Finely Tuned Consultant: Dalton Rooney

Dalton Rooney

Dalton Rooney is our Featured, Finely Tuned Consultant this week.  He and I got connected over the new version of his paid Portfolio Slideshow plugin.  I loved the plugin so we decided Dalton would be a great consultant to feature on the blog.  Dalton is one part of the Brooklyn brand development and design firm, Made by Raygun. He’s been building WordPress sites for notable organizations like StoryCorps more than a decade.

In Dalton’s Own Words

I’m completely self-taught, but I try to follow best practices as far as loading scripts and following the WP APIs as much as possible…

Now, onto the questions!

When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?

I’ve been using WordPress since the early days (I think 0.7.2 was the first version I installed) and began using it at work almost right away. One of the first interesting things I did with WordPress was to build an IT helpdesk app that automatically created and organized tickets from incoming email. Years later, I see a lot of interesting “WordPress as app” systems being created, it’s incredible how flexible WordPress has become.

I started working at a rapidly growing non-profit called StoryCorps in 2006. We looked at some proprietary CMS solutions before realizing that we didn’t have the budget for the website we needed. This was in the days before WordPress was commonly used as a CMS, but I spent a lot of late nights and weekend and was eventually able to move everything over to a custom WordPress site. That site ended up in the wordpress.org showcase as an early example of WordPress used as a CMS, and I was interviewed by IT World about it.

I started Raygun, a web design and development agency, in 2011 with my business partner Stacey Edelstein. We went full-time in the fall and have been at it for about 9 months now. We build custom sites and recommend WordPress for many of our clients, and also sell premium plugins and themes.

Where do you go first to get your WP news, insights, and updates?

I follow quite a few blogs: Monday by Noon, ThemeShaper, Perishable Press, etc. Also WP Candy and WPTuts+ from time to time. But I tend to discover an awful lot just from digging around Github and seeing what other plugin and theme authors are coming up with. A lot of those links tend to filter up through Twitter and Pinboard, too.

What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?

There are some superstar plugin and theme developers out there whose work I really admire. Scribu would have to be at the top of my list. Jonathan Chistopher from Monday by Noon shares so much good work. I have also been following Terry Sutton’s work a bit, he’s written some good articles on his site

What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?

One thing I learned early on is to look closely at the plugins you’re installing, know how they work, and what kind of resources they require. Some plugins are incredibly inefficient, they perform dozens of queries on your database to return a bit of information that could just as easily be hard coded into the template.

I also look for plugins that are in active development from authors who responds to support requests. I don’t mind paying for something if I need to. If I’m building a site for a client and a $10 plugin is going to save me a hour or more of work, that’s definitely worth it.

As far as backups go, I learned long ago that backups need to be completely automated, or the client won’t do them, and they need to be verified on a regular basis. I’ve had clients hesitate at the extra expense when I’ve suggested a third-party backup solution, but in general I haven’t found host-provided backup solutions to be very reliable.

That’s changed since I’ve been moving my clients over to WP Engine, which does include a solid backup system as part of the service. For those who are still on more typical Linux hosts, I really like MyRepono. It’s pretty much foolproof and very affordable.

Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?

Well speaking of backups, I used to be a bit more cavalier with editing code on a live site, thinking that my backups were solid. Of course when I screwed something up and tried to restore from the most recent backup, that’s when I realized that tables were missing or the SQL file was incompatible.

This is another way that WP Engine blows my mind. With the ability to create an instant staging area whenever I need it, I will never, ever make the mistake of making significant changes to a live site without testing it first.

If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?

Well, that’s what I do that pretty much every weekend! One of the things I think still needs a lot of work in WordPress is media management, and we’ve been putting little bits and pieces into our plugins to improve the experience. If I were king for a day I would probably want to focus on improving some of the core media tools and workflows.

Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?

I start from a very clean base theme for every site I build. For a long time it was Sandbox, then Toolbox, and now _s. I have a customized version of _s that helps me get started on new projects very quickly.

What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?

I’ve tried to get into theme frameworks in the past and never gotten very far. I played around with Hybrid and Thematic, I think I just prefer to work with my own tools rather than try to force my workflow to fit into someone else’s idea of how things should be done. An extremely stripped down theme and my collection of commonly used code snippets is where I like to start.

Favorite plugin?

