How I built a career in the tech industry writing horrible code

When I was 21, I dropped out of university in Bologna and started writing code as a freelancer. Clients, mostly from personal connections, began knocking on my door. I had no experience in software development or anything at all back then, so I said yes. I was making little to no money, but it was fun.


Swiping floors

I followed my girlfriend at the time to New Zealand for a few months and then came back to Italy. A friend of mine offered me a job in a club. I had no experience in manual labor, so I said yes. I quickly went from sweeping the floor, to cleaning toilets, to managing the room, to cashing tickets.

In 2006, blogging was big, and I started a personal blog, writing mostly about myself and my interest in human behavior. Clients started knocking at my door, asking me to be a marketing consultant. I had no experience in marketing, so I said yes.

Within a few months, I was in Milan, negotiating a large contract with a Viennese startup that wanted me to be their country manager in Italy. I had no experience in managing countries, so I said yes.



Country Management FTW!


Six months later, they offered me a permanent job in Vienna, taking charge of company communications in 13 countries. I had no experience in communications on an international scale, so I said yes.

After resigning from that company, I was asked to join the startup team of a new business. I had no experience working at a startup, so I said yes.

Automattic - Team Picure 2015

400 Automatticians at 2015 Grand Meetup, Park City, Utah

Before Automattic, I had no experience at a global company. But every job was a dot I connected and led me to the position I have today. I am a lucky man. Except there’s no such thing as luck.

As a kid I always had the toys I wanted, I went to the school I wanted, my parents supported the education I desired. I played when I wanted to play, I slept when I wanted to sleep, I had good grades when I wanted good grades. I now do the job I wish to do at the company I wanted to join. I am a lucky man. Except… there’s no such thing as luck.

I’m from a working class family, and my parents and my grandparents before them did not have the luxury of choice. They took what life gave them and made the most of it. I’ve struggled to earn a living. For years, I didn’t make enough money to move out of my parents’ house and be independent. My family had helped me more than once when my income didn’t pay the bills. It was hard and still is.

In 2012, I attended the wedding of one of my best friends. Simone flew me into Singapore and wanted me there to take pictures and bring a wedding ring from Europe. Usually when you go to a wedding, you bring a present, but what happened is Simone gave me a gift I keep dearly, and today I’ll share it with you.


Street Bar in Singapore

We were sitting in a street bar late at night, just Simone and I, drinking iced tea and smoking shisha. He was employed at Amazon, and I was struggling with a startup in Vienna. I told him my challenges at work, the little money I had, and the difficulties of navigating unknown territory.

He looked at me and said: “Don’t worry, people like us always survive. Things can go south quickly but in the end, you worked in a club sweeping floors and cleaning toilets, so you know that whatever happens with your job, you will never starve to death.”

663 million people live without clean water. One in nine people on earth do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. How about you? Do you have clean water? Do you have enough food to live well?

The hard part has been done. We have clean water, an abundance of food, and access to medicine, energy and consumer goods. This gives us a feeling of safety, security and comfort. The need to succeed, a better job and a better salary, are bonuses. Whatever happens, I will survive.

Besides being “lucky,” I have always been lazy. We all are, we just try to hide it. You are lazy too. You don’t go to the river every morning to get water. You don’t work in the fields and harvest crops; you drive your car to the grocery store.

We like comfort, except when we go to work. At work, we like to keep ourselves busy, and hard working people who c start early and leave late, notebooks full of scribbles, and packed schedules. I don’t. I like to do my job, get things were done and sweat as little as possible. If I don’t overwork, I can focus on doing things better; if I optimize the outcome, I can do more with less effort.

We also value efficiency. Efficiency is about doing things in an optimal way, for example, doing it faster or at a lower cost. It could be wrong, but it was done optimally. I prefer to focus on being effective. Effectiveness is about doing the right task, completing activities and achieving goals. I value results more than the process of reaching them.

