for anything I was interested in. WordPress was one of my favorite content management systems at the time. There was a DC group, and they were looking for a venue. The agency I was at…I actually convinced my bosses for us to start hosting the PHP group. As soon as the PHP group was there and they were meeting in my office space monthly (which was very convenient) because for me to go to the Meetup, all I did was walk from my desk to the other room. I could have them there every month. Then, I believe it was Andrew Nacin who reached out to me about the WordPress group, within a couple of months the PHP meeting in our space. They were looking to get the WordPress DC group started again. It had been sleeping for quite some time. I talked to my bosses, and they said yeah. We use WordPress all the time. We would love to have them. I was also involved in the Joomla community at the time, but there wasn’t a Meetup. There was just a camp. Then DC JQuery was the third that reached out and said hey! Can we host our Meetup in your space? So we created a kind of cool chasm community in DC where the PHP, WordPress, and JQuery (at the time were all very complementary to each other). What we did is put them three days in a row in our space. It was kind of a rolling beer stock because we didn’t do sponsorship. Everything we did was tell our members to bring your own. Someone would bring a six-pack or something that was nonalcoholic. You know, it was a blend, but we had a refrigerator in our agency. There were always leftovers from a previous Meetup that came in. So we have this rolling stock that was awesome because it wasn’t all of one thing. You had probably 30 different drinks to choose from.
Liam: That’s awesome.
Tara: That’s very smart.
Anthony: We got a lot of cross-pollination between members. That’s where I started meeting people and getting addicted to the community. It was probably not for the first six months or so before I started getting comfortable enough to do a lightning talk or to speak. Mostly, I just liked being there and shaking hands with people. I liked hearing unique perspectives and stories that the speakers and how they’re using WordPress or a specific coding library or the technique somehow that they may approach business problems.
Liam: Thank you. That was cool. I love the way that you wove together the different Meetup groups and focuses on development into one space and have them sharing beers and sodas together. That’s great! Let me back up and take a wider approach for a minute here and ask you to reflect back on your career and think about what’s been (if not the biggest) one of your biggest challenges professionally and whether or not if that’s…I had this type of design project to do, or maybe it’s a personal development thing you are addressing personally. What’s been one of your biggest challenges in your career and how did you address it? How are you addressing it if it’s ongoing?
Anthony: The biggest challenge…it’s going to be a blend of imposter syndrome and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The biggest challenge, specifically when you’re in the technical space (it’s in the design and UX space as well). Particularly in the technical space (like development), everything is always new. You could you take and 8-week nonstop training boot camp with the top CTOs from Facebook and Twitter (whoever) if you wanted to enter into the industry and six months later the stuff that you learned would already be old. So there is this persistent anxiety that what you know is not new enough. So somebody was telling me about a talk that they are putting together for WordCamp. Actually, I think it might be Tara.
Tara: (laughs) Thanks for that plug.
Anthony: Yeah. That was an accident. I was thinking of the abstract subject and what I liked in abstract was basically giving you permission to not move toward the shiny thing. There is this persistent feeling that you always need to be checking out latest of this and the latest of that. A lot of times we make the mistake of not rechecking ourselves and asking is the thing that I’m using right now going to solve this business problem? If it is, then it is the right solution for the problem that you’re solving right now. Sure, some stuff has shelf life but again even if you were to somehow squeeze in training for yourself and the latest thing and turn around a solution that is good enough and solves the problem, ultimately, (again) six months from now, it’s going to be as out of date as something else. I think that’s something as professionals in our industry I’m probably not the only person who is always struggling with that. That’s the anxiety of keeping up. That’s kind of why for my own professional goal I think Twitter is a good metaphor here. When I first got on Twitter, it stressed me out because the number of tweets that were flying by me every time I would open up my app and had 300 unread tweets I would try and read every single tweet.
Tara: Gosh! How do you deal with Slack?
Anthony: Yeah. Exactly. So I would read…I was used to things like Instant Messaging. I was used to things like email. I was trying to keep up with every single tweet before I came back. Then I found it so arduous with trying to keep up all the tweets that eventually I said I’m either going to delete Twitter and not use it anymore, or I’m going to accept the fact that I cannot read all the tweets. I would just actually turn off notifications on my phone for Twitter. I don’t have any badge markers or anything. Whenever I have a minute I will look at it, read a few of the latest tweets, I’ll look at some funny GIFS, retweet a couple of things, and then I’ll get back to my day. That’s eventually how I had to arrive at my career as well. There is no way I’m going to keep up with all the things. At any point that I feel like I’m facing a challenge that I can’t overcome and I need to go out and find something to solve that challenge, I will do it. If the tools work that I have in solving problems that I solve today, I’m perfectly fine with that even though I know there are probably better ways of doing things out there. That kind of piecemeal learning is what has led me to constantly be changing direction, but it’s also brought a lot more sanity and balance into my life.
Tara: Yeah. I think that’s an excellent point. Many of us feel that way. I think it’s hard when you’re in an open source community where people are so willing and happy to share all the time. They’re always sharing their best discovery and the best new way of doing something. It makes you always question whether what you’re doing is the best way to do it. I think that’s definitely something that many of us feel. Along those lines, I think what you’re sharing in terms of the advice on how to avoid that is really powerful and helpful. But something that we like to ask everyone on the show is about advice that you’ve received and what you would say would be the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve ever received in your professional or your personal life?
Anthony: This is a tough one. It was always harsh advice. I had a favorite design professor in college. I have a lot of one-liners from him that I’ve retained with me all the time. The first one was on the first day of class, and he stated over and over I’m not your therapist. It was don’t tell me that you did your homework because of whatever you know. Or, I’m sorry if your mother died and you missed class. Within reason there, he wasn’t heartless. There were things you could go to him for. Ultimately, his point was he didn’t want to bunch of wet noodles in his class and having excuses for not doing his projects. He was likening his class to the professional world where there are hard days and some days you just need to show up. You need to turn in that thing and finish that project. That was one of the life lessons that I got from him. I actually really liked that he started off the class that way because he basically invited anybody in the class (who didn’t want to take the class) to drop out. Then the next day, he’s like now we get into the fun stuff.
Liam: I love that. I love the candidness. This is real. Get used to it. It’s the way to get it done. It reminds me of a phrase that I’ve heard from my wife’s side of the family. I think it was her grandmother who said (talking about your deadlines and getting things done in time) if it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly. Just get it done. (laughs) Not that badly is the target but that sense of just get it done. Speaking of just getting it done, we are out of time today Anthony. So on behalf of Tara, I just want to say thank you so much for joining us. It’s a real privilege for both of us to have on. You keep a very busy schedule so thank you very much for your time.
Anthony: Yeah, it was a pleasure.
Tara: Where can people reach you, Anthony? How can people find you if you’re not at WordCamp?
Anthony: You can Google me with my middle initial included. Anthony D Paul. You’ll get 10,000 Google search results that are only me.
Tara: Do you have any upcoming WordCamps?
Anthony: Well the inaugural WordCamp DC is happening this summer in the middle of July. It’s actually my birthday weekend, so I consider it an elongated birthday celebration. My next WordCamp speaking will be at the end of this month at WordCamp Halifax. That is also the inaugural WordCamp Halifax.
Liam: That is awesome.
Tara: Thanks again for being us and I look forward to seeing you soon Anthony!