I use Advanced Custom Fields on just about every site I build now. It adds so much power and flexibility to WordPress, it’s really incredible. It’s also hard to imagine building a site without Gravity Forms, and I use our own Portfolio Slideshow Pro for most projects I work on.

Least favorite plugin?

The one that loads it’s own, outdated copy of jQuery in the header instead of using wp_enqueue()!

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?

I recently built a back-office contact and event management system with WordPress that is a pretty unique example of what you can do with CPTs. I used Advanced Custom Fields and Scribu’s Posts2Posts along with some heavy admin UI customization. I think this kind of application development with WordPress stretches the limits of what people think about when they think of WordPress—in the past this might have been a completely custom project or built with something like Drupal. In this case I think using WordPress allowed me to build a system that is easy to use and get it up and running pretty quickly.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that WP consultants will face in 2012?

I still meet prospective clients all the time who think “blog” and “template” when they hear the word WordPress. Education is a big part of what we do, and I think that will continue to be the case well into the future. I personally believe that, while it’s not the perfect fit for every project, WordPress is powerful and flexible enough for most websites, and it is, in my experience, one of the easiest CMSes for clients to learn.

There are some clients for whom a full-blown CMS just isn’t the right choice, of course. For omeone who doesn’t want to worry about the technical issues that come with running your own site, maybe a simpler template-driven site or a hosted CMS is a better fit.

If you could change one thing today about WP, what would it be?

As I mentioned before, I think media management in WordPress still has a ways to go. A lot of our plugins tie in very closely to the way attachments are used in WordPress, and I often hear complaints that the built-in tools can be unintuitive and hard to use. I think some of the workflows could be re-imagined, and maybe some lower-level features, like attachment taxonomies and attachments with multiple parents should be considered.

Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?

I would love to see WordPress continue to grow the way it has been growing. I think the community is the most important factor in keeping the project vital, from active support communities like the WordPress StackExchange and the WP forums, and continuously updated and improved software and documentation.

I’ve been really happy to see the premium theme, plugin, and services market growing for WordPress. While I have benefitted from countless free plugins and released a few of my own, I’ve also spent days trying to get support for a free plugin that has become out of date. Being able to pay for something like Gravity Forms, which is just so powerful and well-supported, allows me to offer more to my clients knowing that someone’s got my back if I get in over my head.

The sheer growth of the platform means that there is a good opportunity for software developers and service providers to offer a premium quality product and to charge a fair price for it.

Tell us a story where you saved the WP day for yourself or on a client project. What made the difference for you?

I recently worked with an architect who had maintained his own website in Dreamweaver for years. I remember when I sat down with him for the first time to show him what WordPress could do, and showed him how easy it was to add new pages, or add images to a slideshow, without tables or inline styles or FTP uploads, and it was a really good feeling. I could have built the same site with any number of tools, but I feel that WordPress, combined with a well-crafted template, makes it easy for clients to feel empowered and take ownership of a site without needing to understand much code.

What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?

The idea that WordPress is just for blogs is a common one. At that point I find a demonstration of some of the sites in our portfolio helps, just to show that you can build any kind of site with WordPress. It’s really only limited by the talent and imagination of the team building the site.

WordPress had some security problems a few years ago that still seem to worry some people. I think WordPress has grown into a remarkably stable and mature product, and when there are security issues they are acknowledged and fixed quickly. That’s always been the benefit of the open source vs. closed source world for me, with so many eyes on a project and the source code available for everyone to see, things tend to be handled pretty well and out in the open.

If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?

First things first, I always look at Github for any projects the developer has started or contributed to. I also ask a lot of the same questions you’ve asked here – what kind of tools do you use to do your job, what are some examples of projects you’re most proud of? Above all else, I think it’s important to get a sense work-style and communication—you could be the best developer in the world but if we can’t work together then obviously that doesn’t help me or my clients.

What did I miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!

I’m really happy to participate in such a vibrant and growing community of developers and users. I’ve been developing with WordPress for a living for more than 6 years, but this last year I went out on a limb and actually started my own full-time consulting and development business. I’m sure I could be doing the same thing with other tools, but WordPress is such a pleasure to use and provides an amazing framework for building sites. I’d love to see the community continue to grow and hopefully my business will grow with it.

Thanks Dalton!
You guys should check out Dalton’s awesome work at madebyraygun.com.  They do amazing branding and digital work for small businesses and non-profits.   

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