If the top of a mountain is the goal, many people enjoy hiking uphill, breathing fresh air, sweating, and romanticizing the effort of getting there. I would make friends with locals, so I can learn the most convenient way to get on top, and maybe catch a ride on a gondola.

It’s not about cutting corners, and it’s not about avoiding responsibilities. It’s about focusing on results and optimizing resources.

I have never worked for free in my life. And I have never worked for money in my life. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. I worked for good money, little money and sometimes no money at all. But every time I had clear in mind why I was doing it. I knew I had no experience in many trades, and not being qualified meant that I could not be competitive or demand higher rates. The compensation I wanted went beyond money, and I made sure to identify the real motivation behind that job.

When I started as a software developer, I wanted to know what real work was. When I was sweeping floors in clubs for little money, I wanted to meet people and have fun. When I became a country manager, I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. When I moved to Vienna, I wanted to live abroad. When I joined Automattic, I wanted to contribute to one of the most significant cultural shifts of our generation: Free Software.

These motivators were stronger than money. I don’t care about money. Money’s important because it enables lifestyle. But that’s all. A lifestyle without motivation is boring.

In 2007, my blog was somewhat popular, with 1500 unique visitors a day and 20 to 25 people leaving comments on every post. I became friends with many readers. One of them is Livia, with whom I went all in for a crazy venture. We took an offer to be reporters at a new web channel called Intruders.TV, covering tech events and interviewing startup entrepreneurs.



Intruders TV Italy


There was no money on the table, and neither of us had ever produced videos before. All we were offered was a video camera, media passes to tech events all over the world, and access to anyone in the industry. We had to cover expenses ourselves, arrange our own travels, and do everything from filming to editing and publishing.

We took side jobs to pay for travel, slept in hostels and ate at McDonalds. Every conference had a party dinner, and I remember having one clean shirt in my bag – the only decent outfit of the week. We were meeting big names and wanted to impress.



Intruders TV at IJF09


We knew it was temporary and unsustainable in the long run, but it worked out for both of us. At a time when online videos weren’t as popular as they are now, we turned our unpaid gig into a portfolio of relationships that landed us great opportunities later on.

Within a few months, Livia was offered a job as community manager and TV host at Current TV, and now she is a manager at Twitter. She got the job because of her skills, but those skills were built over time and refined through solid connections.

When we attended conferences and recorded interviews, pictures were always needed for editorial content. I started taking my camera with me and each time had a hundred shots. I didn’t want to bother with copyright laws and such, so I grabbed the easiest licence– Creative Commons, attribution only. I didn’t care about chasing down how my pictures were distributed I only needed a few good shots to publish with our videos.



Taking all the pictures!


I quickly learned that event organizers were struggling with photo content because photographers were not good at covering tech events, rights management was a nightmare, and they wanted to monetize every picture.I sent event organizers the link to my Creative Commons galleries and made them happy.

After that, I began getting invitations to every event in the industry. I had already left Intruders.TV behind, and for a year I had free access to the top tech events and everyone who attended thanks to my contribution.

What would have happened if applied the classic “All Rights Reserved” that other photographers were using?

Have a clear goal, plan your resources, and identify needs. If assets don’t cost you anything, give them away. Help people, be useful, don’t be stingy.

If you had 10 gallons of milk that expire tomorrow, what would you do? Some would drink some, and try to sell the rest. Others would drink some and then throw it away. I would sip a little bit and give away the rest for free. Making friends and helping others is an investment in the future. You can go fast if you go alone, but you need others if you want to go far and have fun.

I like to get things done. Getting started is the key. I started many things I never completed, but “done” is different than “completed.” It took me years to understand and accept this concept: Done is better than perfect. We tend to believe that we need to finish what we start. No matter if conditions have changed, or if we have new data, or if it was a mistake.

This classic cognitive bias is called “sunk cost fallacy”: I already spent a thousand euros on this slot machine, I need to spend a hundred more. I’ll win at some point. No. The right attitude is: I already spent a thousand euros on this slot machine, experience tells me that a hundred more would be wasted.

