McKenna Regets , Manager of Community Program, Pantheon October 8, 2019 Reading estimate: 9 minutes
Pantheon Hero Spotlight: Brian Richards, WPSessions Founder & WordPress Expert
Remember when the Internet was going to be the place that finally brought people together to share knowledge? A great equalizer, where everyone could come to learn, regardless of their physical location?
Instead, we have a great place to argue politics with your old high school friends. What happened?
Well, despite what your Twitter and Facebook feeds might look like, the idea of using the Internet for good is still alive. Brian Richards is a good example of how the Internet can truly democratize learning. His commitment to educating the open source community — while continuing his own education — is truly inspiring.
We love the idea of a conference you can attend from the comfort of your own home. So much so that we sponsored WordSesh 2019, WordSesh EMEA 2019, and invited Brian to join our Pantheon Heroes program.
We sat down with Brian to talk about WordPress, buzzword bingo, and the joys of the virtual conference.
Q: How did you get involved with WordPress?
I fell into it almost by accident. I had a roommate in college who was big into blogging and kept telling me to check out WordPress. Like, "No, thanks. I'm not interested in that. I build websites for clients, not blogs." And a short while after that, I started to notice that all of these sites that I really enjoyed frequenting said "Powered by WordPress" in the footer. They were all different. I'm like, "Oh, my gosh. WordPress powers all kinds of stuff."
So, I checked it out and quickly fell in love. First, because there were tons of plugins that existed already. So, most problems that most site owners would encounter have already been solved by somebody else. And if the problem hadn't been solved, the documentation was thorough enough and prior examples via the other plugins were plentiful enough that I as a developer could probably solve it in pretty short order. And then, I really liked, in particular, that it gave a nice interface for either clients to manage their content or, more realistically, me to quickly manage content for my clients.
Q: So you started out doing web development for clients, right? How did that lead to WPSessions?
It all started because I had encountered a problem that I'd never had to solve before. I was frustrated, in fact, that I had made it this far into my career, and like, "How do I not know how to do this?" And it was...I was trying to write some efficient database queries, and none of my coworkers knew how to help me.
I didn't know how to do it, and I'm like, "How've I been using WordPress this long and still know nothing about the database?" And so that's pretty simple. WordPress can abstract things, in a way, to where you don't have to think about it if you don't want to. And I didn't want to, so I didn't. And then I ran headfirst into this problem, and I was like, "Ah, I wish I could just pay somebody for an hour to sit down and explain this to me and answer any questions that I had."
And I thought, "Hang on, maybe I could do that." And then I did. And then I invited my coworkers and all of us would learn together. And then I thought, "Oh, maybe I could invite other people and sell tickets. And so all of us could have our questions answered and come out smarter on the other end, and the host would get their billable hour or perhaps better than their regular billable hour." And that's how WPSessions was born. I launched a landing page and within a few days I had people who were on the mailing list and I said, "Okay, there are a lot of people who are interested in this."
I reached out to a few people that I knew and asked, "Would you be willing to present on this new site in this new format?" And they all said yes. And right away, I had an audience and speakers and it was pretty amazing. And so, for the first couple of years I was running WPSessions on the sidelines. I was still working in the agency life and then once a month hosting these live sessions. And then I, eventually, set off to run it full time by myself after I was able to gain enough traction. It took four years, four of the six years before it was finally viable as a full-time career.
That’s so smart, because it’s such a universal need. I think every developer has had those moments of, “How do I not know how to solve this problem?”
Sure, because everybody has been doing self-directed learning for the entire time that they've been doing it. Even people who went to college for some part of it, the newcomers, still have these giant blind spots. Because you focus narrowly on, like, "Okay. I'm going to figure out how to do this thing. I'm going to find everything that I can that explains how to do this thing."
And then you do that thing and you move on to whatever the next thing is, and there's all of these other pieces that make the web work that we know nothing about. For example, I have no idea how to set up a server from scratch, wouldn't be able to do it. But I don't have to because there are entire teams of people, businesses behind that to solve the problem for me.
I can think of a business that helps people set up servers and takes care of the hosting stuff...
Right, Pantheon’s one of them. I say, "I want to do a site." And then I copy the Git URL and then I tell Pantheon what I need locally and I'm off and running.
Q: It seems like that’s the way web development is heading — more of these abstractions that help democratize development, developing without code. You talk to a lot of folks in the industry; is that the way you see things heading?
