Pantheon Hero Spotlight: Birgit Pauli-Haack, Gutenberg Crusader

McKenna Regets , Manager of Community Program, Pantheon September 25, 2019 Reading estimate: 8 minutes

As we all know, the WordPress Block Editor is code named “Gutenberg” to honor one of the heroes of the modern world: “Short Circuit” and “Three Men and a Baby” star Steve Guttenberg.

Just kidding. It’s named for Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the mechanical printing press. 

The name fits: Just as Johannes’ invention helped democratize the written word, making knowledge more accessible, WordPress is helping democratize content on the web.

“As soon as I saw Gutenberg, I saw—in my imagination of course—eyes lighting up from seeing the possibilities of their creative work,” says Birgit Pauli-Haack

Birgit is known in the WordPress community as a champion and promoter of the project. Chances are if you’ve read or heard anything about Gutenberg, Birgit has been involved. 

Birgit is the curator of the Gutenberg Times, the go-to source for all things Gutenberg, including live Q&As with key players and innovators. Recently she launched the Gutenberg Changelog Podcast, which provides the rundown on new features, community voices, and designs using the new block editor.

Given Birgit’s contributions to the Gutenberg project and the WordPress community at large, she was a natural fit for our Pantheon Heroes Program. Read on for highlights from our recent interview that covers Birgit’s tech background, her history with WordPress and her involvement with Gutenberg.

Q: What’s keeping you busy these days? 

My job right now is being the first contact and follow-up contact and project manager for WordPress clients. Most of them are multi-year customers, so they’ve known me for a long time. 

I’m also curating all Gutenberg news on the Gutenberg Times. And, I’ve started doing live Q&As on the YouTube channel with members from the Gutenberg team, freelancers, people that work with freelancers, and people that work on the design team.

We also just started a new podcast called the Gutenberg Changelog because everybody has a hard time keeping up with Gutenberg. Mark Uraine, a design team member, and I do a bi-weekly podcast, about 30 minutes long, to answer: what are listener questions? What are the announcements? What was released and what is still in discussion? 

And the last part—what’s still in discussion—is to get more people involved in the design process so they are not always so surprised when, “Oh, nobody told me that you’re working on this kind of thing.” 

Q: What excites you most about Gutenberg?

What excites me? Two things. One is that it’s so easy now for content creators to put their pages and posts together with different media, with different layouts, with different blocks and see what it will look like on the front-end, right in the editor. That’s part of the ultimate dream I had since I started writing HTML. And that was in 1996. So we are finally here, 23 years later.

That’s really exciting. Especially because there’s so much creative energy now in the space. With all the plugins that are now available with Gutenberg, developers have created all these additional places or methods to add content to a form. It opens up the range quite a bit. That was not possible before with any of the classic editors. And so that is one part of it.

The other part is that—with Gutenberg being built in React, using modern JavaScript and being based on the REST API —it brings a new set of developers into the space, a new generation to refresh our WordPress community. That is really exciting for me because we cannot go stale.

Q: And what was your motivation to start Gutenberg Times?

It was out of necessity. When Gutenberg was introduced in Europe two years ago, I started using Storify as a curation tool where you can put tweets and images and blog posts all on one page. And people asked me if I would do a newsletter or something so they get it in their inbox. But then Adobe announced that they were discontinuing Storify. So, I needed another place where I could put all my updates.

There were quite a few curation tools out there that actually offered migration from Storify but I said, “Well, fool me once, shame on you, but you won’t fool me again. I’m gonna put it on a website that I control, and use Gutenberg for it.”

So in January, I started the Gutenberg Times, and was able to put a newsletter together with the information that I collected. Pantheon was very supportive in the community project and the site in terms of some monetary startup sponsorship. I’m very grateful for that.

Q: Now, you were born in Germany, is that right? What brought you to the U.S.?

I did, I grew up in Germany, went to school in Bonn, and then college in Munich. 

I came to the U.S. with my husband. He has been working for a German hotel software company and they were bought out by an American company. 

A couple of years later, they said, “Okay, we’re building a headquarters in the United States. We are closing all the administrative offices in Germany.” So about 17 families came over from Munich to Naples, and half of them are still here, 21 years later.