I invested my whole self into a few jobs I had. I worked 18 hours a day for months, borrowed money from my family to pursue new ventures, dedicated everything I had to crazy adventures. But each time I had a reasonable amount of information telling me that the venture had no chance of reaching its goal, I walked away.

That’s why I don’t like gambling. Odds are against gamblers. I’d rather start a casino.

My three tips for building a career in any industry are simple: Take it easy, help others, and make things happen. Basics like water, food and shelter are sorted, so don’t stress. Be useful to others and help as much as you can. Don’t wait for things to happen, make them happen. I have always been lucky. Except there’s no such thing as luck. Be your own luck.

Presented at Codemotion Milan 2015Feedback on Joind

Credits: Kat ChristopherFrancesco PiasentinGiorgio MinguzziLivia Iacolare

Video Games Memories

I landed in Bologna two days ago, took a train and spent 48 hours in Florence for a conference. Last night, after the first day of the conference I went for a stroll with new friends I had just met.

We went along the river up to Ponte Vecchio, went through the Uffizi, admired the copy of the David in front of Palazzo Vecchio. We planned a thirty-minute walk, but we ended up wandering for almost two hours.

We had fun chatting on how familiar the city was to us. Not because of previous visits but because of video games. Filippo is a passionate Assassin’s Creed fan, and most of the game takes place in Florence. I remembered I use to play Midtown Madness, something like 10 years ago, and the cars used to race in the same streets we were walking on.

Florence was completely empty last night and it was a surreal experience. I had been there many times before, but it was the first time that video games were such a vivid memory to me.

400 Automatticians at 2015 Grand Meetup, Park City, Utah

It’s not about the free food: how to develop a healthy corporate culture

In 2010, on one of the most epic road trips of my life, I was passing through Las Vegas and visited Zappos, a year or so after it had been acquired by Amazon. I spent 4 hours visiting headquarters, taking pictures, chatting with executives, and getting the full Zappos experience.

Zappos HQ

Zappos HQ in Las Vegas

If you have never heard of Zappos, it’s a vibrant company founded by Tony Hsieh. They sell shoes. How boring is that? They have a website, and they sell shoes. However, they did not become popular due to the quality of those shoes. They became popular in our industry for their outstanding corporate culture.

To give a few examples, employees had free food and drinks (excluding Red Bull) available 24/7 at headquarters, a car wash service on weekends, massage sessions at the end of shifts. And surprisingly, for an e-commerce company, employees were not evaluated by sales volume or the number of calls they took during support shifts. Performance was only tied to customer satisfaction, as measured by independent post-sales surveys.


The party wall at Zappos HQ

Other companies made headlines for their fancy policies. Apple has the most amazing headquarters on Earth, Facebook offices are also great, and Google was featured in a movie called “The Internship,” which was a comedy mostly about the unusual culture at Googleplex.

My visit at Zappos was a blast, and I raved about it for months and years. At the time, I was working for a startup in Vienna that had recently been sold to a large French corporation. I was so enthusiastically impressed by Zappos that I tried introducing some of their practices. Every experiment failed miserably. My repeated attempts and failures in changing the work practices of my team resulted in a clash with upper management, and I left the company.

In the five years that followed, I discovered through other experiences that free drinks, free food, and unusual methods to measure productivity are the consequence of something deeper — a unique set of values that are at the foundation of outstanding companies. They are like Hawaiian shirts. They make total sense if you live in Maui, but wearing a Hawaiian shirt when you work in a bank does not make you a surfer, and it will probably end in a serious chat with your boss.

