Today, I’m chatting with Aaron Campbell, one of the partners and CTOs (yep, Pete Mall is the other one) of Ran.ge, one of the top WordPress agencies. Aaron joined up with Pete and Sara Cannon to solve some of the tough technical problems for well-known brands and large-scale websites. Ran.ge counts PandoDaily, 500 Startups, Venture Beat and Automattic among their clients. Their reputation is doing nothing but grow.
Aaron currently lives in Phoenix with his wife and son, where he has plenty of space to be outdoors. “Snob” is a work that fits Aaron’s obsessions with coffee and beer. But if you say that to his face, he won’t mind.
In Aaron’s Own Words:
I got into WordPress just before 2.0 was released. I started working with some big online publishers and got known for being able to handle large-scale sites, and for solving really tough problems that went through a few people before they got to me. That’s how Range started.
Now, onto Aaron’s Answers!
When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?
Sometime around WordPress 2.0 I saw WordPress as a great tool, but I didn’t really get excited about it until my first contribution was put into Core. That’s when I realized that I could help make WordPress better, and that got me excited!
Where do you go first to get your WP news, insights, and updates?
Honestly I don’t use the WordPress news sites that often. I spend a lot of time in the #WordPress-dev channel on Freenode on IRC, I frequent (and subscribe to) all the make.WordPress.org sites, and I follow Trac pretty closely as well. If I’ve somehow missed something after all that, I also talk to other WordPress community members on a daily basis.
What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?
Sometimes it seems like the glory all goes to the guys that are doing the really huge stuff with WordPress. The ones working with really big name clients, etc. However, there are some people out there like Bill Erickson or Jared Atchison, that are helping small businesses get web presences on WordPress at a rate that you wouldn’t believe. Market share is a big benefit of WordPress, and these guys are making that happen.
What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?
For security, learn to use nonces and make liberal use of the esc_* functions. Also follow people like Mark Jaquith and Jon Cave. Just reading what they say will help you better understand the real-life issues you need to secure against.
For speed, look at the front end not the back. The vast majority of the time speed issues are coming from excessively large images, slow loading scripts, or too objects being loaded. Don’t assume you know what’s slow. Profile the site and use the facts.
For scalability, learn to cache properly. There are lots of different caching methods and types, and you need to know what you need and when you need it. Learn about database caching, object caching, page caching, and fragment caching. Cache as close to the user as possible and for as long as possible. Only invalidate cache when you need to.
Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?
I’ve had my fair share of fails, but usually I just learn from them and move on. It’s the ones that happen on live sites that make your heart skip a beat. If I have to list my biggest, I’d say it was the time I brought down part of the harvard.edu site by accidentally deploying part of an update that wasn’t complete. The site was only down for a couple minutes, but it’s not a mistake I’m likely to make again.
If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?
Right now, I think I’d like to build a decent plugin for creating a slide deck for presentations. All my slide decks right now are WordPress posts that use deck.js, but a plugin with a good UI for creating slides, rearranging them, etc would be really nice.
Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?
I use _s a lot now. It’s solid, clean, and bare bones. It keeps me from having to undo a lot of stuff I don’t want, and lets me start building right away.
What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?
I’m going to have to go with _s here too. The code behind it is clean and efficient, which is super important to me.
This is a tough one. There are a ton of great plugins, each doing a specific task well. For today I think I’ll have to go with Shopp. I’ve been using it a ton recently, and it’s definitely my favorite E-Commerce plugin. Jon Davis and team are great, which makes all the difference in the world.
Least favorite plugin?
I’m going to tweak this question a little because my least favorite plugins are the hundreds that flat don’t work, the hundreds that are insecure, the thousands that have sloppy code that interferes with other plugins. It’s impossible to choose one. Instead, I can answer what my least favorite plugin is that I still recommend to people and even use. That would be Jetpack. As a developer, and specifically a long-time WordPress developer, I really dislike it. It’s all the things I DON’T want in a plugin. It’s huge, it does WAY too many things, it relies on a connection to a third party for many of those things, and it’s pushy. However, even though I dislike it so much as a developer, I still recommend it in certain cases and even use it on a few of my personal sites…because it’s good. It’s got some amazing tools in it, some that you can’t find elsewhere.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?
That’s a tough one. I’ve done a lot of things with custom post types. I’ve made directories for looking up doctors, I’ve used them to ***. I suppose my favorite was actually for a site that I used to do reviews of beers. I haven’t had the time to keep up on the site, but it used Custom Post Types for both the beers and the reviews.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that WP consultants will face in 2013?
I think it’s much the same as it was in 2012. There’s an extremely low bar to calling yourself a “WordPress Consultant”. The market is flooded with people. Potential customers can have a hard time telling the difference between the good ones and the bad ones, and the bad ones can scar a customer. I can’t tell you how many people that we talk to that have already been burned by another consultant. The biggest challenge I think most of the good consultants face is separating themselves from the bad ones.
If you could change one thing today about WordPress, what would it be?
There are a ton of things I’d like to change. I think WordPress is amazing, but there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement. I’m going to cheat here a little and name two things. One as a developer and one as a user. As a developer, I really want to attack the Admin Menu. The code around that thing is scary and rigid. Not the flexible, extensible code you’d expect from WordPress. As a user, I’d like to change the dashboard. I don’t find anything there very useful. It either needs to be more useful, or it needs to go away.
Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?
I think WordPress will grow a lot, but I don’t know that I really see it “going” anywhere in the next few years. It’s already a giant in the blogging sphere, it’s being used as a CMS for a ton of sites including some very large and very interesting ones, and it’s also being used to power apps and as a back end for many non-WP front ends. It’s spread a lot in the last few years, and I think it’s more likely that the next few years will strengthen it in all these areas.
Tell us a story where you saved the WordPress day for yourself or on a client project. What made the difference for you?
My best friend had an ecommerce site on Magento. The site was EmberArts.com and the company is a socially proactive business doing amazing things for ladies in Uganda. They do a ton of good, but their Magento site was seriously inhibiting their ability to do business. James, my friend, came to visit for a couple weeks and we completely rebuilt his site using WordPress and Shopp. It’s not the biggest site, it’s not the most technically difficult, or even the flashiest, but it’s helping to do good in Africa and it felt like saving the day.
What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?
The biggest one continues to be that because WordPress is free it’s lower quality than the expensive alternatives. At this point all you have to do is start listing companies or people that use WordPress and give the client links to the sites to prove it. Listing companies like Ebay, Tech Crunch, Harvard, Sony, Nasa, CNN, NFL, MLB, or Time, will usually take care of this.
If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?
“How do you give back to WordPress?” Partly because we want to continue to make contributing back to WordPress a core tenet of our company, but also because I think that you can make someone a better programmer but it’s WAY harder to make them a better person. Contributing back is a good marker that says they’re the type of person we want.
What did I miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!
I’ve been living in Phoenix for the last nine years, which is longer than I’ve been involved in WordPress. As of the beginning of June this year, that’s all going to change. My family and I will be moving to Oklahoma. I love having a job that’s location agnostic. I bet most people I work with regularly won’t even notice a change!
You guys can roll on over to Ran.ge to learn more about Aaron’s work, and take a look at some of the companies that he and his team have done work for. See what they can do for your organization!