Picture of Tonya Mork

We started this year 2020 with the promise that we would interview a WordPress woman every month. We have kept that promise and it has been not only a great pleasure to meet them, but we are very grateful that they have given us some of their time to share their experiences with us.

However, we all know that this year has turned out to be one of the most difficult for many people. For this reason, we thought that this month’s interview, the last one of this very complicated year, had to come with a great message of inspiration to give you strength. Keep reading, enjoy this interview, and then tell me what you think… Today, instead of giving you a few brief hints of the career of this month’s interviewee (a person recommended by Josepha Haden), I prefer she to be the one to introduce herself directly. So, without further ado, please, welcome Tonya Mork!

Thanks for the interview, Tonya. It is a great pleasure to have you here! Your personal story is so heartbreaking and inspiring that this interview would be meaningless if we omit it. So, for those who don’t know you, could you tell us a little about your studies and career until 2007?

Hello and thanks for asking me to participate! Yes, my journey to WordPress comes in three chapters. To understand my trajectory, we start with Chapter 1.

Welcome to Chapter 1 of my adult life.

I started my career back in the mid-1980s as an electrical and software engineer. For 22 years, I worked in the high tech automated manufacturing industry.

What is this industry? What do I do? To help you visualize, let’s relate the systems we built to your everyday life.

Think of a car, bus, train, airplane, food, appliances, newspapers, magazines, books, phones, computers, etc. Have you ever thought about how each is made? Let’s do a visualization exercise.

Look at your phone. Notice all of the different components in it. Buttons, touch screen, camera, microphone, speaker, circuitry, software, case, ports, etc. Imagine disassembling all of it. Imagine all of the little individual pieces covering your table. Can you picture it?

Humans and machines work together in factories to transform raw materials (chemicals, plastic, metal, glass, silicon, etc.) into the pieces in your phone. Piece-by-piece is manufactured through a series of mixers, extruders, inspectors, assembly, packaging, and shipping machines. It’s the orchestration of all of these machines, systems, and people that produce your phone and billions more like it.

My teams and I built these production lines for the factories to make these products for you.

Photo by Lenny Kuhne on Unsplash.
Photo by Lenny Kuhne on Unsplash

The above picture shows one automated machine in a massive production line of machines. It has a vehicle system to move the car through each of the machines. It has a robotic welder on each side. All of the tooling and instrumentation are integrated together and controlled by electrical, fluid power, and software systems. And then at the higher level, there are predictive modeling and monitoring systems that alert people when a process might be going out of specification or might fail. These are the machines, software, and systems we built.

What about my studies?

I was trained in electricity and electronics in the US Navy. I stepped into engineering by chance as an ex-Navy Chief hired me to be the lead technician for their factory’s new automated lines. I had no experience in this field. But I was blessed to be inserted into a team of brilliant engineers and researchers, one of whom became my first mentor.

I was a non-degreed woman in a highly technical engineering field. It was a hard road that needed a strategy to navigate the odds and grow my career. How did I do it? I incrementally grew my expertise and acumen through a combination of coursework, mentorship, on-the-job training, research, observation, and being a student of people. My secret was (and still is) to insert myself into teams where I can observe and learn from their expertise and know-how. This strategy has helped me to accelerate.

Then, in 2007, your life makes a 360º turn…

Welcome to Chapter 2 of my adult life. 

Buckle up as my story is horrific and gut wrenching. I first shared my story in my HeroPress essay. Here, I’ll do more visualization to bring this chapter to life.

By 2007, I had a thriving engineering and consulting business. My spouse and I had our dream life. We literally had it all.

But we quickly learned how fragile life truly is and how everything you’ve built can come tumbling down. 

In the fall of 2007, I became critically ill. I went from being a vibrant, healthy, independent person to a dependent, broken, disabled shell of a woman who needed constant monitoring and care to stay safe and alive.

What happened? I was diagnosed with two rare disease:

  • Prinzmetal angina which caused my arteries to spasm, cutting off blood supply to my body
  • Hemiplegic migraines (HM) which caused a constant cycle of:
    • Stage 1: left-side paralysis and coma
    • Stage 2: profound confusion
    • Stage 3: days of regaining my strength. 

I suffered this constant cycle of attacks over and over, week after week. 

Picture in your mind. You’re in the bathroom brushing your teeth or in the kitchen getting a glass of water. Now imagine in a flash and without warning half of your body becomes so weak that you can’t control your muscles or hold yourself up. You fall to the floor and are unconscious. Next, add in the artery spasms. You can’t cry out for help. Your arteries are spasming and you need your nitroglycerin to stop it. This was the horror my spouse and I lived through.