400 Automatticians at 2015 Grand Meetup, Park City, Utah

400 Automatticians at 2015 Grand Meetup, Park City, Utah

A few weeks ago I was in Park City, Utah, meeting 400 coworkers at our annual Grand Meetup, a yearly business retreat where we have the chance to spend a week together under the same roof after 51 weeks scattered all over the world. The Grand Meetup schedule is packed with meetings, chats, work sessions, classes, and fun activities. On the first day, Matt Mullenweg, our Founder and CEO, gave opening remarks in a 15-minute speech. It was not super formal, but the tension during kickoff was strong.

Do you know what I remember from those 15 minutes? “Be nice to each other. Grand Meetup can be intimidating for new Automatticians, make sure you are welcoming. Pick up trash on the floor, and be nice to the wait staff of the resort.”

Matt Mullenweg

Matt Mullenweg – Founder and CEO of Automattic

I knew Matt Mullenweg for years before joining Automattic, and one thing that always struck me about him is his kindness. Many times we shared a dinner table at conferences. Matt is the guy who makes you feel good about yourself because he pours water for other people before drinking himself. He’s the one who opens doors, and says please and thank you with absolute sincerity.

When I joined Automattic, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my colleagues. The first three weeks of support rotation were challenging, but at any time of the day I only had to ask for help and a bunch of people would come to the rescue. The same is true today, with 200 more people on the payroll.

The foundation of corporate culture is the shadow of the founder. So if you are a founder, pay attention to how you behave, more than your corporate policies. If you are joining a company, do a background check on the founder. It’s unlikely you’ll find a pleasing working environment if you and the founder don’t share core values. Steve Jobs was known as a difficult person to deal with, obsessed with details. Look at Apple now: the shadow of the founder is present in every connector, charger, and icon. Of course, the company changed after Steve Jobs, but the legacy is strong and Apple has a long history of ups and downs.

Things change. But people don’t like change. We like to settle in and get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable. Accept the idea that things need to change and when it’s time, it’s time. Think about life, the most important changes just happen. You get a new job, you get fired, you meet that special person, you get married, you have kids, you have to let someone go. Life and death do not follow a schedule. When it’s time, it’s time. So why would your company wait until next quarter to change? So it better fits your Excel table?

Get over it and learn to embrace change.

When I joined Automattic, there were just over 200 people. Two years later on our 10th anniversary, we crossed the 400 mark. I have personally seen many practices get introduced and dismissed, new teams formed and disbanded, projects shelved and picked up again. It’s a good way to keep things spinning and to stay alert and ready for new challenges. We are in a marathon, not in a sprint.

Change of paradigm at Facebook

Change of paradigm at Facebook

Since the beginning, the motto at Facebook was: “Move fast and break things”, until they got big. Then it changed to “Move fast with a solid infrastructure.” How easy do you think it was for Mark Zuckerberg to go on stage at F8 and announce the new motto? Deep thoughts were behind that announcement. The company followed him because of the culture he built over time.

A few years ago I worked at a company that hit rough waters. After a summer with limited liquidity and a series of pay cuts, employees were asked to make a difficult decision: voluntarily work half time to avoid layoffs. We were all pretty weary but the spirit was strong, and we agreed to go half time. In addition, the CEO asked us to concentrate our efforts and be at the office from 9 to 13. It was difficult to accept, as a few of us typically got to the office at 10 or 11.

Starbucks Latte

Starbucks Latte

On the first day of this new schedule, we were all on time. Even those not happy about waking up early were at the office at 9 am sharp. Except one. The CEO showed up at 11 am. There was absolute silence when he walked in the door, holding his usual Starbucks latte. After a moment of hesitation, he said: “There was a hell of a traffic today.” Three people, including me, resigned in a matter of weeks. A single act of disrespect broke months and years of trust.

If you want a healthy company culture, lead by example. Every action you take as a founder, more than just words, sets the tone and makes a difference.

Presented at Better Software 2015Feedback on Joind

A. I. Sajib
Rebecca Krebs
Kat Christopher
Andrea Badgley

Green mat

I practiced Aikido for a long time, in different places. My home dojo was in Ravenna, Italy, but I attended classes in Auckland, New Zealand, in Modena, Parma, Bergamo, and finally here in Vienna, Austria.

