Nick DavisToday I’m hanging out with Nick Davis, the man of mystery “somewhere in Italy” behind eSanctuary, the design and development firm that also has an awesome set of video tutorials for WordPress. Nick has created an unofficial (but quality) set of tutorials and how-to’s for WordPress, AND for WP Engine’s User Portal and developer tools that I like to send people to.

Nick got his start as a BBC reporter, and moved his way into managing online publishing teams before harnessing the power of WordPress and become a publisher himself. He has a self-styled life running his online businesses, servicing his clients, and living the dream in Italy. Seems like WordPress democratized his geography choices as well.

In Nick’s Own Words:

I like teaching people to use WordPress to do cool stuff they didn’t know how to do – or thought wasn’t possible before – though my company eSanctuary. Previously I worked as a journalist at places like the BBC in London and also lived in the Middle East running a large online team for a major publishing company.

Now, Onto Nicks 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?

I was aware of it before but I really got into WordPress in late 2010. I was just putting out a book (about iOS apps) and wanted to do a simple website to promote it, I was really busy so I just did a basic sketch of how I wanted it to look in Photoshop and got someone on Elance to make a basic HTML site for a few dollars.

I quickly realised though that I needed to do much more to promote the book and decided to add a blog and some other features (like a password protected area) which WordPress – as I understood it – was ideal for. So I redid the site but this time though I decided to do everything myself coding a whole theme from scratch. I didn’t even use a template or a framework (the idea / knowledge that I could just buy a premium theme for a few $$$ and just adapt / learn from it never occurred to me!).

Even though I didn’t have any formal training I found myself really enjoying the process and it was like an – a-ha – moment for me. The biggest realisation though was the possibilities that I could see for using WordPress on all kinds of other projects and how easy it was to use compared to the last 10+ years of CMS hell I had pretty much endured up to that point.

It was particularly timely for me as well because in my previous job I had just finished delivering a project on a ‘name’ commercial CMS for a large news website. That CMS was expensive, slow and painful to implement. We had a huge team of people and consultants and here I was now just doing the whole thing myself in a few hours but best of all with admin screens that I knew any non-techy user of the CMS would actually understand and appreciate.

Although in the end I sold a few copies of the book, the real value of that project ended up being not writing the book or any small money I made from it, but my ‘happy accident’ of using WordPress for the project.

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

Twitter mainly. I actually try not to follow absolutely everything these days because I’d rather be really focussed on just a few things and I could easily get sucked down a hundred different rabbit holes. If I see something interesting I tend not to read it straight way and just file it away using Pocket and/or Evernote.

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

There are so many good people I feel like I’m sh*tting on anyone I don’t mention here but Bill Erickson and Brian Gardner are great guys and people I look up to and have learned a lot from. Those guys are the Dons, I am just a learner. (I also have to thank Chris Lauzon for always being amazingly helpful).

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

You know I bought the URL (currently unused) because I went through a phase of just focusing purely on speed and was thinking of doing some kind of product/training around it. I’ve chilled out slightly since then (sometimes you really do need a feature that might slow your site down slightly) but generally regarding speed, scalability, security, backups etc I would say ‘let the real pros handle it’. For me, with WordPress, that means going with you guys (that now sounds really bad because you guys are doing the interview but having tried to do most of these things myself I can say it is 100% true for me…).

Bottom line: Understand the principles, fine, but I don’t think you need to master all of this stuff yourself. You’re much better off being focussed on a few things than trying to be the expert at everything.

Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?

Hmmm so many… The early stuff is the best though, like not realising what Widget / Widget Areas were or did when I did my very first theme for my book website that I mentioned and hard coding everything in the template files instead (and then re-coding it all whenever I wanted to move something…).

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

When I was going through my ‘speed is all that matters’ phase, I did a really lightweight (as in page load speed / not calling loads of scripts) social sharing bit of functionality on the previous design of my blog as I couldn’t find anything in the repository that was as ‘light’. I often thought that would make a really good plugin so I’d probably resurrect that.

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

Yup. I like Bill Erickson’s base child theme for Genesis and it’s generally the first thing I reach for when starting a new project.

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

Genesis because I love their obsession with making it better / leaner and the community around it. Though I’m not ‘one-eyed’ about it. Other theme frameworks and businesses definitely have their place.

Favorite plugin?

Probably Gravity Forms (plus all the add-ons that came with the full edition, if I’m allowed to count that as one) because there is so much you can do with it and it’s great for clients who can achieve a lot of great things without coding.

Least favorite plugin?

Anything that throws in loads of random CSS and styling for no reason.

