At WP Engine, we’re passionate about helping our customers learn and grow. In keeping with that ethos, we proudly present “Finely Tuned Consultant,” a series of interviews with some of the brightest talents in tech, marketing, and (naturally) WordPress.
In this edition of Finely Tuned Consultant, we speak with Shawn Hooper of Ottawa Canada-based Fivesense Technologies. With his three partners, Hooper designs web-based applications along with custom API integrations and WordPress themes and plugins. Read on to hear Hooper’s “rant” on keeping theme and plugin development separate. And stick around for his thoughts on the importance of open data and online accessibility.
Give me a brief history of Fivesense Technologies.
Fivesense Technologies is a startup in Ottawa Canada. We are four partners who look to make awesome web applications. We all have computer backgrounds, whether it was in computer science or computer engineering. In the last couple of years, the focus has seemed to center upon WordPress consulting.
How did Fivesense Technologies first get started with WordPress?
To be completely honest, one client had a WordPress site that needed some changes made to it. We’re like, “Okay, cool! We’ll figure this out.” We really enjoyed working with the framework and we kind of built up our knowledge from there.
What’s your earliest memory of working with WordPress?
First time I was exposed to it, I tried using it for my personal blog. It was my first real look into any content management system. I’d done a lot of work with applications on the web that were database driven before, but never one that was truly a flexible CMS. WordPress was just so easy to get into. And since then I’ve tried others, and they really don’t compare to that ease of use, especially for normal users looking to maintain their website.
Fivesense Technologies has cultivated a reputation for leveraging different APIs to help clients achieve their goals on WordPress. Can you share a specific case with us?
We have a client that uses WordPress as an application framework. A portion of their site is a blog, but you can also log into the site and sign up for their services. In this case the services are scheduling workshops and all of the booking and the becoming a customer—the onboarding—they use a CRM called Pipedrive for that. So we’ve linked everything that happens with that user in WordPress into the Pipedrive CRM so that the sales team can track the progress of that customer through trials to sign up and getting them onboarded as a customer of that application. The whole integration between WordPress and Pipedrive was something that we built.
Looking at that same site, we integrated it with Stripe for the credit card solutions including sign-up fees and referral fees with partners that are attached to the company. When the partner’s account is charged the platform takes a percentage back. That’s all managed through Stripe. We also used Mailchimp’s API to manage email distribution lists—especially during the onboarding phase. And I’ve used Trillo’s API for sending out SMS messages from the platform. That can be really handy for verifying identity—sort of using it as a two-factor authentication kind of a thing—to sending notifications out to system administrators. So certain events take place, it sends out a quick SMS message instead of using email. It grabs your attention a little bit more.
What does it take to make a really good WordPress plugin or a really great WordPress theme?
The one thing I am here to advocate for is making sure that those stay separate. Themes and plugins, especially if you look at the commercial marketplaces, you’re seeing themes that have all sorts of functionality built into them. And although that might seem like a great out-of-the-box solution, it only causes problems down the road.
Even something as basic as buying a theme that has Google Analytics tracking code built into it might seem great. But then all of a sudden, you want to go change themes and if you don’t pay attention, you no longer have analytics because your new theme didn’t have that. If it was a plugin, you can change your theme as much as you want and you still have the same functionality.
That’s my rant on separation of responsibilities between plugins and themes.
Alright, got it! We’ll keep them separate. But what should I be thinking about in the development process to make sure my themes and plugins are as good as they can be?
In terms of building good ones, one of the things to really pay attention to there (and everyone should’ve been for a long time) is web accessibility. Making sure that the themes and plugins display the content in a way that is accessible to people with any form of disability.
I think WordCamp Toronto this year focused their camp on accessibility. They had an accessibility track at that conference. That was the first time I’d seen that done in the WordPress space. I think that was an excellent event to maybe introduce accessibility to some people who have never really heard of it before and didn’t understand what it was all about.
Based on my own personal experience, I think the only way for people to truly understand why it is that we do this is to sit with someone who is blind or who doesn’t have use of their limbs or something like that, and watch them use a website that has not been optimized for accessibility…If you built the site, you come out of that going “We have to be doing better than this.”
What are your most-used plugins? Do you have any that you keep on heavy rotation?
One of the more recent ones I discovered that I really like is called BulkPress. It allows you to add a whole pile of tags or categories or anything to any of the taxonomies in WordPress by just cutting a pasting a list into the UI—which is a big time saver!
I’m a huge fan of WP CLI, the command line library for WordPress. It’s not really a plugin but an associate tool set. My talk at WordCamp Toronto this year  was about saving time by managing WordPress form the command line. It is so cool the stuff that you can do just by typing in some simple commands at the prompt, in terms of being able to manage your WordPress site, keep your plugins up to date, update core, install new themes, and install new plugins. Anything you really want to do from a management perspective, you can do it from the command line. That leads to being able to automate things so things are less error-prone. Things are faster. I think it’s just an all-around win.
What are you are currently working on that excites you the most?
The site I mentioned earlier, actually. Actionable Books is the name of the site. We’re always iterating and trying to fine-tune how the site works. And it’s one where we’re definitely using WordPress as an application framework rather than just a CMS. We’re building all sorts of integrations on top of that. It now has its own API so that others can consume data from the application. We’ve got some really exciting changes in store for that in the coming months. That’s the site that I’m most excited about.
I’ve read on your LinkedIn profile that you are an advocate for the growth of open data? Can we talk a little bit about what that means?
Open data, just as the concept, is getting information available in machine-readable format. It’s not enough to give me a report as a PDF document. Give me the raw data so that I can draw my own conclusions—so that I can mix and match it, combine it with another data set, and create my own reports out of it or make my own app out of that data.
For example, one of the early open data sets here in the city of Ottawa was the bus schedules. So you could create your own mobile app to find out when the next bus is coming to my stop or what the most effective route is to get to where I want to go.
How does one get involved in something like open data advocacy?
I haven’t had as much time to be involved in open data lately as I’ve wanted to. I’m more focused on my client work at the moment. I was involved with a group, Open Data Ottawa, that was really pushing the city to get open data to be something they took pride in. The city of Ottawa has a really nice open data portal with all sorts of data sets available.
Where do you see WordPress going in the next two to three years?
I think it’s going to continue to gain market share both in the CMS space and in the overall web. That’s based on the fact that when my phone rings now, instead of saying they want a website and us offering WordPress as a solution, people are calling asking for a WordPress site. It’s gaining brand name recognition with people who are not CMS experts or anything like that.
Now where I’m really interested to see it progress is in that application framework space that I was talking about. We’re already seeing that happen. It’s being used for so much more than just a blogging platform. With things like the WordPress API that’s coming out as part of the core, hopefully in the next release. It’s a plugin right now, but they’re saying it’s going to be built into part of the core. That API is going to allow you to start using the database in WordPress with non-traditional web pages. So you want to build a mobile app that interacts with your WordPress backend? That’s going to be possible with the API. I think that’s just going to open all sorts of possibilities.