Q: Are you still close with those families? 

Some of them have become good friends over those decades. Some good friends went back after two or four years. And we made a lot of new friends. 

Q: Was it a difficult transition? 

The first four years I wasn’t allowed to earn any money because I didn’t have a work visa. Once we got the green cards, I was able to open up my business. By that time, I had started programming to help a local nonprofit on the tech team. It was an Internet service provider and I helped the nonprofits bring their information online. I wrote some really cool stuff in ColdFusion.

Q: How did you begin working with WordPress?

So, that local Internet service provider I volunteered for? Well, I became the president. The company website needed a whole revitalization. It had an outdated CMS system that needed to be upgraded. And I said, “I know why. We need a new tool.”

Being in the position that I actually could make the decision, I looked at probably about 20 content management systems, thinking in terms of,  “How can a crew of techy volunteers manage that? Is there information out there that the non-profit, accidental techies, so to speak, can look up some of the stuff themselves?”

That was one of the things really speaking for WordPress: it’s a huge community and everybody is sharing their knowledge. Everybody learns together and shares. And the hosting was pretty fast. And the five-minute install was pretty early for WordPress. So that was really cool.

We decided, okay, let’s do WordPress. We did run some transition workshops with all those nonprofits, and we migrated everybody to WordPress. And they learned, because they picked up their content and put it in new. 

The content creators, the communicators, the president, the membership chair, all found themselves empowered. They could put their articles up there on the blog, and when they had an event, they could plug in the information and manage it all themselves. They didn’t need any techies beyond a hosting company and somebody to help them renew their domain. That’s what our nonprofit was about.

It was really a sight to see when they said, "Oh, I can do this, I can do that." 

Q:  Could you tell me more about the Florida WordPress community? 

Of course, it’s all special. It’s in Florida. There’s year-round great weather, especially in winter! I’m located on the West Coast of Florida and all WordCamps are two hours away. There is a smaller group in Fort Myers and, in 2014, the current organizer said, “I don’t want to do it anymore. Is there somebody else who wants to kind of step in?”

And I said, "Well, let me try it." 

Since then I have been a co-organizer on the meetup here. We actually have four meetups every month, two evening meetings and bi-weekly coffee chat meetings at a coffee shop in Fort Myers. It’s an active but very small group. We like the WordCamps in Miami and in Orlando. 

And there are also very active, very prominent WordPress people in Sarasota and St. Petersburg. And, we have good contact with them. 

Q: What made you want to be a Pantheon Hero?

Well you are heroes in my life, so I wanted to return the favor. With the transition to Gutenberg, it is very important that people test their own sites. I found that the migration tool and the free development space Pantheon offers is perfect for that kind of testing.

We have, on the Gutenberg Times, a very detailed description on how to do this. So a site owner who is not technically savvy can actually do it. And it has helped a lot of people. 

I want to dive into DevOps much, much more. I hope I have a good project that I can do that with, with Pantheon. Especially in the nonprofit realm, where I mostly scout for projects.

Q: Do you have a dream project or some type of clients that you’re always looking to work for?

The nonprofit space is definitely one that I favor, especially the arts because it’s so visual and you can really do a lot. And some of the projects that, if they want to do something different online with their team, I go a little bit more in the operations and make sure their operation is more unified and efficient. Those are the kind of projects that I really like to do.

Some of the projects from nonprofits are just one-offs. There is no one-year, two-year, three-year plan to migrate things. So the Holy Grail would be an app that does events planning, donor management, supporter management, volunteer management, plus membership sites, all in one. 

The software exists and I’m looking for nonprofits that want to migrate their 25 Excel spreadsheets into one unified data system where they can control their own data, and then integrate it seamlessly with their website. So the technology I have figured out. I just need to find those projects that are not just season-to-season. 

I also really enjoy working with publishers that have a lot of content—like 20, 30, 40, 50 articles a day—and to really help them with their content management. 

Q: Now for the most important question. Do you have a favorite superhero?

Well, I like those who don’t think they are heroes—those that do all their magic in the dark, so to speak. I want to make the day 40 hours instead of 24 hours. There is this old joke, right, that the day has 24 hours, and if it’s not enough, we take the night.

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