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

I’ve since learned that maybe doing Custom Post Types for everything is not necessary (I just wanted to use them to start with) but I did a whole shopping mall info website for malls in Dubai (there are a lot) using Custom Post Types for shops, restaurants, films in each of the cinemas etc. I don’t know if that’s cool but I was really proud of it at the time as I had only been ‘properly’ coding WordPress sites for a couple of months really.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that WordPress consultants will face in 2013?

Making as much money as all the app developers I know! In all seriousness though I think the money is important and maybe not talked about enough and that is always perhaps the biggest challenge, whatever the year.

I say this not out of greed but as a win/win. If you’re giving your clients work that really relates to and delivers towards their business goals they’re not going to mind paying you well for it. And if you’re receiving a fair reward you’re going to be more relaxed and have the time and space to listen to them properly and solve their problems instead of thinking ‘I’ve heard this before, I already have the solution’ when maybe the very best solution is not quite the same as you did before. In a world of ‘there’s a plugin for that’ of course, that’s an even easier trap to fall into.

I say ‘challenge’ because while the above is easy to say and think you are doing, everyone including me, can easily fall into the habit – having done so many WordPress projects before – that we can think we already know the answer before the client has finished speaking a lot of the time. So for me that’s always the biggest challenge – because I’m someone that likes to jump into things once I get excited about something – and that’s just slowing down and really listening, not any of the technical things that may come along.

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

I think the guys are doing a great job but for me though I would speed up adding to the core all the stuff that can make using the admin screens as easy to use as possible. Particularly any front-end stuff like Scribu’s front-end post editor.

Beyond that, for WordPress to stay really relevant I think it has to get even better at the drag and drop stuff for things like page layout without creating loads of bloat in the code or becoming ‘twee’ in the process. I know a few people have done this but to me no-one has really nailed it yet.

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

To the stars…

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

I’m not a hero, I was just doing my job.

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

So many! The old one was that because it’s a free CMS it can’t be as good as a paid one (not that paid software always equals bad and free always equals good of course). But now it’s people that won’t invest any money at all into things like hosting or any other premium add ons for their sites if there is a clear need (and maybe sometimes there isn’t and that’s OK too).

In fact it frustrates me a lot recently when people won’t invest in decent hosting for their sites. Particularly people that have been hacked in the past and/or are getting loads of leads from their website already. I’m all for keeping costs low in a business but there’s keeping costs low and then there’s being so cheap it doesn’t make business sense…

How do I clear it up the misconception? I think the only way is to show people stuff (shout to Noah Kagan). That’s part of the reason why I put together my ‘Unofficial WP Engine Beginner’s Guide’ article – which I always view as a work in progress – but hopefully at least shows people some of the reasons why a ‘premium’ hosting service can be worth it.

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

I tend to ask them stuff not related to WordPress at all at first! That doesn’t mean I don’t care about their abilities but I’m always more interested in their personality / character first then we can get to the technical stuff.

After that my first WordPress question might just to be ask them why they love developing on WordPress. In my last job before starting my own company I managed a team of 25+ developers and designers and I learned a lot from that that hopefully stays with me.

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

I see myself as an educator more than a coder (I started out as a journalist and I still enjoy writing which I think also helps). In fact I think I can reach and benefit more people much faster through this approach. There is so much people can do themselves with WordPress.

It’s not that I’m not interested in being a good coder (I’d never put out something I wasn’t proud of), I just don’t think that’s the best or fastest way for me to help people. Just look at how much you can do with WordPress these days without any coding knowledge. Some of the stuff you can do with themes or plugins right off the shelf is mind-blowing.

I’m not anti people learning to code, but I think when you’re really close to WordPress you forget how awesome a lot of this stuff is from another perspective. It’s that whole ‘beginner’s mind’ thing. I was chatting to a friend a few days ago that just got a WordPress site made for his new business and I said to him about doing this or that in the admin screens and because he was in a rush sorting out everything else for the business launch and someone else did the whole website job for him he hadn’t even thought or asked about going into the admin screens yet.

So there’s me telling him, “do this or do that” or “grab this plugin” and he was a whole world away from being able to understand that. I just assumed he was already this far along. I think you have to ‘unassume’ all the time and when you do that you realise that with just a little knowledge you can still help a lot of people an awful lot.

Even some of the most basic plugins or themes or native features of WordPress might seem so obvious and unexciting to you now but seen from the point of view of the small business owner who’s had years of feeling like they had no real control over their own website or the big business owner who’s tired of getting ripped off for expensive websites that never do what they’re supposed to do then just that little bit of knowledge – but more importantly – showing people what they can do can be an amazing thing and really empowering.

It’s like what Derek Sivers said about ‘Obvious to you. Amazing to others.’ – I try to keep that in mind all the time and sometimes I forget but that’s OK, I just keep coming back to it and I know I’m on the right track.

Thanks Nick!