McKenna Regets , Manager of Community Program, Pantheon October 15, 2019 Reading estimate: 10 minutes
Pantheon Hero Spotlight: Rob Watson, CEO of Webidextrous.com
There are a lot of intriguing things about Rob Watson, CEO of Webidextrous.com. He’s a strident defender of WordPress page builders—you should hear him out. He could contemplate superheroes for hours—but how could anyone choose between Captain America with his strong moral center and Iron Man with his awesome tech?
Plus, he has a particular fondness for the Palm Pilot—those Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) that were all the rage in the early 90s. And guess what? It appears that this is something he shares with Matt Mullenweg—yes, that one.
Something else that Rob openly enthuses about is Pantheon for WordPress. Give him a minute, or an hour, and he’ll talk your ear off about the benefits of the platform (he shares some of his experience and expert advice in this guest blog post). Not that we mind. In fact, we think this is an excellent attribute in a Pantheon Hero.
We sat down with Rob to chat about his career path, the West Orlando WordPress Meetup, and what he’s excited about. We’re still wondering if he has any particular feelings about Blackberry devices.
When you were in middle school, what kind of job did you want?
I went back and forth between paleontologist, orthodontist (I had braces twice), and astronaut. I eventually focused on being an astronaut.
Given your career, I’m going to guess that you didn’t go to school to be an astronaut. So, what was your course of study?
As a freshman, I had a scholarship through the Rocky Mountain Space Grant Consortium at Utah State University. A focus of the program was developing experiments to fly on the shuttle. I lost that scholarship with bad grades due to my overloading myself with credits that first year.
I was happy to find out that a shuttle experiment I helped initiate—measuring hydrostatic pressures in an artificial heart in microgravity—went up on the same STS-95 flight as John Glenn during his historic return to space. My name wasn’t on it, but my heart—well, not my literal heart—was.
Wow. That’s extraordinary. So how did you make your way to web programming?
After a 2-year service hiatus to Guatemala, I transferred to a business college at Southern Utah University. I went there to study computer networking and taught myself web design and development on the side.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
First, my family. Second, the service opportunities I participate in, especially here in Florida with hurricane cleanup projects over the past three years. The third is my digital agency, Webidextrous.com, and the clients I’ve been able to serve.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Definitely flying but without having to worry about hypoxia at high altitudes or dying by going into space. I love to travel and see new things. If I could fly everywhere like Superman, that would solve so many problems for me!
How did you get involved in open source projects?
I was a web development manager at a major publishing corporation, and some executives were looking for a way to begin blogging—but in a way that didn’t require tons of IT support.
I looked into both WordPress and Drupal. WordPress was more mature from a non-technical usability standpoint. So I implemented the company’s first WordPress sites, and it grew from there.
After leaving that company, I continued to build WordPress sites for clients as a freelancer and now as an agency owner.
What do you like about the open source community?
Free software! But, more seriously, open source is where innovation really flourishes. I was recently reading an article about how Unix was created. It was just a few guys at Bell Labs scrounging parts to build a computer that didn’t rely on time-sharing or punch cards.
They didn’t know they were changing the world. They just wanted to try new things and happened to work in an environment where risk-taking and experimentation weren’t frowned upon. They solved a problem that needed solving and didn’t have to ask permission or forgiveness.
What sort of innovation do you think we’ll see in the next five years?
I think there’s going to be a ton more automation going on so that professionals and site owners can focus on content and business goals. I don’t see the traditional model of hosting being sustainable for very much longer. It will evolve into a utility, like electricity, where you flip a switch. That’s how it should be, anyway.
Looking even further out, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that machine learning will deliver highly-optimized web experiences that are superior to those that humans can build. In the next five years, I think AI is also going to play a huge role in writing content, which kind of scares the writers that I know, but—
I think it scares some editors.
That's true, too. I've already seen some applications of it. You know, I was reading an article not long ago about how they had AI write some content. I looked at the copy, and I'm like, "That's pretty good for first-level SEO."
Many people are concerned about AI taking over jobs. How do you respond to that?
We shouldn’t fear this automation. We should embrace it. We can then move on to solving more interesting problems than guessing how to optimize blurb copy or placing a stock photo on the left or right.
Where we will still be important is in the human-to-human interactions around building business and customer value off of those AI systems.
An AI may design what it thinks are mathematically-efficient and airtight user interactions, but ultimately human preferences will rule the day. The design and business processes will require real-world human reasoning and tweaking.
So here's a question I asked Birgit Pauli-Haack, another Pantheon hero: What's the deal with WordPress and Florida? It's a big state, but it seems there's a disproportionate amount of WordPress concentrated in Florida. There must be something good going on there.
You know, you're right. I hadn't thought about it, but I think we are becoming kind of a technology hub.
There's a really robust development community. I'm part of three different Slack channels and meetup groups that I keep track of from time to time. I recruit from those groups, as well, whenever I need a programmer for full-stack, or WordPress, or anything.
So there's a fair amount of people here who are interested in technology. I think it's just kind of a natural outgrowth of that. I also think it's partially because there are many conventions in Florida.
Can you tell me more about the WordPress Meetup you’re heading up?
We're coming up on the one year anniversary of the West Orlando WordPress Meetup. So right now we're just in a growth stage. We're steadily accumulating new members. Our focus has been on filling up the calendar with speakers and topics that are of interest to people. We've done SEO twice, and we've done accessibility twice. So, there's definitely a pattern with those two topics.
