Today, we’re chatting with Curtis McHale, a killer WordPress dev out of British Colombia, specializing in membership and eCommerce sites. Both membership and eCommerce sites require some very careful development, particularly when it comes to caching. Curtis is the man when it comes to making sure those sites are cached and speedy.
He’s been building awesome WordPress sites since 2007, and he started his freelance business a bit more than 3 years ago. His background includes full-stack marketing, including email campaigns, SEO, analytics, and the like. He brings all of this to bear with his clients. And when not building beautiful things with WordPress, Curtis is hanging out with his wife of 10 years and his 2.5 year-old daughter. The rest of the time, he’s white-water rafting. What a baller.
In Curtis’s Own Words:
My name is Curtis McHale and I’ve been building websites on WordPress since around 2007. Most of my work entails either membership sites or eCommerce (of course building the theme and some minor custom plugins at the same time). When it comes to membership sites I often build communication tools for the site owner and users, or between site users.
Now onto Curtis’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?
Unfortunately it was at the end of my Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling. I really only had a few credits left it was stupid not to finish. I finished and moved in to the web.
My first in-house job had me move the website from something that the print designer did (and did a good job for her knowledge) to something that was modern. For that we hired an outside company and went with Drupal. Boy was Drupal a pain. At every turn we were encountering things that Drupal had a hard time with that WordPress had for free.
I had already been playing with WordPress as my main CMS but I was still really shopping around. After my experience with Drupal I stuck with what was working and that was WordPress.
Never looked back.
Where do you go first to get your WordPress news, insights, and updates?
Ask me two weeks ago and I would have talked about WPDaily but…Now I mainly watch Post Status. It’s typically a great mix of links to news worthy topics with a short commentary and awesome thought out posts from Brian. Of course I have WP Tavern in my list and I have left WPCandy in my feed since it updates from time to time.
Outside of those I watch Twitter and check out the Google+ WordPress community and the ProWordPress community on Reddit.
My final backstop is WPmail.me and there is often at least one link that I missed and find interesting.
What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?
Zack Tollman is the man when it comes to talking about caching. He doesn’t post much on his blog but when he does you better read it.
Kim Parsell and Andrea Rennik kept me in the WordPress community after a bad experience at the beginning of my WordPress career. We would not be speaking if they hadn’t found me and been their awesome selves. I can’t give either of them enough credit for where I am today.
What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?
Don’t be afraid to pay for awesome plugins. I bought Gravity Forms a long time ago and use it on all my projects. It’s so easy to use that it’s easily paid off in the fact that I have to do so little client training. If you’re just starting it’s hard to justify some big expenses like developer licences but it’s worth it. Migrate DB Pro is another plugin that is 1000% worth the cost.
Build with transients when you can. They help a bit when your site doesn’t have caching, but when you turn caching on you get a big performance boost. The ‘extra’ work in building a few in is minimal for the long term benefits you get by providing scaleable code to clients.
Finally you don’t have enough backups of whatever site you’re working on. I’ve nuked DB’s by accident, and missed commas or semicolons in code. It sucks when you have a backup, but it’s terrifying when you don’t.
Confess to us your biggest moment of WordPress fail?
Lucky for me it was a personal site that I ran with a friend. I deleted him from the site by accident and that meant that he had most of the posts (and forum comments) and they got killed. Even better we were on the phone at the time (which may explain my mistake) and I swore really loud. I’m not really a person that uses profanity so he was suitably surprised. Even better I didn’t have a great backup so it was a bunch of manual work.
So I went kayaking with him and fixed it later.
If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?
A WordPress project management plugin. I think they all suck since they’re all in the WordPress admin and it was never built to handle that. WordPress is a super powerful platform but way to many people get stuck in the WordPress admin for things that should never be there.
Hrm what did I start a few weekends back…
Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?
Most of my work is totally custom as in I build the theme then I spend 80% of the project adding custom functionality that’s simply not around.
I’ve done some work with Genesis and with Standard and with WooThemes stuff. It’s all pretty much the same once you know what you’re looking for. Standard relies on templates more and Genesis is all about hooks. That’s 6 of 1 half dozen of the other once you’ve been building for a while.
