Seoul with Work – March 2023

Regular viewers will be aware that I have been working with a company called Automattic for the better part of a decade now. We’re the folks behind, Tumblr, and others. One of the unique things about a8c (as it is affectionately known) is that we are fully distributed – which means that there is no single home ‘base’ or office. Instead, everybody works from wherever they like, around the globe. Every so often, we get together in person to put faces and physical forms to online handles.

My own team has a particularly wide geographical spread, including Scotland, Poland, Sweden, Australia, and various corners of the US – so when it came to deciding where to go for our annual meetup, we wanted to find a location where no individual was travelling for more than 20 hours. As it turned out, Seoul in South Korea was roughly equi-distant, but also affordable, and so that became our destination.

Curved mirrors are great for pictures but not the most flattering. I chopped all my hair off after this.

Any time I travel with work, I endeavour to head out slightly early so that I can acclimatise to the time difference, spend a bit of time on my own, and get a lay of the land before anything ‘official’ begins. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity this time, given the distance I was covering, and I’ve written about some of my adventures on here already. See this post about Hongdae, Itaewon, Myeongdong, and some street photography. Apologies in advance if there is any duplication of pictures. I’ve lost track of what’s gone where. I throw myself upon your mercy.

Flying halfway around the world to spend time with a bunch of folks that you speak to every day but rarely see in person is a unique experience. No matter how familiar you might think you are with somebody online, that dynamic can be radically different in the flesh, particularly in such an unusual and intense situation. It’s not just about body language or the tone and timbre of a voice as is so often talked about – cultural norms, circumstance, and expectations also all come into play.

Our work days were largely spent in a rather large conference room that was kitted out with a whole bunch of fancy bells and whistles – none of which we used. All we really needed was WiFi, and somewhere to plug in our computers. That’s something that I’ve always loved about working at Automattic – the inherently agile, nomadic nature of things, where you have this rectangle that connects you into a much bigger world, and that you can access from anywhere.

Podiums and d-beam projectors aside, the room’s key feature was the floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto a side street. It was the perfect background for policy discussions, Terms of Service review… and drinking shots of the delicious Soplica vodka that Magda had brought from Poland.

Given our worldwide distribution, it’s not particularly easy to find a time to get us all online at once – and when we do – inevitably that means that folks are getting up early or staying up late. Not the most conducive environment for serious discussion – and we ended up getting a lot done in a fairly short space of time. Would we be this productive constantly if we worked together in person every day? Well, no – and there wouldn’t really be any reason to do so for our everyday tasks – but every so often this kind of thing is invaluable.

Just as important as the projects we were tackling was the time spent not in the board room, where connections and relationships could form and be strengthened. We spent a fair bit of time wandering around, exploring the neighbourhood and sights.

and there was also some general tomfoolery that I played no part in.

Navigating our various dietary requirements and preferences was tricky, particularly given the size of our group, which meant we ended up having to go our separate ways from time to time – or navigate unfamiliar waters.

The quality in general was very good, though perhaps the less said about this sushi the better.

The street food markets proved to be particularly handy – filled with delicious treats.

There were less issues finding places to drink, and we stumbled upon so many cool wee bars that were hidden down lanes and up non-descript staircases. The kinds of hidden gem that don’t appear on any map, and become impossible to find in the daylight. Unexpected havens of psychedlica, glimpses of Paris, and speakeasy brew-pubs nestled behind street level vending machines.

There was a particularly amazing place marked only by a gold rock enscribed with ‘bougie’, up a red stairway.

If you were brave enough to venture inside what looked like somebody’s flat – or perhaps a brothel – you’d find a gorgeous champagne bar that had a massive chandelier in the middle of the tiny room. It was truly magical.

One of our regular haunts was one particular place close to the hotel that stayed open especially late, and we would inevitably find ourselves there for a nightcap. We ended up getting to know the staff a bit, who were kind of horrified when I ordered a bottle of soju for myself – but then nodded knowingly when I said I was from Scotland.

Another special shout out has to go to makgeolli – a kind of fermented rice wine drink that was kind of sour, kind of sweet, but weirdly delicious, and which became a regular feature of the week.

I’ve been on a lot of these kinds of work trips, but this one felt a bit different.

One of my favourite things was that we were all together for the first time as a team in a place that was completely new to all of us. That kind of thing forces you to bond pretty quickly, and you can learn a lot about people from the way they explore and experience new settings and situations.

By the end of the week there was an easy familiarity between us as a group, and it was a really nice thing to both witness between and others, and be a part of.

I’ve got a lot of fond memories from that time in Korea, and feel pretty fortunate to get to work with the folks that I do.

Oh, don’t ask about the chicken hearts.

As for Korea… I’m sure it won’t be the last time we meet.

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