I've been thinking about this for a while, actually, and I think more and more, the web is going to be managed by people who don't know development at all. We've already seen this happening and platforms like WordPress and Drupal, WordPress more so, make it simple for someone who has zero coding experience to get up and running. They do have to have a lot of commitment and a lot of conviction to get their site off the ground, but they can do it without writing any code.
And then other platforms like Squarespace and Wix and Weebly and all of those lower the barrier even further and say, "Okay, come with your idea, we'll show you some templates, click a few buttons and you have a functional website." Even functional eCommerce sites. And Shopify, of course, makes that possible too, to the point where I think, going forward, the only people who will actually be writing code for the web are the people who really want to do that.
It’s similar to how computers transformed over the past 40 years, 50 years. Back then, you had to really understand electronics in order to make a computer. Going back to the very first Apple, where it was just like a hobbyist thing: Buy all the components, put it together yourself, and now you have a computer. Today most people don't even have a standalone computer, because they have their phones, which are super advanced computers in their pockets doing everything that they want to do.
So it’s been funny to see the way computing has gone on an almost cyclical path: "All right, everybody needs to have their own computers." "Nope, we're going to put it all on networks." "Oh, actually, it's cheaper to have all of this power on the desktop." "Oh, you know what? Never mind, it's better to put it back in the cloud."
I bet that web development's going to follow a similar arc and we've seen it play out in smaller scale where like, "Well, you have to write everything yourself." "Actually, there are some pretty good libraries for this." "Actually, you're better off if you take just the pieces of those libraries that you want." "You know what, never mind that. Just use this thing and it spits out all the code that you need."
Q: Imagine you could take control of that arc. Say, if you could reach five years into the future of WordPress and grab something to make happen now, what would it be?
I would love to see where Gutenberg and the customizer are five years from now. I would like to just pull that to now.
I think where things are heading we'll have a beautiful payoff, but it's going to be a very slow and painful five years to get there. What Gutenberg can do already is really cool. But what it can do in the future is going to be even better.
There are lots of weird frustrating problems with, for example, trying to have a multi-column layout in just standard Gutenberg. It’s something that has been solved by other visual layout editors in the WordPress plugin landscape. And I imagine Gutenberg will get there pretty soon.
And the talks and previews of how it's getting merged into the customizer and being used for controlling not just the content area, but all kinds of other areas of the site, are impressive. I think it's going to be awesome.
And the future that I expect is that every site can be designed visually by dragging and dropping and configuring modules on the page. Just like Squarespace, just like Weebly, just like parts of Gutenberg, and just like people have been doing with plugins like Beaver Builder and Elementor. Only faster, easier and with less frustration, as is always the goal.
If I could make the future happen now in terms of visual editing, that's what I would do.
Well said. So, tell us a little about your presentation at WordCamp US.
Well, a few years ago I created WPBingo.com. It was meant to be a fun distraction for folks at WordCamp U.S. a couple of years ago. I made a special bingo board for the keynote address, poking some gentle fun at some common things you might see and hear.
And it was a lot of fun. And when other people realized that I was doing this, a bunch of them got together and started contributing money to a large pool to whoever got the first bingo and audibly shouted, "Bingo" would get all of the money. Matt Mullenweg himself caught on and was gracious enough to include some of the phrases that he saw on the bingo board, to help people get to a bingo faster.
So it was a really fun sample project that I had created to learn Vue.js and to experiment with Tailwind CSS, which is a utility-based CSS framework, which is a concept that I really liked and wanted to see, like, how cool or obnoxious is this in practice? I'd say it's probably 70/30 cool to obnoxious.
And so, my talk at WordCamp U.S. this year is essentially explaining how and why I built that. And it's evolved a bit since then. So it's now a progressive web app so it works completely offline, can be installed to someone's home screen and then it uses the WordPress REST API to fetch fresh bingo squares. It’s a very fun learning exercise with a very fun-to-play end product.
Q: What’s on your calendar coming up? What should people look out for?
I'm very excited about the prospect of having three WordSesh events next year for each of the major regions for the Americas, for EMEA, and for APAC, and I would love to be able to offer those indefinitely every year. I would also love to have some WordSesh IRL events and organize actual physical events in different major metropolitan areas.
But I'm not a masochist and I am totally happy not going through all of the struggle of hosting a physical event and finding a venue, and finding caterers, and working with different lodging providers, and trying to get everybody to book tickets, and then book flights, and then come. So, if I never hosted a physical event again, I think that would be okay, but I would like to have it if I could.
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