My preference is my own starting theme which started life as Starkers and is pretty simple like that. I’ve cleaned it up and made it what I like and it’s up on Github for anyone to use. Future plans are to integrate with the Theme Hook Alliance and do a rebuild from the ground up. It’s been a while since I really did a complete cleaning with my latest experience.
What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?
Hrm I guess I’d have to say Standard at this point since it powers a few of my personal sites. I’ll reference my comments above though.
Standard is greaty and meant that I could have a nice design update to my site with little work. My site had been not great for a while and I was just never finding time for it.
While Gravity Forms has been go to plugin for a while, I’m going to have to say that Migrate DB Pro is my favourite plugin. It saved me more than it cost in the first week of use.
I love it and use it at least once a day.
Least favorite plugin?
Anything with sharing in the title. They slow a site down so much and 99% of the time all those sharing buttons are just big 0’s sitting on sites showing that no one is sharing your content.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?
I’d say that’s a toss up between the appointment scheduling stuff I built and the user communication tool I built.
The appointment one allowed students to schedule calls with coaches. Coaches can take notes about the call, or about the student in general and other coaches can come back and edit/view the notes later. Lots of AJAX for the calendaring and note saving and lots of locking stuff to make sure that calls were not double booked. Oh how the heartbeat API would have made things easier but it was still in beta.
The user communication tool was for a corporate coach. It allowed users to comment on each other’s profile and ask questions, encourage, make suggestions. I know that my client found it was huge for students to interact with each other.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that WordPress consultants will face in 2014?
Not saying WordPress. We love the platform but most of our clients don’t care about it. They want a tool to get a job done. If you say this is the best tool then that’s fine. Sell the solution not the tools.
You aren’t sold a house by talking about the tools that are used. You’re sold a dream that can be your life in the house.
If you could change one thing today about WordPress, what would it be?
The WordPress admin. That thing feels so slow and it’s not very nice to use from a mobile device and styling it…ugh. I suppose I should just get in there myself and contribute but SVN (and I’m a Git person).
Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?
More apps will be built on WordPress, and some of them will even be good. I know that more and more of my work is building custom tools for clients that are running membership sites. We’re building web apps for their customers and I don’t see that changing.
Tell us a story where you saved the WP day for yourself or on a client project. What made the difference for you?
I had an ecommerce site built on Genesis and WP eCommerce. The previous developer…I just don’t know what they knew or didn’t know but they ended up with 300 301 redirects built in just to get pages pointing properly.
That site was grinding to a halt and running up server costs as WordPress redirected and a 301 kicked in then WordPress wanted to do something new then we hit a 301…
Really all that was needed was a decent understanding of the WordPress template hierarchy. I moved a few files around, added a few conditional statements to grab different templates depending on the presence of child categories and the problems were gone.
What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?
This has to be the old ‘too many plugins’ thing. I typically talk about how 1 poorly written line of code will bring a site to it’s knees and 1000 well written plugins can run just fine.
Then we talk about the fact that they are paying me for my knowledge of what’s good to run and how we can run it well. If you want to run a new plugin then just shoot me an email, I don’t charge past clients for a few minutes on email to help them find the right plugin. 99% of the time I know the answer without doing any futher work.
If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?
What do you do in your off time and why?
I would not really expect them to be talking about WordPress either. My answer to that would be about my kid and my wife and riding my bicycle. Life is about balance, no one at your funeral will be talking about how you were the first person to show off cool stuff with a new API.
They will be talking about what you did with the rest of your life. They’ll be talking about how you input in to your community and family and friends.
Way too many people get caught up in their job and don’t invest in their family and community and that’s sad.
What did I miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!
I don’t have it figured out. I may talk like that online but you only see my best face. In fact almost everyone you know online fights weekly with feeling like they don’t know what they’re doing.
I am trying to show that side a bit more so that people don’t feel like they’re the only one.
Check out Curtis’s work and his awesome whitewater rafting photos over at CurtisMcHale.ca. And next time you’re looking for a membership site or a killer eCommerce site, let him know!