The green mat, named Tatami, is a must have in the Aikido practice, because of the frequent fall that the art requires. It’s also the major struggle for the casual Aikido teams because you can go running with just shorts and shoes but you can’t practice Aikido without a fairly large soft survace to land on.

The reputation of a dojo resides on the quality of their tatami. Most of the time is made of pre-cut squares of hard foam, shaped as jigsaw so to interlock with each other and stay in place. Bigger dojos have a custom made tatami that covers the entire area of practice without seams.

At the end of every class, traditional dojos require the students to swipe the tatami for the next class. The last class of the day cleans the entire dojo before leaving.

This practice gives everybody a sense of belonging. You are not just a student that pays the tuition, shows up, and attend the classes. Taking part of the maintenance of the dojo makes you feel part of the system. You contribution is important for the others and keeps things together.

Saturday morning

Just a few days in and I got stuck already. It sounds easy to pick a prompt and write for ten minutes. But other things take over and you end up struggling for ideas.One feels too trivial, the other too complex for a ten minute piece. Shall I write about winter? Oh, com’on. Then I add a nice picture of a leaf on the floor and I’m done. Nope.

Shall I write about the latest show on Netflix? Don’t know, to say what? That I like it and it’s brilliant? Nope

How about the lady on the other side of the team in this warm November Saturday morning. Reading a newspaper while we slide through a sleepy Vienna. Nope.
I gave myself he freedom to ramble as much as I like on this writing project. If my thoughts side track, I’ll just follow. I also allow myself to go meta, just like now. Why not. It makes sense.

I woke up at 6:30 to be early at the gym. I also wanted to drop a parcel at the post office on the way. Too bad I’m not in sync with this city yet. Both the gym and the post office will open at 9:00. So now I’m on my way to breakfast, rearranging my schedule for the day.

Days like today are difficult.

Repetita Juvant

Stories get better over time. When every single detail gets polished, the flow of events is smoother, the pauses are well calibrated. This simple principle makes a difference in every type of story; from simple presentations to keynotes, repetitions, better say rehearsals, change dramatically the final performance.
So if this increase of quality benefits the casual listener, the same cannot be said for the unfortunate person who happens to hear the story over and over again.I have found myself telling episodes so many times that they feel like legends. 

At the same time it happens to me to hear the same story multiple times from other people. I believe that friendship is not just being able to cope with the reappearance of episodes, it goes one step further. Knowing where the other person is going to take the story to, allows to help the conversation with well a placed assist. The best wins require team play and assists are the true essence of team play.

So if you really care about someone, and you hear the same old story coming up again, think about how to place the best assist. You know, even the most boring sermon required heart to be written.

Modern Absurd

When my grandfather was forty or so, was diagnosed with a gastric ulcer. At that time, in the 60s, the way to treat such disease was pretty straightforward: they used to chop off the entire stomach, and that was it. That resulted in my grandfather eating bread soaked in milk for years until his body was able again to digest more complex food.

At the age of twenty-nine I was diagnosed with the same disease. I swallowed one big pill every day for a week, and that was it. The little bug was eradicated forever, gone, adios.

When my grandparents moved from Sicily to the north of Italy, their possessions were limited to the rags they were wearing. They farmed a family out of the dirt they were plowing, and my mother and I had the opportunity for a higher education.

It didn’t just happen to my family. This story is typical among most of the people I have known in my life, and we should never forget how tough it was to put bread on the table with the good willing of building opportunities for the following generations.

My grandfather also believed that education was the key to social justice, so he did all he could to send us to school. It was very hard convincing him that dropping off college it was the best choice for me. He didn’t live long enough to appreciate that decision, but I’m sure he would be understanding now.

The idea of refusing scientific advancements, taking our status for granted, and see education just as a way to find a job is the “modern absurd.”