I was so fragile and severe that I was unable to work. I was hypersensitive to light, sound, smells, and motion that my entire environment had to be controlled. I couldn’t go anywhere. I was locked in my home. I needed 24/7 care to monitor and keep me safe. 

My career was over. My business was over. We said goodbye to our employees and customers and then closed the doors. With no money coming in, we were forced to file bankruptcy. We lost our home, savings, and stuff. We moved into a tiny apartment with the help of my father and government aid. 

22 years of building our lives together were wiped out by disease. Welcome to Chapter 2.

At some point you start building a non-profit website and discover WordPress and its community.

Yes, I started a non-profit to educate and connect HM patients together and with medical experts. Its website was powered by WordPress and BuddyPress. In building and maintaining the site and community, the engineer inside of me woke up. I started reverse engineering to better understand how each part worked. It kept my mind busy. 

Welcome to WordPress. I found the WordPress developer community. I noticed how developers asked an array of fundamental to advanced software questions. I got involved helping developers. All of these years of experience were locked in my brain. By helping, teaching, and coaching developers, I had a purpose again. Over time, I became part of the community. I was lost in despair and pain. But once I found WordPress, my life had meaning again. A mission was born.

Aw but wait, … then, you passed away!

Aw yes! Life had another twist to my story.

By the fall of 2013, my body was falling. Years of damage from these diseases worn me down. By December, my respiratory system failed and I was put on life support. Once a vibrant woman full of ideas, ambition, energy, life, love, and humor, I was reduced to a woman at death’s door, being kept alive by a room full of machines. Ironic that I once built machines and now machines were keeping me alive. Welcome to the ICU. 

I laid there as my spouse was tortured by this reality. For years, we fought this chapter. Was this it? Is this where my story ends? Is this where our lives together, our amazing, loving lives together ends? 

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, I passed away. 

I remember the flurry of activity around me, people rushing to help me. And then complete quiet and calm. No pain. No fear. Just peace, this amazing, indescribable peace. But I didn’t want to go yet. There was more I could do in this world. I got another chance.

A few days later, I was off of life support, breathing fully on my own. The doctors were dumbfounded. No HM, seizures, or artery spasms. I was cured. Miracle.

After several months of intense therapy, I regained my strength and was able to walk again. The feeding tube was removed from my stomach. We put away my wheelchair, walker, and safety rails. I stepped back into the world, the world I had been isolated from. This time, I’m a different person. Hello world, I’m giving back.

Welcome to Chapter 3 of my adult life.

Tonya, maybe it’s common in your environment (or perhaps I should better say in your spouse’s environment) but I still don’t get the idea that I’m interviewing someone who has died and is still alive… ? so, after all these, let’s say, “intense experiences”, …

Intense indeed. Though I keep these experiences close to me to ensure I stay on mission, writing it again brought back a flood of emotions and memories. That said, I’m happy to share my story in the hope it helps or inspires others.

Tell us about the projects you are currently involved in.

What have I been working on?

I’ve primarily focused in three areas: 

  1. Teaching, mentoring, and empowering WordPress developers 
  2. Helping companies take their engineering operations to the next level
  3. Core
  1. WordPress developer education.

I continue to teach WordPress web development and software engineering at Know the Code. It fits into my mission to help developers. It provides me a platform to capture what I know and share it with the masses in a scalable and sustainable way.

2. Helping companies go to the next level.

Over the two and half years, I’ve been helping companies transform their engineering operations for growth, scale, and excellence. This work is in my wheelhouse. It’s challenging and fun, though consuming. It deviates from my mission of helping as many WordPress developers that I can.

3. Core.

Working in Core has given me an opportunity to help WordPress (developers, community, and users) on a larger scale. This work aligns well to my mission. I’m beyond thrilled to be here. I’m hooked on being in Core. I’m excited to see where this journey leads.

In your website you include your Manifesto, “A collection of my values and beliefs in how I see and interact with the world as a leader, professional, and human.” to which I fully adhere. What were your motivations for writing it? 

To inspire.

To open minds and hearts.

In this profession, we work with code and technology. 1s and 0s. These are machines, not humans. Throughout my career, I worked to bring humanity into tech. Putting people at the center of all we do. People create code and technologies.

I wrote the manifesto to remind us that we are human beings. We are flawed, complicated, funny, smart, and challenging. We need to learn, grow, and help one another. When we get over ourselves and come together, we can achieve the impossible and soar to new heights.

It seeks to bridge between the excellence of what we produce with the empowerment and continuous development of our people that make it happen with the integrity and kindness of humanity in our businesses and community.