In January, we're planning to get everybody together for input. "Tell us what you want. This is your group. We want you to get value out of it. Are the presentations helpful? Should we mix in working sessions?"
How do you balance the needs of novice WordPress users with those of more experienced developers?
So far, we haven't had too much of that problem. Most is beginner-level interest, but we have brought in a few developers. So, we ask people with experience to help those who don't—to be mentors for them.
We have a Slack channel, and we're going to have a website. We're creating places where we can congregate and group ourselves into mini-communities within the overall group, and do what we can to help each other.
What are you most excited about for WordPress as a community in the next year-plus?
I'm seeing more and more people interested in using page builders and theme builders on a regular basis. The majority of people I run into who use WordPress are not coders. And, they are growing increasingly disenchanted with buying a theme, and then discovering it's not supported or doesn't do what they need it to do. So, they have to hire a developer anyway.
People like to dis[credit] page builders because they break away from the purity of code, and they add a little bit of weight to the site. So there's pushback from the general community at large: Why are we allowing page builders and theme builders to take over our industry?
But I think page and theme builders are going to be the industry. It's going to be the natural progression. Not everybody who uses WordPress is a WordPress developer or coder who can navigate around the template files and know what to do.
We have to compete with things like Squarespace and Wix. People who leave those drag-and-drop builders looking for the next best thing are coming to WordPress and expecting that kind of experience. They don’t want the old school, "Let me develop a custom theme for you, and then I'm your developer forever."
The whole promise of WordPress is self-sufficiency, it's expression, it's being able to get your message out there without having to go back to school to learn programming.
I think we're going to see a bit of a war between those two competing ideologies. But I think you can have both. You can have people who are practitioners and developers aiding those who are using the page and theme builders because those don't do everything. It's just another leg up in the evolution of WordPress.
How do you see Gutenberg fitting in?
Gutenberg is like building with Legos versus building like a coder would. I was impressed with Tessa Kriesel’s WordCamp [Orlando] session, where she talked about using ACF to build Gutenberg blocks. That was intriguing to me because you can use one plugin and build pretty much anything you need for custom place types and that kind of stuff.
I think a lot of people were like, "Oh, that's not terribly hard. There is some coding, but if it's already published on GitHub, I can grab that and do my thing with it.”
So, that's the first generation. I think we'll see second, third, and fourth-generation Gutenberg evolving to match what the page builders are doing.
How much are you using Gutenberg in your day-to-day work?
I resisted it at first. I was a Classic Editor kind of guy—I was used to it. I had a lot on my plate and wasn't ready to beta test everything against my clients' sites. I made the mistake of waiting until December when it came out, but I've caught up!
It's not terrible. It's actually really good. I like the fact that I can be more expressive in blog posts and that I don't have to worry about short codes.
Some things are not obvious. When my clients come to me and say, "Where's the plus icon? I can't find it," I have to jump in and play around with it before giving them an answer. It's just something you have to get used to.
What makes for a successful WebOps team?
I think WebOps teams are most successful when they don’t think of themselves, individually, as just one cog in a big machine. Being able to work as a somewhat cross-functional team and understand the impact of one person’s decisions on the rest of the process makes a huge difference in the quality and value of the service to the client.
Saying, “My only duty is to ensure the repository is clean,” and ignoring all the other things is not providing value to the client.
What if your perspective on a clean repository gives you ideas about how local environment setups and backups and deployments and coding, in general, can be improved? Sharing that knowledge and those innovations with other team members is so important and is the core of the open source ethos.
What's your dream web project?
Any web project where I’m successful in educating clients on the importance of validating their online business model, managing scope creep, turning in their content to us on time, and staying on schedule through launch.
If you could use a superpower to change one thing about the open source community, what would it be?
I would love having the superpower of changing the client’s perception of web design. Some clients seem to have the idea that WordPress websites are so simple that they don’t need to pay freelancers or agencies reasonable rates.
Yes, WordPress and Drupal makes things easier. But if we’re truthful, we’re in the middle of an incremental improvement process with years before it gets to be a “no-brainer.” There’s still a lot more these tools can do to make things easier.
Clients usually come to us after they’ve discovered that they’ve misjudged the complexity of their site. WordPress still requires expertise that comes from years of practice and successes and failures.
There’s a huge body of knowledge we WordPress and Drupal professionals carry in our heads. That all comes from many late nights designing, writing code, troubleshooting unruly plugins, optimizing page speed, implementing SEO, or fixing “white screens of death.”
Why did you want to be a Pantheon hero?
I couldn't live without Pantheon. The workflow with Pantheon is so natural to how most developers work, and you've productized a lot of what GitHub and other pro tools have done. I'm surprised not more people are using it.
I’m constantly telling people about Pantheon, to the point that they ask me how much Pantheon pays me or if I’m an employee. But I just believe in the product because of how much it benefits me in gained productivity, security, and site speed.
For me it's super productive just because I can spin up a site very quickly, I can push the dev, make some changes, push the task, and have codes up they can look at. It's been a huge time saver and helps me to focus on features, content, and things that are more important to the business.
So for me, being a Pantheon Hero will help me help other people get excited about Pantheon even more.
Introducing Pantheon's Technology Partner Directory
Reading estimate: 1 minutes
Pantheon Rises in Support of Open Web
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Make Your Mark on the Open Web With the Gift of Open Source
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