I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kevin Leary, a multi-tasking WordPress developer and all-round nice guy.
Read our interview below, where we talk about Kevin’s history with WordPress; his interest in writing; and his tips, tricks, and thoughts on the future.
How did you get into WordPress?
It was probably 2006 or so when I was working for a web design agency up in Vermont. I was helping them migrate from one CMS to another, and both systems were proprietary. It was a mess of table-based layouts. Nothing was consistent or separated, in terms of design or presentation.
So we ended up looking around for open source solutions. I looked at a few things. I think I looked at Drupal and Joomla!, but when I saw WordPress I just fell in love with it.
The theming engine was incredible. The stylesheets—the clean separation of all the presentational logic inside the stylesheets, versus the table-based layouts that were popular at the time—was incredible.
So I started tinkering with it and eventually we ended up using it at this company. That lit the fire.
Tell me about what you are currently working on?
RapidMiner brought me on to ramp up their WooCommerce based site. I’m helping them build a software as a service funnel, where people will be able to sign up, buy licences for their software, pay by subscription, and manage all of their billing. That takes up most of my day.
At night and on weekends I do freelance work and I’ve done that for about six or seven years. I work with clients to help them build more custom themes and plugins for WordPress.
For other clients, I do a lot of custom themes based on Underscores (my favorite theme) or Roots. Sometimes I even do plugin work for specific API functionality and things like that.
You’ve written for Smashing Mag, guest posted for Treehouse, and written for a few other publications. What motivates you to write and what do you enjoy writing about?
My original motivation for writing was to log the things I do, because I use them so much. But then as people started to comment, I decided to branch out and write elsewhere.
Writing helps me become a better communicator. I could be the greatest developer in the whole world, but if I couldn’t explain what I’ve built to a client, it wouldn’t really mean much. I think that the more the more I write, especially for publications where you have to write well, the better I get in general at email communication and project management communication.
Do you enjoy tapping into the WordPress community?
Yeah definitely, I like to share things and talk to other devs on Twitter.
I also like to publish plugins, I have four up there now. One of the more popular ones is the Responsive Video Embed plugin. Basically, when you activate it it will adapt any of your videos—Vimeo, YouTube—to be automatically responsive.
Any code that I’ve built for a client or on my own, I like to turn into a plugin. I started by writing these code samples on my blog, then branched out to tutorials on other sites. I then started contributing on Stack Overflow and WP Stack Exchange, and to publish things to GitHub.
I like to share the work that I do, if I think it’s useful for other people to have.
Do you think that’s just your personality or is that because of the open source nature of WordPress?
I think it’s both in a way.
I feel like I’ve been given this amazing opportunity to work with a tool that I didn’t pay for. You almost feel obligated—with the work that you do—to publish it for other people to use. This is because you’re using so much of other people’s work. It just makes sense.
The GPL, open source mentality certainly drives part of it. But the other part of it is that it’s just something that I enjoy doing.
What performance tips would you give to other WordPress Developers out there?
I’d say the biggest one is to understand the code that powers your website. I’ve seen a lot of circumstances where people don’t fully understand what queries are going on, what data is being queried, what items are autoloaded in the options table. And something breaks, or causes a performance issue, and they’re not able to go in and diagnose it.
Sometimes that happens because we have the ability to use these free plugins, but it’s really important to know what the plugin is doing so that you can understand what the repercussions are for using a certain plugin in a certain situation.
If you were going to spend a weekend building a new plugin, what would it be?
I have a support ticketing system that I use for clients. It’s similar to Zendesk but built with WordPress. But in order to use it right now, you have to go to this address, login and then post your tickets that way.
If I had time—and maybe it would take longer than a weekend—I would like to just integrate that with WordPress. So that each of my clients could just install a plugin. And then from any given page, using a help tag, they could submit tickets for issues specific to that page. I also might create an Admin Bar on the front-end, so that I could know their User Agent, what page they were on, all sorts of interesting things. It would be easier for them to just submit it right from their site.
What WordPress consultants deserve more love than they get?
People who do migration work. It’s sometimes very gruelling and very hard to do. But I think because they do that, so many people come onto the WordPress platform.
There are some nasty, nasty data structures out there for old systems that are just not conducive to migration because they don’t want them to be.
Migrations might not be the most sexy thing to do with WordPress—if you’re a migration specialist you don’t usually have a portfolio of cool-looking sites to show off—but it’s important, it’s really hard to do, and migration consultants work really hard.
What’s your biggest moment of WordPress fail?
Right around the time I started, a long time ago, there was a plugin that was really great and allowed you to do a lot with content management. But I got a little too heavily invested in it. When the author disappeared, I dug into how the data was being stored, and it was kind of a mess.
So it ended up in some difficult nights where I had to write SQL commands to help people migrate all of this data into a more standard format to use with WordPress.
And I learned that, firstly you need to understand how all your plugins are storing data, and especially plugins that store large amounts of it. You need to be wary of how they are configured. Secondly, just be cautious about relying too much on a single plugin.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for WordPress consultants in 2014?
I think there’s an uptick in services that could potentially compete with theme developers. There are not just specifically more powerful themes, but more powerful services to build out websites using things like Bootstrap and other tools.
That might chip into some of the work that a lot of people do. For example—building small business websites—over time it will be easier for people to do this themselves.
There may be less opportunity out there for people that do smaller sites. Or even potentially larger out-of-the-box sites.
And do you have any advice for consultants in that situation?
Know when to focus on carving out a niche. There are always going to be people that need a certain problem solved. And those one-size-fits-all services won’t really do it for them. If you can specialize in something, there will always be a market for you.
Also, just be able to quickly adapt. If a service that comes out that provides something for that niche that you specialize in, be able to find yourself a new niche.
Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?
I think WordPress will probably be more API based. There are APIs throughout the setup right now, but I believe a restful API is coming. If you could send and receive information to WordPress as a backend—and then build services on top of it—that would be very exciting.
When that does come out, the restful API will lead to all sorts of really cool things with WordPress. Maybe it will be mobile apps, maybe it will be third-party services that are completely backed by WordPress just on a service based level, it might be more applications built with WordPress.
I think that’s very exciting.