WordPress is open source with a large community available to help you with any problems you may encounter. There are also lots of tutorials and courses to learn. Still, if you want to become a WordPress developer, it’s not so easy to know how to start and how to continue. Why Know The Code makes the difference over any other published material, both for beginners and experts (with the resources available, one quickly becomes a big fan)!

Know the Code is different because I’m teaching software engineering in an adaptable way. How? By teaching and showing not only the “how to do” something, but “why” and “when”. 

More concretely, I show why code works the way it does, what’s happening under the hood (in the internals of the language and computer) and how you can bend it to do what you need it to do. We go deeper beyond the surface of a tutorial and deep into the software itself.

What makes this different is that you are learning the concepts of code rather than just snippets of code. 

Why is this important? 

Typically tutorials and courses teach you how to do this specific thing in this specific context for this specific tech stack. But what happens when you try to apply that to your next project? You struggle to adapt it to a different set of criteria, context, and stack. 

We need the bigger picture of “why” in order to combine and adapt all the different pieces together in different combinations. 

Make learning adaptable.

Currently, you are involved in the quite newly created Triage Team of the WordPress Core Team and, in particular, you are leading the launch of WordPress 5.6 Triage. Could you tell us what are the tasks of this team and what it has meant to have this role on the team.

WordPress uses Trac to centralize the collection and management of the community’s ideas (proposals, features, enhancements, and tasks) and issues (defect bugs) for core. Each ticket holds its: 

  • collective discussion, opinions, research, context, testing, strategies, alternative approaches, and decisions
  • increments of work, including the mocks, designs, screenshots, patches, and testing results
  • history of the merged code, i.e. the code of this ticket that was merged into core’s source code as a changeset

There are over 6,700 tickets in Trac. Wow. Think of the magnitude of all of those ideas, issues, and work. Mind blogging. Right? 

Our team is focused on acting upon and moving each ticket towards resolution. Jonathan Desrosiers summarizes:

Effective triaging is moving a ticket one step closer to a resolution every time the ticket is touched.

How does the role of Release Triage Lead fit into the overall triage project itself?

This role is narrowly focused on the tickets in the release milestone, whereas the Core Triage Team is broadly focused on all tickets and the process of triage. The scope is very different.

What does the Release Triage Lead do? 

Think about a release. During the entire release cycle, new changes are incrementally being merged into core’s source (code, assets, comments, tooling, etc). Each change is captured in a ticket. It’s the collection of all of these changes that we ship. 

The primary job of the Release Triage Lead is to manage the milestone’s tickets (i.e. increments of work) to get as many as we can to resolution during the release cycle. Some of the ways we do this includes:

  • Grooming each ticket to ensure it’s ready to be acted upon at each step in the process, e.g. keeping the keywords up-to-date to reflect its true state and next step, adding related or duplicate tickets, closing linked pull requests, etc.
  • Coordinating with the right people and teams who can make decisions on prioritization, capacity, and progression to the next step
  • Collaborating with maintainers to keep focus on scoped and prioritized tickets
  • Escalating tickets
  • Punting work that cannot be completed in the release cycle

Wow, thanks Tonya, for the detailed explanation… but, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be spared our most-acclaimed question: sharing an epic fail of your past ? So please confess: where and how did you screw up?

My most epic fail was when I pressed a key on the keyboard and the factory stopped. One moment you heard the noise and rhythm of the machines. The next, quiet followed by yelling. Millions of dollars lost. Epic fail.

But there’s a bright spot from my epic fail. The Texas Instruments product engineers also learned a lesson which resulted in the next version of their factory software: keystrokes changed and “Are you sure?” became a thing.

Sure! ? ?‍♀️ OMG!, well…and finally, Tonya, who else should we interview? Tell us what 3 WProfessionals you would like to see in the next interviews and why.

Sergey Biryukov, Jonathan Desrosiers, and David Baumwald: these 3 pros are my core mentors. I stand on their shoulders. Their contributions to core and community are prolific.

Thank you very much for your time and teachings, Tonya. It was the most impressive interview I have ever done and I have no doubt that your incredible story is a great dose of strength to better face the year 2021 that is coming. I wish you the best of luck in the world and hope to meet you in person very soon!

3 responses to “Tonya Mork – WProfessional Of The Month”

  1. Ahmed Saeed Avatar
    Ahmed Saeed

    Tonya is one of our life’s miracles, I’m one of her students and I can say that Tonya is genius and knows what to do, why and when?
    I’m very sure that GOD loves you if one day you got a chance working with Tonya.
    Thanks Tonya for everything!

    1. Tonya Avatar

      Aw thank you Ahmed. Very kind of you. I’m thankful our paths crossed!

  2. Caspar Avatar

    Thank you for sharing these incredible three chapters from your life, Tonya. Your story makes me want to do better creating a purpose in mine.

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